Monday, November 26, 2012

November 25, 2012 - Think Again: The Possibilities of Gratitude

Luke 17:11-19

The first time I attended a UK football game was in 1984.  Our neighbor at the time came over to tell me he was given two free tickets to the game and asked if I would like to go.  Well, I’m all about free so of course I said yes.  I was so grateful he offered me a free UK football ticket.

He asked if I could drive, since he had the tickets, and I thought that was fair.  When we got to Lexington he told me where there was a great place to park near the stadium, which I thought would be very expensive, but if we split the cost it would be reasonable.  When we pulled into the parking area he said maybe I should pay, because he had provided the tickets.  By this point my gratitude was beginning to wane somewhat, but once we got to our seats and the game started I was happy to be there.  But we hadn’t been there long when he decided we should get something to eat, and guess who should pay for it?  That’s right – me.  And not just once, but twice.  After all, he had provided the tickets.  Later in the season he came over and once again had two free tickets to a game and asked if I would like to go.  I told him I didn’t want to sound ungrateful but I couldn’t afford another free ticket!

Sometimes, it’s hard to be grateful.

As we continue our series of messages called Think Again, today we come to a fascinating historical character.  He’s one of my favorites, and is a person who brought a great sense of gratitude to the world.

Born Giovanni di Bernardone in 1181, his father was furious when his wife named their son Giovanni, after John the Baptist.  His father wanted him to be a man of business, not a man of God, so he renamed his son Francesco.

Francesco enjoyed a very easy life because of his father's wealth, and everyone loved him.  Francesco became the leader of a group who spent their nights in wild and lavish parties.  He was also very good at business, which made his father very happy.  Francesco later decided he wanted to be a knight and go to battle.  He found his chance, but he was taken prisoner and held for ransom.  He spent a year in a dungeon before being released.

After his release he continued to party and even went back into battle, with other knights in the Fourth Crusade.  He rode away on his horse wearing a suit of armor decorated with gold and a long, flowing cloak.

But he only rode one day’s journey away from his home when he had a dream in which God told him he was living his life all wrong and that he should return home.  He began to spend time in prayer and went off to a cave to weep for his sins.

As he traveled through the countryside one day, Francesco met a leper.  Although Francesco was repelled something compelled him to climb down from his horse and to kiss the hand of the leper.  The leper returned the kiss of peace, which filled Francesco with joy.

He eventually came to an old church – the church at San Damiano.  While praying there, he sensed God telling him to repair the church, which was at that time a crumbling old building.  To get money to repair the church he sold fabric from his father’s shop.  His father was so enraged that he dragged his son before the local bishop and the entire town and demanded that his son return the money and renounce his right as his father’s heir.

The bishop told him to return the money to his father and that God would provide.  Francesco returned the money as well as the clothes off his back. In front of the town he said Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father.  From now on I can say with complete freedom, “Our Father who are in heaven.”  Wearing only old castoff rags and barefoot he walked off into the freezing weather, with nothing, but singing because of his gratitude that God would provide for him. 

Even though Francesco had nothing, he believed he had everything.  He went to work on the church at San Damiano, begging for stones, and with his bare hands he to worked to rebuild the church. 

Francesco began to preach and as he did he attracted others who began to work with him.  They slept under the open sky, begged for food – sometimes eating garbage – and always loved God out of gratitude for what they had received.  He taught and practiced that everyone was equal, and no one was greater than another.
Francesco and his companions went out to preach two by two, and some listeners were hostile to these men dressed in rags and talking about the love of God.  Some people even ran away from them, believing them to be crazy.  But they also noticed that these beggars who wore old rags or sacks and walked barefoot were filled with a constant sense of joy.  How was it possible, people wondered, that a person could own nothing and yet be happy?
Francesco believed that he and those who followed him were truly free.  They would not accept money.  He believed that if they had possessions they would need weapons to defend them.  What can you do to someone who has nothing?  You can’t steal from him.
Francesco was only 45 years old when he died, but he left an indelible mark on history.  If you have not yet guessed the name by which we are most familiar with Francesco you may be familiar with is famous prayer –

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

That is the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, who changed the world through the simplicity of his living and the gratitude he expressed each day of his life.

How could someone be so content and so happy with so little?  How could someone devote their life to rebuilding a dilapidated old church, working in bare feet and wearing old rags?

That St. Francis gave up so much is a reminder of what Paul writes of Christ in Philippians 2:5-7 – Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.

We have traveled far from the ways of Francis of Assisi.  We have come far, but have we gone the right direction?  Now we are in the midst of a season of conspicuous consumption that probably brings much more anxiety that it brings pleasure.

Luke this morning tells us of these ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, and of the ten only one returns to express gratitude to Jesus.  This wasn’t being healed from a common cold – this was the gift of life.  Lepers were in a long, slow march toward death.  Shouldn’t that draw a sense of gratitude from a person?

I think part of the message of this passage is to make the reader or listener stop and ask have I been grateful for what I have been given?

Many years ago a group of farmers decided to eat their best potatoes and to only plant the small ones. They kept up this practice for many years, even though they noticed the potatoes getting smaller and smaller. They blamed the weather, the beetles, and potato blight.  They continued until their potatoes were reduced to a size not much larger than a big marble.  The farmers learned through bitter experience that they could not keep the best things of life for themselves and use the leftovers for seed.  Even nature teaches us that an open, generous, and grateful life produces blessing while an ungrateful and ungenerous life reduces the blessings of life.

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