The Test of all Happiness is Gratitude, Proper 23(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Gratitude has become something of a hot topic among psychologists recently. And what is really interesting is that the research is showing is that gratitude is good for you. It seems as though gratitude has a number of positive benefits and it correlates with higher levels of well-being and health. Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress. Gratitude often nurtures generalized compassion and altruistic behavior in people. And there is even some evidence based on studies using state of the art monitoring techniques that gratitude is good for your heart.

Pretty interesting stuff! We have some scientific evidence which shows that gratitude and the practice of gratitude has positive benefits. But as Dr. Robert Emmons notes in “Why Gratitude is Good” grateful people do not take a Pollyannaish view of the world. He says, “This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.” Gratitude helps us to acknowledge in the midst of our complex lives, the many gifts, large and small, that have been given to us by others and by God. Dr. Emmons and others are showing that grateful people and people who cultivate the practice of gratitude are leading happier and healthier lives.

Perhaps what we are getting is some empirical verification for what philosophers and religious teachers have been telling us for some time. Cicero said, “There is no quality I would rather have, and be thought to have, than gratitude. For it is not only the greatest virtue, but is the mother of all the rest.” Meister Eckhart famously said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” And G. K. Chesterton said, “The test of all happiness is gratitude.”

In our gospel lesson for today, we have a story of gratitude found in an unlikely person in an unlikely place. It is the healing of the ten lepers, and in Jesus’ day lepers were quite literally cut off from the community because of their physical illness. It was a condition that was met with fear and ignorance. The leper was to be removed from sight and isolated from all communal and religious contact. In Leviticus, the law says, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn cloths and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” Disease and isolation are multiple illnesses.

While Jesus is traveling through Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem, a group of ten lepers draws near, but they are also careful not to get too close. They drew near out of their need; they keep their distance because of their disease. Their illness creates a barrier between them and others, between themselves and the community. But notice that in the presence of Jesus, the lepers do not cry out “Unclean, unclean.” Rather, they cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Out of the pain of their disease and the depths of their isolation, they cry out to the Lord to have mercy on them.

And he does. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priest as the law requires when someone is healed. And as they go, they are made clean. Restored to health, they will also be restored to the community. No more wearing torn cloths: tattered garments on a tattered body. No more long hair hanging over their blotched and blemished faces. No more yelling out “Unclean, unclean” from covered lips. No more dwelling alone outside the camp.

But a funny thing happens on the way to see the priests. One of the lepers who was healed turns back and praises God. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and he thanks him. And the surprise ending of this story is that the one who praises God and gives thanks for his healing is a Samaritan. He was not only physically ill, but also a social outcast and a religious heretic. The one isolated not only by illness, but also by his culture and religion turns back and gives praise to God. We are not told why the other lepers who had been healed did not turn back.

For some gratitude seems more like a vice than a virtue. It seems to express a sense of neediness and dependence that many would rather not acknowledge or if they do acknowledge it they resent it. But gratitude was a highly esteemed virtue in Judaism. We get a sense of this from the Nishmat, a prayer recited in the Sabbath morning service: “Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, Ha Shem our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.”

It is somewhat ironic then, that it is only the foreigner who returns and gives thanks and praise to God. In the return of the Samaritan leper, we have a story that is not just about physical healing. It is a story about the healing of all those things that keep us separated from each other and exiled from God. Out of our pain, out of our isolation, out of our despair we cry out across the abyss, “Lord, have mercy on us.” In the presence of Christ, in the nearness of the Lord, we are healed, made whole, restored to our community and reconciled to God.

Our earthly lives are a journey, somewhere between Samaria and Galilee, between illness and health, between exile and return. We are all traveling along the way. Because of the frailty of our bodies we will all succumb to illness at some point in our lives. Because of the devices and desires of the human heart, we will all suffer from the fear and distrust that separates us from our neighbors and from God. But rather than remaining within the darkness of our despair and keeping ourselves at a great distance from others, our Lord bids us draw near, even as he draws near. He awaits our cry for mercy and he responds by making us whole, by restoring us to life with others and by reconciling us with God. And he keeps scanning the horizon, looking for the other people whom he has already healed, who will realize one day that they too are already forgiven, that they too are already being made whole, who will return to him, and give thanks and praise to God.

