As the 20th anniversary of my ordination approached, I decided that the way I wanted to celebrate it was to write 20 letters to 20 people who had helped me become who I was. Some were professors in college and seminary. Some were life mentors who offered me vision and direction in who I wanted to become. Others were friends and family who offered me support and encouragement along the road. I spent a lot of time on each letter, talking about specific ways the person helped me and how I was who I was because of having them in my life. I told them how important they were to me. What I learned from them and how I modeled them in my daily life. I told them that I thanked God for the gift of having them as my mentors every day. Each letter was a labor of love. And I am so glad I decided to celebrate it that way, because I received 20 letters back from each person which I have in a bound notebook which I cherish. Some of the people were shocked that I wrote. Some did not know until then the impact they had on my life. But all were so pleased to receive the letter. And it made me realize that we need to talk about those things and people to whom we are grateful. We need to celebrate with thanksgiving how and who are the gifts we in our lives.
Three weeks ago one of the last people in that group of people I wrote letters to died. I shared it with you that Sunday. Steve Minter was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, a black man who married a white woman in an era when it was illegal to be a bi-racial couple. Steve was a social worker, who rose from being a caseworker for the City of Cleveland to the CEO of the Cleveland Foundation and probably one of the most influential and powerful figures in the city. During the time he was at the Cleveland Foundation its assets grew to 2.5 BILLION dollars making it one of the largest foundations in the world today. During the Carter administration Steve took a leave from the foundation to be the first Secretary of the Department of Education. To me, Steve was my mentor and he was the reason I am a minister with a social work degree. And I was sad at his death, but I was also still so grateful. Grateful to God for having had Steve and so many other wonderful people in my life and grateful they all knew how I felt about them. Gratitude is like love…. it is best when it is expressed.
This morning’s scripture lesson from Luke 17:11-19.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus[a] was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers[b] approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’[c] feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.)
This is a story about gratitude. It is about a person who recognizes the gifts they have been given in life and responds in thanksgiving. You see, Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem and is on the road somewhere between Samaria and Galilee. I have never been to the Holy Lands, but one commentary on this passage said that Jesus is in a very desolate area where there is really nothing there. But, there is a village and there were 10 lepers outside the village who approach Jesus and ask to be healed. Obviously in their request is the understanding that they have the knowledge and faith that Jesus is a healer. He tells them to go to the priest in town and they will be healed. And they respond. They do what is required. And all ten are healed.
Now leprosy is a contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves. It causes discoloration and bumps in the skin and in severe cases deformities and disfigurement. Being contagious, lepers were shunned and lived as outcasts of society in ancient Israel. So, being cured, would be absolutely life transforming for the 10 people who met up with Jesus on the path. They would be able to rejoin their families, live within society instead on the outskirts of it, and could work and worship, and eat with others. It would have been A LIFE TRANSFORMING GIFT TO BE HEALED FROM THAT AWFUL DISEASE. It would have been the best thing, the most joyous thing that ever happened to these people. How wonderful. They could hug their loved ones, they could share a meal at a family table. I am sure their joy knew no bounds.
Yet, we are told only one person of the ten returned to thank Jesus. I am sure this one person’s joy at being healed was no different than the others, but only one felt gratitude for the healing. Only one could enjoy their health as a gift. Only one stopped and spoke words of gratitude to the source of all that was given.
And dear friends, this is indeed a lesson for us all. We here, enjoy and celebrate so much in our lives. We have our families, our friends, our jobs, our homes, our church, and so much more. We have this wonderful planet with its beautiful skies, its stunning mountains, and its spectacular beaches and waterfronts. We have fresh water to drink (and with such abundance, we even have swimming pools in which we can swim) we have clean air to breathe, public transportation, schools which educate us and the list goes on and on for those of us who are first world people. We have the freedom and ability to work together for change, to feed the hungry, to put socks on the homeless, to be advocates for climate and social justice change, and to worship as we choose. And we enjoy it all of this. We take some of it for granted but not all of it. After all, we know we have it pretty good. I know I can pay my rent and have food in my refrigerator which makes me a ‘have’ in the world among the ‘have nots’. But how often do we stop and really feel grateful for all that we have been given? How often do our thoughts move us to gratitude? How often are we the other nine people who Jesus blessed who are enjoying our blessings and how often do we stop in our tracks and feel grateful for all that we have been given… How often do we feel really strong gratitude to God for all that we are and all that we have been given?
And we all, just as the ten lepers did, have experienced the gift of reconciliation and restoration in our personal lives. We have felt God build us up again and again when we have failed. We have been the recipient of God’s healing, of wholeness, and of knowing great abundance. The lesson for today is to adjust how we receive all these gifts and to remember with gratitude from whom they come. This is the beauty of the simple act of saying grace at a meal. It is realizing in gratitude that the food itself is a grace offered to us. Perhaps we need to say grace over more things than just our meals.
Today begins what we all call the stewardship season in churches. It is when we ask you to consider your financial pledge to the church for the next year – 2020. You will be getting a letter about it in the mail this week and are asked to consider your response in the weeks to come before Stewardship Sunday on November 10th. But my hope is that you don’t rush into your response… That your pledge is not given from guilt or obligation. My hope is that just like that 10th leper who was healed, your response will come from gratitude for God’s bounty in your life and the way the church can help you give back what has been so generously offered to you.
Each week during this Stewardship Season, two people will read a personal list in worship of twenty things for which they are grateful. It is my hope that in hearing them, you will be reminded of all that God has given you. So that, you can be like the 10th person that Jesus healed and return and give thanks for what has been so generously given to you. Amen.