The Importance of Going Back

Luke 17:11-19

From September, 1620 until Spring, 1621, life for the Pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower and who founded Plymouth Colony was anything but easy. That winter, over half of their number died and they struggled to adjust to life in their new environment with its many challenges.

That Spring, however, of 1621 included an unusual visitor. His name was Samoset and he was an Indian who lived in the area. When Samoset arrived in the Plymouth community, he greeted the Pilgrims with an unexpected word. Samoset looked at them and said in English, “hello”. Eventually, Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to his friend Squanto who spoke fluent English. Sqanto had been on several fishing expeditions along the coast of England and had actually traveled all the way to Spain. On his fishing voyages, Squanto had learned English.

This godsend, which was Samoset and Squanto, changed everything for the Pilgrims. Through the Indians, the colonists learned how to plant corn in mounds, which area plants could be used for health care, how to fertilize their crops with dead fish and techniques for fishing in the waters around Plymouth. In essence, that Spring of 1621 became a turning point for the colonists and their quest to survive and have a good quality of life in their new homes.

When the Fall came and they began to harvest their crops, the people of Plymouth decided to stop and hold a feast. They invited around 90 area Indians as their guests and for three days they celebrated while looking back on the blessings of the last several months and giving thanks to God. (I am indebted to Jamie Broome in his newsletter article “A Day to Express Your Thanks” in The Immanuel Clarion, Paducah, KY, Nov. 20, 2019, for his recap of the Pilgrim’s story)

On the one hand, the story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth gives us the historical foundation for both our celebration of Thanksgiving. At the same time, their story offers us a powerful lesson in keeping with our gospel lesson for today related to one of the most critical aspects of living a thankful life which is the willingness to consistently stop the business of our daily lives that we might look back, see our blessings and be thankful.

Again, there is a great parallel between what the Pilgrims did and what happens in our text for today from Luke 17. In this gospel story, Jesus heals ten individuals from the dreaded disease of leprosy. What is interesting is that the story happens along the boundary of Galilee and Samaria which is to say the boundary between the Jewish communities and the Samaritan communities of biblical Israel. What we discover is that these ten lepers were evidently a mixture of Jewish and Samaritan individuals. In normal life they would have lived separately because of their cultural and religious differences. Yet, the fact that they share a common disease has brought them together and overshadowed their other differences. They have found unity in their common plight.

Without question, to be a leper was to be cursed with a challenging disease of the biblical world. Leprosy was a skin disease just like it is today. Yet, we think in the Biblical world that the term leprosy may have also been used as a generic word for a number of different skin issues. Beyond the physical challenges, leprosy rendered someone unclean according to the religious laws of the time. This meant that not only did lepers have to deal with whatever physical challenges that their skin issues offered but they also had to deal with just as or even more challenging social issues. If one had leprosy they had to live in isolation from their families and from other people. The Biblical image of lepers yelling “unclean” when they entered a populated area offers a humiliating image of what their lives were like. In turn, when Luke says that Jesus was traveling through a borderland area in between Galilee and Samaria, this geographical tidbit may also be a way of pointing out that the lepers were also in a no-man’s land living in their own little colony shunned by the more civilized communities around them.

It was this disease, leprosy, that these ten individuals were healed of by Jesus, according to the text. As you can well imagine, it was a miraculous and amazing moment on several levels – they had a new lease on life health wise, family wise and in terms of their ability to reengage with society. Jesus had done something for them that they could not have experienced in any other way whatsoever. Yet, only one of them after being healed and having gone to the area priest for verification that the disease is gone returns to Jesus to express gratitude and thanksgiving.

Of course, to a certain degree we can understand. In the euphoria of good health, the ability to go home, the reality that their days in the leper colony were over, nine of them simply walked forward into their new life and away from Jesus. I don’t think they did it intentionally or on purpose. Their excitement just got the best of them and they failed to recognize or verbalize their gratitude. As a commentator on this text has pointed out, “so often, when we get what we want, we never go back.” (William Barclay, Daily Bible Study Series: Luke, WJK, pg. 218)

At the same time, to recognize, verbalize and admit that only one of the ten went back is an amazing thing to wrestle with for a moment. This one, who by the way according to the text was a Samaritan, did the much harder thing. Like the Pilgrims this one leper took the time to conscientiously stop, go back, count his blessings and be thankful.

John Killinger, the Christian writer and minister, has said that this story puts the truly grateful people in the world at about 10% or one in ten. I think this may be a little harsh. Instead, I would say that this story puts those of us who have developed the habit of stopping, going back and expressing gratitude at about 10%. It isn’t that the rest of us are ungrateful but it is true that most of us in our front facing, rarely going back world have not developed the needed discipline for the importance of stopping and going back. (John Killinger, A Devotional Guide to the Gospels: Luke, Word Publishers, pg. 95)

Last year, we had an eyesore here in our sanctuary. There was a visible blemish that roughly 25 or 30 of you as members of our congregation pointed out as something that needed to be fixed. Toward the end of last year, the problem was rectified and it wasn’t an easy or simple fix. But, here is the interesting part. While 25 or 30 of us saw the problem, expressed a concern and verbalized that something needed to be fixed. To my knowledge, no one circled back and said “thank you” once it was done. Now don’t get me wrong and don’t hear me giving you a hard time over it. I have every belief that I would have done the exact same thing. Like most folks, I am very good at pointing out the problems and saying what needs to be done. I have the discipline of expressing my concerns down pat. But, I am not always very good at stopping, expressing gratitude and being thankful on the back end. Like those 9 lepers in Luke’s story, I am moving on, headed to what is next, unwilling to stop, take the time to go back and express gratitude. I haven’t done a good job of developing this discipline. Like the 9 in the story, I don’t do it intentionally, I don’t do it with an ungrateful heart, I don’t mean to do it. And, yet, there is a big difference between the concrete act of going back, naming our blessings and the act of just continuing to move forward.

I want to issue a challenge to us this morning. It is a four day challenge. Starting at 12 today and running until we go to be on Thursday night. I want to challenge us to pause three times a day. When we get up, around mid-day when we stop for lunch and when we go to bed. At those three intervals of the day, I would to invite us to look back over the last portion of the day, honestly recognize our blessings of those hours in whatever form they have come and thank God. Before we rush off, with things to do and people to see, I want to invite us to pause for just a moment and count our blessings. (I am grateful to Tony Hopkins, pastor of FBC Greenwood, SC, for the initial idea behind this challenge)

I think there are three real possibilities from this simply act. First, I think it gives us the chance to open our eyes to all of God’s goodness that we are prone to overlook. Second, I think it gives us the chance to enjoy our life better. After all, who among us can’t find an extra bounce in our step when we are counting our blessings rather than naming all of our problems. Third, and this is the most hopeful possibility, I think this gives us a chance to develop a new practice in our lives. How much more aware of God’s presence and goodness and how much more joyful could our lives be if each day our lives began, paused in the middle and ended with thanksgiving?

Some of you likely remember The Family Circus cartoon series. One of the better installments shows one of the little boys in the family being encouraged by his grandmother to “always count his blessings”. He responds with a childlike literalness and honesty. “But, I am not very good at arithmetic” he replies. Truth be told, most of us are “not very good at arithmetic” either as it relates to counting blessings. But, thanks be to God, thanksgiving has arrived as a season and as a day and it gives us a chance to sharpen our skills. Amen.