A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
10 October 2010
Text:  Luke 17:11-19
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Gratitude:  perhaps it is the earliest and most prized human value.  We teach our children to say “thank you” from the time they can talk.  We pepper our business and social conversation with expressions of gratitude for kindnesses shown and work well done.  Could it be that it is also the virtue we take most for granted?  It’s 11:30 and so far, how many times have you given thanks—either verbally to another person, or inwardly to God? 

Come to find out, the answer to that question may be a predictor of your well-being.  Multiple medical studies show a correlation between gratitude and health, with grateful people self-reporting higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality and optimism, and lower levels of depression and stress. [see, for example, a summary of research reported by Philip Friedman and Loren Toussaint in the International Journal of Healing and Caring, on-line, volume 6, no. 2, May 2006]  Researchers have developed a “gratitude questionnaire” for assessment—-reproduced at the bottom of the bulletin insert—-based on responses to six statements:  I have so much in life to be thankful for.     If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.   When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for.   I am grateful to a wide variety of people.  As I get older I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events, and situations that have been part of my life history.   Long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone.  [Michael E. McCullough, Robert Emmons, Jo-Ann Tsang, PhD]

Statements worth pondering . . . .along with our gospel text, a curious incident from Jesus’ ministry that intertwines gratitude and health and faith.  Curious, because while it has elements in common with other healing narratives, some telling details add a layer of complexity.   Here Jesus is traveling in the region between his home base in Galilee and Samaria— significant as we recall the enmity between the people of those areas because of religious differences. Jesus is approached by ten lepers crying out for mercy.   As the textual footnote points out, “leprosy” was the standard diagnosis for a whole range of diseases, but all resulted in exclusion from the community and even from worship.  Ironically, the shared social isolation brings together both Jews and Samaritans.       As we read the text, see if you can place yourself there too:  coming with others in need to seek the healing touch of the Teacher, the one some called “Messiah,” savior.   A reading from the gospel according to Luke in the 17th chapter at the eleventh verse.  Listen for God’s Word to you.

 [LUKE 17:11-19]

Fewer than half the respondents of the Pew Religious Knowledge survey were able to correctly answer a multiple-choice question about the person most associated with the Protestant Reformation.  Now I ‘m sure without asking that you know it was Martin Luther.  His public posting of 95 tenets of faith and challenges to the Roman church did more than anything else to fan the flames of protest and reform.  Amid all these changes in theology and liturgy and practice, when Martin Luther was asked to describe the nature of true worship he replied, “The tenth leper turning back.”  [quoted by David Lose, biblical preaching chair of Luther Seminary in workingpreacher blog]  Luther felt that the gratitude that compelled the healed leper to return to the source of healing was the same dynamic that moved people to worship God.  If our only prayer were “thank you” it would be enough.

But there’s something more going on here than just an exhortation to be grateful.  The text makes clear that neither faith nor gratitude are prerequisites for healing.  The lepers head for town simply on Jesus’ word, and find themselves free of disease on the way.   In fact, Jesus’ question “where are the other nine?” seems a little gratuitous, given that they were doing exactly what he had told them to do.  That is, presenting themselves to the priests who would certify their cure and restore them to normal life.  It’s hard to think the nine wouldn’t have felt enormous gratitude for this amazing gift!  Yet Jesus praises the one who returned to say thank you.   Now, I don’t believe that Jesus was scolding the nine for their lack of manners, or because he felt slighted personally.  Instead, I think his questions point beyond the particular healing to a perspective about life.  First, that nothing is more important than giving thanks—not busy-ness, not other responsibilities, not even religious obligation.  Expressing gratitude should be at the top of our “to do” list.  No excuses. 

But even more is the reason behind the gratitude.  The healing of all ten was sheer gift:  unearned and, since leprosy back then was a life-sentence, unexpected.  It’s as if Jesus wanted to say to the gathered followers that grace and gratitude are not commodities to be exchanged in relatively equal amounts. He praises the Samaritan’s spontaneous return as an example of faith that is sparked by an awareness of God’s grace, not a sense of his own entitlement.  He had to come back to give thanks— because the way God’s gift had brought healing and wholeness took his breath away!

And what of us?  Is our gratitude dependent upon things going the way we want?  Do we think of it as payment for the things we believe we deserve or to which we are, after all, entitled?  Is our gratitude mostly a matter of politely balancing the give and take?   Or are we awake to our essential giftedness?  Consider the following as a spiritual version of a Gratitude Questionnaire:   I appreciate the gift of each new day.  I feel joy seeing familiar faces around the breakfast table and at the Lord’s Table.   The brief beauty of an Ohio autumn in its fiery farewell inspires gratitude to the Creator.   I am thankful for the privilege of employment, of meaningful work and labors of love, of opportunities for travel and education–but also unfailing support in hard and uncertain times.  I know at the depth of my being that I am beloved, that there is nothing I need do; nothing I can do to earn God’s favor or receive God’s gifts.

Sometimes I think we remember our gifts primarily in loss; we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.  But why wait?

There is an old Jewish tale in which a disciple asked his Teacher:  “What must I do to become wise?”  The teacher responds: “As little as you must do to make the sun rise in the morning.”   “Then what—?”  sputters the disciple.  “What use is all this prayer and worship and service??!”  And the teacher concludes: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”   Don’t go through life asleep, unaware, oblivious in the rush of daily chores and busy schedules and obligations of all kinds—to the gift you hold in your heart, in your hands, in every breath you take.

No matter how you score on the gratitude questionnaire, no matter what your natural predisposition to thanksgiving is, every one of us can learn to be a grateful person.  We can cultivate a thankful heart, with practice, with intention.  We can move from payment to praise. We can “turn back” as did the Samaritan leper, to the Source of life and healing . . . .

. . . . because that is the One who is the giver of every good gift.   To say “Thank you” is to acknowledge the ‘you’ behind the gift, to acknowledge the relationship upon which love depends.    God has reached out to humanity —our thanks is a way of taking hold.   We know ourselves to be connected to the Source of life.  Unconditionally.  Eternally.  And that makes it possible to give thanks even when the outcome was not what we wanted, even when confronted with disappointment, grief, pain.  God is with us; God will be with us, come what may.   We don’t sing “Praise God so that the blessings flow,” but instead “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

And funny thing, when we express gratitude to God, we find ourselves more able to express gratitude for other people.   Our eyes begin to see God’s blessings all around us; we become alive to “grace” in its countless forms.   The flowers today were given in appreciation for Nora Castle, who has served faithfully in children’s ministries for over 30 years. Working out of the spotlight down in “Nora’s Castle” to welcome young ones and their parents, support teachers, and generally be a friendly presence.  All our church school teachers deserve our thanks for their commitment to nurturing faith in the upcoming generations.   I am grateful for colleagues whose creativity, passion, and collaboration lend depth as well as breadth to our programs and ministries.  I don’t say “thank you” often enough for our custodial staff that keeps this old house of God so clean and in good shape, or for our support staff who go the second mile to produce bulletins and flyers and mailings, and monitor website and Facebook and Twitter and three blogs.  Today I want to say thank you for the dozen or so members who gather every month to assemble our newsletter and prepare it for mailing. . . for the elderly member who waters the flowers in the garth regularly during the summer. . .for the member who has spent hours analyzing ways our church can reduce its carbon footprint (and save money to boot!). . .  for the unsung heroes who transport members with mobility problems to church. . .

And to so many more.  For so much more.

If our only prayer were “thank you” it would be enough.  On second thought, how could it ever be enough?  So let’s keep practicing!   Thanks be to God!

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