On Monday this week, I was driving home from church. Earlier that morning, I had been part of an enthusiastic group of parents and young children who had moved some 500 bags of food from the transept of the sanctuary to the curbside front of the church, where we loaded them up into vans and SUV’s that drove off to seven of our Outreach agencies to be distributed to families in need. It was a warm, beautiful, sunny day. I had the windows of the car open. As I turned a corner, I saw a Golden Retriever with a shiny reddish-blond coat standing under a tree. She had her head tilted up so that she could see up into the branches above. Probably at a squirrel up there, I figured. I can’t explain why exactly, but the sight of that curious dog gave me a rush of delight! In that moment, the world seemed well ordered, and the universe in good hands. I felt a real sense of gratitude for just being a part of it.
Gratitude is the most natural thing in the world – but it’s also a lot scarcer than it ought to be. At least that’s what Jesus thought I guess.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, the physician Luke tells us, when he encountered a group of ten men suffering from leprosy. The ten were a company of the miserable. Their disease was not only extremely unpleasant physically and distressing emotionally, leprosy in the first century was also socially isolating. People with leprosy were banished from the rest of society. They could not live in their communities or even their own homes with their families. So great was the fear of leprosy that rules were made to ensure avoidance of any possible contact with the afflicted. According to the law in Leviticus, a leper was required to wear torn clothing, let the hair on his head be disheveled, and wherever he walked was to put his hand above his lip, shouting to everyone who approached,
“Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45) It was the rule then that anyone with leprosy had to remain at least 50 yards away from others. Because it was believed that should even the shadow of a person with leprosy fall across your path, it could cause you to contract this dread disease. The only companionship a person with leprosy had was with others who suffered from the same disease. Such harsh ostracism continued for centuries, long after science had proven leprosy could not be spread by human touch, as depicted in a memorable scene from the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries. The movie is about two young medical students taking a road trip across South America in the 1950’s. At one point in their trip they stop to spend two weeks serving as medical orderlies in a leper colony on the banks of the Amazon River in Peru. The colony is on one side of the river and the living quarters for the medical staff are on the other. The two communities are segregated by both distance and condition. They were further separated by the practice of the medical staff to wear clumsy, rubber gloves whenever they examined or treated or touched one of the diseased patients.
However the two young medical students refused to wear the unnecessary gloves. The first day they are taken by boat over to the colony on the other side of the river, an older man comes up to welcome them. The ravages of the disease he suffers is evident. His hands are missing some digits. The old man introduces himself and one of the young men extends his bare hand in greeting to shake hands. There is a look of uncertainty on the old man’s face. And then for the first time in Lord knows how long, the old man experiences the natural touch of someone who does not share his disease. It is an awkward, very touching moment. A moment of grace. The old man’s eyes shine as he experiences once again what it is like to treated as a human being, not as a disease.
On the road, that small colony of ten lepers call out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy upon us!” From the story, it is not clear just what they may have meant by “mercy.” They may have been begging for money or food, or perhaps for healing. In any event, Jesus doesn’t give them anything, nor does he touch them. In fact he doesn’t do anything, except to tell them, “Go and show yourself to the priests.” (It was one of the roles for priests at the Temple in Jerusalem to certify that a person was cured of a disease and therefore fit for social contact again.)
Strange isn’t it? Jesus simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priest as if they were already healed. But everybody knew that leprosy was incurable. Nevertheless, acting on the impulse of hope, the ten lepers started down the road to see the priest. Somewhere along the way, something truly unexpected happens. Luke says, “And as they went on their way, they were made clean.” Just like that the leprosy leaves them. Their skin sores disappear; their finger and toes regenerate; their bodies feel wonderfully whole and healthy again. The ten outcasts are suddenly given their health and their lives back. What a blessing! What a miracle! You have to believe this had to be a very happy group of people. You can see them whooping for with joy, slapping one another on the back, exchanging high fives, laughing and weeping and saying their good byes to each other as they prepare to head back to their homes and families.
Except for that one person. Except for that Samaritan among them. He had been one of them as a leper. But now that the disease was gone, he no longer fit in with the other nine…because his identity as a restored person is as a despised foreigner, a religious outcast. Sometimes what separates us as human beings, or what binds us together, is so circumstantial, so fragile.
The Samaritan stands to the side looking at the smooth skin on his hands with wonder, and he thinks, “Before I go back home, there’s something I’ve got to do.” He takes off running back down the road to find Jesus, shouting joyfully, “Thank you God! Thank you. Thank you.” And when he catches up to Jesus, he falls at his feet overwhelmed with gratitude.
Looking down at the man, and then back up at the road from which he came, Jesus asks a penetrating question, almost as if he were talking to himself. “Weren’t there ten of you who were made clean?”
