The One Who Said Thank You: Luke 17:11-19
If your mother or parent figure in your life was anything like my mother, there was one thing certain after any birthday or Christmas celebration with family. We'd be required to write thank you notes. Who cares that it was the "job" of my grandmother and father (right?) to buy us toys for Christmas, or that I never actually met the real Santa, anyone who gave my sister and I a gift got a "Thank you so much for ___" note, from us.
If you are 5 or 10 or even 16 and your mother is making you sit at the kitchen table and pen out a thank-you note when you'd really rather be outside hanging with your friends, the practice of saying thank you becomes a dreaded exercise. "Do we have to, Mom? Can't we do this later at some other time?" was always the cry of my sister and I.
Of course now, as I recognize the good parenting move in my mom in this manner-- as I receive (and don't receive) thank you notes when I purchase gifts for my younger nieces and nephews-- I have come to believe that gratitude is a life style that never goes out of style. That time spent writing those thank you notes was indeed not wasted. In fact, expressions of gratitude are among the best ways we can give love back to our community. For, who doesn't want to be sent a "thank you" note or told by a friend or loved one "I appreciate you?" We all do.
But, what about Jesus? Today being the last Sunday of our liturgical year-- knowing as the celebration of Christ the King day on the eve of the American holiday of Thanksgiving, have you ever thought about how often Jesus receives words of thanks from folks like ourselves who say we're on a life path of following him? How often do you think Jesus was thanked when he lived on earth? How often do you think he is thanked now?
Well, when we encounter our gospel reading for this day, we uncover a situation where we find those two beautiful words uttered in the direction of Jesus: "thank you" by unlikely character, who simply did not forget how Jesus had blessed him.
The story goes that Jesus' was taking his ministry on the road. No longer staying simply in Galilee, he makes the trek with his disciples toward Jerusalem. And on the way, he finds himself stopping at a village where ten lepers approach him.
If we've been around scripture for very much time, we are certain to become familiar with a disease that seems to appear frequently called leprosy. Leprosy, known to us as Hansen's disease, the disease that causes grave skin malformation and open sores, but in Jesus' time, any who was labeled a "leper" as a person suffering from a range of skin issues and thus not allowed to worship or participate in cultural activities due to the regulations in the religious laws. The priests called lepers unclean.
So, for the ten lepers to approach Jesus was a very big deal. Though we often don't think of Jesus this way and at the time, his "radical" reputation was growing-- Jesus was still a Rabbi, a teacher of the law and thus for the lepers to come near Jesus at all was completely against the rules. So, what were they thinking?
I can imagine that they were thinking that they wanted to get better. And no matter how crazy this idea was to approach Jesus and ask for healing, they were willing at this point to try anything. If Jesus was a God inspired healer, as word was getting around town about him, then maybe by calling out: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" might just do the trick.
And this was Jesus' response in verse 14: "He saw them, [and] said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were made clean."
And, WOW, to be labeled as "clean" meant everything to their future. Because really it wasn't the skin condition that they had which was killing them, but the isolation of being left out of everything in society. To be called clean again meant these "lepers" would be invited back into society as 'normal' human beings (and to be "normal" is what we all really want in life, isn't it?).
No longer would they be left out of invitations to family parties and religious ceremonies. No longer would they be asked to live outside of the city limits. No longer would by-passers point and stare behind their backs when they walked into a room. What Jesus gave them when he looked these lepers in the eye and said, "Go and show yourselves to the priests (the clearing committee of the time)" was giving them their life back, before their skin disease came in and took it away.
I don't know if you have ever dealt with a long period of waiting, hoping or longing for something-- such as whether it is to be married, graduate college, or hear from your doctor that you are indeed cancer free. In the midst of waiting, the process to get to the day when everything is right, everything is ok, is often excruciating isn't it? Nights of not sleeping, long days of hoping, and hours of daydreaming what it might "feel" like the day that you get the good news that you've long been waiting for.
But what happens when it such a dream day actually does come true? What does life feel like when the good news finally comes? If you are like most people in situations like this, once you reach a desired state of life, often, you not dare go back in the direction of what happened out of fear of it happening again. It's just too painful. You are ready to move forward.
With this true about our own experience, we understand the bee line for freedom that the 9 of the 10 lepers expressed that day. Even with SO much to be thankful for, it doesn't necessarily make you thankful, does it? After being healed, we never again hear about what happens to the 9.
However, in this text, there is one who forges a different trail-- a trail paved in gratitude.
"Then, one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice."
It is significant to note here that this one leper was the ONLY person in the entire gospel account that ever said thank you to Jesus. Though hard to believe, there was only one!
