Greg Anderson is the founder of Cancer Recovery Foundation International, a global affiliation of organizations whose mission is to help people prevent and survive cancer. Anderson was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in 1984. He was given 30 days to live. In December of this year, he will turn 72. In his book “Living Life on Purpose” Anderson tells the story of a man whose wife had left him. He was completely depressed. He had lost faith in himself, in other people, even in God. He simply found no joy in living. One rainy morning, this man went to a small neighborhood diner for breakfast. Although lots of people were there, nobody in the diner was speaking to anyone else. So there he was, this miserable man, hunched over the counter, stirring his coffee with a spoon in a silent diner filled with people.
In one of the booths along the window was a young mother with a little boy. They had just been served their food when the little boy broke the silence by shouting, “Mommy, we need to say grace?” The waitress who had just served their breakfast, turned around and said, “It’s okay honey, we pray here. Will you say grace for us?” The little boy turned and looked at the rest of the people in the restaurant and shouted, “Bow yaw heads.” Surprisingly, one by one, each person put their head down. The little boy then bowed his head, folded his hands, and said, “God is gweat, God is good, and we fank God for our food. Amen.”
And you know what? As Anderson tells the story, that prayer changed the entire atmosphere in the diner. People started talking with one another. They smiled and laughed. It even effected that sad, pathetic man stirring his coffee. His whole state of mind started to improve. The waitress even said, “Ya know what? We should do that every morning.”
From that little boy’s example, everyone in the diner started to thank God for all that they did have and stopped obsessing about all that they didn’t have. In essence, they started to be grateful.”
I think we all can understand and appreciate the importance of gratitude. How it can radically change relationships. In fact, one of the things that both psychologists and spiritual advisors will tell you is that one of the quickest ways to mend a broken relationship is to start showing intentional gratitude for the person with whom you are in conflict. From a Christian perspective, it’s even more powerful if that gratitude is completely and utterly undeserved. Because that’s the kind of relationship model that Jesus taught us to uphold. Undeserved, unearned, even unacknowledged gratitude. Sheer gratitude.
When it comes to giving thanks, there perhaps is no story in the Bible that is more powerful than the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers. The story begins with 10 lepers approaching Jesus as he enters a village. The gospel then says, “Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Now, I want to say something that might sound odd or harsh. Don’t think for a moment that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person. It’s not. This scene in the gospel reading is a case in point. Those 10 people walked the earth. They breathed and ate. They had hopes and fears and aspirations and feelings just like you and me. But leprosy was the most dreaded of all ancient diseases. There was no known cure. And in terms of their hopes for a family life, a useful occupation, plans for a future—in a tragic sense, these people were already dead.
Their situation was made even worse because leprosy was believed to be highly contagious, which it’s not. But Jewish law clearly prescribed that a leper could not get within fifty yards of a clean person. Everywhere these poor people went they were called “unclean.” So, lepers not only had to live with a physical handicap, they were also isolated.
But even in the midst of this horrible situation these lepers had something to be thankful for. In their common misery they had banded together. They had found each other. It’s also interesting to note that one of these ten lepers was a Samaritan. In those days, a good Jew would never have dealings with a Samaritan. Yet, in the common misery of their leprosy, these people had forgotten that they were Jew and Samaritan and realized only that they were each in need. They learned that there is power in fellowship. Which, I think, brings us to the first point of this story, which is simply this: even in the midst of our problems there is always something to be thankful for.
Some of you may be thinking: Well, that’s easy to say, you don’t know the problems and circumstances that I’ve dealt with or am dealing with right now. And it’s true. Problems—no matter how great or how small—always seem more insurmountable when they’re OUR problems. But I tell you, there is no one sitting here this morning who does not have something to be thankful for.
Even in the middle of suffering, reasons CAN be found to give thanks. That’s the first lesson. But that’s not all we can learn from the healing of the lepers.
Finding reasons to be grateful is fine, but the second lesson is more important: Thanksgiving needs to be expressed not just when we have something wonderful to be thankful for, but always . . . even in the midst of problems. Look at this story again. As Jesus entered the village this band of ten lepers sought him out. As a group they approached him with the words: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus responded: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Initially that may sound strange, but the fact is that the priests of that day were also public health officers. If a person had been cured from an infectious disease, she had to present herself to the priest to receive a health certificate. So, no doubt the lepers were puzzled by Jesus’ command. Why bother to get a certificate of health when you haven’t been cured? Yet, they believed his words and they did as he commanded.
And as the ten lepers went on their way, something happened to them. Their numbness began to pass. The sores began to vanish. Their strength began to return. Luke says: “And as they went, they were made clean.” As they had obeyed the command of Christ their longing for healing had come to be.
So, at this point, we think we know how this story is going to end. These cured lepers will go running back to Jesus with the words: “Blessed healer”, “Great Physician”, “Praise be to Jesus.” But no. That’s not how Luke tells the story at all. Nine of the ten were never heard from again. What a sad example of human nature. Still, that example makes the contrast with the one grateful leper all the more powerful. This enduring image of the one grateful leper reminds us to choose the better way. Choose to be thankful. Choose to be grateful for everything. In this parable, what Jesus says to us is even in the midst of the worst of circumstances, always look for that for which you should be grateful.
Still, there is one more – a third lesson in this gospel story. It is an irony inserted at the very end. Because notice that the one who returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. It was the half-breed, the outcast, the Gentile, the one considered unholy who was the one who showed just how holy his heart really was. It was the Samaritan who expressed his gratitude. And to this man Jesus gave not only a physical blessing but also a spiritual blessing. He said to him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I am convinced that this footnote to the story is there to remind us that God’s saving love is offered not just for the faithful, but for everyone . . . and perhaps most especially for those who are perceived to be on the outside. The outcast. The unclean.
I can’t pass this last point without reflecting a bit on my own experiences of feeling that there was nothing to be thankful for in my life or feeling that I was the outcast who was unworthy of God’s love. Growing up as a gay teenager, I had those experiences. I had those thoughts. And as I have thought back on those difficult years, I have found myself asking, “what made the difference for me?” What makes the difference for a person when society tells them they are worthless, and outcast, unlovable? What can turn around the life of a person who has that experience? For me, the answer was clear.
What made the difference for me was the loving, caring, Godly people in my life who made sure that I knew that they were grateful for me. Not just that they loved me but that they were grateful that I was around. Having someone give thanks for the simple fact that you exist is an amazingly transformative experience. It is, in its own way, a redemptive experience. Redeeming both the gratitude giver and the receiver. It’s a holy and wonderful moment in which all the other “things” in this world and in our lives just don’t seem to matter. Because what we are giving thanks for is as simple and as awesomely wonderful as “each other.” The greatest gift that God has given us all.
You all know that this time of year is when we start talking about stewardship and our annual pledge drive when we ask members of Christ Church to make a pledge of support to the parish for the coming year. And this week, you’ll be receiving a mailing from the parish that will explain our hopes, goals, and prayers for this year’s effort. But importantly, stewardship is about more than the offerings we make – our financial offerings, and our offerings of time or skill. Stewardship is about developing an understanding of why we make those offerings. And that’s the charge I’d like to leave you with today. As we begin our annual stewardship effort this week, let’s remember to give thanks not just for the material blessings in our lives, but for the blessing of each other in our lives. In the midst of all the troubles we face in the world today, let’s remember first and foremost that we should be thankful for the gift of family, the gift of community, and the gift of the knowledge that we are loved. Then, let’s remember to give thanks to God for all of it.