St. George’s United Church, October 9, 2016
Sermon: “Grace and Gratitude”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
When I was growing up, we weren’t church people. We weren’t spiritual, nor were we religious. We didn’t attend church, and we didn’t have spiritual practices. That all being said, we had at least one ritual, and it came once a year at Thanksgiving. When the turkey was finally out of salmonella territory, we’d all gather around the dining room table. Parents, kids, grandparents, and great grandparents. And we’d take turns, one after the other, each naming something we were grateful for. And I’m glad we did it. Because it was one of those rare occasions I had as a child to reflect on my family and my own life. And to offer up my appreciation for them and the things in life we shared. It was an opportunity to show my gratitude. It was lovely. And always something I thought I’d like to be able to do more of.
And it seems that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way about gratitude. A couple years ago Time Magazine featuring an article titled “How Gratitude can Transform Your Life this Thanksgiving.” Oprah, in fact, says every time she has a grateful feeling, she writes it down. She suggests gratitude “changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you're aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.”[i] And there are even scientific studies suggesting that the practice of being grateful—like any other kinds of positive thoughts and emotions—actually changes the makeup of our brains, making us more positive and open to creativity.[ii] Gratitude is big in our culture. And for good reason. Because being grateful makes us happier, healthier people. Why do you think that is?
Truth is gratitude isn’t always easy. Because life can be really hard. And gratitude can be used as a way to shame people out of their concerns, whether it’s poverty, or depression. The way we want street people to be really thankful when we give them our spare change. And it’s easy for Oprah to tell us to focus on what we have rather than what we haven’t. After all, I doubt there are few things Oprah doesn’t have. And if she doesn’t, she can get them. Telling someone they need to have a little gratitude, or accentuate the positive can sound pretty hollow and inauthentic. It can also be selfish. It can be a way for us to ignore the many places of darkness in our world. It can be a way for those of us who enjoy privileges in life to do so guilt-free, because we feel grateful. Like anything good, gratitude can be twisted. It can be narcissistic. It can self-serving.
At the same time, gratitude does make a huge difference. At Thanksgiving dinner and beyond. And it’s nothing new. It’s more than positive thinking or good vibrations. Our reading reminds us that one of our most powerful responses to events in our lives, is gratitude. It’s thanksgiving. And it’s something we sorely need.
In today’s passage from the good news according to Luke, we see the difference gratitude makes. Here Jesus is at it again. This time he’s in a border region, and intermingles with people he shouldn’t be. This time it’s ten people with leprosy. That awful skin disease that shows up a lot in the Bible. Physically, your skin gets discoloured, it gets grey and lumpy and disfigured. But it’s also contagious. So, socially, you’re an outcast. They run to Jesus, but keep their distance. They know that people don’t want much to do with them. Usually Jesus likes to heal people on the spot. But here he does a referral instead. He sends them to show themselves to the local priest. Now, this is important, because the priest can grant a clean bill of health. Which means that Jesus here implies that they will be healed. That they will be made well.
And they are made well. As they walk, their slumped shoulders begin to straighten. Their cracked, lumpy skin begins to smooth. And it returns to a healthy shade of brown. And when one of the ten looks down and sees his body changing before his very eyes, he’s filled with joy. He runs back to Jesus to show him gratitude. He falls to his knees at Jesus’ feet in a posture of worship. Giving him deep, deep thanks. One out of ten.
One out of ten gives thanks. And Jesus makes a comment about it. “Where are the other nine?” At first, Jesus sounds like me at my crankiest dad moments. “Show a little gratitude, already!” But the interesting thing here is that they didn’t really do anything wrong. We could probably assume that they are probably just as excited about the healing as this other guy. They received the blessing promised to them. They’re made whole, too. Jesus doesn’t really seem to need them to say thank you. Jesus seems to be pretty indiscriminate in the new life he gives.
They all get the same healing. But there is a difference for the one guy who turns back. He’s recognized, he’s affirmed by Jesus because he not only saw he was healed, but returned to give thanks. And in doing so, he’s blessed a second time. Jesus invites him to rise, and go on his way, telling him that his faith has made him well. Not just well, but whole. This is the language of salvation, the Greek word Jesus uses. His body is healed, but the important part is that his soul has been made whole. He got the same gift as the others. But he saw it as a gift. And received it as a gift. And found himself blessed in a whole different way.
One of my favorite preachers, Will Willimon, once told me a story of attending a church that was exclusively for street people. They could never get everyone gathered in the worship space to start the service on time, so they always started it outside on the steps. And they started with the gathered people offering God thanks for the blessings in their lives. It seemed like a strange place to start for people who had so little. But Will said he was struck most by this guy in shabby clothes. Bearded, no teeth, who came forward. “I just want to thank you Lord,” he said. “I just want to thank you for the fact that I’m alive today.”
You’d think this guy wouldn’t have much to give thanks for. I know that whenever we went around the thanksgiving table at my house as a kid we were always grateful for family, a safe place to live, the table to eat at. But this guy had none of the things we’d consider blessings. And yet, here he was, out on the church steps. Giving thanks. Not dead. He was filled to the brim with gratitude. For the mere fact that he was alive. A gift that most of us take for granted. Like the one leper that ran back to Jesus in gratitude, this guy was able to see something that the other nine out of ten people with that gift weren’t able to see. He saw himself as a beloved child of God, and his life as a gift. He wasn’t necessarily healed of his afflictions. But he had an experience of that wholeness. He had an experience of salvation. And all he could do was say “thanks.”
Friends, this is the power that gratitude can have. It’s not something so glib as “be positive.” It’s not something so simple as “be satisfied with what you’ve got.” Or “changing our personal vibrations,” in the words of our dear friend Oprah. No, it’s so much more. It’s that within all of our lives. However joyous they may be. Or however dark they may become. Within each of these, within our world, there is light, if we have the eyes to see. Like the one leper who ran back to Jesus. And we are able to see our own lives, like the leper, and like the man who said “thank you” for the mere fact of living, as a divine gift. To recognize the good in our lives as a blessing and a gift from the Source of all Life. We can be blessed by seeing them, speaking of them. And, finally, living them. We too, can experience God’s salvation. God’s wholeness, and fullness of life. Like Jesus says, faith in the form of gratitude. Faith that makes us well.
You’ll notice in the Bible that sometimes these stories are left unresolved. We don’t see that kind of life the leper leads, after he kneels in gratitude at the feet of God in Christ. That’s because the rest of the story is the rest of our lives. Today, we come like so many before us to kneel at the feet of Jesus and to offer thanks. The fourteenth century monk and mystic Meister Eckhart once said that “if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” May each of you have your eyes opened to healing, saving power of the Creator. And may the rest of our lives be a “thank you” to the giver of all good gifts.
 I am indebted to David Lose for his insights in the preceding few paragraphs.