Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
October 9, 2016
Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
Most likely, the first thing to jump out at you in the Gospel lesson is the ingratitude of 9 out of 10 lepers who were healed. How many times have you worked miracles and no one notices and thanks you? This is not just a “Son of God” sized problem. Your miracle this week may be the colored-coded family calendar that gets everyone where they need to be and still have food in the refrigerator. You may have taught someone algebra, sentence structure or how to tie a shoe. Your listening ear healed someone’s loneliness, your prayer shawl made someone feel loved and care for, you did your part to stop the pipeline and register new voters. You somehow summoned the energy after a busy work week, showered, got the kids fed and dressed, then your spouse, remembered that it is your week to bring a fruit platter, or greet, or hand-bell practice, and arrive ready to sing, pray and commit to making God’s love and justice real in your life. That is a miracle! (Let me say thanks to you on behalf of God and First Churches, for the weekly Sunday miracle that puts you in your pew.)
It is important to say it because in reality, getting thanked is not the norm. Worse yet, some people will just pile on more work, and others will criticize and micro-manage you. There are worse things than being overlooked. No good deed goes unpunished. Not that you give your best efforts in order to be noticed. Many of you are native New Englanders and you have a quiet way of doing your duty. When that 10th leper comes your way you quietly nod and humbly say “Well, the work is so rewarding, but thanks for noticing.” You try not to blush, and the worst possible thing would be to have everyone in room clapping and looking at you. But it is nice to know that at least one person noticed your little miracle. Its not just needing praise and an ego thing, sometimes you just want to know that you make a difference, and people don’t take you for granted.
So lets explore our text more deeply and see what we can learn about gratitude and ingratitude from Jesus and the lepers. To be honest, I think Jesus sounds disappointed. After this man expresses gratitude for being healed, the first words out of Jesus’s mouth are not, “Your faith has made you well,” but ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you came back, but I would have thought my own people would be a little better than this.
After all this isn’t just a 20 percent off coupon, this is life transforming. Leprosy is not only a bad disease to live with, it put a person outside of most human community. Remember that these 10 stood at a distance and asked for help. Lepers don’t go shopping, visit friends and catch a movie or happy hour. They lived isolated lives with other outcasts, lives of pain and loneliness, where people fear you, run away from you or perhaps threaten you because of what your skin looks like. (Glad we don’t have those kind of uninformed prejudices today, right?) Healing from leprosy is a social as well as physical transformation. It means you can pass the peace, shake hands or just walk down the street and nobody notices you, unless you want them too, and you wave and say “Hello!”
This is why Jesus sent them to the priest at the Temple. The priests were not the healers, but the ones who would certify the healing so the lepers could officially re-enter society. This was part of their “safe-church” policy. We do mandatory CORI checks for children’s ministry volunteers, they checked for leprosy. Community needs boundaries for safety. The problem is our fears run away from us and too often we create more boundaries than necessary. Imagine, there are people who believe that building walls or banning people of different religions will actually keep us safe. I want to be safe, but we can be so obsessed with safety you start to destroy community. It is hard to know where the line is, but I’d say if you need a Supreme Court case to work out who can use what bathroom, its time to collectively pause and think.
I want to know what the priests would have said to 10 people healed from leprosy. Would they have celebrated and invited Jesus to join their staff? Or would they have been upset that Jesus was on their turf or making them look bad? Its shocking to me that many times Jesus heals people and it makes religious people angry. Jesus, don’t you know you can’t heal on the Sabbath? Heal if you want, but now your forgiving sins, who gave you the right to play God? Honestly, Jesus we didn’t want you to heal those people, we kind of liked them right where they were. We like knowing who the moral lepers are as object lessons, God forbid they become whole and join our community.
No wonder Jesus wanted to know what happened to the other nine lepers. It is more than disappointment with ingratitude for his works, wouldn’t Jesus want to know what happened when 10 lepers presented themselves to the priests? If 10 people who just stopped using heroin came to church on Sunday and said, “Jesus healed us, and told us to come to church here and join.” What would happen next? Would we be ready to handle it with gratitude? I wonder if the other nine even went as a group. Perhaps they went one by one, not wanting to cause a stir so they could just inconspicuously rejoin society without controversy. Don’t ask, don’t tell so we can all sit together in church. We welcome everyone, just don’t act too gay. All our welcome, we just don’t want to talk about racism or white privilege. But you really are one of us!
This helps us understand the courage of the leper who came back to say thank you. First, he has to take a journey, and we don’t know how far he had to walk to go back and find Jesus. It took effort. I wonder if there was any doubt in his mind. Jesus didn’t know he was a Samaritan when he healed him. He was just a leper. Now he is a Samaritan and no one can heal him of that. But this man’s relentless effort towards gratitude moves Jesus, and he says your faith has made you well. I recognize your faith even though you are considered an enemy by my people.
Here is my takeaway from this text. Gratitude is so much more than a social courtesy. Gratitude is a life affirming, hope-building, relationship enhancing, community strengthening, justice seeking practice. It generates positive life energy that helps make more good things happen. When you express gratitude you have done three things, you increase your own faith, you increase the value of the person thanked, and you create the possibility of more good for others in the world.
Here is the energy flow of gratitude. First, your thanks builds a relationship. You realize you are not alone and completely vulnerable in the world. You are worthy of love and respect because someone did something good for you. It builds your self-worth to say thank you. It builds up the other person, because they feel like their actions matter. Most of the time when you work or volunteer you have no idea if it makes a difference, unless someone tells you, which is about as rare as in the parable. We put our energy towards what matters most. How do we know what that is without thanks. So when thanks is given it actually makes more good possible, because it may just be the thing that keeps someone else going.
I want to close with a few suggested exercises to increase our gratitude quotient. I think it takes practice, focus and awareness to be truly grateful. It is not always easy to do this, especially if we are not feeling it. If you feel like life is giving you the short end of the stick, it is hard to be grateful. So where do you start? I think it starts with our prayer life and relationship to God. Start with a gratitude journal and write down five things every morning for which you are grateful. Here are three easy ones, thanks for the gift of life, for a roof over my head, and for enough food to eat and clean water to drink. If you were in Haiti this morning you would be thrilled to say this, right? So now you just need two more things each day.
Here is practice number two. At the end of the day, write down three things that went well. I started this 10 days ago, and now I have 30 things written in my journal that have gone well. Who knew in the midst of all the craziness of life, so much goes well?!
Last thing, each day take the time to make one sincere, thoughtful thank you to someone. Once a day, seven days a week. One of these exercises is great, but I’m challenging you to take 5 minutes in the morning and five minutes at the end of the day to practice gratitude. Here is what I think will happen for you. You will focus less on all the negativity, less on what to criticize, and more on watching where the spirit of God is at work in life around you. That is the best reason to be grateful, because God becomes a real, living presence in your life.