Before his spiritual awakening some years ago, the writer AJ Jacobs described himself as “Jewish…in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian.”
In other words, he found himself not so very Jewish.
But AJ Jacobs had gotten married, and he and his wife had a child, and he was aware of the fact that for millennia, people have found comfort and courage in the practice of their faith. So, he decided to practice it too.
Like I said, AJ Jacobs is a writer, so he turned this whole experience of the found practice of faith into a book, called The Year of Living Biblically.
For a whole year, AJ Jacobs didn’t shave the corners of his beard. He couldn’t figure out where the corners of his beard actually were, so he didn’t shave at all…a practice that, as he told it, brought him into closer and more frequent contact with airport security. He wore clothes that did not have mixed fibers – no cotton/poly blend tee shirts. He did his best to never lie, even in small ways for the sake of social graces, like when he and his wife ran into an acquaintance of theirs at a restaurant (“We should get together sometime,” the acquaintance said. And instead of nodding and saying something polite, Jacobs forged ahead in rather not super-kind…honesty: “You seem like a nice person,” he said, “but my wife and I already have lots of friends that we never have enough time to see anyway, and we really can’t afford to add more to the mix right now…”)
It wasn’t all social awkwardness, though. Jacobs built a sukka in his apartment, to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. He learned to live the Sabbath – a self-admitted workaholic, he practiced the faithful rest of taking a real day off every week. He practiced lots of things during that year. He practiced and he practiced.
When Jacobs was interviewed about the book on the TED radio hour, he talked about that notion of practice. He had been changed by his year of living biblically. He talked about his surprise at how much the outer practices of his life affects his inner experience – about how much his behavior affected his thought.
“There’s a phrase,” he said, “that it’s easier to act your way into thinking than it is to think your way into acting.”
When the interviewer remarked about what Jacobs had learned throughout the course of that year, he responded: “One thing that really stuck with me was the idea of gratitude. Because the Bible says you should give thanks for everything in life. And I took that literally.
“So I would press the elevator button, and then give thanks when the elevator came. I’d step into the elevator, and give thanks for the fact that I didn’t plummet to the basement and break my collarbone.
“It was a strange way to live. But it was also quite beautiful. I realized that there are hundreds of things that go right, every day, things that we totally take for granted. And we tend to focus on the three or four that go wrong.
“I’ve tried to keep this practice, this perspective of gratitude, and it has made my life better.”
The opening prayer that is our collect from the beginning of worship today says this: “Stir up in us a saving faith, that believing, we may be healed, and being healed, we may give you thanks.”
Look at the people who find deep healing in today’s lessons:
In the first reading, from the second book of Kings, the passage tells the story of a great leader. Naaman commands Syria’s army, has power and wealth and strength and the favor of a king. And he also has leprosy, which no one can cure.
A servant girl, a young captive, suggests the help of a prophet in Israel. When Naaman goes to Israel to see the prophet Elisha, with an entourage that displays Naaman’s power and wealth and strength and favor, Elisha doesn’t care about any of that. Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house to say hello. Instead, he sends a messenger out, with a humble task for Naaman to do. That great commander turns in rage at the offense of it. And it takes the challenge of another servant, for Naaman to do the simple thing the prophet has given him to do.
Naaman, this man of power and strength and wealth and favor, finds the humility to follow the word of Elisha, the man of God. He washes in the Jordan, as he’s been told to do, and he is restored. What he does next, is important: Naaman returns to Elisha. The great commander stands before the Jewish prophet, and declares that the God that Elisha serves is indeed God over all the earth.
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus is walking in the borderlands, a space not really inside or outside of Jewish territory. Samaria is the place…of Samaritans…folks who keep themselves separate from the rest of the Jewish community, people seen as other and not really trusted. Samaria is the place of the Samaritan village, the one the disciples offer to call God’s judgment down on, after that village refused to welcome Jesus when he set his face toward Jerusalem.
This is not friendly country. It’s where people go when they don’t have anyplace else.
Ten people who have leprosy approach Jesus, but they still keep their distance. They are people of these borderlands, after all, regarded as unclean and unwelcome by the people and the community where they used to belong.
“Have mercy,” they call out.
Jesus doesn’t tell them to go wash in the Jordan, but he does give them a task, as Elisha had given to Naaman. “Go show yourselves to the priests,” he says. He’s moving them out of their borderland existence and back to the communities that used to be theirs.
As the ten go, their skin is restored – they are made clean. As they are made clean, one of them turns back, to give thanks. The one who turns back is a Samaritan.
Again, the words of that prayer: “Stir up in us a saving faith, that believing, we may be healed, and being healed, we may give you thanks.”
A dear friend of mine named Deborah went through a traumatic separation and divorce in her 30s. It’s a story that I knew it part, a story she shared with me more fully when we were together last week; a story she gave me permission to share with you.
She described that period of time like being upside down. She was so demoralized by her circumstances, so exhausted by the hardness of the situation that she was inside of, that she thought that was the only reality. She found herself in a kind of borderlands of her own, at too much of a distance from grace and hope.
Through the difficult right-foot, left-foot process of making the changes she needed to make, she finally began to emerge. And as she emerged, she could see that she was no longer captive to what had been her reality. When that happened, she said to me, “Kristin, my whole life became pure gratitude. I gave thanks for everything. And everything was different, was better.”
What if the now more-Jewish-than-the-Olive-Garden-is-Italian writer, AJ Jacobs, is right? What if there really are hundreds of things that go right, every single day, in ways that are both tiny and huge? What if God is saving us all the time?
And what if our best response to that is found in our actions, is found in what we do? What if our response is found in how and what we choose to practice?
Will we find ourselves restored? Like both of those biblical characters, like the author AJ Jacobs, like my dear friend Deborah, will our salvation be found as we take our place again among the people and the communities that are ours to claim, with the God who names us as beloved, in the place where we belong?
In response, will we practice taking notice? Like Naaman, to recognize that there is a God who is greater than we are, and to find ways to declare it with our words and in our lives?
In response, will we practice giving thanks? Like the Samaritan, to see that the very things we need have happened, and to show our gratitude?
“Stir up in us a saving faith, that believing, we may be healed, and being healed, we may give you thanks.” May it be so, indeed.
 I’m grateful for the interview by Guy Raz of the TED Radio Hour found here, which frames much of this sermon: http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/431363633/amateur-hour