Joyce Holliday, a minister in Washington, D.C., told of an incident years ago which changed her life. On an October afternoon she was on a bus going to Boston to attend her grandfather’s funeral. She had intense feelings of grief since her grandfather’s death was the first major loss of her life. She felt very alone, both figuratively and literally – there were only three people in the bus. One hour outside Boston the bus stopped to pick up a woman in her 70s. She was dressed very simply and had pure white hair topped by a red knit stocking cap. Looking around and seeing 38 empty seats, she came right over to sit by Joyce. Plopping down, she said, “Praise God, what a beautiful day!” (And it was – a crisp autumn day with a blue sky and a kaleidoscope of changing fall colors.) Joyce, however, felt some resentment and smiled weakly. “So, what’s wrong with you?” the woman asked. Joyce told her, but the woman seemed to show no sympathy. After a few minutes, she said, “Well, tell me about your grandfather.” Joyce told her about her grandfather, explaining that he had been no just run-of-the-mill grandfather, but her favorite-person-on-the-earth grandfather. She talked of the long walks they used to take together and of how he instilled in her a sense of love and appreciation for nature. And she told of how sunsets were so special to her because that was when they took their best walks. The old woman listened and then said, “How good of God to give you such a grandfather!”
Joyce Holliday writes that that one statement changed her perspective on how to deal with her grief and beyond that, how to deal with life itself. Joyce got the woman’s name (Sarah Libby) and address, and on a later visit to Boston she went to see the woman and continued to do so several times a year until Sarah Libby’s death. On her first visit, Joyce discovered the woman lived in a small, dark room in a rooming house from which one could see Fenway Park. A single bed and dairy crates were the only furniture in the room. But there, as the years passed, Joyce says Sarah Libby taught her how to be thankful, how to open her eyes to what was before her, and how to celebrate life in the presence of a good God.
Our passage in Luke is about gratitude. It is also concerned with healing and faith, but most of all it is about gratitude. It begins by telling us that Jesus met these lepers “on the way to Jerusalem.” In Luke, this phrase is not given just for the purpose of geographical orientation. It says something about the mission and purpose of God, and along the way incidents occur which reveal the comprehensive nature of that final mission and purpose.
On this fateful journey, Jesus was met by 10 lepers “who stood at a distance.” That phrase also points to something more than geographical location; it sums up well the dilemma of the lepers. They were social and religious outcasts, isolated and unclean. It was their duty to cry out to anyone who came too close, “Unclean! A leper! Unclean!” But our 10 lepers instead cry out, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” Perhaps in desperation, grasping for straws, they turn to Jesus.
But he does not heal them immediately. Instead, he sends them to the priests in light of the Levitical law which stated that only priests could examine lepers and proclaim them clean. In faith they went, and on the way, they were cleansed – all 10 of them. It is not until this point in the story that we are told that one in this group of lepers was a Samaritan. Up to this point that identification did not matter. This group of men had formed a community born of suffering and isolation. The hatred and prejudice nurtured between Jews and Samaritans had been forgotten during their affliction. They were lepers, they were together, and that was all that mattered.
But now circumstances have changed. The community has been broken apart. The nine Jews would go to the temple in Jerusalem, but a Samaritan was forbidden access to the court of Israel. Perhaps this leper would go to Samaritan religious officials, but we have to wonder what a Samaritan was doing with nine Jews. Surely there were other Samaritan lepers with whom he could commiserate, or had he been forced to leave his people for other reasons? We don’t know, but the presence of a Samaritan with nine Jews tells us that something was not right about this Samaritan’s relationship with his people.
