Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 13, 2013

2013.10.13 “What Gratitude Looks Like” – Luke 17: 11 – 19

Central United Methodist Church

What Gratitude Looks Like

Pastor David L. Haley

October 13, 2013

Luke 17: 11 – 19


It happened that as Jesus made his way toward Jerusalem, he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men, all lepers, met him. They kept their distance but raised their voices, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Taking a good look at them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”

They went, and while still on their way, became clean. One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. He kneeled at Jesus’ feet, so grateful. He couldn’t thank him enough — and he was a Samaritan.

 Jesus said, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?” Then he said to him, “Get up. On your way. Your faith has healed and saved you.” – Luke 17: 11 – 19, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Of all the experiences in life we never forget; most in one way or another involve gratitude. Either expressed by others to us, for something we did, or expressed by us to others, for something they did for us.

Here’s an example I’ve never forgotten. Once when I was working as a paramedic, we got a call for a man down at a local car dealership. When we arrived on the scene, we found a man on the floor beside a car in the showroom, without a pulse. (I don’t know if it was sticker shock or not.) We began CPR, shocked him with a cardiac defibrillator, and – to everyone’s surprise – restored a pulse. We moved him to the ambulance and transported him to the hospital, transferring him into the care of the ER staff. I have to tell you it is rare when a pulse is restored, rarer still when people survive, and rarest of all what happened next.

I was sitting in the paramedic room writing the report when there was a knock at the door. It was the man’s son, who thanked us profusely for what we had done and, for what first responders such as police, firefighters and paramedics do every day. Afterwards, I said to my partner, “Not bad for $15 an hour, huh?” In my memory I can still see the man standing there at that door, expressing his gratitude.  It was a good feeling.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has such an experience, in which he receives the heartfelt gratitude of a stranger. Ultimately, what we learn in this story is this: without gratitude, whatever else we have, our lives are incomplete; with gratitude, despite what we lack, our lives are made whole.

This story is such a classic story about gratitude, we usually hear it at Thanksgiving. I remember a great sermon I once heard preached on this story at a Thanksgiving service, whose title was, “Where are the Nine?” It was fitting, as too few members of our faith communities show up at community Thanksgiving services, always one of the best services of the year.

I am reasonably sure, however, that this story is in your family Thanksgiving repertory, along with the story of the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and Indians. Around your Thanksgiving table, you always tell the story of the Ten Lepers, right? Or is it the story of the Bears and the Packers? (This is a better story!)
You just heard the story; there are several aspects worth noting, important for the meaning of the story.

First, it occurred on “the border” between Galilee and Samaria, as Jesus and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem.  There wasn’t an actual border at that time, not like there is now, as you enter Palestinian territory. Luke makes it sound like they were all wandering around out in some DMZ. His point is actually more theological than geographical; Jesus was always crossing “boundaries” of one kind or another, often ministering to those who somehow found themselves lost “in between,” wandering around in “no man’s land,” somewhere on the margins of life.

Second, Jesus was met by a group of ten lepers.  Leprosy, in Jesus’ time, wasn’t only what we now call Hansen’s Disease, it was a variety of skin rashes and afflictions. As bad as the physical disease was, it was almost worse what victims went through socially. They were practically “The Walking Dead,” exiled from family, society, and even from the faith community, rendered complete social and spiritual outcasts. A leper had to ring a bell and cry out to warn and keep others away. No wonder they often banded together in companies of the miserable.

These ten lepers cried out, alright, but it was not for Jesus to stay away; it was “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Obviously they must have heard of Jesus’ healing power.  And indeed, Jesus exercises that power, but in the most indirect of ways. He says to them:  “Go, show yourself to the priest.” Which is what they were supposed to do, not to be healed, but AFTER they were healed.

And they did what he told them: they didn’t head to a bar, a brothel, or a casino, they weren’t bad people, after all, they headed to the temple, exactly as they were told. To their great surprise, on the way, as they went, they experienced healing.

Imagine what that must have been like: what would you have done? Screaming and jumping and dancing in joy, throwing off the dirty rags they wore, with the sudden realization that after being certified clean at the temple, they could once again be reunited with their families. No wonder they were in a hurry.

Except for one. When he realized what had happened, he headed not for the temple, but back to Jesus. For him, first things first: to thank the healer. As he went, he was absolutely Pentecostal, shouting his gratitude and glorifying God, then kneeling in front of Jesus to express his gratitude. Putting it mildly, as the text says, “He couldn’t thank him enough,” like that son I told you about at the paramedic room door.

