We continue our “Essential Prayers” sermon series, based on the book by Anne Lamott titled “Help Thanks Wow.” This week’s sermon is on the importance of praying, “Thanks!”
SCRIPTURE 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.”
The Essential Prayers sermon series
#2 – Thanks!
August 24, 2014
I was working with a particularly ornery youth group one time while I was in seminary. This group of mostly middle school boys was rambunctious and not really very good at taking directions. We were doing some painting in our youth room and they weren’t quite as focused on the task as I thought they should be, so I was quickly losing patience with their shenanigans. When one of the boys asked for a paint tray, I handed it to him and waited for his response. When it didn’t come, I said, “Um, Joey, don’t you have something to say to me?” “Like what?” he said. I said, “When someone gives you something, you’re supposed to say the magic words.” And he replied, “Abracadabra!”
While that might indeed be a magic word, it’s not the one I was waiting for. And as fun as it is to say, it doesn’t make Anne Lamott’s list of the three essential prayers. In her latest book, Lamott makes the case that the three prayers we need to pray most are “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” Last week we learned the importance of praying for help. This week, we’ll talk about why we need to pray our gratitude to God.
Our Bible story today is a perfect illustration of the power and necessity of this prayer. Luke tells us Jesus is traveling between Samaria and Galilee. That’s the border between two groups of people – the Jews from Galilee and the Samaritans from Samaria – who really don’t like each other. The Samaritan race came about when a group of Jews violated God’s law by interrelating with a group of Gentiles. Because of this, Jews considered Samaritans to be ethnic and religious half-breeds who perverted the pure race of Jews. For Jesus to be walking the borderlands between them was like walking the fence line that separated the Hatfields and McCoys. To call someone a Samaritan in those days was a racial slur.
As Jesus is approaching a village, he is met by ten people who had leprosy. Leprosy is a disease mentioned frequently in the Bible, and actually could have been used to describe a number of different skin ailments. Leprosy was believed to be a disease not just of the skin but of the soul. It was often considered to be a punishment from God, and it was an especially tragic disease because it was so obvious for everyone to see. You can hide a stomach virus or sinus infection; you can’t hide leprosy. These factors meant that the lepers were exiled from society. If a leper was approaching a crowded area, they had to shout “Unclean!” to warn the people that they were coming. If they wanted to get someone’s attention to ask for a handout, they had to shout from a distance, so as not to contaminate the person.
That’s what these ten lepers do when they see Jesus. Keeping their distance, they shout to him, asking for mercy. They don’t ask to be healed; the idea of being cured was beyond their wildest dreams. They’re not asking Jesus for a life change; they just want his spare change. The title the lepers use, “Master,” was a common way at the time to show respect, and their request to “have mercy on us” was simply a way of begging for money. They weren’t expecting a miracle.
But that’s what they get. Jesus commands them to go show themselves to the priest, an action that would be necessary to do before the lepers could be considered clean and fit to return to society. On the way, they are healed. One of the lepers turns back, praising God in a loud voice, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet and offering thanks. Then Luke drops the bomb – and he was a Samaritan. Really? The only one who does the right thing is a leprous Samaritan? What is this, a bad joke? That can’t be true. You know what Samaritans are like. Why would one of those people be the hero of the story and return to give thans?
But Jesus had a better question: why didn’t the other nine do the same? Like the Samaritan, their illness had been taken away, their health had been restored, their lives had been changed. Why didn’t they stop and take the time to give thanks? It’s easy for us to criticize the nine for their lack of gratitude. But considering the circumstances, they may have had legitimate reasons.
For example, the first was so happy he was healed that he simply forgot. The second was just following orders. He was determined to do what he was told by carrying out Jesus’ command to see the priest. The third was too busy rushing off to be reunited with family and friends and to share the good news of his healing with others. The fourth leper, after years of suffering, felt he deserved something good to happen to him, and saw no need to offer thanks for it. The fifth was so overwhelmed by the miracle itself that he didn’t pay attention to one who provided it. The sixth just knew there was a logical explanation for the healing, and that Jesus had nothing to do with it. The seventh leper? He was just plain frightened by what happened and frightened of Jesus. The eighth was secretly offended because Jesus took away his identity, and he didn’t know how to live life without leprosy. As for the ninth leper, his life had been full of such misery and disrespect that he stopped saying, “Thank you” to anyone a long time ago. In our own lives, we can usually come up with at least nine different reasons why we don’t stop and say, “Thank you.”
