Giving Thanks in In-Between Places

Luke 17:11-19

In the gospels, sometime geography is physical, sometimes it’s literary and sometimes it’s theological.  We’re set up with a couple of geographical references in this story: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  He is in the region between Samarian and Galilee.  If you were to look at a Bible times map of Palestine, you’d see that there is a geographical region where Samaria borders on Galilee.  (Like the map behind me, it could be colored in those classic pastel shades, Samaria on one side, Galilee on the other)  It’s a little unclear, therefore, what a ‘region between’ Samaria and Galilee might be , and if you’d been reading along in Luke it doesn’t really follow route-wise that Jesus would be anywhere near this border-land if he was going in any way that made sense.

In the end the physical geography doesn’t really matter because it’s really a literary device that Luke uses.  He’s reminded his readers that Jesus’ ultimate destination is Jerusalem, his encounter with religious and political leaders and ultimately the cross.  Everything that takes place on this journey is a part of that same ministry of radical love.  And often that love is directed at people on the margins – as it is in this story to people who have leprosy.

And more than being a literary device, this geography is theological.  That is, it tells us something about where and how God ministers to God’s people and how we, God’s people are called to respond in these places in-between.

There are really two parts to this in-between story.  The first part of the story goes like this:

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.

You probably already know that people with leprosy were the untouchables in Jesus’ culture and religion.  Lepers would have been people with any and all manner of skin diseases.  Those folks kept to themselves in their own colonies and limited interaction with their communities of origin.  But they might have stationed themselves at byways to plead for alms and beg for charity from passersby.  You might have noticed that they kept their distance from Jesus.  They know that their ritual uncleanness will contaminate him.  But they all see something in Jesus that they cry out, not for alms, but for mercy.  ‘Master’ they call him.  Elsewhere, only his disciples use this name for Jesus but Luke puts this name on the lips of these marginal people.  And Jesus responds!  His response is a simple one: Show yourself to the priest.  It is, of course the priest who can proclaim these folks clean again – totally healed and worthy to re-enter their communities.  So they obey him and imagine the amazement and thanksgiving among the ten as they realize what Jesus has done!

Lately there have been studies making headline that gratitude and happiness are linked.  One headline I found online reads Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness by 25%.  I’m not entirely convinced that happiness is quantifiable.   However, I do think it’s telling that practicing gratitude has the effect of shaping one’s outlook on life.  Elsewhere I read,

“Empirical studies have shown that those who kept gratitude journals felt better about their lives. Compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week.  A related benefit was also observed in the realm of personal goal attainment: Compared to research participants in the other experimental conditions, participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period.”

It seems quite remarkable, and somehow not really surprising that when we focus on the positive in our life, on the ways we’ve been gifted, on the way we have been helped by others, we find healing.  We can go on our way cleansed – at least by 25%.

The first part of the story was about gracious healing and obedience – nothing wrong with that!  But the second half of the story is about radical gratitude.  The kind of gratitude that moves beyond healing and into wholeness.

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.

There’s no reason to think that the other nine were not grateful.  They were simply following Jesus’ instructions.  What the Samaritan does is realize and proclaim the magnitude of what God has done through Jesus here on the border.  He praises God and he thank Jesus –separate but connected acts that deepen gratitude into something that is greater than happiness and more like shalom.

What is the defining song of many Mennonite communities?  It’s sometimes called the ‘Mennonite Anthem’: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (or here) 118/606 depending on your generation.  When I was looking for videos of 118 to link to on the web version of my sermon, in one of them I saw a woman wipe away tears.  And I admit, that is sometimes my response to singing or hearing the doxology as well.  An overwhelming rush of emotion that I think is at its core gratitude – for this shared faith, for community, for the goodness of God.  This story compels us to live into that sung identity.

Our gratitude should move us so much that we turn around as the Samaritan did, change directions.  Again, like arrows above my head.  Find one that starts going one way and then changes – imagine the change point as the moment of new sight and the arrow pointing toward the one who offered healing.  The gratitude of the Samaritan had a depth gained by a new understanding.

