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 for a full month?"
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. 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. 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 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.
Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by