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November 18, 2018

“Lessons from a Leper on Giving Thanks”

Luke 17:11-19

 

When our son Sam was younger, I can remember taking him and the rest of our family to a Mexican Restaurant in Fort Bragg called the Purple Rose. After we had a great dinner, our son was really pleased with the meal. I suggested he say “Thank you!” to the cooks back in the kitchen, which he did. The cooks back behind the counter seemed taken aback by Sam’s “thank you”, and then they all smiled and nodded their heads. Sam said thank you for a number of years to people who cooked at restaurants, and I thought that was a wonderful way to show gratitude. I continued his tradition and still do that if the meal was good. I like to acknowledge their hard work and their personhood. When Paula and I go out, we also pray, giving thanks to God for a chance to be out together. It is important to remember to give thanks.

 

Giving thanks to God and thanks to others for their service to us is an important part of living in gratitude. I try to be mindful of workers, thanks in part to author and well-known speaker Brene’ Brown. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brown talks about practicing gratitude. Part of her practice includes being mindful of others, especially those who are performing some kind of service for her. Brown shared a story of going through a drive-thru at a fast food restaurant. She placed her order and pulled up to the pay window. Her cell phone rang, and she thought it might be the school calling about one of her children so she picked up and began talking. It ended up being someone else confirming an appointment. She hung up as quickly as she could while the person at the window completed her transaction. She apologized for being rude to the woman at the window. Brown said it must have surprised her, because the worker got huge tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much. You have no idea how humiliating it is sometimes. Our customers don’t even see us.” That story affected me mightily, and so I try to make it a point to practice my gratitude when going to a restaurant.

 

Anne Lamott in her brilliant book on prayer, Help Thanks Wow, writes, “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.”

 

Living in gratitude takes practice. Like many of the lepers in today’s story, I sometimes forget or get too busy to live in gratitude.

 

For example, a few years ago I hosted an afternoon pastors’ study group at my last call in Fort Bragg the day after Thanksgiving. Thankfully, there was still was some soup left over from our Thanksgiving lunch with the preschool we supported, so I planned on serving this group soup and decided that fresh bread would be the perfect addition. So off I went to the Fort Bragg Bakery. I’d heard great things about their bread, and as I walked into the new shop I could smell all the baked items. I asked the baker behind the counter for a wonderful crusty “Fort Bragg Sourdough” and one other loaf and made my way to the cash register. “That’ll be $10.,” said the cashier. I whipped out my debit card, and she told me they only took local checks and cash, that they hadn’t set up an atm system yet. So much for the perfect afternoon meal for this pastors’ group! I was crestfallen, and I said I would try to go and get some cash at an ATM and come back, and they offered to hold my purchase for me. It was 2:10, and my group would be at the church in 20 minutes. I wasn’t sure if I could make it or not, but as I turned to go, the cashier looked at me and said, “Wait-You’re a local right?” I told her I was and that I was a pastor at the 1st Presbyterian church. She smiled at me and said, “You can just take the bread, and pay tomorrow.” Wow! At that moment, I was so thankful for living in a small town, and for her kindness. I said profuse “Thank you’s”, told her I’d be back first thing Saturday morning and headed out the door, bread in hand. That next morning, as I was busy writing my sermon regarding being thankful, I suddenly realized I had forgotten to go to the bakery and pay them and thank them for extending me their trust! I got caught up in getting my sermon on being thankful done, and forgot to say thank you- rather ironic, don’t you think? I immediately rushed out, and gave them the $10, plus a tip, and said “Thanks so much! The bread was wonderful!” Living in gratitude takes practice, and must be steeped liberally in God’s grace.

Today's passage provides us an example of living in gratitude. At a nowhere, insignificant village, 10 leprous men call out for mercy. Jesus instructs them to show themselves to the priests, where they will be officially declared clean. They show faith in Jesus by following his instruction, and as they leave, they are healed. Before they even get to the temple, they are healed from their terrible disease.

 

Do you have any idea what a horrible disease leprosy is? It’s a skin disease that usually proved to be fatal and caused an agonizingly slow death. Leprosy causes patches of skin to go white and begin to flake off. Often times a leper’s extremities, like a nose, ears, or fingers eventually just become dead skin, and eventually, fall off. Even the mouth and throat are affected so that it was difficult for many lepers to talk. Now you may think leprosy is a disease of the past. However, according to the American Leprosy Missions web site, every two minutes a person is diagnosed to have the disease, and in 2016, 143 countries reported cases of leprosy. And in the U.S., 150 people are diagnosed with leprosy each year. Although there is a cure for the disease now, there really wasn’t any cure back in Jesus’ day. The only thing that could be done to keep the disease from spreading was to quarantine those affected with the disease in separate leper colonies away from the cities and towns, to prevent them from coming near anyone. It was a horrible, painful, lonely, and fatal disease. Can you imagine, then, how grateful and ecstatic these 10 must have been to be cured from this terrible fate?

