Year C; Proper 23; 10.13.2019
Recently, my sisters and I were reminiscing about some of the memories we had of our mother. “Thank you” notes were her pride and joy. She loved writing them. She thought we should love writing them, too. But we always had other plans; friends, play, school, many distractions that were much higher priorities, we thought, than “thank you” notes. She nagged and nagged, and wore us down to finally agree on a deadline for when all our notes from birthdays and Christmas would be written. I don’t think I ever got away with not writing one. And yet now, when I think about the kindness, the time someone took to think of me with a gift, it’s not so difficult to make saying, “thanks” a habit.
The ten lepers in the gospel story today were roving together in a cluster. They were living together as social outcasts. Their faces and limbs, no doubt, were deformed with the classic nubby look of leprosy. Other skin diseases were also called leprosy. Skin with open sores and lesions was also considered leprous. I remember studying leprosy as a microbiologist and learning that it is caused by a bacterium that affects nerves in the face, fingers and limbs. Instead of causing nerve pain, it does the opposite. It blocks pain. So, a person with leprosy could put her fingers in an open flame and never feel the pain that causes the rest of us to jerk our hand away and cry in agony.
Today, leprosy is curable with multiple antibiotics and steroids. But, back in Jesus’ day, there was no medical way to treat it. Anyone with a skin deformation or lesions was suspect and put out of the synagogue and rejected from society, even their family. There are strict instructions and precautions given in the Book of Leviticus for people with leprosy and how the priest was to treat it.
Jesus correctly told the lepers to show themselves to the priest. That was correct by the law of Leviticus. The priest was to examine their linen or cotton garment for, um…, evidence of fluid from the sores. Then, the person was to wait seven days and return to the priest so the priest could examine the person’s clothes and skin again to see whether there was still fluid from the sores. Another seven days were to pass, and if there was no healing, the person was declared unclean. In fact, they were to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever they encountered others.
Naturally, anyone with a skin disease would wish for mercy of any kind to be given them. As Jesus passed by the ten lepers, they called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They didn’t ask for a healing. They wanted someone to have compassion on them. So, Jesus followed the instruction from Leviticus and told them to show themselves to the priest. And on their way, all ten lepers found themselves cured. Jesus healed ALL TEN! Lesions, deformity, scabs, bruises – whatever they had that separated them from their community as “Unclean! Unclean!” was no longer a barrier.
By this time, chapter 17 in Luke’s gospel, Jesus had cured many sick people, told the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the story of poor Lazarus and the rich man. And now, he is the agent of the miraculous cure of ten lepers. But the focus of this story moves quickly from a remarkable healing to Jesus’ clear disappointment that only one of the cured lepers “turned back” to thank him. The healed ONE, fell face-down flat at Jesus’ feet, “Praised God with a loud voice…and thanked Jesus.” He didn’t have to be nagged! His spirit led him back to the source of his healing, and it was the most natural thing for him to do.
Jesus not only noticed that only one of the ten thought to say “thank you.” He also noticed that the one who said, “Thank you” was a Samaritan – a foreigner, a hated one who didn’t need a case of leprosy to be declared unclean by the priest.
“Thank you. Thank you, God, for_________.” Fill in the blank. A daily discipline of gratitude is one of the most healing things we can do. Yet, every single day, there is much to distract us from our own spirit of gratitude.
We may not have leprosy, but there is enough to worry about in a single day that, even if we do feel a brief break from all the worries, like a beautiful day, a healing, a friend listening to us, we, like the nine lepers might not remember to stop, receive it and give thanks for it. But life is going so fast and there are new challenges around every corner. Maybe each one of us needs a “nagging” mom to or a disappointed Jesus to remind us of our “thank yous!”
The healing power of giving thanks is no secret to those who participate in 12-step programs. There are two prayers that are imperative in working a 12 step program each day: “God help me!” and “God, thank you!” In my Al-Anon daily reader it says, “Gratitude is in itself a wholesome and healing force and it becomes all the more real when we make it a regular part of our prayers.” (November 14, “One Day at a Time in Al-Anon”) It’s true, Gratitude is a wholesome and healing force.
But it’s a struggle to keep focused on gratitude particularly on the bad days. Years ago, a parishioner shared with me her lengthy, debilitating major depression that caused her to be hospitalized for a year. Depression had gripped her so severely and for so long that she and her family wondered if she would ever come through it. During that year of hospitalization she described the many times her psychiatrist had treated her with Electroconvulsive Therapy and placed the blame of her depression on her.
She eventually was well enough to return home. However, she had another problem she knew she needed to face: she had a dependency on alcohol. As she began to attend AA meetings and entered into a relationship with a sponsor, she learned about the daily discipline of gratitude. To notice the many blessings of each day and give thanks for them.
She told me that, at first, she was quite resistant to this practice. But her wise sponsor shared a tool with her: Start with the alphabet. Look for things from A through Z and give thanks. She laughed when she told me how much she hated it at first. This is how she started her A to Z giving gratitude,
“I give thanks for [expletive] ants! I give thanks for [expletive] birds. I give thanks for my [expletive] car. I give thanks for the [expletive] door!”
She said that often, by the time she got to “G” or “H” the expletives had vanished and she started to feel better. She kept up this discipline. She told me that she sometimes she got to “Z” and had to start over with “A” because it took that long to feel better. But she stuck with it and the practice was cause for her healing.
Gratitude is a prayer developed as a habit over time. I do know that in the deep darkness of anxiety, dread, despair, depression, addiction, fear, grief – a whole host of challenges in life, it is easy to lose sight of the absolute love and abundance God presents to us each and every day….ALL. DAY. LONG. NO KIDDING!
Look around you.
What do you say “thank you” for right now?