How Gratitude Changes Us

How Gratitude Changes Us

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with a skin disease 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’s feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Thank you for the privilege of this pulpit. Thank you for a quiet place to listen. Thank you for whatever you do in your Holy Spirit ways that somehow allows us to hear your word of life again. Amen.

In preparation for this sermon series, I read a book called Thanks a Thousand, by AJ Jacobs. Jacobs said he was not by disposition a very grateful person. He took things for granted. His personality was one of generalized annoyance and impatience, more Larry David than Tom Hanks. However, Jacobs had been an admirer of gratitude for years, which is understandable. Cicero called gratitude the chief of virtues. Doctors have noted that heart patients recover more quickly if they keep a gratitude journal. A scientific journal said that gratitude is the single best predictor of healthy relationships and well-being, beating out 24 other impressive traits such as hope, love and creativity. And Benedictine Monk, David Stendl-Rast wrote that joy does not lead to gratitude, gratitude leads to joy.

So, Jacobs decided to embark on a deceptively simple quest: to thank everyone who was responsible for a very dependable source of joy in his life, his morning coffee. This effort led him to consider everything from the baristas who gave out hugs at his local coffee shop, to the buses, trucks, Columbian farmers and the pallets, both shipping and tasting varieties, who got the coffee there. He called steel workers to say thank you for their work in creating the heating instruments used for his coffee. He thanked the font, cup, and lid designers and the award-winning inventor of the java jacket, who made his joe on the go so enjoyable. He made over 1,000 specific expressions of gratitude. And not just a quick “thanks” but the more studious, intentional phrase, “I am grateful.” He called this his six degrees of gratitude, these layers of noticing that can train the heart to see everyday goodness rather than fall into the negativity bias built into our brains.

He was worried this would seem like a fluffy project or worse, some pleasant path to complacency. But it was quite the opposite. He noticed that the more grateful you are, the more likely you are to help others. He followed the gratitude trail to the global need for clean drinking water, the dangerous working conditions of those who mined the copper for espresso machines, and the chronic loneliness of people who sought out coffee shops for their one hug a day. But what he noticed most was how his gratitude quest changed him, from someone who might have just used coffee to stave off grumpiness to someone who was consistently overwhelmed by the creativity, beauty and connectivity of our world.   

Why am I talking to you about this project today? If I am honest, sometimes I can approach sermon-writing with the mechanical frenzy of a line worker at Starbucks. Extracting some hit from the text so that it caffeinates slumpy souls and gives a little boost. But this week, I applied the gratitude quest to my regular preparation. I savored the text. Marveled at it. I imagined all the people who were involved in this simple story, wondering what it might look like to thank them.

I started with the obvious cause for gratitude here. Jesus healed 10 people from leprosy. Now that’s a true miracle. Thank God. It meant no more chronic isolation and disfiguring pain for these people. It gave them chance for work, love, most of all freedom, freedom beyond the confines of their skin. I learned that 250,000 people in the world still deal with this awful condition each year, now called Hansen’s disease. It made me again grateful for antibiotics that have made it very rare that someone would die from it now.  

Then, I felt grateful for how this miracle came to pass. Jesus simply told them to the “show themselves to the priests.” Somehow, the act of trusting Jesus, the act of turning their feet toward that hope, somehow the quest itself, healed them. There were no prerequisites. No walking over hot coals or burning incense. Just a brush with Jesus and a decision to trust him changed their lives. I love that.

Now, an occupational hazard of ministry is a hyper-awareness of all the people who aren’t physically healed. I am not one who assumes lack of physical healing has anything to do a lack of faith or an absence of God’s blessings.

That said, I challenged myself this week to think about people I knew who had been healed.  That led me to search of my inbox. I know: bold! But you know what, I found so many emails that said something like: “You can remove Aunt Jane from the prayer list.” Usually when I get an email like this, I respond cautiously, unsure if Aunt Jane has been healed in her earthly body or had slipped the surly bonds of existence. But I was surprised by how many times someone responded, “Oh, the chemo worked.” “Oh, I meant to tell you, the surgery went better than expected.” Or just one word: “Benign!” followed by 18 exclamation points.

