Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Second Blessing

Luke 17:11-19
November 22, 2015

            English: Thank you. French: Merci. German: Danke. Spanish: Gracias. Arabic: Shukraan. Italian: Grazie. Swedish: Tack. Norwegian: Takk. Greek: Efcharisto. Swahili: Asante. Hindi: Dhanyavaad. Russian: Spasibo. Indonesian:  Terima kasih. Yiddish: A Dank.
            Downloading the translate app on my phone was a decision that has paid off time and time again. I used it to find these examples of the word “thank you.” There were far more languages than I could list here and far more ways to say, “thank you,” than I could pronounce. I decided that it might be easier to find out if there is a language that does not have its version of “thank you,” rather than seeking out a list of all those that do. The one example I found was Nepali. Nepali does not have a spoken word meaning “thank you,” instead thanksgiving is indicated through gestures and body language. Expressing gratitude seems to be universal. Whether we say it in words or through our hands our other physical cues, saying thank you, giving thanks seems to be innate to our natures.
            Yet just because we have the words to express our thanks does not mean that we always use them. That seems to be the case in this passage from Luke’s gospel. Jesus was walking in the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee. The accuracy of the physical geography listed in the gospels is questionable, but I often think that the gospel writers – and Luke is no exception – focus more on spiritual geography rather than the physical distance between one location and another. This would be an example. Jesus never hesitated to walk the knife’s edge between what was thought to be acceptable and unacceptable. He spent a significant amount of his time in the borderlands – or perhaps we should call them the no-man’s lands – between cultures and peoples. At the beginning of these verses Luke tells us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. Once again, in terms of spiritual geography, Jesus was not just making a trip to the city. He was on the way to the cross. Along the way, he was approached by ten lepers. If ever there were people who lived in the no-man’s land of culture and social mores, it was lepers. They were unclean. They were unwelcome. They were marginalized, physically and emotionally. They understood being kept a distance, so it is no surprise that although they wanted Jesus’ attention, they knew better than to get too close. They kept their distance from him just as others kept their distance from them.
            Just as others who were on the outskirts seemed to recognize Jesus for who he was, so too did these lepers. They saw Jesus and called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
            Jesus did not utter words of healing per se. Instead he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. If they were healed of their leprosy in any way, that would the step they must take in order to be named clean and welcomed back into the community and the synagogue. They were obedient to Jesus’ command. They did what they were told, and on their way to see the priests they were made clean.
            One of the ten noticed what happened. He saw that he was healed and he turned back, “praising God with a loud voice.” He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. It is only at this point in the story that we learn that this tenth leper was a Samaritan.
            I often hear death described as the great equalizer. It would seem that so too was leprosy. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was pronounced. They would not have been seen hanging out with one another. But in a lepers’ colony, ethnic and racial heritage must not have mattered all that much. Yet at this moment in the story, Luke takes care to point out that this tenth leper, the one who loudly praised God and took the time to turn around and thank Jesus, was a Samaritan – a person who would have been doubly marginalized, for his ethnicity and his skin condition. It was the Samaritan – an outsider – who returned to give thanks.
            We need to be clear on something. The other nine lepers did nothing wrong. In fact, they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. Too often I think we take this story as a rebuke of their behavior. But their behavior was not out of line. They acted obediently. The text also clearly states that as they went on their way they were made clean. The healing was already accomplished. We don’t know that they weren’t grateful. They may have seen the priests, been welcomed back into the community of faith, and spent the rest of their lives rejoicing. We don’t know. What we do know is that at least in that moment, it was the outsider who voiced thanksgiving. It was the one most marginalized, the foreigner, who returned to speak words of thanksgiving. The Samaritan was already healed of his leprosy, but when he returned to thank Jesus, Jesus pronounced that his faith had made him well.
            I wonder if Jesus was speaking to more than just the healing of an external disease. Perhaps in saying that the Samaritan was well was Jesus’ way of saying that the Samaritan was whole – whole in body, mind and spirit. Maybe that is what being thankful, speaking thanksgiving does. It makes us whole.
            There is increasing scientific evidence to support gratitude being the foundation of wellness. I read an article from Forbes[1] that listed the ways gratitude contributes to health and wellness. The article listed seven ways that developing “an attitude of gratitude” benefits us. Saying “thank you” isn’t just about being polite, it also “opens the door to more relationships.”  Being gracious may help you make new friends or business contacts.
            Gratitude keeps us physically healthy. Grateful people take better care of themselves. If they have the habit of being thankful, they probably also have habits that keep them healthy like exercising, eating well, and making time for preventive check-ups.
            Gratitude ups our emotional and psychological health. Grateful people tend to be happier, less resentful or envious of others’ success. Frustration, regret and depression are reduced when gratitude is increased.
            If you want to be a more caring, compassionate and empathetic person, get grateful. Grateful people are less aggressive and vengeful and more empathetic and caring. People who model gratitude sleep better. They have higher self-esteem and mental strength. People who are grateful are more resilient in the face of life’s vicissitudes.
            I was taught that “please” and “thank you” were magic words. This list takes the magic out of it and puts the science in. But I think a word of caution is needed. I do think that being grateful needs to become habit. I do think that showing gratitude and thankfulness does increase our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. I’m grateful that science is making us more aware of this. It helps to remind me of how important gratitude is and how often I forget to show it. Yet here is my caution. It would be far too easy to see gratitude as another thing that benefits us and us alone. The more grateful I am, the happier and healthier and more whole I will be. I just need to count my blessings.
            Yet maybe being thankful is also a blessing. Maybe being thankful doesn’t just open us up to more blessings in our own lives; maybe it widens our vision so that we can be a blessing to someone else.
            Isn’t that the second blessing? When we voice our gratitude for the blessings in our lives, we also open the door to bring the bounty of those blessings to others. Thanksgiving is a response. Gratitude is a response. When the Samaritan turned back and thanked Jesus, he was responding to the blessing of healing given to him. Our gratitude doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is a response to God. And as we read and hear and learn over and over again, responding to God walks hand-in-hand with responding to others. We are blessed. Thanks be to God. But our blessings are not privatized. They are not ours alone. We are blessed so that we can share our blessings, be a blessing to others. I mean isn’t that how we most often receive the blessings of God – at the hands of another person? We are blessed so that we can be instruments of blessing. That is the second blessing.
            Let all of God’s blessed and thankful children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] Forbes, Amy Morin, November 23, 2014.

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