Unlike our Deacon, I plan to talk about the Gospel reading this morning! (For those of you who were not here last week, that’s a little joke.)
In the reading we just heard, ten lepers approach Jesus and ask him to have mercy on them. Jesus doesn’t promise anything, but sends them to the High Priest. As they go, they are healed, and one comes back to thank Jesus.
We’re not told why the other nine don’t come back, but here’s my guess. They were trying to obey Jesus. After all, by continuing on to see the priests, they were doing what Jesus told them to do.
Not the Samaritan. When he heads back to thank Jesus, he is doing what he thinks is right, NOT what Jesus commanded him to do. I say what we all know. We are supposed to do what Jesus says, not whatever we feel like doing!!
But the Samaritan is right. The Samaritan is right, and the other nine are wrong. Why?
Because no matter what we are doing, it is ALWAYS right to pause and to give God thanks and praise. Even when we are following a direct command from Jesus, thanking God is reason enough to stop what we are doing, at least for a minute. We are called, above almost all else, to be people of gratitude, and to express that gratitude in our prayers.
The Samaritan in our passage thanks Jesus for healing him of leprosy. That’s an easy one. I have never been really sick. But if I had leprosy and God healed me, I would certainly be grateful. It is easy to be grateful when we have experienced great blessings.
But what about when we are not healed, when we are not experiencing anything that looks like a blessing? Can we be grateful then, too?
We don’t know the rest of our Samaritan’s story. But here’s what I imagine.
He eventually returned to Samaria and resumed the life he was living before he came down with leprosy. But he was changed. He was different than he was.
He appreciated what other people took for granted. He was grateful for common blessings, for a roof over his head and the ability to gather casually with family and friends. Not having been able to enjoy the ordinary blessings of life, he didn’t take them for granted. He had become a man of gratitude.
Not only that, he was more loving. He could love even his “enemies.” Normally Samaritans and Jews hated each other. But I bet our Samaritan didn’t hate the Jews. I’m guessing every time this man heard one of his fellow Samaritans curse the Jews, he said, “You’re wrong, and I know. I travelled with a group of them the whole time I was sick, and we were friends. One of their holy men healed me. They are our neighbors, and we have a lot more in common with them than you think.”
And, I am guessing, our Samaritan was more faithful, more intimate with God, than he had ever been before. After all, he had experienced the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. That changes people forever. Christ’s healing grace surely changed this man from the inside out. That change of spirit must have showed up especially in his prayers and in his worship, but it would have been true all the time.
Here’s the point of this thought experiment. I would like to think that our Samaritan didn’t just thank God for healing him of leprosy. I’d like to think that the Samaritan eventually came to thank God for the leprosy itself. Or, rather, not exactly for the leprosy but for the way God used leprosy to shape him into the man God created him to be, the man he was still becoming, a man of gratitude and love and faith.
True gratitude is about more than the obvious blessings we receive. True gratitude is connected to faith.
Faith is trusting that God is with us and at work all around us even if we can’t see God in a particular moment. Gratitude is looking back at that same moment, and realizing that God was in fact in the midst of whatever we went through, and that God was helping all along.
The gratitude that comes from knowing God is with us even in hard times, that hard times can be in some strange way a blessing, that God is capable of bringing good things out of even the worst we may suffer, that kind of gratitude doesn’t come naturally. That kind of gratitude is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit. And that kind of gratitude is something we can cultivate with practice.
I think about some of my own struggles, particularly in my late thirties. As my struggles eased, I thanked God for the healing I was experiencing. It was a blessing in the obvious sense of the word blessing.
But I have been working on going deeper. I don’t know that I can yet look back at my struggles themselves with actual gratitude. But I’m getting there.
And what I can now see, what I believe the Samaritan in our story came to see, is that God used that hard time to help me make changes I needed to make, to help me take the next steps in my journey with God. And I thank God for that anyway.
The same is possible on a bigger scale. I think about some of our struggles right now: pandemic; political dysfunction; climate change; war; inflation. The list goes on and on.
As people of faith, we trust that God is at work in the midst of it, bringing good out of all the bad somehow. It is probably too soon to thank God for our current trials and tribulations. But with God’s help, we could get there, get to the point where we thank God for whatever is happening since God can use it all.
Our task is to practice. To practice giving thanks.
Bishop Scruton told me a story about a friend of his who struggled with addiction. The man did eventually quit drinking. But his therapist warned the man that he remained stuck in mental habits that put him at risk of relapse. The therapist told the man he needed to cultivate new habits. The therapist told the man to pause seven times every day to give thanks for something. The therapist promised the man that if he did that, he would become a person of gratitude and wouldn’t need alcohol anymore.
And the man did it. I’m guessing that sometimes he wasn’t feeling particularly grateful when it came time for him to give thanks. Sometimes he had to look hard to find anything for which he could truly give thanks. And if he really couldn’t find any reason at all in a particular moment, at least he could thank God for being with him even though he couldn’t feel God’s presence just then.
That is the invitation of our story: to be people of gratitude, to give thanks in good times and even in hard times, to remember that God is always blessing us whether or not we can see it.
I encourage you to give this man’s practice a try. Seven times a day may be too much. But take some time every day to reflect on the blessings of that day, and thank God for them. And see what happens.
My prayer for us is that we can follow the example of our Samaritan, and give thanks always. And I pray that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan