Scripture: Luke 17:11-19

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.’

The second half of Luke’s gospel follows Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and the cross, and we just jumped in to the middle of that story.

A couple of reminders that will be helpful as we go forward:

Jews and Samaritans hated each other. They both thought the others were heretics and wrong, and faithful Jews would go significantly out of their way to avoid going through Samaria.

Additionally, the Bible uses one single word (which is mostly translated as ‘leprosy’) to describe a whole bunch of different skin conditions and diseases, which at that time made anyone who had them ‘unclean.’ They weren’t allowed to live in a city or a village, they couldn’t work, no one was allowed to touch them or they too would become ‘unclean’, and they definitely weren’t allowed to go anywhere near the Temple. They were basically cut off from the entire community. The only way for them to be restored was to go to a priest and present proof that they had been completely healed, and then they’d have to go through a ritual cleansing to be welcomed back.

With this in mind, let’s set the scene:

A Samaritan, hanging out near a Jewish city, with a skin disease that made him literally untouchable. He’s an outcast even among outcasts.

And yet, he’s the one who notices he’s healed and turns himself around to say “thank you, and thanks be to God.”

The healing part of this story is almost incidental. This group of people yells at Jesus from a distance, and he doesn’t touch them or have a conversation or make a big scene. He just heals them, and they go on their way to be restored to their community and their families.

The climax in this story is not the healing itself, but the moment when one of them turns around.

Theologian Karl Barth was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is gratitude – not fear and trembling, not guilt and dread, but thanksgiving. He wrote: “What else can we say to what God gives us but stammer praise?”

If this is true, then what did happen to the other nine? What prevented them from going back to say ‘thank you’, even after receiving this amazing gift? What was taking up the space in their minds where gratitude might have taken root?

If they’re anything like me, they spent the entire walk to Jerusalem daydreaming: thinking about the moment when they would walk into their mom’s kitchen for the first time in years, whole and home. Wondering if they would still find a place on the fishing boat they’d worked on before. Dreaming about the nieces and nephews they still needed to meet, their favorite fruit in season at the market, the smell of fresh bread.

I’m not a runner, but the thought of getting to those things would’ve made me walk pretty darn fast. Forget what lay behind – just get to the priest.

While it’s a delightful and good tunnel vision, even daydreaming can become an enemy of gratitude when we focus so much on what’s next, what’s next, what’s next that we forget to give thanks for such an incredible gift.  

We are busy people. Even when we’re not running from work to this event to that practice to this place to that one and oh right, I need to eat something today – so many of us are running on the ‘to-do list’ hamster wheel. What’s next on the list? Even when we’re resting: ‘what should I be doing right now?’ is on a loop.

Gratitude – in its truest, deepest form – is not really something we can multi-task. It requires us to pause, even if just for a moment, to say ‘this is great – thank you, Lord.’

But this takes practice, especially for those of us who are used to running like the energizer bunny. That’s one reason I put up the 500 Gifts board in the back of the sanctuary – to help remind us that even on Sunday mornings, when there are 6 million things going on, we still need to pause long enough to give thanks.

And where better to do that than in the presence of God?

This question brings up another possibility for the nine healed men who didn’t turn around – they felt gratitude, but didn’t feel the need to express it. After all, they had places to be and going back and having that conversation might be awkward.  

Modern psychology research tells us that momentary feelings of gratitude are nice, but they don’t have much of a long-term impact. But when we express that gratitude, we are changed on a deep and lasting level.

An article from Harvard University describes two separate experiments done on expressions of gratitude:

The first was performed by two psychologists: Dr. Emmons of the University of California, and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami. They asked three groups of study participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had annoyed them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative).

After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were found to be more optimistic and felt better about their lives than the other two groups. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer doctor visits than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

The second experiment was done by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. With a group of 411 people, he tested various positive thinking exercises over the course of many weeks. Out of all the assignments given to them, the one that had the greatest impact on their ‘happiness scores’ was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. After just one expression of gratitude to an actual person, those elevated levels of happiness lasted for an entire month.[1]

It turns out that saying ‘thank you’ is not just good manners – expressing our gratitude and naming the ways we are thankful actively transforms how we think about ourselves and our world.

That’s part of why we worship the way we do. Presbyterian worship services are purposefully interactive and engage everyone because our ancestors knew that we need space to praise God and thank God for all of the good and wondrous gifts we receive every week.

But as any athlete or musician knows, a practice only works if you do it.

At the end of the story we heard, Jesus tells the healed man who came back to praise God: “go, for your faith has made you well.”

The guy was already healed of his skin disease – so what else changed that day?

Beyond physical healing or even his restoration to the community, I think something internal clicked into place for him: this double outcast recognized the enormity of the gift he had received and knew that letting loose with praise and thanksgiving was the only proper response. He changed.

When we respond to God’s goodness and love with gratitude and joy, we are slowly transformed into the sort of people who can give away that same goodness and love with gratitude and joy. When we realize how much we have, we’re far less tempted to hoard our possessions, our time, and our energy.

It’s a chain reaction of giving and gratitude that can spiral out for miles around and generations to come.

Whether you’re thankful for the possums who eat ticks, for the friend who texts you to check in, for the grandchildren running circles around us, or just that the sun came up and you got out of bed today – my challenge to you is to find something to celebrate, to give thanks for, and to begin cultivating the joy that fuels our mission.

May God bless you with eyes to see and ears to hear, and enough peace to pause in thanksgiving. Amen.