Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God…!
by Fr. Blake
Collect: Almighty God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen:
This is a true story:
Once there was a very old monastery on top of a very tall mountain. It was so near the peak that some parts of the monastery had to be connected to each other by means of ancient, rickety, rope plank bridges over chasms dropping far below. The community had grown old, and they had also grown just a little bit too comfortable. One day their abbot died, and the head of their order sent a much younger replacement, a new abbot full of reforming zeal.
The young abbot worked hard to get everyone in shape, and he worked especially hard on one particular brother, who had, over the years, grown several cassock sizes larger than he had been before. This brother worked very hard, and enjoyed some success, but never enough to satisfy his new abbot.
One day, he was walking from the cloister to the chapel over one of their rope bridges, when suddenly the wood underneath his feet buckled and broke, and he fell through — only stopping from certain death by getting stuck around his middle. The monk cried out for help, and his brothers with their abbot all rushed to his aid.
When they had pulled him out of the hole and gotten to safety, the abbot said, predictably, “You see, brother! You could have lost your life, you’ve just got to get in better shape!”
The monk replied, “Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God I’m this big! Because if I were skinny like you, I’d have fallen straight through that hole!”
Everyone immediately fell to pieces laughing, and they were all much gentler with their brother from then on, the Abbot chief among them.
This is a true story, about one of the communities on Mt. Athos in Greece. I was totally charmed when I heard it, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to tell it ever since. But it’s not just a charming story: friends, I submit to you that this brother’s response is the entire fulfillment of the Law, and the heart of the Gospel. This is not some sort of fuzzy, “I’m okay, you’re okay” nonsense; gluttony is a sin after all, and this brother probably could have stood to lose a few more pounds. Rather it is about the entire orientation of our lives as the giving of thanks to God the Father, including our flaws, imperfections, and yes even our besetting sins.
In today’s Gospel, the people of Nazareth are about to toss Jesus over a cliff because they are offended at his teaching. First of all, they can’t figure out the source of his inspiration: “Where did this man get all this? Isn’t he Joseph’s son?” And second of all, what he is telling them about the prophets’ mission beyond Israel goes against the prevailing conventional wisdom of their day. They were expecting a wonder worker, since they’d heard the reports from his healings in Capernaum. They were prepared for that kind of dog and pony show. But they were not prepared to hear someone – a local, even – tell them they were all wrong, and that he would be the one to set them straight.
This scene in Nazareth, from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel is a microcosm and a foreshadowing of the rest of the Gospel, particularly as Jesus falls afoul of the Pharisees, and goes to be crucified. But if we leave it here, Jesus can look to us only like the zealous, reforming abbot, demanding more than his people are able or willing to bear. And we can see ourselves as this struggling brother, aware of his need but without much direct help except in moments of acute crisis.
In reality, you and I might very well be this poor monk, struggling with whatever it is we wish to leave behind. But Jesus is not just another reforming abbot. When the Son of God became human, he assumed all of human nature into himself, including its weaknesses and imperfections. As he went to the cross he bore the sins of the whole world. And as he died there, He completed an entire life which had consisted chiefly in giving thanks to his Heavenly Father: in his own private prayer, in his preaching, in raising Lazarus from the dead, the night before at supper and again in the garden; and then even on the cross itself he finally gave his life as a final thank-offering back to the Father. He bore an enormous burden, and yet he always gave thanks.
What about you and me? It’s awfully hard to give thanks in the midst of our various challenges. Thanking God is often the last thing that comes to mind in a particular crisis, and when it does, we often give thanks for whatever good things we can find, not for the trials themselves which we face. And yet one of the great Christian paradoxes suggests we might benefit from doing just that: “O Felix Culpa,” O Happy Fault — the Church has learned to give thanks even for the sin of Adam, because by it God has given us such a savior as to save us all from sin and death forever.
Forever. However dimly we can see ourselves now, however imperfectly we understand God’s work in our lives, however incomplete the work of grace remains in us, God in Christ has knit himself to us, and his Spirit is our life. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently remarked in an interview, “There is no competition for space between God and his creatures, no either/or. And the way for you and I to be godly is not to grasp at the perfection of Divinity but to rest in the humility of being creatures.” Jesus has shown us how, and by our baptism his righteousness becomes our own. The paradox continues: the Happy Fault leads to the Godly Creature.
When we rest in the humility of being creatures, giving thanks to God for every part of our lives, we can easily look like fools. Humility doesn’t pay out in this world, and neither does gratitude. Giving thanks and living humbly is not a recipe for fame and fortune. But it is a recipe for building relationships that encourage and sustain life. It is a recipe for living into what it means to be a human creature. And it is a recipe for catching glimpses, through the glass of our mortality, into the distant realms of God’s heavenly kingdom. We do not yet see clearly how it shall be when we get there. But we know that when it comes, we will be drawn into the perfection of His love who opened its gates once for all upon the cross.
Meanwhile, with those monks on Mount Athos, let us laugh and be gentle with one another, giving thanks to God in all things.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.