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Thankfulness Should Be a Priority in Our Lives

by RevJan

based on Luke 17:11-19

Leprosy is a disease that we don't hear much about these days, but it still exists. It is a chronic infectious disease, caused by [a bacterium which affects] the skin and superficial nerves. It is found mainly, but not exclusively, in tropical regions. The disease produces numerous skin and nerve lesions, which, if left untreated, enlarge and may result in severe disfigurement . . . In 1993 the World Health Organization began a campaign to eliminate leprosy by 2000. Also known as Hansen's disease, leprosy affects about 43,000 continental Americans each year. says: The isolation of those with leprosy, practiced over time, probably was more cautious than necessary, but it did reduce the spread [of leprosy]. . . . continued contact with victims does put someone at risk – family members of leprosy victims have a rate of 5-10% of eventually getting the disease. Isolation of victims in separate communities probably made their life easier by reducing the ostracism with which they would otherwise be faced. Leonard Sweet tells us In Jesus day, lepers were required to announce their presence . . . so that purified Jews could steer clear of them and avoid any risk of contamination. Believed to be a disease not just of the skin, but of the soul as well, leprosy was attributed to a divine judgement, earned by parental disregard of purity laws or the leper's own slanderous tongue, dishonest behavior, disrespect for the [Jewish religion] and priesthood, or some other violation of Mosaic Law.

In today's scripture, we learn that Jesus was "on his way" to Jerusalem — and the cross. Traveling between Samaria and Judea, he passed near a leper colony. His fame preceded him, for ten of the lepers called out to him "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" They reached out in faith that Jesus would heal them, as he had others. It was possible for leprosy to go into remission. If a leper thought his leprosy had gone away, he was supposed to present himself to a priest, who could declare him clean. Jesus said to the ten "Go and show yourselves to the priests." As they left, they were miraculously cleansed of their leprosy. All of the lepers obeyed Jesus' command to "go and show yourselves to the priests." Not one asked "Why?" "Do I Hafta?" or "Why don't you cure us right here?" Each of the ten lepers obeyed Jesus. And, while they were on their way, all ten were healed. Ten were healed, yet only one returned to say "thank you." Several theories have been postulated as to why only one returned to thank Jesus. One waited to see if the cure was real. One waited to see if it would last. One said he would see Jesus later. One decided that he had never had leprosy. One said he would have gotten well anyway. One gave the glory to the priests. One said, "Oh, well, Jesus didn't really do anything." One said, "Any rabbi could have done it." One said, "I was already much improved." Everyone else was distracted by other blessings that were so near (family, friends, work, home, etc. . . . )? Are we also too busy, tending to what we have, to remember to give thanks? Is our Sabbath so full of shopping and laundry and homework, and "quality time" (and sermon giving, and Sunday School Lessons, and church business) that we can't make time to tell God thanks? Of the ten, only one found the time to say thanks. In the style of good storytellers, Luke gives us the punch line at the end of the story — "And he was a Samaritan." The despised foreigner, the hated alien, was the only one who gave thanks. Whatever their reasons, only one returned, and to that one Jesus said "Your faith has made you well." The word used here for "well" actually means "whole." For, while the other nine were "healed," this one was made complete, whole. The same Greek word is used in the story of Zaccheaus for "to be saved." By obeying Jesus' command to go to the priests, the ten were healed of their leprosy. By returning to give thanks to Jesus, the one was made whole. On the way to Rome, the pope was going through the region between Yugoslavia and Kosovo. As he entered a village, ten victims of AIDS approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Holy Father, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go to church." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, praised God with a loud voice. He knelt down, right where he was, and offered prayers of thanksgiving to Jesus. And this one was a Communist. The Pope asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Did none of them give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you and made you whole."

