Leprosy in first century Israel was both a physical ailment and a social one. Having leprosy meant a life lived outside of community – outside of the tender touch of a spouse, conversations with friends, the love of a community – leprosy meant living life outside of all of the things that make life so wonderful. Those living with leprosy were ostracized outside of their community to border regions, like the one where we find Jesus in today’s gospel story.
It meant shouting out “unclean, unclean” whenever someone approached so they wouldn’t come towards them. It was a true definition of a life lived ostracized and outcast.
Jesus comes to this border region between Samaria and Israel and finds the ten lepers calling out to him not with the words “unclean, unclean” but that rather with a plea for help “have mercy on us.” The story is quite quick and to the point here – a traditional healing story as we have seen in other places in the gospels – a calling out to Jesus to be healed, Jesus acknowledging the need, Jesus healing the person or people. The ten people afflicted with leprosy leave to go to the priest, which they do to be re-entered into society. It was Jesus who healed them but the priest who would certify that they were no longer unclean, once the priest confirmed this, the people could go back to living lives in community. And here is where the story takes a different turn from the traditional healing story.
One man turns around, goes back to Jesus and bows down giving praise and gratitude to Jesus for what he has done. The man had already been healed of his leprosy, his skin made clean again, his opportunities for normal life restored, his hope of having a life with a family and a community alive again. But this man returns nonetheless, not because he must do so to be healed but rather, because he chooses to. And when he does, this man experiences the second healing, a healing from a life of ingratitude.
The second healing. The first healing of course is the healing from his disease, and what a beautiful and important healing that is. But the second is unexpected, the second is not necessary, the second healing is a healing that brings not just a life restored to the way things were before the leprosy, but a new life filled with gratitude and all the ways that may change life for the better. When Jesus sends the man away after his expression of gratitude, he says to him “go, your faith has made you well.” A phrase Jesus says other times in other healing stories. Again, the man was already healed of his leprosy when he came back to thank Jesus, so when Jesus sends him away with the phrase, “go your faith has made you well,” he is referring to a different kind of well, not a physical wellness but a spiritual wellness.
The Greek word that is used here – the word sesoken, from the root sozo, can be translated in several ways, “made well,” “healed,” or “saved.” The King James version writes, “your faith has made you whole.” The man is not just healed of his ailment, there is more at stake than healing, there is salvation and wholeness.
In this passage we see that gratitude and faith go hand in hand. Gratitude is the expression of this man’s faith, and it has made him whole, not only healed, but whole, saved, and well.
Gratitude is an expression of faith and faith in God allows this man to grow in gratitude. When he lays himself at the feet of Jesus praising God, he recognizes that God has acted through Jesus, healing him. Lying at the feet of Jesus, praising God and giving thanks, his faith in God multiplies.
Novelist and faith based writer Annie Lamott talks about her prayer ritual, she says her prayers begin to God in the day with “help me, help me, help me.” Her prayers close the day with “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Former pastor of fourth Presbyterian in Chicago John Buchanan says, “for me it is that and the weekly ritual of signing, ‘praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Our gratitude is a great expression of our faith.
I’ll always remember the biggest fight I ever had with my mother. I ran away two streets from our home for hours after this one, though I’m sure she doesn’t even know that. It was the week after my 11th birthday party, my parents had hosted the big slumber party I used to love to have at my birthday. Two dozen girls had spent the night and brought beautiful gifts. My mom insisted I write each of them thank you notes. So in the early ages of windows, I opened my word document and wrote letters:
Thank you for the _______________. I really loved it. I’m glad you came to my party. Sincerely, Grace
I filled in the blanks with names and their allocated presents. But my mother, rightfully so, was not going to have any of that. That is not a proper thank you note she told me. And so the pre-teenage girl and mother fight ensued.
I can look back now almost 20 years later and realize how right she was. That wasn’t true gratitude, that was obligatory, duty filled thank you notes.
That is the exact opposite of what this story invites us to experience.
Rather, this story invites us to live lives of gratitude filled with joy, not out of duty or obligation. Out of joy for the ways we have experienced grace, the ways we have witnessed God’s love, the hope we cling to as Christians, out of those experiences comes our gratitude.
