The Grateful Life: Thanksgiving and Health

A Sermon for Thanksgiving Day
Year A – 27 November 2014
 John Edward Miller, Rector

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

 The Collect

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today’s text from the Gospel of Luke may appear to be an odd choice for Thanksgiving Day. But a closer look reveals its connection to the season. The passage delivers a message of life and heath that commends gratitude as the way to wellness. In an edgy scene from the ministry of Jesus, we glimpse an encounter between him and a group of ten lepers. Everyone who heard it originally expected him literally to avoid them like the plague, because the ten were unclean, and untouchable. But Jesus confounded their expectation by doing just the opposite: he showed them mercy, acceptance, and the gift of a new life.

The lepers featured in this vignette from Luke’s Gospel are people who know that they are not well. They are diseased people. Their physical bodies bear the mark of illness. And their condition has set them apart from the mainstream of their neighborhoods. Under the Law of Judaism, their disease was regarded as a pollutant. In and of themselves, the lepers were walking examples of ill health. Accordingly, they had been exiled from the rest of the population – forced to subsist in isolation and without hope of restoration to their former lives until their disease ran its full, often-devastating course.

That’s why they stood at a cautious, respectful distance from Jesus, even as they called out for his attention. The ten lepers were outcasts, languishing beyond a legal line of demarcation that divided the living from the dead. Still, they sensed the power of healing that emanated from the very being of Jesus. And they begged him to help, to notice them, to look at them rather than averting their eyes as others would. The lepers pleaded with him to have mercy on them, even though no one else ever had.

Jesus heard them, saw them, and told them what they must do: to report to the priests for inspection. The ten did as he directed, taking the prescribed step that led to their health. As they made their way to the priests, they were astounded to see that they he had helped them indeed. They were clean; their leprosy was gone.

The ten were healed by the grace of God. Their bodies were made whole again. But only one was made well. For nine of them, the healing was only partial. They all received the same gift: they were now restored to the land of the living. Their skin was without blemish, but only one received the gift of health. The nine who walked away went back into a society that was itself “diseased.” We confess our lack of spiritual health regularly in worship, and ask forgiveness for our ingratitude. That is why we gather, and why we turn to God for the grace of wellness. The story’s numbers are telling the truth. One hundred per cent needed, and received the gift. Ninety per cent of the gifted treated their healing as an entitlement – something they were due. When they realized that they were leprosy free, they must have rejoiced, and for good reason: their life was restored. But only one out of ten recognized it as a gift, and expressed his thanks.

The encounter is about all of us, not just the lepers. By Luke’s account 10 per cent show genuine gratitude for life. But I suspect that’s being overly kind to us. The real number is likely much lower. Most of us not only expect health care, but also good health as a given.

And good health is not the only thing we feel entitled to. We are awash in gifts so numerous that we cannot begin to count them. Even though “we brought nothing into this world and it is certain that we will carry nothing out,” we live as though we are entitled to life and its multitude of blessings. But that is a denial of the truth. We did not earn the air we breathe, the water we drink, the free will we enjoy, the feelings we experience, or the rational mind that makes us human.    Life as we know it and love is not a “right.” It is ultimately a gift. It comes from a source that lies beyond us. It comes from a Giver – the one our Lord taught to call “Father” when we pray.

But the problem is when we steadfastly put to work the gifts we are born with, and succeed in our efforts, we are tempted to think well of ourselves, and rest on our own laurels. And when we think like that, we make ourselves the center of the universe. Self-congratulation leads to self-absorption. As a friend once said, the word, “ego,” is an abbreviation for the phrase, “edging God out.” When that is the case, gifts cease to be gifts, because the Giver is not acknowledged. Whatever we temporarily have in our possession, whether it’s money, or property, or children, or reputation, we naively identify it as “ours.” We cannot see the one true Giver, nor the gift of wellness that the Giver wants us to enjoy.

Sad to say, Archbishop Cranmer was right: “there is no health in us.” Even as we enjoy the multitude of gifts that we’ve been given, our wellness – our health condition – is in jeopardy. Refusing to acknowledge our dependence on one another, as well as our final dependence on God, we remain vulnerable to the devastation of loss. When we lose control of the things that we take for granted — health, family, social status, employment, friends, physical health, we stare into the void, helpless, and we feel as though nothing remains. We lose hope, and we suffer the bereavement of those for whom there is no other source of strength and redemption except their own selves.

That is the peril of the nine healed lepers who simply walked away. They were, by their own choice, “on their own.” But, as Luke’s Gospel makes clear, it need not be the case. Not everyone walked away, and that’s good news. One of the ten healed lepers turned back and sought out the Giver of the miraculous gift. As he retraced his steps, the man expressed his thanks, praising God with a loud voice. When he found Jesus, he fell on his face at his feet, and said, “Thank you.” Gratitude was bubbling out of him like uncorked champagne.

What prompted him to rush back to Jesus and offer thanks from his grateful heart? How did he differ from the other nine?

Well, it was not his experience that stirred him to thankfulness. He was a leper, a social outcast without any of the advantages that people in general enjoy. In addition, his religion taught him that his disease was a sure sign that God had abandoned him. And it surely wasn’t his pedigree that prompted his response. He was a Samaritan, treated by Jewish society as a mongrel. His life had consistently taught him that he was marginally human. So when he finally “got lucky,” did he not take it and run, rather than turning back to his benefactor?