At any rate, as the ten lepers go, they are healed, and one of them, the Samaritan, returns to give thanks. And Jesus asks, “Where are the other nine?” Why did they not return?
a) Perhaps they did not return because they were overwhelmed by joy. (I remember Churchill’s account of witnessing the rescue of a little boy who was drowning at the beach. A stranger saved the boy from drowning, but the boy’s parents, so relieved their son’s life was saved, rushed off without ever thanking the stranger. In their joy, they had forgotten the man who has rescued their child.) Did the other nine lepers become oblivious to everything other than their joy? But it’s a long way to Jerusalem. Surely, they had time to remember Jesus.
b) Perhaps they felt no genuine need to give thanks. Some people feel the need to show gratitude only when circumstances leave them no other choice. If they are face to face with the other, they feel obliged to say, “Thank you.” But given a chance and the choice, they would just as soon move on to other things. Perhaps that is why Jesus did not heal the lepers in his presence. He sent them out of his sight and thus gave the opportunity of “out of sight, out of mind.” God almost always gives us the space and freedom to choose without the pressure of the divine, intruding Presence forcing or manipulating our response. In the real sense, God too stands at a distance, behind the scenes, just under the surface and in doing so allows for the expression of genuine, uncoerced gratitude.
c) Or perhaps the nine were too afraid to be thankful. Did you ever stop to think that it takes courage to be grateful and to express thanks to another? Being thankful and expressing gratitude requires us to let go of some of the security, pride, self-reliance, and independence we all cherish. Gratitude and humility are indeed first cousins if not sisters to one another.
And then some people are afraid to be thankful because gratitude washes the soul clean, like a spring shower that leaves all things fresh and teeming with the potential of new life.
When we are grateful, we experience a certain freedom and a distinct opportunity to live life differently. Perhaps those nine lepers did not care to seize the opportunity for newness. Perhaps they were frightened enough by the prospects of returning to their families, their jobs, their almost-forgotten past routines. They did not want to embrace the future from the high ground of gratitude. Maybe they simply preferred things to be as they once were. But genuine thanksgiving will never allow things to be as they were. Gratitude never allows us to live a routine, unreflected life.
d) Or perhaps the nine became increasingly bitter with each step they took–bitter at what had been lost during the time of their affliction and isolation–bitter over where they had been and where they might be now if all this had not happened—bitter rather than celebrating their healing, seizing the moment with joy, and allowing their lives to begin again with new sensitivity and a new agenda for the remainder of their time on this earth. Bitterness has choked many new beginnings to death. Over and over again, bitterness has nipped in the bud what could have been some of the most beautiful, loving, and joyful lives.
So, why didn’t they return? We don’t know – perhaps for some of the reasons we’ve discussed or perhaps for other reasons. But regardless of why, something very precious was lost that day.
But one did return. The Samaritan came back and, falling on his face, thanked God for his new lease on life. He could have found all the same reasons for not returning that the other nine did, and as a Samaritan, maybe even more reasons. But he did return. He, a Samaritan, returned to a Jew with the courage to be thankful. He was perceptive enough to be grateful for what was in the present, and he knew his life could be rebuilt from the power of that present moment and from the newness and opportunities available through his healing and through his joyful acknowledgment of God’s presence.
I sense that in this post-modern world, we need to cultivate this “attitude of gratitude” – not a hokey, Pollyanna approach to life, blind to evil and suffering and too syrupy for anyone with sense to stomach; but an attitude, a perspective, a basic stance concerning life that flows from the experience of God’s presence in our midst – a Presence perhaps standing at a distance to give us the space and freedom to choose – a Presence to be found in the beauty of nature, the compassion of our friend, the joy of a child, the face of one so different from us but who is also a daughter or son of God.
Children have much to teach us about gratitude. Those who work with children in the areas of their spiritual development have discovered that the prayers of children up to the age of seven or eight are almost exclusively prayers of thanksgiving. Perhaps because they live more in the present than we do, they are able to harvest from each moment the potential of joy and opportunity available. But something happens to us when we become adults. We become more trapped in our past and more directed into the future. We become more rational – more guilt- ridden – more cynical – more disturbed about what we don’t have or haven’t accomplished or more fretful over what we may not have or may not achieve in the future than joyful about what we possess in the present moment permeated by God. Perhaps we should learn from children. Jesus more than once told his disciples to approach life and God from the stance of a child. Indeed, he warns us that unless we become as little children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Our passage would seem to substantiate that claim. In verse 14 we are told that all ten were “cleansed;” in verse 15 all were “healed;” but in verse 19, Jesus tells the leper, the only one who returned to give thanks, “Your faith has made you well.” The word used for “made well” is translated elsewhere “saved” and “made whole.” Apparently faith and gratitude are intimately linked. The leper’s healing was not complete until he returned to give thanks. What saved the leper – what made him whole was a thanksgiving which opened his eyes and his heart to the presence of God behind the miracle of his cleansing and healing. And it was that Presence, recognized by a man who was considered unclean and beyond the grace of God, which allowed life in all its abundance to begin again.
