Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Only One Gave Thanks (Luke 17:11-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

It was the day after Thanksgiving.  A woman caught her husband weighing himself on the scale.  He was sucking in his stomach. “That won’t help you, honey,” his wife said.  “You know that won’t help.”  Her husband replied:  “Oh, it helps a lot; it’s the only way I can see the numbers.”

I hope you’re ready for Thanksgiving.  And I’m not speaking only about the food.  Thanksgiving is such an important holiday for us as Americans and for us as Christians.  It’s a time to give thanks to God for our nation and our freedoms, which we enjoy because of the sacrifice of the men and women in our military, and to give thanks that the God we believe in is a God whom we can trust, seek strength from, worship and serve.   It is a time to think about what we have to be thankful for.   It is a day which reminds us that thankfulness and happiness, happiness and being thankful, are inseparable.

Of course, people are thankful for different things.  On Thanksgiving a mom was outside one frigid morning shoveling snow from her driveway.  A neighbor stopped by to say hi and asked her why her husband wasn’t out there helping her shovel snow.  The mom explained that one of them had to stay inside to take care of the children, so they drew straws to see who would go out and shovel.  “Sorry about your bad luck,” the neighbor said.  The mom looked up from her shoveling and said, “Oh, don’t be sorry.  I won.”

Our nation celebrates Thanksgiving Day this coming Thursday.   Thanksgiving, as an unofficial festival, began in 1622, when Governor William Bradford summoned the survivors of the Mayflower to a meal to praise God for their first harvest, the first tangible sign that their pilgrimage had divine approval.

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, in the midst of a civil war that had torn this nation apart, issued a proclamation.  He wrote: “I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the united States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.  And I recommend that they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”   What inspiring words.

The season of Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to examine our hearts and minds and to honestly reflect on some important questions:  Do I live a thankful life?  Do I have a thankful heart?  What am I truly thankful for?   Being thankful is not natural to human nature.  It must be taught and caught.  One of the first important lessons parents teach their children is to say please and thank you.  Being thankful is an attitude, a powerful and positive attitude, that if learned, translates into enjoyment, fulfillment and appreciation.

Our Gospel story for this morning is about 10 lepers.  Lepers were the most revolting human beings of Jesus’ day.  They were repulsive to the eyes.  Their mere presence horrified people who feared they would be contaminated with the dreaded disease.  Lepers were socially ostracized, cut off from friends, banned from their homes and from the temple, and banished to live in remote valleys and caves.  They were literally the zombies, the walking dead of their day.

Luke tells us that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and as he approaches a village, ten lepers confront him.  One leper would be bad enough, but ten surrounding you would be terrifying. The story says: “Keeping their distance, they cried out in desperation, ‘Jesus Master, have mercy on us.’”   The law required that lepers keep their distance from people.  One authority writes that when the wind was blowing toward the healthy person, the law stated that lepers had to stand at least 50 yards away.  The law specified that if a leper saw someone approaching, they had to yell “unclean” three times to warn people and then cross the road.

These lepers knew that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi.  They call him master and appeal for Him to show mercy.  They fully believed the stories they had heard about Jesus’ power to heal.  And out of compassion and by the divine power within him, Jesus heals them.

Now if Jesus healed me of a dreaded disease, a life-threatening illness I would be overjoyed.  How about you?  I would shout aloud: “Thank you God.”   And yet though ten lepers were healed, only one turned back to give thanks.  “A Samaritan, seeing that he was healed, turned back and with a loud voice glorified God, fell down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

Jesus says: “Were not ten made clean?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give God praise except this foreigner?”   You can hear the sadness and disappointment in Jesus’ words.   This story reminds us that all too often human beings are not thankful.  The attitude of gratitude is the exception, rather than the rule.

Why was Jesus disappointed that only one leper had returned to give thanks for his healing?   Were his feelings hurt?  I think so; Jesus was after-all fully human.  But there is something larger going on in this story than hurt feelings.  Jesus was deeply concerned about the human heart: our inner life, our interior life, the condition of our soul.  Jesus knew what a person is like whose heart is thankless.  An ungrateful heart is a cold heart, a callous heart.  Jesus knew it was a form of spiritual death.  Spiritually we might call it heart disease.   Jesus' desire was for people to have a thankful spirit, grounded in their faith in God.  Jesus was saying that gratitude should be at the core of one’s being.  Jesus healed the lepers to change their hearts so they would God the glory and praise.