“For those who have become aware of God’s grace, all of life is infused with a sense of gratitude, and each encounter becomes an opportunity to see and to respond in the spirit of the grateful leper.”
Now, before I trudge along, I must acknowledge that gratitude can be challenging.
Of course, if gratitude were some magic pill that we could all just take, we would. Or if gratitude were all that easy to come by, we may all take it on. But we must recognize that it of course is challenging, some days more than others, some circumstances more than others to find gratitude. Perhaps it’s the great challenge of a recent health struggle, the current political climate, a relationship that is growing distant and painful, or any other host of circumstances that may make gratitude hard to come by. The expectation is not that we have some sort of false sense of gratitude – always grateful even for the terrible things that may be happening in our life or world.
That kind of false gratitude and naïve happiness can be exhausting and sometimes down right harmful. That however is not the suggestion of this story or this sermon.
Gratitude can come in the midst of and even acknowledge pain. Gratitude can be for the healing of an illness, or the persistent presence of God in the midst of suffering and non-healing. Gratitude can be for the new-found relationship or gratitude can be for God’s sustaining love in the midst of loneliness. Gratitude can be for the love we experience with God, or it can be the ability to be honest with God about our challenging feelings now. Our gratitude for God is about recognizing the places in our life that God has been and is present.
Nonetheless, in the midst of wherever we are – gratitude can be life changing, changing our personal lives and even changing our communal lives as a congregation.
There are now numerous studies, abounding research on the physical as well as psychological benefits of gratitude. They range from becoming more patient, to more physically fit, reducing stress and improving self-esteem. The personal benefits of gratitude are impossible to deny.
The communal benefits of gratitude on a congregation are abounding. Kim Bracken Long of Columbia Seminary writes: “ to practice gratitude intentionally changes an individual life to be sure. It also changes the character of a congregation. When Christians practice gratitude they come to worship not just to ‘get something out of it’ but to give thanks and praise to God. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions but also our thanksgiving at the table.”
Gratitude indeed can transform us. Each of us and our community. When we give thanks, when we do as the doxology proclaims “praise God from whom all blessings flow,” when we give thanks for all things, we recognize that in all things there is God. What a faithful, grateful way to live life, what a way to experience God’s grace, to first recognize God’s grace.
Writer Debie Thomas says “The leper’s act of gratitude points to the fact that we were created to recognize life as a gift and to find our salvation at the feet of the giver.”
I heard that some many number years ago our dear Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, began a speech he was giving with the idea of gratitude. He took his watch out and asked the gathered people to take two silent minutes to think of someone who has graced their life and to give thanks for them. In those two minutes the room sniffled and smiled, tears of joy and gratitude came to the faces of many, smiles remembering memories graced the room. Gratitude filled the space and it changed the space.
David Lose tells a story of a friend of his who always responded to the question “how are you?” by saying “I am grateful.” Not, I am good, or well, or fine, as most of us do, but “I am grateful.” Every day, every time someone asked her that was her response. What a way to be reminded that what makes you good, what makes you well is a gift – a gift for which we ought to be grateful. Imagine how that may have changed the way she saw her life, not as something she had achieved or a mere accident that she was going well, but a gift – that she was well because she had been given a gift from God to live life well. What a difference that may make in our own spiritual and mental well-beings.
I’d like to encourage us all to practice this kind of gratitude, first I invite you to practice gratitude in the simplest of ways. This is a bit of sermon homework, but try it. When you go home today take a moment to think of at least one person or thing that you are grateful for. Just one, and then rather than just remembering it, express it. Take a moment and write a note to that person or if it is an experience, to the person you shared it with, or if it is an experience you shared with God only, lift it up in prayer. But practice gratitude, write down a note of gratitude. Just see if that practice helps you to recognize the many gifts in your life, and as you do so, remember the amazing grace of the one who brings each of those gifts to our lives.
Secondly, I’d like us to practice saying we are grateful. Like that friend who responded “I am grateful.” Try it now:
“How are you?”
“I am grateful”
“How are you?”
“I am grateful?”
“How are you?”
“I am grateful!”
Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”