October 9, 2022
Rev. Scott Landis
Since my message today will focus on gratitude, I’d like us to begin by singing a song that expresses that sentiment better than any other. The Doxology or Ho’oanani is our way of offering God our gratitude and, I think a perfect way for us to begin. Please sing it with me:
Hoʻonani i ka Makua Mau,
Ke Keiki me ka ʻUhane nō,
Ke Akua Mau hoʻomaikaʻi pū,
Kō kēia ao, kō kēlā ao.
It was the renowned German theologian Karl Barth who once said, “The basic human response to God is gratitude. Not fear and trembling, not guilt and dread, but thanksgiving.” Meister Eckert said, “If the only prayer I ever uttered was ‘thank you’ … it would be enough.” And one of my favorite contemporary authors, Anne Lamott, stated that she offers, at least, two main prayers each day. When she gets out of bed in the morning it is, “Help me. Help me. Help me.” And when she returns in the evening it is, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” In agreeing with Lamotte, John Buchanan said that and also standing in worship each week and singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” - the Doxology.
What about you? What is your relationship with gratitude? Is it a response of obligation or expectation OR does it come from your heart? Is it automatic or do you have to think about it sometimes questioning – “Oh, I wonder if I remembered to say ‘thank you’?”
My predecessor and longtime Kahu of Keawala’i, Kealahou Alika once taught me there are at least three ways to express gratitude in our Hawaiian culture. Mahalo is the word expressed most often and simply means “thanks” or “thank you.” It’s polite and expected in the everyday exchange of human life. And, I’m embarrassed to say, it was one of the only two Hawaiian words I knew before I made my home here. The other being Aloha.
Mahalo nui or Mahalo nui loa expresses a deeper level of gratitude. Commonly translated “thank you very much” this is often said when you received something you really wanted or needed. Or even following a kindness offered that was a great benefit at the time.
Mahalo piha, however, is different. It takes gratitude to a new level. Piha meaning “completely full” as if to say my heart is overflowing with thanksgiving. It’s an expression of an overwhelming amount of gratitude for something or someone who has deeply touched you in a truly meaningful way. It’s an expression in word – but can also be expressed with one’s whole body in a warm embrace. [Pause]
It’s the kind of gratitude the Samaritan leper offered to Jesus upon discovering that his skin disease had been healed – when he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet. A gratitude that took precedence over Jesus’ order to go and show himself to the Priests – who were the only ones, incidentally who could pronounce him whole. Mahalo piha is gratitude expressed with one’s whole being. And it’s where this story ends – but there is so much more here that we must understand to appreciate this grateful response. [Pause]
We know that Jesus was traveling between the regions of Samaria and Galilee. Given the geographical terrain it is nearly impossible to determine exactly where the story takes place, but we do know it is in forbidden territory – dangerous territory – especially for the Jews. Yet it is a perfect location for the despised – those who were outcast for various reasons – unclean and therefore unable to be in inhabited towns and villages.
No one was protected there so travelers often became easy prey to robbers who would attack and steal whatever they could with no witnesses to come to their aid. Lepers (which was the term used for a whole host of skin diseases) were relegated to this “in-between” despised and unsafe place – their only recourse was to beg and live at the mercy of scraps of food thrown their way.
But Jesus saw something different in those unfortunate beings in this despised place. To him they were not lepers, nor Jews, nor Samaritans. Rather, they were human beings – children of God – desperately seeking help in this borderland. He welcomed them and offered them what they most needed – healing and the possibility of restored wholeness — which included the opportunity to go return home. [Pause]
When I lived in San Diego, we saw this drama being played every day in the border towns of Tijuana and San Yisidro. The folks there seeking asylum may not have had skin diseases, but by many they were despised as our President, at that time, tried to build higher walls to keep out those deemed undesirable or unworthy. What we witnessed there – and at other border towns in Arizona and Texas – was unconscionable as children were stripped from their parents and caged while they sought to process their applications for entry. Others attempted to cross over the walls or barbed wire fences and make their way through the desert on foot – many dying in the process. All were forced to live in the shadows as they tried to survive and relocate to what they hoped would be a place of hospitality — a “Promised Land.”
It was Robert Frost who said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” but when it comes to borders between nations, they can become places of deep mistrust, danger, and outright hatred – places where human life can be destroyed and tossed out as easily as yesterday’s newspaper. That was certainly the case in this region where Jesus traveled and was the norm between the Samaritans and the Jews who inhabited opposite sides of the border.
The folks who lived there were the “outcast among outcasts” as we sang just a few minutes ago. They were outcast because of their disease – AND, in the case of the Samaritan, doubly outcast because of his ethnicity. Yet it was this doubly outcast being who returned to the source of his healing to offer his “mahalo piha” his overwhelming gratitude. He did not need any Priest to pronounce him worthy – he recognized the power of God was in Jesus who healed him – the one who made him whole. [Pause]
A pastoral colleague of mine in San Diego would go each Sunday to the border to hold a brief worship service and serve communion to those gathered on both sides of the 20-foot fence. Ironically, the place was called “Friendship Park.” I remember accompanying Phil one Sunday afternoon for the service. Just before we celebrated communion, he invited us to look up to the sky where there was no fence – no border could be seen. Then he had us look to our feet and pronounce that where we stood was “Holy Ground.” And finally, he invited us to look through the fence at one other person on the other side and to say to that individual – “You are a child of God.” The Mexican man, with whom I locked eyes, wept as I offered that affirmation. He did not need to say a word – his eyes alone communicated, “mahalo piha.”
Like Phil, Jesus transformed border lands and those who inhabited them into sacred places. Regardless of the pain experienced due to artificial barriers, the Spirit of Holiness transformed the place and those who came to worship as we shared bread and wine. And together we sang,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise God all creatures here below,
Praise God above you heavenly host,
Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost.
I’m not naive. I understand all problems with opening borders and granting asylum to those in desperate need. I understand the costs involved, the possible problems encountered, and the complications of language and cultural differences. But I am drawn to this story of grace offered by Jesus to a despised and desperate foreigner – and I can’t get the face of that man on the other side of the fence out of my mind. Surely there is a better way.
The hymn may have said it best:
An outcast among outcasts, dismissed with double scorn,
Belittled by the labels: “unclean and foreign born”
Came back with thanks for Jesus, and then went on his way:
An outcast among outcasts showed grateful faith that day.
How might we do the same?