As a result of a conversation we had during a marriage enrichment study, I decided to write a note of thanks to my in-laws, expressing my gratitude at the superb job they did at raising the man I married. It took a few minutes of my time and one postage stamp. The reaction on the other end was surprise, joy and deep appreciation. The power of a short little note of thanks amazed me.
Maybe you are a writer of or have been a recipient of hand-written thank you notes. They are not as common as they used to be, and when we get one at our house, we are both touched and appreciative. There is something special about taking the time to express gratitude, no matter the scenario which called for gratitude, no matter to whom the thanks are due. Taking the time to express gratitude to God is worth doing on a regular basis.
Let’s take a closer look at the story of the healed leper who came back to express his gratitude. First, we have to imagine that all of the ten lepers who were healed through their encounter with Jesus were ecstatic. They had been living a life separated from their families and their friends, unable to draw near the community due to their contagious skin disease. Socially isolated, physically suffering and spiritually unclean, they were suddenly given the opportunity to be restored to health on multiple levels. As they headed toward the temple and their skin suddenly cleared up, imagine the smiles, the laughter, the excitement. After getting a clean bill of health from the priest—in that day the priests were the ones who were entrusted with declaring a person’s skin to be free from disease, permitting them to be restored to the community—they would likely have headed straight home to their families and neighbors. Wouldn’t you?
But one person who was healed never got to the priest. After he realized his skin was clear, this man did a complete 360 and went back to show his gratitude to Jesus, who had just totally changed the trajectory of his life. Jesus healed him, but it was his willingness to express his gratitude that has really made him well, whole, complete, restored on all levels. It turns out that this particular one who returned to say “thank you” is an outsider, a Samaritan. He is not an accepted member of the Jewish community. Samaritans and Jews had separated years before, and no longer associated with one another. Healed from his skin disease, this man remains an outsider in the eyes of any Jew. This story is really two stories—first, a story of ten who were healed by Jesus. They sought him out, and he just gave them instructions to follow and they were healed. And second, a story of one outsider who was saved, or made well. Jesus told him to go on his way, for his faith had made him well, had restored him in ways that he never could have imagined. Ten were healed, one foreigner was saved. It is often the outsider who least expects grace and the outsider who most respects grace with an expression of gratitude. Could be the new kid in class, or the neighbor from Syria, or the co-worker who is transgender, or the English student from Pakistan. An outsider could be anyone who does not already belong. The insiders who already assume they belong are often the ones who take special considerations for granted, or who expect to get the perks and the privilege, and therefore are less likely to really notice or say thank you when grace is extended toward them. When you think about the second story, what surprises you more, that one outsider came back to say thank you or that nine insiders failed to come back to say thank you? It might depend on where you grew up as to how you answer that question. The more privilege you carry, the less surprised you are that 9 appeared ungrateful. The less privilege you carry, the more surprised you are that so many did not express appropriate thanks to Jesus.
Gratitude is a chosen response. We are not born grateful. As a matter of fact, you find people who have much to be grateful for who are not and people who seem to have so little materially who are very grateful. Being grateful is something we elect to do, something we must practice and model, something we must teach to our children. Like any form of exercise, the more we use it, the more it becomes a part of our regular routine. I was inspired by Lutheran pastor and writer David Lose to create a gratitude practice. What if we began using a different response when someone asks, “how are you?” Instead of the old, familiar, “I’m fine, and you?” how about we respond, “I’m grateful.” Let’s try it out for a moment right now. I will ask, “How are you?” and ask you to respond with “I’m grateful!” You see, being grateful is a choice we make, it is an outlook or perspective that does not depend on our current situation. I can be facing a severe health crisis and still be grateful. Not for the health crisis itself, but for the friends who surround me, or the doctors who care for me or for another part of my life that is totally unrelated to my health. I can be going through financial distress, worried about losing my job, or sinking under great debts, but I can still be grateful. Not for the financial stress, but for people who can advise me, distract me, or simply walk with me. No matter what my current situation, I can always find a way to be grateful for the ways God has cared for me and promises to care for me in the future. Biblical scholar NT Wright describes it as a rhythm between faith and gratitude, a rhythm which describes the life of a Christian: we trust in God’s promises and we express our gratitude for God’s acts in our lives and we trust in God’s promises and we express our gratitude for God’s acts in our lives and so on. It is almost like the rising and falling of the waves in the ocean—hard to tell where one wave begins and another one ends.
Being grateful is a practice. Feeling down? What are you grateful for today? Feeling stressed? What are you grateful for today? Anxious about a test or an interview or a hurdle you are facing? What are you grateful for today?
This morning I want to encourage you to follow up with practicing your gratitude with a simple exercise. See the empty box in your bulletin? Select any letter of the alphabet and write it in the middle of the box. Now take a few moments and list as many things that you can which begin with that letter. Additional words might come to you as the service continues. Feel free to jot them down! Later this morning when we come to the time of our prayers of the people, I will invite you to call out some of the words on your list. You might consider trying this for 26 days, picking a new letter of the alphabet every day. What a list you would create! What a reminder you would have of the ways God has graced you with healing, with people in your life, and with a future full of hope.
How are you? (Response: I am grateful). Thanks be to God. Amen.