I think his openness to grace was a result of his lack of status, his lack of pride, his lack of self-absorption. These missing things became portals through which he could be touched by a gift that surpassed his understanding. With nothing to block his vision, the man saw that he had been healed despite what he lacked. That was such a merciful relief that the humble man couldn’t help running back to say, “thank you.” He felt no sense of entitlement to the gift he had been given. Instead, he was amazed by the grace that had healed him. Now he knew that nothing on earth could separate him from the love of God. He knew that his health was a gift from the Giver of life, and he was grateful.

That’s what set this unlikely man apart from the ungrateful nine. Jesus saw the change in him and pronounced him whole, saying: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Wellness is the description of those who have been spiritually healed.  It happens when the ego steps aside and no longer claims to be “God.” Wellness comes when we acknowledge that, “there is no health in us,” and humbly allow gratitude to characterize our entire response to the miracle of life. And by God’s grace, wellness can characterize even those who are not physically healed, or cured of their illness. The grateful life is the picture of God’s kind of health.

Late last week I walked through our preschool, prepared to visit with children in their classrooms. However, they were not in their usual places. Instead the children, ages 3-5, were gathered in the hospitality café outside our kitchen. They were seated cross-legged on the floor around a long, make-believe table made out of a strip of white paper. Place settings and decorations marked their spots, and there were paper plates and cups brimming with treats for them to eat. I was greeted with a loud, “Hi, John!” as usual, and they invited me to join their Thanksgiving feast. What I got was a feast for my eyes and ears, as well as my heart and soul.

I learned that they had just given thanks for the bounty of the earth, and had been invited to enjoy the meal before them. Scooping up handfuls of popcorn, cheddar cheese goldfish, and Craisins, the children were acting out the harvest feasts celebrated on this continent by grateful Europeans and Native Americans in the 17th century.  The foods they chose reflected things that were available in this new land – corn, fish, and cranberries. They treated them as delicacies, savoring every bite. And they laughed heartily and chatted among themselves as their teachers and I watched and appreciated their rites of Thanksgiving.

The children are all adorable, and bright, and fun to be with. And yet on that day, there was one child who attracted my undivided attention. His name is James, and I could hardly take my eyes off of him.  James was laughing and joking as he sat with his friends, and then lay down in a prone position at the head of the table. The latter posture was by necessity rather than a sign of fatigue or contrariness acted out physically. James had to lie down to eat because his limbs are profoundly impaired by a congenital condition. He was born in China, and there he was abandoned as a helpless infant until someone with a conscience found him, and took him to an orphanage. James had been left behind because of his special needs: he is missing one arm; he has a foreshortened leg that is fitted with a prosthesis to help him walk; and his one usable arm is also shortened to the elbow, with a partial hand including a thumb and two fused fingers. His challenges in life are enormous.

An American family with four biological children – two boys and two girls – adopted James and has raised him with grace and love and ingenuity and a stunningly positive spirit. He is now four years old, and is amazing. James is the star of his class at St. Mary’s School. Children vie for the opportunity to play with him, enjoy snack and learning exercises with him, and to be his friend. It is clear that James loves his St. Mary’s, his friends, and his family. He is grateful for his life, just as it is. Joy and fun radiate from him, and his loving spirit uplifts our hearts.

James loves his life. He is living life as a gift, not a given. And in turn he is a gift to all of us. James’ enthusiasm is contagious. If you’re having a “bad day,” all you have to do is to have a short visit with James; he’ll not only put things into perspective, but he’ll put a smile on your face – guaranteed. He was lost, but now is found; he was born with profound disadvantage, but now lives gratefully, not wanting to miss a moment that he has been given.

Giving thanks for life is fitting and proper. The Psalmist stated what should be obvious, saying, Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”[1] Our whole life should be thanksgiving, but in truth, the moments that we are grateful, and act accordingly, are rare. Too much about living gets in our way; the small stuff blocks our vision; and occasionally big things like illness and loss make us disappointed and angry. But taking time to reflect on people like James, who is unreservedly happy to be here at all, and on the vast landscape of good that God has provided, is a good thing indeed. That is why we teach our children about Thanksgiving, and that is why we celebrate as families, and as a church today. One of my spiritual teachers, Brother Curtis, puts it this way:

Gratitude is not just a feeling; it’s a practice. And, like with any other practice, you can get out of practice at gratitude. If you are out of practice expressing thanks to God, the conduit of gratitude may be plugged up. . . . God does not take you for granted, and is eternally grateful. You are not a given, but a gift to God. Pray and practice living your life with gratitude in every way you can: from your past, in your present, and for your future. Living gratefully will not make your life come round rosy in every way, nor will you evade the difficult challenges that life brings. But living life gratefully will re-balance the weight of your life, enlarging what is so clearly good to new proportions. Your own practice of gratitude will make you real and will permeate the life around you like fragrance from a flower.[2]  

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let is be so this Thanksgiving Day and all our days. Amen.

[1] Psalm 100:3, King James Version.
[2] Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE,