I know that some of you use the social networking website called Facebook, and I know that because I'm 'Facebook friends' with some of you, but even if you aren't on Facebook, you’ve probably at least heard of it. I use Facebook mostly to keep in touch with friends and family that live in far away countries. Not only can you add ‘friends’ on Facebook, you can also join groups. I found out recently there’s a group on Facebook called ‘Attitude of Gratitude’, and nearly 3000 people have joined that group. The purpose of the group is to encourage thankfulness and gratitude, which is an admirable purpose. Their information page says that ‘Having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to transform your life’! Well, I have to agree with this group that gratitude is powerful and transformative, but I’m not so sure that it is easy.
The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther considered gratitude to be “the basic Christian attitude” – that gratitude is the basic attitude Christians should have. I know that when I do remember to be thankful, it makes me feel more positive about life, even when things aren’t going well. But it’s not always easy to remember. It actually takes effort and it takes discipline.
When a child receives a gift, more often than not, the parent prompts a response from the child by asking, ‘Now what do you say?’ and hopefully the child responds with a ‘thank you’. We want children to learn to be grateful for gifts given, and we begin to teach them from a young age. I was taught to write thank-you notes when I was growing up, and I try to encourage my children to do this as well. But often it takes weeks to get around to writing thank-you notes. Why is it we find ourselves so easily distracted from showing gratitude, not only to other people, but even more importantly to God, from whom all blessings flow? We have so many blessings from God it’s impossible to count them all. But we often forget to be thankful; we often take for granted all that we have.
Our gospel reading is about the importance of gratitude. In the gospel story, ten lepers have an encounter with Jesus. Leprosy was the dreaded disease in Jesus’ day. Leprosy was and still is highly contagious. Today it’s treated with a long course of antibiotics, but in Jesus’ day, whether it was mild or serious, lepers were kept in isolated groups separated from their families and friends, sometimes for the rest of their lives. If you had leprosy, no one could come within twelve feet of you. You were untouchable and ‘unclean’ under Jewish law.
Jesus had already healed at least one leper before, and the news of that healing had spread. So these lepers, too, were hoping that Jesus would come by and perhaps one of them would be healed. Well Jesus did come by, and the 10 lepers began shouting to him: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us’. Jesus very calmly and simply told them ‘Go, and show yourselves to the priests’. So on their way, the ten lepers noticed their lesions began to disappear and they knew they were being healed. Well of course, they were elated! Off they ran as fast as they could to see the priests, to be officially declared ‘clean’, and then they could return to the family and society they hadn’t seen for who knows how long. As fast as they could go, they were so happy to be well after all this time. But one remembered, one turned back and fell at Jesus’ feet, worshipped him, and thanked him.
What happened to the other nine? Why didn’t they also come back? When they needed God, they were close to God; but when they didn’t need God, they were off busy being well. The ironic thing was that their healing drove them away from God. So what does it take to heal the human heart of ingratitude ...an even greater miracle than healing the skin of leprosy?
The nine lepers became so busy being well... rushing off to see mum and dad, brother and sister, aunt and uncle, and the garden and the farm and the shop and the fishing boat, all those people and places they hadn’t seen for so long. They were so busy being well, they had no time to express appreciation to Jesus. And perhaps we understand this - being too busy to live gratefully; being too busy even to pray. We hit the floor running each morning and fall asleep exhausted at night - Who has time for words of thanksgiving or feeling gratitude? Busy, Lord. We’re very busy being well. The tragedy of the gospel story is that the nine lepers got the healing, but not the healer; they experienced the miracle but not the miracle worker; they received the gift but they didn’t acknowledge the giver.
We can become so busy with life that we forget the God who has given it all to us, who came to be with us in Jesus, who died for us, and who lives in us by his Spirit. That’s the tragedy of the nine who didn’t turn back: they missed out on the true blessing.
But let’s focus on the one - the one who came back to say “Thank you” - the Samaritan, the foreigner, the outsider. The one who came back wasn’t a Jew; he was an outsider to the faith. In several gospel stories it’s an outsider, who shows great faith and great gratitude. If we’ve been on this faith journey for some time, we can become used to God blessing and caring for us and we can begin to take God for granted; we can begin to expect his blessings as God-given rights. But those who’ve only recently found faith are often deeply grateful to God for the smallest of gifts, for the littlest of his blessings. With familiarity, we can take things for granted - we experience that in our family life sometimes, don’t we? And we can do that with God. So in our bible lesson it was an outsider to the established religion who was the only one to come back to Jesus to say ‘thank you’.
And what was Jesus’ response? "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Jesus’ response seems almost bad-mannered. He’s not even directly addressing the one who returned; he’s speaking over that guy’s head to the crowd listening in. Jesus points out that the thankful man is a ‘foreigner,’ because the whole point of this story (which only occurs in Luke’s gospel) is to chastise those among the Jews in Luke’s day who have not shown gratitude and acceptance to Jesus and his mission. Only the foreigner remembers the giver of the grace he has received.
But of course, Luke’s context is not our context. So how can this story about gratitude impact on us today? Why is gratitude such an important attitude? Well of course, it’s more than just a show of good manners or discipline. Gratitude is crucial for our well-being; for our health in mind, body and spirit. And that’s something God’s very interested in. A person can be physically and even mentally well, but if we’re not spiritually well, we’re not whole, and we’re not living the fullness of life that Jesus came to give us.
But with gratitude our inner focus is re-directed, and that radiates out to our whole life. But we have to put it into practice – we have to develop the habit of gratitude as a rule of life. Monks and nuns dedicate their whole lives to this pursuit. Their frequent prayer times help to develop this continual thankfulness. But none of us live in a monastery, as far as I know. But in our better moments, we know that a grateful heart, full of thankfulness to God, is the secret to contentment, satisfaction and joy.
I’m going to finish with a little exercise. Don’t worry; it’s not physical exercise – just a little easy mental & spiritual exercise. Let’s close our eyes to block out distractions, and think of something or someone that you are grateful for.
It could be simply the air that we breathe, or this new day.
It could be we’re grateful for our faith, or a relationship.
It could be a particular person.
Just hold the situation or the person in your mind and in your heart.
Now we’re going to gently move our focus from the gift to the giver.
We’re going to focus on our maker – the maker of heaven and earth,
and of all that is, seen & unseen.
And we’re simply going to say,
either silently or out loud if you wish,
those two simple words of gratitude to the Lord: Thank you.