On What Gratefulness Can Do
October 9, 2022
Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “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?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Today’s sermon is titled On What Gratefulness Can Do.
Before we dive into today’s text, I want to clear up a mistake I made last week. I closed the sermon last week with a story and I said it was the only account where Jesus commended someone for living faithfully. There are actually three other instances in the scriptures where Jesus gives the gift of healing and then says, “Your faith has made you well.” The story we have today about the ten lepers is one of the three.
Last week we considered the parable about the mustard seed. Jesus told his disciples that only a little faith is all that’s required of us. We learned from the work of James Fowler that faith is not something we have, or don’t have; faith is a way of being in the world. We live faithfully when we lean into the circumstances of our lives. We live faithfully when we aim to find, or to give, meaning. We learned that faith is not a product of religion; all people have faith in something or someone. And finally, faith is endemic to our being. We begin to learn about faith in the first hours and days of our lives as we learn who, and what, to trust.
This week’s parable invites us deeper into a consideration of faith but there is some baggage that we should set aside before we get too far into it. I am probably not the only one here who has been led to believe that I should always be working to increase my faith and that if my faith is sufficient, I will be healthy and fulfilled and live a life of abundance. This is the message that countless numbers of clergy have used to fill the offering plates on Sunday mornings and raise the annual pledges each autumn. This message is toxic because when we find ourselves ill, or unsatisfied, or without, and when we find ourselves, inevitably, on the threshold of death, will it be because our faith was insufficient? Absolutely not! So we must pack up all those erroneous messages about faith and set them aside, remembering what Jesus said to his disciples. Even faith the size of a tiny mustard seed is plenty. A little faith is all we need because faith is only part of the equation. We find the other missing pieces in our parable.
When we find Jesus he is “traveling in the region between Galilee and Samaria.” He is in the borderlands when ten lepers approach him and beg for mercy. Jesus does not touch them, he does not pray over them, he does not require anything of them except that they go to their temple and present themselves before the priest. “As they went they were made clean.”
Three years ago I was at Clergy Convocation and our instructor asked for volunteers to act out this story. She needed eleven people, so I raised my hand. I was really hoping she would not give me the role of Jesus. I was so relieved when she chose the man standing next to me. But then she chose me to be the Samaritan who came back to thank Jesus and I wished in that moment that I had never raised my hand. There was nothing left to do but to go through with it. She gave us 5 minutes to plan what we were to do and then perform for the rest of the group. The biggest challenge was that we could not use words. We practiced gestures of begging, then gestures of being surprised and amazed to be healed, and as the others continued walking on, I had to figure out how to show my gratitude. The story says the Samaritan “prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet.” We decided it would be most effective if Jesus had already turned away and the healed leper could then approach him and touch him to gain his attention.
We did our best and afterwards, the instructor wanted us to do the last part over again. She emphasized to the group how the simple gesture of being able to approach Jesus was indicative of just how much healing had transpired. Lepers were not allowed to approach anyone for anything. Lepers could not even enter the temple to worship. Lepers could not take part in any community life except the community life they created amongst themselves.
Again we acted out the last part and it was even better that time. It was slower and more deliberate and I began to really identify with how entirely thankful I would be to be restored to life, to relationship, to love. By the time I prostrated myself at “Jesus’s” feet the second time, I was a teary mess. That time, “Jesus” reached down and took my hand to help me up and then he held out his arms as an invitation and we shared a hug. At that point it was unclear whether we were still acting out what could have happened in the story or just trying to recover.
I thought we would be done after that, but the instructor wanted us to act it out one more time from the beginning, but she asked that we change the ending and instead of me going back to give thanks, all ten of us would keep going to the temple.
We did it again and as we walked away, without thinking, I looked back at Jesus. She had us do it again, with no looking back. It was a completely different story then. It was the story of a healing and that was all there was to it. The audience had to admit, politely, that it was very unsatisfying.
It was the returning of the one that had made the most impact. It was the returning of the one, breaking from the other nine, to acknowledge what had transpired, to offer thanks for the gift of life, the gift of inclusion, the gift of restoration. That was the moment when faith was in action and what faith looked like in that moment was gratefulness. That was the most meaningful moment, the moment that made the story. Biblical scholar Kimberly Bracken Long writes of the connection between faith and gratefulness, “One might say that faith and gratitude are two words for the same thing. To practice gratitude is to practice faith.”
In all that we are called to face in our lives, the joys and the challenges, the new life and the inevitable death, returning time and again to a place of gratefulness is what will allow us to live faithfully, in trust, with hope, peace, and true and lasting security. Isn’t that what all of humankind longs for? Jesus’s good news to us is that we don’t need more faith; we have all we need. What we need is practice, practice in returning, like the one leper, to gratefulness.
There is only one instance I can think of where gratefulness will not lead to health and healing and that one instance is emotional or physical violence. We are not called to endure emotional or physical violence with a spirit of gratefulness. We are called to seek help and to make change in such circumstances. But I assure you, Friends, that in all others, gratefulness can be a pathway to liberation, healing, and wholeness.
In the past few years I have walked with two bereaved mothers following the deaths of their teenage sons. I have learned so much by simply accompanying them through a landscape that is shaped by grief that is beyond what most of us will ever bear. Even there, Friends, there are landmarks of gratefulness, gratefulness to have experienced a love so complete, a love so painfully pure and true.
In closing and with the sentiments of the psalmist that we heard this morning who, from exile and with very little reason for hope in the future, nonetheless was move to, “Give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the congregation,” I offer the following phrases of prayer that can be prayed when gratitude can be hard to find:
Thank you, God, for being with me in this.
Thank you, God, for access to medical care. Thank you for my care-givers, my doctors and nurses; bless them, Lord.
Thank you for all of my life experiences, even the hard things, that made me who I am.
Thank you, God, for all the time we had together. Thank you for the depth of love we shared.
Thank you for the lessons I am learning as I age.
Thank you, God, for being with me.
Dearest Beloved, our minds and our hearts are so full this morning. We are trying to make sense of the senseless, to find reason in the unreasonable, and to see You, Lord, in the inner workings of a culture that seems to be falling apart. Help us to hold fast to faith and gratefulness even as we face uncertain days ahead. Remind us, when we question, that Your presence is alive within us, proceeding before us, inspiring us in the moment, and supporting us when we falter. We ask your blessings on those who are without, those who are in pain, and those who are frightened. May we be receptive to Your Holy Spirit working through us to nurture them, and nurture ourselves, in ways unexpected and profound. This I pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Romans chapter 15:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”