A Life of Gratitude

Melissa, Noah, Olivia, and I walked 500 miles this summer on the Way of St. James—the Camino de Santiago. Well, slightly less mileage for Melissa and me; when Melissa sprained her ankle 3 days and 38 miles from our destination, it meant that she and I wouldn’t finish but we sent Noah and Olivia along with Camino friends so that they could. Around the middle of our trip as we walked in the Meseta—a long stretch of 228 kilometers and 10 days of walking through landscape similar to the Great Plains here in the US with little shade, and miles upon miles of fields—I asked what we were learning on the Way. What might God be teaching us, showing us. What was opening up for us.

A sermon based on Luke 17:11-19.

As we walked, we came up with a few, beginning with just the idea of a daily time for rest—a siesta. While it could be frustrating when you needed to get to the market before it closed each afternoon for a few hours, it was also a life-giving time built in to every day when nothing was expected from you. We wondered what it might be like for us back home to have a couple of hours set aside in the middle of the afternoon when everything shut down for a time. To intentionally have an expectation of rest every day.

We then talked about the people we had met on the way. People from all over the world—Japan, Italy, the UK, Ireland, Canada, France, New Zealand, China, Germany, Spain, and the US. We didn’t ask their politics or beliefs. We simply talked about details of our journey, and shared snippets of our lives. Some went deeper, talking about the things they carried with them—the death of a loved one, the worry of finding a new job, the end of a relationship—while others simply spoke of home or favorite foods or why the decided to put on a backpack and walk across Spain for a time. We played games and shared meals and made music together. We became family for a few weeks, willing to do almost anything for each other.

Our conversation then turned to the realization that we were both stronger and more vulnerable than we had imagined. Stronger because we had been getting up around 5:30 for a few weeks straight in order to put on a 17 lb backpack and walk some 20-30 kilometers each day. We faced challenges and hills and long stretches of boring road, and we made it. We realized our vulnerability because when you walk you’re exposed to the weather—and it was extremely hot for a good part of the trip—and blisters and a language barrier and needing to rely on others for support. There were times when each of us felt we had come to the end of our rope, and wanted to be back in the comforts of the familiar. But we simply kept going, grateful for the help we received.

Gratitude. That’s what’s we were really getting at as we talked that morning, and it’s at the heart of our Gospel lesson today. Jesus and his disciples are on the way—on the Camino—to Jerusalem when they come up to a village. Ten lepers approach him, but they keep their distance, Luke tells us. That’s because they were unclean. A fear of leprosy ran through communities at that time—others did not want to get it—and so lepers were cast out of villages, forced to live either alone or with others like them. The disease causes you to lose feeling in your extremities, and so a leper wouldn’t know when he got a cut on his finger. This might sound good for a moment, but if you don’t feel pain, you don’t know when something’s wrong. And if you don’t know something’s wrong, you won’t get medical assistance when you need it. So lepers were prone to losing digits that had become infected and gangrene. 

So these ten heard that Jesus was coming—and word can travel fast when you are walking slowly from town to town—and they met him on the way. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Unlike other healings, Jesus doesn’t touch them, or tell them they are healed, he simply instructs them to go to the priests. I’m sure they’re caught off guard by this statement, but eventually they turn and make their way to the religious authorities—the ones who had the power to declare them clean once more. And, we read, as they went, their bodies were made whole.

Imagine that, turning away from Jesus still full of leprosy in order to go to the priest, only to be physically healed as they walked. And that’s when we get to the main point. One of them realized what had happened, and he turned around to go back to Jesus.

Now let me tell you, when you’re heading toward a destination, the last thing you want to do is to backtrack. When we had to walk through a town to get to the hostel we were staying at that night, we were loathe to turn back around even to get food. These lepers were heading back home to see loved ones and friends that they had been ostracized from for years. You can bet that their minds were focused on the places they were headed.

Yet one of them turned back to offer his gratitude. And he, Luke interjects, was a Samaritan. A foreigner. He came back and threw himself down at Jesus’ feet, praising God and thanking Jesus. And when Jesus sees the man alone before him, it seems that he is flummoxed. Incredulous. Perplexed. “Were not ten made clean?” he asks. “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return to give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Crickets. The others have all skipped back to town. Jesus looks down at the one and says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” 

Just last week we heard Jesus telling the disciples that if only they had the tiniest bit of faith they could move mulberry trees. And now he’s showing them what faith is really like. Theologian Kimberly Bracken Long writes, “In short, to ‘have faith’ is to live it, and to live it is to give thanks. It is living a life of gratitude that constitutes living a life of faith—this is the grateful sort of faith that has made this man from Samaria truly and deeply well.” Because it’s more than just the physical healing now. The man who once had leprosy now finds wholeness within his inner life, in his soul. All because he turned around.

Because he gave thanks.

Which is something we can do in every circumstance of our lives. We can be grateful for the days that are easy and also for God’s sustenance through the days that are not.  We can give thanks for the gifts we’ve received and also for the hard lessons we’ve learned. If we choose, we can slow down and make space each day to take a moment and recognize the goodness of our lives.

And when we do, well that’s when we’re made well. That’s when we experience healing. When we see the gifts before us—the places on our journeys that we realize are bringing us peace—and offer our gratitude.

It’s no coincidence that we call our weekly gathering when we come to the table the Great Thanksgiving. Our weekly eucharist is meant to ground us in the reality that a life of faith is a life of thanksgiving. And that’s the life we’re inviting Kate, and Max, and Sophia into today as they are baptized. Not to a life that needs to be lived in perfection, but a life that sees the goodness of God in every aspect of our life, even when things are more challenging than they they expect. There is goodness and grace behind every rock or tree if only we can recognize it.

When we respond with gratitude, when we turn back and come before Jesus and give our thanks, that’s when we are truly made whole. May we live lives of gratitude and faith as we journey along the way of Jesus, making time to reflect on all of the many good things that we’ve been given. And may we know that we never travel alone, that there are others who come together with us, giving their encouragement and support, and Jesus himself has promised to be with us—even to the end of the age.

Image by Alexa from Pixabay.

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