 

 

Yet only one returned to Jesus, praising God. Only one remembered to come back and give thanks. Apparently, the others forgot. After the one man returned to give praise, verses 16 and 18 identified him as a Samaritan and a foreigner. Now, this might not mean much to our modern ears- we think of “Good Samaritans- folks who stop and help others.” But Samaritans were hated by the Jews, and vice versa. There was a lot of animosity between Jews and Samaritans. Think of say a “Make America Great Again” Trump supporter and an Ashland progressive Democrat Jaime McCloud-Skinner supporter in the same room on election night a couple of weeks ago- Hostility between Jews and Samaritans was even worse, and had grown over centuries, resulting from Samaritans’ mixed marriages after the Assyrian settlement in the northern kingdom. This led to a rather mixed religion as well. There was also a dispute between them as to where the true place of worship was - For the Samaritans, it was Mt. Gerizim in the north. For faithful Jews, it was further south where King David had established the temple in Jerusalem. Once again in a story, Jesus lifted up an anti-hero to be a hero- Not only was he a leper- reason enough to stay away, but he was also a Samaritan, a hated enemy of the Jews- a double whammy! In this moment, the disciples learned that remembering to give thanks to God and to have a heart full of gratitude for what God has done is what makes a person accepted in God’s kingdom, not who they are or where they are from.

 

We can learn some lessons from this Samaritan Leper on being thankful. In addition to remembering to give thanks, notice the way this man thanked Jesus, “[he] fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks” (v. 16). He expressed his personal thanks to Jesus in a very humble way. He fell at his feet with his face to the ground as a sign of humility-for he recognized that he, A Samaritan was given the incredible gift of healing from an enemy, a Jewish Rabbi. This man, then, the outcast of outcasts, a leper and a Samaritan, who wasn’t worthy to be spoken to by Jesus, much less healed by him expressed his gratitude and showed his humility. There is a similar expression of thankful humility in Calvin Hall.

 

We started hosting our winter shelter for the unhoused on November 11. This is the 11th year this church has given a place for the unhoused to sleep. Our congregation stepped up in a mighty way this year, allowing the shelter to be in Calvin Hall 3 nights a week until the shelter becomes a 7 night a week one site location. And thanks to the leaders of our congregation saying yes to those 3 nights, two other congregations have followed suit and opened their doors as well- Trinity Episcopal is sheltering on Monday and Wednesday nights, and the Methodists are sheltering on Tuesday evenings AFTER they serve so many at their Uncle Foods dinner. Another congregation is also considering opening their door to the unhoused on Thursday nights.

 

If you happened to notice, there are a number of thank you cards from folks who have stayed at our shelter up on a corkboard in Calvin Hall. And from those who stayed at our first night of shelter on the 11th, there is a large thank you as well. Here is just a sampling of those who humbly say “thank you” to this church. “To the volunteers that had kindness, unbeatable patience, tolerance and understanding, thank you from the bottom of my heart!- Allie.”

“Dear members of the 1st Presbyterian church, I am so comforted while sleeping at your church. Without you, I’d be sleeping on the street and hungry. Thank you for everything. You are appreciated! Jodie”

And finally, “Thank you for all you have done for me. I now have an apartment lined up! Natasha” So many who shelter with us, who have so little, and who remember to say “Thank you.” What an example of giving thanks they are for us all!

 

At its core, Thanksgiving is an act of gratitude steeped in humility. We live in a society where we are told to be proud, not humble, and are reminded to work hard, and that through hard work and effort, we will become rich, surrounded by what we ourselves have earned. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others and what we owe God.” As we go through our daily lives, we often fail to realize that our efforts have nothing to do with what we have: Psalm 24 reminds us- “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything there in...” We have been given everything we have from God, and we, like the leper, like those who are guests in our shelter should humbly give thanks, and try to practice gratitude on a regular basis.

 

Near the end of her chapter on giving thanks, LaMott concludes, “The movement of grace toward gratitude brings us from the package of self-obsessed madness to a spiritual awakening. Gratitude is peace. Maybe you won’t always get from being a brat to noticing that it is an E.E. Cummings morning out the window. But some days you will. You will go from being a Doug or Wendy Whiner, with your psychic diverticulitis, able only to eat macaroni and cheese, to remembering, “I thank you God, for this most amazing day!”

 

You and I have so much to be thankful for, not just on November 22nd, but every day of the year. We have so many blessings to count- for the gift of Jesus Christ, for the blessing of faith; for fellow sisters and brothers in our faith family; for a place to worship God and give praise; for an incredible, beautiful place in which we live and are surrounded by the beauty of creation; for the amazing, incredible variety, taste and colors of food; for our friends and families; for a roof over our heads; for money in our bank accounts and wallets; for every breath we take and every beat of our hearts! May we go from this place today putting at bay any form of psychic diverticulitis, and in humility and gratitude for God’s abundance in our lives, always, always remember to say “I thank you God, for this most amazing day!” Alleluia! Amen.

 

 

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