Sermon: Gratitude and difficult people (Thanksgiving Service)

Thanksgiving Service
November 19, 2017
Luke 17:11-19

Many of you know that I have a 2-year-old at home named Grace. Life with a 2-year-old certainly has its ups and downs. One minute she is the sweetest thing that makes us giggle with delight that she is ours, and the next minute she is throwing a tantrum over what seems like nothing.

For example: this week I was getting Grace dressed. We usually let her choose her own outfit (for better or worse!), which she dutifully did. When it got to chosing socks, however, this kid could not decide. I was getting impatient, so I just grabbed some and put them on her… and the screaming began. Then the stripping – off came the offending socks. Off

(this isn’t Grace – but close!)

came the shirt she had just been so pleased to choose. Then the pouting, and the incessant “nos!” And the hitting. And the kicking. This stage is not for the faint of heart! And they are right – you really can’t reason with a 2-year-old. Sometimes you’ve just got to walk away.

With a 2-year-old, instances like this pretty quickly become a funny story. Unfortunately, sometimes exchanges like this feel all to similar to some of the vitriolic conversations happening in our country about… name-your-issue. People shouting over each other, seeking validation only from their echo chambers, no one actually listening to what the other side has to offer. Heck, sometimes it feels a little like this even talking to people in our own families. It can be really hard to talk to people – even people we love – about issues about which we disagree. It makes me wonder, with an aching heart, “Is there any way that we can heal the divide? Is there any way to find restoration?”

I was thinking about this as I read our Gospel text this week – the famous story of the healing of the 10 lepers, in which all are healed but only one turns back to give thanks to God. It’s a story, of course, about gratitude, which is why it is assigned for Thanksgiving. And I will get to that, I promise. But first, I want to notice with you a few details of the story that will make that gratitude piece even more meaningful.

First of all, let’s notice that the other nine lepers did nothing wrong. In fact, they are doing exactly what Jesus told them to do – “go to the Temple to show yourselves to the priest.” In this culture, they would not be considered officially clean until the priest said so, so I imagine they were pretty eager to be scooting off to the priest just as soon as possible! And there’s nothing to say they weren’t thanking God all along the way, just that they didn’t turn back and voice that gratitude to Jesus. So maybe the point is not that some were thankful and some weren’t, but rather, that one took the time to say it aloud, and others didn’t. And that may seem small, but it can make a whole lot of difference.

Second, let’s remember a few things about leprosy. In Jesus’ time, leprosy was really any skin disease that was contagious. And so, lepers were generally kept excluded from

society so that there was no risk of it spreading. They were outcast, excluded from the community. On the flip side, to be healed of their leprosy meant not only healing of the physical disease, but also it presented the possibility of being able to go back home to their families, to be restored once again to their community. It was the gift of health, yes, but also of restored life.

This is the point that got me thinking about the difficulty we have in having conversations with people of different beliefs, because it brings up that question that’s very heavy on the hearts of many Americans lately, and that is, “What is required to heal division and restore community?” I have thought this many times in the past couple years especially – what would it take to restore community in America on the various issues we face: race, immigration and refugees, jobs and the economy, homeland security, gun violence… And these are just the issues on the national and international scene, to say nothing of the issues we face in our own families. As we anticipate gathering with family for holidays, we also anticipate navigating potentially difficult family dynamics, whether having to do with internal conflicts, past hurt, or even some of those same hot political issues. So how can we work toward healing the divide, whatever division it is that weighs most heavily on our hearts?

