(Creative Commons image by Nastassia Davis on Flickr)
Dear Working Preacher,
I think we are in sore need of thanksgiving.
Take a look around. There is plenty of cause to be worried: too much unemployment; a gridlocked Congress and shut-down government; strife in Syria and too many other places in the world; the possibility of default on U.S. debts and the world financial crisis it would prompt; and more. And we haven’t even talked about the challenges in your particular community or the many households of your congregation.
Looking at these dimension of our life, you might wonder why I call for thanksgiving. Wouldn’t lament be more appropriate? Or a cry for justice? Or the call to action? Certainly these are also possibilities and have their time and place. But just now, and given today’s reading, I am reminded that of all of our responses to events blessed or challenging, great or small, one of the most powerful -- and oft overlooked -- is that of thanksgiving.
In the passage before us from Luke, Jesus is again in a border region, again crossing boundaries and wandering where he probably shouldn’t go, and again healing people with whom he has no business interacting. This time he runs into a group of ten. These ten are lepers -- unclean and outcast. They approach him with a plea for healing but also keep their distance, trained by bitter experience to expect little from those around them. In response, Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the local priest, promising by implication that they will be made well. And, indeed, as they travel they are made well, cleansed of their infirmity. When one of them notices he turns back to express his gratitude, falling at Jesus’ feet in a posture of worship to give thanks.
At this point, I would simply note two things. First, the other nine did nothing wrong. In fact, they did exactly as they were told and presumably also enjoyed healing. Again, they didn’t do anything wrong and received the blessing promised them.
Second, the one who turns back, however, is identified by Jesus, recognized and affirmed that he not only saw that he was healed but returned to give thanks, and was then blessed a second time. Blessed a second time? Was he not made well like the others? Yes, but Jesus concludes his exchange by inviting the man to rise and go on his way and saying that his faith has made him not only physically well, but also whole and, indeed, saved. That’s part of the complex and multivalent meaning of the Greek root word σoζω (transliterated as “sozo” and pronounced “sod-zo”) Jesus uses.
So what does the man who returned receive? Certainly, the blessing of healing, as did the other nine. But also the blessing that comes from recognizing blessing and giving thanks -- the blessings, that is, of wholeness and even salvation.
Have you ever noticed just how powerful it is not only to receive blessing but also to name it and give thanks for it? Maybe you’re at dinner with family or friends, and it’s one of those meals, prepared with love and served and eaten deliberately, where time just stops for a little while and you’re all caught up and bound together by this nearly unfathomable sense of community and joy. And then you lean over to another, or maybe raise your glass in a toast, and say, “This is great. This time, this meal, you all. Thank you.” And in seeing and giving thanks, the original blessing is somehow multiplied. You’ve been blessed a second time.
Or maybe you were at the Grand Canyon (or some other wonderful spot), taking in the beauty of the vista, when you lean over to your companion and say, “This is so beautiful. I’m so glad you’re here to share it with me.” And again, the blessing is multiplied and you’ve been blessed yet again.
Thanksgiving is like that. It springs from perception -- our ability to recognize blessing -- and articulation -- giving expression, no matter how inadequate it may seem at the time, of our gratitude for that blessing. And every time these two are combined -- sight and word -- giving thanks actually grants a second blessing.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think gratitude is the noblest emotion. 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. But maybe, just maybe, gratitude is also the most powerful emotion, as it 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 to pay homage when you are a Samaritan because you've realized that you are more than a Samaritan, or a lepar, or even a healed leper; you are a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.
And that’s what the nine missed. It’s not that they did anything wrong; it’s that they didn’t see their good fortune and didn’t voice their blessing, and so missed out on also being made whole.
So let’s look at our world again: filled with troubles? Yes. But also filled with blessing. Families that care for each other, colleagues who work hard and well, schools where teachers care about their pupils and students are eager to learn, a form of government that is far from perfect yet strives to honor its citizens by conveying a level of freedom and opportunity rarely imagined, relief agencies that tend the afflicted, service people who regularly put their lives on the line at home and abroad, good neighbors who support one another, a community of faith where the word is preached and the life of faith nourished, and more.
This world is full of blessing and challenges. Which will we focus on? Truth be told, there is a time for lament and cries for justice and activism. But given that we live in a culture filled with blame and accusation and almost devoid of thanksgiving, maybe on this day, and remembering the tenth leper, we can send our people forth to be heralds of blessing and bearers of powerful words of gratitude and in this way not only experience a second blessing but also share it with the world.
Speaking of which, let me offer to you, Working Preacher, my own words of gratitude and thanksgiving, for I feel regularly so blessed knowing that you bear God’s gracious word to God’s beloved people week in and week out. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.
Yours in Christ,