Gratitude is a Verb
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.
OK, let’s start tonight with a little exercise. I am going to say a word, and I want you to notice the top two or three associations you have with this word. Don’t judge your associations: just notice what they are, notice what you think of and where it takes you and what body sensations you have. OK? Are you ready?
Now I want to ask you a second question and I want you to be brave and tell me the truth: how many of you had at least one negative reaction to the word gratitude? Like, for example, an association of gratitude as what your mother told you you should feel but that you didn’t feel? Or an obligation to write thank you notes that you frequently fail at?
Many of you know that the people of St. Matthews have identified eight spiritual practices that form the core of what it means to us to follow the way of Jesus, and one of those spiritual practices is gratitude. But the gratitude we are talking about isn’t like the gratitude your mother told you you ought to feel, or the stack of unwritten thank you notes on your desk. Look at tonight’s scripture. The Samaritan leper in this story is expressing gratitude to Jesus. He is the only one of the ten lepers who were healed to come back and say thank you. But the way he is saying thank you is nothing like writing a polite thank you note and mailing it a few weeks after the fact. The gospel reading says that his voice is loud, that he literally throws himself at Jesus’ feet. It sounds loud and extravagant and even embarrassing. He is totally overwhelmed, flooded, with feeling, with relief. The word grateful isn’t a big enough word. He is in love, he is beside himself.
We can imagine why: this man had been dealing with double layers of isolation and oppression: as a leper, he was forced to live away from healthy people, outside the city; as a leper he was not even allowed to wash or cut his hair, but the law required him to be obviously and physically a leper, to be dirty and unwashed, so that normal people could avoid him. It was miserable and humiliating. But he was also a Samaritan: ethnic cousins of Jews, descendants of the ten tribes who had refused to provide slave labor to King Solomon’s son and who therefore split off from the country into their own country. So they were hated by the Jews, the two tribes who got to retain the name “Israel.” This Samaritan leper was doubly oppressed. He understood what isolation meant. He might have been like some of us in this town who deal with double layers of isolation, like mental illness and poverty or being a queer person of color or being a homeless addict. So when the Samaritan saw that he was healed, from leprosy at least, it cut him to the quick. It flooded him with enormous overwhelming gratitude. He could do nothing other than express his intense feeling to Jesus, even if it delayed his trip to the priest. He had suffered so intensely that the unexpected experience of healing met his deepest need, and the only thing he could do was to express it, the way an artist catches sight of something beautiful and can’t rest until she paints it, or the way a musician has to write a song when he falls in love.
I want to point out what happens when this Samaritan, this leper, comes back and pours out his soul to Jesus. Jesus says something very significant. He says, “Get up and go your way in peace. Your faith has made you well.” Normally I don’t like to talk about the Greek in a sermon because I don’t want this to be an academic exercise. But in this case the Greek is very significant so I have to break my rule and talk about it. In tonight’s reading there are three different verbs used to describe the kind of healing the lepers receive: the first, to be cleansed, meaning to be made clean and able to live among normal people again; the second, to be physically healed, which is what the Samaritan leper saw as he was walking to the priest and what spurred him to return to Jesus to give thanks; and third, to be made well, to be saved, which is what Jesus says happens to him when he comes back to give thanks.
The significance between these three verbs is this. The first two verbs are in a tense that mean a single action in time: to be cleansed, to be healed. But the third, to be made well, is a totally different verb tense that means a past action that continues to have effects in the present and in the future. The difference is that in the third case, the Samaritan leper continues to experience the benefits of having been made well. And what is it that helps him to experience that? His gratitude. His trust.
Here’s what the Samaritan leper does that is different from the others. First, he notices the healing he has received, and he lets it impact him to the core. Second, he does more than offer a quick internal expression of “thank God!” on his way to the priest. He lets his overwhelming gratitude carry him to the feet of Christ in worship and praise. And in the process he is made well. Ten lepers were cured in this story. But I think only one of them was truly healed.
We can imitate this Samaritan leper. Let me ask you: are there areas in your own life where you feel isolated, or stuck, or in need of healing? Where you experience injustice or hopelessness? I would invite you to get in touch with those areas, to allow yourself the honesty of facing your own suffering. Second, I want to invite you to a daily practice of mindfulness: of taking the time to notice even small ways that God brings healing and comfort and restoration into your life, especially in those areas. Let’s take a minute to do that right now. Think over your life recently and notice if there are times you were given an unexpected break, or an unexpected instance of compassion from someone else, or you experienced strength or peace when you only expected pain or weariness. Now, instead of glossing over that moment, I want to invite you to really sit with it, to soak in it, to marinate in it. Let the gift from that moment meet you where you have felt pain or sickness or grief. Take it in.
I want to invite you to do a daily practice, every evening before you go to bed or as you are lying in bed before you fall asleep, to survey your day and do exactly what we just did. Where did you experience gift today? Where did you experience gratitude or relief or support, maybe where you didn’t expect it? In the busy-ness of our days it’s hard to take enough time in the moment to really take these gifts in, but at night we can reflect on them and be nourished by them. On the way out you can pick up a piece of paper in the narthex to help you reminder what this exercise is like.
The next step, the next way we can imitate the Samaritan leper, is the great invitation. Consider what it would mean in some way to respond with your whole being to this gift. Your response might be big or small, but what is invited from us is more than just a quick “thank you God”. It’s a re-orientation of life. What is God inviting you to do or to express in response to what you have been given? The difference between being given a gift and really receiving it with one’s whole being is the difference between the temporary act of being cured and the lasting effects of being made well.
Gratitude is like falling in love. It’s more a verb than a noun—it begs for expression. When you really consider what God gives us, the healing God continually expresses toward us, it moves us to act. We can cultivate a lifestyle and a practice of looking for the ways God is always acting to heal us, and then we can respond with all that we are. As we continue to worship tonight, I invite you to sing with your whole heart, to approach Christ’s table with joy because you have been declared whole, you have met with God’s boundless favor, God’s endless delight in your being.