A Season of ThanksGIVING: Offering Thanks
Lectionary Texts: Luke 17: 11-19, 2 Timothy 2: 8-15
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, October 9, 2016
- The Gratitude Experiment
For what are you thankful? For whom are you thankful? Do you show it? When was the last time that you told some—no, really told someone—how thankful you were for them? You know, I think most of us are pretty good at being thankful. But how many of us are good at expressing it, at showing it?
I ran across a video on You Tube called “An Experiment in Gratitude / The Science of Happiness”. I would have tried to show it but it’s more than seven minutes long and the Texans are playing. So, I would encourage you to google “The Gratitude Experiment you tube” and watch it. It’s produced by SoulPancake, who produces videos that just let us learn a little bit more about ourselves.
So, it begins by asking what makes you happy? And then it tells you that psychologists have determined that the leading things that makes us happy is gratitude. They began by testing several people by giving them a “happiness” test. Then they took the test up and asked them to write about the person for which they were the most thankful. Then they made them call the person that was the subject of their essay and read it to them. One person read it to his mother; two others read it to a friend; one person read it to her sister. One person just read it aloud because his college accounting instructor, whom he admired more than anyone else (except Jesus) had passed on.
So after they had made their calls (in the midst of lots of tears), they were given the happiness exam again with the questions switched around and rephrased. The ones who wrote down something but could not talk to the person, their happiness increased doubled. For those who could actually talk to the person, their happiness increased more than nine times what it had been. The person who had initially scored the lowest—the unhappiest person—had had the greatest increase.
- A Show of Gratitude
Our Scripture today is a story of healing. But it, too, is a story of gratitude learned and gratitude shown. In today’s passage, we are shown the image of ten lepers approaching Jesus. Keeping the appropriate distance that society commanded, they called out, pleading with Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus, please, please, heal us and make us whole and accepted members of society.
For, you see, according to the law, any person with a leprous disease was required to live outside the camp and to cry out “unclean, unclean” whenever anyone approached. If a leper was fortunate enough to recover, a priest had to certify that the person was clean before he or she could return to the community. So, just as they were required to do, they kept their distance, calling out to Jesus to show them mercy, to save them from their current situation as shunned members of society.
Can you imagine how overwhelming it was, then, when Jesus’ response, upon seeing them, was simply to go show themselves to the priests? He did not recoil with horror at the sight of them. He just told them to go and be certified as clean. What could he mean? Look at me…no priest would ever even touch me. But they went and as they went, they were made clean. But this is not meant to necessarily be a healing story. The point of the story is not the healing, but the response of those who were touched by God’s mercy.
Because at this point, we are told that one of the lepers, one of those that Jesus had healed, upon seeing his new self, upon seeing his new life, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” He ran to Jesus, fell at his feet, and thanked him. And at that point, we become aware that the other nine did not respond in the same way. All were healed; all were shown mercy; all received from Jesus exactly what they asked to receive. But only one came back and responded with gratitude. Only one. And the twist, is that THIS one was a Samaritan…a foreigner…one who in the eyes of the Jewish leaders and the Jewish believers did not even worship God in the right way and, because of that, was considered an outcast in the proper and righteous Jewish community. Now, as an aside, the Samaritans were not, as many portrayals of them represent, pagan worshippers. They worshiped the same Yahweh of the Jewish faith but they had a different interpretation and a different temple. So, they were shunned by proper Jewish society. And yet, he was the only one to return and say “thank you”.
I wish I could be like that one leper. I wish that I was always aware enough of what I have been given that I could do nothing less than return and say thank you. There were nine that recognized that their life was better, that they were healed. They would go on to live good lives. But the one. He did more than return to thank Jesus. He turned around and grabbed what Jesus offered: the freedom to be his best self, to fall with utter abandon into Christ’s arms, into the arms of Love.
