One Turned Back

Luke 17:11-19

Sunday, November 18, 2012

About ten years ago, Duke Divinity School held their annual graduation. As always, the service took place in historic and reverent Duke Chapel. If you have ever been there then you know that Duke Chapel feels a little out of place in the American South. Its gothic architecture makes you feel more like you are in a cathedral in Europe than a campus chapel on Tobacco Road in the Middle of North Carolina. As a result, the place in and of itself exudes a sense of reverence and quiet.

That year, one of the graduates was a mountain of a man with a gregarious personality named Anthony. Anthony had grown up in a tough part of Los Angeles and his journey both to Duke and to the graduating class of the divinity school had been an unexpected one to say the least. As a result and even in the midst of all of the quiet, Anthony could hardly contain himself when his name was called, a diploma was placed in his hands and the academic hood was draped over his shoulders. In that moment, Anthony both frightened and woke up the entire assembly when he thundered out the words, “THANK YOU JESUS!”.

That day, while everyone was joyful and grateful, Anthony expressed his gratitude from a deeper place and in a more profound way than most. His road had been a little longer and the obstacles in front of him had been a little taller than most had faced in getting to that moment. No doubt, all were indeed thankful, but, Anthony’s life experience had enabled him to appreciate this day in a more profound way.

I think the same could be said of the leper in our text for today who having been healed returned to Jesus in order to express his appreciation. Certainly all ten of the lepers that Jesus healed that day were likely very, very thankful for all that Jesus had done. After all, in the biblical world, there were few life situations more devastating than leprosy. Lepers of the biblical period had a disease for which there was no cure at the time. As a result of this reality coupled with how contagious the disease was understood to be, lepers were ostracized from community life and forced to live their own isolated existence in colonies. They were to keep their distance from “normal folks” and they were to warn others when they were coming near.

But, I do believe the leper who returned to give thanks understood gratitude in this moment at a deeper level as did Anthony on graduation day at Duke. After all, on top of bearing the disease, this particular leper was also a Samaritan. That is to say that he was neither Jew nor Gentile. He was a mixture of the two—a racial and spiritual half-breed completely despised by the Israelites. As a result for this one to be shown grace, attention and love by Jesus, much less to be healed of his dreaded disease, was to really receive a double dose of grace.

In turn, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that this grateful leper, is the only person in all of the stories told in the four gospels who is recorded to have ever told Jesus “thank you”. Perhaps no one in all of the gospels understood better or appreciated more what Jesus had done for them.

There is a deep message here for all of us to embrace. I fear that too often, we convince ourselves that we deserve the things that we have and the blessings we have received. After all, we are good folks, who live the right way and who do the right things. And, yet, we all know in truth that we are a lot more like this leper than we think. The truth is that all of us have our moments. The truth is that all of us are very, very unlovable at times. And, the truth is that all of us fall short on a regular basis. We all struggle every day to be the people that God wants us to be. As a result, God’s blessing, healing and care is more a result of God’s grace and love than a result of our just desserts.

Oh, how much better our perspective would be, if in this season of thankfulness, we would embrace our kinship with this leper and come to see God’s daily care for us as did he—as the unmerited gift and favor of God that it truly is.

There is something else about this leper worth noting as well. He actually took the time to go back and in a real, tangible way to tell Jesus “thank you”. Again, as I mentioned a moment ago, it is the only recording of such an event in all of the gospels. In recognizing this, some folks quickly jump to criticizing the other nine lepers for their insensitivity. After all, why didn’t the other nine take the time to go back and give thanks? Why didn’t they tell Jesus how appreciative they were? What a bunch of ungrateful people! How dare they behave in such a way and exhibit such poor manners!

Quite frankly, I don’t agree with this perspective. The truth is, as I have already said this morning, I think that all of these lepers were truly thankful. I really believe that they all appreciated Jesus’ care and healing in a profound way. But, I believe that nine of them just let life get in the way of expressing how they felt. What I mean is that now that they were healed, they wanted to race home, see their families and get on with life. It wasn’t that they were not thankful; they simply didn’t take the needed time as did the Samaritan leper to exhibit the discipline of gratitude.

Being thankful really does takes discipline. Taking time each day to express appreciation requires focus and prioritizing. Yet, a resolve to live each day committed to taking a few moments to truly express our thankfulness to God and to others for the good things of life can truly transform and reshape our lives. I believe this was the case for this one solitary leper who turned back and I believe the same can be true for us.

Consider the story of California businessman John Kralik. A few years ago, Kralik woke up on New Year’s Day at a very low point in his life. He was struggling professionally and personally. Life wasn’t what he wanted it to be and all that was before him seemed to be far from what he desired. That New Year’s Day, Kralik went on a three mile walk and in the process caught a new vision for his life. While walking, it hit him that instead of focusing on all of the bad in his life, why not find a way to start being thankful for what was good in his life. Now, we’ve all had this thought but Kralik took it to a new level. Like the leper in our gospel reading, he decided to act.

He made a New Year’s resolution that day to write a thank you note to one person every day for the next year. And, for the next 365 days, Kralik remained true to his goal. He wrote to family members who had shown him love in special ways. He wrote to a doctor that performed surgery on him ten years before. He even wrote to the man and women who waited on him every morning at the local coffee shop to say thanks for simply always calling him by name when he walked in the door each morning. He found reason to be thankful each day and it completely changed the way he felt about his life. In fact, Kralik went so far as to write a book about his experience. The book was released a couple of years ago and is entitled 365 Thank Yous.

In interviews, Kralik has been very straightforward in admitting that this year in his life made such a difference. In fact, he has kept on going and is now up to well over 600 straight days of expressing gratitude to someone which continues to provide a way for him to find a whole new perspective on his life.

Let me ask you something. How different could our lives be if we followed the examples of this leper or of John Kralik? How different would our lives be if we simply took about five minutes every day to dwell on our blessings—those of God and those of others in our lives in a real concrete way?

This morning, we want to give you a moment to at least try it for one day. We know how it is. We come to church, we hear of things we ought to do and we go home and forget our good intentions. We all do it. I do it too. But, let’s not do that today.

In your order of worship is a note card. As an act of worship, we want to give you a moment to write a note of thanks. It might be a note to God or it might be a note to someone in your life who has made a profound difference. The card is actually formatted so that you could mail it if you like. You could also deliver it in person. Or, if your note is to God, you may want to simply put it in your Bible as a reminder.

In a moment, Beth is going to simply come and play for us while we all take a time to think and to write. As she does, take time, again, as an act of worship, in a real, concrete way, to be thankful. Amen.