Giving Thanks (sermon 10/13/13)

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.”    – Luke 17:11-19

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You have no idea how strange it feels to be standing here this morning – here, in this pulpit, in this church, on a Sunday morning. Standing here makes me think back to all the Sundays that my family and I worshiped here, as members of this congregation. Enjoying the great fellowship. Appreciating the wonderful music, week after week. And, especially for me, listening to the sermons. Thought-provoking, poetic sermons; sermons that, to me, were literally life-changing. And now, I find my own two feet standing in that same small piece of real estate, and I’m thinking of all those wonderful, amazing, challenging, inspiring sermons that have come out of this pulpit, and I can’t help but think… you people are going to feel really cheated this morning…

Well… I am really grateful to be preaching here today, and to be part of your pastoral team – because throughout my own personal journey of discerning my call to the ministry, and throughout the whole process to date, I’ve been helped and supported all along the way – and God’s love has been shown to me – by the fellowship, and the ministries, and the pastoral leadership of this congregation – my congregation. And for all of that, I say thank you.

Today’s passage from Luke’s gospel deals with this same thing – recognizing God’s goodness, and God’s having made us whole again; and taking the time, making the effort, to give God thanks for that. One of the ten lepers that Jesus had healed takes the time to do that, and Jesus praises him for it.

It isn’t hard to see the parallel of this story to our own lives. Through Christ, we’re healed, made whole, blessed by God, but we don’t always remember to really show our thanks for it. We can get so wrapped up in our own worries and fears that it’s hard to even see God’s goodness in our lives. I know that happens to me sometimes. And even when we do see and feel God’s love, sometimes we’re like the other nine lepers that Jesus healed, and we don’t show God our gratitude, our thanks.

So how exactly are we supposed to give God that thanks? What might God be looking for from us as a way to express that gratitude? There’s a great passage in the Old Testament book of Micah that deals with that question. In it, a man seems frustrated, almost at the end of his rope wrestling with that very question. So he stands there questioning God – calling God out, really – almost crying, almost shaking his fist, as he asks, “What will make you happy, God? Do you want me to sacrifice a whole herd of rams to you? Do you want an ocean’s worth of olive oil? What do I have to do, give you my firstborn child? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!!!”

And then, a quiet, calm voice from the heavens answers him. “God has told you what is good. The way to make God happy – the way to show thanks to God for all the goodness God has given you – is simple: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.”

That’s how he was supposed to show thanks, and that’s how we’re supposed to show thanks, too. To work together as God’s people, as Christ’s Church, to seek justice for all people – ALL people – regardless of race, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexual identity, or religion, or what side of some man-made border a person happens to live on. And we show that thanks to God by loving kindness. To work together as God’s people, as Christ’s Church, to extend love and kindness to all who need it. To deliver a meal to a shut-in. To travel to help an orphanage for children with HIV, or to help rebuild lives after a flood or a hurricane. To hand a Bible to someone in Romania, or to help build a Habitat house here in Columbus. To deliver flowers, or a card, to offer a smile, hold a hand, of someone spending countless days in the hospital, or a nursing home. And yes, in this stewardship campaign season, to make a pledge. To write a check. To financially support the church, because paying for the electric bill and the Sunday School materials and the church staff salaries are all necessary parts of us – Christ’s Church – doing justice, and loving kindness, in all those other ways.

And you know, the amazing thing about living in God’s kingdom this way – the amazing thing about giving thanks to God by loving and serving those around us – is that we just never know how the smallest, most insignificant-seeming things we do are going to change someone’s life.

There’s a television commercial from Thailand that went viral on the internet a month or two ago; maybe you’ve seen it. The beginning of the commercial takes place in a crowded, noisy, dusty, chaotic little street in a Thai village somewhere, and we see a shopkeeper – she’s got a little boy, maybe eight years old or so, by the arm, and she’s dragging him out of her shop and out into the street. She’s roughing him up pretty badly, and yelling at him, calling him a shoplifter, a thief, and she reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bottle and a couple boxes of some kind of medicine. While she’s yelling at him, the little boy just stands there in the street, looking down at the ground, ashamed, frightened, humiliated, about to cry, until another shopkeeper, the owner of a little restaurant across the street, comes out to see what’s going on. He finds out from the boy that he tried to steal the medicine to take home to his mother, who was sick. The man takes some money out of his pocket and pays the shopkeeper for the medicine. Then he calls over to his own daughter, who’s standing in the doorway and who’s just about the same age as the boy, to bring out some soup to give the boy to take home with him.

Then the commercial moves forward; now it’s thirty years later. And we see the same restaurant owner, now an old man, working in his restaurant with his now-adult daughter, when suddenly the old man suffers a stroke. He crashes to the floor, and he’s rushed to the hospital. He survives, but he’s got a long and difficult recovery ahead of him. While the old man is still recovering, his daughter gets a bill for the hospital services – it’s thousands and thousands of dollars, which she obviously doesn’t have. She’s beside herself; she doesn’t know how she’s ever going to pay the bill. She even puts the little restaurant up for sale to pay for at least part of it.

One day, the daughter is visiting her father in the hospital. And she’s so distraught, and so exhausted from worry, that she actually falls asleep, slumped over her father’s bed there in the hospital room. When she wakes up, there’s an envelope sitting on the bed next to her. She opens it, and it’s a statement from the hospital, and it shows that she owes absolutely nothing – the debt has been paid in full. And at the bottom of the statement is a note, written by the doctor who’s been taking care of her father – a nice young man, who just happens to be almost exactly the same age as the daughter. And the note simply said, “All expenses paid thirty years ago – with three packets of painkiller and a bag of vegetable soup.”

We just never know how our actions, offered in thanks to God, offered in love to others in Christ’s name, will change someone else’s life – and maybe, in the process, our own lives, too. In my own life, I’ve seen the results of God working through this congregation. But whether we ever see the results of our actions or not, they’re there. And that’s how Christ has called us, as individuals and together as his Church, to give thanks to God – for forgiving our own debt, canceling it out not 30 years ago but 2,000 years ago; and for all the untold goodness that God was filled our lives with. The healed leper pleased God by giving thanks. And we please God by giving thanks, too, by doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God – whether that comes in the form of a mission trip, or a hospital visit, or a church staffer’s salary – or three packs of painkiller and a bag of vegetable soup.

Thanks be to God.

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