Where were the other nine do you think? Well the reasons those nine healed men did not return to express any sort of gratitude are probably as varied as the lepers themselves. One may have been so overjoyed with being freed from the prison of his disease that he couldn’t wait to rush back into life, completely forgetting to stop and give thanks. Another might have been so shaken about suddenly losing his familiar identity as an outcast, that he became afraid about how he would live as this new person – having to deal with new relationships, new responsibilities, new expectations. While possibly a third leper may just have been too skeptical to believe that God could ever have had anything to do with his healing. It just happened, like a lot of other unexplained things in life. And then maybe one of the others had every good intention to go back and thank Jesus. But, you know, there were a few important things he wanted to take care of first. He would catch up with Jesus later, a little further down the road. And it may be one of the others simply did not want any reminders about how weak and vulnerable he had been when he was sick. That was in the past now, and he was determined to move on.
The possibilities are many. Are we any different? We all have days when we feel gratitude, and days we don’t even think about being grateful. Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to experience gratitude because in the rush of things, we fail to take the time to reflect on how our life has been blessed by some small occurrence or a new turn in our life. Sometimes we go along as though we have earned and deserve what we come have by, forgetting that our life and our health is a gift to be thankful for each day. And sometimes we just don’t comprehend God’s grace in our life.
Yet we all know that expressing gratitude is important. From practically the time our child can begin to put two words together, we teach them to say, “thank you.” We teach them to write thank you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts. We teach them to say thank you by putting a quarter in the chapel offering plate. Gratitude is natural, but it also must be learned to shape the heart.
After the Samaritan expressed his gratitude, Jesus tells him, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.” Which surely is to say, as John Buchanan remarks, “that by Jesus’ definition faith and gratitude are closely related, that faith without gratitude is maybe not faith at all, and that there is something life giving about gratitude.” (Thanksgiving sermon at Fourth Presbyterian Church, November 21, 2004)
The other nine were also free of leprosy, yes, but this man became more whole because he recognized the gift of grace he had received from God, and joyfully gave thanks for it. Thomas Merton wrote: “To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything God has given us. Every breath we draw is a gift of his love; every moment of existence is a grace. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and praise.”
One of the ironies of this world is that there is not much correlation between how thankful people are – and how much they have to be thankful for. Some who seem to pretty much have it all, act as though they are entitled to it, and that sense of entitlement blinds them to gratitude. While some others who seem to live with very little, even less than little by our standards, live lives that glow with gratitude to God for what they do have. Our youth and adult leaders have discovered this over and over again on church mission trips to places like Nicaragua, where people eke out a living and life in a garbage dump; on the border towns of Mexico, where a family having a house with electricity is overjoyed; and in rural Costa Rica, where poor people on the margins are learning new skills to better their lives.
At the very heart of this faith of ours is gratitude – gratitude for the many gifts we are given every day: food, shelter, dear ones to love, beauty to enrich our lives. And beneath it all, is the goodness and mercy of God’s love that surrounds us and will never let us go. It has been said that even if you are not a prayerful person, you need only to learn one prayer: “Thank you, God.” For in giving thanks to God, we move closer to the source of our life.
We have this church to be thankful to God for. I hope that next week when you receive this year’s Annual Report for our church, you will take the time to read through it. On the cover the title is, “From Generation to Generation,” and there are snapshots featuring the people of our church, then and now. This venerable, old village church is 115 years old. That’s more than five generations of folks who, across the years, have faithfully nurtured and served and supported the worship life we share, and the children’s, youth, music and caring ministries we do as a faith family. Together we show our gratitude to God by sharing our faith with one another, and helping our neighbors through an Outreach program that supports forty nine social service and educational organizations in wider Chicago. We reach out in Christ’s name through activities like last week’s Food Packing that put meals on the tables of hungry families living not more than ten or fifteen miles away; and thousands of miles away across the ocean through our church’s Ghana ministry that makes fresh water available to villagers and provides a school building for young people to learn.
Gratitude is a way of looking at and living life generously.
There is an old story about an elderly Jewish man. All he did in his spare time was go out to the edge of the village and plant fig trees. People would ask him, “Why are you planting these fig trees? You are going to die before they will ever bear fruit.” The old man responded, “I have spent many happy hours sitting under fig trees someone else had planted and enjoyed eating their fruit. Why shouldn’t I make sure that others will be able to experience the enjoyment that I have had?”
Gratitude is wonderfully reciprocal, giving delight to the one who expresses it, and to the one who receives it. It is good to give thanks to the Lord. For this day, for our families, for this church, for the gift of our lives, let us all say, “Thank you, God!” And in grateful response let us serve as Christ’s partners in bringing joy to others.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.