Gratitude Season #5
Elizabeth M. Deibert
If we could only begin to appreciate all the healing work the Spirit of Christ is doing all the time, we would fall on our knees every hour in thanksgiving. Did you get better from the cold or flu? Give thanks. Are you beginning to process your grief over a terrible death? Give thanks to God for the healing process that is just started. Can you walk again after knee surgery? Give thanks. Is your heart functioning well, despite your arteries being previously blocked? Give thanks. Has your heartburn or blood pressure calmed down with meds? Is your bitterness over divorce subsiding? Your anxiety, your compulsions or your depression under control? Give thanks.
Jesus Christ is the great Healer. The story we will read today is one of twenty-one different stories about Jesus’ healing power in the Gospels. Some people find these stories hard to fathom because first of all, we cannot imagine having God in human flesh with us, walking through life with us. But secondly we want to say that miracles like these do not happen anymore. Oh, we understand a lot more about the human body now. We know why people get better. We can explain the science of it. And so we stopped thanking God for the miracles. It is not that God stopped performing great miracles. It is that we stopped giving thanks.
Jesus healed ten lepers and only one came back to give thanks. Ten cured of leprosy, but nine found to be sick with amnesia or dementia it seems. Or it could be attention defecit disorder, because Jesus sent them to see the priest, and though their lives were absolutely transformed along the way, they forgot to go back and thank Jesus. I suppose some of us have amnesia, dementia, or ADD, because there are a lot of us forgetting to be thankful as well. How can you possibly wake up in sunny Florida and not be thankful for the sun, for the moon, for the sunsets, for the green grass, and the flowers year ‘round?
How can you possibly wake up in the USA and not be overwhelmed with thanksgiving for the wealth, liberty, justice, and peace we have come to expect as normal? Why are we not dancing with gratitude every single day? We take our healing and run, just like the lepers. We take the beauty of every day and run through our daily activities without noticing. We take our comforts and freedoms and wealth, and run to spend more on ourselves. And Jesus stands there, waiting for a thanks, waiting for days, months, and years.
Here the word of the Lord from Luke’s Gospel:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" 14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
“Your faith has made you well.” Take that out of context and you will abuse it and many people will lose faith. If you say “Have faith and then you will be well,” people will assume that some level of faith is required, like a certain level of chemotherapy or radiation or a certain amount of advil should be taken to relieve the pain. No, no, no. The healing took place while the ten were in transit, as it often takes place in our lives, when we least expect. All ten were healed of leprosy, the disease that was so scary, so disfiguring, so dreaded by all. But one comes back to thank Jesus. And Jesus tells him, after he gives Jesus the gift of gratitude, that his faith has made him well. His faith has saved him. Faith seems related to giving thanks. What about the rest – the other nine? Their leprosy is healed, but are they well? We’re not sure. If wellness is about appropriately giving thanks, then perhaps not. Faith is not about quantity of belief, but about quality of trust expressed in thanksgiving. A life of gratitude makes us well, the word for “well” can also be translated “save” To be filled with gratitude saves us, whether we are physically well or not.
The nine were physically healed and rushing to get on with life. Going to the priest was required before they could circulate in soceity again. They had to be certified as clean, as not contagious, as not a danger to the public. They had been in total isolation, some of them for years, and now they were going to get their discharge papers from the rehab office, but they forgot to thank Jesus first. They were going back to work after a long time off, but they forgot to thank Jesus. They were promised a new freedom from disease, a release from pain, isolation, and the horrible judgment of others, and they forgot to thank the One who gave them release from misery. They were assured a new life with new relationships, the opportunity to work again, to start over again, and they forgot to thank their Healer, who gave them a new lease on life.