In his memoire, All I Could Never Be, Beverly Nichols, recalls an experience of gratitude in his garden. He says, “It was inevitable, I suppose, that in the garden I should begin, at long last, to ask myself what lay behind all this beauty. When guests were gone and I had the flowers all to myself, I was so happy that I wondered why at the same time I was haunted by a sense of emptiness. It was as though I wanted to thank somebody, but had nobody to thank; which is another way of saying that I felt the need for worship. That is, perhaps, the kindliest way in which a person may come to his or her God. There is an interminable literature on the origins of the religious impulse, but to me it is simpler than that. It is summed up in the image of a person at sundown, watching the crimson flowering of the sky and saying–to somebody—‘Thank you.’”

Saying thank you may be at the origins of religion. Studies show that it may also be good for you.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. Dr. Pagano’s ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. Dr. Pagano’s gifts for preaching, teaching, and care are all grounded in joyful and grateful service to God, to the Church, and to the world. Dr. Pagano received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.  

Download the sermon for Proper 23(C).

Made whole by faith, 21 Pentecost, Proper 23 (C) – 2013

October 13, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-11 (or 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111); 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Throughout the chapters of the Gospel of Luke previous to today’s reading, the Evangelist again and again and again presents the Good News through telling stories. He illustrates a series of personal encounters between Jesus and others – sometimes with his followers, sometimes his opponents, sometimes strangers. There were crowds of the curious and hopeful and various individuals – a tax collector, a centurion, a grieving mother, a sinful woman, a man inflicted with demons. As Luke relates these stories, he shows Jesus responding with love and grace and using the occasions to teach the values of God, while challenging the contrasting and distorted ways of the world.

Now, having reached Chapter 17 in the liturgical calendar, we find Luke recalling an episode in which Jesus was engaged by 10 lepers begging for mercy. These unfortunates suffered from what we now call Hanson’s disease. This malady, known among humans for thousands of years, went untreated in biblical times and caused permanent damage to skin, nerves, limbs and eyes, compromised the immune system, and hastened death. Though it is now known to be only mildly infectious, the ancients considered it highly contagious and forced lepers to stay away from others, identifying their condition by announcing, “Unclean. Unclean,” when approached.

As a result, they were excluded from the general society and forced to make their own communities, not unlike leper colonies that still exist in some parts of the world. They became dead men walking – at the mercy of others, ostracized, alienated from the richness of family life and the comfort of communal religious practices.

Like others, the lepers in today’s gospel were outcasts who bound themselves to one another out of necessity and because no one else would touch them. All that mattered was their disease, as evidenced by the inclusion among them of a Samaritan who would have been a hated and shunned foreigner in mainline Jewish society.

This band of 10 had nothing to offer others; nothing to offer Jesus when they saw him coming. But they recognized him, perhaps by his reputation as a holy man, and approached within shouting distance the one they knew by name. They cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Possessing enough inspiration, or maybe just a sense of desperation, they reached out to Jesus with an appeal for healing that went beyond all conventional expectations.

Jesus did not hesitate in his response. He did not back off or require the lepers to confess faith in God. He did not inquire about whether they were worthy. He did not ask anything of them. Jesus saw them and said simply, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

According to Jewish law, a cured leper had to appear before the priests, who would conduct a series of elaborate ritual actions in order to declare them cleansed. The lepers, who had hoped in Jesus, now displayed enough faith to obey him. They immediately left his presence to go to the priests as required and to begin the new lives Jesus made possible.

What Jesus did for them, of course, bore remarkable significance. Not only were they cured of a horrendous, disabling disease, but the cleansing also enabled them to overcome what was perhaps the greater affliction. Now they could return to the community, to become a part of the body that had cast them out. Now they could participate in life fully, restored physically and socially, and surely, experiencing the beginnings of emotional healing.

Yet, we might ask, did they gain everything Jesus hoped for? Did they achieve spiritual healing, as well? We will never know about all of them, but we have assurance that one did – the Samaritan who returned to give thanks. If we wonder what led to his distinguishing himself by praising God and falling at Jesus’ feet in gratitude, we might speculate that it was easier for him – as a double outcast – to see clearly the remarkable nature of what had happened. More likely, however, it was due to his greater maturity and deeper strength of character.

