"A Way To Say "Thank You"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/26/1997
Psalm 30; Luke 17:11-19
My parents would furnish us with "thank you" note cards. I can remember sitting there with the list of names and what each had given me and no thoughts would come. There was never any question about my gratitude, but having to express it when there were far more exciting things for a little boy to do created resistance and frustration.
The episode of the ten lepers in Jesus' life offers us such insights into human behavior. We are more like the nine than most of us realize. We would be hasty in our judgment if we think ill of the nine because of what they did. Think about this, could anyone be cured of leprosy and not feel gratitude? I'm sure all of them did. More than likely, they were so excited that they could hardly wait to get their required certification of health from the priests and go home to their families. What a joy-filled moment that reunion must have been!
What do you suppose prevented them from returning to Jesus to say, "Thank you?" What might prevent us? We might be hurrying on to other things as the nine were doing. We might have expectations. For example, how many of us have been inspired enough to write the surgeon or the attending nurses for the success of our life-saving surgery? How many of us let the city's road crew know how much we appreciated their paving the road in front of our house? Sometimes we think, "Well, it is about time!" or "They are only doing their jobs."
How many of us are so appreciative that we are grateful for the traffic signal at the intersection near our home, for our police officers, or for the people who collect our trash? If we are honest with ourselves, we only think about such things when that traffic light is blinking red and we are inconvenienced, or a police officer pulls us over for traveling 55 mph on Millstream, or we arrive home to see our trash bags still sitting where we had placed them. Isn't it true that we can experience life by behaving like the nine? And yet, who among us would ever think that we are not grateful?
What tends to remind us that the gracious spirit is not automatic is how easily we allow little things to upset us. For example, how many men have been ready to leave for work and their shoe lace tears? And we don't know if we have another pair. Or, how many women wearing their last pair of matching pantyhose discover a gaping snag just as their car pool arrives? We find ourselves mumbling to ourselves, "This is not going to be a good day." Why do we allow something minor to set the tone for the rest of our day? The nine lepers were in a hurry and so are we.
Now consider the one who returned immediately upon noticing that his lesions were gone. His first response was to find Jesus and thank him. He did not need a second opinion from the priests. He did not need to celebrate his gratification. His first reaction was to praise God in a loud voice. Our lesson says, "He threw himself to the ground at Jesus' feet and thanked him." Dr. Luke added an interesting piece of information to his story with his next verse. He wrote, "The man was a Samaritan." He wasn't even among "God's chosen."
To those who possess grateful spirits, they always know how the scales of life are tilted. They know that for every inconvenience there were hundreds of days when life had gone unchallenged. They understand that for every rude word that is said to them, there were hundreds of people who were polite and courteous. They realize that all of us have moments when we are not at our best, and they choose to remain poised and ready to absorb all imperfections with a spirit that diffuses such responses with patience.
Many of us believe that it is difficult to arrive at the point where we can receive all of life with gratitude. Yet all of our choices from the time when we were small to the present have created the movie we are now experiencing. And the responses we make now will determine the quality of our future. I want to illustrate this on a grand scale, a scale that makes a strong point.
This is the story of the first billionaire to appear in human history. He was a man who knew how to set goals and follow through. At the age of 23, he had become a millionaire. By the age of 50, he had become a billionaire and the richest man on earth. Every decision, every attitude, and every relationship had been made a part of his reaching the goal of personal power and wealth. He succeeded. And yet, as a subtle reminder that there is more to life than wealth, at 53 he became ill, very ill.
He lost all his hair, including his eyebrows and eyelashes. Every nerve ending in his body appeared to be inflamed. Pain never left him. The world's only billionaire could buy anything he wanted, but he could only digest milk and crackers. At the close of business one afternoon, an associate wrote, "He could not sleep, would not smile and nothing in life meant anything to him." His personal, highly skilled physicians predicted he would die within a year.
That year passed with an agonizing slowness. As he was approaching his death, his thoughts turned inward. He thought about his drive for success and what that symbolized. He had the satisfaction of being the wealthiest man on earth. He had put together an organization that had no rivals. He had total control over large industries. He knew that his decisions had taken him to this very moment.
He awakened one morning with vague remembrances of a dream. What he did recall was a renewed understanding that he could take none of his successes with him into the next world. He realized that none of his assets were now able to serve him. He also realized that he was not as in control of his destiny as he had imagined. Those thoughts triggered a new choice.
He summoned his attorneys, accountants and managers. With what little strength he had left he insisted on being propped up on his pillows so that he could communicate by looking his listeners in the eye. In a level of speech that was barely audible, he announced that he wanted to channel his assets to hospitals, research and mission work. That day he established a foundation that was to bear his name.
