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A Lesson in Thankfulness
PAYING OFF GOD?A minister began talking with the businessman seated next to him on an airplane bound for St. Louis. The conversation started with the typical topics - the weather, the family, and business. After the businessman learned that he was seating next to member of the clergy, he shared the story about his wife yearlong struggle with a terrible illness and her intense suffering. "I'm not the religious type," he told the minister. "But when she was near death, I fell down on my knees and asked God to help her. God I am convinced healed her. Thank God. Afterward, I was so happy, I gave ten thousand dollars to one church in our town to use in ministry to the homeless. Next year, I'll give more."1
While I rejoice in the businessman's newly discovered generosity, I am uncomfortable with its conditional clause. What would the man have done, if his wife had not been healed? Blame God and denounce any and all faiths? But then again, when was the last time I have shown such heartfelt gratitude? I would say that after my bone marrow transplant my appreciation for the gift of life increased and I now have a deeper appreciation for what I almost lost but I must admit that that type of generosity does not mark my life. It's tough to be instructed by an outsider! I would prefer to sit smugly complaining about my problems and lamenting over difficulties that appear to great to overcome. To hear a story about how God supposedly answered the prayers of a near unbeliever, is rather uncomfortable. It must have been equally uncomfortable for the followers of Jesus to see that only the Samaritan returned to say thanks.
Samaritans were half-breeds. They had intermarried with Gentiles. They had broken the laws of God and disgraced the faith. Surely, God would not bless them. Surely God would not answer their prayers and even if God chooses to grant them a small dispensation of grace, they would not know how to truly show their appreciation.
We owe this story to Luke more than to Jesus because the physician is the only gospel writer to include it in his narrative. If Luke had not written it down, we would have lost its message along with many other stories about our Lord to the oral tradition that vanished along with the death of the last disciples. The apostle John gives us a glimpse of this in his gospel. In the last chapter we read:
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31
Healing stories that people did not think were important enough to include; sayings that may have been too troubling to remember were all left out of the gospels. But Luke did not want this one to be lost. He wanted the Church to know that God was moving beyond race, beyond nationality to reach out to include all people. Would the people of God accept this new movement of the Spirit and rejoice? Or, would they try to discourage it by saying, "God, you have never done it that way before?" Therefore, as we consider the passage this morning let us be particular aware of being open to its startling and convicting message.
THE SURPRISING ACCESSIBILITY OF GODLuke begins the passage by telling us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. It's a passing comment but with the slight stroke of the pen the physician reveals to us a the surprising accessibility of God. Luke reminds us that even in his pre-determined plans our Lord takes time for human need. Jesus had set his course. He had laid out his route several months earlier. Luke records in 9:51 that he had set his face to Jerusalem.
Jesus had an ultimate destiny. He was to return to his Father, but before he would be reunited with the divine, he would have to travel to the Holy City. His ultimate destiny could not be changed or altered. He would not be deterred by opposition or by hostility. The angry crowds in Nazareth wanted to throw him over the cliff and stone him but, his appointed hour had not come. So, they allowed him to pass through their midst unscathed. He was a man on a mission but he would still take time to touch the lives of people he met along the way.
Throughout our lives, there are times when God seems distant, remote, even inaccessible. Who are we that we should interrupt the plans and activities of God? Who are we that we should intrude into the schedule of the one who holds in place the sun, the moon, and the stars? Who are we that we should disturb the thoughts of someone who is setting the course of world events?
The ten lepers may have also wondered why Jesus would take time for them? They did not ask for much, simply mercy. You may recall that a few weeks ago we heard the same request on the lips of the rich man after he died. All he wanted was a few drops of water on his lips to quench his thirst. The ten lepers appealed for token assistance, a few small coins but Jesus demonstrates to them his surprising accessibility.
In prayer, we are to shed our timidity and feelings of unworthiness. The author of Hebrews encourages us to approach the throne of grace with boldness because we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses. He knows the temptations with which we struggle and he opens his arms to welcome us into his presence. No request is too small, or too insignificant.
GOD RESPONDS IN OUR OBEDIENCERather than heal them instantaneously, Jesus instructs them to follow the OT law and present themselves to a priest. The book of Leviticus states that only a priest could declare a person clean or healed of a skin disease. The lepers obey and as they walk away, they discover that they are healed. The healing occurs in their obedient response.
