It is Christmas this week and I am not looking forward to it. What fuels my despair this time of year for me is the thought of having to write thank-you letters. This was always a time of tears and conflict between my parents and me during my childhood. There would be the joy of the tree and the stocking, the delight of un-wrapping presents and then… a day or two later, my mother would ask the dreaded question: “have you written your thank-you letters? You know you wont get any presents next year if you don’t write those thank-you letters.” And then I would be forced into my room to write the letters. They never came easily. I mean, once you have written, “Dear Auntie Janey, Thank you sooooo much for the Back-Hoe Digger Truck. I like it very much.” What else was there to say? How many ways can you say thank you when you think the best way to show you like your present is to get outside and dig up the garden… how do you fill the page with your feelings? It was torture for me. How many ways can you say “thank-you? It is perhaps why every time I sit down today to write an essay or a homily, the empty page fills me with dread.
When I think about gratitude, I am reminded of the story of the healing of the ten lepers in Luke’s gospel.
“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.” Luke 17:11-14
“They called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” All ten utter the same prayer. You don’t pray and call out for help unless you really feel your need. And sometimes the hardest thing about need is recognizing it…putting aside ego…putting aside self will…having the humility to say I need help. I can’t do it alone. But the loneliness and the pain of their disease were evident to these ten lepers. They knew they needed help and there was none to be found except maybe in this one called Jesus, whom they heard healed the sick. So they cried out for mercy.
Although there are ten of them, it is such a lonely and personal cry, this cry of help me… this cry of I am at the end, there is nothing more I can do alone. I need help. I’m done…I surrender. The cry of the psalmist: “ My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” These are lepers. They were filthy, broken, deformed, hideous, miserable distortions of the human condition with their cries of "Unclean! Unclean!" And they had been pushed out of their communities for fear of contagion and pollution and left to wander beyond the care of others, beyond the border of family and friends. Beyond hope… Beyond reason… Beyond any expectation of mercy. Shunned. In a group of others like themselves, but so alone. Can you smell them? It is the smell of the homeless, the smell of life on the margin. It is a smell that chokes with despair and hopelessness. For those of us that sometimes lose the humanity of Jesus in the glory of his divinity, I would point out that even Jesus keeps his distance here…
The lepers are so far gone that they ask the unreasonable. They ask for the miraculous. They ask not for healing but for mercy. They pray for transformation.
“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.’” Luke 17:14
What a miracle. Can you feel their wave of not wanting to believe… the wave of unbelief… the self-protection of not wanting to be hurt again – not wanting to be disappointed again. And then, they slowly come to belief. They feel the lesions heal. They feel tight healthy skin form. They feel sensation return to dead nerves. They begin to smell something beyond their own decay. Is it any wonder that when Jesus told them to go and show them selves to the priest so that they could be certified as healed and rejoin society, rejoin their families that they did as Jesus bid and rushed off. They must have been overwhelmed with gratitude. Inarticulate with joy. How can you thank someone for such a gift? Only by living, by returning to life and society. And that’s what they rushed off to do. Isn’t that the best way to show gratitude?
"Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back." Turned back from going his own way, from self-justification, from the protection of distance, this Samaritan leper, this outsider of outsiders, lay at Jesus' feet. And there he proclaimed his ultimate dependence on God.
I would like to be able to tell you that if I was in the story, that I would be the Samaritan leper at Jesus’ feet in gratitude but I know that at many times in my life I would be with the nine… have been with the nine. I would be very grateful to be cured and I’d be rushing off to do the next thing ‘cause isn’t living the life that God gifted you the best way to say thanks?
Isn’t playing with the toy in the garden the ultimate show of thanks? Gratitude is hard. Gratitude requires us to say, “Of myself alone, I am nothing.” Gratitude asks of us humility, and that is hard. True humility is one of the hardest ways of being that we can undertake. It is fundamental surrender of self to Jesus, to God, to our neighbours. Really, how do we love this lover back, we ask? How am I to be worthy to be ransomed by him? We could start by being grateful.
Gratitude requires us to be amazed! Gratitude is not just “doing.” Gratitude is not just “saying.” Gratitude requires us to stop!
Gratitude needs us to be present… to be a 100% present and aware. Gratitude is being as a child crossing the street – we stop, look, listen… look left and look right and look left again… we see where we are in the world and with others. We are to be present and to be amazed by the present. We offer thanks…
Saying a prayer before meals quietly or with others acknowledges that my life depends on God's bounty and on all of the people who grew, processed, distributed, prepared, and served the food that gives me nourishment and delight. Saying a prayer by a hospital bed or in the dentist’s chair admits that my health rests in God's love as well as the skills of dentists and physicians and nurses and researchers, and a host of people who maintain these places of care.
And, yes, even sending a thank-you note, as my mother insisted (I still hate it when she is right!), is far more than social convention, it is an awareness that the best gifts, and much of the joy of life, are not things we can give ourselves but the things that come from beyond us. Gifts are an expression of love, and they are especially an invitation to love. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are weaned away from the myth of entitlement and the arrogance and isolation of independence. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are shaped by the truth of our belonging to others, of our belonging to Christ.
In the end, gratitude is an expression of our need for others, of our need for God. We cannot live at a distance and be truly healed at the same time. We are not really entitled to health or to joy or even to righteousness. Like the food that nourishes our bodies, these things do not grow up independently within us, but are literally foreign, alien to us, gifts from beyond ourselves that lure us into a recognition of mutual interdependence with all others who have been embraced by a God who reached beyond the boundaries that we and the world have established to tell us we belong.
I have gotten better than I was when it comes to thank-yous. I am not perfect but I try to remember those times in my life when I have been like one of the lepers and have prayed, “Have mercy.” And, I have been granted it in my life. So, next week will find me with notepaper writing my thank-yous. And as I say thank you, it will be an outward reminder that God's love is God's ultimate action in the world and in us. God's love is given human form in Jesus Christ, and if God can invest himself in the unlikely form of a man born of woman, who suffered as we suffer, and died as we shall die, dare we invest less in our humanity than God does?
How do we love this lover back? I think it begins with gratitude. Should we not stop and be amazed? Ought we not take the sign of God's love for us in Christ as a sign that we are loveable and the world is worth loving and be in wonder and awe of that? We can be grateful. And, if we can be grateful and live in gratitude, can there be any possible limit to what we can attempt as God's representatives in the world. And by God's amazing love for us in Jesus Christ, as it did for the lepers, we are become in ourselves, in our own persons, and in our daily work acts of God's love.
Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton