10/9/2016 Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost The text is Luke 17:11-19.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Although it is over a month away, we might call this week Thanksgiving Sunday. For when it comes to giving our thanks to God, I don’t suppose there is any story in the Bible that is as endearing to us, so timelessly appropriate, as the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers.
Now we all understand and appreciate the importance of gratitude. How it can radically change relationships. In fact, one of the first things we were taught and that we teach our children is to express their gratitude. Someone gives them some candy and we say: “Now what do you say?” and the child learns from an early age the answer “Thank you,” even if they don’t really appreciate the good will of the giver who gave them the gift freely.
But sometimes, no matter how many times children are prodded to say the right words, their natural instincts take over. Like the day a business executive was walking down the street and he reached down and picked up a toy ball that rolled in his path. As he looked around to locate the owner, a very angry little girl approached him and said. “Give me that ball!” Looking for a polite response, the man said to her: “What is the magic word?” “NOW!” she yelled.
In the Bible, Jesus does not get many expressions of gratitude either. And this week’s gospel is about as close as anyone comes to actually thanking Jesus even though in a society that shows so little gratefulness, an occasional “thank you” might be nice. Oh, we may say “Thank you” for birthday gifts or send notes of appreciation after a visit with a friend. Yet when it comes to the ultimate source of all our gifts, we tend to have very short memories. In a time of need or danger, even many people who “aren’t very religious” will pray for help and hope that God will do something for them. We pray for healing, for safety for ourselves or those we love, for success in various enterprises. But it’s all too easy to forget about God once we have the gift. And if we don’t come right out and say, “What have you done for me lately?” it may only be because we aren’t thinking about God at all.
As George MacDonald is quoted as saying, “The careless soul receives the Father’s gifts as if it were a way things had of dropping into his hand…yet he is ever complaining, as if someone were accountable for the problems which meet him at every turn. For the good that comes to him, he gives no thanks – who is there to thank? At the disappointments that befall him, he grumbles – there must be someone to blame!” And sadly, all too often, the one we often blame is God.
But you can be thankful even during the most difficult of circumstances in life. Martin Rinkhart, a Lutheran pastor, expressed his thanks over 400 years ago during the Thirty Years War in Germany. During that time, he lived in Eilenburg in Saxony, a walled city, that became a haven for refugees seeking safety from the fighting. But soon, the city became too crowded and food was in short supply. Then a famine hit and a terrible plague and Eilenburg became a giant morgue. In one year alone, Pastor Rinkhart conducted funerals for 4,500 people, including his own wife. As the war dragged on, the suffering continued. Yet he never lost courage or faith and during the darkest days of Eilenburg’s agony, he wrote this hymn:
Now thank we all our God,
with hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices
…keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills,
in this world and the next.
Even when he was waste deep in destruction, Pastor Rinkhart was able to lift his voice to heaven. He kept his mind on God’s love when the world was filled with hate. He kept his mind on God’s promises of heaven when the earth was a living hell. For death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person.
The scene in this morning’s Gospel is a case in point as there were ten men suffering from the most dreaded of all ancient diseases, leprosy. This devastating illness ate away at the body and left its victims maimed and disfigured. There was no known cure, and although the disease was not contagious, it was believed to be, so these poor men were cast out of the community. Everywhere they journeyed they heard the familiar words yelled out: “Unclean,” “Leper.” And then some would hurl stones at them to keep them away. That treatment forced them to not only live with their physical handicap, but also forced them to deal with their illness alone – isolated from those who could offer them a tender touch, a kind word, an ointment to soothe their painful bodies. They had to live in a hell of loneliness that can do more to drain a person’s energy for life than the most horrible of diseases. There was no hope for them – no chance for a family life, a useful occupation, or plans for their futures. But Jesus was coming to town, and since Jesus’ reputation as a healer had preceded him, they went to him for help. And Jesus did not disappoint them. He showered them with God’s grace, a free gift of mercy and cured the ten, but what happened then has us shaking our heads. For although ten lives were restored and made whole – one, only one man cleansed that day returned to thank Jesus. Sadly, the other men saw no need to express their gratitude. It is as if the blessings they received were expected, something they deserved, an entitlement – or as if the joy of the cure outweighed their gratitude to the giver. We really don’t know because Jesus doesn’t give us any insight into the hearts of these men. But he did commend the one man who returned to give thanks for his faith because real thanks to God is an expression of faith, of trust that God will provide all that we need.
Thanks giving is a way for us to remember God’s blessings and the gifts that he has freely given us, a gift that begins with life itself and extends to all of his created goodness and the promise of life to come. And it’s not enough to enjoy the gifts. We should show God that we appreciate what he has done for us. Having a thankful heart means that we live every day full of gratitude. We wake up every morning and go to bed every night appreciating the marvelous gifts God has given. For we have the beautiful world around us. We have friends, warm beds, food in our stomachs, and clothes on our backs. And through Jesus Christ we have the assurance that God will be with us always, to the end of the age. So no matter what life tosses in our direction, we will never be abandoned – God will be with us to strengthen us, encourage us, guide us, stand beside us, carry us when we are weary and send us on our way.
My friends, we were born with nothing, so everything we have is a blessing. Let us not be like the nine who received undeserved mercy and then turned their backs on Jesus and walked away from him. Instead, let us be like the one who returned to say thanks. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.