Thank You Cards (Message for March 1st, 2015)

Scripture:  Luke 17:11-19

In football, sometimes things do not go according to plan.   For instance the offense could be all set up for a running play, but the coach notices that the defense is lined up perfectly to stop them.  When that happen, football teams have a trick in their back pocket called an audible.   An audible is a quick change in plans to adapt to the situation.   We are going to call an audible today.   The plan was to talk all about dirty laundry, the spiritual discipline of confession, and celebrate the sacrament of communion.   We are still going to do that, but it will just be in a couple of weeks.  


I have a confession to make, I am terrible, absolutely terrible at writing thank you notes.  Abigail always insists to me the importance of writing the notes.  When I am a feeling contrary, I might attempt to argue with her that I already thanked them in person, so what is the point of sending a note that will get thrown away?  Despite sometimes making that weak argument, I know that she is right.  Writing thank you notes is important, because if we truly are grateful to someone then it is important to be express our thanks, and taking the time to write the note really does better expresses our gratitude.   Even though it is a little thing, writing a thank you note requires taking a special effort to go out of our way to give thanks.  Taking time to go out of our way to be thankful is what this morning’s scripture is all about. 


            This story of the ten lepers being healed is a fairly common one, and it is one that I think that most of have heard before.  However, I think our 20th century perspective makes it hard to fully appreciate this story.   Often our reaction to this story, is complete disbelief that the lepers would not come back to thank Jesus.  We know that leprosy was a condition in Jesus day that made the afflicted social outcasts.  In Jewish law people afflicted with these conditions were socially and literally cut off from everyone else.  These people were given their lives back by being healed, and we cannot believe that they would be so ungrateful that they would not take the time to thank Jesus.  Of course, in thanking this there is an underlying assumption that the lepers just walked across the street to the priest while Jesus waited. Perhaps we unconsciously think about it in today’s terms.   We imagine the lepers getting in the car, driving five minutes down the road and then coming back to a patiently waiting Jesus.   The reality of the situation is a bit more nuanced than we often make it. 


            In Jesus day, leprosy was used to refer to a variety of serious skin conditions. Leprosy in the bible is a bit of a catch all term.   Leprosy could refer to the actual disease of leprosy, or it could refer to a whole host of skin conditions.  Having a disease that was exteriorly visible was the worst thing for someone then, because it clearly marked them as unclean.     Victims of these diseases were barred from living in towns and cities.  They gathered in colonies well away from where people lived.  For access, these colonies were often close to roads, but the lepers had to warn those who passed by to stay well away from them.  When Jesus passed by instead of yelling warnings, they asked Jesus for help.  Jesus did indeed heal them, and told them to find a priest.  In the torah there were rules for being cleansed of leprosy and when was healed they were required to present themselves to the priest to be considered clean.  Depending on conditions, this process could take seven days.  We do not know where exactly Jesus encountered these lepers, or how far the closest priest was.  However, we can assume the closest priest was a decent walk away.  Plus once they reached the priest, and the priest was actually willing to take the time to examine them, it may be a full seven days before they are declared clean.  Keep in mind that Jesus was traveling on his way to Jerusalem when he encountered the lepers.  There is no reason to assume that Jesus waited at the spot where he encountered the lepers for them to return.  In fact, the most logical assumption we can make is that Jesus continued traveling. 


These ten lepers that Jesus healed had their life given back to them.  Put yourself in the position of these lepers, because they were sick they were completely cut off from their friends and family for possibly the rest of their lives.  After being declared clean they would be allowed to return home.  After being away from those you love for so long, isn’t that what you would do?  The one leper who returned, really did an amazing thing.  He delayed returning home and actively went out of his way to find and thank Jesus. 