III. So, What About the Other Nine?
So, what about the other nine? Don’t be hard on them. If you go back and read the passage, they were doing exactly what Jesus told them to do. They were following the rules. In an article about this passage in “The Christian Century”, Paul D. Duke says of the nine: “…They are literalists. God love them, they are doing their duty. They have taken the road as commanded, found their cleansing on it, and seemed to think that staying on the road is the thing. Like Forest Gump with a football, they have crossed the goal and go right on running, clear out of the stadium, where the celebration happens with them…
Barbara Brown Taylor says that the question among us is not “Where are the nine?” but “Where is the tenth?” Where is the one who followed his heart instead of his instructions? Doesn’t the church resemble a dutiful procession of cleansed lepers who are “doing the right thing by the temple”? Where is the one who wheels round to return the wildness of love?
Obedience is needful for the cure, but not all of the cured are whole. The whole are those whose hearts break into praise, who fall with abandon at the feet of Love to improvise their own love’s unnecessary answer.[i]
See, there were nine that understood the words, that did what was expected, that did the right thing. There was one that got what it was about, that followed his heart rather than the instructions.
- A Spirit of Gratitude
A spirit of gratitude, then, is not merely an act. It is a way of living. It is a way of being. It is an act of faith. Thomas Merton said that “to be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything God has given us.” Gratitude is living with the full realization and awareness of God’s presence in the world and what God has done for us. In that moment of true gratitude, you do not discriminate; you are grateful and accepting of everything around you. And with that awareness, we cannot help but pass that spirit onto someone else, we cannot help but share with the world the wonder that God has showered upon our lives. Melodie Beattie says this about it:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend…It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.
The one leper that returned got that. In faith, he SAW what God has provided him and then responded with gratitude. He was aware of how God has miraculously changed his life and his faithful response was gratefulness to God.
- Offering Thanks
So, for us, how well do we show that thankfulness for all that God has given us? As you know, this is the first of three Sundays where we’re going to talk a little about stewardship. I know. The word sends shivers down our spine. I will tell you—it’s not my favorite subject to preach. But it gets a bad rap. Stewardship is not just talking about money. Theologian John Westerhoff says that “Stewardship is nothing less than a complete lifestyle…It is what we do after we say we belief, after we pledge our prayers and our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” It is who we are as children of God.
So think about what the word really means. It is our living the life of a steward of God’s gifts. We have been entrusted with everything that we have. Some of it is for our basic sustenance and the rest—the rest we are to use in building the Kingdom of God. God works through us. But we struggle with it. After all, our culture tells us that it is ours, that we earned it. Well, think about it—everything you have, you either earned, were given, or found. And all of those things happened because of the gifts or the talents or the place of birth that God has given you.
My mother once did a Children’s Message at St. Peter’s in Katy. It was Stewardship Sunday, so she passed out ten pennies to each child that was there. Well, for us, ten pennies doesn’t sound like very much but if you put them in a small child’s hand, they are a gift of abundance. Then she talked about all those things that God had given us. The children were able to name more—the plants, the animals, their mothers and fathers, and these pennies. Well, she asked them, “so how much do you think we should give back to God to show how thankfulness we are. It was Patrick that immediately answered, “Well, ALL of them.” (Out of the mouths of babes)
Stewardship, gratitude, thankfulness is about realizing what we have and that we have been given it all. Timothy Miller defines gratitude as “the intention to count-your-blessings every day, every minute, while avoiding, whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances.” The truth is, none of it is really ours, no matter what our culture leads us to believe. We’re not expected to give everything that have and everything we are—just realize that it’s all God’s.
So, for what are you thankful? For whom are you thankful? Tell them. In what ways are you thankful for your church? Then, we give back without any restrictions on how the Holy Spirit will use it. And for all that God has given you, like the one leper, return to the master, drop to your knees, and give thanks in every way you can. Ann Lamott says that “when you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.”[ii] That is who we are.
[i] From “Down the Road and Back”, by Paul D. Duke, in The Christian Century, September 27, 1995, available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n27_v112/ai_17582529, accessed 10 October, 2007.
[ii] Ann Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayer, p. 57.