Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018 – Text: Luke 17:11-19
First Christian Church, Eastman, Georgia
Rev. Dcn. Leeann Culbreath, for GIPL
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
This Lent, you are exploring spiritual practices, so I want to speak to you this morning about a spiritual practice by way of an important Southern social practice: writing thank you notes. I am a Yankee transplant who has lived in the South for 15 years, and although thank you notes were valued in my northern culture, I have realized that they are paramount in the South. Though I called thank you notes a social practice, truly, a Southerner might face the wrath of mama and God if they don’t write them.
Saying thank you is not just polite thing to do, not just a social norm. Authentic acts of gratitude are essential to our relationship with others, to God, and to all of God’s creation. Scientific studies show that the “attitude of gratitude” is even good for your physical health and stress levels.
Our passage today from Luke is one of the ultimate passages about thankfulness, as well as healing. The lepers call out for help from a distance because their condition is highly contagious, and they are considered unclean. They were outcasts and stuck together because no one else would touch them. Among them is a Samaritan, who would have been a hated and shunned foreigner in mainline Jewish society. Jesus heals them from a distance, without question, and they head off to show the priests to become “clean,” as the law required. The Samaritan is the only one who really realizes what happened, turns back, falls at Jesus’ feet, and gives praise. Jesus tells him, “your faith has made you well,” and some translate “well” as “whole” or “saved.” “Your faith has made you whole.”
Some of us may have at some point received a gift from God this big, this unexpected, this obvious. And I bet if you did, you offered your thanksgivings for it then and still do today. We know to say thank you for the biggies. But what we so often miss are the incredible miracles and gifts surrounding us every moment of every day—gifts that sustain our lives and health, that make life possible at all, that give our lives beauty and pleasure, awe, wonder, and love. I’m talking about the gifts and miracles of God’s Creation.
We often miss them because:
they are subtle
we are distracted
we are a little ignorant
and we take them for granted.
So let’s take a minute right now to slow down, to pay attention, and to note the gifts of Creation around us. What do you notice right here, inside this sanctuary this morning? Hymnals, wooden pews, Communion bread, humans, the air we breath, water vapor, cotton clothing, light (energy), leather, plants.
Think for a moment of what’s happening below your feet—soil, and in the soil thousands of critters working in the soil, decomposing and aerating it. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the earth! What animals make their home under the soil? What cycles are at work around us all the time?
Who does not recognize the miracle of a small seed growing into a fruit-bearing plant or gorgeous, intricate flower?
Think about the water cycle— the continuous movement of water on, above and below the surface of the Earth. It is in constant motion, changing forms, solid, liquid, and vapor again and again. The mass of water on the Earth doesn’t change much over time—it just keeps recirculating.
So, the gifts of Creation are material things we see (though we might need a microscope for some) and also the processes and cycles on which our very lives depend. The incredible truth is that a gazillion things exist AND that they exist together, each thing with a purpose connected in an interdependent whole. In God’s perfect Creation, all things worked together in harmonious interdependence. There was no true waste—everything had a purpose that contributed in some way to new life.
It’s almost overwhelming, isn’t it—that we are surrounded by God’s gifts? And that God keeps on giving and giving through complex and wonderful cycles and relationships? It’s like we are swimming in gifts, every moment of every day.
How can we ever really thank God and respond rightfully to these gifts in Creation?
Well, we can look to the leper in Luke for some guidance:
First, he was aware of the gift.
Also, he verbally thanked Jesus
And he turned back and fell at Jesus’ feet.
He expressed his gratitude physically, actively.
In that same spirit we can come into a fuller awareness of the tremendous gifts around us, learning more about how the world works and how it supports us. Adults and children alike can always learn more about about how God’s Creation sustains our lives—the air, water, food, plants, fungi, bacteria, and cycles. We can learn more about the origin of things we use every day – where does the water, energy, or food we use come from? We can also intentionally appreciate the beauty of Creation, not just its functionality. Spend time to really look at a flower, a bird, or even an intricate insect or a vegetable. Intentional focus on something often reveals new intricacies and miracles, even in something as mundane as a carrot.