Perhaps one step toward an answer comes in the final detail I want to point out. Luke makes a point of telling us this little detail about the thankful leper: “…he was a Samaritan.” To our modern ear, this doesn’t have the weight it did for the original audience. When we hear “Samaritan” we think of the “Good Samaritan,” that nice, helpful, caring guy. Not so for first century Jews! To them, Samaritans were not nice, helpful or caring. They were dirty foreigners whose race, religion, and beliefs were all wrong, and they had no business being involved in the lives of the more godly, obedient, and upstanding Jews. So to really understand the weight of that statement, “He was a Samaritan,” substitute the category of people that most disgust or scare you, or that most remind you of some pain in your life. (He was a drug dealer, an abuser, a liar, a supporter of things that you feel are a menace to society…)

Luke makes a point of telling us that this one, who was openly thankful, putting his own agenda and desires on hold in order to express gratitude to Jesus, was indeed a despised member of society. And the result is to make us consider the possibility that lessons in faith, in love, in joy, in bridging the divide, might in fact come from the one from whom we least expect it, even, from someone or something we hate. That in itself is a tough pill to swallow – after all, wouldn’t we rather learn about faith from people we love and respect?

But in this case, the lesson, the gift, the grace, though the deliverer may not have been our first choice, is one fairly simple to latch onto and maybe even to apply, and that lesson is: practice gratitude.

You see, I said I would get back there! Practice gratitude. That’s what we will all be trying do this week, after all. Now we’re generally pretty good at being grateful – we’re grateful for our families, for a warm home, for food to eat. We’re grateful for a loving God, for Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins. But sometimes going beyond that can be more difficult, especially when we are in a tough place in life, or when we are grieving a difficult loss. Even in something as mundane as a 2-year-old’s tantrum about her socks, it can be hard to find gratitude! Those feelings should not be disregarded – they, too, are important to acknowledge and to articulate. But what if even (or especially) in this instances, we really worked at finding something for which we are grateful?

In fact, let’s try it right now. You can help me, by looking with me at my opening story, about Grace and her socks. That morning, I was about to lose it. I was tired because she’d woken me an hour earlier than usual, and I was frustrated and I knew she was too, and I was at my wit’s end. I felt pretty far away from grateful. Having heard my story – what in that situation could I be grateful for? (That we have the means to provide her with multiple pairs of socks to choose from. That my daughter is already exercising an independence that will serve her well as she grows. That because she had gotten me up an hour earlier than usual, I had time to deal with a tantrum. That she has developed the dexterity to take off her own shirt – a new skill!) Probably what I am most grateful for in exchanges like this is that every day, Grace teaches me something about human nature: about the importance of expressing feelings, and listening and validating them. She teaches me patience. She teaches me the value of a deep breath. She is always teaching me something. And I am grateful.

Suddenly, the Great Socks Crisis of 2017, when considered through the lens of gratitude, has become an experience that brings joy to my heart. Suddenly this encounter that made me want to throw up my hands and walk out (which I admit, I did do), has made me love my little girl even more fiercely than I did before. But it takes practice. Gratitude is a practice, just like running or weight-lifting, and one that needs to be done regularly – every day!

Once you strengthen those gratitude muscles, when you are really strong in gratitude, try it on harder things: find things on the other side of whatever divide you are facing for which you can express your gratitude. Look at the Samaritans in your life – those who are different, despised, or somehow not up to your standards. What about them are you grateful for? What are you grateful for in someone who has made you angry? What are you grateful for in someone who believes differently from you? What are you grateful for in some situation that seems incredibly unfair?

Gratitude is a practice, not something to do once a year on Thanksgiving, but rather, something to be repeated again and again so that we get better and stronger at it. In today’s Gospel, we see how difficult it must have been for a Samaritan to turn around, in a place where he knew he was despised, and offer a word of gratitude to his healer. In his small act, we are reminded of the grace and hope God continually offers us no matter what our shortcomings or our more despicable characteristics are. We are given the opportunity to see that hope and faith can be revealed even in unexpected places, situations, and people. And we are shown the immense healing and restorative powers within that simple act of gratitude.

Let us pray… Gracious God, you show yourself and your promise of hope even in places we don’t think to look. Help us to follow the Samaritan leper’s lead, and take the time to articulate that for which we are grateful, and give us the wisdom to seek gratitude before division, so that community might be restored. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.