By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation
The air finally got a little crisper this week and for the first time it felt like it might actually be fall. The cooler weather made it more palatable as I stood at the Lowe’s looking at the pumpkins and mums and large inflatable ghosts with Christmas wreaths and flashing trees just behind them.
We do this crazy mash of seasons from the start of October onward. It’s such a strange slide from the ghosts and goblins and gluttony of mini candy bars of Halloween, into this season where we are supposed to be grateful in the month of November while in actuality we are lavishly and frantically planning and spending away in preparation for Christmas, the commercial one, not the one we are truly called to celebrate.
In today’s reading, Jesus’ response to the Samaritan’s gratitude gave me pause. A chance to stop and think before the onslaught of the merged seasons begins to truly work on what being grateful looks like.
Gratitude is a commonly used word. We make lists of things we are grateful for and around this time of year we make our children do the same often making them write these “blessings” on construction paper tail feathers for their Thanksgiving turkey artwork. The word gratitude bears many different levels of meaning in our discourse. Some of it trite and cheap, some of it maudlin and dripping with something less than wholehearted sincerity, and some of it deep down to the bone.
Today’s gospel strikes me there, deep down to the bone. There is a physicality of the story that gets my attention. There are 10 lepers who have been suffering for years. Left to be alone and separate because of their disease. I suppose they had the company of each other, but they had been cut off from society. They were careful in approaching Jesus, “keeping their distance”. And without any fuss or any touch from him they are healed. Go and show yourself to the priests Jesus says. And off the 10 go. No longer condemned to be alone. No longer suffering with a debilitating disease. Restored to health by Jesus. Nine of them do just as Jesus said. They go. But one, one Samaritan, turns back. He cannot go just yet, he needs to recognize from where this gift of healing has come.
It must mean something to Jesus. He says so. “Were not ten made clean?” And it’s only you, the foreigner that stops to thank me. I don’t know how the other 9 truly felt about their healing, but one can only presume that they were somehow thankful.
But there is something about the actual fleshiness of the Samaritan turning back to acknowledge Jesus, prostrating himself in front of Jesus, recognizing from whence this healing has come, that captures me. I am not necessarily a kinesthetic learner, one who learns and experiences and assimilates knowledge through movement, but I am a lifelong Episcopalian. And movement and worship do work together for me. I stand. I bow. I kneel. I sit. I rise again. I also went to Catholic school where we stood when a nun or adult entered the room. We knelt by our desks. We crossed ourselves in prayer when the life flight helicopter buzzed over our school to land at the hospital at the edge of our campus. So, although I am not a ballet dancer or a particularly adept athlete assimilating the world through how I move, I have learned about my faith and how to practice it through movement. Somehow the movements of our bodies can feel like the turning of our hearts.
The Samaritan cannot help but turn back to Jesus. See him. Praise him. Fall at his feet in thanksgiving. I have to wonder if the gift of healing was somehow made fuller, richer to him by the simple act of turning to acknowledge from whence the gift had come. The other nine were no less healed, but I can’t help thinking that the Samaritan, by turning back to Jesus to say thank you had gained something more.
Scholar Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grateful, explores how gratitude is at work in our personal and communal lives. There are many studies that demonstrate how people who express gratitude and who practice it in their lives through meditation and action are happier and healthier people. Gratitude is the place from which real joy springs. It is not the other way around. People who express gratitude are more fully able to experience joy.
Gratitude, at its deepest and perhaps most transformative level, is not warm feelings about what we have. Instead, gratitude is the deep ability to embrace the gift of who we are, that we are, that in the multibillion-year history of the universe, each one of us has been born, can love, grows in awareness, and has a story.”
In turning back to see Jesus, to fall at his feet and thank him, the Samaritan, seems to be fully embracing this kind of deep down to the bone gratitude. He has been healed by Jesus, but in turning back he is also transformed by that healing. He, a Samaritan, someone outside of the faith tradition of Jesus, sees that this love that Jesus has offered him is worthy of his whole self, heart and body. By turning back, he forever ties his story to the face of Jesus, to the love of God that defies our human attempts to name it.
In thinking about this story, about the physicality of the experience I have turned over something that I witnessed a few years ago. It was at the funeral of my father in law. I arrived in the hour or so before his funeral to meet up with my children who had arrived with their father and cousins. All funerals are difficult and this one was no different. My father in law Julian was beloved. He died after a brief illness and left us all reeling. My mother in law had asked me to do something, I’m not sure what that required me to go into the sanctuary. That’s when I noticed him. A man, older but not as old as Julian. He was wearing pressed work khakis, a starched white shirt, a tie and red suspenders. He was exceptionally tall, easily over 6’ 4”. And he was standing ram rod straight in a front side aisle pew. No one else was in the church. I awkwardly passed him. My brother in law came in a few moments later and addressed him by introducing himself. The story unfolded that this gentleman had worked for Julian years before. Wheeler seemed to be able to recall him. A few words were exchanged about how sorry he was about the family’s loss and what a good and fine man Julian had been. Wheeler said, “The service will be a while now. Please feel free to sit down while you wait.”
“Oh no. I will stand.” He said. “I will stand for your father until the service begins. He always treated me with kindness and respect. I will stand.” And he did. As people filed in and took their seats he stood. He stood for Julian. Not to make a show to us. I don’t think he knew another soul in the church, but he did not seem to mind doing something different from the rest of us.
He stood because Julian had been someone profound to him and the best way he knew how to demonstrate that was to stand. He showed his sincere gratitude for the life of Julian by staying right there in the front on his feet.
So, I’d like to enter this mash of seasons differently this year. I want to remember that all my life, all my story is rooted in gratitude, not simply for what I have but for who I turn to and who I stand for.
In living a life based in gratitude, I want to be like the Samaritan who turns and falls before Jesus recognizing who made me to be who I am. Flannery O’Connor said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd”. I think being odd for the sake of the immeasurable love we are privy to is wholly appropriate. So I want to be like the man who stood at Julian’s funeral too. I want to stand up for this love that I am so grateful for even if it seems odd or out of place sometimes.
In our week ahead we will be given many opportunities to turn toward Jesus and remember from where all our many gifts come. Maybe we will be presented with the opportunity to be a little odd in how we stand and recognize that gift. In a few moments we will stand and turn to face this cross to proclaim what we believe. We will do this not because this life is easy. Not because we can make a list of things we ought to be grateful for. But because, deep down in our bones we know that by turning to and standing for Jesus, that is where it all begins. That is the beginning of wisdom. That is the beginning of the story.