2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15cPsalm 111 2 Timothy 2:8-15 Luke 17:11-19
I Found One
We’re going to start today with a story about a man who we’ll call George. George lives in the suburbs of a large Midwestern city with his wife Doris. Doris has mentioned several times how much she’d like to see the musical “The Book of Mormon”, but they both knew that between air fare and New York City hotel and restaurant costs, to say nothing of the ticket prices, a trip to Broadway was beyond their means.
And then, as their 25th wedding anniversary was approaching, George sees that the national touring company for “The Book of Mormon” is coming to their metro area. George snatches up the best tickets they could afford for their anniversary night. On the day of the performance, they have a nice dinner at their favorite restaurant near home, and then head off to the city for the show.
Unfortunately, there are several things that George hadn’t counted on. First, the main multilevel municipal parking garage downtown is closed for repairs after it was discovered that some of the supports were sagging. Second, the AMA Convention is in town. And, it’s a Thursday and the local NFL team has a home game in the downtown stadium. George and Doris arrived, but there is no place to park. All of the parking garages they could find are full, and all of the onstreet metered spots are taken. They drive around and round, and there just was nowhere to park. George drops Doris off at the theatre so that at least she could see the show from the beginning, and then heads off to find parking, promising to join her as soon as he can. He continues to circle the downtown area to no avail, and then he realizes that he still has both tickets in his wallet, so Doris isn’t going to get in without him. And so he prays. He says, “Dear Father in Heaven, please help me find a parking spot. This night was supposed to be so special for Doris and me, please help me find a place to park. I promise that, if you do, I’ll change my ways. I promise you that if you help me out here, I will go to church every Sunday instead of just Christmas and Easter. I’ll even go to the mid-week services. Dear Lord, please help me.” Just then, someone pulls out just ahead of George, creating for him a perfect parking spot less than a block from the theatre.
At which point George says “Oh, never mind! I found one.”
How easy it is for us, like George, not to be thankful. How very easy. Going back thousands of years, as we saw in our Gospel reading today.
There, Jesus, on his journey to Jerusalem, enters a village where ten lepers approach him. They keep their distance – they had to, since Jewish law required lepers to separate themselves from others, and even to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” as a warning if anyone began to approach them. From their distance, they call out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus tells them in reply to go show themselves to the priests. They set off to do so and along the way are cured of their leprosy. One of the 10, only one, a Samaritan, turns back, praising God, and prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet and thanking him. Jesus asks aloud “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?”, and then he tells the one who had come back “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Ten were cured, but only one was made well. Before we consider what made that one different, let’s review some of what all ten had in common. First, they knew they needed help and they cried out to Jesus asking for it. As separated as they were from the rest of the community, they had learned enough about Jesus to believe that he could help them. And they all obeyed Jesus’ instruction, at least initially. He told them to go show themselves to the priests and off they all went. That’s an incredible display of faith when you think about it. The idea of going to the priests was that only a priest could declare them clean so that they could rejoin the community. For them to set off to the priests, just like that, when nothing had yet happened, meant that they must have had faith that something was going to happen to them by the time they got there, for imagine the scorn they would have faced if they --while still leprous—had presented themselves to the priests who had previously declared them unclean. And, indeed, all 10 were cured of their leprosy while they, literally, “walked in faith.” Now, do you think any of them, like George in our opening story, thought that their cure was of their own doing, that they gave themselves credit for healing themselves? Of course not. They all had to know that their cure was a miracle not of their own doing. Then, do you think any of them was not happy to be cured? Do you think any of them thought “I’m sure going to miss the good times the guys and I had roaming on the outskirts of town scrounging for food and watching our lesions grow?” No way. If were we to ask “Are you thankful for being cured?” surely each of them would have said, “Yes, of course.”
So why didn’t they give thanks? Well, perhaps they may have been so tied to the dictates of their religious law that they believed they had to go to the priests before doing anything else. Perhaps. More likely, I think, they just forgot. Life happened. They had things to do, places to go, people to see. In their busy-ness, it just didn’t occur to them to go give thanks. The same can happen to us sometimes, don’t you think?
Either way, whether because they were tied to the dictates of the law or because it just didn’t occur to them, thanking Jesus was just not their priority.
But the one who made it a priority to go back to give thanks became the only one who was made “well”. The word used there in the original Gospel text is different that the word used earlier to describe their healing, and conveys something more than a physical cure. While our NRSV version translates it as “made you well”, several other versions translate it as “saved you”. Still other versions translate it – and this is the one that most resonates for me – as “made you whole”. As so comfortingly put in the King James version, for example, the last line of today’s gospel reads: “Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.”
The lesson, I believe, then is that our blessings do not make us well. It is our response to them that does. When we express our thanks, demonstrate our thanks, live our thanks, that’s what makes us whole. Thankfulness draws closed the circle of our salvation, it is the stamp on the envelope, the bow on the gift box that makes it complete.
How then should we show our thanks? Well, for starters, by doing what everyone here has done today, namely attending a Sunday service. In today’s Epistle reading, Paul urges us to “present yourself to God as one approved by him.” That is what we do when we come to church – we present ourselves to God most intentionally. We present ourselves to God just as the Samaritan does in the Gospel reading, praising God and thanking him, and just as Naaman does in today’s Old Testament reading, presenting himself to Elisha, standing before him in thankful reverence. Our attendance shows that we haven’t forgotten, that we have made it enough of a priority to come here to focus on the giver and not just our gifts.
And when we are here, our liturgy is infused with thanksgiving. We hear readings from the Old and New Testament, and after each we say “Thanks be to God.” Not always, but often, our Psalm contains prayers of thanksgiving, including today’s Psalm which began “Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.” The last words we will say together at the dismissal today are, again, “Thanks be to God.”
And, most importantly, we celebrate the Eucharist, a word based on the Greek word for thanksgiving. Indeed, in the program you will see at the beginning of that part of the service the heading “The Great Thanksgiving.” There, we will be reminded that at the Last Supper, before breaking the bread or giving his disciples the wine, Jesus each time first gave thanks to God. Following His example, we will give thanks for God for our sacramental bread and wine.
But not only for that. At the outset of The Great Thanksgiving, Mary will say “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” and we will respond “It is right to give [God] thanks and praise.” The words of the Eucharistic prayer that follow will offer broad thanks to God and enumerate several of the things for which all people can be thankful – creation and all of its wonders, the calling of God’s people, the Holy Scriptures and the Word made flesh in Jesus our Savior, sacrificed for us. Our Sunday services are full of thanks.
Nonetheless, coming to church on Sunday and offering our liturgical thanksgivings, even when deeply felt and said not by rote but with utmost sincerity – which I think we all have to admit is not always the case -- is neither enough nor an end in itself. In a few minutes, when we say “It is right to give [God] thanks and praise,” Mary will then add “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Always and everywhere. This is no check the box event, where we come, give our thanks and then are done with it until next time. No, we come to express our thanks and to be reminded and better equipped to carry the spirit of thanksgiving with us out into the world in all that we do. And that’s important.
First, thankful living is good for the soul. As said in the sentence just quoted from our liturgy, giving thanks is not only “right”, but also “a good and joyful thing”. Thankful living is joyful living. The alternative to thankful living is feeling entitled. Entitlement and thanksgiving cannot occupy the same space. If we believe ourselves entitled to all that we have, then we have no cause to be thankful for it and there is no joy in that. We can only be thankful for what we acknowledge is more than we’re entitled to.
As Mark Allen Powell put it in his book “Giving to God”:
“In our modern age, notions of entitlement run rampant and have become increasingly easy to adopt. Such notions are a surefire prescription for joyless living: we find it difficult to appreciate what we have when we think we that are only getting our due, and we find it easy to complain about what we lack when we think that we are not getting our due.”
A related but similar variation – and equally joy-killing -- is simply taking things for granted. There, instead of treating our blessings as things we deserve because we’re entitled to or have earned them, we just simply don’t take notice of our blessings. When we do that, when we just go forward in daily life on auto-pilot numb to the wonders all around us, not being mindful of how very blessed we are, we experience life less richly. But when we truly get in our hearts that a loving God has bestowed upon us unearned gifts because He loves us, we tap into a source of joy.
And, thankful living serves God’s purposes. When we accept that we have been given a multitude of gifts, the gifts common to all mankind enumerated in our Eucharistic liturgy, the gifts of food, shelter, leisure and freedom with which we individually are especially blessed in this nation and community, the gift of family and loved ones with whom we can share our lives, the give of our very lives, our senses through which we experience the marvels of creation, our innate abilities and the opportunities we have had to develop and practice them, when we get that these are all gifts that came not of our own doing, then we cannot help but be moved to want to give something back in response, not only in the form of verbal thanks to God but in the form of giving of our treasure, our time or our talents to help advance God’s purposes here on Earth, and by building up the body of Christ by making a point of it to acknowledge the good that others have done for us and our community and making it a habit to thank them for that.
Our modern comfortable lives make it easy for us, like the nine lepers in the Gospel reading, to just forget to give thanks and to be swept away in the busyness of life. Let’s resist that. Let’s pause, if not always and everywhere, then at least more often than we usually do, to look around us and ask “Is there a reason in this present moment for which I can be thankful? Can I find something here and now for which I am grateful?” Whenever and wherever we are, we should not have to look very long at all before we can answer “Praise God. I found one.”