Better Humbly Grateful than Grumbly Hateful
On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we take to heart the lessons from the lovely story in Luke 17:11-19 of the Samaritan man who was cured of leprosy and returned to give thanks.
Jesus seeks the inbetweeners
Luke begins the episode with Jesus, who is on his way to Jerusalem, but veers off course into the barren no-man’s land between the rival territories of Galilee and Samaria. Jesus rarely took a straight path. Throughout the gospels we see him taking detours that brought him to people on the fringes, the inbetweeners who didn’t quite fit in anywhere else.
That’s good news! Maybe today you are an inbetweener–between one stage of life and the next. In between jobs or relationships. In between full-time work and retirement. Between a relationship and whatever happens next, in between faith and doubt. Maybe you feel like you just don’t fit in with anybody—that any labels people have slapped on you just don’t fit. Jesus’ jam is to seek out inbetweeners—and maybe that is you today. He seeks to bring healing and a new sense of wholeness.
In the in-between space, a group of ten men with leprosy cry out to Jesus from a distance. “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Today we diagnose the incurable skin disease as Hansen’s Disease. But back then, any skin disorder like a rash or eczema would get you labeled a leper. True leprosy, Hansen’s Disease, stinks—both literally and figuratively. You lose the feeling in your extremities. Sores break out, get infected, and limbs need amputation. Over time, one bears the stench of rotting flesh.
Thought to be highly contagious, people afflicted with leprosy were quarantined and banished from their communities. To make it worse, people believed leprosy was a curse from God manifesting physical symptoms of inward spiritual rot. If anyone came near, people afflicted with leprosy called out, “Unclean. Unclean.”
Have mercy on us
When these men saw Jesus from a distance, they cried out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Instead of more condemnation from a religious figure, they pleaded for mercy, kindness, and compassion.
Jesus came to help people see that even though religious people declared them rotten, they are at the center of God’s blessing and concern, not excluded from it. Just think about condemnations hurled at people by religious folk through the years. The murders last night in a LGBTQ club in Colorado reminds us of how people in the LGBTQ community are at risk from toxic religion. Judgmental preachers say that you are nothing but a tool of the devil if you don’t vote as they did. That is why our church is so important. I believe God is using us to deliver an alternative message. Jesus’ message. People are blessed, not cursed. Beloved, not abandoned by the Almighty. Just as the lepers called out in a loud voice asking for mercy, let us be people who proclaim God’s mercy with a loud voice and even louder actions of acceptance.
Let us also be humble enough to recognize our shortcomings and seek God’s mercy instead of being consumed with outrage about how other people live. The cry of the men with leprosy is our cry, because we all need mercy and grace.
A step of faith
When the men cried out for mercy, Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests. If your skin rash or eczema cleared up or you had some miraculous healing, needed to be verified by a priest to reenter the community.
Luke tells us the leprosy was not healed until the men first took the steps of faith to seek out a priest. Maybe that is the way God works. We give God something to work with when we take actions that are under our control. It’s easy to be passive, just praying that God will wave the magic wand and solve our problems without us taking the initiative to do what we can.
I heard about a guy upset with God that his prayers for a partner weren’t answered. His friend told him, “Maybe you’ve got to work on yourself first. Miss America isn’t going to wander into your parent’s basement to take you away from your video games. Get a better attitude and find the validation and value you need from within. Get out there. Give God something to work with.”
When we pray, we can ask, what steps can I take? How am I working with God to move in a better direction? The men in the story didn’t find healing until they took steps of faith. If you are going after what God wants for you, start by stepping into it.
The Samaritan man turns back
When a Samaritan, discovered his healing, he returned to the source. He praised Jesus with a loud voice and fell prostrate at Jesus’ feet. Jesus asks, “Where are the other nine men?” Part of the impact of this story is that it’s a Samaritan who does the right thing and gets a double blessing. The disciples despised the Samaritans. Once, they wanted Jesus to rain down fire on a whole village of Samaritans because someone rejected them. This story, combined with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Link to sermon) reminds us that Jesus wasn’t into dismissing people based on where they were from or any other human-made construct that divides people. His acceptance is for all of us.
You are not your disorder
I love that neither Jesus nor Luke calls them lepers in the story, and they are identified as men with leprosy. It’s about seeing the humanity of people beyond their ailments. Today, physicians and hospital staff are trained not to use insensitive language like, “The appendicitis in room 3.” No. It’s a person who has appendicitis.
In our world of labels, it’s easy to feel like your ailments your problems define you. You are not the alcoholic. You are a person who suffers from alcoholism. You are not defined by your worst mistake. You are a person who has made mistakes. You are not your debt, your diagnosis. Jesus sees you, your heart, and your best desires. Jesus doesn’t define us by that, so we should resist the temptation to do it to ourselves or others.
Expressing gratitude makes you whole
Jesus tells the cured Samaritan man that his faith has made him well. The Greek word for well is pregnant with meaning. It means whole, saved, at peace. It’s not just that his disease was cured and his social standing reinstated. There is something about expressing gratitude that completes us. Scientific studies find that grateful people are those with the greatest sense of well-being regardless of their situation. Do you want to feel whole and happy? Cultivate your sense of gratitude. Even in the worst conditions, there is still reason to have gratitude.
Maybe that is why there are so many unhappy and broken people. Their sense of entitlement is more profound than their sense of gratitude. Perhaps you can’t be grateful if you feel entitled. It’s good to think about chains of gratitude. I talked about this last year (link). For example, we thank God for food. But it’s good to remember all the people from the growers to the packers to the producers to the preparers. The people who drove the trucks, the people who made the trucks and tractors. The people who make things happen. The soil and those who care for the soil. Just contemplating these things grounds us and can fill us with gratitude.
There is a good feeling that comes with expressing gratitude. My friend, Bill Steward (link) talked about how when he gets feeling low. He writes thank you notes, sometimes to people he hasn’t ever met. He loved the feeling so much that he once wrote me a thank you note for a thank you note. Gratitude, he said, sets us free. We are free from feeling sorry for ourselves, entitlement, arrogance, and making desperate decisions because we are more focused on what we have than what we lack.
In a loud voice
The reformer, Martin Luther, who we talked about a few weeks ago (sermon link), said, “Worship is the tenth leper turning back.” Our worship is a realization that we have much to be grateful for, and we express our gratitude. Worship isn’t about a performance by worship leaders for you to enjoy, but it is about you taking the time to turn back and offer your gratitude.
I love how just as the ten men cried out for mercy in a loud voice, the Samaritan man praised Jesus with a loud voice. When we feel the blessings of God, there’s no need to keep it quiet. Sometimes things are so good you’ve got to let it out loudly.
There is a time for quiet and contemplation, but there is also time for a loud voice. Nobody is going to have to pump you up. There comes a time we experience gratitude that lets loose beyond our normal temperaments, and we open our mouths and say thank you. That’s why we are here today. To fall on our faces and open our mouths and give God thanks.
How has God blessed you? What are you thankful for?
One in ten turned back, and he was made whole. Be the one. You can say, I’m going to worship to get the extra blessing of turning back. Where are the other nine? I don’t know about those rascals, this is within me, and I’m letting it loose. I am here to praise. Intuitively, we know it is better to be humbly grateful and grumbly hateful. The only surefire plan for getting rich quickly is to focus on what you have rather than what you lack.
You are invited to shout a word or phrase declaring what you are grateful for or express your thankfulness. Let all the shouts and sounds overlap and join together in a symphony of praise.
What are you grateful for? Say it! Shout it!
Your faith has made you whole. It makes you free. Now go in peace. Nine were cured, and one was made whole. You’re the one! Be the one!