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Based on the Scripture readings:
Luke 17:11-19
Jeremiah 29:1,4-7

2004 October 10
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Are we not entitled to thanks?

One month ago, here in worship, I was given three stoles by our Deacons, representing you in the parish. They are beautiful stoles, and they took inspiration, organization, and even money to deliver. I like them a lot, and one month later I have still not sent a thank you letter to the Deacons. I didn't even say anything last Thursday at the Deacon's meeting. Nothing. It slipped my mind because in the midst of leading two classes, organizing our retreat, preaching, visiting, planning for Christmas and springtime adult education I have been busy, I tell myself, 

"You mean to tell me you couldn't find ten minutes to put pen to paper and leave it in a box in the hall?"
"Every time I think of it the phone rings and I get distracted."
"Distracted for a full month?"
"Well…"

Three weeks ago we had a birthday party for my child. Something like fifteen four- and five-year-olds came with their parents, and as soon as packages with ribbons appeared, there was a level of group psychology that can only be called ecstatic. "Open mine!" "I want to open this one!" It was a beautiful sight to behold and filled with generosity. But within minutes books, boxed jewelry kits, and creative backpacks had become separated from their cards, and whatever permutation of confusion is possible with fifteen gifts soon washed over and upon us. I mumbled a few predictions of confusion to the parents present, pre-confessing the difficulty of acknowledging the correct gift. I medicated my confusion with sweet chocolate cake.

The gifts are upstairs in a group now, but I haven't sent out thank yous yet. I feel bad about it, but I haven't done anything about it. This is not my child's responsibility. As a parent it is mine. And any of you sitting here judging me harshly should honestly know that whatever reasonable condemnation you offer to my given plight, my own self-judgment is harsher. Because I keep passing by these gifts in a pile staring at me like the statuesque toy god of pity and disdain.

What is happening to me that I can receive gifts without taking the time to acknowledge them? And who have I become when I so comfortably and honestly do not expect that other people who have received something from me are under any obligation to acknowledge it?

Philosophically, faithfully, I believe deeply that gratitude is at the core of both faith and health. Yet I forget it every day. Back to top Which could be God's fault, I think. Although every time I forget gratitude, I lose half the gift that is there, don't I?

Praise God from whom all blessings flow 
Praise God all creatures here below.

You know how this could be God's fault? Think about it this way: God is so forgiving, so embracing, so consistently compassionate and graceful and loving that our bad behavior is really no impediment to our good relationship. Don't you think that's fair? It doesn't matter what we forget, neglect, or even do. God forgives us. And my thank you notes are not necessary, and I am absolved of any guilt for their absence. Isn't that a good enough argument? It even accords with the Gospel.

Why today Luke tells the unique story of ten lepers being healed. Nine Jews and a Samaritan. The story has simple lines: a group of exiles ask for Jesus' mercy, which is a word related to loving-kindness. In response to the imperative voice of Jesus these ten outcasts get better. He says "go" and they do. In accordance with the custom and rule of the time, they show themselves to priests, who are the ones who can declare folks healed, clean, and included. Ninety percent of those treated in this considerate and helpful way are never heard from again. And they suffer no obvious consequences from this. Which makes my point. But ten percent of the cohort, one leper, comes back and praises God very loudly. He thanks Jesus big time. So Jesus voices the question, why is this? What's up with the other ninety percent?

Maybe they came from a culture of entitlement. Maybe they thought that they deserved health all along, and that even those who had helped them to regain it were well-deserved instruments of the system. Which would be reasonable. God did pronounce creation good in the beginning so we do deserve good things, I think. And entitlement, as long as it applies to everyone, isn't so negative. It can mean that we know that God loves us and wants us to have good things, which seems fair.

But the nine who wandered off really missed something that even a culture of entitlement can't produce. And this is seen in the clear but quiet language of how the one leper evolved.

