Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Challenge of Gratitude - November 28, 2010

November 28, 2010

Luke 17:11-19

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Gratitude

I’m glad we schedule a national holiday based around the idea of giving thanks, but it’s odd what we do the next day. On Thanksgiving Day we gather with family and friends and give thanks and the next day we go out and trample each other in the malls and stores and fight over bargains. I read of one person who was arrested on Friday because they threatened to shoot anyone who got ahead of them in line. Their only concern after being arrested was being too late to get to the stores to find the bargains!

This morning we complete our series Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, with the message The Challenge of Gratitude. It is a challenge, I think, to retain a spirit of gratitude.

Our Scripture text for this morning is the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus. Luke tells us this event takes place as Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem, where he would soon be crucified. As Jesus is traveling the ten lepers begin crying out to him, asking him to have pity on them.

The lepers are representative of the huge amount of need that is in our world. It’s not necessary to look very hard to find need. Really, all you have to do is walk out your front door. Much of the world’s need is like these ten lepers – it shouts at us as we go about our daily routine. But we must also remember there’s need that is very quiet. There are some people who have needs who never speak about it to anyone. There are some people who suffer in silence, perhaps because they believe there is nowhere to turn for help. We must develop a sensitivity to this kind of need, because it is all around us; perhaps it is right next to us this morning; perhaps it is in our own homes.

Luke says these ten men cry out to Jesus and ask him to have pity upon them. Jesus heals the lepers, and it’s interesting to note these men didn’t actually ask to be healed. That may be the implication by asking for pity, but perhaps they were only asking for a little bit of money or food. Jesus, though, goes beyond what is asked, and he heals them.

I think this is certainly emblematic of what God does for us; God gives us far more than what we ask. In an age where so many of the images presented of God are harsh and judgmental, this is a message people need to hear. Jonathan Edwards, in the 19th century, had a famous sermon entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he described God as holding humanity by a thin thread over the fires of hell. In a Clint Eastwood way he was saying give me a reason to let go and make my day.

God is not anxiously waiting for an opportunity or reason to punish us; God is working always to bring blessing to our lives. I don’t mean that in the way that the prosperity preachers intend; but God is working to bring blessings to our lives. James reminds us of this when he writes every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17). And when we look at our lives we can certainly find great blessings.

As the story continues we find an element of sadness, because only one of the ten lepers comes back to thank Jesus. In verses 15 and 16 Luke says that One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.

Being blessed doesn’t automatically translate into gratitude. If we get a 10% return on an investment these days we would be ecstatic, but only a 10% return of gratitude from healing is an extremely poor return. Where were these other nine men? What were they thinking? Why didn’t they come to Jesus to express gratitude?

What makes their lack of gratitude especially shocking is these lepers knew what they had lost. Their lives were gone. They were outcasts from their own families. They couldn’t associate with anyone because of the fear of spreading the dreaded disease of leprosy. Imagine what it would be like to be so cut off from others. And then imagine your life literally being given back to you. What would you do in such a case? Wouldn’t you shout for joy, wouldn’t you hug and kiss the person who gave you your life back? Wouldn’t you say what can I do for you? Wouldn’t you be forever grateful? Wouldn’t you at least say thank you? Two little words is such a small matter for having your life given back to you.

At this point, the early readers of Luke’s gospel would no doubt be incensed by the ingratitude of these nine men. How dare they be so ungrateful? What is wrong with these guys?

And then Luke adds a very interesting comment. Not only was there just one leper who returned to thank Jesus, but the one who returned, Luke says, was a Samaritan. This parable shares a similarity with the parable of the Good Samaritan – the shining example in both stories is a Samaritan. The implication for those listening would be very obvious – the ones who should have been quickest to return thanks said nothing, while the one no one expected was the only one to express gratitude.

The Samaritans, remember, were a despised people. To have a Samaritan elevated to the level of being the proper example would really sting those who were listening to this story. It would sting because the point was this – are you, the listener, like these other nine? Has God blessed your life, has God given you your life back in some way, and have you gone on your way without a sense of gratitude?

When these men were lepers they were not Jews and Samaritans; they were ten men in need. Suffering and need makes us brothers and sisters in a way that prosperity does not. But when wholeness returned to their lives that sense of unity was broken. Maybe one of the lessons we will learn from the struggle of recent years is our connection to and dependency upon others.

Of all God’s creatures, humans are the most vulnerable for the longest period time. Many animals are born and are able to walk almost immediately; many are able to care for themselves after just a short period of time. Humans, though, remain vulnerable for a long time. Perhaps this is to remind us of our dependency upon one another. But we can easily forget that we are dependent on one another and we can easily forget that we are connected to one another. The breakdown of our society is truly tragic, and the lines and the boundaries that are drawn and set in such drastic ways must surely sadden the heart of God.

These ten lepers were separated from society because of their disease. There was a literal separation from family, friends, and society. Many people have separation, but it is not physical. It is the separation of a fractured relationship, it is a separation brought on by a prejudice toward or a judgment about other people; it is a spiritual separation from the connectiveness between people and with God.

In my years in ministry I have spent a lot of time in hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral homes. In those facilities I have witnessed a great deal of pain and sadness. Many, many times I have left those facilities and said a prayer of thanks for my health and the blessings of my life, and I also gave myself a mental reminder to never forget my good fortune in life. Invariably, I am not far down the road before I begin to think about problems or worries and it is amazing how that sense of gratitude quickly disappears. Gratitude can be a great challenge.

There is so much for which we can be thankful. Twenty years ago, on Thanksgiving day, my family and I were sitting in a hospital in Wheeling, West Virginia, where my father was dying. We went to our family home that evening, with gloomy thoughts of Thanksgiving. After arriving there a couple by the name of Bill and Essie Taylor, who were our next door neighbors when I was young and who are members of my home church came down the driveway and unloaded a complete Thanksgiving meal for us that they had prepared. It was a great gift to us, and I will never forget what they did for us that day.

Gratitude can be a challenge. It can be a challenge because we get so caught up in life that we can forget about what God has given to us. May we be ever grateful for what he has done for us.

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