Pentecost 20: Recognizing the gift

But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. (2 Kings 5:11-14)

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." (Luke 17:11-19)

Earlier this week, I received in the mail a thank-you card from a friend whose wedding we attended earlier this fall. It was a lovely card. On the front, a picture of the couple from the wedding day, standing on a bridge with the sun setting behind them, looking happy and excited and all of those things that a newly married couple should look. And then, on the inside, a note that filled up the whole card. They thanked us very specifically for the pitcher we had given them as a gift, and then, as old friends tend to do, they thanked us for being a part of the day and lamented that there aren’t nearly enough opportunities for us to see each other, since we live across the country from one another.

I am always impressed with people who can write thank you notes, because I’m terrible at them. There are many things that I can express well enough on paper, but thanking people for gifts is not one of those things. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, or that I don’t want to say thank you in a meaningful way to people who have given me gifts or shown me mercy or given me a helping hand. The problem is that etiquette says that you mention specifically in your note the gift that you received and try to tell the giver of the gift “thank you” by letting them know how you might plan to use their gift. And while sometimes that’s easy - “Thank you so much for the lovely sweater that you gave me for my birthday; as the weather turns colder, I look forward to wrapping myself up in it,” most of the time, it feels, well, artificial. “Thanks for giving us the bathmat that we registered for...taking a shower just wouldn’t be the same without it....” I’m terrible at writing thank- you notes because sometimes it is just flat-out awkward or difficult to be specific, even though etiquette tells you that you need to be.

But when I think more deeply about the practice of giving thanks, I begin to think that etiquette is onto something here. Both etiquette and today’s gospel point to the same important point: the practice of gratitude is always in reaction to a particular gift. Gratitude is always a response, and a response that can only happen when we have first recognized what we have been given. You can’t be thankful for a bathmat until you have received it, and recognized it, and considered how your life might be different now that you have it...no matter how silly it feels to write it in a thank-you note.

There were ten men who happened upon Jesus as he was traveling between regions. These men all suffered from some variety of disease that rendered them unclean. To be unclean in Jesus’ was to be removed from the normal functions of society. People didn’t talk to unclean people and certainly couldn’t touch them. Being unclean kept you from being able to worship or being able to take part in the normal patterns and ritual of the community. Being unclean meant that you were on the outside, on the fringe.

These ten men, we read, “kept their distance,” but called out to Jesus, saying “have mercy on us.” And Jesus gives these ten men as simple instruction: “go and show yourselves to the priests.” Unlike Namaan, who in our first reading resisted Elisha’s simple instructions, believing that healing should be more difficult than just bathing in an unimportant river, the ten men turn and head toward the temple, no questions asked.

And on their way, they are healed.

Nine of the men continue on toward the temple - which, really, makes a lot of sense. Being healed of a disease that had made one unclean didn’t restore them to the community until they had been made ritually clean and declared clean by a priest. Most sermons try to figure out why the nine men didn’t turn back to Jesus. I’d rather ponder why the one man did. Because the nine men were pretty much doing what was expected. But what about the one who turned back?

The one who turned back realized that he had been healed. He felt his health restored and looked and saw his unblemished skin and felt a new energy in his soul. He saw that he had been healed. He recognized that he had been given an incredible gift - the gift of healing. And, recognizing the gift, he was overwhelmed with gratitude and compelled to turn back.

What made the one man different from the other nine was that he didn’t just receive the gift; he recognized it. He looked the gift squarely in the face and saw reflected in it the face of the giver. So he turned back, and finding Jesus, he threw himself down at the feet of his savior and thanked him.

When is the last time that you threw yourself down that the feet of your savior and thanked him?

The Christian life is, at its most basic, a life of gratitude. The whole of our faith centers on the free and expansive gift of God’s grace. God, loving his creation even before he called it into being, gave to us Jesus, the son, the savior, the healer, the living Word among the dead. In the unfolding of creation, God gave to us our world and ourselves. In the cross and empty tomb, God restored - gave back to us - our lives, and with them, the promise of everlasting life.

Today, we celebrate a baptism. This is four weeks in a row, if you’re counting, with another one next week. What a blessing, to be reminded each week that at this font, we, like Namaan, are healed by God’s spirit, moving in the water. The old life is washed away and replaced with the God’s gift of new life.

The waters of baptism give us the gift of sight. This is how we are more like the one who turned back than the nine who kept going. Where the world might want us to take for granted all that we have and all that we are, or credit ourselves and our hard work for all that we have, our faith helps us to recognize and appreciate every aspect of life as a gift. Our faith gives us eyes to see that God is the source and giver of our lives; that everything is a gift.

Your faith is a gift. Your family is a gift. Your vocation is a gift. Your joy is a gift. The blue sky and autumn trees are gifts. Your work and your leisure time are gifts. The food on your table and the roof over your head are gifts. The hope that carries you through times of grief is a gift. The moments of truth and clarity that cut through cloudy days are gifts. Every moment of forgiveness or act of compassion is a gift. Each cell and every fiber of your being is a gift. The ageless parts of you are gifts, and the creaky parts of you are gifts.

If there were ever a “Lutheran mantra,” it would be the verse from Ephesians that reads “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and it is the gift of God. For it is by grace that you live and move and have your being, and it is nothing but the gift of God.

This is where gratitude and stewardship are both alike: they are both responses to recognizing God’s gifts. They are both reactions to the many and various particular gifts that God has given us. Both stewardship and gratitude are choices that we make about how to live faithfully with those gifts. Both stewardship and gratitude give us opportunities to remember, over and over again, that we live only by the grace and mercy of God.

The author Barbara Brown Taylor said in an interview, “The older I get, the more opportunities I have to give thanks, [even] in the face of physical diminishment. When my knees hurt, I thank God for the opportunity to slow down. When I see wrinkles in the mirror, I thank God for all the laughs, scowls, frowns and kisses that have put them there.”

When is the last time that you came face-to-face with the Creator and gave thanks for your laughs and scowls and frowns and kisses? When is the last time you opened your eyes, like the one who turned back, to recognize all the gifts in your life? And seeing all of those gifts, are not you, like the one who turned back, so overwhelmed with blessing that you have no choice left but to turn back, running, and to fall at your savior’s feet, thanking him for each particular, blessed, beautiful moment of your life?

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