Whatever the reason, Jesus was saddened that he was the only one who turned back, and he used the one and the nine to teach his disciples another lesson about the values of God. He was clearly disappointed by the behavior of the nine, and in earshot of his followers, he said to the now-cleansed Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.”

In place of the word “well,” some translations use “made whole” or “saved.” There is ambiguity about the Greek meaning, but its use by Jesus surely implies more than simply being cured from a disease. “Your faith has made you whole,” seems closer to the way Jesus used this episode to provide a new teaching. The Samaritan was not simply cured like the others, but experienced something more important.

His response to being cleansed demonstrated that his view of God was closer to what Jesus came to reveal. He acted not out of selfishness to gain certification of his cure, not rushing to the priests without reflection, but paused to put his cleansing in a wider perspective, seeing God as the center of the personal miracle he was experiencing. Before anything else, the Samaritan gave thanks for the chance to renew his life. This was the beginning of his transformation, and it provided a fitting model for Jesus to honor. He was not only cured physically, but he also gained spiritual wholeness.

For the worshiper, there are several “take aways” from today’s gospel – community, inclusivity and wholeness in the life of the world and in Christianity. Think about the Eucharist this morning – or the powerful fellowship of the Holy Spirit if you are in a congregation without a priest, using Morning Prayer. The moment we experience among our fellow worshipers today, in prayer and at the altar rail, is unity in its purest form. Receiving the sacrament of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, all else is shut out but the holy context. We are at one with God and one another, in a sublime moment of grace.

In this moment we are made whole. Even if we lose this reality as we go out the door or back to our pews, we know it as a deep truth on which to draw on our journeys of faith. In that moment, we know that everyone is like the Samaritan, freed from alienation and separation from others in a realm of God that includes a circle of universal inclusion.

Luke’s story of this encounter between Jesus and the lepers allows him to teach us about the disappointment Jesus felt because the nine failed to give thanks and the joy he experienced in discovering that the Samaritan recognized the deeper truths of God. When Jesus reflects on the difference, he speaks no less to us than the disciples of old. Today we are reminded of the sadness of our Lord when we, like the nine, fail to follow him, but we also are led to emulate the Samaritan. We can take joy in committing ourselves anew to respond in love and gratitude to the grace, forgiveness and wholeness of God that we all can have simply by accepting this freely offered gift.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Have mercy on us, Pentecost 20, Proper 23 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-12 (Track 2: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111); 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’s a good prayer to know. The story of the ten lepers is really a story about life and death. It is really a story about our lives, and about our deaths – and about the choices we have. It’s a simple story, very familiar. But it is easy to miss what is really going on.

We need to remember what it meant to be a leper. Being a leper meant being worse than dead. Lepers were considered evil and unclean. They were excluded from every part of community life. They could not live, worship, eat, walk, or talk among “normal” people. They had to stay at a distance from life and to survive, as best they could, on the leavings and the charity of others. The horrible progress of their disease was probably far from the worst thing they suffered. They had nothing, and no hope, yet they could – from forty paces – watch the real world, and real life, happen just outside of their reach.

Ten of these lepers met Jesus. They stood at a distance from him – as was required by the law – and shouted for mercy. Doubtless they had said the same thing to every passing rabbi, to every hustler and holy man with a reputation for healing who had wandered within earshot. A simple prayer: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” A good prayer, a very good prayer. Jesus granted them mercy. He just did. No reason is given or needed. Jesus heard their prayer and showed them mercy. He gave them their lives back. He told them to present themselves to the priests. Now, this was more a medical act than a religious one. The priests were the ones who certified that the lepers were cured and could rejoin the world.

They had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so off they went toward the city and toward the priests. And as they went, their leprosy went away; they were cured. Jesus stood there and watched. He gave them their lives, and he put no conditions on the gift, and he just stood there, and watched and waited. Nine of the ten just kept going.

I know of no clearer picture of what our culture is mostly like, and of what our lives are mostly like, than the picture of Jesus standing there, watching those nine people running just as fast as they can run, watching them get smaller and smaller the farther away from him they got.

