The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 11; 2Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
A number of years ago there was a very short-lived television series about two single mothers and their struggle to raise multiple children in a shared household all the while staying reasonably connected to their former spouses and dealing with a wonky job market that made very little space for children who got sick, pets that had accidents all over your shoes as you walked out the door, missed school buses—you know the stuff of everyday life. It was a comedy that I think didn’t get much traction because as amusing as it was, it was too close to home for too many people at a time when television didn’t yet have access to niche markets through places like Amazon and Netflix.
One episode, the one closest to Halloween, was particularly memorable because they created a house of horrors in their home for the neighborhood kids to tour and the rooms were priceless, containing children with computers that only accessed their homework; children doing everyday chores like taking out the garbage and emptying the dishwasher and my personal favorite, a room full of children commanded to write thank you notes to all those family members who had sent you good things and the wildly inappropriate set of weights for the 6 year old. The latter of course played into every memory I have as a child of my mother keeping me from gifts until the thank you notes were written, yes even for those things that were really not welcomed or inappropriate.
What this television show captured perfectly is the extent to which I associate giving thanks and gratitude with the duty I must fulfill. I suspect that I am not alone in that. We work overtime sometimes to be sure that we show ourselves grateful to God for all that we are given as though it were one more item on the to-do list called being faithful. Actually this is precisely the opposite of what our Scripture lessons are saying about what it is to be thankful. Gratitude, giving thanks, are embodied in the words of the sursum corda which is said every Sunday before the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, “lift up your hearts”. Of course Eucharist means to give thanks and is the very word used to describe what the returning Samaritan leper does when he is healed by Jesus.
Jesus says several things worth hearing when this sole foreigner returns beside himself with gratitude. First he notes that what the Samaritan has done is move his trust, his faith in Jesus’ power to heal from ethical duty to one of joy and gratitude. It doesn’t mean that nine other lepers who were healed are being judged and found wanting for doing what they are told to do. This is so important for us to understand and appreciate. What happens is that one leper, a foreigner and outcast whose only solidarity with the other nine was likely to have been his disease, returns to give thanks with great joy. It is a spontaneous act and Jesus then says that his faith has made him well. Here I am grateful for some words Joe used a few weeks ago, this leper’s return to give thanks to Jesus, to God has made the difference in his life between being given his health, and being given a life in which the fullness of his wellbeing has been restored.
Somehow giving thanks, a spontaneous act of joy has everything to do with having a relationship with oneself, with others and with God that is deep and abiding, full of healing and holiness. I am reminded of all of the folks I know who have literally by God’s grace and medical science been cured of diseases that should have killed them long ago. Initially they were grateful and viewed life differently. Then of course life intervened in ways that had them back on the treadmill of trying to be dutiful. It is an important reminder that to be truly whole, to be healed in any sustained way we need to live lives that are thankful, Eucharistic in as many ways as possible. To do that I can’t and God can’t command that we be thankful because gratitude is part of a way of understanding and knowing the world and our relationship to God.
So what might we do to remain in a life of joyful, spontaneous and thankful living? How do we get out of the little room of horrors of writing thank you notes? First it helps me to step into the shoes of each of the biblical figures we hear about today and reflect upon where God is in that. Am I like Namaan anxious to prove myself important before showing gratitude or even being willing to accept an act f grace-filled healing that is very humble? Am I like Elisha offering what may be generous, but keeping my distance, lest I get involved in the joy, the thanks that may be lurking where I do not expect it? When I am healed do I respond only by doing what I am told, rather than engaging the one who gave me the gift with thanks? Like Paul do I tend to be more comfortable with hardships in the call to be in community than I am with a mission that is focused on God’s loving grace and presence right now?
When I ask these questions of myself it helps me to see that I am never able to do enough or justify myself. It helps me just to stand still and say thank you. It helps me to see that I need to say thank you and those words free so much in me and all who around me when I do. In spite of her insistence on writing all those thank you note, one day when I finally plucked up the courage to ask why I had to thank a particularly difficult family member for a little gift, my mother simply had the wisdom to say, because she probably doesn’t hear the words, “thank you” enough. Maybe Mary Catherine this time it will make a difference.