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Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Heart of Giving

Here is my sermon for today.

The Heart of Giving
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
October 14, 2007

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

Luke 17:11-19

September 13th, 2007 went by without notice. The day slipped by without any recognition on my part. No celebration. No acknowledgement. No reflection. There was no party. I made no entry on my blog regarding it. I didn’t mention it in any of my sermons. I didn’t talk about it with my wife. It passed as nearly every day passes, one more day on the calendar.

Like the nine lepers who marched on to the priest without another thought of what had happened to them, I, too, marched on with whatever agenda had preoccupied my mind. So today, a month and a day after September 13th, I am going to take the path of the one leper who remembered to return and give thanks.

September 13th is an important date in my life. There are other important dates in my life. They usually are not forgotten. August 30th, my birthday. May 28th, the anniversary of the day in which my wife and I made our vows to one another in marriage. I don’t think I have forgotten to acknowledge those anniversaries when they roll around. Next year, my wife and I, God willing, will celebrate 25 years of marriage. We are already making plans to acknowledge that day. Yet September 13th is a very important date for me personally, and September 13th, 2007 was a significant anniversary.

It wasn’t until I read this week the story of the ten lepers that I remembered. On September 13th, 1992, fifteen years ago, I was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Lowville, NY.

The Presbytery of Utica presented me with this stole I am wearing this morning, handcrafted from an artisan in Central America. I was also given this beautiful handcrafted stitching from a colleague, Micki Robinson. This was a touching gift. Micki had moderated the session of the church as they were searching for a pastor. I realize that I have lost touch with Micki. I wonder where she is now? It would be easy to find out. I can simply search her name on the internet and find out where she is serving. I need to send her an e-mail before I forget again.

My friend, Rick Price, who I met in seminary, preached the sermon at my ordination service. I need to send him an e-mail as well. During the service I was asked the constitutional questions and affirmed the vows to honor the tradition, to be a colleague in ministry, to serve my congregation with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” and perhaps above all, to remember.

I knelt and received the laying on of hands and prayer. I had just turned 31. I felt humbled, inadequate, and yet called. I think today of all of the people who supported and encouraged me in my first congregation: Betty and John Schlieder, Vivian and Ollie Smith, Jane and Bill Thomas, Dorothy Steinbrenner, and countless others, too many to name today.

As I think back over my fifteen years of ministry, I realize that I have forgotten so much. Yet as I take the time to remember, I also realize how much I have been given. It is an incredible privilege to be a minister. So many people have given in so many ways so that I can do this work. So many people with giving hearts have touched my life.

There is no way that I can pay back to those who have given to me. Yet I realize now that I want to be a giving person. I want to have a giving heart. I cannot give back. I can, however, give forward.

Our text for this morning is Luke’s story of the ten lepers. I think the number ten was chosen for a reason. The idea of one of ten is a symbol in storytelling. The one of ten represents the remnant. One of ten or ten percent is a small percentage but not insignificantly small. It is the one out ten who changes the world. It only takes one of ten to influence the whole. It takes but one of ten to raise our consciousness, to be the bearer of wisdom, and to call us to remember the significance of life.

We can understand the saga of the Hebrew scriptures as the story of the remnant, the small minority with the conscience to be a blessing to Earth. Story after story follows the theme of the one who apart from the crowd remembers from whence she or he has come. Because of that act of remembering, the promise and blessing of wholeness continues.

Notice in the story of the ten lepers who become cleansed of their leprosy as they go on the way toward the priest. All received what they requested. Yet the one, the foreigner, the outsider, the despised, returns to give thanks. Jesus gives this one yet another blessing. “Your faith has made you well,” he says to him.

The word “well” is the same word that is used in the New Testament for salvation or wholeness. We might understand Jesus to have said, “You are complete,” or “You are mature,” “You are blessed,” “You are whole,” “You are authentic,” “You have integrity,” “You have found meaning,” “You have discovered your center.” This one receives more than simply the cleansing from his disease. He receives the blessing of wholeness.

As I have been reflecting on this story, I think of it as a parable for life itself. Most of the time, nearly all of the time, I go through life unaware of its giftedness. Ninety percent of the time I am preoccupied with myself. I am preoccupied with what I am going to get or what I want to get. Yet by grace, every now and then, I am reminded to remember. It is in that remembering, that returning, that acknowledgment of the sacredness and the gift of life, that I glimpse what is truly valuable and blessed.

It is only when I take the time to remember what I have been given, that I can nurture the heart of giving that is within me. We cannot give until we realize how much we have received. We realize then that we cannot give back. We have been given too much. We can only give forward.

The First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton is celebrating 225 years of ministry. We don’t know the exact date when this congregation became a worshiping community. The early records were lost in a fire. Our best guess, so far, is 1782. It could be earlier. Perhaps information will yet be uncovered to help us determine our earliest history.

Nevertheless, for 225 years, this congregation in some form or another has remembered. Since this country was founded this church has been here. This church has a wealth of history. So many people have given of themselves to this place. We are who we are today because of our ancestors. We have what we have today because of people who remembered what they had been given and responded by giving forward.

We are a community that is committed to healing, to worship, to freedom of thought, to service, to peace and justice, to inclusivity, to wisdom, and to Earth. As I reflect on this congregation, I reflect not only on who we are now. We are who we are today because of those who have gone before us. We cannot give them what they have given to us. We can only give forward.

I wonder if the problems civilization faces today are the result of our resistance to give thanks for the gift of life. We have forgotten our connection to Earth and to the life she gives to us. Like the nine lepers who went on their way getting what they could get, we forget the deeper significance of what it means to be alive. We are not even conscious of the giftedness of life. Because of that forgetfulness, that lack of consciousness, we take rather than give. We don’t think we are getting enough as we are absorbed with ourselves.

I don’t say these things to make us feel guilty, or to say that this forgetfulness is unique to us. It is the human condition. Our evolutionary DNA gives us the drive toward selfishness. Yet there is also something in our DNA that drives us to find greater depth and wisdom. It is that second drive toward wisdom, gratitude, and giftedness that will be our salvation if we remember it. It is that remnant, that ten percent, that rare other-consciousness that will enable our species to move beyond its tribalism and its self-preoccupation. We have within us a heart for giving. We must nurture it. We begin to nurture it by taking the time and effort to remember what we have been given. The second step is to give forward.

That is what I have learned from this story of the ten lepers. I want to be the one who returns to give thanks. Amen.

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