Back in 1860, on Lake Michigan in September, the ship Lady Elgin was filled with 400 passengers having a grand time. Unfortunately a schooner filled lumber crashed into Lady Elgin and the larger boat full of people began to sink. People survived on lifeboats and other pieces of wreckage for nearly six hours while the north wind blew them toward Evanston, Illinois. Local residents woke that morning to the sound of screaming people, and Edward Spencer, a seminary student at Northwestern, jumped into the water with a rope around his waist and rescued many people. One by one he pulled them to the shore. Thirty people survived there in Evanston, and seventeen of them were rescued single-handedly by Edward Spencer. Sadly however, Spencer never recovered from the ordeal. He was never the same again. Dropped out of seminary, became quite ill. When asked by a reporter about what he remember of this heroic night, he said, the only thing he remembered was that not one of the seventeen people thank him for saving them. Really? Do we all become so consumed with taking the gift that we forget to thank the giver?
Ingratitude. It is kind of repulsive to hear about it in a story like this one, but we hardly notice the ingratitude in our own lives. Ingratitude is our first step away from God. I have noticed in twenty-one years of ministry that the most meaningful relationships are with those who suffer but are still full of gratitude toward God and gratitude toward humanity. Whereas those who suffer and increase in bitterness are exhausting. They suck the life of the people around them. As embittered people age, they often become more isolated because no one wants to be around them.
What makes us so ungrateful? There are three things for sure. Unrealistic expectations. Entitlement attitudes. Forgetfulness.
Do we expect too much from God? Does God owe us anything? When we begin to assume that our simplest blessings are owed to us, then we are on a slippery slope toward ingratitude. God promises never to forsake us, but God never promised us a cushy life. Do we deserve a life free from pain and suffering when God in human flesh had a life full of pain and suffering? Suffering is part of life. We are not promised to live to seventy, although most people these days do. We are not promised to outlive our children, even though most people do. We are not assured a happy childhood or a loving marriage. If you happen to have one, give thanks to God. Have you had the pain of losing your spouse to death, half of all married people do, at least once.
Do you know why people like us need to go on mission trips? It is not so we can help the people in under-developed countries, it is so they can help us grow in gratitude, as we witness their abject poverty and foundational insecurity coupled with grateful hearts, trusting in God.
There is no better gift we can give God or the world than a heart of gratitude, which overflows in generosity. This is the gift that keeps on giving, because it not only pleases God but it is a gift to our families, our friends, our neighbors, our congregation.
“To practice gratitude intentionally changes an individual life, to be sure. It also changes the character of a congregation. When Christians practice gratitude, they come to worship not just to “get something out of it,” but to give thanks and praise to God. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers (with little money in their pockets but lots of rocks). The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgivings at the table. There are those who believe that worship—this practice of gratitude—is almost primal, an essential part of being human. (human in the sense of our best selves, not our worst selves) John Burkhart once wondered whether “humans can survive as humans without worshiping. To withhold acknowledgment, to avoid celebration, to stifle gratitude,may prove as unnatural as holding one’s breath.” Worship is certainly at the heart of the Christian life, and the story of the leper who returns to give thanks points us to that truth.” (Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word)
“Go on your way; your faith has made you well” is no longer a problematic saying, even when physical healing does not come. Instead, it is a description of a life of blessing for the church: as we go on our way, we rejoice and give thanks; for in giving thanks in all things, we find that God, indeed, is in all things.” (Kimberly Bracken Long, Feasting on the Word) So in all things and at all times, we offer prayers of thanksgiving, we make offerings of gratitude, we give promises of faith, committing ourselves to the service of God.
These acts of faith, these efforts at trust become our participation in the work God is doing to heal us, to make us well, to save us from all that would tear us away from our identity as God’s beloved children. Karl Barth was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is gratitude.
Perhaps that is why every year, Peace’s Gratitude Season lengthens because we are learning just how much we need gratitude to be well. I was inspired this week by someone in this congregation who has been practicing gratitude with great discipline. She is stopping every hour to give thanks to God for something, and here’s the real deal: no repetition. So 15 waking hours a day, remembering to give thanks for something different, and then the next day finding 15 more new things. Live into the wholeness, into the salvation which is yours in Christ, by practicing gratitude, in all circumstances.