"Being Piloted By A Grateful Heart"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 11/15/1998
Psalm 65; Luke 17:11-19
What has always fascinated us is that only one of the lepers was grateful enough to return and express gratitude. Our lesson tells us that he threw himself on the ground at Jesus' feet. There are two other interesting elements to this story. The first was that the grateful man was a Samaritan. Jesus said, "Why is this foreigner the only one who came back to give thanks to God?" The second element occurred when Jesus said, "Your faith has made you well." The lesson tells us that all ten were healed of their leprosy, but only one was made well. Isn't that an interesting distinction?
Today is Stewardship Sunday. This morning we are going to draw on some of the insights in this story. This experience of Jesus lends itself perfectly to our theme of stewardship. All ten came to the Master. All ten received what they wanted. But only one had his spirit guided by gratitude, a spirit that would guide him for the rest of his life. It made him well.
Most of us come to St. Matthew's and get exactly what we want. The church is here when a baby needs to be baptized, when a son or daughter desires to have a wedding, when a memorial service is needed, or when we desire metaphysical inspiration for living. We want prayers and the attentiveness of the staff when we are hospitalized. All of us get what we want.
Jesus held no judgment about the nine who received what they wanted. He only inquired about their whereabouts when only a foreigner returned to celebrate with thanksgiving. Nine continued their lives perhaps excited that they could resume experiencing all that their disease had prevented. Only one experienced the meaning of being well.
Several months ago Barbara Hailey, our Office Administrator, told me of an incident that took place in the church around lunch time. A man entered the church and sat in the sanctuary for awhile. Before he left the building he did something most uncommon. He stopped by the church office and said, "Excuse me. I have been sitting in your sanctuary this morning sorting through some of the issues in my life with God. I cannot thank you enough for being here." He handed Barbara five dollars. Of course, Barbara refused it. But he insisted. "A church this size," he said, "obviously has expenses and while it isn't much, I would appreciate it if you would accept it."
He was a stranger who was grateful we were here. Gratitude helps us to experience life in a very unique way. It causes us to remember what has molded us, healed us and protected us. Gratitude causes us to think beyond ourselves.
Last Sunday when one of our newer members was leaving the service he said, "Dick, don't forget Veterans' Day." His comment was a request that we hold on to a memory that is guided by a grateful heart. The torch of freedom shines a bit brighter in our world because America has been wise enough to invest in people, institutions and symbols that have kept freedom highly visible. On some occasions, people have given their lives so that we can continue enjoying all that freedom affords us. By not forgetting the cost of what we enjoy, we are helped with our stewardship of freedom's privileges.
Hasn't it been fascinating to see our military helicopters and transports taking much needed supplies to Central America? Seeing men in uniform handing out supplies, holding smiling little girls and boys, and helping to rebuild what nature tore apart, has been an inspiring sight. When our hearts are guided by gratitude, our perceptions are completely altered.
The nine could have said, "Weren't we fortunate to meet Jesus on the road when we did? Life doesn't get any better than this!" It is easy to reason like that. We can look at our weekly attendance and say, "Isn't life great at St. Matthew's? Look at all the new people?" We can come for what we want, receive it and walk away. While the ten got what they wanted, only one became well. Why did Jesus make that distinction? Is not wellness what we want in life? Gratitude makes us well in our body, mind and spirit.
Many years ago a man named John Canuso received news that no father ever expects to hear. His nine-year old daughter who had been tired and listless for weeks was diagnosed with leukemia. His life suddenly became very focused. His faith to which he had given only token energy suddenly became the centerpiece of his life. He prayed night and day. He took long walks with God. He spent a lot of time by the bedside of his daughter.
How interesting that something becomes extremely valuable and important when its existence is threatened! We become very attentive to our children when they are sick. And yet so often when they are well and living in a way that makes us proud, we take it for granted. We neglect telling them. Our gratitude can easily remain invisible. We love it when we do not have to trouble shoot, get them into therapy, punish them or somehow attempt to fix them. Yet too often we live as if our children are invisible.
As often happens with childhood leukemia, the disease went into complete remission. Yet during that experience something happened to John. He was so awakened by the experience that gratitude for the return of his daughter's health redirected his life.
John bought an old rundown house in Philadelphia. Being a builder by trade, he and some of his work crews renovated it during their off hours. When word of John's project reached several officials in the McDonald Corporation, they offered to help. That refurbished home became the first Ronald McDonald House in the United States, a haven in which parents could stay while their children were being treated for cancer in the nearby Children's Hospital. During the last 23 years John, with the help of his family and friends has raised millions of dollars for leukemia research. Can we see what happens when each of us makes a personal decision to be guided by a grateful heart? It is an individual choice.
