Have you ever been excluded from anything? Have you ever excluded someone from something?
A few years back, I was invited to pray in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the Annual Remembrance Day Weekend. These events take place in November of each year and draw a rather large crowd of living historians and others interested in the Civil War. Remembrance is focused on the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg and the address by President Lincoln on November 19, 1863. I was invited to participate by the National Chaplain of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and asked to pray at a couple of events and to preach and lead the Sunday service.
As you can imagine, this was quite an honor. I have been asked to preach at significant events in the past, but this one would bring all of my passions together, history, history of religion and religious practices, and of course, preaching. I began to work on the sermon and the prayers a few weeks in advance of the event wanting to leave nothing to chance. One evening, about a week or so before the event was to take place; the Chaplain contacted me to disinvite me from participating in the event. Apparently, and I know some of you will find this hard to believe, he thought I was too liberal.
As one can imagine, I was disappointed and a little upset. I will not go into all of the details of what happened next just to say I am now the National Chaplain of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and I am grateful to have that position.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, we see Jesus coming face to face with ten lepers. Leprosy was and is a horrible disease that was highly contagious, and so those unfortunates with this affliction were relegated to cave and catacombs outside of the city. They were forced to beg for their bread and only allowed to roam about at night and were often seen in the shadows. They were also cut off from the worshipping community, which meant they could not participate in the liturgical life of that community. That community excluded them because the community was afraid of what would happen. Those appointed to minister to the community did not even minister to them; they were shunned out of existence.
But here they are, standing face to face with Jesus. They have heard of his power to heal, and they have come to ask for help. He tells them to “go and show yourselves to the priest,” and as they make their way, they are healed. Notice, Jesus does not heal them straight away as he does with others; he tells them to go and show themselves. Some would say it was their act of obedience that did the healing but the interesting thing is, the healing of these lepers is not the point of the story.
Sure, the healing is great but, and I often say this, the miracle of Jesus is often just the match that lights the fuse, we have to push past the magic to get to the root of the story and the message that it holds and this is one of those times.
I am not sure if any of you are familiar with it, but in 1820 Thomas Jefferson complied with what is now called the Jefferson Bible. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, its actual title, is a compilation of the teaching of Jesus that Jefferson complied but taking a razor blade to Scripture to remove all of the bits that he considered the supernatural. Jefferson believed that magic stories just got in the way of moral teaching behind the event, and he wanted to strip it all away. There is some sanity behind doing what Jefferson did by trying to get people to focus on the moral of the story rather than the magic of it all.
Back to the story.
We do not know how far they had gone before the healing took place or if they went to “show themselves to the priest” or not, but, along the way, one of them notices that he has been healed and so he turns and goes back to see Jesus. He was praising God, and when he came before Jesus, the man fell to his knees and thanked him for what he had done. Remember, there were ten, and only one has returned to give thanks. But, if that was not astonishingly enough, the man, Scripture tells us is a Samaritan. If this was a movie, this is where the dun, dun, dun music would play.
We all know how the Jews of Jesus day felt about the Samaritans, so I won’t go into that here except to say, this is a big deal. The one, the only one that came back to thank Jesus, was a foreigner, the despised one, the least likely of all of them to return. But here he is, kneeling before Jesus, giving thanks to God for what has just happened to him. He asks the man about the other nine, but we do not know what tone of voice he used in asking his question. But we do know this, this man, a double outcast the most unlikely of all of them, is embraced by God and told that his faith has made him well.
This is not a story of healing; this is a story about faith and a story about gratitude, and this is a story of acceptance. Jesus is teaching about the nature of faith. To have faith is to live that faith and to live that faith is to give thanks. It is living a life of gratitude that constitutes living a life of faith; this grateful faith is what has made this leper, this man from Samaria, well not just physically but spiritually.
It was the man’s thanksgiving that made him well, not magic words from Jesus, and this thankfulness is available to all of us. Notice also that the thanksgiving is directed toward God and not toward Jesus as everything is done from God through others.
The practice of intentional gratitude changes lives, and as we have seen in this story today, but gratitude can transform all of us, this congregation, and through us to our community. It starts here and spreads out from this place to places we may never even know about.
When Christians practice gratitude, we come to worship to give praise and thanksgiving and not just looking for what we “can get out of it.” The mission of the church changes from an ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intentions and supplications but also our thanksgiving for all of the blessings God has given to us.