A Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 preached in the three congregations of
the Anglican Parish of Camden East, Ontario, Canadian Thanksgiving, October
My wife Mollie and I worked for eleven years in India. In those days lepers were a common sight with their hands and feet and faces horribly disfigured. They lost all feeling in their body, and they didn't know when they had been cut or burned. You could see them wandering around in search of food or begging by the roadside. There are now very good drugs to treat the condition, but in those days there was no cure of any kind. Lepers were excluded from their villages, and only Christians were willing to care for them. The disease was very contagious, and many of the missionaries who worked in leprosy asylums themselves caught the disease and remained to die with the other lepers.
In Bible times lepers would gather around garbage dumps to pick up scraps of food, and when they went out in groups they had to shout "unclean" so people could keep away from them. So when this group of ten lepers heard that Jesus was coming to their area, they called out from a distance "Have mercy on us." In some situations recorded in the Gospels Jesus would touch and heal the leper. But in this case he told the ten men to go the priests whose job it was to check people and confirm that people had, or did not have, the condition. As they went, they found to their astonishment that sensation had come back into their hands and feet, and they knew they had been healed. Nine of them said "Wow, am I lucky," and after being declared free of the disease they went home to celebrate.
One of them, praising God at the top of his voice, went back to find the one who had healed him. He fell at Jesus' feet and thanked him for saving him. Jesus asked "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?" Strangely, the other nine were Jews, who should have known the Psalms of Thanksgiving. Like many people who are healed from dread conditions in our hospitals, they took the miracle of healing for granted and never thank God for the blessings of their life. So all ten of those lepers were healed, but only one of them was made whole. And Jesus pointed out that this man was a despised Samaritan (Luke 17:16).
Why does thanksgiving make us whole? If you think about it, faith is being thankful to God. When someone says they don't believe in God, I always ask "Tell me, when something good happens, or you are enjoying a beautiful day, do you ever say thank you?" If the professed atheist says "Oh, yes, I was very grateful walking yesterday enjoying the beautiful fall colors," he is very surprised when I say "So you are a believer. You can't say thank you to chance, or to matter, or to energy. You can only say thank you to a person. And the Person you are thanking is God!"
I once talked to a guard at the Kingston Pen, where some of the worst criminals in Canada are lodged. He told me the real baddies are those who can never say thank you for anything, whatever you do for them. But once an inmate begins to express gratitude for little favors, and then begins to thank God, change has begun. He may still have more years to serve his time, but there is hope at the end of the road.
As I drove through this parish I noticed the big satellite dishes that bring in dozens of programs from space. But imagine a farmer who pointed his dish horizontally towards Kingston, or Ottawa, or Toronto, and hoped to see what was going on. Faith is a direction of looking. And as soon as we are thankful our faith satellite is pointed in the right direction. If we are never thankful, we never see what God has for us anywhere. That is why the New Testament says "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). And the reason why God wants his children to be thankful is that thanksgiving makes us whole.
We can also see that heart thanksgiving has a powerful effect. Thankful people look radiant. They are nice to have around. Grouchy, complaining people have a scowl on their face, and after a time it gets etched into the skin of their face. You can see across the street that they have a sour, crabby look.
Women spend billions every year on cosmetics, but they forget that the quickest way to be attractive is to have a thankful heart. A young girl can have a gorgeous figure, but if she's a sour puss, she is as ugly as hell. I love the old ladies who have suffered a lot, but they are still full of thanksgiving. I find them incredibly beautiful. The fact is thanksgiving works throughout our life in every cell of our body, mind and emotions. And thanksgiving doesn't cost a cent, or take any of our time. Instantly you are made whole.
That is why in the New Testament we read "giving thanks to God the Father at all times and in everything" (Ephesians 5:20). Thanksgiving can become a habit of our lives, in the shower, in our car, when we meet someone. Try, when you meet someone you detest, start being thankful under your breath, smile, and see what happens. It is an easy way to be freed from a complaining spirit.
The problem is that it is easy enough to be thankful when everything is very good.
Some of you are saying, "I could imagine giving thanks to God if I was suddenly healed from leprosy or cancer, but do you expect me to be thankful if my house burned down, or I got Multiple Sclerosis, or my husband walked out on me for a younger chick?" Well, you might not manage thanks and praise right then, but see what happens if you begin thanking God even in the disasters in your life.
It is very cruel and unfeeling to say to someone who has just been bereaved "Why don't you snap out of it and be thankful. Many people are in a far worse situation than you are." When we are hurt, bereaved, abused, lose our job, or our home, it takes time to cry and grieve. But after some time we may be able to say "Thank you Lord, you are going to see me through this mess," and immediately an inner wholeness begins to change us from deep inside. The alternative is to decide to get bitter and grouchy and complain to anyone who will listen. That means you are only hurting yourself. As we have seen, thanksgiving costs nothing and quickly makes you a beautiful person.
One of the hardest things to be thankful for is parents who have ignored, neglected or abused us. But one of the commandments is "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12). How on earth can you do that if your parents have kicked you in the teeth? To honor your parents is being thankful for them. It doesn't mean they were perfect, nor do you have to agree with their old-fashioned ideas. Teenagers find parents are often very stupid (but wait till you have kids of your own !).
Honoring your father or your mother begins when we realize that every gene in our body, every brain cell, the very shape of our arms and legs, came from one or other of our parents. You are what they gave you. Try giving thanks for that. It does not mean you have to approve all your parents said and did. But you can give thanks that God is using the hard knocks of life for you to become a loving person yourself. God has a way of growing roses from manure. And thanksgiving immediately begins to change us in creative directions.
At the last supper Jesus gave thanks just when everything was going from bad to worse. The next day he would be unjustly condemned, scourged, mocked, and crucified till he bled to death in agony. But he was already giving thanks it would turn out to be the most wonderful event in the world. We call it Good Friday. In a few minutes we are going to share in the Eucharist. In Greek eucharizein means to give thanks. As we take the bread and the wine, we are going to be thankful for everything we can think of, however bad at the time. In the old prayer book we used to say "for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of life." The Lord loves us, forgives us however rotten we have been, and continue to be, and when we die He welcomes us on the other side to all the joys of heaven.
Thanksgiving is the heart of faith, it is the heart of wholeness, and
it is the heart of our church. Let's take a moment right now to turn our
faith satellite to thank God for everything we can think of, both the good,
and the not so good. And like that leper we are made whole.
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