When we gather on a Sunday morning, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that for a good number of us, it feels like something in life is falling apart. Whether it’s our faith in our elected leadership, a relationship going through strain, a loved one dealing with illness, the days growing darker and colder and wetter again. “Be kind,” goes the aphorism, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Last week we talked about one of the responses our faith offers us when things are falling apart all around. We can lament. We can join the prophets and the poets and the musicians of scripture and shout, calling on God to notice and to act. It’s biblical, it’s faithful, and sometimes it feels just right. We need God to take our hands and our hearts and our abilities and do something new.
Lament. That’s one of the responses our faith offers us to a messy, broken world. And here’s another one: gratitude.
I know, that one sounds way more bizarre than lament. At least when we lament we can keep our faces dour and our songs in a minor key. Gratitude—on the other hand—moves toward contentment, toward joy, even. It means noticing the good around us and taking the time to name it.
We get one of scripture’s great stories of gratitude in our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning. Jesus is walking in a boundary region—the boundary between Samaria and Galilee—and on this particular day, he goes about crossing one of the most well-known boundaries of his time.
Jesus encounters a group of ten lepers on his way. These folks know their place in the society: they’re used to being at arm’s length from others, so they don’t come near Jesus but instead call out to him from a distance. They cry out for healing, and Jesus has mercy on them—he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, and in the process of going there, all ten are healed of their disease. The barrier that has kept them on the outside of their community has suddenly vanished—we can only imagine their joy and relief. But the story doesn’t end there: one of those healed comes back and throws himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving.
A teacher of mine talks about the “second blessing” of gratitude. All of the lepers were cured of their illness in this story; all ten did what they were supposed to do, and all found themselves physically healthy at the end of the day. For nine of them, that’s as far as the healing went. But for the one who took the time to give thanks, the healing went a step further. The one who took the time to give thanks is truly “made well,” in Jesus’ words. All ten were cured in a physical way, but this one received a second blessing; this one was healed deep down as well, made whole in a way the others—who took no time for gratitude—were not.
We’re used to thinking of gratitude as something to do after our problem is solved, after we’ve experienced a blessing, after we’ve been healed. But the story of the ten lepers complicates that notion: in the story, gratitude is as much a part of the healing as the curing of the disease. Let me say that once more: gratitude is as much a part of the healing as the curing of the disease.
Most of you know we’re reading a book together as a congregation this month. It’s called Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, and the first chapter is devoted to a discussion of our conflicted relationship to money and possessions today. The author, Adam Hamilton, starts from the premise that everything in our lives is a gift of God. We worship a God who is the creator and sustainer of all life, and so nothing in this world is fundamentally ours. It’s all on loan to us, all entrusted to us to care for and to use for God’s good purposes for the brief time it’s in our hands.
The most basic response to being entrusted with so many good things is gratitude. But the fact is, gratitude can feel pretty elusive for many of us today. I think Hamilton does a great job of naming some of the reasons for it.
And one of the primary obstacles to gratitude that he names is the restless, persistent feeling that what we have is never enough. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this fact about Americans when he visited the U.S. way back in the 1800s: “Americans are extremely eager in the pursuit of immediate material pleasures and are always discontented with the position they occupy…. They think about nothing but ways of changing their lot and bettering it,” he wrote about our predecessors in this country, nearly two hundred years ago.
Of course there is good that’s come from that American restlessness—but when we always have our eyes on the next thing, it’s very difficult to be grateful for what’s right there in front of us. It doesn’t matter what it is, really—you can be thinking about the next house, the next car, the next cell phone, the next job, the next vacation, the next season. When your mind and heart are way out there, it’s almost impossible to give thanks to God for what’s right here.
If gratitude is simply a formality we’re supposed to go through—a way of minding our spiritual manners and being polite with God—then this whole issue can be solved by saying a quick prayer of thanks every now and then. Check it off the list and move on. But if gratitude is instead what we’re made for—if, like the nine lepers in the story, we’re actually missing the real opportunity for healing and wholeness when we miss giving thanks—then gratitude is so much more important than that, so much bigger than being polite.
Take one of those beautiful fall moments we’ve been having lately, where the gray lifts after hours of rain and the light starts playing tricks with the mist. That beauty is there for everyone to see; it’s a blessing for everyone. But there’s a second blessing when you notice it and name it in gratitude—tell God, tell a loved one, tell your dog. Gratitude—the noticing and naming of the gifts we all have, of life and breath and grace—is what we’re made for.
It’s totally counter-intuitive, because no matter what, there will always be things around us for which we are not grateful. In that misty, beautiful moment, there will still be politicians messing up, and conflicts among people, and improvements we’d like to make to the church, and friends drifting apart, and family members making choices we wish they wouldn’t. We don’t ignore all those things—but if we wait until all is well to be grateful, we will miss this gift of deep healing and wholeness being offered to us right now.
Practice is the only way I know of to get better at gratitude. So if you’d like a challenge this week, take five minutes every day and write down ten things for which you’re grateful, and then name them in a prayer. Try it for one week, and see if it doesn’t change your outlook a little. Some people make a lifelong practice of writing down their thanksgivings, keeping a journal that over time bulges with words of gratitude and overflows into daily living. It can’t help but make a difference.
And here’s the wild thing: the Christian faith has often had this strange effect on people, leading them to gratitude in even impossibly difficult circumstances. Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in the German town of Ellensburg during the Thirty Years’ War of the 1600s. Ellensburg was a refuge for political and military fugitives during the war, which led to the town becoming overcrowded and plagued by disease and famine. It was attacked by armies three times during the war and for decades saw one disaster after another.
During the height of a plague in 1637, Pastor Rinkart was performing up to 50 funerals a day, performing over 4,000 in that year alone, including that of his wife. It sounds like enough to break anyone, and yet it is during that time that Rinkart wrote one of the most well-known German hymns. The words go like this:
Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
Rinkart knew the hard-won lesson about gratitude: it’s what we are made for. We find healing and wholeness in giving thanks to God for the gifts around us in this single, imperfect, and holy day.
 David Lose, “Second Blessing,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2796
 Quoted in Enough, 14.
 “Now Thank We All Our God,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Now_Thank_We_All_Our_God
Image: JESUS MAFA. Healing of the ten lepers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48295 [retrieved October 14, 2013].