First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
November 26, 2017
“Joy”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

7For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.

10You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. 11Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

 

Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

There was a storm brewing. People could feel it in their bones. It was in the air, which at this point was still clear but the storm was a comin.’ And it was supposed to be a beaut. Schools had already cancelled for the next day (yea, they close schools in Iowa for snow.) The snow plows were already equipped. And all around town, people were getting ready. And the one thing that almost everyone does before a big storm? Go to the grocery store to make sure you have everything you’ll need if you end up being snowed in for the rest of the winter.

The storm wasn’t supposed to be quite that big but the way people were acting it might as well have been.

And, yes, I was amongst the throngs at the grocery store. We didn’t need much to get us through the next 24 to 48 hours – which was what was predicted. Just some bread and cat food. Oh, and some M&M’s (they weren’t on the list but we got them anyway.) Oh, and some Twizzlers for Greg (they weren’t on the list either but if I’m getting M&Ms for me….) Oh, and some chocolate chips and brown sugar (yea, not on the list but what’s more fun when you’re snowed in than making chocolate chip cookies). And a cat.

I really hadn’t planned on getting a cat on this particular trip to the grocery store…. Or any trip to the grocery store for that matter. We had enough cats at home to get us through the storm. Murphy, the big gray and white boy of the household. Sally, whom we had brought with us from Connecticut. Hannah who we had picked up at the Christmas Tree farm the first year we lived in Iowa. Snowball, who we had picked up at the Christmas Tree farm the second year we lived in Iowa. Unfortunately, just after Christmas that year, we lost Murphy. Murphy’s favorite place to hang out was on the back of the recliner which is where he took his last breath while we were away on Christmas vacation because that’s where the neighbor who was feeding the cats while we were gone found him.

So, back to the grocery story and the storm of the century…. As my daughter and I went through the checkout line with our oh-so-necessary, get-us-through-the-storm, mostly not-on-anyone’s-list groceries, the clerk asked if we wanted a cat.

Don’t they usually ask if you want paper or plastic? What’s this “do you want a cat?” line?

I must have looked somewhat startled because she paused ringing up the items in the cart and looked at me.

She explained, “There’s one hanging out by the door and we don’t want to leave it out in the storm. We don’t know whose it is.”

My head was thinking…. “No” and all the reasons that “no” was the right answer but that’s not what came out of my mouth.

“What color is it?” That’s what I said. “What color is it?” Because when given the opportunity to add just one more contributor to the already quite busy household litter box, color makes all the difference in the world.

“Gray and white.”

I looked at my daughter and she looked back at me and we both pretty much shrugged our shoulders in unison. I gave her the keys so she could take the groceries to the car and I went to check out the cat.

There, nestled between the stacks of water softener salt was a little gray and white cat. She was dirty and scroungy and when I bent down to reach out to her she stood up and gave me the sweetest little meow I’d ever heard.

We named her Alice.

From Alice, we learned joy. The vet figured she was about 9 or 10 years old but you would never know that she was getting on in those cat years. She was the most playful of the bunch. She would chase anything around the floor: our feet, a pencil, a wadded up piece of paper, her housemate’s tails. She would meet us at the door when we came home and sleep at our feet at night. Sometimes she would wake us up during the night while she played with our feet. If a lap became available, she was there, immediately moving into that deep, comforting, blood-pressure-lowering purr.

We should have named her Joy.

She knew that, had someone not taken her home before that storm, she would not have survived. She was a grateful kitty and showed it through and through. He joy was complete and that joy spilled out into the world around her.

Alice was the tenth leper who lived into the joy of new life. Alice was the one who, when given the opportunity, turned into life fully and gratefully and with the infectious grace that the others who did not return are soon forgotten. Alice was thanksgiving embodied. She had known hardship but she also knew life, one given that she did not earn. Life extended through the efforts of someone else. Mercy in the storm – literally. Her joy was complete.

We don’t very often “do” thanksgiving after the turkey is carved and the guests have gone home but this year, we are given the gift of an extra Sunday between Thanksgiving and Advent. Even though Santa arrived in town last night with the parade of lights and the big tree was lit at the Civic Center, and Black Friday has come and gone and we’re on the eve of Cyber Monday, the church hasn’t opened the door to Advent quite yet. We get one more Sunday. It’s our opportunity to extend our time of giving thanks – not with more food or more houseguests but with a short time in worship to let our joy be complete.

I don’t think many of us have quite been in Alice’s situation. Perhaps we have. I’m thinking that not many of us have been homeless and lost as a storm is roaring in across the plains. However, I’m thinking that we’ve all had our own version of hard times: a loved one gone off to serve and not return; a child going through their own struggles; the diagnosis we really didn’t want to hear; the empty space in life that is left when death comes; the broken hearts of lost love; unemployment; making ends meet; abuse; even the place that our pets hold in our hearts that break just a bit when they leave us.

Somewhere, somehow, my guess is there was a time when we have all felt a little like a lost stray cat, fearful of the storms of life and somehow, something, someone has taken us into love’s mercy and helped us through. And we are given this extra day this year to be the tenth leper to come back and give thanks to God for that gift – that gift of life, that gift of mercy, that gift of second and third and maybe even fourth and fifth chances.

Before we step into Advent, let us keep one foot in thanksgiving for, indeed, no matter how lost, how beaten and battered, no matter how bullied, forgotten, neglected or even how deeply we are living into our own mistakes and bad choices in life, there is one who pauses just long in the working of the universe to have a look at us and take us into a loving embrace. Better yet, let us be the tenth leper who runs with complete joy into Advent to embrace the wonder of the season, the miracle of the birth, the gracefulness of the gift of the one who heals, restores, loves no matter what and is always there to bring us home.

We are all the tenth leper returning to give thanks. May our joy be complete.

Amen.