In the beginning, Luke says, all the lepers "kept their distance." This was a cultural expectation. Lepers lived near the population so that they could beg, which was expected, but they stayed at a distance which kept the whole system healthy. But something changed for number ten when he was healed. Number ten came right up to Jesus with his praise and thanks. He lay at Jesus' feet. He may have even touched him. Did his healing finally allow him to get closer? Not likely, since the others stayed away. It must have been something else.

Perhaps healing plus gratitude brought this leper closer to Jesus. Symbolically, it brought him closer to God.Back to top If we forget gratitude, we lose half the gift, don't we? 

Praise God above ye heavenly host.

In our own culture academics never deliver papers or print quotes without a citation of the sources. Capitalists never receive products without payment for them. Feminists always remember the ancestry and community that empowers their struggle. Gourmets never leave a restaurant table without leaving perhaps twenty percent, a double tithe, as thanks. Across the spectrum of intellectual, political, and social behaviors we have acknowledgement and gratitude built into our lives. We have two-way relationships where we receive and we respond. How often do the faithful repeat their gratitude to God and to Christ's body, which is all of the people in our world? How often do we say thank you directly to God and directly to each other? Or how often do we accept one-way relationships with God and with each other?

I came up with a clever sermon title which I have in my folder for later this year. It is called "Who can we blame for guilt?" I'm not trying to preach that sermon, and I'm not interested in raising that topic: the topic of guilt. I'm thinking more confessionally about how I behave all too often and what I lose in my behavior. I lose relationship, proximity, and fullness whenever I lose my gratitude.

And isn't that why people come to church, anyway? Isn't that why we live as people of faith? To improve our relationship with God, to increase our proximity to God, and therefore to live anew in family and society and environment. Fred Craddock says the most important words in theology are not about God but to God. We don't gather here to keep at a distance from God but to get closer, even to touch God once in a while. Gratitude to God might be the simplest link in the contact of faith. Gratitude is two-way.

Did you notice that moment in the Vice Presidential debate last week when John Edwards spoke respectfully of Dick Cheney's relationship with his lesbian daughter, and Cheney simply thanked him for his words? For a moment there was a connection, a Back to top quiet, a unity, and an appreciation across the gulfs of red and blue. I respect your relationship. Thank you.

Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic, said that if the only prayer you say in your whole life is "thank you" that would suffice. We can all testify that on those days when we begin with, end with, or pass by these words, they change our experience, no matter how joyful or sorrowful, to one yet higher or less burdensome. Except, I confess, when I forget.

The truth is that most often the fruits of entitlement are not so satisfying anyway. Better seats, appetizers, schedules don't really satisfy the hunger of relationship. Seldom do they allow relationship.

The whole idea of a doxology is to give praise and therefore gratitude to God. In fact, that's the simple definition of the word: doxology means glory or thanksgiving. It doesn't mean that song with the words you learned in that other church. It means saying thanks. When we live our daily lives with some element of doxology we improve our relationship, we get closer to God. Or if this concept is too remote, when we send thank you notes we enlarge the size of any gift.

I struggle with my own immersion in a culture of one-way streets. And I have articulate reasons to defend the distancing habits in my life, such as busyness, confusion, and my sense of God's acceptance whatever I do.

But I do want to be closer to God in every act of my week and my day. I want to be closer to health and faith and joy and social action. Which is one reason I come back to church and sing a doxology and say a prayer of thanksgiving after communion. It's one reason to struggle with all of this here along with you.

Jesus doesn't end his interaction with the leper with a commandment but with a blessing. He says go on your way now, your faith has made you well; literally, your faith has saved you. I wonder if he means your gratitude? I wonder if he means your proximity, his willingness and desire to be close? I wonder if he means gratitude works this way for us?

I can't end with a declarative statement, either. Like, be more thankful. It wouldn't work. I can only end with an invitation to pursue a life of thanks and praise. Like the hymn says: Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art.Back to top

Amen

Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20041010.htm

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