Suppose for the sake of illustration we changed the ending of the Gospel story. As the men walked and discovered their healing, suppose the Samaritan would have said, "Why don't all of us return to thank Jesus? We know that it was he who healed us. We owe it to him. Why don't we pick up a potted plant, sign a Hallmark card together, get some money from our families and give it to him to show our gratitude? I understand that Jesus has told audiences that he has no consistent place to sleep at night. We could at least get him a room in a motel for a couple of nights."
That Samaritan might have been able to convince the other nine of the importance of gratitude. This, however, is not the way this particular drama unfolded. Only one returned because his heart would not allow him to do anything else. This is the ingredient that contributes to our wellness.
It is easy for us to give money from a sense of obligation, or because our congregation has a budget of nearly a half million dollars and the church family needs all of us to respond with generosity. Sometimes we compute the amount we give with superstitious thoughts that "inspires us" with guilt and fear. We ask ourselves, "What will God think of me if I do not give as generously as I know I can?" Such motivation will not make us well. Such thinking will never inspire us to be like the one Samaritan. Only gratitude will guide the heart correctly.
Let me share with you why Lois and I have decided to raise our pledge this year by 15 percent. When we first came among you I was faced with a request by the Boy Scouts. They asked if St. Matthew's could be the district's depository for their annual food drive. Their normal arrangements with the National Guard were canceled at the last minute by Desert Storm. I said, "Of course," without realizing the possibilities. The Scouts brought so much food that it could have disrupted the use of the fellowship hall by our Early Education Center. I remember coming to you one Sunday with my dilemma and asking for your help.
When Monday morning arrived a small army of you descended on the fellowship hall. I had never realized that so many of you had retired and were available! You brought boxes, categorized the food, packed them, and transported them in your trucks and vans to the various food providers in our area. The small children we teach each day saw people behaving at their best. It was an incredible spectacle and it happened with less than 24 hours notice.
Then, when we saw how our church sends groups of people to Mexico to build houses, how we refurbish homes during our Christmas in April, how people glean crops for shelters that house the homeless, it made both Lois and I realize that in this church there are many, many people who do not hesitate to give when there is a need.
And last Christmas one of the new members' classes coordinated our Christmas stocking project. Three hundred children whose parents were incarcerated in our county's detention center had a Christmas because of you. And yes, we are going to do it again this year. A group of seamstresses in the church has already created 400 stockings. The list goes on and on from our shelter meals, our Alpha and the Beta Houses to our church's in-house shelter.
But the story is much larger than our mission efforts. Last week our church kitchen had new counter tops installed by two of you. Our church's shelter was completely painted by one of you. The outside of the church was painted by you. Our newsletters gets printed and mailed each month by another well-organized group of you.
Our committee structure works. This church family supports each other. There is no backbiting and very little disagreement about who we are. And to see St. Matthew's featured on the front of the Blade this past Thursday as the Central America depository for Bowie, how can anyone be a part of this congregation and not have a spirit of gratitude?
Yes, it's easy to remain among the nine, but for those who understand what this church is and how it provides opportunities for us to grow, there should be no question how our church family, our community of faith can make us well. When we say, "We are the Body of Christ, who has come among you as ones who serve," we learn what it is like to be well. For those who are guided by a grateful heart, we know this morning that we have so much for which to thank God. Amen.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, we thank you for inspiring us to rise above our fears and doubts. We remain grateful that we can walk through periods of uncertainty with confidence. It is with a spirit of thanksgiving that we now come, grateful for the faith that is transforming our lives. We thank you for this church family and for the variety of opportunities for growth and service. Thank you for guiding us, for loving us when we were self-absorbed, for healing ancient wounds that we have carried for years, and for helping us discover that gratitude is the spirit that cancels the unmet needs we claim to have. Lead us to find joy in our doing, peace in our living, and generosity in our giving. Lead us everyday, O God, to give away what we are and what we have so that we might truly live. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, in the quiet of these moments, help us achieve a stillness of spirit so that we can sense the reverence and peace that we desire. How grateful we are that your love is like a sponge that absorbs our past misdeeds, the words we have said in haste, and the times we knowingly broke the rules of our faithfulness to you. Your son taught us how to forgive 70 times 7, and sometimes the knowledge of our own clay feet causes us to forget that the lesson of unconditional forgiveness came from you.
What would we do if we did not have others to remind us of all that you created us to be. This morning we come to thank you for our church family. How often we take what we have for granted? And yet we all want what our church family helps us to become.
Sometimes we are given permission to laugh a little more. Sometimes we volunteer to become a part of all that happens here. Sometimes we stumble and it takes the guidance and understanding of others to help us find our way again. There are times when our spirits are nourished and there are times when others are nourished by what we do.
May we realize that life is far richer and productive because love has been the key that unlocked so many doors whose presence may have gone unrecognized. Show us, O God, what happens to life when generosity converts our loving thoughts into actions, actions that tell the world who we are. We are disciples of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .