(Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2013 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19)
Sometimes when I sit down to study a passage of the Gospel such as today’s, I wonder what Luke chose not to include in his text. After all, we don’t have a minute-by-minute account of Jesus’ life. The Gospel writers weren’t following behind Jesus taking dictation. Decades after the events of the Gospel, they collected material – certainly more than they ended up using – and put together their accounts. In those accounts, the writers bounce around, crafting their narratives with stories and themes and progressions that make the most sense to their various audiences. Asking “What did Luke leave out” prompts another set of questions: “Why did Luke put this in? What about this specific story makes it special enough to include in something as important as the greatest story ever told?
These questions surfaced for me this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson. At face value, this story is quite simple. Ten diseased outcasts petition Jesus for mercy, he heals them, and one returns to say, “Thank you.” Seems like a pretty ordinary healing story, doesn’t it? Boilerplate, even. (Well, as ordinary as a miracle can get.) So why would Luke choose to include another healing story? He healed someone with a skin disease way back in Chapter Five, not to mention plenty of people with plenty of other maladies in between.
So what makes this story special? In such a short piece of writing as the Gospel, why this narrative? Turns out there is something extra special in this story, but it’s hidden. There’s one element in the story – the last element I mentioned earlier, the “Thank you” from the Samaritan – that pushes today’s lesson into the extraordinary. I did a quick survey of the rest of the Gospel – all four accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) – and this Samaritan is the only person Jesus heals who then says “Thank you” to him. This hidden thanksgiving makes this story special. We remember this Samaritan ex-leper because he said “thank you” to Jesus.
Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Each week, when we gather to worship God, we engage in the special event known as the Holy Eucharist. This strange word comprehends both our hearing of God’s Word of Holy Scripture and our sharing God’s meal of Holy Communion. Do you know what this strange word – Eucharist – means in its original language of Greek? It means “thanksgiving.”
So each and every Sunday we gather here to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has given us. We do this not to relegate the act of thanksgiving to an hour on Sunday morning, but so that we begin each week with the right frame of mind and heart: a mind aware of blessing and a heart inclined toward gratitude. Giving thanks here on Sunday morning propels us along a trajectory in which we continue thanking God over the course of the week.
With that being said, why engage in the act of thanksgiving in the first place? Right off the bat, giving thanks makes us more generous people. Generosity blossoms in an environment where fear of scarcity holds no sway. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are looking out over a sea of hungry faces. There’s more than five thousand of them, and they haven’t eaten all day. Jesus and his friends have nothing more than one family’s lunch – five loaves of bread and two fish – but he tells them to feed the crowd anyway. Their supplies are laughably meager, and yet Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks to God for it. And somehow all the people in the crowd eat their fill. In the act of giving thanks, Jesus dismisses the fear of scarcity. When we give thanks to God – in times of scarcity and in times of abundance – we move away from fear and toward generosity. The more generous we are, the more apt we are to rely on God’s grace, which continues moving us away from fear. With this movement, a virtuous cycle develops, and the act of giving thanks starts making generosity a defining characteristic of our identities.
And yet giving thanks does so much more. God is always present in our lives, but we are not always present to God. Giving thanks offers us an opportunity to participate and deepen our relationships with God. When we are simply glad, our gladness has no target. We say we are glad about something, but not that we are glad to something. Not so with gratitude. When we are grateful, we can say we are grateful about something and grateful to someone. The Samaritan man in today’s Gospel lesson returns to Jesus to express his gratitude, to give thanks. The other nine are presumably glad they were healed, but they do not show their gratitude. By returning to Jesus, the Samaritan signals his desire to remain in relationship with Jesus, who blesses him again saying, “Your faith has made you well.” When we give thanks to God, we show our gratitude to our creator, who in turn blesses us with deeper relationship.
And yet giving thanks does even more. When Jesus sat at table with his friends on the night before died, he took bread, and gave thanks to God for them and for the time they were sharing together. He implored them not to forget him, and he gave them his presence in the bread, which he called his body. Then he shared the bread with them, and ever since his followers have been doing the same. Thus the act of giving thanks – especially in the meal we will share together in a few minutes – gets us outside ourselves and wards off the illusion of self-sufficiency. We give thanks together. We share Christ’s presence as a community. Giving thanks, then, makes the community stronger.
Because Jesus calls us to give thanks as a community, we can find one more reason (among the thousands we don’t have time to discuss) to engage in thanksgiving. Giving thanks propels us to use our gifts. The best way to give thanks to God for a gift God has given is to use it for God’s greater glory. I can thank God for my singing voice by saying, “Thank you God for the gift of music.” Or I can sing. When we serve one another and the world by using our gifts, then we have truly thanked God for them.
Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We remember the Samaritan man today precisely because he did what no one else in the entire Gospel does. He returns to thank the one who healed him. I wonder what you are thankful for today? I wonder when was the last time you felt generous or when you felt your relationship with God deepen or when you shared in a community or when you used a gift? I invite you this week to reflect on how natural it is for you to give thanks to God throughout your day. If you find it uncommon, pray for more awareness and generosity. If you find it common, give more thanks for that joyful conclusion. No matter what, know that whenever you find yourself in a position to give thanks to God, God is giving thanks for you.