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The Rev. John Thomas The Rev. John Thomas

The Rev. John Thomas is president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, headquartered in Cleveland, OH.

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United Church of Christ

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United Church of Christ, Cleveland, OH

Gratitude Is More Than Saying Thanks

Luke 17:11-19

19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)

October 10, 2004

Why do you suppose the Samaritan came back to thank Jesus? After all, Jesus hadn't made a formal thank you part of the bargain. He simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests. The Samaritan's nine partners, obviously, felt no need to return. Why the Samaritan?

Perhaps he had a mother who drummed into him the obligation to write thank-you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts. Some of us remember the experience and have made thank-you's a routine of life. And not without gratitude to those mothers, though we may not have been fully persuaded at the time. But, clearly, more was at stake in this story than demonstrating polite social etiquette. Why did the Samaritan return?

Part of the answer may be found in the identity of this healed man. He was a leper like the other nine. But alone among the 10, he was a Samaritan. As such, he was twice scorned, twice rejected, twice removed from the community. As a leper, he was unclean ritually and, therefore, to be isolated, an object, no doubt, of revulsion and fear on the part of his neighbors. And as a Samaritan he would have been seen as an outsider-and a despised one at that-to the more orthodox Jews of Galilee. Perhaps this Samaritan leper suffered more and thus his healing evoked a more profound gratitude.

The fact is we don't know why he came back. Luke apparently is not interested in that. Luke may have been more interested in portraying the boundaries of God's grace, boundaries that in Christ will include the Jews - after all, the lepers are not told to bypass the religious authorities and rituals of the day - but boundaries that ultimately will expand to include even those the world defined as unclean, foreign, or impure. Luke seems to be telling us a story about a daring boundary crossing, daring both on the part of Jesus but also on the part of the Samaritan.

I'm struck by the change in posture of the Samaritan. When we first see him, he and the other nine approach Jesus but keep their distance. None presumes to break the social conventions surrounding their disease. Yet when the Samaritan returns, he comes close and lies down in humility at Jesus' feet. Among the many things this healing accomplished was the breaching of a formidable boundary and the movement from painful isolation to grateful intimacy. Maybe that's why the Samaritan came back, not simply because he desired or felt obliged to say thank you but out of a yearning for intimacy with God, a sense that faith cannot simply mean the performance of rituals and practices but lures us into relationship with God that is intimate, humbling, healing, even dependent.

Part of the illness of life today and part of what leads to the sense of distance and isolation so many feel is a deeply ingrained feeling of entitlement, the notion that I am somehow entitled to things, that I owe no one anything and have no responsibility for anyone. It is a deep self-centeredness that assumes everything is my right, my due, an attitude that replaces concern for the community with a preoccupation with my own needs. It enables me to maintain my distance in the illusion of absolute independence. Healed of illness, we wander off like the nine because, after all, we're entitled to health.

A few months ago, I spent a week at a Benedictine monastery with a group of seminary students. At noon every day those of us in the guest house joined the monks for Eucharist along with a number of people from the local community. One day I watched a couple of retirement age make their way to receive the bread and the cup. The man wore a sweatshirt that said, "I can only be nice to one person a day, and today is not your day. Tomorrow doesn't look too good either." What was he thinking, I wondered. And why did his wife let him get out of the house dressed that way-going to the priest to receive the real presence of Christ's broken body with that kind of message emblazoned across his chest? The next day they were back, and his sweatshirt read, "What don't you understand about the word 'no'?" Now, obviously, I know nothing of this man's circumstance in life. But to share in the sacrament of Christ's community while wearing slogans that declare we owe nothing to anyone-that announce our intention to keep our distance-is, at best, incongruous.

"Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back." Turned back from going his own way, from self-justification, from the protection of distance, and lay at Jesus' feet. And there he proclaimed his ultimate dependence on God. In the end, gratitude is an expression of our need for others, of our need for God. We cannot live at a distance and be truly healed at the same time. We are not really entitled to health or to joy or even to righteousness. Like the food that nourishes our bodies, these things do not grow up independently within us, but are literally foreign, alien to us, gifts from beyond ourselves that lure us into mutual interdependence with all others who have been embraced by a God who reached beyond the boundaries that we and the world have established to tell us we belong. One of the classic confessions of the Christian faith asks us, "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" The response is "that I belong, not to my self, but to my Savior Jesus Christ." Can you hear the Samaritan in this confession? Gratitude is what teaches us the truth about our lives.

Maybe Mom was onto something more important than just proper etiquette when she drummed into us the importance of writing thank-you notes. It always amazed me when, after the end of the confirmation program in one of my congregations, the rite was concluded and the party held and not a single parent said thank you to me for guiding their children through this faith-learning, faith-discerning time. Did they simply assume it was my job, that I was getting paid for this and, therefore, didn't need any further expression of gratitude? I was always taken aback at the end of Little League season when the cars drove off and no one said thank you for the time I had devoted coaching their sons. I wasn't that bad a coach! When my son was part of a youth steward program at one of our church's national meetings, I wrote a thank-you to the two pastors who gave up a week of their vacation to be advisors to the group of teenaged boys and girls. They later told me that I was the only one who ever said, "Thank you." It's more than just a lack of civility and good manners that diminishes life today. It's the failure to realize that we live in a profoundly interdependent world, that the strength of our communities and the health of our souls comes not as entitlement or right, but as gift.

Saying a prayer before meals quietly or with others acknowledges that my life depends on God's bounty and on a host of people who grew, processed, distributed, prepared, and served the food that gives me nourishment and delight. Saying a prayer by a hospital bed admits that my health rests in God's love as well as the skills of scientists and physicians and nurses and a host of people who maintain these places of care. And, yes, even sending a thank-you note, as mothers perhaps instinctively knew, is far more than social convention, but an awareness that the best gifts and thus much of the joy of life are not things we can give ourselves but come from beyond us as an alluring expression of love, even an invitation to love. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are weaned away from the myth of entitlement and the arrogance and isolation of independence. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are shaped by the truth of our belonging to others, even to Christ.

The healthiest people I know are not the ones who delight in being the proverbial self-made man or woman. The healthiest people I know are those whose lives express a deep gratitude for everything and everyone that has reached across a boundary and border to enrich and embrace them. For them, dependence is not the dirty word we have sometimes made of it, but merely the simple pattern and the plain truth about life. Jesus said, at the end, to the Samaritan," Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." Luke, I suspect, knew that the healing came from God and not from the Samaritan's belief, but he also knew that to be truly well requires the embrace of heartfelt gratitude with the alien grace of Christ's daring love, that the gifts of grace demand and evoke the answering gratitude of God's children.

Let us pray: Teach us to practice gratitude in our lives that we may honor the graciousness at the center of your creation. Forgive every form of self-centeredness that assumes we are entitled to what we have and make us mindful of every good gift and of every good gift-giver. Thus, may we return again and again to you as those redeemed and renewed by your love rather than our deserving and so experience the joy of your presence that makes us well. Amen.

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