Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
It’s bedtime on a school night years ago. Leah washes her face and brushes her teeth. I fetch a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and open to where we left off the night before. Leah comes and shows me her new sparkly boots and other stuff mom bought her at the outlet mall. I say, “Yeah? You know what I got?” “Nothing!” “Ahh,” she said, giving me a big hug. “You know what you’re getting tomorrow?” she asked. “Another new day!” “Yeah, whatever” I said. Then she says, real incredulous, “Hey!! That’s a gift from God mister!”
Another new day. She was right—each day a gift from God. Can’t argue with that. So how come I don’t feel grateful? That question still haunts me and feels more urgent today. I am beleaguered and I in shock by daily events. Here’s where our gospel steps up to meet me where I am. Here’s where the bible presents me with a life hack gleaned from real life by ancestors in faith who coped and thrived in times more chaotic, difficult, and dangerous than today. It sounds simple—even simple minded. Jesus’ sage advice is remember to give thanks.
There’s a spot on the drive home to grandma’s house just east of Ft. Collins, Colorado, on highway 14 where the entire town, foothills, and mountains rising above tree line to 14,000 feet, come into focus all at once. I’ve stopped there, many times, just to take in that view. It’s so beautiful, it almost commands you stop and give thanks.
But I know from having lived there it doesn’t take long for that view and those mountains to recede into the background like pretty pictures hanging on a wall. Pretty soon, like any place, what seems to matter most are daily routines and the torrent of your private thoughts, and your strategies to cope with whatever variety of stress is on offer that day. Truth is, every place is beautiful. Each day is a gift, like young Leah said, yet we get so turned in on ourselves that beauty doesn’t rise to our consciousness. We don’t remember to say thanks which leads to our own impairment.
Last week we heard Jesus scold the disciples. He told them not to expect thanks for all the good things they do in Jesus’ name. They are worthless servants who are doing only what is asked (Luke 17:10). Today, we hear the rest of the story. Don’t wait to receive thanks, Jesus says, but always remember to give it. Because thanksgiving is not a duty but a lifeline. Thanksgiving—literally eucharist—is a means to grab onto grace and hold it inside ourselves like lighting in a bottle. Gratitude spills over into love. Thanksgiving heals, redeems and sanctifies.
Victor Frankl, the eminent psychologist, and author of the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, was prisoner in a Nazi death camp during WWII. He lost his father, mother, brother, and wife –his entire family perished—everyone except his sister.
Later Frankl was asked how he could continue to believe in the value of life? He answered with a brief story. “One day, a few days after liberation,” he said, “I walked through the country, past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. [Meadow] Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the lark’s jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around and up to the sky—and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world. I had but one sentence in mind—always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence, memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed until I again became a human being.” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)
Why does a leper give thanks? Why does a man who lost everything in a death camp give God praise? Because giving thanks gives life. Gratitude is healing for us. Gratitude is living water to quench our thirsty souls. Gratitude gets lost in the ledger when we keep accounts and life becomes small. Gratitude, like love, grows when it is shared.
Our gospel says ten lepers were cured. God’s grace falls upon everyone and everything like rain. But only one was made whole—the one who returned to Jesus and to give thanks. Here, our gospel opens to teach us something more. The one who gave thanks was a Samaritan—a despised foreigner. As a group the Samaritans go 2 for 3 in Luke’s gospel: they refuse to host the disciples (9:53), but the Good Samaritan is exemplary, as is this former leper.
The Good Samaritan is a Christ-like figure. Here, this Samaritan leper is a church-like figure, who embodies the essential elements of Christian worship. The leper is exemplary of the sort of devotion God expects but does not always receive.
The Samaritan leper points where the church must go. It must be the place where the gratitude of a foreigner and outcast receives welcome. The leper’s story is about the kingdom of God — about who is invited, who belongs, and who thrives in the realm where God dwells. What does it mean that in Christ, we are all one? What is our ongoing responsibility to the stranger, the alien, the Other? What happens to our differences at the foot of the Cross?
The church is called into places like where we find Jesus today. He’s in a no-man’s land. He is traveling back and forth across the border between Samaria and Galilee. He is somewhere between being in and out of a nameless village. He is somewhere between being in and out of proximity to unclean lepers whom everyone else shunned. He has been on his way to Jerusalem since chapter 9, yet here near the end of chapter 17 it seems he hasn’t made any progress.
It strikes me that our life in Christ often feels like this. We are working and toiling but have no idea how to judge whether we’re making progress. We’re making dinner for our family, or doing our best to listen to the story of a struggling friend, or trying to be graceful while staring down the barrel of economic uncertainty, chronic illness or grief –and it seems like only one person in ten even takes time to notice or care —and that’s on a good day.
To journey with Jesus is to stand with him and pronounce thanksgiving upon those places and those moments. It is to be standing on the border of an unnamed and unlocated village, halfway between being in and out; between being insiders and outsiders in a kind of liminal space, a twilight zone, a space where we cannot always be sure what’s happening and give “thanks.”
Here is ancient hard-won wisdom of our forebears. This is how the grace of God will lift us out of the worry and striving of what is now our daily life to buoy us up and place us on a new and broad horizon by searching for the coming of God’s kingdom in the company of new friends and being fearless enough always to say “thanks.”