When faith in God is lacking, we focus primarily on ourselves: our needs, our fears, our disappointments, our resentments, our desires, our missed opportunities, with no or little appreciation of our blessings or the needs and hurts of those around us.  A cold heart doesn’t have the ability to appreciate beauty and wonder and generosity and surprises of grace.    We become blind to the love from others around us and we become blind to their needs and concerns.

We hear a lot about the attitude of entitlement today.  The greater our sense of entitlement, that we deserve the things we want in life, that we have the right to have the things we want in life, the smaller our sense of gratitude.  Like gratitude and happiness, so gratitude and humility also are inseparable.  Our entitlement mindset has led to a proliferation of lawsuits in our society, when we don't get something we want or believe we deserve, we sue somebody.

Look inside yourself for a moment.  Is your heart thankful?  If the answer is yes, ask yourself why?  Why are you a thankful person?  Since thankfulness is not intrinsic to human nature, what has formed your heart?  I suspect some important and influential role models helped to shape your heart.  How has your faith helped to develop your heart of gratitude?   I suspect a growing and maturing faith, infused by the Holy Spirit, has something to do with it.

Is your heart thankful? If the answer is no, ask yourself why?    If you have an ungrateful heart, repent, tell God you are sorry, seek God’s forgiveness and ask God to change your heart.  And God will.  True faith says thank you God for your grace.   The words of a contemporary praise song capture it well:  “Change my heart oh God Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You. You are the potter I am the clay, Mold me and make me, This is what I pray.  Change my heart oh God, Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You.”   Yes, a growing, dynamic and genuine faith in God has a way of stimulating and producing a grateful heart.  When we have changed hearts, when we are no longer ruled by pride and self-centeredness, we become more like Christ, more Christ-like.

There is always something to be thankful for.     In the darkest of times, there is always some light.  In the saddest of times, there are always lighter moments.   In times of loneliness, there is always someone you can call or someone who will surprise you.  Why?  It is because of God’s grace.

A childhood friend of mine from San Diego, Bill Frost, we called him Frosty, died a few days ago.  He lived in Flagstaff, AZ.  We had gone to Sunday School together and spent a lot of time together up in the elementary years through high school.  He was a Vietnam veteran, serving in the infantry, and the war definitely took its toll on him the rest of his life.  In these later years he developed a disease where the muscles in his legs were getting weaker, he wore braces, but knew one day he would be in a wheel chair.  We had not seen each other for over 30 years, and got reacquainted about 5 years ago.   We regularly communicated through email, texting and even telephone calls.

He often would say:  “Al, I am grateful to God for my life.  I can say this to you because as a minister you understand.  I just talked to a good friend for over an hour whom I haven’t talked to for years.  I am a happy guy.”  He talked about his good fortune to have two brothers and how close they were.  He would say: “You know Al, we are not as young as we used to be.  We don’t know how much time we have left, so we need to make the most of it and spend time with people who bring positive energy.  We need to do things we think God wants us to do.  I have just learned to appreciate the little things, the small things, the surprises in life, like getting reacquainted with old friends after years of being apart.  Yes, I have problems but they could be worse.  I thank God for so many good things in my life.”

Bill embodied the spirit in the letter of I Thessalonians 5:17 which says:  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

God's Spirit is at work in our hearts and minds through faith, working to bring hope out of hopelessness, strength out of weakness, wisdom out of foolishness, and gratitude out of ingratitude.  I can personally testify to this holy work of God in my own life over the years and yet I know I am still a work in progress.  I deeply believe there is an unbreakable bond between faith and thankfulness.  Faith in God inspires a thankful heart and a thankful heart strengthens and deepens faith.

One of them, when he saw that he was healed, gave thanks to God with a loud voice.”  My friends, let us too live lives of thankfulness.  Amen!

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