There is a lesson in the thankfulness of the Samaritan leper for us. Surely he, like the others, had family obligations to meet, friendships to renew. Yet, he, and only he, returned to Jesus. Someone has pointed out that, because he was a Samaritan, he could not go to the Jerusalem temple. He had no other place to go, than to Jesus. That's a nice thought, but it ignores the fact that there were Samaritan priests, and that the people of Samaria had their own temple and holy places. In fact, a major contention between the Jews and the Samaritans was how each practiced their religion. Saying "He was a Samaritan," to Jesus' hearers, would be the same as saying "He was a Communist," to us today. Leper/Samaritan, Communist/AIDS victim, there is an important lesson about thankfulness in this story, and it has to do with the way we live our lives. There is an old saying, "if you want something done, give it to the busiest person you know." It seems that the busier some people get, the more they are able to get done. They know how to organize their lives, they know how to prioritize. It may be that they have baskets full of filing at the office, or baskets full of undone laundry at home. It may be that they eat take-out five nights a week, or pay to have their house cleaned and their lawns mowed. Some people hire other people to take their cleaning to the cleaners, to pick-up their groceries at the grocery store, and to haul their kids from day care to karate to piano to ballet to Scouts. Yet, these very busy people have determined what is important for them to do themselves, and what they can delegate/relegate to others. They have determined the priorities in their lives. How often do I hear "I'm just too busy to . . . teach Sunday school, serve on a committee, develop a ministry, attend Sunday school, or come to church – it's my only day to sleep in . . ." I often wonder how those people will feel at the end if God says to them "I was just too busy to hear your prayer," or "I was sleeping in and didn't know you'd need me?" To the Samaritan leper, God was a priority. He could have walked on, whether or not he went to the temple in Jerusalem. He could have ignored Jesus, and gone directly back to his family in Samaria. He chose not to. The Samaritan leper chose to return and offer thanks. Thankfulness is more than an act of good manners. It ought to be a major component of our lives. During the Thanksgiving holiday, we focus on our blessings (usually stated in material things), and express our thankfulness to God for them. For many people, Thanksgiving is the end of thankfulness as their attention turns to Christmas and getting what they want. Thanks should be on our lips every day. When thankfulness becomes an integral part of our life, our attitude toward life changes. We become more positive, loving, and humble. Now, I admit, it is difficult to thank God when the alarm goes off at 5:00 on a cold winter morning and I know I have to throw on my exercise clothes and do aerobics for 45 minutes. It is difficult to thank God when your carefully planned weekend of relaxation dissolves into a mass of catch up chores. It is difficult to thank God when you, or someone you love, is hurting, either physically or spiritually. Yet, without thankfulness, gratitude, in our lives, we become self-centered, bitter, and idolatrous. Idolatry begins when we reject what we know about God. Instead of looking to God as the Creator and sustainer of life, we see ourselves as the center of the universe.

Thankfulness doesn't have to be grand show, it can be done quietly. When was the last time you thanked God for waking you up in the morning? Even with all the aches and pains, the alternative — not waking up — is unhappier. When was the last time you thanked God for giving you a brain so you could learn, or a job so you could support your family? Have you thanked God for friends to listen to how hard school is, or how difficult the people you work with are? Think about the last rainbow you saw. Did you marvel at its beauty? Did you count the color bands? Did you call others to share it with you? Did you thank God for the rain, the sun, God's bow in the sky and God's promise that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh? A life lived in thankfulness does not necessarily mean acts of thanking other people. A life of thankfulness is an attitude toward God, toward life and toward other people. There is a legend about a man who found the barn where Satan kept his seeds ready to be sown in the human heart, and on finding the seeds of discouragement more numerous than others, he learned that those seeds could be made to grow almost anywhere. When Satan was questioned, he reluctantly admitted that there was one place in which he could never get the seeds of discouragement to thrive. 'And where is that?' asked the man. Satan replied sadly, 'In the heart of a grateful man.' A lot has to do with our attitude. When we expect to get certain things from life, from other people, from God, we are often disappointed, discouraged, demoralized. Yet, when we learn to live thanking God for that which we do have, our attitudes change, our outlook on life changes. A fellow minister tells this story: I was locking up the church building one evening, ready to get in my car and go home after a long day, when an unfamiliar vehicle came crunching up the gravel driveway. A woman I did not know got out and asked if I was the pastor. I was prepared to listen to a plea for money, but she surprised me by saying that something especially wonderful had just happened to her and she wanted to thank God. She asked if she could go inside the church to do so. Still a bit wary, I unlocked the door and followed her into the building. She entered the sanctuary, slipped into a pew, and bowed her head in prayer. After about ten minutes, she got up, thanked me, and went on her way. This incident has stuck with me over the years, and it comes to mind again as we consider this text. It seems the offhand "thanks," or even worse the "he knows how appreciative I am" do not suffice. . . . To go out of one's way to give thanks is to make that thanks real in a sense that it might not be otherwise. You see, the other nine lepers may very well have rejoiced over their healing. They may have told the priests, their families, their friends the glorious news about how they were healed, maybe even who healed them. Yet, none of the nine performed the simple act of giving thanks. Their joy at being healed was more important than a simple act of thanksgiving. We will never know why the nine stayed away and the one returned. We do know this, however, that the one who returned was not simply healed, but was made whole. That changed his whole life. The question we must ask ourselves is, do we simply want healing, or are we ready to be made whole?

When was the last time you thanked, really thanked, God for your life — all of it, the good and the not so good? When to you plan to? Will you be prepared, then, to be made whole?