Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Timothy Dexter is one of the most colorful characters to walk the fields of Massachusetts in the decades following the American Revolution. Born in Malden, he made his first fortune by speculating in Continental currency. His continuing success was due to a combination of audacity and incredible luck.
Against all odds, he exported wool mittens to the West Indies, at just the time an exporter in that tropical climate began shipping to Siberia. Next, he literally sent coals to Newcastle, at just the moment a British coal miner’s strike made him a fortune there. He exported Bibles to the Muslim East Indies, stray cats to the Caribbean, and having hoarded a warehouse full of whalebone, by necessity invented the whalebone corset, which became all the rage in nineteenth century New England.
He was eccentric, but wise beyond his capacity, and never ceased to attribute his multiple successes to those who helped him along the way. Indeed, gratitude was, in his view, the most important of virtues.
“An ungrateful man,” he would frequently say, ‘is like a hog under a tree eating acorns, who never looks up to see where they came from.’
Nine of the ten lepers in today’s Gospel are just such narcissistic hogs. Cleansed of their disease, cured of their disability, they are now set on getting on with their life, with not a smidgen of gratitude and not a word of thanks to the Lord who cured them.
And we are not so different. Sadly, ingratitude is so rampant in our day and age that we often become surprised by folks who are habitually grateful.
On the day I received my last postgraduate degree I practically sprained my wrist patting myself on the back. But did I think of Miss Lucasak who first taught me cursive in third grade, or Miss Morin who encouraged us to write those one page essays with the pictures two years later. Did I think of the Priest who first inspired me with a love for the Liturgy, or my parents who put me through College, or the inspiring professors I had come to know along the way. Did I think of the scholars who had constructed that world of knowledge in which I had gained some proficiency, or those who built the institutions which had led me through those mysteries.
No, I thought of none of them, I never gave them a thought or a prayer. I never said thank-you. Just like the ungrateful lepers, I got on with my life and I never looked back.
I was like the cancer patient, who through the chemo and radiation begs God for just a few more years to see her daughter married or her grandchild graduate. Who prays with fervor, begging God in the early morning darkness to hear her prayers, bargaining and promising that God will be all that really matters in whatever years he might graciously give her...and when she’s cancer free, things get back to normal...minus the fervent prayer, the desperate search for God, and the repeated pledges to do his will. She gets back to living HER life, and gives God the hour on Sunday, as long as she doesn’t have something more important to do. She gets on with her life and never looks back.
It’s like the anger of the spouse who stands by the grave of the woman he has loved for sixty years and with bitterness blames God for taking her from him. His God at that moment is a cruel puppet master, who pulls the strings and makes us dance, and causes the dark evil of death and suffering in fulfillment of some perverse scheme of manipulation. And as he stands there he forgets the day that God brought together two young teens as the light of their lives in the dark days of the depression, skating at Elm Park and knowing that nothing could ever be this beautiful. He forgets the first time they wept with perfect joy, cradling their newborn baby in their arms, convinced no God could ever be this good, and no thing could ever be so beautiful. He forgets the infinite number of sacrifices, acts of mercy: tiny expressions of exquisite love all made possible by that same God’s unbelievably gracious love for him.
But right now, he is blinded by the pain, and all he can do is cling to the darkness...he has to get on with it and he can’t look back.
It’s like those who were Baptized in that font who seldom go to Church, say a prayer, feed the poor, forgive, or even seek to love others as they were loved. They go about living their lives, happy enough, but never full satisfied, getting along, but still uncertain about what it really means.
Sure they know joy, for a moment, in the money, in the power, in the successful career, in all the thousands of little reflections of God’s goodness which this wonderful world contains. But all they see are glimmers and reflections. Never the full face of him who waits for them, never the splendrous glory of his care for them, never the beauty of listening to him, never the strength of receiving him, never the joy of giving thanks.
For they have things to do, and they will continue to take, without looking back, and never say thank you.
And then there’s you and me. Fickle, self-absorbed, and sinful as we are, we still try to crane our necks to at least look back. To break the bread, to tell the story, and to give thanks as best we able.
For that is what this is called, what we do in this place: Eucharist, thanksgiving: a memorial of recollection and gratitude, in which we remember all that he has done for us, from our first breath to our last, the love, the mercy, the sacrifice....the faith which makes sense of the darkest days and the mystery which defeats the deadly with eternal joy and eternal life.
Which is why in just a few moments, speaking in the person of Christ himself, I call out to you: Lift up your hearts. And you will lift them up to the Lord.
And unlike ungrateful lepers or hogs, we will give thanks to the Lord our God. For it is right to give him thanks and praise.
Monsignor James P. Moroney