November 13th, 2022 homily on Luke 17:11-19 by Pastor Galen
Yesterday I had an opportunity to visit one of our dear church members, and take her a little gift in honor of her 97th birthday. The member, Ms. Jean, shared that she has been reflecting back over life, she said that she doesn’t remember a single bad thing that happened in her life. She explained that it’s not because nothing bad ever happened to her, but rather that she has chosen to focus on all of the good things that have happened. Ms. Jean has learned what I believe is the secret of happiness – to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, and to focus on the many blessings we have received, rather than focusing on the negatives, or always wishing for something we cannot have.
Our gospel lesson this morning illustrates the power of giving thanks – and how uncommon it is to have an attitude of gratitude. In this story in Luke 17, we see that only one out of ten people who were healed of their leprosy returned to thank Jesus — a ratio that might be more universal that we may care to admit. My hope and my prayer is that we will grow to become more like the one man who formerly had leprosy who returned to give God thanks and praise – rather than the other nine.
Now leprosy, as you may know, was not just a physical condition. The disease called leprosy also had social ramifications as well. Leprosy was believed to be highly contagious, and so in Bible times, anyone who had leprosy was forced to live in social isolation, apart from their friends and family.
Many of us had a small taste of this sort of social isolation during the COVID pandemic. Perhaps you or your family members had COVID, and you had to make the difficult decision to quarantine for a time apart from your family members or those in your household. I’ve heard stories of family members passing through the door to members of their household who had to be isolated for a week or longer.
All of us experienced social isolation in some way, especially in the beginning of the pandemic. At first we thought that it would just be a couple of weeks where we would have to discontinue our church services. But then the pandemic stretched longer and longer, and our period of social isolation lasted longer than any of us could have ever imagined. (Who would have thought that over two and a half years later we would still frequently need to wear masks and practice social distancing?)
But the one thing that gave many of us hope during the pandemic was knowing that our period of social isolation would eventually come to an end. Someday, somehow, we knew that we would learn to live with COVID — that the vaccine would become available, and that we would eventually be able to reunite with our friends and family. And so, while we missed giving hugs and seeing each other face to face, we made do for a time with elbow bumps and Zoom calls.
But imagine, if you will, the prospect of never being able to hug your friends and family members again. Never being able to touch or see your loved ones close up. Imagine never being able to walk through the doors of a church again. Of missing out on every single holiday meal and special occasion – not just for a couple of weeks or months or years, but for the rest of your life.
This was the reality for people who were diagnosed with leprosy in Jesus’s day. Leprosy was believed to be an incurable disease, and to be diagnosed with leprosy was in many ways like receiving a death sentence.
Of course, people who had leprosy often ended up connecting with other people with leprosy. It is often the case that people who are cast out by society end up bonding with other people who are also social outcasts – even if they don’t have much more in common than that. And so these ten lepers had each other. And yet no doubt they missed their friends and family members back home tremendously. And they would have given anything, and gone to any lengths – for the possibility of being healed and allowed to return home.
Ten Lepers Encounter Jesus
And so when the lepers heard that when they heard that a famous healer was coming to their town, it’s no surprise that they made their way to Jesus. Luke tells us that the men “approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” (Luke 17:13). In those days, people with leprosy had to ring a bell when they were anywhere near other people, and call out “unclean, unclean!” to warn everyone to stay away. And so I imagine these 10 lepers, huddled together for fear of infecting those around them, crying out to Jesus for mercy, wondering whether or not Jesus will heal them, wondering whether he will even bother to stop and listen to them.
But of course Jesus does listen to them. He has mercy on them, and tells them to go and show themselves to the priests at the temple.
Now it may seem odd to us that Jesus would send them to the religious leaders of the day, rather than to a doctor, but this was the law in those days, and the standard procedure if and when someone was healed from a skin disease. The priests would examine the person, and determine if they were truly free of the disease, and if and when they could return and be a part of the community again.
Now, interestingly enough, when Jesus directed them to go and show themselves to the priests, they had not yet been healed! It was only after they started on their way towards the temple that they were healed. This took a tremendous amount of faith on the part of all ten lepers. First, they came to Jesus for healing. They asked him to have mercy on them. That took faith. Then, they took Jesus at his word, and started off on their way towards the temple to show themselves to the priests, even though they had not been healed. Talk about tremendous faith! In many ways, all ten are to be commended for their tremendous amount of humility and faith in God.
One out of Ten
But what happened next is what is particularly striking – particularly when we think about the topic of gratitude. Because nine of the people who were healed are never heard from again in the story. Do they continue on to see the priest? Do they go back home and reunite with their family? We don’t know. But what we do know is that it’s the one – the one who turned back to thank Jesus and give praise to God – who receives the added blessing.
