Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Other Nine”
Rev. Art Ritter
November 22, 2020
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
This Halloween was probably the first time in 37 years that I did not pass out any candy to trick or treaters. I recall the first time I participated. I was an intern at First Congregational Church in St. Johns, MI and lived in a house apartment next to the church. Many of the children in the congregation promised to stop by and visit and my very first trick or treater happened to be the daughter of my supervising minister. She gladly took the candy that I offered and then turned to move on to her next stop. But when her father attempted to force her to say thank you, she started crying. She did not want to say anything to me, much less thank you. I remember she tossed the candy on the ground, and ran away down the sidewalk. That piece of candy was just not worth a thank you.
In a recent article on medium.com American Baptist minister Robin Bolen Anderson writes about her marriage engagement a few years ago. Anderson found herself uncomfortable with all of the “hoopla and attention” that goes along with getting married. People were pleading to see her engagement ring. Some were calling her “The Bride” instead of using her name. A couple of friends made her bouquets out of ribbon to carry around so everyone would know that she was a bride-to-be. And then there were the bridal showers. She hated them. Anderson said that she should have been happy sitting in a room with her friends and family, or should have been content with one shower in a room full of her future husband’s family. Those people loved her and were willing to risk their love. But she said she felt most uncomfortable knowing that they were watching her every facial expression as she opened presents so graciously gifted to her. She should have felt loved, and she really did. But she also felt embarrassed and indebted because she grew up being taught not to be a mooch. Receiving gifts without also giving gifts turned her stomach into knots.
I had a wonderful thing happened to me this week. Oddly that wonderful thing occurred on social media, which often seems to be the place where a whole lot of mean and mundane things happen. One of our members here at Meadowbrook, Sharon Brown, is participating in a thankfulness exercise on Facebook, listing something each day for which she is thankful. On this particular day she said that she was thankful that I am her minister. Wow! Isn’t that nice? I was touched. I was honored. Yet quite frankly I was a little embarrassed. I was uncomfortable. I started thinking about all of the things I had not done well or all of the things hadn’t done at all to be thought of as a good minister. I was not worthy. In reflection, I was accessing the situation from my childhood mindset that if someone offered me such a wonderful gift of recognition, I better have provided something that deserved the gift of such acknowledgement. Surely I could have done something more and certainly I could have done something different to really deserve Sharon’s heartfelt comment.
A few hours later, another one of our wonderful members, Denise Pearson commented on Sharon’s post. She said, “I wish he would be our minister forever.” At that moment I simply lost it for a few minutes. Sharon’s words and now Denise’s words took all of my rational thought process. I was able to truly understand how much appreciation those words expressed. I moved from trying to find a reason to avoid the compliments to embracing the compliment fully as gifts from God, gifts that I needed to enjoy, especially in our current time and situation.
In discussing her book Grateful, we remember that Diana Butler Bass said that for centuries people have thought as Pastor Anderson and I have. Gratitude has been understood as an obligation to repay a favor or a gift. Kings gave subjects protection and provision. Subjects returned thanks with gifts of loyalty and service. Part of our theological understanding uses this standard. Jesus died for us. In return we must give him our lives and of our gifts or face some sort of eternal punishment.
But Bass argues that gratitude is a kind of thankfulness that has the power to change us and the way we see the world around us. With gratitude, we are not moved to repay the gift with another gift or favor. With gratitude, we are to respond to a gift with words and actions that transform us into being the best person we can be, the person that God created us to be. God gives, not so that we return the gift, but that we can recognize who we are and respond in ways that honor God and our created worth.
In the 17th chapter of Luke, the author writes of the healing of ten lepers. The lepers were suffering from some sort of contagious skin disease, ritually unclean and forced to separate themselves from the rest of society. Interestingly enough, when Jesus encountered the lepers, he was in an area in-between Galilee and Samaria, a no man’s land. Perhaps the author of Luke placed Jesus here to make a point, to illustrate the lack of identity and belonging of the people there, and the insecurity and suspicion involved in greeting one another.
Keeping their distance but like beggars everywhere, the ten lepers cry out for help. Jesus answered them with a command, “Go and show yourself to the priests.” This was done in accordance with the Law of Moses and only a priest could pronounce a person ritually clean. On the way to the priests, the lepers were physically healed. They were restored physically, their wounds healed. And they were restored ritually, able to return to their community. One of those men, ironically a Samaritan, a man outside of God’s chosen people, returned to express his thankfulness to Jesus, falling before his feel and glorifying God. Jesus’ response was surprising. “Didn’t I heal ten lepers? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to praise God except this foreigner?” Nine of the lepers didn’t return to say thank you. Nine of the ten lepers failed to appreciate the healing that had come their way. Only the outcast and the loathsome foreign Samaritan came back to render proper gratitude.
Whenever I heard this story, I wonder about the other nine. Why didn’t they return to give thanks for their healing? I read lots of sermons and articles that suggest they might have had some decent and practical excuses. They were just too busy. They had to get back to important responsibilities. They had to buy new clothes that fit over their healed skin. They had to share their good news with friends and family. Maybe they just had a lot of catching up to do.
But maybe some of them were like me. They found it difficult to embrace a gift without feeling unworthy of it or indebted by it. What did they do to deserve such an unexpected healing in such an unexpected place? How could they ever repay the one who healed them and allowed them to return to their homes and their lives where they could be hugged and touched and loved again? Perhaps for them, saying thank you was an obligation that embarrassed them, much as a small child is embarrassed when a parent refuses to allow them to receive a gift until they swallow their pride and utter those magic words of “thank you.”
Yet Jesus teaches us that in gratitude, the gifts of life that stem from God are not something given for us to repay. When the one leper returned he ran toward the source of grace rather than away from it. He understood his healing was a call to a new way of living. In the gift he received, he discovered once again the goodness of God. He could celebrate his healing by living in new and different ways, with a perspective that honored God.
Gratitude is a response to hearing God’s voice in our lives. It is a perspective that recognizes the blessing of a gift and then somehow allows for appreciation to be articulated in word or action. Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something much larger and deeper. It takes us out of the center of our own universe and makes the contributions of the divine visible in the presence of others around us. Gratitude links us to the source of the blessing. Gratitude releases us from fear and worry and embarrassment to do more than we could ever imagine. When we are grateful we return to the source of the blessing knowing what God looks like and what God feels like because we have seen and experienced God ourselves.