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Living with a spirit of gratitude

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

Oct. 23, 2013

Bishop LaValley’s homily at2013 diocesan Harvest Mass,St. James, Gouverneur, Oct. 13.
It may come as a surprise to learn that, according to Biblical scholars, despite the cures from leprosy in today’s readings, leprosy, as we understand it today, probably did not exist in the Holy Land during biblical times.  The horribly disfiguring disease that we call “leprosy” today, Hansen’s disease, was one of the plagues of Europe that was introduced into the Middle East quite possibly by Crusaders and European merchants.

Biblical leprosy included a wide range of skin problems or diseases, many of which were only temporary.  Real leprosy is a devastating disease that can lead to disfigurement and death.  Though often far less medically threatening, the leprosy of the Scriptures could be even worse because it carried a social dimension.

Those with anything labeled “leprosy” were by law immediately made social outcasts.  As you know, there was a lack of understanding of medical problems.  Anything that was not understood was seen as the doings of evil or the result of sin.  To keep the evil or the sin from spreading, people were labeled as “unclean” and exiled from the community, oftentimes being forced to live in special encampments.

While this sounds terrible, we are really no more sophisticated than the ancients.  Not too long ago, we would not let blacks live among whites.  We created internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.  Why?  In both cases, it was their appearance.   It is still a reality today that many people with serious illnesses become isolated and lonely.  So many of our elderly who are without close family are left alone and abandoned in nursing homes.  Yes, we are still making lepers.

Naaman from our first reading and the Samaritan from the Gospel, who both enjoyed cures from leprosy, had other strikes against them.  Neither was a Jew and, therefore, both were unwanted.  But the cure, the real cure, was not from ailments.  Rather, the real cure came from an end to isolation, with both Naaman the Syrian and the Samaritan finding a place within the community.  Naaman came to worship the Lord of Israel, and the Samaritan came to be a member of the community of believers.

There is an important dimension beyond the cures that we witness in our readings today.  We also see a spirit of gratitude being expressed.  Gratitude to God is something very much in short supply today.  Yet, the response of gratitude is part of the focus of each reading.  In many ways, we are not a people quick to show gratitude.  A recent study revealed that few parents teach children to write thank-you cards for gifts anymore.  This being true, it is safe to assume that signs of gratitude to God have lessened as well.  Gratitude is something we must find within ourselves and give expression to.  That’s why, for me, it is so heartening to see you here this afternoon at this Harvest Mass of Thanksgiving.  We are here to give thanks.  We know we have been blessed and we seek to acknowledge that before our God who is the giver of all good gifts.

In our second reading today, we hear what St. Paul writes to Timothy while sitting in prison awaiting execution.  The prisons of Rome were rarely more than airless, dark cisterns converted into places to chain prisoners to walls.  Not only was Paul left in such a place, but the Christians of Rome were fleeing the city to escape the persecution of Nero.  Paul was left behind in prison, abandoned and alone.

But Paul was not thrown into despair.  Rather, he writes to his closest friend, Timothy, encouraging him to live a life of gratitude.  Jesus Christ has freed us from evil.  “So what if I am in prison?” declares Paul.  “I am freed by Christ!”  If we stay faithful, if we hold out, we will live with Christ.  Paul’s gratitude was that this knowledge gave him reason enough to live.

We know that all is not well when it comes to farming or the agricultural sector today.  But, like Paul, no matter our life circumstance on this earth today, our prayer of grateful praise expresses a profound hope that no governmental, economic power can take away.

Truly thankful people call others to share in their blessings.  The Scriptures refer to giving thanks as “making a return to the Lord.”  Today we see Naaman dedicating himself to prayer and praise to the God of Israel in thanksgiving.  The Samaritan returns to Jesus with overt thanks, not so much for a cure but for being allowed to know who God really is.

Paul gratefully endures hardship and willingly awaits death in order to share the great gift of faith he has been given.  He believes that his perseverance will give others the courage to persevere.  Paul calls the giving of self for the sake of God real gratitude. 

But what about us?  How do we make a return?  May we never tire of seeking ways to dedicate ourselves to “thankful praise” to God like Naaman.  Naaman took home two mule loads of dirt in order to praise God on the earth of Israel.

What do we have to show of our dedication to God in our homes?  Gratitude can be expressed through our good stewardship of God’s creation—not wasting natural resources or food. 

We show gratitude by teaching our youngsters not to take the fruits of the earth for granted and by teaching them about how our food is produced.  We show gratitude through disciplined prayer.  After asking for something from God, we might consider making a special trip to church to say thank you, as the Samaritan returned to Jesus. Of course, our great prayer of thanksgiving is the Eucharist. At least the nine who did not return to Jesus went to show themselves to the priests and make an offering.

Because of our gratitude, people will see in us the power and glory of God.  No matter what you harvest, please know that this bishop and the faithful of the North Country are so very grateful to all of you who earn your living by making your hands dirty and brow sweat to provide us with the fruits of God’s good earth.  We pray that the weather cooperate as you tend to your fields seeking a bountiful harvest.  We pray that you receive just compensation for your hard labors.  We pray for those who go to bed hungry because they lack the means to obtain food to fill their bellies.   We pray that decision makers in government not turn a deaf ear to the farmer’s plight.  We pray for all farming families, that they persevere in their faith and trust in God.  We pray that we might always praise our God with grateful hearts for the Bread of Life that nourishes our souls and praise God for our farmers who provide sustenance for our bodies.  In all things, we praise and thank God.

Photo by Jesse Sovie
Benjamin Chase and his mother, Amanda, had a chance to meet Bishop LaValley at the annual diocesan Harvest Mass held Oct. 13 at St. James Church in Gouverneur.

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