And what did Jesus do? Well, there is what we think he did, and what he really did. Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, tells the story of a pastor who was teaching Sunday School, who told this story to a group of children. “What do you think about this story?” she asked. One little girl answered, “Jesus must have been so happy that SOMEBODY thanked him!” (Alyce McKenzie, “An Attitude of Gratitude?” Lectionary Reflection on the 10 Lepers: Luke 17:11-19, October 3, 2010)

Actually, in the story, Jesus doesn’t appear that happy, or even grateful for the 10% return rate, the leper who returned to give thanks. He practically ignores the man, you can almost see Jesus counting his fingers, and then he looks at us and says, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?” OK, then! Why does Jesus say this?  Because in Luke’s Gospel, the point of this story is not to praise the grateful, but to chastise the ungrateful.  I remind you that those are both categories in which we sometimes find ourselves.

As Alyce McKenzie points out, it would be much easier to preach this text if we could rewrite it the way the little girl interpreted it.  Like this, maybe:

“All ten of the lepers, when they saw they had been healed, turned back, praising God as with one voice. They all prostrated themselves at Jesus’ feet and thanked him profusely, and they all lived happily ever after.”

Or even better, like this:

“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice and fell at Jesus’ feet. And Jesus said, “It is so wonderful that you came back to show gratitude for your healing. This says good things about you, Leper, and it’s a good habit to continue, you know, gratitude to God for all God’s gifts. Go in peace.”

Even if neither of those scenarios happened, what did happen is more intriguing. Focusing on the grateful leper, what Jesus says, is this: “Get up. On your way. Your faith has healed and saved you.”

Let’s get this straight. Ten were healed, but only one was “saved” or “made whole.” (The Greek verb can be translated both ways). Final statistics to be turned in: “Ten healed; one made whole.”

Some might find it disconcerting Jesus seems to care so little about the man’s religion, theology or moral values; I mean, he already had two strikes against him, being a Samaritan AND a leper. Beyond that, we don’t know if he was born again or against, gay or straight, pro-choice or pro-life, how he votes or how he spends his Sabbath. All we know is that he was the kind of person who knew a real gift when he saw it, and wanted to express his thanks and praise.

What this story says is that faith and gratitude are closely related, faith without gratitude is not really faith at all, and beyond that, there is something life giving about gratitude that even faith does not offer. Without gratitude, whatever else we have, our lives are incomplete; with gratitude, despite what we lack, our lives are made whole.

The theologian Karl Barth was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is gratitude; not fear and trembling, not guilt and dread, but thanksgiving. “What else can we say to what God gives us but stammer praise?” Therefore, our most basic response to God as Christians is gratitude: for the gift of life, for the world, for the people God gives us to grace and enrich our lives, for the gift of God’s love in Christ, and the sense of wholeness and wellness that comes with the assurance of God’s love. (John Buchanan, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4, pp. 165 – 169)

We can demonstrate this gratitude in many ways. We demonstrate it in worship each week, as we return from the scenes of our daily lives to offer God thanks and praise, and join together in singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Martin Luther, the 16th century German reformer, was once asked to describe the true nature of worship. The true nature of worship, said Luther, could be summed up this way: “The tenth leper turning back.”

We can demonstrate our gratitude in stewardship, as we offer back to God a portion of what we have received. That is a tangible, demonstrable way of showing our gratitude to God for all the gifts we have received.  That too, is the tenth leper turning back.

And we can demonstrate our gratitude in the gratitude we offer each other, our heartfelt thanks for the gift of life and for each other. It’s like this: you’re at dinner with family or friends, and it’s one of those meals, prepared with love, where time stops and you’re bound together by this deep sense of community and joy. And you lean over to another, or maybe raise your glass in a toast, and say, “This is great. This time, this meal, all of you, this is as good as it gets. Thank you, thank you.” (David Lose, Second Blessing).

Langdon Gilkey, the University of Chicago theologian (with whom I studied) called such an experience: “The exultation of our own being that surfaces in the thought, ‘My God, it’s good to be alive.’” Writer Anne Lamott says if her prayer in the morning is, “Help me. Help me. Help me,” at the end of the day it is, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Who of us, at our moments of deepest gratitude, does not feel this way?  Like that solitary leper felt before Jesus so long ago, out there on the border between Galilee and Samaria.

Obviously, I do not know how the Last Judgment will be, every age envisions it differently. Personally, I’m kind of hoping it will be something like the Academy Awards, at which we will get to go up on stage, before all those who have gone before, to receive the Crown of Life.  Of course we will want to say a few words, a word of thanks to all those who made our lives not only bearable, but wonderful: In my case my Mom and Dad, my family, my wife Michele and my children, Chris and Melissa and Becca and Anna, and all my dear friends and brothers and sisters in all my churches, who have worked with and cared for and supported me along the way. And to God who gives us life: to God be thanks and praise.  I’m certain you have your own version of words of thanks you’d like to offer.

Because, without gratitude, whatever else we have, our lives are incomplete; with gratitude, despite what we lack, we are made whole.  Amen.


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