But one did. One saw beyond all those reasons and realized that the only proper response to the miraculous work of God was to return to Jesus. He praised God with a loud voice, he threw himself at his feet, and he thanked him. Does that sound? Singing God’s praises, placing ourselves in Jesus’ presence, giving thanks through words and offering. As Martin Luther said, “Worship is the tenth leper turning back.”
I don’t think this was quiet, hushed form of praise, either. The guy didn’t sneak up to Jesus and whisper in his ear, “By the way, thanks!” He came running and shouting making such commotion that everyone around him stopped to see what was going on. This man had so much for which to offer praise, and when that’s the case, as one writer said, praise gushes!
Praising God by giving thanks is one of the ways we worship God. Gratitude a spiritual discipline, and not an easy one to practice in a world where too often we assume we have an absolute right to health, happiness, and all our creature comforts. It’s easy for us to believe that we deserve what we have, and we only realize the preciousness of our blessings when they are removed. Too often we get so caught up in our blessings that we forget to acknowledge the Blesser. I think it’s ironic that the less you have the more you appreciate it, and the more you have, the harder it is to say thanks.
Sometimes we have to think like those much different than us in order to understand how thankful we should be. In our story, it took an outsider, a leper, a Samaritan, to be thankful in such an excessive way, because the last thing he was expecting was to be made well. On the other hand, we church folk can become so used to following a pattern of faith – come to church, be nice to others, lend a hand, give some money – that we either can become blinded to the awesomeness of our blessings or we can begin to think that we are entitled to them. At some point we become like the little kid at Christmas who opens each gift, looks at it a few seconds, and then tosses it aside, ready for the next present. Do we treat God’s blessings that way? Our jobs, our health, our family, or possessions. Sometimes we simply need to step back from our lives, look around and let the joy and gratitude and praise gush forth. Ask yourself this: Does the sincerity and frequency of your thanks to God come close to matching the ways in which you are blessed?
We learn from the 10th leper that the only response to our blessings is to be a blessing, to turn back to Christ and give thanks. Are we required to do this? No. The other nine didn’t. Does Christ need our thanks? Of course not. But we need to be thankful, because developing and nurturing a spirit of gratitude makes for a richer and fuller and more peaceful life. What would it mean for us to not complain about all the traffic and instead give thanks for having transportation? Or to pause in the long line at the grocery to give thanks for the abundance of food we have. Or to take a moment while paying a medical bill for the skill of the doctors and nurses who care for us. We have been blessed beyond measure, most fully in the gift of Jesus Christ. Therefore, a meaningful goal for all of us is to try and live a life that is a constant “Thank you.” Ann Lamott says, “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into our behavior.” We sing a song of thanks called the Doxology every week, but beyond these walls we are called to be a living doxology to God. Do the words you speak and the choices you make and the way you treat others say “Thank you” to God?
An amazing thing happened when the leper returned. Jesus sees his spirit of gratitude, his gushing praise, and says, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well.” Jesus doesn’t mean “well” in a physical sense; that’s already happened. Luke actually uses two different Greek words here for “cleansed” and “made well.” Jesus means that this man’s soul has been made whole. On that day, ten were cleansed, but only one was made well, healed of his anger and resentment as well as his leprosy. Giving thanks has that kind of power, the power to make us whole.
When the leper gave thanks for his blessing of healing, he was blessed even more. What blessings are in store for us and for this church when we take time to say, “Thank you?” Don’t wait until you’ve taken care of all your other business to give thanks. Come to God first, let your praise gush forth, let your life become a constant “Thank you” to God. And then, just as you have been so blessed, you will be a blessing – to this church, to all those whom we serve together, and to God.