One of the men – who happened to be a Samaritan – a group of people hated and despised by the Jewish people of the day – when he saw that he was healed, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’s feet and thanked him…Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ Then [Jesus] said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:15-19).
All ten were healed, but only one returned to give God thanks. In some ways, this is startling, but in other ways – if we stop and think about it – it probably rings true for us as well. How many times do we seek God for something, and then when we receive it, we are so excited that we forget to give God thanks? We tell everyone else around us – our friends, our family members, but we forget to thank the One who answered our prayer! Or we fail to even do that – we just receive the blessing, and move on to our next need or prayer request.
And so often we simply take for granted the blessings we have been given because they’re all around us. When we’re in good health, and have all of our basic needs met – those are times we are most prone to forget to give God thanks.
But it shouldn’t be this way. Notice here Jesus’s question – where are the other nine? God desires – and even expects – us to give God thanks and praise for the blessings we have received. Throughout the Scriptures we are exhorted – commanded even – to give God praise. This is not optional. This is a mandatory part of the Christian life. God is worthy of our praise, and we ought to praise God for each and every blessing we have been given.
But cultivating a spirit of gratitude is not just a command. It’s also something that is good for us. Notice here Jesus’s words of blessing to the Samaritan. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” – or some translations say “whole.” The word here that’s used is a different word than the one used to describe the ten when they were healed from their leprosy. That word – “cleansed” – had to do specifically with their leprosy. Their outward skin condition. Their physical health. But Jesus’s word to this Samaritan man is that he has been made whole. Not just physically, but spiritually, emotionally, and relationally whole. Because this man returned to give God thanks – because he recognized that Jesus was the source of his healing – and because he turned to God in gratitude, he was made whole.
Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, has done extensive research on gratitude, studying more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that across the board people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including physical, psychological, and social.
…gratitude grows the more you use it.
Several years ago, author and blogger Chris Winfield embarked on a journey to test out this theory and to cultivate gratitude in his own life. Prior to that, he said, “I was always looking for the bad things that happened to me, rather than looking at all of the good things that were happening in my life every single day.”
And so he began writing a gratitude list every single day, and had kept it up for more than 34 months as of the time he wrote a blog post, entitled, “13 Things I’ve Learned Writing 1,024 Gratitude Lists.”
Here are the 4 most important things he said he learned on his gratitude journey:
“1. It’s Hard at First: My mentor told me to text him three things that I am grateful for every day. Sounds pretty easy right? Well, it wasn’t. When you’ve lived most of your life not focusing on gratitude, it’s not so simple to change that.
2. There Is Always Something to Be Grateful For: No matter what was going on in my life (business problems, I was sick, someone cut me off in traffic) there was always something that I could find to be grateful for (my health, my daughter’s smile, etc.).
3. Gratitude Grows the More You Use It: [as A.A. Milne says in Winnie-the-Pooh, “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” My gratitude lists started off very basic and I struggled to find things to be grateful for (especially on the really tough days). But once I consistently took action, it became easier and easier.
4. It Can Help Stop Negative Thought Patterns: According to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, the average person has about 70,000 thoughts each day! There’s one big problem with this — the vast majority of these thoughts are negative. Gratitude can work to stop these negative thought patterns by replacing it with something positive.”
Cultivating An Attitude of Gratitude
Thanksgiving is a couple of weeks away, and this is a wonderful time for us to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. Personally, I am seeking to start out every day during the month of November by writing a Thank you note to someone in my life who has been a blessing to me. (If you remember, I encouraged us to spend some time “off-line” each day during the month of November, and to spend at least part of that time expressing our gratitude to God and to those around us).
Now, it may seem silly to keep a list of things we’re grateful for, or to intentionally start the day or the week by writing Thank You notes. You may think that gratitude has to be spontaneous in order for it to be genuine. But the reality is that unless we stop in our tracks, and intentionally turn around to give God praise – like the man who was healed by leprosy – then we will continue on our way, failing to give God thanks, focusing on the negatives or what we need or want from God. So, as counterintuitive as it may seem, in order to develop a spontaneous spirit of gratitude, we need to intentionally carve out time and institute practices in our own lives in order to become people who consistently have a spirit of gratitude. Spontaneous or not.
And so I encourage you, in whatever way you can, and however you feel led – to intentionally practice gratitude. Make a list, write out a Thank you note, text a friend or loved one each day for the next few weeks and let them know you are grateful for them. And don’t forget to give God thanks and praise for all of the daily blessings God has given to us: waking us up each day, and starting us on our way, food on our table, clothes on our back. May we become the one in ten who give God praise, and may our hearts expand as we give God the praise that God is due!