They weren’t ungrateful. There is no way anyone could have such a thing happen to them and not be grateful. Those nine who showed Jesus their backs were doubtless thrilled, ecstatic, and generally tickled pink. It is easy to imagine them, happy, laughing, making plans, feeling just wonderful, and running just as fast as they could away from Jesus, in a terrible big hurry to get on with it.

I’m quite sure that if someone had asked, they might have slowed down long enough to say that God was really swell to do this for them and that Jesus was the most wonderful person in the whole world. But it would have been hard to catch them. There was so much to do, so little time.

No, the issue wasn’t gratitude. The issue wasn’t feeling good about Jesus or anything like that. The issue was that those who had received so much were running so hard in the wrong direction.

They were so full of what they had received, of their gift, that there was just no room for the giver, the source of the gift. They weren’t ungrateful, they were just busy. That’s all; they were just terribly busy. There we are. There is our world. There is our life, in one small, bitter nutshell.

It’s impossible not to see ourselves. It’s impossible not to ask questions such as : What direction are we running? What are we running toward? What are we leaving behind? How often do we stop, or even slow down, long enough to pay some attention, not only to our gifts, not only to all we have and all we have to do, but also to the giver, to the source of it all? Are we so busy running, so busy using what we have, that we can see no farther?

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Only one came back. Only one was actually drawn toward Jesus, and not away from him, by the wonderful gift. Only one. And this one alone received the fullness of what Jesus had to give.

Our English text makes it harder to see this. All ten lepers were cured – the Greek verb is a medical term, and it means their disease went away. And all ten stayed cured, whether they came back or not – God gives freely, without conditions. But to the one who came back, to the one who saw what was going on the most clearly, to him and to him only something more was said. To him Jesus said, “Rise up and go your way, your faith has made you well.” The Greek for “made you well” is a different word, a theological word; it means “being made whole,” or “being made complete.” It also means being saved. Go your way, Jesus told him, your faith has made you not just cured, but whole, and saved.

All ten were healed, all ten were given their lives, but Jesus had more to give than that. That’s why he watched and waited, that’s why coming back was so important – because Jesus had more to give. But you had to be there. So only one was made whole, only one was fully made well. All ten were given their lives back; but only one was given the fullness of life.

The one who came back was a foreigner. That’s important. The one who came back, the one who actually gave thanks, who actually changed the direction he was going and did something different, the one who focused not only on the gifts, but also on the giver, this man was a foreigner.

I doubt this is an accident or a coincidence. I think that the really hard part of this story is the realization that if we are ever to discover fully what that tenth leper discovered, if we are ever to know fully what it means for the Lord to say to us, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well”; if we are to know that, then we must also, and first, discover what it means to be a foreigner. We must discover what it means to belong somewhere else, for our first loyalties to be elsewhere.

The one who made it back to Jesus didn’t fit in quite as well as the others. He didn’t belong to the world quite as much as the others; he didn’t have quite as much to run to, or quite as much to gain. So he, and he alone, could see clearly. He, and he alone, could see beyond the gift, could see beyond all that there was to do, and so could see the Lord. Everyone who belonged, all of the natives, ran the wrong direction.

This is hard stuff. We have long been established in the land, and we are very busy, and we have a lot to lose. It’s hard to imagine what it might mean to be an alien, to stand one step removed from everything that makes us run so fast and so hard.

But remember that only the foreigner looked back; only the foreigner was able to see beyond the gift to the one who gave it. Only the foreigner received all that Jesus had to give. The rest were just too busy, the rest had too much going on. And it is a matter of life and death.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’ a good prayer to know.

Written by the Rev. James Liggett
The Rev. James Liggett is rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

To us and for us, Pentecost 20, Proper 23 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 or 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 66:1-12 or Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Do you sometimes get turned off by “religion talk”? Or do you think that the vocabulary and jargon used by many Christians somehow makes an ordinary idea so religious that it doesn’t apply in day-to-day living?

Such a word is “grace.” It sounds so pious and out of reach. So when a prayer, one of those lovely compact “collect” prayers, talks of God’s grace going in front of us and behind us, we sort of shrug, say “fine” but really don’t think it means very much at all.