All his life John David Rockefeller had been receiving rewards from his efforts of mergers, acquisitions and the control over a primary industry. His newly discovered desire now sent his energy away from him. His newest choice led to the discovery of penicillin. His giving led to the cures for the then current strains of malaria, tuberculous and diphtheria. The list of discoveries resulting from his choice is enormous.
By giving, John's new and unique energy flow began to have an impact on his spirit and body. The moment he began to give back a portion of all that he had earned, his body's chemistry was altered so significantly that he got better. He got so much better that he did not leave his physical form until he was 98.
Most of us remain unaware of how powerful we are to alter our destinies simply by changing the manner in which we order our lives. One small adjustment in our attitude can move mountains, can save a marriage, and can change the course of our personal history. Most of us simply cannot accept that truth. We drop to our knees and ask God to move our mountains for us. What is God to do when we pray for what we appear unwilling to do for ourselves? Jesus told the one leper, "Get up and go; your faith has made you well."
Are we to conclude that the nine had their leprosy return? No. The passage clearly states that all were healed. Perhaps the most significant message here is that gratitude made the one well, while the nine were only cured of leprosy. People who have developed gratitude to the extent that it radiates from every pore of who they have become are well. Jesus could heal diseases, but he could not perform transplant surgery on anyone's spirit.
Undoubtedly, not a day went by that John David Rockefeller did not celebrate his business successes with gratitude. And the same is true for all of us. As we approach Thanksgiving Day, most of us become filled with thoughts of gratitude. All ten of the lepers were grateful, but only one felt the need to thank the person who made it possible.
How do we express our gratitude to God? One way is by giving away something that we have endowed with value. Each time we donate our time, each time we give away our money, each time we remember how the scales of life have always been tilted, we are celebrating our gratitude for God's presence in our lives.
Yes, we have challenges. Yes, we have moments when life's circumstances force us to either panic or stretch. Yes, we meet people who live by feelings governed by scarcity and fear. Yes, there are times when we are forced to surrender our life's goals and objectives because of what comes unexpectedly. Yet, when we open our eyes to the sun, moon and stars, to the smiles of children, to the freedoms we experience, to our ability to love and give, who among us is not grateful?
As a leper we might think of nothing greater than running to the priests and being pronounced clean. We might think of nothing greater than coming home and saying, "All ten of us cried out to Jesus of Nazareth, 'Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!' and he turned aside and healed all of us. We no longer have to return to the colonies! We no longer have to look forward to a slow and painful death. We are clean!" One of the lepers put off such celebrating. He had something that he first needed to do; he had to return to Jesus and say, "Thank you."
For me a sermon on Stewardship is not about the church budget and how much money you should contribute to it. The concept of Stewardship is about who we are. This time of year offers us the opportunity to reflect on what we are communicating to God with our attitudes, our time, and our financial resources. Are we celebrating all that St. Matthew's represents by investing generously in its future?
I could say, "Those who sow sparingly, will reap sparingly." I have not cared for that Scripture because of how it communicates. Such words invite fear to enter our consciousness. I would rather you come and be nourished by our church family without giving a penny than to have you give from a spirit that is hesitant or fearful. Jesus Christ gave us his life so that we could understand ours with more clarity. One of the ways we can say "Thank you" is by giving away something that we value from a spirit that radiates our gratitude.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Ever present and faithful God, our lives are surrounded with such abundance that we are frustrated when fears of not having enough rob us of our spirit of generosity. There are times when distractions have prevented our smiles from appearing. We have experienced moments when the words of another have prevented us from sowing our seeds of kindness. We have allowed challenging experiences to define us. We have withheld our saying "yes" because we have feared our involvement would consume too much time. As we do these things, we painfully realize that our greatest moments of poverty come when we believe we are carrying out Your will alone. Free us from such thinking. Inspire us to have the confidence that we have the power of all creation supporting us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We come together this morning in humility and in gratitude for our lives, our families, our ability to love and care for each other. If life has taught us one irreversible truth, O God, it is that being loved is beyond and above everything else that this world might give us. And when your son came to be among us, surrendering all that he knew elsewhere just so that he could become one of us, we marvel at his clarity at saying, "I love you."
We thank you for accepting us as we are. We have moods that challenge our ability to be kind and merciful. We have moments when we do not use good judgment. We have times of confusion that make our decisions uninformed. We face moments when it is difficult to admit that we have been wrong. There are occasions we would rather move on with our lives than apologize for who and what we have been.
Yet, O God, you still want us. Your will for us to fly often escapes us, but you patiently await until we are prepared to take the risk. And you feed us when we are willing to accept the nourishment that you offer us every moment we live.
Touch our hearts and minds, inspiring an awareness that trusting you completely with all that we are, lifts us above everything that would make us afraid. Help us to find the stillness and peace that allows us to know why it was that Jesus taught us to say when we pray......