On Gratitude

Psalm 103:1-5, 19-21, Luke 17:11-19, May 18, 2014

My math is a little off. I’m sorry. I had hoped that this Sunday would be exactly six months after—and six months before—Thanksgiving. But I’m a week too early. Next Sunday would be the halfway point until Thanksgiving, the holiday we celebrate in November But we have a lot to be thankful for. So much that I did not feel I could wait another 6 months to focus worship on giving thanks.

This started with the Christian Education Committee’s annual Sunday when they thank people who have helped with Sunday school and youth group this past year. That got me thinking about things to be grateful for…And it sort of turned into a spiral of gratitude. Being thankful for one thing led me to seeing other things for which I am thankful. OK, so I started looking for Bible passages about gratitude and found these verses from Psalm 103. “Bless the Lord, O my soul…” and it’s a list of things for which the psalmist is grateful.

Here’s something you might not realize—to bless God is to thank God. They are the same thing. I know that sounds odd. And I think I know why it sounds odd. The most common reason we “bless” someone is after they sneeze. This goes back to an old, old superstition that one’s soul leaves one’s body when he sneezes and is therefore vulnerable to having an evil spirit take its place. The thoughtful thing to do is to bless that person and thus keep an evil spirit from invading another person’s body. It’s all about being thoughtful and looking out for someone else. But it’s not about thanking anyone. Try this, the next time someone sneezes in your presence, say “thank you.” and see what reaction you get.

I know that you know that to bless God is to thank God. I know you know this because this fact was drilled into me by my Baptism and Eucharist professor in seminary and I have drilled it into every congregation I have served. “On the night when Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, he thanked God for the bread, he broke it and gave it to his disciples.” That’s what I say whenever we celebrate communion. You may have heard it this way, “On the night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, blessed and broke it…” Which makes it sound like Jesus blessed the bread. Wrong. Jesus blessed God. Jesus said the prayer that Jews say before they eat—“Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, who brings forth bread from the earth. Amen.” The first word of the prayer is “blessed,” but it is addressed to God, not the bread. It is a prayer of thanks to God for the gift of bread.

I’ve been working on gratitude for a while now. Almost 15 years ago I wrote an advice column for new clergy. It reads like a long list of bumper stickers or fortune cookie messages. I’ve told colleagues it’s like the Book of Proverbs with a weaker plot. Anyway, here’s what it said, “Accept compliments, do not deflect them; let them penetrate your defenses. (You already do this with criticism.)” Here’s what I was trying to get at, you’ve probably had the experience of thanking someone or giving them a compliment and they have brushed it off—“Oh, it’s nothing.” In French and Spanish that’s the way one accepts a compliment, “De rien.” “De nada.” But sometimes it really is something. The good service I got from the credit card company last week…I really wanted the man at the other end of the phone in North Dakota to hear and accept that I was very thankful for his attention and help. He did a really good job! When he said, “No problem.” I knew he hadn’t gotten what I had intended.

Three hours later the phone rang in my office. And someone called to say “thank you” to me. I started laughing because it was such a coincidence—“Thursday is sermon-writing day,” I said, “I’m two paragraphs into a sermon on gratitude and you’re calling to say thank you.” I laughed again when I realized this person was grateful for something I had not even realized I’d done. “Ho ho, just got lucky, I guess.” He pressed on. Finally I got it. I needed to take my own advice, I needed to accept this compliment, I needed to accept these words of thanks, not just for me, but also for him. Deflecting these kind words would have diminished both of us—even though that’s what I wanted to do originally. It took effort to accept thanks. And my friend had to put really effort into my receiving it.

Our gospel lesson is a miraculous story of Jesus healing ten lepers long-distance. He doesn’t evn touch them, he just points them toward the priest and while they are en route—they became clean! Leprosy is a skin disease that is deeply disfiguring. Lepers had to keep themselves far away from other people so that their disease and their impurity did not spread to other people. This healing is a miracle—but that’s not the point. The point is that only one of the ten turned around to say “thank you.” All were made clean. All were made whole. All were able to rejoin society….only one in ten went out of his way to say “thank you.” Only one in ten completed the circle by accepting, receiving, acknowledging the gift of healing. Oh, and the one who got it right was a Samaritan, a double outsider, not just a leper, but a deeply distrusted foreigner. Imagine an al-Qaeda terrorist with AIDS as the one being lifted up as getting gratitude right, according to Jesus today. It was shocking!

I’m going to close with some very provocative thoughts on gratitude, which I found in a marvelous book called “Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer” by Brother David Steindl-Rast.

The interdependence of gratefulness is truly mutual. The receiver of the

gift depends on the giver. Obviously so. But the circle of gratefulness is

incomplete until the giver of the gift becomes the receiver: a receiver of

thanks. When we give thanks, we give something greater than the gift we

received, whatever it was. The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving.

In giving gifts, we give what we can spare, but in giving thanks we give

ourselves. One who says “Thank you” to another really says, “We belong

together.