Jeremiah 29:4-7; Luke 17:11-17 Gratitude Season
Elizabeth M. Deibert 9 October 2016
Every year about the middle of October we turn our minds, hearts, and souls toward gratitude and we aim carry this attitude all the way to Thanksgiving. Sadly, this Thanksgiving holiday which has become less about gratitude and more about eating and then beating people to the best shopping deals. If life is about gluttony and consumerism, well, then, we’re all set! But I think we’ve lost our way. Seems we are lost on a number of fronts – both our country and our Christianity, two separate yet very connected realities for those of us who are following Jesus. Seems to me that Jesus show us that life is not about consumption or commodities – what you have, how much you have, but how you relate to people. If life is about relationships, about love, then gratitude is a way to build those relationships. And lack of gratitude will destroy them.
Our first reading for today is from the weeping prophet Jeremiah, who often pleads with God’s people to repent, who continually confronts Judah’s kings and religious officials with the many ways they have forsaken God. But in the few verses we are reading today, he is affirming the sovereignty of God over all things – even when foreign powers have taken control, God’s people are to trust that if they seek the shalom of all the people, then God will bring them shalom – peace-well-being. This is a radical pronouncement – that you should promote the well-being of those who have done you harm, in order to settle your own lives. Pray for those who captured you, for the people whose culture you do not understand, because your future depends on their welfare. I think this is a good warning for all people who live in an increasingly global society. Everything we do affects someone else in another country. That’s why trade agreements are so debated in today’s world. We are all connected. And that’s why we must continue to take our stand for the dignity of all human people, our people and other people, whether we are in a Hurricane or the storm of politics. No one should be talked about as if they are an object, and not a human person. Everyone is a child of God and I will treat her and him as such. Hear Jeremiah’s challenge:
The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don't dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (CEB)
Our future depends on our praying and working for the well-being of other people, people different from us, people we consider unattractive or ones we might not like or understand. We should settle in and accept the fact that our future depends on caring for the least, the lost, and the left out. Our Gospel reading for today is from Luke the Gospel that shows Jesus’ concern for women, the poor, and those who are treated as objects, instead of people. In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus favoring those outsiders, those who had weaker positions in his culture. Chief among those who were treated as objects were the lepers, who had a contagious, slow-growing disease which not only produce sores on their skin and deformed their bodies, but it killed their nerve endings, making it impossible for them to know pain.
And not knowing pain is bad – not good – because if you touch something hot or sharp and do not feel pain, you will injure yourself badly. So leprosy was and still is a horrible disease, though today it is curable with antibiotics. Leprosy still infects 180,000 people worldwide including 100 cases in the US each year. Leprosy is contagious, but it takes usually 3-5 years to develop the disease after contact, so it is hard to determine where one might have contracted it. But in Jesus’ day, leprosy was a prominent, disfiguring disease – no way to hide it. Therefore, everyone was afraid of them and kept distance from them. They were required to shout, “Unclean, unclean” as they moved through public places. They were sent away from their homes to the outskirts of the cities and villages. Hear how Jesus handles those who are outcast and considered dangerous.
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." (NRS)
Lepers approached Jesus, though they respectfully kept some distance, calling out, not “Unclean, unclean.” But “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When Jesus saw them, he immediately said something unfathomable to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” No way could they ever get near a priest. Priests had to declare them clean, and priests would not be caught anywhere near them if they were not clean. As they obeyed Jesus, without questioning him, they were made clean.
And then the lovely heart of the story – the gratitude. One of them, who happened to be a Samaritan by the way. This guy was not one of the good guys – one of the Jews – he is a Samaritan. He’s the one who turned back. Instead of racing to the priest to be declared normal and free again to go wherever he wanted, especially to return to his family, the people he loved most, he turned back, shouting praises to God. He fell at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. This one – the Samaritan. Then Jesus pointed out to all those who observed this miracle – he said, “Did I not heal ten people?” And only the foreigner remembers to be grateful. Then Jesus says something very interesting – he says, “Get up and go. Your faith has made you well.” He was made clean by Jesus earlier, but now his faith has made him well in the fullest sense.
(slide) Gratitude makes us well in the greatest, the broadest sense. With gratitude, we can go on our way – not be stuck in the past, or stuck thinking that life is unfair or rigged against us, that other people are out to get us. It was a tough week for many in Florida, and there are close to 1000 Haitians who died. But we should be giving thanks it was not worse.
And for our health, we have much for which to be grateful. My shoulder is slowly thawing from its painful frozen state. At that’s minor. Betsy Ciechanowski seems at last, after three months in and out of hospital and rehab, to be getting better. I could go on to name so many of you who have had surgeries and procedures and have made great improvements in physical, mental, or spiritual health, and Jesus is at the heart of all that healing, Jesus who nourishes us with his presence at this table. But do we give thanks? Well, the prayer we pray at the table is call the Great Thanksgiving, and I hope gratitude lives in you every day.
Have you thanked God lately for the liberty you experience, for the enormous privilege of your existence, of your comforts? Do you set aside time each day to pray? Do you keep a gratitude journal? We’ve talked about this many times at Peace – the value of giving thanks for all the little things. We’ve talked many times about keeping a little rock in our pocket or on our bureau or somewhere, to help us remember that God is blessing us over and over and over again, every day. When we give thanks, it turns our cold and greedy hearts into warm and generous hearts. When we count our blessings, it changes the world, one person at a time. I want to close with a story sent to me by our eldest daughter, Emily, who is in med school and newly married. When you hear it, you will see why this expression of gratitude has gone viral on the web this week. It was a welcome relief from all the vulgarities in the news this week.
(slide) “After his 34-year-old wife suffered a devastating asthma attack and later died, Boston writer Peter DeMarco penned the following letter to the intensive care unit staff of CHA Cambridge Hospital who cared for her and helped him cope.” (NY Times)
First he expresses gratitude for how the staff cared for his wife so tenderly, professionally, and with kindness and dignity. Then he says how much he appreciates how the staff treated his wife’s parents, her father a doctor himself. Then counting his blessings, he thanks them for how they treated him. We pick up the letter there.
“How would I have found the strength to have made it through that week without you? How many times did you walk into the room to find me sobbing, my head down, resting on her hand, and quietly go about your task, as if willing yourselves invisible? How many times did you help me set up the recliner as close as possible to her bedside, crawling into the mess of wires and tubes around her bed in order to swing her forward just a few feet?
How many times did you check in on me to see whether I needed anything, from food to drink, fresh clothes to a hot shower, or to see whether I needed a better explanation of a medical procedure, or just someone to talk to? How many times did you hug me and console me when I fell to pieces, or ask about Laura’s life and the person she was, taking the time to look at her photos or read the things I’d written about her? How many times did you deliver bad news with compassionate words, and sadness in your eyes?
When I needed to use a computer for an emergency email, you made it happen. When I smuggled in a very special visitor, our tuxedo cat, Cola, for one final lick of Laura’s face, you “didn’t see a thing.” And one special evening, you gave me full control to usher into the I.C.U. more than 50 people in Laura’s life, from friends to co-workers to college alums to family members. It was an outpouring of love that included guitar playing and opera singing and dancing and new revelations to me about just how deeply my wife touched people.
It was the last great night of our marriage together, for both of us, and it wouldn’t have happened without your support. There is another moment — actually, a single hour — that I will never forget. On the final day, as we waited for Laura’s organ donor surgery, all I wanted was to be alone with her. But family and friends kept coming to say their goodbyes, and the clock ticked away. About 4 p.m., finally, everyone had gone, and I was emotionally and physically exhausted, in need of a nap. So I asked her nurses, Donna and Jen, if they could help me set up the recliner, which was so uncomfortable, but all I had, next to Laura again. They had a better idea.
They asked me to leave the room for a moment, and when I returned, they had shifted Laura to the right side of her bed, leaving just enough room for me to crawl in with her one last time. I asked if they could give us one hour without a single interruption, and they nodded, closing the curtains and the doors, and shutting off the lights.
I nestled my body against hers. She looked so beautiful, and I told her so, stroking her hair and face. Pulling her gown down slightly, I kissed her breasts, and laid my head on her chest, feeling it rise and fall with each breath, her heartbeat in my ear.
It was our last tender moment as a husband and a wife, and it was more natural and pure and comforting than anything I’ve ever felt. And then I fell asleep. I will remember that last hour together for the rest of my life. It was a gift beyond gifts, and I have Donna and Jen to thank for it.” (Peter DeMarco)
An untimely loss of life makes many people angry at everyone around them. Some people in this life are never satisfied with anything they get from anybody. They always want more, more, more. For them life is all about them – all about their getting everything they want and when they want it from whomever they want. They do not think about the common good, but only about themselves. They seem stuck in a narcissistic, greedy, never grateful attitude. This kind of selfish, ungrateful attitude is growing in our country, but we will live differently. We will assert the value and dignity of every human person. We will accept this temporary and imperfect life as a gift, even with all the pain it brings. We will sacrifice for others. We know that death does not get the final word, and so we can fill our lives with gratitude for all of life’s gifts and especially all of life’s people. We know that Jesus ultimately brings healing to everyone in the end. He never forces himself upon anyone, but is present, available, loving and as we call to him, “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” He is merciful and we should be thankful. Sometimes that mercy comes in the form of a longer life here on earth and sometimes that mercy comes in the form of an earlier departure from this life to the eternal peace as we all wait for the day of resurrection.