Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Tenth Leper”
Rev. Art Ritter
October 13, 2019
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.”
My spouse is big on thank you notes. She is much better at it that I am. Whenever we are invited to dinner or whenever we receive an unexpected gift she quickly pens a note of thanks and sends it out to the gift-giver. Laura has taught this discipline to our daughters Maren and Amelia and they also use it well, personally and professionally.
Alyce McKenzie writes about her mother teaching her to write thank you notes. McKenzie theorizes the habit is something embraced by a vanishing generation. Her mother always said that you could tell a lot about a person depending on whether or not they bothered to write a thank you note.
McKenzie relates the story of a friend of her mother, who whenever a bride did not have the good manners to write a thank you note, would write the bride the following note, “Dear Amanda: Thank you for inviting us to your lovely wedding. I am writing to make sure that you received our gift. If you didn’t, can you let me know and I’ll arrange for a duplicate to be sent to you? Wishing you every happiness in your marriage, Jean and John Smith.”
McKenzie comments that the note is just a bit passive aggressive. It puts the bride in a tough spot. The bride has a couple of options as to how to respond. The first might go like this, “Dear Jean: I did receive your gift and apologize for not having written you a thank you note yet. Please don’t interpret this as lack of gratitude. I’ve just been busy. Amanda”
Or, the bride could choose a different path and send the following, much more interesting note. “Dear Jean: I did receive your gift but have made the decision not to write thank you notes since I’m very busy and they are very time consuming. You may, if you wish, send me a duplicate gift. All good wishes to you in your marriage, Amanda.”
McKenzie closes by saying that her mother’s friend wasn’t really concerned about whether or not the bride received the gift. She was trying to teach them a lesson. She wanted the bride to know that not sending thank you notes was unacceptable, ill-mannered behavior. And she wanted a thank you!
I recall a woman from the church I served in Toulon, IL whose name was Franny. Every birthday and Christmas Franny would send her grandchildren a check for $20. Twenty dollars was a pretty significant gift over 30 years ago! And Franny appreciated hearing from the recipients of her checks. Some of those grandchildren sent a prompt thank you. Others never sent a thank you at all. After a few years Franny made a rule about giving gifts. If she did not receive a thank you, she did not send any more checks to that grandchild.
Years later I remember reading a letter in “Dear Abby” which I think could have been written by Franny. Surprisingly the mail poured into the column’s office criticizing the grandmother. One letter said, “If you want to know whether or not your present got there, just pick up the phone and ask. Jesus was not thanked by nine of the lepers that he healed. But he didn’t stop healing. Written thank you notes are a waste of time and money.” But the writers of the column responded, “When Jesus healed the ten lepers and only one returned, he asked where the other nine were. It appears that Jesus kept track of those who thanked him. Should a grandmother do any less?”
We can probably all agree that people should thank other people when they do kind things for them. We might also all agree that we should be thankful or express our gratitude whenever we receive a gift, expected or unexpected.
The gospel of Luke’s story of the healing of the ten lepers is a good starting point for some thoughts about gratitude. Interestingly enough, given the concerns of our day, the setting is along the border of two areas, a no-man’s land, in this case between Galilee and Samaria. While no such in-between land actually existed, perhaps the writer of Luke described it that way on purpose, to illustrate the lack of identity and belonging of the people there, and the insecurity and suspicion involved in greeting one another.
The lepers were suffering from some sort of contagious skin disease, ritually unclean and separated from the rest of society. Like beggar everywhere, they cried 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. One of those men, a Samaritan, a man outside God’s chosen people, returned to express his thankfulness to Jesus, falling before his feet and glorifying God. Jesus’ response was, “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 offer a word of appreciation to Jesus. Only the outcast and loathsome Samaritan came back to render a proper thank you.
There are lots of good and logical reasons why nine of the healed lepers did not return. Practicality usually wins over the spiritual. Perhaps they were just too busy to return and give thanks. They had to get back to the responsibilities of life. They had to buy new clothes to fit over their healed skin. They had to let their relatives know of their new found health. Maybe when their health was restored they suddenly realized how much they had been missing for years. While begging for food, others were out buying mansions and living in luxury. The healed lepers had a lot of catching up to do. They had so much to do and so many priorities to meet that they couldn’t see the source of their healing or certainly not take the time to respond in gratitude.
Scott Hoezee shares a story from Ladder of Year, a novel by Anne Tyler. The character Delia is a lovely, loveable, giving wife and mother who does her best to keep her household running smoothly. But as her children grow up they tend to ignore her and even flinch from her hugs. They expect their favorite foods for dinner but never thank Delia for purchasing the groceries. Delia’s husband is so wrapped up in his medical practice that he brushes by his wife every day, never noticing the clean house and the warm food set before him. Delia begins to feel like a “tiny gnat, whirring around the family’s edges.” She dies a little each day, like a flower without moisture. One day Delia meets a stranger who thanks for her a little something. The stranger’s kindness is like that much needed water. Finally the day comes when Delia walks away from her family. She takes a stroll on the beach and just keeps walking. Once her family realizes that she is missing, they have a difficult time describing her to the police. They can’t remember the color or her eyes, her height or her weight, or what she was wearing when they last saw her. They had been so blinded by ingratitude that they had stopped seeing her at all.
When Diana Butler Bass was here at Meadowbrook, speaking on her book Grateful, we learned that gratitude is not just words of thank you or even actions that indicate an appreciation of a gift. Gratitude is a way of seeing that moves us to a new way of living. Gratitude is a way of living that recognizes the goodness of God. Gratitude is a response to hearing God’s voice in our lives, a perception that recognizes the blessing and then somehow articulates appreciation for that blessing. Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something much larger and deeper; it removes us from the center of our own universe and makes the contributions of the divine visible in the presence of others around us. Gratitude joins us to the source of blessing itself. Gratitude releases us from fear and worry and emboldens us to do more than we ever imagined. When we are grateful, we return to the source of our healing and blessing because we begin know what God looks like and feels like because when we are grateful we actually are seeing God working in our lives.
This is an attitude that is sorely needed today. Accusations, anger, boasting, complaint- these are the things which seem to speak loudest in our world, especially in the venue of social media. As David Lose writes, “Gratitude pushes back against the tide of resentment and complaint and self-worship that ails us and makes room for a fresh appreciation of God’s renewing, saving grace.”
Our world and our lives are full of challenge and blessing. On this day we remember the tenth leper, the one who returned. We go forth to be heralds of what God has done, speakers of powerful words of thanksgiving, sharers of mighty actions that tell not only of our recognition of blessing but our of need to share our blessings with others in the world. Let us return to God with gratitude.