Then, I found an email I had sent to the church, asking to remove my Dad from the prayer list in 2014. Suddenly I was awash in gratitude. You see, in May of that year, he collapsed at work. Suddenly, the office intern, who happened to be a part time nursing student, started CPR. Then a postal worker who happened to come by relieved her. Then an off-duty EMT worker who happened to hear the call on his radio rushed over and relieved the postal worker. And once he was in the hospital, he was fitted with an external defibrillator by someone I happened to know from high school, who left his annual family barbecue to attend to my dad. I thanked him at my reunion the next year and he told me that it was moments like that one made his job worthwhile. All of this in the medical world is called “the chain of care.” It helped my father to become part of the mere 10% of people who survive a sudden cardiac arrest. That experience forever changed us both.

It made me grateful for the man who invented pacemakers and grateful for all sorts of people who risk helping a stranger. Grateful people who drive ambulances and fire trucks and grateful for prayer chains. I remember the moment when it truly felt like I was being buoyed by prayer. And now, 8 years after that terrifying event, I am grateful for people who drive river boats, like the one dad is on now, floating down the Danube on vacation, downstream from millions of accumulated mercies.

In this story, one leper came back to say thank you. And Jesus asks, “Where are the other nine? Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” Reading the story over and over again caused me to follow the gratitude trail that led to nerdy commentary authors and monotone seminary professors and thousands of years of quill-holding scribes and papyrus schleppers and internet Bible translators, not to mention Sunday School teachers and multivalent lay leaders reading from pulpits who give this story a new emPHAsis every time. As the story passed from different mouths to different ears to my eyes, all of those people built roads of understanding and meaning so that by the time I got to the story again this October, there were already signs hanging on the text to direct me. Signs like:

Notice: Jesus is preaching about the dignity of foreigners here, especially oft maligned ones like the Samaritans.

Hey you: the man’s return is deliberately shaped like a worship service. Don’t miss that. There is the turning around, praise, and thanksgiving, all of which lead to something beyond physical healing, the word is sozo, salvation, the state of being made well.

Then I see a blinking red warning light hanging over the story that thankfully no one turned off over the years, one that is painfully current, and that is the question: How often is it that the people who are the most excluded who become the heroes of faith in Jesus’ eyes? I am grateful for all of the outsiders who have found freedom in Christ and stuck around to shape his church.

And then, of course, there is Jesus himself standing there, in this story and in our lives, still healing us in marvelous ways. How do you thank him? Drop a letter in the offering plate with a crumbled wad of bills? Many people do that. Offer an act of service, pay-it-forward style. Visiting a person in prison or a nursing home. Working to reform those systems. Many people do that too.

Today’s story simply invites us to look back like this Samaritan does. Look back on your life. Really crank your neck. Gaze up the river of mercies that led you to now. Make a list of people who healed you, taught you, welcomed you. Then, send that card or email. Worship without a 1000 lb weight on your heart. The man in this story looked back and shouted loudly and then practically kissed the ground at Jesus’ feet. In this story, only one in 10 people reaches this next level of unbridled gratitude, but it’s an exultant way to live, a way of life often reserved for some combat veterans and medical emergency survivors and somehow most dogs.

Jesus asks “where’s everyone else?” And you know what, I don’t hear tsk tsk or “you never call, you never write” in his voice. No, I hear him saying, “Gosh, I hope the others don’t miss the best part. I hope they don’t miss the lump in your throat, leaky-eyed sense of awe they could have as well. I hope they don’t run headlong toward a world that only welcomes them if their skin looks a certain way and asks them to seem fine on their own. I hope they run toward shalom.”

After this story, we don’t really know where these healed former outsiders wound up, but I have to think that at some point they heard people talking about a cross and an empty tomb and a man named Jesus. I have to think that at some point that story made sense to them in a personal way, that he really could stop the contagion of rejection and death that humans spread among each other and offer freedom to this world because he had stopped the contagion and rejection in their bodies and offered freedom to them. I am willing to bet that when they heard that good news, something deep within them welled up with gratitude and maybe it caused them to turn their feet again, finally toward worship and service, this time with skin in the game.

And maybe that healed former outsider who lives inside us decides to live in gratitude today as well.


This is the first installment in our “A Life That Says Thank You” sermon series.