Lives of Gratitude

+ A sermon for Pentecost +18C/Lectionary 28C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 13, 2019 +

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-15c; Luke 17:11-19

Audio: LINK

When I was growing up, my mom worked hard to instill a practice into my life: the art of the thank you note.

“Thank you!” Image by NOGRAN via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Whenever I got gifts or presents from my family members or friends, she would sit me down and have me write out a note or at least call them to thank them for their gift.
Ok, honestly she had to pretty much force me to do this nearly every time.
And despite her best efforts, I must admit that this was never a practice that I adopted on my own.
I always mean to!
I have a box full of blank thank you cards ready to be sent out.
Hope springs eternal that I will someday make that a sustained practice.
But it always seems like something else comes up or I never make time to sit down and write out the notes.
It’s not that I’m ungrateful—my mom did raise me better than that—I just usually show my gratitude in person or in text messages or some other way.

Because whether or not I write out my thank you notes, she did teach me to practice gratitude—to be thankful for what I have and for others have done for me and to demonstrate that gratitude—to make it a part of my life.

We learn a lesson of gratitude in our lessons this morning and from some truly unlikely sources.
naamanIn our first reading, we hear about Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram.
Now, Aram was a rival kingdom to Israel and our text tells us that Naaman had captured a young girl from Israel during a raid, so it seems that there was some military conflict between these two nations.
Put another way, Naaman was the commander of a foreign belligerent army—Naaman was an enemy.
But our reading also tells us that this powerful man had a big problem: leprosy.
Now, we don’t really know what the specific skin condition is that the Bible calls leprosy, but the scriptures make it clear that leprosy was a big deal.
It meant that a person was considered unclean and outcast from their family and friends, separated from society for fear of it being contagious.
And Naaman was so desperate to have this condition cured that he would go to a foreign enemy king to ask for help from a foreign prophet of a foreign god.
So he finds the Prophet Elisha and asks for healing only to leave in a huff when he’s told to simply wash in the Jordan River.
But, after swallowing his pride, he does as Elisha instructed and is cured.
So he turns back and rushes to the prophet and praises the God of Israel and gives thanks for his healing.

The Healing of the Ten Lepers - Luke 17:11-19
Jesus Mafa. Healing of the ten lepers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Then from our gospel reading, we hear about the healing of ten people who were living with a similar skin condition that again gets called leprosy.
These ten had surely been outcast from society and relied on each other for support and the reading tells us that they even kept their distance from Jesus.
They call out to Jesus for healing and he instructed them to go to the priests. And as they went they were made clean.
But one of them saw that he was healed and turned back, started loudly praising God and thanking Jesus for this miracle.
And then we learn that this man was a Samaritan, the entrenched rivals of the Jewish people.
This was a man who had been outcast not only because of his skin condition but because he’s a Samaritan, someone who worships differently, a foreigner.
But it’s this man, I wish we knew his name, it’s the double outcast who comes back to give thanks to Jesus for healing him.
And in this act, Jesus says that the Samaritan has found something more: wholeness.
Because while our reading may translate the Greek word “σῴζω” as “made well,” the word denotes a fuller meaning of wholeness or even salvation.
Being saved from danger and from being outcast and made whole to completion, to the life God had intended for him.
Jesus is telling this man, ‘Go on your way, your small act of faithfulness has saved you and made you whole.’

Now to be clear, it’s not like any of the other nine did anything wrong—they did exactly what Jesus told them and were healed.
And presumably they enjoyed their restored lives free from their disease and welcomed back into society.
But this Samaritan man, who had already been healed was made not only physically well, but through his gratitude experienced wholeness again.
He experienced what theologian David Lose calls a double blessing, a change in attitude and perspective that allowed him to connect to God on a deeper level.
Through his gratitude, he tapped into that deeper stream of wellness that abundantly flows in the fullness of life in God, to see all that God had done in his life.
And I like to think that his life was changed by his turning back, that it was transformed into a life that is conscious of the blessings he has received and committed to being a blessing to those around him.
All ten had been healed, but only one found the deeper wholeness that God hopes for our lives. Only one had his life transformed.

