How gratitude changes us for the better

The Butterball Turkey Company had a hotline to answer consumer questions about preparing holiday turkeys. One woman called to inquire about cooking a turkey that had been in her freezer for twenty-three years. The operator told her it might be safe if the freezer had been kept below zero degrees the entire time. But the operator warned the woman that, even if it were safe, the flavor had probably deteriorated, and she wouldn't recommend eating the turkey.

The caller replied, "That's what we thought. We'll just give it to the church."[1]

Congregations routinely conduct annual pledge campaigns in the weeks before Thanksgiving, a season that encourages gratitude. Too often, people give God second best, what remains after satisfying all of their obligations and even many of their desires. “The flavor is gone. Give it to the church.”

Hearing the word leprosy almost invariably evokes thoughts of Hansen’s disease, which causes flesh to rot away. Entire appendages – fingers, hands, even arms – fall off the leper’s body. Hansen’s disease is highly contagious and until recently had no known cure. To prevent the disease from spreading, victims were exiled to leper colonies, like the one on Molokai, torn from family and friends.

Hansen’s disease seems to have been unknown in Judea during Jesus’ time. Not until the Middle Ages did Christians begin to associate the disease mentioned in this morning’s Gospel lesson with Hansen’s disease. Instead, careful analysis of the Greek combined with medical analysis of diseases described by Hippocrates and other ancient doctors suggest the text actually refers to skin conditions such as psoriasis, ringworm and so forth. These conditions are all curable; some are contagious, others are not.

In first century Judea, people with these various diseases were all treated like victims of Hansen’s disease: they became social pariahs. Jewish law required segregating people with skin diseases from the community. Segregation sometimes served the utilitarian function of preventing a communicable disease from spreading. But that was not its purpose. The goal was to exclude a sinner from the community because disease signified sin. In the reading, ten “lepers” had banded together to form their own community after being cut off from family, friends and employment. So, when they saw Jesus, even as they were asking for help, they kept their distance.

Jesus sent the ten to priests because only priests had the authority to pronounce a person clean and to readmit them to the community. As the ten went, they were healed. Some Christians interpret this supernaturally: God perhaps re-arranging skin molecules to achieve healing. Others, including me, understand the healing in terms of psychosomatic illness – many of the skin conditions an accurate diagnosis would have identified can result from emotional trauma, stress, etc. The text supports this interpretation, reporting that “their faith made them well as they went to the priests.”

The miracle – God's action – was God acting through Jesus to restore the ten to mental and/or emotional health. We can see God at work in this same manner today, giving people gifts of peace, courage, strength and wisdom.

Only one of the ten – a Samaritan, regarded by devout Jews as a heretic but nevertheless welcomed into the small community of ten outcasts – returned to Jesus to thank him for being healed and the life that healing restored to him.

Gratitude can change our attitude toward life, self and others. Gratitude can transform depression into hope, animosity into affection, and alienation into friendship.

For many years, the Rev. Eugene McKinley Pierce was an associate pastor at Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church. When Pierce was hospitalized for surgery, Peale visited him. "Mac," as people called him, sat in bed opening mail. He was having a good day. The day before, however, had been a dark, hard day.

Mrs. Pierce explained Mac’s change in attitude. She pointed to her pearl necklace. "Mac gave them to me for Christmas. They aren't the best pearls in the world. But I love them and wear them frequently. As I sat by his bed and casually touched them, a thought came to mind. 'Mac,' I said, 'let's start thinking of every wonderful experience we've had in our lives, one for each of these pearls.'"

Mrs. Pierce continued: "We started back when we were first in love and that was the first pearl. Then we went along to our wedding day and then to our first baby. And the first church he served, and so on, all the way around the string of pearls. When we finished with the last pearl," she said, "all the dark shadows had gone and happiness reigned in our minds and in our hearts."[2]

Gratitude also changes our attitude toward God. The earth’s beauty, the wonder of life, gifts of peace, courage, wisdom or strength and healing such as the lepers in today’s gospel reading experienced are blessings that invite us to ponder questions of to whom and for what we should give thanks.

A young toddler who had received an Easter basket a week earlier was saying grace before dinner. "Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bunny." Atheists may as well give thanks to the Easter bunny.

Christians, however, give thanks to the Creator, the Son who teaches the way to eternal life, and the Sustainer who graces us with healing and other good gifts. In response to blessings, we thank God by striving to walk the Jesus’ path, with our generosity and in our Eucharistic celebration. The word eucharist, as you may know, comes from the Greek verb that means to give thanks. In sum, gratitude leads us deeper into the mystery that is God. Amen.

Sermon preached on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019
Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Paul Harvey, 1/22/95, in Rik Danielson, Show Low, Arizona, "To Quip . . .," Leadership, Summer 1996, p. 71.
[2] Adapted from Norman Vincent Peale, In God We Trust (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994).


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