The prayer – collect – today is a reminder of the story about God’s glory in visible form, as a great light, which went in front of and behind the children of Israel as they escaped Egypt and went in search of the Promised Land. Yet escaping from Egypt and looking for a Promised Land seem so very far from our experiences at work, or at home, even in church. Surely, sometimes we would love to run away. Maybe we pray that one day we will go to heaven. After all, why else would we be in church today, singing those hymns and saying these prayers? God seems to like that sort of thing for some unknown reason, so we do them. Perhaps we get some comfort and some hope. But as to the practicality of all this, perhaps some of us or most of us reserve judgment.

The readings today try to give practical examples of what “grace” means. Inevitably they are stories about, or reflections on “grace” set in a very different world than ours. No cars, no supermarkets, no global warming, no politicians – it all sounds wonderful! But what have two stories about lepers and one bit of advice to young Bishop Timothy have to do with high blood pressure, a fight with the teens or our parents, and mortgage payments, or even job insecurity?

Leprosy was once the scourge of all illnesses. It was incurable. Those with it were shunned and shunted off into separate places, ostracized and feared. Some people with AIDS feel that way. Even the word “cancer” or admitting one has that disease installs an irrational fear in some people. So the condition then may well be translated into our feeling alone, misunderstood, helpless, and perhaps actively shunned. Feelings of being alone and helpless surely attack most of us at one time or another. Feeling misunderstood often happens in the classroom or the office – and frequently at a vestry meeting! While the scene recounted in the Bible stories today may be unfamiliar, there are plenty of modern equivalents and experiences.

General Naaman’s problem was that he thought his condition and status required a dramatic response, a unique form of treatment, not merely a dip in a foreign river on the orders of a prophet who hasn’t even the courtesy to come out to meet this important dignitary. The lepers whom Jesus heals have a different problem. They take a miracle for granted, and all but one shrugs and gets on with life. Only one is thankful.

In both cases, we see that what gets in the way of grace, of receiving a gift, is pride in one form or another, that deadly sin. We think we are the only person with our problem. No one has had this problem before. To suggest that God has a universal answer, something as simple as merely doing as one is told and accepting a simple gift in a simple manner is just too much of a stretch – or should one say a stoop? Merely accepting, as Timothy is told to do, that Jesus is sufficient, that:

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself.”
Merely accepting is the clue to wholeness and a life lived within God’s gifts.

In a few minutes perhaps you will leave your seat and go to God’s table to receive promised gifts, the grace that goes before us and behind us, guiding and keeping us in the midst of everything. How on earth can a crumb of bread and a sip of wine address my extraordinary needs and problems? Or perhaps I will reach, take, and get on with life without a thought of “thanksgiving,” the word from which “Eucharist” derives.

Almost all healing is not the result of being “zapped” by God, but the result of being given an opportunity to anchor oneself in that which has been given, and an opportunity to live life with a new and different perspective. I accept the bread crumb and the sip of wine as a promise that I died with Jesus in baptism and rose to life, eternal life – something that starts at the font and not at the death bed.

So, as St. Paul reminds us, we are given the extraordinary gift to endure, to get on with life, a life made new and special because we are able to be thankful. Endurance doesn’t sound like much fun, but Christianity isn’t about fun, it is about cross-bearing, self-sacrifice, self-examination, admitting one’s faults and sins which get in the way of our vision of God. Yes, endurance made splendid, because we are given the gift of thanksgiving, of gratitude that we have been placed in the company of those who have gone before us in patient endurance; in the company of those who walk with us in joy. And we are given the gift of gratitude to be in the company of those who will come after us and who will endure as witnesses of the Christ who came, died, rose again and ascended into heaven and who restores everything and makes all things new.

Accepting simple gifts as the answer to what seem to be complicated needs takes humility. Accepting simple gifts when they work with thanksgiving takes a good deal of humility. Humility and being thankful are two sides of the same coin – a coin if you will, given to us by Jesus, who is equal with God but who empties himself to us and for us.

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Father Tony Clavier is the priest in charge at St. Thomas a Becket Church in Morgantown, WV, and the editor of LEAVEN, the journal of National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations (NNECA), http://www.nneca.org/.