“The Way of Gratitude: Thanks-living” (1 of 4)
Psalm 111 (VU 833) & Luke 17: 11-19 ~ Northwood UC ~ October 9, 2022
It may seem obvious, but today the invitation is to one of gratitude. We bring forth our bounty and dress the sanctuary with ripe produce from the field, and we are grateful. We open our awareness to God’s bounty in the world and we are grateful. We open our heart and consider God’s presence in our being, in the world, and we are grateful. Full tables with a thanksgiving feast; full hearts with God’s blessings; and even a day off to ponder and begin to work off the sumptuous treats enjoyed. Happy thanksgiving indeed!
The challenge, however, is that this holiday has the potential of being one which profoundly deepens our faith and broadening our spirituality…OR it can be reduced to one which is merely filled with meaningfulness sentiments and empty phrases that do nothing but add to our waistline and give us indigestion. You have all heard the wordplays used around this time, but there is a deep truth that comes with them. ‘Thanks-living’…living a life of thanksgiving (not a day) has deep implications for faith growth. Thanksgiving Day is a pleasant holiday. And we come together, starting on Thanksgiving Sunday to consider the faith implications of the faithfully lived life of Thanks-living. John Buckhart in his excellent book entitled Worship, suggests that “the practice of gratitude is almost primal. It is an essential part of our being human.” He continues, provocatively wondering “whether humans can survive as humans without worshipping. For to worship is to express gratitude.” Being human, expressing worship, living in gratitude…they are all inextricably linked.
As students of scripture, we aren’t surprised that thanksgiving is found here as part of one’s faith expression. For Luke, they are inseparable: faith and gratitude are one. Reading through Luke’s eyes, we see the story of Jesus unfold. Luke has the shepherds gratefully singing notes of thanksgiving for God’s gift birthed in the Christ Child. We have Simeon and Anna, who had been waiting and waiting to see the Lord, giving thanks when they see Jesus presented in the temple. We see the many people who witnessed Jesus’ miracles giving thanks: Jesus would call and equip his followers– and they gave thanks; Jesus would heal (so many) – and they would give thanks; Jesus would teach forgiveness, he would teach prayer – and thanksgiving was there; he would feed the 5,000; he would feed them with teachings, and food – and they would give thanks. This is how Luke saw the interaction of Jesus and Jesus’ people. Jesus’ people were people of thanks-living; Jesus’ people were people of gratitude.
So, Jesus really isn’t surprised by the action of the one leper who returned to say thanks. What does surprise Jesus was the action of the other 9. Did you see the look on his face? 10 lepers were healed. 1 leper returns to give thanks and 9 were never seen again. One must ‘fill in the blanks’ when we read this text. We wonder, ‘where did the other 9 go?’ Perhaps they were busy; perhaps they wanted to return to their families from whom they had been socially rejected since the onset of their disease. One does not know what the other 9 did after the healing. What we do know is that their gratitude offering was absent. Why didn’t they give thanks? Perhaps it was a feeling of entitlement (one that we see growing in our world today). They think ‘I have faithfully followed Jesus, said my prayers, gave my offerings, it’s about time HE did something for me!’ At best, the lack of gratitude was a form of utilitarianism where they joyfully just went forward into their lives. Whatever occurred in the thinking and action of the 9, we know that they did not return in gratitude and thanksgiving. Jesus says in amazement: “were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Now…we might quickly snub our noses at these 9 terrible lepers who failed to thank Jesus. ‘How horrible they are!’ we judge. Not thanking Jesus, what terrible people they were! Just last week they were social outcasts living apart from family, friends and loved ones. They yearned for human touch from another; they yearned for acceptance. And after they receive it, they don’t even return with a polite ‘thank you’. How terrible these lepers are! Yet, for many of us, we often live this lifestyle of taking things for granted as well. How many of stop and give thanks in our busy / fast-paced world. How many of us take time to stop and smell the roses and live in gratitude? Do we take our first breath and begin in gratitude for all the sights, sounds and smells that are around us? Do we begin in gratitude for the breath of life that we have as we start a new day? Truth be told, we get so busy that we forget to be grateful through the unfolding of our day. Author Anne Lamott says her favorite bedtime prayer is “thank you, thank you, thank you.” But for most of us, that prayer is not the norm, is it?
And perhaps that is why it is only the one leper, the 10% of the group, who expresses gratitude. It is only that one in ten because it is so hard to give thanks amidst the other challenges we face. To hear this text amidst moving through the pandemic is to hear it with ears of all of us who felt that we were lepers, to some extent. Like the lepers, we had to keep to ourselves. Isolated in our small social bubbles; we did not shake hands with others; we did not hug others; we did not even breathe on others. Hidden behind medical masks and suffering itchy-dry skin from constant sanitizing of the hands, we certainly have a deeper understanding of the plight of the lepers. And now that it is all over, they were cured…they were ripe and ready to move on with life! Yet, the attitude that Jesus commends…that which was riddled throughout all of Luke’s gospel was praise and thanksgiving for what God had done, was doing, and will be doing. The one leper is that one who lived gratitude. The call to Jesus’ followers is gratitude.
It has been suggested that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the living of one’s faith from gratitude. It can’t be done. The ‘ungrateful Christian’ is an oxymoron! As Jesus explains it “your faith has made you well.” Jesus offers the grateful leper insight into a faith that offers a wellness that runs beyond the physical. His wellness touches mind, body and soul. Faith and gratitude are two words for the same thing! Medicine, and some areas of psychology, are increasingly documenting the wellness effects of a person who lives a live with gratitude. You read in the email about the benefits of gratitude such as the increase in happiness, the reduction in depression, strength when facing adversity, and many general improvements in one’s physical being. Gratitude is something that pharmaceutical companies would love to bottle and sell because it works miracles! But gratitude can’t be sold…it is a faith practice.
And over the coming weeks in October, we are going to dig deeper and deeper into this beautiful expression of our faith. Researchers who study this area look at gratitude in three distinct (yet interrelated) ways: dispositional gratitude, collective gratitude, and relational gratitude. We will be spending lots of time on these over the coming weeks, but just to give you a little taste of what is ahead: Dispositional gratitude consists of the personal tendency to notice and appreciate positive aspects of life. It is the ‘attitude of gratitude’ we are touching on this morning. But gratitude is more powerful. Collective gratitude takes this gratitude dimension into a group dynamic, as we begin to see this shared emotional state shared within the group. We will discover gratitude’s power in a group setting. Lastly, relational gratitude further creates a unique bond that strengthens inter-personal relationships, and also deepens our relationship with the divine.
Interestingly, this morning’s text, follows after Jesus’ teaching of the mustard seed. Luke wanted us to know that just like the mustard seed teaching about faith, gratitude is also about faith growth. I am excited for these four weeks that we can focus on gratitude; I am excited to see our gratitude tree grow; I am excited to see our faith continue to deepen as we more closely walk the walk of faith.