Of course, Jesus said "thanks" a lot. Thanking God for the blessing of food. Thanking God for God's presence with him. Thanking God for the gift of his disciples. But, never, except this one account, do we hear of Jesus being thanked by anyone.
And, if you think with me a moment about all of the healing stories and life changing moments that disciples and the surrounding crowds experienced during Jesus' time on earth, it seems outrageous that only ONE came back to say thank you.
But, while shocking to us, such a phenomenon is not outside our own realm of experience. We don't say thank you as much as we should, not because we don't feel it nor think it, but we forget too. We figure the person or persons for whom we are grateful know how much we love and appreciate them. We figure someone else has already told them, so we don't need to. We figure that those who serve us like teachers, parents, or those in position of leadership in our government do so without any need for "thanks" in return-- so why waste our energy?
But, might we be missing out on the lifestyle of gratitude that was modeled for us by the leper who came back?
In Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, The Help, she tells the story of a recent college graduate girl, Skeeter, living in Jackson, Mississippi who begins a writing project about the African-American women who are "the help" to the white women in their homes in 1960s. During the course of her project, Skeeter, convinces several of the town's maids to secretly meet with her and share their experiences anonymously of working for white women in a segregated society.
During one such interview Skeeter encounters a maid who worked for a woman who has recently died. The maid, though like a family member to this affluent white family, was never treated with the dignity and respect she deserved especially as she was known to work wonders with the family's colic prone children, often staying up in the wee hours of the night with them.
As the story goes, while attending the deceased woman's funeral, the maid, tells Skeeter, that she receives a note written by the woman she served right before she died. And, this is what the note to the maid said: "Thank you for making my baby stop crying. I never forgot it. Thank you."
The maid went on to tell Skeeter why it was important for her story to be recorded in the book. The maid said, "If any white lady reads my story, I hope they realize that saying thank you when you mean it and remembering what someone has done for you is so good."
In hearing the maid's story, Skeeter is surprisingly convicted about her own lack of gratitude toward her life-long maid, Constantine, whom she loved even more than her own mother, but never said thank you to either.
Though we talk a good talk about gratitude at this time of the year, when the truth boils down in your life and mine, we might just have to confess that we haven't been that one who remembered to say thank you too.
Life has gotten in the way. We've been too busy. And, before we know it, those in whom we want to say thank you to the most have passed away and our opportunity to express gratitude is gone. But, does this have to be our story?
But, if we sit for a while with the words of our text once again, we realize the exhortation placed before us today. Though it may be our natural tendency to get through difficult circumstances, rough patches in our lives and never look back, Christ's call of gratitude is to never forget the journey and though who have walked with us through life's dark days or who have stood in the gap of our lives at times when we needed them the most.
On Thursday afternoon, at the Ladies Bible Study that meets monthly currently at Eleanor Penney's home, the women gathered and I found ourselves in a conversation about gratitude. Janet Rickert shared a testimonial about a recent practice of hers-- writing notes to those in whom helped to raise and guide her becoming as a child who weren't members of her family. Taking the time as adult to write a note of gratitude for how her life had been touched by their contributions to it. When we asked her what happened next-- did she receive any response to the notes? She said yes. Those who received her cards got word back to her how happy they were to actually know of how her life had been blessed by them. What a rarity, they noted, in our world to receive words and gestures of gratitude!
And, after Janet told this story, I could help but think, what might our lives be like if such was a regular practice of our lives-- not just in cards, but in every day words and deeds? What if it didn't take a season of the year for our lives to overflow in thanksgiving for how God has watched over us, protected us and guided us through our days?
What if we slowed down our lives at such a pace that we were able to say "thank you" more often to those in whom we've had a soulful connection that has encouraged our hearts?
What if we told teachers, doctors and family members who care for us in our hours of need, thank you for their love and care? What if we looked around this room right now at the faces of our church family and said to someone how grateful we are to have them as part of our lives and as part of our worshiping community?
I believe there is something about gratitude that changes us. It connects us again to our larger human family. It takes us out of our self-centered pity parties. It opens up our hearts to make room for deeper relationships-- relationships that can truly feed our souls. Gratitude reminds us that we never journey alone.
So, might you consider practicing gratitude this morning as a way of giving feet to this sermon-- so that none of us can leaving saying that we didn't tell someone thank you today.
So, as Ken begins to play in just a moment the music of our commitment hymn, I want you to live into your thanksgivings today. So, this is what I want you to do: go to one person in this room and say thank you, to tell them that you are grateful for either their presence here today and/or their presence in your life for a particular reason. Knowing that as you do it will do your heart good as much it will do for the one who hears your thanksgivings.
Then, we will gather together again and sing the hymn "Count Your Many Blessings" as a way to thank the One for whom we ultimately all our lives to anyway, Jesus Christ who is our Lord.
Let us practice thanksgiving today.