Sunday Night Worship – 11/23/08

Being Thankful

Luke 17: 11-19

After college and before seminary I spent three years living in far southwest Virginia, working with Appalachia Service Project.  ASP is a United Methodist-affiliated non-profit that does home repair and low-income home construction, similar to Habitat for Humanity.

There were 3 of us fresh from college, living in Christian community on the side of a mountain, trying to fit in with the local community while welcoming and challenging the volunteers who came our way for a week or weekend at a time. We ate meals together, worked all over the county on various homes each day, and came together in the evenings for worship, reflection, and conversation.

At some point I began to have an idea that nagged at me. It might sound a little sadistic, but that wasn’t my intention and I still think we could have pulled it off without going in that direction. I think I had the idea one night while the crew cooking dinner was finishing up and laying it all out. The rest of us were in the living room next to the kitchen, huddled around the wood stove, hungry from our day’s work and very ready for the meal.

In that sense it was not any kind of special day. There were a lot of chilly evenings in those mountains. There were a lot of hungry volunteers and staff. Dinner was always a big pay-off after a long day. We always prayed before we ate but there were times – maybe you will recognize what I’m talking about – when the prayer seemed especially perfunctory. A hoop to jump through on the way to dinner. The thing standing in the way of me and that meal.

Back to my not-really-sadistic nagging idea. Like I said, because the mountains and our ramshackle little metal building were so cold, we often huddled around the woodstove and kept the doors to the drafty kitchen shut until it was time to go in and eat. One night, waiting in the living room with the volunteers, I began thinking about our ritual. We gather, we pray, we eat dinner. In the gathering and the praying there was always a lot of anticipation for the eating dinner part. And one night I began thinking and wondering.

I wondered what we thought we were doing when we prayed before we ate. I wondered if we were genuinely in touch with the fact that God was providing it all or if we lapsed into thinking we “made” the meal. I wondered if we could maintain grateful hearts and a practice of thankfulness if we didn’t receive what we prayed for and what we thought was coming. In other words, what would happen if we gathered and huddled around the stove, then gave thanks for the day and the food, then walked into the kitchen to find that there was no dinner?

Don’t worry! I never executed this idea and I’m not planning on trying it our during our spring break mission trip this year.  But I do still wonder about it. I still wonder about how and what we pray. I still wonder about the difference between a hoop-jumping prayer and a truly thankful heart. And I remembered my ASP days and these musings this week as I was reading our passage from Luke.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when 10 people with leprosy approached, keeping their distance and shouting out for mercy. Jesus sees them and instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests. “And as they went, they were made clean.” One of them men, upon seeing that he has been healed, turns around and begins praising God loudly. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. Now Jesus notices that only one man comes back to offer praise and thanks and he asks, “Weren’t there 10 made clean?”… “Where are the other 9?”… “Didn’t any one of them besides this Samaritan think it was fit to turn back and give praise to God?” He doesn’t wait for any answers to the questions but turns back to the one healed man and says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17: 11-19).

Ten people pray for help and all receive it. One person – the foreigner who would be seen as the least likely candidate – returns to praise God and give thanks. And Jesus notices. He notices that praise and gratitude are not universal. He notices that those who are supposed to already know God don’t seem to act like it. And he calls it like he sees it. He says to the one man, “[Y]our faith has made you well.”

We just heard the story. Don’t we suppose that Jesus had something to do with this healing? But what does he say? Your faith has made you well. Jesus loves to say this at healings! (cf., Mt. 9: 22 and Mark 10: 52) Your faith has made you well. What did Jesus see and experience of this one man’s faith? What did the man do in Jesus’ presence? He turned around and came back; he praised God loudly; and he threw himself down at Jesus’ feet to offer thanks. That’s the faith Jesus is referring to: gratitude and praise.

This may be one of those chicken-and-the-egg things for us: Is he thankful because of his faith or does being thankful lead to faith?

In our culture – and a lot of times in our churches – we are big bargainers. I’ll be satisfied when I lose 10 pounds. After this exam, I’ll be so relieved and much less stressed. If I could only earn enough money, I wouldn’t worry so much. If we were back together things would be easier. If life didn’t seem so hard sometimes, then I could really learn to trust God. We love to look forward and backwards, dreaming of or remembering those better, perfect times. If only….then I’d be happy and have more faith and feel more thankful and live like I think I’m supposed to….

