To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.
Sermon based on Luke 17:11-19
Most of us have felt the sting of ingratitude, but few have felt it as painfully as the late Ed Spencer once experienced. Spencer was a divinity student at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. On September 8, 1860, Spencer was drawn into a situation that changed the direction of his life. That night he awakened to the shouting of fellow seminary students, who reported that there was a shipwreck directly off the shores of Lake Michigan. A ship had collided with a lumber freighter and was sinking. Ed Spencer jumped out of bed, dressed and rushed to the shore. It was a stormy night and the waves of Lake Michigan were tossing vigorously. Few would be rescuers were willing to brave those turbulent waters and dangerous undertows. Ed was a strong swimmer, from his childhood days swimming in the Mississippi River. He jumped right in and proceeded to pull people to shore one after the other. He had to fight those fierce waves and painful piercing into his body from pieces of debris from the ships. By dawn’s light he had personally rescued fifteen survivors. As he was warming himself by the fire with a cup of coffee, a cry came that there were two more survivors clinging to part of the ship, hanging on for dear life. Despite his exhaustion, he jumped in and barely made it to those two who were hanging on. He managed to bring them to shore with his last ounces of strength. Following that rescue Spencer collapsed on the beach. That night, 287 people lost their lives but of the 98, who were saved, Spencer personally rescued seventeen. Following that night, Ed Spencer never returned to seminary. As a result of his heroic efforts medical complications resulted physically in his life that prevented him from the mobility he had before the rescue. As an invalid, as an older man living in California, a Los Angeles newspaper interviewed him and asked him what he recalled about the rescue many years later. Spencer replied, “Only this; of the seventeen people I saved, not one of them ever thanked me.”
On the way to Jerusalem to face the cross Jesus encountered ten lepers who were outcasts in society. They were under a sentence of death because no one would ever come near them. People were afraid to touch them or their clothing or anything they put their hands upon. By the rules of their society, rules created because of the fear of contamination, lepers were forced to live apart from everyone else. On those occasions when they drew near to others for one reason or another they rang little bells to announce their presence and to warn others to move away. In Biblical times they were regarded as unclean, as people guilty of great sins that had brought about their misery and misfortune. As Jesus entered this village ten lepers approached him and, mindful of the rules of their society, mindful of their need to avoid contaminating anyone, and mindful too of the fear that others had of their presence they call out to Jesus from a distance: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They were desperate to be healed and we see in this encounter Jesus responded to them and does so in a most unusual manner. Jesus treated these people with compassion. In healing the ten lepers, Jesus does not reach out and touch them. He doesn’t say, “Be healed.” He tells them to show themselves to the priest. He was telling them to act as if they were healed, and they would be healed. In faith they started out, and they were healed along the way. While the ten who acted in faith were healed, only one came back. Only one leper came back to thank Jesus personally. Jesus asked him, “Where are the other nine?”
We are left to ask why Jesus was so concerned about nine ungrateful lepers. We can assume that like Ed Spencer who was upset that no one thanked him for saving their lives, that Jesus perhaps was upset and disappointed as well. However Jesus’ disappointment was for another reason. He told the leper who came back, “Your faith has made you well.” While ten were healed, physically, only one was made well enough to enjoy the blessings both of a physical and spiritual nature. This in Jesus’ mind was far more important than being healed just physically. This passage teaches us that unless gratitude is a part of our nature, we can’t be well enough to enjoy the blessings from God in our lives. Robert Capon, in his book Parables of Grace urges us to think in this way. “The ten lepers are all dead people. Whether you are talking physically, spiritually, or socially, they are dead. They would love to get healed which, in this context, means they would love to get raised from the dead, and return back home to a normal life. That’s all that they, like most people, ever really asked for. Just a chance to “be like other people”, an opportunity to go back home be like everyone else, to be normal. They assume that this is what Jesus is all about a return to the normal, a revival of the ordinary for people who, because of their infirmity and illness, are abnormal.”
But one of the healed lepers, came back to say “thanks”. He realized that his healing came from God through Jesus. He realized that God had put him in a relationship with Jesus and that relationship alone made him whole and alive again. He expressed the true spirit of what gratitude means. Gratitude is more than common courtesy, politeness, or even civility. Genuine, heartfelt, gratitude is a spirit, an attitude. It is based on a deliberate decision to appreciate the world instead of biting back or being preoccupied with greed. Gratitude is what overwhelms a person when they realize that God is being too good to them. There are people who will go through life with a great sense of wonder and gratitude for every circumstance. I love the story of a shopkeeper whose son came to see him one day complaining, “Dad, I don’t understand how you run this store. You have not computerized your accounting, you keep too much cash in the register, how in the world do you know what your profits are from day to day?” The father replied, “Son, let me tell you something, when I first arrived in this land all I owned was the pair of pants I was wearing. Now your sister is a teacher, your brother is a doctor an you are an accountant. Your mother and I own a house and a car and this little store. Add that up and subtract the pants, and there is your profit.”
A person who is well enough to enjoy the blessings expresses gratitude to the source from which it comes. Surely all ten lepers realized they were healed of a terminal illness. While they may have been grateful, only one returned to say “thank you.” There were ten requests for mercy but only one expression of gratitude. Perhaps the single most surprising thing about the story is that the one who went back is the one society would have least expected to go back, he was a Samaritan, the rest were Jews. Perhaps however, that explains his gratitude. He had less to trust in, less to rely upon, less to be proud of than the others. The fact those nine did not go back even to say a simple word of thanks indicated how sick they remained. Just as easily, the title of this sermon could be “See the Blessings” for the act of sight plays a vital role in this story. First, Jesus saw the lepers. Then, the one leper realized that he had been healed. The central event of this story is not the healing but the response of the one leper “when he saw that he was healed.” This represents a challenge to each of us here this morning. What do we see around us, and what do we do when we see those things that affect us?
Sometimes people in need simply do not catch our attention. An irritable co-worker may be facing a health problem or struggling with a difficult family situation. Do we see this, or do we just ignore their plight? Is a visitor in worship extended an invitation to lunch is a new neighbor welcomed into their community? Sometimes we simply pass by people whose life is a day-to-day struggle. Who sees them and who cares? Jesus saw the need and acted to meet those needs. Jesus heard the cries of the lepers and responded in compassion. The Samaritan saw healing, and unlike the other nine, he returned to praise God and thank Jesus. The Samaritan’s healing involved the recognition of God’s blessings of grace.
Gratitude I believe is the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition. Someone once said that God has two dwelling places. One is in heaven and the other is the thankful heart. Our gospel lesson teaches us to regard gratitude as an expression of faith. Faith like gratitude is our response to the grace of God as we have experienced it. To enjoy the blessings, we must take the opportunity to see and respond in the spirit gratitude.
One of the greatest ways we can express our gratitude is supporting our church through our stewardship. As we are on the brink of celebrating our 120th anniversary, we need our members to continue supporting our church through our prayers and participation. Together as we celebrate our past and look towards the future, let us enjoy the blessings God has given us through our involvement here!
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
October 9, 2016