I preparing for today’s sermon I came across the story of a person who described how a colleague, when ever she was greeted and asked how she was doing, she would respond with the words: “I’m grateful.”
It was her standard response. Where some people might answer: I’m fine, or I’m doing great, or It doesn’t help complaining, her response was always: “I’m grateful!”
It is an interesting response because while it is a positive response, a choosing to focus on what is positive in life, it is not a denial that there may be difficulties in life, because even when things in life are difficult, there is always something that one can be grateful for.
The person who related the story suggests that we should all give it a try: Imagine that someone asks you how you are, and then imagine yourself replying with the words: “I’m grateful!”
What does it feel like to say those words?
In reflecting on his colleague who always responded to a greeting with the word: “I’m grateful”, it taught him that gratitude is a choice. It is easy to forget to be grateful, especially when things don’t feel like they’re going so well. To be grateful is a choice.
And that takes us to our gospel passage today.
Luke tells the story of ten lepers who ask Jesus for mercy, keeping their distance, as the law dictated they must because as lepers they are objects of fear and loathing.
Asking Jesus for mercy, Jesus simply says to them, “Go and show yourselves to a priest”, because it was the priests who had the power to pronounce them clean. In the story, they start walking and as they walk, they realize they are healed. But only one turns back to give praise and say thanks. The others keep on going.
Jesus asks the question: Why do nine rush away without giving thanks. Why is this foreigner the only one who does? And, to that one who came back, he says: “Your faith has made you well”.
And so interestingly, Jesus makes a distinction between being healed and being well. Or another way of putting it, it could be said that in this story there are two moments of healing.
Firstly, there is a physical healing when they follow Jesus instructions to go to Jerusalem.
Secondly, Jesus pronounces what seems to be a second healing on the one leper who returns “Rise, your faith has made you well.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu in commenting on this parable suggests that maybe there are two kinds of leprosy: Leprosy of the skin, an external leprosy that affects the physical body, and secondly, a leprosy of the spirit. All 10 of the lepers were healed physically, but only one of the lepers who returned to Jesus to express gratitude was healed internally.
Looking a bit more closely at the story, we see that it invites us to make a few insights into the nature of gratitude:
Firstly, as has already been said expressing gratitude is a choice. And it seems that it is the road less travelled. In the story, all 10 lepers were healed. Only one of the lepers made the choice to return to express gratitude to Jesus, the other 9 lepers, for whatever reason chose not to return. Gratitude is a choice we must make.
Secondly, showing gratitude takes effort. It is costly. It requires a change of direction. It requires making a return to the one we are thanking. It requires we retrace our steps. In the passage, the one who expresses his gratitude takes the time and the effort to return to Jesus.
How much easier would it have been for him to simply continue on his way like the others. It takes effort to return, to find Jesus and to express his thanks.
I remember as a child, when it was birthday time or Christmas time, it was always exciting to receive gifts from others. But it took great effort to sit down and write thank you notes to all those family members who had given me a gift. If it wasn’t for my Mom and Dad insisting that I sit down and write those notes, I hate to admit that it probably wouldn’t have happened.
Showing gratitude takes effort. It is costly. But it is also worth it. I have no regrets that my parents forced me to sit down and write those thank you letters.
Thirdly, it seems from the story that gratitude and humility go together. This is illustrated in this passage in the way the man throws himself down at Jesus feet. It is an act of humility. What more profound way of expressing gratitude than throwing yourself down at someone else’s feet.
Interestingly, the word humility itself comes form the word humus, referring to the rich layer of soil on the earth. It is as though he takes this word humility quite literally as he throws himself down on the ground at Jesus feet. His gratitude expresses itself in humility before Jesus.
Grateful people are humble people and humble people are grateful people. Gratitude makes us humble, because it turns our thoughts away from ourselves towards others. The arrogant don’t express gratitude, because they take everything as a right, as an expectation. It is the humble who are grateful.
Fourthly, this passage suggests that gratitude is the true expression of faith. When the man falls on the ground at Jesus feet, Jesus says: “Rise, your faith has made you well.” For Jesus, the man’s gratitude is an expression of his faith. It suggests that the heart of what it means to be a person of faith, is to be a person of gratitude. Meister Eckhart, the great German mystic of the middle ages once wrote: “If the only prayer you ever pray is thank you. It will be enough”.
Lastly, as we have already seen, gratitude is healing. It brings wellness and wholeness to the soul. At the end of the story, after the man has thrown himself down at the feet of Jesus, Jesus says to him: “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” All ten lepers were healed physically, but only one displayed wellness in his soul.
When we say the words “I am grateful” an inner healing begins to take place. A healing of the heart. A healing of the spirit. A healing of the soul. Gratitude brings healing, not just to ourselves and to those around us. How difficult it is to deal with people who do not show gratitude. When gratitude is missing, something of our true humanity is missing. But when it is present it brings wellness and wholeness to the soul.
On this Harvest Sunday, we have gathered as a community to collectively express our gratitude. Gratitude for the gift of the earth and our connectedness to it. Gratitude for all that sustains our lives here on earth. Gratitude for farmers, for animals, for sunshine and rain, for insects and microbes that sustain healthy soil, for transporters for shop assistants and for the whole invisible chain of beings and people upon whose lives we depend, and without whom we would not be able to live. And finally, we have come to return out thanks to God, the foundation and source of life.
I would like to close with a short story:
Once there was a happy, satisfied old woman whom many people envied because of her artistry with life. She never left her house without a handful of dried beans. She did not intend to eat the beans, but rather would keep them in the right pocket of her jacket. Every time she experienced something beautiful – a sunrise, a child’s laughter, a brief encounter, a good meal, some shade in midday heat – she soaked it up, let it delight her heart, and moved a bean from her right pocket to her left one. When an experience was especially nice and even surprising, she would move two or three beans.
In the evening, the old woman sat at home, counting the beans she had moved. As she celebrated the number of left-pocket beans, she brought reminded herself how much beauty had crossed her path on that day and how much she was grateful for. And on evenings when she could count only one bean, that was still a good day – it had been worth living.
I would invite you to practice with me again: How are you today? “I’m grateful”.
And Jesus said to him: “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”