Sheryl Crow has a couple of great lines in her song “Soak up the Sun” (C’Mon C’Mon). She sings, “It’s not having what you want/ It’s wanting want you’ve got.” That’s a catchy line but it’s also the hard stuff of discipleship.  Wanting what I’ve got? Do you mean these 3 exams and this anemic bank account? Do you mean my sick cousin?

The poet Stephen Mitchell has a wonderful paraphrase of Psalm 4 in which he writes, speaking to God, “I pray for whatever you send me and I ask to receive it as your gift” (as quoted in the “Approaching Prayer” episode (5/22/08) of Speaking of Faith, That’s the prayer that is hard to offer, isn’t it? I want what I want and I’m pretty sure I know what’s good for me. I’m not so sure I want to trust God to give me just whatever suits God’s fancy. “I pray for whatever you send me and I ask to receive it as your gift.” “It’s not having what you want/ It’s wanting what you’ve got.”

For a long time now I’ve marveled at how our national day of Thanksgiving fits so nicely into our Christian liturgical year. It tends to land just before Advent begins, the season when we begin again, when our Christian year starts over. For a long time I’ve focused more on the year that’s ending. Today is not only the Sunday when we celebrate Thanksgiving, it is also Reign of Christ Sunday, when the current year ends with a blaze of glory and light, celebrating the in-breaking of Christ’s rule over all time and places. It’s the culmination of our Christian year and a festive reminder that God’s hand is evident in all the world, a comforting reminder before we are plunged into the contemplative darkness of Advent next week with its lone candle to light our path.

For a long time I have thought of Thanksgiving day and Thanksgiving Sunday as times to give thanks to God for all that has already happened. That’s the marvel I initially found in its placement at this point in our liturgical year. But this year I wonder if what we are called to is a more difficult gratitude, one that offers praise and thanks for what has not even yet happened. Rather than looking back over the year that’s ending and plucking out those gems for which we give thanks, what if we considered praying for this coming year? A little bit like my ASP idea: We pray before receiving and then open the door to see what is there. “I pray for whatever you send me and I ask to receive it as your gift.” And we continue to pray no matter what we receive. We continue choosing, as faithful people, to see gifts and to cultivate thankful hearts all year long.

I find Jesus’ second question most interesting in Luke’s scripture: Where are the other 9? One commentary asks, “What does their failure to return praising God say about them? Were they so caught up in their good fortune that they failed to ‘see’ God’s hand in their healing?” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 326). Maybe they thought they had more to do with their own healing than was actually the case. Maybe one or two said to themselves as they went on their way, “I knew if I just asked, God would be good to me.” Maybe another one or two were proud of themselves for their lifelong religious practices. These are big temptations for us and these are the enemies of thankful hearts. To see my good fortune as the work of my own hands may be part of the story, but it fails the perspective test. Where’s God in the mix if it was just my own hard work “paying off?” And what if you work hard and pray for what you want and then you don’t get it? Does that mean you didn’t work hard enough?

The truly hard work is cultivating a thankful heart. Some claim that gratitude is “the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition” (NIB Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 327). Gratitude, praise, thanksgiving. This is a way of life and the primary orientation of a Christian: praising lips and a thankful heart. It’s our primary orientation, flowing from our baptism, that cleansing, quenching ritual when God acts – God gives – before we even know about or understand the gift.

It is no accident that we gather around this table each week for a meal, praying The Great Thanksgiving. Eucharist – which also means “thanksgiving” – is the central act of Christian worship and the way we go about it is to make a “sacrifice” of thanksgiving. Every time we gather for this meal, we pray that “we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving, as a holy and living sacrifice.”

I don’t know what would have happened at ASP if we had opened the kitchen doors to empty plates. I wasn’t ever stupid or brave enough to find out. But there have been times since then when I have witnessed people finding a gift from God in the least likely circumstances. I know it is possible and faithful to live like that. I know it is possible and faithful to want what you have and to praise God for it and to thank God for it every day. I know it is possible and faithful to make this practice the centerpiece of your life.

As the psalmist proclaimed, mountains and hills are outside girding themselves with joy, meadows clothing themselves with flocks, and valleys decking themselves with grain (Psalm 65: 12)! One healed Samaritan turned around singing praises out loud and humbly offered thanks. This is what faith looks like: gratitude and praise. It’s as simple and as sacrificial and as life-changing as that.

Thanks be to God!

© 2008 Deborah E. Lewis