Proper 23, Year C
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
After every Christmas, after every birthday, I always dreaded the “thank you note fight.”
“Here’s a list of all of the people who gave you presents,” I would intone to my children, inwardly steeling myself for battle. “You need to write them all notes this weekend.”
“Aww, mom …. Do I have to?!?” my children would whine in chorus. “I’m really busy.”
“Yes, you have to” I would insist …. “before you can hang out with your friends.”
General flopping on the sofa, expert procrastinating, and fierce sighing and eye-rolling would ensue, until about twenty minutes before the deadline. Then, as they sat hunched over a teeny note-card, the tears would usually begin to flow.
“But Mom, I don’t know what to write ….” they would sob. “This is so stupid!”
“Start with, ‘Dear Granny, thank you for the pretty blue sweater,’” I would coach in a cheery voice, trying to pretend like I didn’t know how this would end.
“But Mom, I hate that sweater! I’m never ever going to wear it. You don’t want me to lie to Granny, do you?!” they would argue, beginning to enjoy the debate, despite themselves.
I would respond in lecture mode: “No, but you have to think of something nice that you can say. Granny loves you and needs to know that you appreciate the fact that she gave you a birthday present.”
“But she knows that already, Mom,” my children would explain with a sigh. “Why do I have to write it on a stupid card? This is just some dumb politeness rule like dressing up for church. People write stupid things on stupid cards that they don’t really mean. I can’t believe that you are making me do this!!!!” Then usually a door would slam, as they would stomp off to their rooms to write the note.
While they were young, I never got beyond “politeness rules” in convincing my children about the joy of writing sincere, loving things on those cards. It wasn’t until they had matured that they were able to move beyond those short notes dripping with “my mother made me do this” language.
We who are so insistent on teaching our children to express their written thanks often have just as much trouble offering timely and authentic thanks to our heavenly Father. I mean well, when it comes to expressing gratitude for God’s presence in my life, but like my children, I get busy with other things; I worry that my thanks will sound silly and feel inauthentic; I get resentful that I can’t just enjoy life without always having this annoying “gratitude duty” hanging over my head.
Often, the only thanks that God gets out of me in a day is a hasty blessing over my food, a tradition-bound prayer delivered with all the sincerity of “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat!”
In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke takes the role of the parent, trying to show us pouty children that salvation is found in gratitude. Those nine lepers who didn’t go back to thank Jesus weren’t bad people. In fact, I can imagine lots of reasons why they didn’t stop.
Maybe some of them planned to write Jesus a polite, formal note once they got home. Maybe some of them planned to make an extra big donation to the Temple treasury in honor of their healing. Maybe others saw their healing as the result of their own ingenuity in calling out to Jesus on the road. Maybe others were just slow to believe that they were really healed. Maybe some of them even secretly regretted having to return to their old lives. I can imagine that some of them saw their healing as merely a turn of good luck—nothing to do with Jesus at all. And others might see their sickness as a punishment by God. Their thanks might be buried under thick layers of guilt and shame.
What Luke wants us to see in this story is not how bad those nine ungrateful lepers were—but he wants to show us what true, healing gratitude looks like in the form of the outcast, the Samaritan, the one who returns to prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet.
Maybe it will help us to imagine that, instead of ten people with the horrible disease of leprosy, we have ten communities in the aftermath of hurricane Matthew. With destruction all around, the ten towns all cried out loudly to Jesus for help. And, thanks be to God, strengthened and renewed in their tatters, those ten communities found themselves limping away. Their lives have been turned upside down, some never to be the same. But they have survived. Yet only one community stops to give thanks—a tiny impoverished village in rural Haiti. Still covered in mud, the dirty water still lapping at their legs, imagine these Haitians running first into the ruins of their village church. They join hands and begin to dance. For hours, they sing confident, faith-filled songs of heartfelt praise to Jesus.
These folks have had lots of hard practice in learning to recognize God’s grace. Their difficult lives have taught them that they are not in charge. They have had to learn the breathtaking truth—that everything we have and everything we are comes from God. Out of all of the communities saved this week, perhaps only they are ready to respond with true thanksgiving, with true joy.
In just a few minutes, after the Peace and after the sweet children’s songs, we who are like the nine and yet who want so badly to be like the one, we will all stand together in our parish church, gathered around Jesus at this altar, all looking somehow to be saved. We will all say together the familiar words of praise in what our Prayer Book calls the Great Thanksgiving. In our mouths, these words can unleash our tongues and tear open our hearts, if we let them. We too can join together in thanksgiving for the grace that God pours out in Christ upon us all.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
Because here is the good news:
When my children wrote those one-line thank you notes to their grandmother, do you know what she did with them? When she pulled them out of the bills and advertisements in her mailbox, and saw the young handwriting on the envelope, her eyes filled with tears of joy. She held those little notes to her chest with love, as she remembered the grandchild she longed to see more often. Smiling at their attempts to write her a note, she took the little cards and placed them on her kitchen table, where she could see them as she ate her meals there alone. She treasured those one-line notes, because she loved and longed for the children who had written them. Just as God loves and treasures each piece of ourselves that we manage to give to God, through our praise and our thanksgiving.