October 9, 2016
Brainstorm with me a moment: on any given day, what emotions might you feel?
Now, think with me again (this time, you don’t need to shout it out): of all of those emotions you may feel on any given day, or during any given week or month… which are you the most likely to give voice to? Which are you most likely to acknowledge yourself, or to talk about with someone else?
Speaking personally, I’m generally a pretty happy person – I know I have a really good life, and am surrounded by blessings, and I’m very grateful for it. But, I find that when someone asks me the question, “How are you?” and the situation is such that I might elaborate on the obligatory, “I’m fine,” my elaboration is more likely to be on all the things going wrong. “I’m all right, but tired. Didn’t get much sleep last night.” or, “Well, I’m okay, but feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Lots going on.” Occasionally, I’ll eagerly list all the good things going on, everything I’m grateful for, but I think a lot of times, we focus so much on all that is weighing us down, that this is the first thing that leaps to mind. Can you relate? Sometimes we just really want to get stuff off our chest.
Our Gospel reading today is one that always gets us thinking about gratitude – in fact, it is the assigned text for Thanksgiving worship every three years. And why not? Ten lepers are healed, and of those, only one turns back to thank Jesus for the healing. And we think, “Gosh, we really ought to be more grateful. We are often so entitled, and take so much for granted. Let us all be more thankful for our many gifts.” It’s a good message, nothing at all wrong with that. As we used to say in preaching class in seminary, “That’ll preach.” But like so much of Jesus’ life and teaching, there is much more to it than that.
So first, let’s just notice a few things about this story, because I think it is one that is familiar to many of us, so we might miss some of the nuance. First of all, let’s notice that the other nine lepers did nothing wrong. In fact, they are doing exactly what Jesus told them to do – “go to the Temple to show yourselves to the priest.” In this culture, they would not be considered officially clean until the priest said so, so I imagine they were pretty eager to be scooting off to the priest just as soon as possible! And there’s nothing to say they weren’t thanking God all along the way, just that they didn’t turn back and voice that gratitude to Jesus. So maybe the point is not that some were thankful and some weren’t, but rather, one took the time to say it aloud, and others didn’t.
Second, let’s remember a few things about leprosy. In Jesus’ time, leprosy was really any skin disease that was contagious. And so, lepers were generally kept excluded from society – perhaps even veiled and covered – so that there was no risk of it spreading. They were outcast, excluded from the community. On the flip side, to be healed of their leprosy meant not only healing of the physical disease, but also it presented the possibility of being able to go back home to their families, to be restored once again to their community. It was the gift of health, yes, but also of restored life.
This point actually stopped me in my tracks a bit this week, because it brings up a question very heavy on the hearts of many Americans lately, and that is, “What is required to restore community?” In fact, it was one of the questions in the first presidential debate a couple weeks ago, particularly in regard to race. The question to the candidates was, “Race has been a big issue in this campaign, and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?” And then the laughable tag, “You have two minutes.” Ha! Two minutes to tell us how to heal a divide that has been there over 200 years, to restore the community, to explain how you will bring understanding, healing, and reconciliation to this complex issue… and oh, by the way also the numerous other world issues, ranging from immigration and refugees, to jobs and the economy, to homeland security – and that was only in the first debate! And these are only the issues we face on a national or international level, to say nothing of the division and brokenness we experience in our families, with our friends, in our workplaces. So much of the pain in the world at large and in our particular worlds comes back to that question, “How will we heal the divide? How will we restore community?” Not to minimize the magnitude of 1st century leprosy – exclusion from family and community are no small pains – but the way this story reads, all it took was a word from Jesus and they were healed and good to go. So what can we take from this story for our own various situations of division and brokenness?
Perhaps one step toward an answer comes in the final detail I want to point out. Luke makes a point of telling us about the thankful leper, “…and he was a Samaritan.” To our modern ear, this doesn’t have the weight it did for the original audience. When we hear “Samaritan” we think of the “Good Samaritan,” the nice, helpful, caring guy. Not so for first century Jews! To them, Samaritans were not nice. They were dirty foreigners who worshipped wrong, believed wrong, and had no business being involved in the lives of the more godly, obedient, and upstanding Jews. So to really understand the weight of that statement, “He was a Samaritan,” substitute the category of people that disgust or scare you the most. (He was a criminal. He was a drug dealer. He was a liberal. He was a conservative. He was gay. He was a Muslim…)
Luke makes a point of telling us that this one, who was openly thankful, putting his own agenda and desires on hold in order to express gratitude to Jesus, was indeed a despised member of society. And the result is to make us consider the possibility that lessons in faith, in love, in joy, in bridging the gap, might in fact come from the one from whom we least expect it, even, from someone we hate. That in itself is a tough pill to swallow – after all, wouldn’t we rather learn about faith from people we love and respect?
But in this case, the lesson, the gift, the grace, though the deliverer may not have been our first choice, is one fairly simple to latch onto and maybe even to apply, and that lesson is: gratitude first.
I asked you at the beginning of this sermon which of your myriad emotions throughout the day are easiest to put voice to. What if we worked at making gratitude our most commonly expressed emotion? I heard of someone recently who always answers the question, “How are you?” with, “I’m grateful.” It’s just enough to catch your attention, isn’t it? What a lovely reminder – to yourself and to the one who asked – to put gratitude before whatever else may be weighing on you at this moment.
Now, that might take some work. Someone may ask you in return, “Oh yeah? For what are you grateful?” and it might be difficult to come up with something, especially when you are in a tough place in life, or when you are grieving a difficult loss. Those feelings should not be disregarded – they, too, are important to acknowledge and to articulate. But what if we really worked every day at finding something – or three somethings, or five – for which we are grateful, even beyond the obvious (food, shelter, family)?
I wondered if we might try it right now. Grab a pencil, and take a moment to write down somewhere on your bulletin something you are thankful for right now… Would anyone like to share? … Whatever it is you wrote down, hold onto that thing, and try to find some others. Find things every day for which you are grateful – and when you strengthen those gratitude muscles, try to find more, and different things.
Then, when you are really strong in gratitude, try this: find things on the other side of whatever divide you are facing for which you can express your gratitude. What are you grateful for in whatever in your life are the Samaritans – those who are different, despised, or somehow not up to your standards? What are you grateful for in someone who has made you angry? What are you grateful for in someone who believes differently from you? What are you grateful for in some situation that seems incredibly unfair?
Gratitude is a practice, something to be repeated again and again so that we get better and stronger at it. In today’s Gospel, we see how difficult it must have been for a Samaritan to turn around, in a place where he knew he was despised, and offer a word of gratitude to his healer. In his small act, we are reminded of the grace and hope God continually offers us no matter what our shortcomings or our more despicable characteristics are. We are given the opportunity to see that hope and faith can be revealed even in unexpected places and from unexpected people. And we are shown the immense healing and restorative powers within that simple act of gratitude.
Let us pray… Unexpected God, you show yourself and your promise of hope even in places we don’t think to look. Help us to follow the Samaritan leper’s lead, and take the time to articulate that for which we are grateful, and give us the wisdom to seek gratitude before division, so that community might be restored. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.