Too often, I have seen Christians go through some rather strange gyrations hoping to elicit a miracle from God. They try standing in prayer one day. Then they hear a faith healer tell them they should kneel. Another day they "name it and claim it" like you would do with a lost piece of jewelry at the lost and found. When that does not produce the miracle, they try thanking God for already hearing and answering their requests.
These well-intended acts of piety reminded me of my lab work in psychology. We had been assigned to train mice and pigeons to perform complicated behaviors by rewarding them with food pellets. The animal would duplicate the last behavior that produced a food pellet. By rewarding only specific behavior, we taught a mouse to do a few sets of movements. We were to be careful with our reinforcements. If the pellets are given randomly r the animal develops a rather bizarre set of movements. They will turn in circles, twist into different positions, flap their wings, stand on one leg, and even bit themselves trying to produce the proper behavior to obtain a food pellet.
We need to remind ourselves that it is not our posture, nor our words, nor the time of day or the length of the prayer that convinces God to perform a miracle. God does not respond to our petition because of something we do. He expects only one thing from us, obedience. Jesus expected one thing from the lepers - obedience. He told them to go show themselves to a priest. They obeyed and they were healed. Do you want God to heal a friend, or a relative? After you offer your prayer, also offer to him a life of obedience.
THE RESPONSE OF FAITH IS A THANKFUL HEARTSince my bone marrow transplant, I have a CT scan every year to check for cancer. I try not to get too nervous while I wait for the news but there is always a slight bit of apprehension and anxiousness. One doctor would always walk into the examination room and announce, "Good News my friend, the scan looks good!" I feel both relief, joy and thankfulness when I heard those words. Even still I cannot imagine the joy those ten lepers felt when they looked at their hands and discovered that they had been healed. Maybe that is why I had a hard time understanding why only one of them returned to say thank you.
In his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast writes about a life that exudes with gratitude and thanksgiving. I was reminded while reading the book that my life lacks an exuberant expression of joy and thankfulness. I realized that maybe I am not very different than those nine who did not return to Jesus.
Brother David believes that we do not express gratitude and thankfulness because that would require us to recognize that the gifts of this life our truly gifts and to admit that would require us to acknowledge our dependency on the gift giver.
When I admit that something is a gift, I admit my dependence on the giver. This may not sound that difficult, but there is something within us that bristles at the idea of dependence. We want to get along by ourselves.2
We cherish our independence and self-sufficiency. We want to be able to sing, "I did it my way," and succeeded without anyone's help. By expressing our thanks and gratitude, we humbly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is truly Lord and the giver of all good things. They are not the works of our hands.
NO GUARANTEESWhat did the nine other lepers do after they were healed? That's easy, just reflect on your own life after God answered one of your prayers. You were filled with excitement those first few days. Maybe you told everyone you met, but then your exuberance wore off and you settled into the routine. You went back to your old ways and grumbled about the difficulties and struggles of life. We easily forget that simple because God answers one prayer does not guarantee a problem free life of leisure. The apostle Paul uses a few very demanding words in his letter to Timothy. He tells the young pastor how he himself had to endure many things for the sake of the gospel and warned him not to deny his faith even when the circumstances become difficult. Sister Teresa of Avila, a nun from the 14th century, discovered that a life of obedience can be quite demanding. One day she was traveling overland in a cart pulled by a mule. It was raining and the roads became very muddy. Her cart became stuck several times and the mule decided to become most uncooperative at the most inopportune times. At one point she had to get off the cart to pull both mule and cart out of the mud. Wet, cold and tired she heard the voice of Christ, saying "Sister Teresa, this is how I treat my friends." The dear sister was on intimate terms with her Lord allowing her to unashamedly answer, "maybe this is why you have so few."3
A heart of heart of gratitude will not insulate you from difficulties. Words of thanksgiving will not guarantee a cure for you or your family from a life threatening illness, but it will ensure that you are living in obedience to your Lord. It will also please the giver.
1 William Willamon, Pulpit Resource, Vol.26, No. 4, p. .
2 Brother David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, (New York: Paulist Press: 1984), p. 15.
3 Susan Walker, Speaking of Silence, (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), p.26.
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