“Leper Lessons”

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.  Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

God of the sparrow
God of the whale
God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise

God of the rainbow
God of the cross
God of the empty grave
How does the creature say Grace
How does the creature say Thanks

Jaroslav Vajda’s hymn, which we’ll sing in a few minutes, is loved by many for its inclusion of the creatures of earth and heaven in the spiritual life we humans share.   And he speaks through these verses of what’s at the heart of our scripture passage:  giving thanks.

How desperately we are in need of thanksgiving. 

Just look around – there are so many reasons to be worried:  inflation and economic anxiety, not just in the U.S. but around the world;  a gridlocked Congress,  threats to democracy, and intense political strife as the mid-term elections loom;  the war in Ukraine and Russia and other conflicts around the world;  increasing natural disasters amidst climate change;  battles over immigration;  and more.  I hesitate to even mention challenges here in Littleton like the consternation posed by gun dealerships, as well as our concerns about continuing COVID infections.  

Looking at these dimensions of our lives, you might wonder why I call for thanksgiving.  Wouldn’t lamentation be a more appropriate response?  Or a cry for justice?  Or the call to action?  These are certainly possibilities, and they do have their time and place.  

But today, and given our reading, I’m reminded that of all of our responses to events blessed or challenging, great or small, one of the most powerful – and often overlooked – is that of thanksgiving.

Jesus is traveling along the border of Samaria and Galilee when the unclean and outcast lepers call out to him.  “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”  “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus responds.  The lepers go to the priests and are cleansed.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Of the ten lepers healed, a single one, a Samaritan, races back to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice.  He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him profusely.

 “Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?” Jesus asks.  “Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Luke doesn’t tell us how the Samaritan replies.  But Jesus tells him something before sending the man on his way. “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

A lone man – not only a leper, but a despised Samaritan – makes his way back to Jesus to give him thanks for the cure of his leprosy.  Only one takes the time to count his blessings.  Only one bothers to come back to Jesus and say thanks. 

          Keep in mind that the other nine lepers did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They were obedient and followed instructions.  All ten lepers were made CLEAN.  But the Samaritan was made WHOLE.  Gratitude moved him beyond the standard, the acceptable, the ordinary – and so it can for us.  Without the integration of gratitude into our lives, there can’t be lasting wholeness or wellness, health or holiness.  Our longing for healing and wholeness are incomplete without the return to the source of that healing for a final, cleansing exercise:  giving thanks.

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl provides a revealing example of what it means to express gratitude for wholeness and wellness.  Frankl was a prisoner in the concentration camps during World War II.  Dr. Gordon Allport, in his preface to Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, says that “there [ Frankl ] found himself stripped to a literally naked existence.  His father, mother, brother and his wife died in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens, so that except for his sister, his entire family perished in these camps.  How could he – every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination – how could he find life worth preserving?”

            Frankl answers Allport’s question when he recounts his experience immediately following his liberation from the camps:

          “One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country, past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp.  Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song.  There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space.  I stopped, looked around and up to the sky – and then I went down on my knees.  At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world – I had but one sentence in mind – always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space.  How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence, memory can no longer recall.  But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started.”  From that point of thanksgiving, Frankl marked his renewal as a human being.  

         In the same way, our wellness and wholeness depend on our being able to celebrate and give thanks for God’s blessings.  The health the Samaritan leper celebrates at Jesus’ feet is something no priest, no doctor, could measure or prescribe.  The Samaritan returns to the source of his healing at Jesus’ feet to offer praise “with a loud voice.”  We too can offer thanks and praise even without whooping it up.

          What are some of the daily healing measures God carries out in your life?  Have you remembered to thank God for:

– a good night’s sleep
– a day of blue sky and sunshine that gets you outside
– a day of gray skies and drizzle that keeps you inside
– the unexpected voice of a distant friend on the phone
– the comfort of the Book of Psalms
– Mozart
– Haagen-Daz
– uncontrollable laughter
– unashamed tears
– Tylenol
– your spouse or partner
– your children

Research studies show that people who count their blessings may find themselves sleeping better, exercising more, and caring more about others.  People who remind themselves of the things they’re grateful for – people who count their blessings one by one, consciously, every day – show significant improvements in mental health, and even in some aspects of physical health. 

Gratitude becomes easier as we practice it.  Gratitude, like faith and hope and love and commitment, are not inborn traits that some have and others don’t.  Rather, gratitude is more like a muscle that can be strengthened over time.  As we practice giving thanks and more frequently share our gratitude, we not only grow in gratitude but create an example for others.  When we create a climate in which it’s easier to be grateful, we encourage those around us to see the blessings all around us.

Take a moment to scan the headlines and you’ll see how scarce – and how desperately needed – more expressions of gratitude are.  Accusation, excuses, venting anger – these have such a hold on our culture.  We live in the age of complaint, whether shared in person or increasingly through social media.  What a powerful response gratitude is in these situations.

God gives us healing measures – physical and spiritual – every single day.  The liberation and healing God offers us is often brought about by the people we love and the people who love us.  God touches and cleanses us through others.  Through relationships which have changed us.   Unfortunately, we often forget to go back and offer our gratitude to these God-inspired and enabled people who have changed our lives.

Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself.  Gratitude frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we’d ever imagined.   Even to return to a Jewish rabbi with thanks and praise when you’re a Samaritan – because you’ve realized that you’re more than a Samaritan, or a leper, or even a healed leper;  you’re a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.

This world is full of blessing and challenges.  Which will we focus on?  Yes, there’s a time for lament and cries for justice and activism.  While we live in a culture filled with blame and accusation and almost devoid of thanksgiving, let us remember the tenth leper.  And may we go forth to be heralds of blessing and bearers of powerful words of gratitude to share with the world.  Amen.