A SECOND BLESSING

Luke 17:11-19  

How are you feeling this Thanksgiving season?  I believe that gratitude is probably the most noble of emotions, but it is also one of the most challenging to develop and maintain.  There are so many pressures on us to feel ungrateful.  So many ways in which we are told that we “don’t have enough.”  A lot of advertising and social media have the effect – often quite deliberately – of making us jealous of others and what they have.  We see pictures of happy beautiful people with the latest and newest and wonder “why can’t that be me?”  Jealousy and desire are poisonous soil for gratitude.

One reason for our lack of gratitude may be our lack of awareness.  If someone reminds me of the benefits of living in NS: clean water, free medical care, free education for children, liberty of person, freedom of expression and so on – then I quickly and freely admit that gratitude is appropriate.  I did not earn those.  I did nothing to deserve them.  Somehow, I received them by accident of birth.  Those are blessings for which many people in the world are dying. I was born into them.  But if I’m not paying attention I’ll forget them.  The list of blessings that are part of my day-to-day life is very long indeed.  But if I’m not paying attention chances are I’ll forget my reasons for gratitude.

The first thing to notice is that true gratitude is not determined by circumstances.  Yes there are reasons to worry.  There is so much bad news from around the world; stories of war and heartache.  There are concerns at home, rising costs coupled with unemployment and fixed incomes.  There may be more specific problems in your home or mine; people or situations that we worry about, that rob us of sleep and make life taste sour.  These are all real, and yet, looking behind our gospel lesson today may suggest we have some genuine reasons for gratitude.

In Jesus’ day, leprosy was a term that covered a multitude of skin diseases including severe acne and psoriasis.  Some of these were highly contagious.  So, a whole bunch of them got lumped together and lepers were forced to stay away from everyone else  When they travelled the roads or entered a town they had to shout a warning to other people so that no one was accidentally infected.  They were pushed to the edges, to the margins of life, where they often died.  Because leprosy was thought to be a punishment from God it was both a religious and a social banishment.  That’s why, when Jesus heals them, he tells the lepers to go and show themselves to the local priest.  Only the priest could declare them “clean” and thus able to re-enter society.  So, here is Jesus, travelling in this marginal place, between Galilee and Samaria.  Samaritans, as we’ve seen before, were hated by the Jews.  There was a generations long story of being despised and put down, of assaults and murder back and forth.  As far as Jesus’ people were concerned there was no such thing as a “Good Samaritan” and most people in Israel would do everything they could to avoid the despised people and their nation.  And the feeling was mutual!  But, in this group of lepers, we find a mixture.  When we’re in need we sometimes discover that those things which seemed so important shrink in stature.

So these ten poor souls, who are pushed to the margins of society, are travelling together on the margins between two hate-filled communities when they encounter Jesus.  They do all the right things.  They don’t approach him so as not to risk infection.  They call out from a distance.  He does the appropriate thing: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  We’re told that they are healed along the way.  Then two surprising things happen.  First, one of the lepers returns to thank Jesus – directly contrary to his instructions.  Second, Jesus seems surprised – maybe even a touch annoyed – that only one returned with thanks.  Then the revelation – the thanker is a Samaritan.  The other nine did nothing wrong: they did exactly as Jesus told them to and they probably enjoyed being healed and restored to human community.  But the Samaritan, in his gratitude, received something else.  They were all made clean – in other words cured of the disease.  But he was also made well.  In being grateful there is a second blessing.

Strange things happen on the margins of life.  They happen when we allow ourselves to go to the borderlands of our own lives.  We go to those places – emotions, hopes, fears, insecurities – that we carefully hide.  We all have them – those places in our lives that we least want to admit but that most need the touch of Jesus’ hand.  Jesus is in the demilitarized zone between two warring peoples.  He’s in the demilitarized zone between respectable, acceptable people and those shoved out because they don’t fit.  He’s in the zone between the acceptable and the unacceptable.  Respectable people wouldn’t expect a Samaritan to say thank you – after all, “you know what they’re like”.  We can see parallels in our attitudes towards refugees, even though they are fleeing from situations and injustices we all condemn.  Parallels with those struggling to master addictions or find a way off social assistance or from the racial margins into the centre.  There are lots of margins – in us and around us.  There are lots of places where people are crying out – have mercy.  They are looking for things we take for granted.

Gratitude is not only proper it’s also healthy.  In a recent study a group of people were asked to write a few sentences a week about familiar topics.  One group was asked to write about things for which they were grateful.  A second group was asked to write about daily irritations or things that displeased them  A third group wrote about things that had affected them – with no particular positive or negative emphasis.  At the end of ten weeks, those who wrote about gratitude felt happier and more optimistic.  More surprisingly, they were exercising more and had markedly fewer visits to the doctor.  Another leading researcher was working on exercises to help the moods of various folk.  He discovered that those who wrote a letter to thank someone who had never been properly thanked, experienced the greatest positive change in mood and the improvement lasted for about a month

Certainly there are challenges in our lives and in our world.  That reality is not in question.  What is in question is where we will focus our energies.  As we look around this Thanksgiving, what do we see?  We see families caring for each other; colleagues who work hard and well.  We see a government which, while far from perfect, administers a level of freedom rarely found in the world.  We see relief agencies working heroically for the afflicted and our military and first responders laying lives on the line for our sakes.  We see good neighbours who are supporting one another and a community of faith that gives both refuge and encouragement.  What do we focus on?

A colleague tells the story about a husband and wife team who, three days a week, volunteer at a busy downtown hospital.  The wife works at the information desk providing welcome and direction to those entering hospital for the first time.  Her husband oversees the reception area for those families and friends of cancer patients undergoing surgery.  His job, to keep them comfortable and cared for until the surgeon comes to give results.   When my colleague asked, “Why do you do this?  You could be soaking up the sun in Florida,” they replied: “Because we are aggressively appreciated.  This hospital practices a culture of appreciation.  You can’t go 15 minutes without someone, from the hospital CEO to the cleaning staff, stopping you and saying: ‘Thanks.  We couldn’t do this without you.’ We’ve been made to feel part of a first class team.  We’ve never felt so valued in any other organization.”  “Do you mean, you receive more appreciation at the hospital than you received when you poured yourself into work at our church?”  The answer, definite, firm and maybe a little sad: “There’s no comparison.”  What are we missing?

The tenth leper returned, falling at Jesus’ feet, giving praise to God.  The reason gratitude changes us is that it is an opening of ourselves to God.  It is an acknowledgment of our absolute dependence: God is providing us with something we cannot provide for ourselves. So my challenge to all of us is how will you discover the ways we can live Thanksgiving the rest of the year.  Because we don’t receive on one day only.  Let those with ears hear the Spirit’s word to the church.  Amen