Sermon for 21st Pentecost -
Lepers and gratitude
By Vicar Sharon Richter -
I know your mama raised you to say please and thank you. And if you are a mama or a daddy, this is what you teach your children.
I have to say, although a verbal please and thank you are automatic for me too, written thank yous are not. In my family growing up, my parents were divorced, and we were relatively poor. My mom had all she could do to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. Her own working class upbringing gave her no training in formal etiquette. And we were somewhat isolated from other relatives. Dress-up parties were not a part of my world. To whom was I going to send a thank you note?
But, as a pastor-to-be, I realize this is something I have to work on. People who were taught etiquette expect to receive a thank you note for the special hospitality they extend. If I don’t send one, it may offend the other party and it reflects poorly on me. I can do it. It’s easy. I just have to remind myself to do it.
Why do we attach so much importance to the thank-you etiquette? Well, it may not surprise you that this is a biblical question. Most such questions are.
Both our Old Testament and our gospel lesson today are concerned with the gratitude of foreigners—outsiders as far as the Jews were concerned—cured of their leprosy by God.
In the lesson from Second Kings, a Jewish slave tells Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, that Elisha, a Jewish prophet, can appeal to God to cure Naaman’s leprosy. And in the lesson from Luke, Jesus cures a group of ten lepers on the road to Jerusalem.
Leprosy unites these stories in that it emphasizes the outsider status of the ones who are healed—an example for us, if we need one, that God’s grace is truly for all. But the leprosy is really just a device that assists the main point, which is our relationship with God. This relationship hinges on the interrelated cycles of grace and gratitude, and faith and faithfulness.
It works like this: God is always gracious to us, not only in our times of joy and plenty, but also our times of fear and trouble and scarcity. Even in the midst of war and affliction, illness and death, God is there for us, bearing us up, feeling our pain, hearing our prayers, and helping us to find our way through it. God accepts and loves us all—even the immigrants, even the outsiders, even the sinners . . . even the Muslims. Even those, like the 10 poor lepers, whom everyone else shuns.
And so we are grateful to God for this grace. If we are grateful, that closes the cycle: grace>gratitude>grace. But even if we are not grateful, God’s grace is still there for us.
Jesus healed ten lepers who called upon him in their faith. Not one: Ten. When Jesus says “Your faith has made you well,” we often think he only means the grateful leper. But, in fact, all 10 lepers had faith, and all 10 were healed. Their faith made all of them well. Jesus was surprised by their lack of gratitude, but he didn’t take the healing back from them. This is one way that we know that God’s grace IS for all. Believer or not. Sinner or not. Christian or not. Unclean and despised, or not. We don’t have to earn it or even be grateful for it.
But when we are not grateful, the grace only goes one way—from God to us. God can take it. God has big shoulders. God doesn’t “need” our gratitude, or require it. But WE need it. If the cycle is incomplete, our relationship with God is incomplete.
In the lesson from Second Kings, Naaman, though a leper, was not an outcast. He was rich and powerful. He still had family, servants, and “all his company” around him. How often have we seen that? Power and riches can buy a lot, it seems--even human companionship. But it cannot buy two things. It cannot buy God’s grace, which as we have seen is a free gift to all. And it cannot buy faith.
Naaman was not a Jew. He didn’t believe in the God of Israel. We would have to call him an atheist. But Naaman trusted his servant. Perhaps we could say, he had an open mind. He went to the prophet Elisha, in hope if not in faith, to have him ask the God of Israel for healing.
Elisha told him to wash seven times in the Jordan, and he would be healed. But Naaman, in his lack of faith, found that ridiculous. He thought it was too easy. Where was the hard task he would be asked to perform to prove his worthiness?
But in fact, what Elisha asked Naaman to do wasn’t easy—at least not for Naaman. Its “easiness” is what made it hard. Because what was hard for Naaman, was not the washing, but the faith.
Even when Naaman accepted his servant’s challenge to do this seemingly easy thing, I doubt that he truly had faith. He just had hope. Then, when he witnessed God’s grace, when God connected those dots for him, he was grateful. And this is what brought Naaman to faith.
God’s grace is for all, but it is our faith that helps us to see it—to access it, and to respond to it with gratitude and faithfulness. Gratitude and faithfulness are not required of us. Rather they are gifts both from us and to us. They close the grace and faith cycles and bringing us into closer relationship with the God who loves us.
If we have grace, will we not be grateful? If we have faith, will we not be faithful?
This is why humans attach such importance to gratitude. This is why we teach our children to say please and thank you. And this is why I need to work on sending thank-you notes. Relationships, both with our fellow humans and with our God are enhanced by our gratitude.
It’s not such a small thing. And it’s not always an easy thing. But it’s an important thing—not so much for God, but for us.
Vicar Sharon Richter
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Lepers and gratitude
Sermon for 21st Pentecost
Written by Vicar Sharon Richter
October 9, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California