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Giving Thanks

Gertrude Stein once said, ““Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.” We know, of course, that gratitude is important. Saying “thank you” is one of our essential ways of having good manners. Even in this time where etiquette has fallen by the wayside, we can agree that saying “thank you” is doing the bare minimum. But beyond just not being perceived as rude, practicing gratitude, really taking the time to live into gratitude has a variety of benefits. In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown writes, “There is overwhelming evidence that gratitude is good for us physically, emotionally, and mentally. There’s research that shows that gratitude is correlated with

better sleep, increased creativity, decreased entitlement, decreased hostility and aggression, increased decision-making skills, decreased blood pressure- the list goes on.”[1] It seems that people who are grateful for the life they have, have a better life. But the critical element here for unlocking true gratitude is understanding this: Gratitude is not just an emotion; gratitude is an action. And that is why our text today matters so much for us who want to understand gratitude- this is an image of gratitude in action.

In Luke 17 we find Jesus, and presumably some of his disciples, traveling towards Jerusalem in an area of no-man’s-land between Galilee and Samaria. Galilee was generally populated by Jewish people and Samaria was generally populated by Samaritans, and the two groups did not get along. The borderlands seem to have been the places where the outcasts of society would live. This was the place for people who could not or were not allowed to live with the general public. So as Jesus passes through, ten people with a skin disease call out to him. Our Bibles generally use the word “leprosy” to describe a variety of skin afflictions. We don’t necessarily know that this is the same disease that we think of as leprosy or as it is referred to now, Hansen’s Disease. Regardless of the exact diagnosis, these people are living with some kind of skin affliction that has kept them from being able to live in society. Notice that it says they “keep their distance.” This was the rule for anyone living with leprosy- they were not allowed to interact directly with people who didn’t have the disease. In different times and ages there were a variety of very strict laws about what lepers could and could not do, and it is hard to know exactly what the custom would have been for these men. But, it is safe to assume that these people were forced to live separately from others and were not able to freely interact with others in their society. We can also assume from the context that these people afflicted with skin disease were a mixed group of Jews and Samaritans- another thing that would have divided this group from the societies that they came from.

These people living with leprosy call out to Jesus, asking him to have mercy on them. Jesus tells them to “go and show themselves to the priests.” Being seen before the priest was the only way to rejoin regular civic, family, and religious life after being deemed to be “clean” once again. In addition to acting as religious leaders, priests functioned as public health officials in many ways. Jews and Samaritans had different ways of practicing religion and different priests, so that may be why Jesus directs them to go see the priests (plural). They are to go back to their own homes and see their own priests. And of course, on the way back to the priests, on the way back home, the people discover that they have been healed. They had been made clean. One of them, a Samaritan, realizes what has happened and turns around. He ignores Jesus’ direction, at least temporarily, in order to “praise God with a loud voice.” He comes before Jesus, lays down, and gives thanks. Jesus points out that the other nine have not returned- they are likely going to do exactly what Jesus told them to do- going to see the priests. They are taking step 1 towards regaining their regular life, which does not seem to begin by pausing to thank Jesus. Jesus then says to the Samaritan man, the one who gave thanks, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

I find in this story three lessons that I want to share with you about gratitude. First, gratitude is a way of participating fully in your own life. Imagine with me for a moment the life of those who went on to the priests and experienced healing without encountering Jesus. I suppose they went to the priest, were declared “clean,” and returned to their homes. Perhaps they returned to jobs, to civic and religious life, and became themselves again. But… they did all of that without ever knowing Jesus, without ever thanking Jesus, without, perhaps, ever really knowing that Jesus was the source of their renewed life. They were brought home, but without knowing Jesus, they could never truly be made whole. Robert Emmons is a research psychologist that studies gratitude. He writes, “I think gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life…we celebrate goodness. We spend so much time watching things- movies, computer screens, sports- but with gratitude we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to spectators.”[2] Gratitude is the choice to get involved in your own life, to see what is really there and fully engage. Practicing gratitude doesn’t magically fix everything that might be going wrong for you, but it does change your perspective. When you look at your life with the eyes of gratitude, you begin to notice things you hadn’t before seen. You grow to love flawed things. The poet and priest Gerard Manly Hopkins notices this in his poem, “Pied Beauty.”

Glo­ry be to God for dap­pled things – For skies of cou­ple-colour as a brind­ed cow; For rose-moles all in stip­ple upon trout that swim; Fresh-fire­coal chest­nut-falls; finch­es’ wings; Land­scape plot­ted and pieced – fold, fal­low, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tack­le and trim.

All things counter, orig­i­nal, spare, strange; What­ev­er is fick­le, freck­led (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adaz­zle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beau­ty is past change: Praise him.

Eyes of gratitude see the beauty in the ordinary things like cows and trout and fishing poles and tools. David Steindl-Rast says, ““It’s not joy that makes us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us joyful.” It is the difference in going back to life and going back to life knowing Jesus, carrying a joyful encounter with Jesus into your life, knowing that you have been seen, healed, and made whole by Jesus. Gratitude is engaging with the fullness of life.

The second lesson from this text is that gratitude makes us whole. Throughout this story, the Greek words used to describe what Jesus does for the lepers are words that mean healing, curing, to be made clean. But something really special happens when the man returns to give thanks. Jesus tells the man that his faith has saved him, his faith has rescued him, has made him whole. Jesus’ use of the word sozo seems to indicate something different, something stronger than simply healing. His act of returning to give thanks has brought the man into a different kind of healing- one that extends beyond the body and deep into the soul.

You may have heard the name Anthony Ray Hinton. After 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, Hinton was released. Many of us would spend the rest of our lives angry about the harm we experienced, the time wasted in our lives. It would be understandable, and justified. But Mr. Hinton has chosen another path. He says, “One does not know the value of freedom until it is taken away. People run out of the rain. I run into the rain…I am so grateful for every drop. Just to feel it on my face.” He has also said, “The world didn’t give you your joy, and the world can’t take it away. You can let people come into your life and destroy it, but I refuse to let anyone take my joy. I wake up in the morning and I don’t need anyone to make me laugh. I’m going to laugh on my own, because I have been blessed to see another day, and when you’re blessed to see another day that should automatically give you joy.”[3] After all that Anthony Ray Hinton experienced, he has been transformed- not by his hardship, but by his gratitude. He has been rescued from despair, shame, blaming because of his gratitude.

The third lesson of our story is this- gratitude is an act of worship. The healed man comes to Jesus in praise with loud words of worship. He throws himself before Jesus in humility and gratitude. This is gratitude in action. It’s an act Commentator David Lose recounts this story, “Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back.”[4] So often when we come into worship, our brains are very full with to-do lists and the many things on our minds. Our hearts may be full of worry and pain or even joy and celebration. We might come in distracted and busy so going through the actions of worship can feel rote and tired. But this man- this man shows us something else. This man teaches us about worship. It isn’t fancy, it isn’t about getting everything perfect or having it all figured out. Worship, quite simply, is about coming before Jesus with thanksgiving. It is stopping as we go about our days, turning around, and coming back to approach Jesus in gratitude.

Throughout this stewardship season our theme has been Grace in Action. We have talked about experiencing God’s grace and then using that model to help us live in the same example. Our first week together we talked about creation, how God creates a home and how we too can be homemakers in God’s image. The second week we looked at the story of the Prodigal Son and wondered how we might throw parties of welcome for anyone who seeks to receive grace. Last week we remembered Jesus’ teaching about the Good Samaritan and learned that there is no one who isn’t our neighbor. All of it is grace in action, taking the grace that we have received from God and sharing it with everyone else. It is an act of stewardship to live as people of grace. This week, the story of the leper who gave thanks shows us a slightly different image- this is a story of gratitude in action. This is a stewardship story. Grace and Gratitude- these are at the heart of following Jesus, at the heart of being a Presbyterian, at the heart of being part of Pocket Presbyterian Church. Living grace and gratitude, this is who we are, our calling, our purpose. May we live out all that we were created to be. Amen.

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