21 Pentecost, Proper 23 – October 9, 2016
Our gospel lesson begins with Jesus walking through an unidentified region between Samaria and Galilee. This is actually an important detail, because that region would have been potentially hostile territory, an unsafe area that is neither inside, nor outside Jewish territory. It is in between space.
In that in between space, ten lepers approached Jesus. Now remember that at that time, a diagnosis of leprosy was pretty much treated like a death sentence. And it was made worse by the requirement that he or she be isolated from healthy people. People also tended to regard leprosy as a sign of God’s judgment. That made them less compassionate than they might otherwise be, because they believed that the person has brought suffering upon him/herself. So, with that being said and despite the potential danger of being in hostile territory, and without asking anything about their loyalties, heritage, or intentions, Jesus works healing for all ten — including the Samaritan.
Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priests. He seems to be getting ahead of himself. Inspection by a priest is the rule for certifying that a former leper is now disease-free. This rule is recognized by Samaritan and Jew alike. But the lepers accept what Jesus says; off they go to see the priests. Jesus essentially tells them to leave their old story, their familiar positions, and to go where they have never dared to go before—out on the public paths, all the way to the priests. Their wider community—neighbors and shop owners and beggars and priests—all need to see what hope-becoming-words-becoming-action looks like. On the way, they are healed. Not before they go, but as they go, they are made clean. In the turning and the crying out and the going, lies their salvation. And on the way, they become clean; they are lepers no longer.
Notice what happens now. These people are free from their disease. After who knows how many years of separation––perhaps a lifetime––they can rejoin their families and their communities. Now they belong to their people, and to the human race! A new and joyous world has opened up for each of them. There’s so much to do, so much they can do, because they are no longer outcasts, they are now a part of their community.
Only one of the ten notices and returns to give thanks. Do the rest continue to live chained to the past, convinced of our leprosy, unable to live into our healing? We can wander forever in the in-between spaces—feeling uncertain, unwanted, unheard—or we can name our need and turn and walk another way. Healing awaits us. Will we recognize it when it comes?
David Lose shares a story:
“I’m grateful.” That was the regular response of a colleague and friend of mine of a few years past to my casual question, “How are you?”
It took me by surprise. Not just the first or second time, but almost every time. Eventually, I wasn’t so much surprised, as I was struck by the simplicity and power of this statement. It wasn’t the answer I expected. Indeed, we usually expect little more than “fine” or “pretty good” or maybe once and a while “great” when we ask this conversational placeholder, “How are you?”
“I’m grateful.” My colleague chose her words with care. She wanted to make a point. That gratitude is not only a response to good fortune but also a choice we make. Certainly that’s true of the leper in today’s Gospel reading.
We don’t know what the other nine lepers actually did, but what we do know is that one not only felt thankful but decided to actually give voice to those emotions, to express his gratitude to Jesus and to God. Gratitude is indeed a response to the blessings of life, but it is also a choice to see those blessings, to name them, and to express our gratitude in word and deed. And giving voice to gratitude is a choice with consequences, because as we express our gratitude, we affect those around us, even shape the reality in which we live.
Think about it. Gratitude is not the only emotion we might choose to express in response to the events of any given day. There are reasons for gratitude, yes, and there are also reasons for fear, for anger, for frustration, grief, for regret, for apprehension. Each and all of these colors our experience, makes its appearance on the stage of our lives, and perhaps each has a place and role to play from time to time. Acknowledge that. But we choose how much stage time to grant each of these emotions by giving them expression, and as we do so we give them power in our lives.
And that’s what’s key: we are making choices. We may feel a range of emotions to all kinds of circumstances and situations, but we choose which to give expression. For example, when confronted by someone who is angry, do we respond with anger as a form of self-protection or do we choose empathy, trying to understand the emotions of the other, and gratitude that the person was willing to be honest? When we are set back in some endeavor at school or work, do we express frustration or a resolve to keep at it and gratitude for what we’ve learned through this setback? These are choices.
David continues: A colleague of mine is living with a form of incurable brain cancer. After much treatment and prayer, it has gone into what is called “partial remission” – it is not growing, but it cannot be removed. One day it will grow again and take his life. But not today. And he is not only grateful but also shares that gratitude. I suspect he has moments where he feels bitter or resentful or fearful or any of the other range of emotions that would be completely understandable, but he chooses to live gratefully, viewing each day as another gift of grace and giving voice to his gratitude.
Maybe that seems like a tall order, something beyond the reach of most of us, available only to a few spiritual giants. Or maybe it is a response that, having been practiced over a lifetime, now comes easily to my colleague and could come just as easily to each of us.
Because here’s the thing: gratitude, like all of our other options, becomes easier to choose as we practice it. Gratitude, like faith and hope and love and commitment, is more like a muscle that can be strengthened over time. And as you practice giving thanks and more frequently share your gratitude, you not only grow in gratitude but create an example for others. More than that, you create a climate in which it is easier to be grateful and encourage those around you to see the blessings all around us.
“I’m grateful.” Take a moment to scan the headlines and you’ll see how scarce – and how desperately needed – more expressions of gratitude are. Accusation, excuses, venting anger – these seem to have hold of our culture. Indeed, we seem to live in the age of complaint, whether shared in person or increasingly through the venue of social media. What a powerful response gratitude is in these situations.
In this light, saying “I’m grateful” does not simply express our thanksgiving but actually gives voice to a counter-cultural witness that has the power to shape those around us, push back the tide of resentment and complaint that ails us, and make room for a fresh appreciation of God’s renewing, saving grace.
So here is an exercise to try: Every night before going to bed reflect on your day, or the next morning reflect on the previous day. Acknowledge and turn over to God’s care those difficult moments and emotions and then celebrate three blessings you experienced. Then put your gratitude into words by writing down a phrase about each blessing. Do this for thirty days and then see what happens.
You may find yourself writing down more, of course. But write down at least a phrase. And you may find yourself listing more blessings than three. But write down at least three. And after a month has passed, you may want to keep doing this. But when you start, commit to thirty days.
Let me warn you, though: this practice may transform your life.
You may discover for yourself what the pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he said: “It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
You may find out for yourself the truth of perhaps the most famous sentence from the mystical writer Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”
So, “how are you?” ….. Amen.