We can verbalize our thanksgivings through prayers and songs, much like what we are singing this morning:
‘For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies. For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies, Christ our God to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.”
“Fair are are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands, robed in the blooming garb of spring: Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, who makes the woeful heart to sing.”
Typically, we people of faith say grace or “return thanks” before a meal, which is good and appropriate. What if we gave thanks every time we turned on a water faucet and clean water came out? Or at the very first breath or yawn of each day, as the gift of oxygen fills our lungs and gives life to our cells?
But the leper didn’t stop at a verbal thank you, and neither should we. We can actively respond with acts of gratitude and care. Like the leper who turned and fell prostrate, we can drop to our knees in a garden and plant seeds in thanksgiving. Active gratitude might even look like turning off the water while brushing teeth, reducing gasoline consumption, or writing a letter to elected officials about pollution in a waterway.
Or, it might look like changing a light bulb, as your congregation is doing, to reduce unnecessary consumption of energy. Your faithful commitment to energy conservation through LED lighting in the sanctuary and fellowship hall expresses gratitude to the Source of all light and energy. GIPL is delighted to partner with you in this act of thanksgiving!
As the ancient mystic Rumi says, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground”
One of the best ways to thank somebody for a gift is simply to use it as intended, to enjoy it, and to cherish it. My family loves the Andy Griffith Show, and we sometimes quote scenes at the dinner table, like when Andy and Aunt Bee are relaxing on the porch after supper, and Aunt Bee asks Andy if he liked the white beans she’d served. He responds, “Well, I ate four bowls. If that ain’t a tribute to white beans, I don’t know what is!” And then his oft-quoted remark: “Eating speaks louder than words!” Indeed, properly using and enjoying our gifts gives joy to the Giver.
Sadly, because of our sinful nature, we often reject God’s gifts and even misuse, abuse, or overuse them—or hoard gifts intended to be shared.
And there are consequences, just as there are sometimes consequences for not writing a thank-you note or taking proper care of a gift given.
Now, I don’t think God is like a mad grandmother, punishing us for our failure to receive or respond to the countless gifts given by taking them away or refusing to give more. No, we serve a gracious and generous God who gives and gives the gifts of life, health, and joy whether we deserve it or not.
When we don’t take care of the gifts of Creation, we punish ourselves and we punish others. When we pollute water, air, and soil with industrial chemicals or toxic waste, others get cancer or chronic illnesses., or suffer with developmental or behavioral issues. Too often those “others” are children.
When we disturb the carbon cycle by burning too many fossil fuels and not having enough plants to absorb the excess carbon, our planet gets dangerously warm and weather patterns are disrupted. People around the world suffer extreme droughts and storms, and an increase in diseases and pests; disproportionately, the poor and vulnerable suffer these consequences.
When we reject the nutrient cycle and we throw food into landfills, it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In the U.S., some twenty percent of waste in landfills is food! Landfills also take up precious land and can pollute water resources.
What we do with the gifts God has given us matters. It matters to us and to our neighbors near and far. Caring for the gifts of Creation is not a hobby or an “extra”; it’s a fundamental expression of love and gratitude to God and to the good world and beloved children that God has made.
When we become aware of our failure to properly use and cherish our gifts, we need to do a different kind of turning—repentance. The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia, which can mean a change of mind, or a change of behavior—a turning a way from sinful behavior and re-turning to God. We become aware, we pray for forgiveness, and then we change our actions.
We are not called to be perfect, but we are all called to be faithful with the gifts we’ve been given. We are called to be in relationship with the Creator and Creation, and that means turning around, falling at the feet of Jesus, saying sorry when we need to, and shouting thank you with our lips and our lives.
We are called to live our lives—every aspect of them—as a big thank you note to God. Not one we’re forced to send, but one we get to send, from a heart overflowing with gratitude. When we do, we are both healed and healer, making whole and made whole.