Gratitude

(sermon 10/13/19)

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Photo by Marcus Wökel – used with permission    http://www.pexels.com

(with gratitude to Rev. Dr. David Lose, whose words heavily inspired this sermon)

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.”

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There are some people I know who do something important every day. It’s something simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. Every single day, in some way or another, they set aside time in their day, which is just as busy as my own, to take stock of what they’re grateful for. They keep “gratitude journals,” or just observe a bit of quiet time to intentionally reflect on the day that’s just passed, and actually name the things that they’re grateful for. Some of them take this a step further and actually jot a note, or maybe more often now, an email, to reach out and acknowledge their gratitude to someone who had something to do with it.

I wish that I were more like these people. I want to be, because there is so much that I really am grateful for. But at least up until now, for whatever reason, I haven’t had the discipline to do this, and I’m the worse off for it. Because without doing this in some way, it’s easy to forget, or at least to take for granted, the things that mean so much to us, the things that we’re so grateful for, and the people responsible for them.

This comes into play in today’s gospel text. Ten suffering people come to Jesus for help and healing. All ten receive that help, but only one takes the time to thank Jesus for having been healed. I’m pretty sure the other nine were grateful, too, but ultimately, only one of them actually expressed it to Jesus.

Except for some people who have serious psychological and emotional issues, feeling gratitude is a natural, involuntary human emotion. But taking it the extra step, and expressing that gratitude with our words and actions, is a choice – one that can have a huge effect in our own lives, but that also can have a remarkable effect on the people around us. A simple “thank you” is something far more powerful and transformative than would seem possible from just two little words. Just think how you feel when someone takes the effort to just say thank you, or does something nice for you, because of something you’ve done for them. Even when you think that no thanks is necessary, and you mean it, it’s still powerful when that thanks is offered.

There are all kinds of different emotions that we feel in any given day. Whether it’s because of things going on in the news, or some family situation, or a work thing, or a health or aging issue, our emotions can run the full spectrum from joy to sorrow to worry to fear to shame to rage, and everything in between. And there are certainly appropriate times to express all of those emotions. Sometimes, we’re just in a place where we just can’t express gratitude for something even if we’re actually very grateful for it. Our other emotions can come into play and tongue-tie us, even when we can see it happening, and many times, we can’t. It’s OK; we’ve all been there at some point or another. We all understand that. In those times, we see the importance of this, the whole church family, when together, we can help carry one another over those patches; we can lift one another up and offer emotional support and compassion for one another until we can get through those times. Until we can work through those other emotions and get to the point where we really can choose to express gratitude and to live gratefully again.

Like most things, expressing gratitude is something that gets easier the more you do it. And the more you do it, the better you feel – the more grateful you are. And the more you help others. You become an illustration, and example for others.

These days, expressing gratitude is truly a counter-cultural idea. Anger, hostility, violence, distrust, transactional tit-for-tat vengefulness, tribalism, rage – these are the emotions and things that are shaping our culture at the moment. But just imagine how much of that could be defused if we “choose to refuse”. To refuse to play that game. To refuse to express those knee-jerk emotions, and instead, to take stock of the good and to express gratitude to God and others in our words and actions. Expressing gratitude has the power to change the world – it’s the ultimate weapon, the ultimate game-changer, that can defeat virtually all of the ugliness that we find ourselves knee-deep in. We just have to choose to do it.

So I’ll start: I’m grateful to be alive and a part of this amazing, beautiful creation of God’s. I’m grateful that I have two wonderful daughters. I’m grateful for the love of family and friends. I’m grateful that I have a good education, a reasonable measure of good health, a roof over my head, and food on the table. I’m grateful that I’m here in Louisville, and specifically here at Springdale. I’m grateful that I’m your pastor, that God drew us both  together; and that I’m not only your pastor, but that, at least to the extent it’s possible between pastors and parishioners, we’re friends. I’m grateful that I get to work every day with the remarkably gifted, talented, and caring staff here at the church. I’m very grateful for George, that God allowed us to find each other, and that we’re together now. And I’m grateful that you’ve welcomed and accepted him and made him a part of all of this as much as you have with me. I’m grateful to be a part of this journey of faith and life that we’re all on together. I’m grateful for all of this, and so much more.

So, if I never said all of that before, I have now. And now, I invite all of you to do the same. Decide, choose, commit, to sit down daily and take stock of what it is that you’re grateful for, large or small. And then, choose, commit, to finding some way, just as the leper in the gospel story did, to express that gratitude in your words and actions. Maybe it will take the form of making a batch of cookies for someone. Or fixing a storm door, or offering a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Or maybe it’s dropping someone a card, or finally getting around to a thank you note that you’ve been meaning to send out forever. Or maybe it will just be taking a moment to offer a simple, face-to-face thank you. Whatever it is, it will make you feel better, and it will make the person you offer it to feel better, and it will definitely please Christ every bit as much as the thank you he received on that road all those years ago.

Thanks be to God.

Give Thanks

(Sermon 10/9/16)

elegant-thank-you-card

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.”

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The ten men stood along the road, hoping for someone passing by to have a bit of mercy on them and maybe give them some money; they needed to beg in order to survive. But these ten couldn’t just stand up close to the road, maybe by a traffic signal with a little handwritten cardboard sign trying to evoke compassion or at least pity. According to the religious Law, as lepers – people who had any one of a number of contagious skin diseases, not necessarily just what we call leprosy today – they weren’t allowed to live in town with other people. They had to live outside of the towns and cities, in a kind of quarantine, or even exile. Beyond being medically contagious, they were also considered ritually unclean, and anyone who came into contact with them also became ritually unclean. So even as the ten stood along the road, they had to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn anyone coming along. And if, by the slimmest of chances, any of them ever did actually get better, they needed to present themselves to the priest to verify that they were healed and ritually clean before they could re-enter society.

So on this particular day, Jesus was traveling along the road, and as he approached they started calling out to him, seeking mercy, whether that was actually physical healing or maybe just some money dropped in their cup. And we heard the story. Jesus tells the ten to go show themselves to the priest, as if they’d already been healed. But as Luke tells the story, they apparently weren’t healed immediately, on the spot; it was only once they were on their way to the priest that they were healed – so they must have been confused at first by what Jesus had told them to do, but they trusted him and did what he said. And somewhere along the way, they discovered that they actually had been healed.

It must have been an amazing thing. It would have been like they’d been given a completely new life. You can just imagine how excited they must have been; how big a hurry they would have been in to get to the priest, and be given the OK – clean scan, Cancer-Free, HIV Undetectable, whatever the modern analogy might be.

But in the excitement of that moment, and the rush they must have felt to get to the priest, one of them – and only one – took the time to run back to find Jesus, to give praise to God, and to thank Jesus for what he’d done. And to make it more staggering, this one man who took the time and effort to express his gratitude was a Samaritan, of all things. This one, whose actions Jesus complimented, was a member of a despised minority. Samaritans were religious and ethnic “half-breeds;” a population arising from Jews who had disobeyed the religious Law and intermarried with Gentiles, and when they even did worship the God of the Jews, did so in a way that the Jews considered heresy. Imagine Jesus holding up one of those people as a model to emulate.

I can’t tell you how many times in my own life I’ve gotten caught up in the moment and not expressed gratitude when I should have, whether to another person or to God. As I said in our weekly email, it wasn’t ever malicious, but was more just oblivious neglect. Sometimes, I might not have realized I’d done it until years later, and when I realized what I’d done, I’d try to find a way to make amends for it – better late than never, I suppose. The most troubling cases were where I couldn’t make amends to a person I owe gratitude to, because they’re no longer here.

We talk about gratitude a lot in the church, and how important gratitude to God is in the deepening and broadening of our faith. Part of that is just the recognition and identification of how we’ve been blessed, and that it’s God who’s deserving of gratitude for those blessings. In our weekly email, I mentioned someone who intentionally takes time at the end of each day to stop and recognize how we was blessed, and what he was grateful for that day; to write about them in his Gratitude Journal, and to take the time to thank God for those blessings. I think that’s a very good spiritual discipline.

But another important part of gratitude in our lives of faith is to recognize that it isn’t just a feeling or emotion. Gratitude needs to lead to an action, something concrete. Having a spirit of gratitude will lead us to do some thing, to show that gratitude in the most acceptable way – by sharing, extending, the love that’s embedded within whatever it is that we’re grateful for, outward. God blesses us because God loves us, and God wants us to show gratitude for that love and those blessings by reaching out and loving others in the same way.

I’m going to do something now that preachers rarely do: I’m going to shut up, and not say anything for the next two minutes. During that time, I’d like you to take the notecard that you got this morning. And on one side of the card, I want you to list, just in bullet form, maybe just a single word or two for each, the top seven or eight things in your life that you’re most grateful to God for. And I want you to really try to get to seven or eight of them, so you’ll have to get down past the top three or four that come to mind quickly for all of us. OK, you’ve got two minutes – Go…

OK, time. Congratulations; you’ve just started your own Gratitude Journal. Now here’s the next step: on the other side of that card, just jot down, and again, just a word or two for each idea, ways that you think you might be able to show gratitude for your list of things in some concrete way or ways. OK, ready? Go…

OK, time’s up. Now I’d like you to take that card and put it in your wallet or your purse, fold it in half and carry it around in your pocket, whatever it takes, but carry it around with you this coming week. Try to take it out at least once a day, and look at your list of things you’re grateful for. In those moments, ask if now that you’ve thought about it, what else might you add to that list? And look at the list of things you might do to express your gratitude to God. Are you doing any of those things? Are there other ways that you’ve thought of that might be a good idea? And then take a few moments out of your busy day, and give God thanks for the things on that list, and ask for the ability to do some of those concrete things you wrote down.

Whatever you wrote on either side of your card, remember that our gratitude – both the feeling of thankfulness, and whatever concrete action that arises from it – all arises out of God’s unchanging, unending love for us. The love that Jesus showed to the ten lepers on the road that day, even to the half-breed Samaritan heretic, is the very same love that he shows to you, and to me, today and always.

Thanks be to God.

 

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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