October 13, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
This Sunday, we begin our season of Stewardship. I’m always a little ambivalent about that term, “Stewardship Season,” because it somehow implies that stewardship is something we only pay attention to during the fall, something that needs to be taken care of before Advent and Christmas. That makes it seem that Stewardship, in spite of our protests to the contrary, is really only about the church’s annual pledge drive. And let’s be honest – we choose this time of year for the annual pledge drive, because it is important that we have that work done before Christmas. But Stewardship, as you well know, is about far more than Pledge Commitment Sunday, and about far more than simply money. Stewardship concerns all of life – how we use all of our resources – not just money, but time and talent, and how we as human beings care for the resources we have in our shared life community, nature, the oceans, air, water, food, and all of creation. We ourselves are resources, in fact, and we are called to be good stewards of ourselves, as well – stewards of our bodies, our health and well-being, and our hearts and souls. The stewardship of self and of soul is every bit as important as the stewardship of our checkbooks.
This year, our preaching and worship for stewardship will center on certain words – words about commitment to the Christian life, and about what those words mean for us in our daily lives, as stewards of our selves, and of the community we create with one another. The first of those words – the word for this week – is gratitude. Thankfulness.
Our scripture reading is a short story of healing and gratitude. Let’s consider the context of this brief story. We are in the 17th of 24 chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Way back in chapter 9, Jesus has set his face to go toward Jerusalem. By chapter 22, he is on his way to the cross. But for now, Jesus is on the road, and the route to Jerusalem that most of his people take would very deliberately stay away from Samaria. The Samaritans were different, foreign. They believed that their faith and their way of worship were superior. So a Galilean like Jesus would normally have detoured around Samaria, even though it was a much shorter journey to pass through that land. Now, here Jesus is, going through Samaria.
Imagine, if you will, that you want to go to Galena today, but you absolutely refuse to pass through Carroll County. Your choice then, is to go back to the East, then go north, and back to the west; or you can head west, cross the Mississippi, then cross back over to Galena from Dubuque. That’s the kind of detour people would take to avoid going through Samaria. And they traveled on foot. Nobody wanted to be near Samaria or Samaritans.And certainly, nobody wanted to be anywhere near any lepers. Nobody but Jesus, that is.
11On 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.”
The whole story was so strange, he could hardly believe it himself. They had heard about this Jesus of Nazareth, heard about his teachings, and the way he healed people. They’d heard he was passing through, so they were watching for him. Jesus was certainly a different sort of healer. He was always touching unclean people, talking to unchaperoned women, sticking his fingers in people’s ears, rubbing his spit in their eyes, talking to dead people and telling them to get up. He touched people, lifted them to their feet. There were stories of some remote healing – for the official’s son, and for the woman’s daughter who had an evil spirit. But most of the time, he was pretty hands-on.
But this time it was different. Jesus did not even touch these lepers. They were walking along, near the border of Samaria, at the edge of the road where the dust faded into weeds. When they saw him enter this village, they called out to him. They hadn’t really discussed it among themselves – they weren’t friends, really, just thrown together by circumstance. Their skin conditions were different – some looked more like a rash, others like eczema or psoriasis, some might have actually had leprosy. It didn’t matter – they were outcasts, not allowed to enter town, no longer welcome in their own homes, forced to beg for scraps and handouts, just to survive.
It didn’t matter either, not really, who first called out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” But once one of them did, the other nine joined the chorus. Instead of shouting the warning cry of lepers, “Unclean! Unclean!” they cried out for mercy: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
It was hard to tell at first, and at that distance, whether Jesus was actually paying any attention. He was walking along in an intense discussion with his disciples. But then, he looked up, looked directly at them, and told them to go show themselves to the priest. They didn’t really understand, but they did what he said, because it would indicate that they were going for verification that they were healed. But he didn’t say that, nor did he touch them or say they were made well.
And as they went they were made clean. They were walking along, hopeful but not at all certain, going in hopes of a bill of clean health from the priests. As they headed away, they looked down at themselves, and looked at each other… they saw that… they were cured. Whatever skin condition they suffered from…gone. The isolation…ended. Their condition as outcasts…over.
They could go home. They could hug their wives. Embrace their mothers. They could tuck their children into bed at night, and get up and go to their work in the morning. They could go to worship and weddings and funerals, spend time with friends. They would no longer have to shout out the warning “UNCLEAN” as they approached someone on the road. Through his mercy and grace, Jesus restored their lives to them!
Certainly, every one of the ten of them recognized this. Certainly, every one of the ten of them realized what had happened. But only one came back. Only one turned around and ran back toward Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. Only one returned to throw himself at Jesus’ feet. Only one said thank you – thank you for the gift of his life restored. And he was a Samaritan— an excluded, disdained, looked down on, rejected Samaritan. But he understood gratitude. He would spend the rest of his life remembering that day, that moment. He would spend the rest of his life saying thanks be to God.
For about the last ten years or so, researchers have been trying to understand gratitude.
There’s a professor at the University of California who does little else. He says gratitude has two key components: “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life. The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. …true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people— or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” The research shows that the daily, conscious practice of gratitude has great benefits for people, people of all ages. People who practice gratitude enjoy benefits that are physical, psychological, and social.
· Stronger immune systems
· Less bothered by aches and pains
· Lower blood pressure
· Exercise more and take better care of their health
· Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking.
· Higher levels of positive emotions
· More alert, alive, and awake
· More joy and pleasure
· More optimism and happiness
· More helpful, generous, and compassionate
· More forgiving
· More outgoing
· Feel less lonely and isolated. 
The research indicated that all it takes to cultivate thankfulness are a few simple routines, like counting your blessings every day, or keeping a list of things you are thankful for in a gratitude journal, or, as was suggested in the weekly devotionals in our church newsletter, make a gratitude jar, and keep adding items to it. Interestingly, people of faith are more grateful, and the more grateful a person becomes, the more likely they are to embrace faith. People who are both faithful and grateful are happier.
Another group of researchers in Pennsylvania tested a variety of practices to see if they made depressed people any happier, and if that effect lasted at all. One of the most effective practices, they found, was for people to “write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.” This seemingly small act not only had a huge impact on happiness, it lasted for a whole month!
Long before Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, or Robert Emmons at UC Davis – this Samaritan, a leper healed by Jesus got it, without a Ph.D or a tenured faculty position, or any research at all. The experience of being healed moved one man, one out of ten, to come back and say thank you. And Jesus didn’t just say, “You’re welcome.” He knew there was more to it than that. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.
The grateful man was cured, and now he was healed, not only able to return to community, but made whole, restored. That’s what research is catching up to: the practice of gratitude restores us. The word for the week is gratitude, a central characteristic of our faith. We are stewards of thankfulness. Jesus might just as well have said: “Get up and go on your way; your gratitude has made you well.”
Thankfulness gives us a way of seeing the world that changes everything –how we live, the choices we make, the way we treat others. It makes us more generous, more contented, less envious. It makes us more faithful. It makes us well.
Through Jesus Christ, it heals us and makes us whole.
Thanks be to God!