THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Gratitude” Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell
There is an amazing painting by contemporary artist James Christensen which richly interprets today’s text from the Gospel of Luke. I included a black and white image of the painting in your bulletin insert this morning. I will include the color version when I post the sermon on our website. This painting invites the viewer to share in the experience of those who have been healed of their leprosy, and it captures that moment when one of the 10, a Samaritan, begins turning back to Jesus to offer thanks and praise. Take a moment to look at the picture.
The Ten Lepers by James Christensen
In today’s scripture reading, Luke writes that Jesus was traveling in the border region between Judea and Samaria when a group of lepers drew near. In the time of Jesus the term leprosy was used to describe a number of skin conditions, and those with leprosy were considered to be not only sick but ritually unclean. So they were made to live apart from the rest of the population, and that’s why they were out there in the border region. Among this group of lepers there were both Jews and Samaritans, people who ordinarily would have had nothing to do with one another, but who were bound together by their common affliction. Luke tells us that they approached Jesus, stood at a distance, and called out to him for mercy. In the painting you can see some of the ten are carrying poles with bells on them. These bells were used to warn people that lepers were near, so that they might steer clear of them, and avoid contamination. When this group of lepers appealed to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” he told them to go and show themselves to the priest and as they went all of them were healed. This was no small gift Jesus had given them. To be healed of leprosy, and to be declared ritually clean by the priest, meant far more than physical healing, for they would no longer have to live apart. They would be able to return to their homes, to their families, to their livelihoods, and to both the social and religious life of their community.
One of the reasons I like this painting so much is that so often when this passage is discussed, 9 of the 10 lepers are described as ingrates, who didn’t have the common decency to come back and thank Jesus. But this picture paints a very different portrait. The artist has imagined a variety of reactions among the 10 lepers when they realize that they have been healed. Some have great smiles on their faces, two are turning toward one another as if to share and confirm what they are both experiencing, some are lifting their faces and their arms in what looks to me to be praise to God, and they all appear to be hurrying, eager to get to the priest, as Jesus had instructed them, so that they might be declared clean and thus be restored to their lives. You can almost hear those bells ringing, no longer in warning, but in excitement and joyous celebration.
And then there is one last figure, who, having seen the healing in his hands has stopped in his tracks and is just beginning to turn back, so that he can give thanks to Jesus, this Jewish teacher and healer who has given him, a Samaritan, this amazing gift.
I think this artist depicts 10 people who are grateful for the healing they have experienced. Yet Jesus does see significance in the fact that only one returned. You see, there is a difference, I think, between having gratitude and showing gratitude. There’s a difference between experiencing gratitude and expressing gratitude. And I think that is the distinction Jesus is making here when he asks about the other 9. Jesus tells the one who has returned, prostrating himself before Jesus and thanking him, that his faith, as demonstrated in his expression of gratitude, has made him whole. His expression of gratitude reveals a faith in which the cycle of grace doesn’t stop with him and with his healing, but continues to flow outward.
Both having gratitude and showing gratitude it are important. And both having and showing are important parts of the spiritual practice of gratitude, not only in the Christian tradition, but in other spiritual traditions, as well. And through the centuries, people of faith have experimented with that practice of gratitude; seeking ways that help them cultivate it in their individual lives and in the lives of their faith communities.
The practice of gratitude begins when we tune our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds to recognize the grace of God that is all around us, developing an awareness or mindfulness of all in our lives that is gift and grace. We all know how easy it is to get so caught up in our busy lives that we fail to pay attention, to notice, to see, and to recognize the giftedness of life: the very breath we breathe, the rising of the sun, the cycles of seedtime and harvest, the wonder of our bodies, the gift of our relationships, even the strength to pass through difficult times. And all these things, which are so easy to take for granted, are gifts, given in abundance, by a gracious and loving God.
When we develop a regular practice of cultivating our awareness of that grace, we become more and more aware with each passing day. And there are many ways to do this. Some people practice by counting their blessings, naming them one by one, as the old song goes. Others take time to reflect at day’s end, bringing to mind all the things of that day for which they are grateful. Some keep a gratitude journal, where they record those blessings they have noticed, and when they look back through that journal they are able to see the accumulating abundance of grace in their lives, and the way that their awareness of that grace has grown over time. This fall we gave Family Blessing Boxes to the families in our congregation who have children and youth at home. One of the things we put in that box was a book called Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home. And one of the many practices suggested in that book is something called Gratitude Café, where a family gathers around the table with hot chocolate, coffee, tea, milk or juice, each of them writing or drawing 5 things for which they are thankful. Those things might be material blessings, special things the family has done together, experiences they have had, or lessons they have learned. And then they share with one another the things they have written or drawn, and talk together about them, and close with a time of giving thanks to God. I once did a program at a care center where I passed around a bowl of Scrabble tiles, and had each person pull out a letter at random, and share about something or someone, beginning with that letter, that they were grateful for; something or someone that was gift and grace for them.
These are just a few examples of ways we can experiment with practicing gratitude in our own lives and in the lives of our families. For you see, the more we practice looking back at our blessings, the more likely we are to recognize those things as blessings even as they are happening. As we grow in this spiritual practice of gratitude, we “tune our hearts to sing God’s grace;” and we find ourselves becoming more and more grateful, for we are seeing the abundance of God’s grace in our lives. And that’s an important first step. For remember, there is a difference between having or experiencing gratitude and showing or expressing gratitude.
Expressing gratitude – giving thanks. There are many ways to practice that as well, and a simple prayer to the God who is the source of all our gifts is the foundation of that practice. Meister Eckhart once wrote, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Those family Blessing Boxes also included a grace cube, with table blessings on each of the 6 faces, which was meant to encourage families to participate in the ancient spiritual practice of saying grace together before meals.
It is also important to practice showing gratitude to the people in our lives who bless us in some way by who they are and what they do. That’s why, as parents of young children, we say those four words “What do you say…” in order to prompt our children to say “thank you” – because we want them to be people who are grateful for what they have and for what they are given, and we want them to be people who show that gratitude when someone has done something for them. I’ve always admired people who are good about sending thank you notes and expressing appreciation. In some ways it has become a lost art. But we know how it is important to continue the cycle of grace by turning back like that tenth leper, and expressing gratitude to those who have blessed us.
And as Marty reminded us last week it is also important that we continue that cycle of grace by sharing with others from the abundance of our blessings, for grace begets gratitude, and gratitude begets generosity. It is important to share kindness, to share hospitality, to share food, to share encouragement, to share knowledge, to share love, to share compassion, to share time, to share skills, to share resources, to share from our blessings so that others, too, might be blessed. We need to pay those blessings forward, because in many cases that is how we came to have them in the first place, because someone paid them forward to us. And we want to keep that cycle of grace flowing outward – that cycle that is powered by the Spirit.
Ellen Grace O’Brian writes that “Spiritual practice begins as a part of life; then it becomes a way of life.” So we practice, experimenting a bit along the way, so that we can find ways to build our capacity for recognizing all that is grace and gift in our lives and in our world. And in this way we tune our hearts to sing God’s grace: grace that begets gratitude and gratitude that begets generosity – stewardship with God at the center. Thanks and praise be to God from whom all blessing flow. Amen.