And so it’s from these two outsiders, these two double outsiders, both foreign lepers, it’s from their examples that we are given examples of gratitude and the double blessings that brings wholeness.
These two who turned around and gave thanks, who changed their practices and based their lives in gratitude.
From these two people we see how God’s love is for all people, even the foreigners, the outcasts, those whom we would called enemies and those whom we would marginalize.
And from their examples, we see an invitation to a life that God would hope for us: a life of thankfulness and praise, a life rooted in gratitude and flowing in abundance, recognizing all the gifts of goodness in their lives.

I admit that it can be hard for us to give thanks, to live lives rooted in gratitude.
It can be hard for me to do that.
And it’s more than just neglecting to write thank you notes.
I mean, we even have a national holiday whose whole purpose is to remind us to give thanks at least once a year.
And it makes sense.
When the news focuses on all the bad things happening in the world, when we experience stress and health issues or problems in our relationships, when we sometimes have to focus so hard just to get through our daily lives, it can be difficult to put our minds in an attitude of gratitude.
It would be so much easier to focus on what is wrong, focus on our faults and challenges, to have attitudes that are meant to combat or overcome the adversities we face.
And there is of course a time for lament and activism and cries for justice and change.
But even in a world filled with challenges and troubles, there is also a place for gratitude.
There is a place to recognize the blessings that we have received and the good things in our lives.
There is an invitation to embrace the wholeness, the fullness of a life rooted in gratitude into which Jesus is calling us, and in that new posture of thanksgiving, to find a new and abundant life.

In fact, one psychologist even suggests in that gratitude can actually change our lives.
He says that taking a few minutes each day to write down three things you are grateful for and repeating that for three weeks changes something in your brain.
It may not take away the challenges you face, but it gives you new eyes to see the blessings and streams of grace that flow into your life.
Quotation-Meister-Eckhart-If-the-only-prayer-you-ever-say-in-your-entire-8-60-05The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
Modern writer Anne Lamott adds that the two best prayers she knows are, “Help me, help me, help me,” and, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
These prayers, these noticing what we are thankful for help train us and mold our lives into lives of gratitude.

Even coming to worship is meant to help us transform our lives to experience the double blessings, the fullness of life that God intends for us.
The Greek word that translates to “give thanks” is “εὐχαριστέω̄” from which we get “Eucharist,” the name of this meal we celebrate each week.
And each week, we proclaim in the Great Thanksgiving that it is indeed right, our duty and our joy to give thanks and praise to God at all times and in all places.
And in the Eucharistic prayer, we give thanks to God for all of God’s life-giving work from the creation of the world through now. 19480-20180928_ffl_worship_399_edit-gs
We take time in our busy weeks to pause and count all the gifts we have received, to stand in awe of God’s goodness and grace, and to give praise and thanksgiving to the one who abundantly showers us and the whole cosmos with a richness of love and blessing.
I wonder if that may be one of the main reasons we do celebrate this meal every week, to help us practice giving thanks, to make it an integral part of our lives, to help it transform our lives and fashion them in the way God would fashion them for us.

So perhaps worship is more than just what we get out of it.
Perhaps it’s more than just feeling good or enjoying the sermon (thank God).
Perhaps it’s about recognizing all that God has done for us, coming to praise and give thanks to God, and to transform our lives to reflect lives of gratitude.
And when we do this week after week, we work to make it a practice and way of life.
And in this praise and thanksgiving our lives are changed and we become blessings to all we meet, bearers of God’s blessing for the whole world.

God has invited us to transform our lives, to find the wholeness God hopes for us, to live lives of gratitude and thankfulness for all that we have received.
And what an abundance of blessings we have.
All that we have, all that we are is a gift from God.
Our God who washed us in the waters of our baptismal font, cleansed us, named and claimed us as God’s own beloved child.
Our God who brings us each week to this feast of grace and gratitude, who comes to us in bread and wine so we can experience God in these simple elements, staples for our life of faith.
Our God who speaks to us in word and song, reminding us that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.
Our God who sends us out into the world and invites us to be blessings for our neighbors and the whole creation.

How will we respond to the blessings we have received?
Where will we find salvation and wholeness?
How will we allow our lives to be shaped by gratitude?
Following the example of Naaman and that unnamed Samaritan, Jesus invites us to make this simple prayer the mantra for our lives: Thanks be to God.

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