It is probably not fair to think that any of the ten healed were ungrateful, but only one was willing to go out of his way to give thanks to Jesus, and I think that is what we can learn from this scripture.  Every single person here has been extravagantly blessed by God.  James 1:17 reminds us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.”  We all have many good and perfect gifts in our lives, and we are thankful for them.  However, if any of you are like me, and we are honest with ourselves we can take the gifts from God for granted.  We do not go out of our way to give thanks, and begin to assume those gifts will be there for us.  If we are not careful, we can move from taking God’s gifts for granted to feeling entitled to them.


            This reminds me of an old story.  Two old friends bumped into one another on the street one day.  One man looked very sad, discouraged, and almost on the verge of tears.  His friend asked, “what has the world done to you?”   The sad fellow responded, “three weeks ago a rich uncle of mine died, and he included me in his will.  I received a check of $40,000.”

            “That’s terrific” said his friend, “That’s a lot of money.”

            “Yes but two weeks ago they sent me another check- this time for $100,000.”

            Amazed his friend replied, “That is amazing, you are really blessed!”

            “You don’t understand” the man whined, “Last week I got another check, this one was for a quarter of a million dollars.”

            At this point the friend was getting very confused, “You are right I don’t understand why then are you so unhappy?”

            The man wailed, “because this week I haven’t received anything.”


            We too, can fall into a trap of getting so caught up on focusing on what we have not received, that we are not thankful for what we have received.  This is a trap that we should be very mindful to try and to avoid, because focusing on what we do not have drives away from God, where going out of our way to be thankful brings us closer to God. 


            When the one leper does return to Jesus to give thanks, I find the reply of Jesus to be most interesting.  Jesus tells the leper, “your faith has made you well.”  Jesus recognizes the man’s faith through his thankfulness.  Our faith in God and thankfulness to God are closely linked, and the early church fathers and mothers recognized this.  When the early church met, they met around the table.  The basis for their worship was the taking of communion, and they called this act Eucharist.  Eucharist comes from Greek and it means “give thanks.”  Giving thanks to God is the basis of worship.  Giving thanks is a fundamental way that we make connections with people.   When we say thank you we acknowledge each other, it is mild but there really is a special connection between the person who says “thank you” and the person who responds with “your welcome”.   I watched a talk about human connection once by someone who use to be a street performer, a living statue.  When someone would throw money into her hat, she would break pose, and hand them a small white flower and say “thank you”.   She reported that she could tell that for some of the people, this was the first genuine connection with another human being the person had made in days.    When we say thanks, we make a connection.  When we give thanks to God we make a connection with God.   At its foundation when we worship God we should be giving thanks to God.  We can have faith in God because the ways that God has worked in our lives testifies to His goodness.  When we take the time to go out of our way and name those works and give thanks, then that cannot help but increase our faith.  When we thank God our faith grows, and when we thank God we are actively worshiping God. 


            Giving thanks is a Spiritual Discipline.   It is something that we have to be intentional about.   Just like writing thank you notes, it is something we need to take the time to be mindful of.   We all have things that we can be thankful for.  What do you have to be thankful for?  Did you wake up this morning?  Then give thanks to God!  Did you have food to eat?  Then give thanks to God.  Do you have people in your life who you love and who loves you?  Then give thanks to God.  By the blood of Christ, have you been forgiven and have an inheritance in the life everlasting?  Then give thanks to God, with a grateful heart give thanks! 


            This lent as we prepare our hearts and minds for Easter, as we dedicate ourselves to be more serious in our faith, let us not forget to give thanks.   Of all of the spiritual disciplines, this is perhaps one of the easiest and one of the hardest.  Saying “thank you” is a very easy act, giving thanks to God for his goodness and greatness is even easier.  However it is hard because it is so easy to forget.  It is so easy not to take the time, and focus on “more important” things.    May we go out of our way to give thanks to God.   May we not take all of the ways that God has blessed us for granted.  May we take the time to thank God for every good and perfect gift.  Let us always be willing to worship God by saying with great joy from the depths of our hearts, “Thank you.”  Thank you God.