All ten lepers were cleansed; all ten were healed. God could do that for them, even from a distance. But only one was made whole because only one would see the moment for what it was.
You see, faith is not simply endurance with the hope that things will get better. Faith is also a celebration of what is and of the presence of God behind all blessings. So, like our mentors, the little children, let us cultivate “an attitude of gratitude.” Let us praise God, give thanks, and become whole.
Holy and loving God, during a special week when we remember your goodness to us and to our forebears – your guidance, your providence, your tender care, your shared strength, we are driven out of a sense of joyful gratitude to praise you. In love you spread good gifts before us, more than we need or deserve. You feed, heal, teach, and save us.
Yet we confess that we do not often let the sense of gratitude –this spirit of thankfulness shape our lives and direct our paths. We confess that we often want more; that we never share as freely as you give. We resent what we lack, and we are poisoned by envy and jealousy. We misuse what you intend for our joy. Like spoiled brats who insist all must be their way and in their hands, we squander the days given to us in searching for what cannot give joy (or in sour resignation that the whole world does not dance to our tune.) Merciful God, forgive our stubborn greed and our destructiveness, our self-pity and self-centeredness which blind us to the bounty you set before us day by day. Bless us with the joy, the contentment, and the discipline of recognizing what is enough, and center our lives and our hearts upon that which really matters in life and in your presence.
We pause in these quiet moments to pray for each other and to thank you for the precious gift you bring to us through our communion with one another. We pray for those who are in pain – for those whose lives are wrecked by anxiety, loneliness, and grief – for those families who struggle with seemingly overwhelming difficulties– for those enslaved to sin – for those who do not share in the bounty you have created for all – for little children with empty eyes and swollen bellies. Gracious God, bring healing, wholeness, and justice to all these. And for their sakes, for our sakes, and for the sake of your Kingdom, help us to let the gratitude we feel within us, inspired by your great love and goodness, become a fountain of mercy, compassion, and deeds of practical love which can nurture and heal the broken lives of our world. This we pray in the name of Jesus, for whom we give our greatest thanks. Amen
“Please and thank you.” Early in life I learned from Captain Kangaroo and the Ding Dong School that those were the magic words. I discovered sometimes they worked and sometimes they did not. “Please, may I have a pony?” It didn’t work. “Thank you,” I said to the stingy lady in charge of refreshments at Vacation Bible School as she gave me a single vanilla wafer. Not only did she not give me an extra cookie, she didn’t even acknowledge my “gratitude.”
I suppose it’s possible to see “Please and thank you” as magic words that will work with God–or more honestly, will manipulate God into giving us what we want. “Gratitude” can be a scheme to open the divine cornucopia wider so we can receive more.
But there is a place for genuine thanksgiving–for an abandonment of self in joyful gratitude and unselfish praise. As Paul said, “It is in God that we live, move and have our being.” In some wondrous way our lives are connected with the Living God. And that connection, which is our ultimate cause for thanksgiving, is rooted in the self-giving love of God represented by this Bread and Wine. Those who are cognizant of that connection, who feel deep down their days flowing from eternity and their nights breathed by the Spirit as divine benedictions of peace, can say “Please and Thank you” with pure hearts.
Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet, reminds us that the real question is not whether someone is worthy to receive gifts from our hands. The real issue is whether we are worthy to give.
“See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving. For in truth, it is Life that gives unto life–while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.”
If we live, move, and have our being in God, then it is God who gives through us while we are but a witness to God’s grace. Through genuine thanksgiving may we be worthy conduits of God’s infinite goodness.
Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’f feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”