I’m sure if I asked any child here, they would know the answer to the question, “What do you say?”  when that question is asked with a particular tone of expectancy and urging.  It’s either, ‘please’ when making a request, or ‘thank-you.’  It is drilled into you, isn’t it, kids?  I was certainly on the receiving end of that question and now repeat it often myself as we teach and learn manners and politeness.  What the Samaritan was practicing?  That was not politeness.  He wasn’t responding out of politeness.  This wasn’t good manners, this was all-out, all-in turn-around gratitude.

It was doxology.  He comes  ‘praising God.’  He comes ‘prostrating himself.’ These and his ‘thanking’ Jesus are evocative of the words and postures of other stories in Luke. Jesus’ life is framed by praise and glorifying God.  The angels and the shepherds who were there at Jesus’ birth glorified God with doxology (which is actually from a Greek word).  Glory to God in the highest heaven!  The angels sang.  And the shepherd returned ‘glorifying and praising’ at all they had seen.  The centurion who was below the cross at Jesus’ death and saw him die forgiving the ones who killed him proclaimed Jesus’ innocence and praises God with doxology.

That kind of thanksgiving takes putting on new eyes – or have new lenses thrust upon you!  When he saw that he was healed, the Samaritan praised god and thanked Jesus.  The Samaritan, the shepherds, the centurion all saw something in a new way and turned to give thanks.  God’s work through Jesus is for the people in those border, in-between, liminal spaces.  They could see it from there.

“Get up and go on your way.”  Jesus says to the Samaritan.  “Your faith has made you whole.”  Literally ‘your faith has saved you’.  There is a sentence in our confession of faith – In Christ, we are reconciled with God and brought into the reconciling community – which I think is powerfully true in this story.   The Samaritan is doubly an outcast.  He is leprous and he is a Samaritan.  But he is the one who sees and is compelled to turn around.  Once his leprosy is gone, the other nine might not want him around.  Jesus does not draw those lines, instead heaps on blessing.

I said at the beginning that the geography of this story is theological.  It invites us to place ourselves in the in-between space too.  It doesn’t take much imagination when we consider where we are as a community.  On the one hand we are hurtling forward toward a new future.  But at this moment, we’re in between.  Not quite the new and saying goodbye to what has been.  Out here in the space between we have a choice.  We can we put on those new lens, can see with the eyes of the Samaritan – we can adopt (dare I say it) an attitude of gratitude – maybe better stated, a posture of gratitude – not only thanksgiving but acknowledge the presence of God in all calling us to wholeness.

The invitation into gratitude is both individual and to the body.  ‘What God inaugurated through Jesus is made manifest in the ‘region between.’  We live our whole lives inbetween  that is God’s kingdom/kindom.  Already but not yet.  Begun but not fulfilled.  God enters this space and we can go about obediently showing ourselves to the priest or we embarrass ourselves in giving thanks, and be rewarded with restoration.  To God and to each other.  Wholeness, shalom.

God enters in the liminal spaces – this is where we have an opportunity greater than most to see God’s in-breaking kingdom kin-dom.  The healed Samaritan was able to see it – great significance of seeing in Bible.  Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in Canada.  I encourage you to join the Canadians in gratitude.

Last year a friend began a blog in the Easter season in which each day she chronicled something she was grateful for.  Fifty days of gratitude, she called it.  When she got to the end, she said,

“In the past several years gratitude has become rather trendy – celebrities like Oprah have encouraged us to keep gratitude journals, many books have been written on the subject, and it’s a safe bet that this is not the first blog with the subject as its focus.  I started this Fifty Day Eastertide project to make up for failing to keep any sort of Lenten discipline this year.  But this practice has ended up shaping the way I look at life.  I find that I truly am more grateful, even for – especially for- the small quotidian things  (like the word quotidian!)”

Which means, by the way, the commonplace and everyday (I had to look it up).  I encourage you to see Christ in the in-between.  In the everyday.  In the margins.  Turn toward Jesus and in doing so, may we find wholeness.

And just for fun: