Sermon: Returning Thanks 9Oct2016

One Sunday in church, members were praising the Lord for what He had done in their lives that week. Mr. Segault said that the roof of his house had caught on fire while he was away, but fortunately a neighbor had seen it, and a possible disaster was averted with only minor damage.

A minute later, a woman in the congregation also stood up, “I have a praise, too,” she said. “I’m Mr. Segault’s insurance agent.”

You know, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what real gratitude is. And, certainly, our understanding of gratitude changes as we mature.

When I was little, I had a great aunt who always sent me a sweater (or shirt) for Christmas. Problem was, my great aunt had absolutely no sense of `kid style’ whatsoever, and so her gifts represented some of the ugliest garments that, still to this day, I have ever seen. And I didn’t understand why mom wanted me to write her a thank-you note for these wearable monstrosities, when I obviously was not thankful, particularly knowing that I was going to have to wear them whenever she came into town.

The thing is, for most children, gratitude is just an obligatory action; good manners imposed upon us by outside forces (adults).

Children are taught to say the `magic words’ of `please’ and `thank-you’, and will typically say them only when instructed to do so, and/or especially when they want to stay on the good side of those adults upon whom they depend. But, for the most part, they have no real deep sense of what they mean.

One evening, a man was taking a stroll down the sidewalk in his neighborhood. As he walked along, all of the sudden, a rubber ball bounced over a fence and landed at his feet. As he picked it up, a little girl came running toward him and stuck out her hand, obviously wanting her ball back. The man looked at her and said, “Well, what’s the magic word?”

With a frown on her face, the little girl bellowed, “NOW!”

Because they are so dependent upon others for their wellbeing, and because their needs are continually catered to by those others, children tend to believe that they entitled to whatever they want. It never occurred to me, upon receiving my annual Christmas sweater, that there were unfortunate children who had no sweater to keep them warm.

It’s a sign of immaturity, part and partial to that early stage of development.

Unfortunately, some people never grow out of that sense of entitlement. They never learn how to be truly grateful.

There’s the well-worn story about the family having a picnic by a lake on a beautiful sunny afternoon. They all got so busy eating and having a good time that they forgot about their little five year-old; and, in a moment of carelessness, the child wandered off and fell into the water. Unfortunately, none of the adults in that family could swim, so as the child bobbed up and down, drifting further and further out into the lake, they stood by helplessly, screaming their heads off for someone to help.

Well, a passerby saw what had happened, and, at great risk to himself, he plunged into the lake, swam out to the little boy and managed to grab just before he went under for the third time. Heroically, he paddled back to shore with his little charge, where, before he collapsed with exhaustion, he presented the child to his mother safe and sound. The mother smothered her child with hugs and kisses and tears of joy, and then after taking a good once over at her son, turned to his rescuer and said, “Where’s his cap?!”

The truth is, you can’t just tell someone to `be more grateful’, if they simply don’t have the maturity level for it.

Now, I don’t preach on this scripture passage very often, because most of the sermons I’ve heard on it over the years tend to sort of try to brow beat the congregation into gratitude. The preacher will read the story about ten lepers who were healed, and only one returned to say “Thank you”, then close the Bible and start shouting, “Where are the nine? Where are the nine?”

For twenty or so minutes the preacher will harangue the congregation with “Where are the nine?” as if laying a guilt trip on folks for their lack of gratitude will somehow magically make them more thankful. Kind of like mom trying to make me grateful for those ugly Christmas sweaters.

But, when the worship service is over, the only thing the congregation is thankful for is the sermon is done with and they can go home.

Now, nothing at all is said, in this story, about these ten lepers being in any way worthy of Jesus’ mercy; nothing is said about any of them particularly having a strong faith. The Bible simply says that they cried out to Jesus Christ for mercy, so Jesus showed them mercy. Then He told them to go show themselves to the priests, so they went. And along the way—as they `lumbered forward on ruined feet, looking forward from disintegrated faces, they discovered new flesh forming on their limbs’ (Paris Donahoo).

So, they just kept right on going, following Jesus’ instructions like Forrest Gump running with a football, all the way to the doorsteps of the priests.

Where are the nine? Well, they were doing exactly what their holy Care-Giver told them to do. They were following orders. Doing their duty. Simply going, as told, to show themselves to be certified by the priests, who would then see that they were no longer leprous and reinstate their membership privileges. (W. Willimon)

But, here’s the thing: gratitude is not a matter of obedience.

Gratitude is not an obligation. Nor is it a matter of positive thinking.

Some people come to view an attitude of gratitude as a life-strategy; a way to get the most out of life.

In the face of life’s great ambiguities, it’s often been said that, “the most creative thing a person can do is to single out the things for which to be grateful and let that energize them for facing all the rest of their challenges.”

Like when Bing Crosby sings to Rose Mary Clooney to “…count your blessings instead of sheep, and you’ll go to sleep counting your blessings.” Which is not necessarily a bad way to think, and perhaps is almost as good as warm milk in solving the problem of insomnia.

But true gratitude—the gratitude which is the mark of one who has found the fullness of life in Jesus Christ—goes beyond obligation, beyond simply a strategy for satisfying living.

True gratitude is a matter of the heart. And, as Blasé Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

If you don’t have gratitude in your heart, you can’t be guilted into it, you won’t experience it as you make your Sunday morning offering, and you certainly can’t generate it once a year on the fourth Thursday of November. You can’t program it into your Palm Pilot, or write “Be more grateful” on a Sticky Note, put it on your refrigerator door and expect it to somehow magically happen.  (ibid. Willimon)

“Thankfulness isn’t mathematics,” as one said. “It’s art. Thankfulness isn’t doctrine. It’s doxology. It isn’t a set of plans. It’s a lump in the throat, a catch in the voice, a trembling in the knees, a cry of ecstasy, a whisper of awe. It can’t be analyzed, evaluated, or manufactured. It just is. It works on us whether we’re aware of it or not” (ibid. Donehoo).

True gratitude occurs when you suddenly realize that something has happened in one’s life which changes it forever; a moment when God’s grace has deeply pierced the human heart. It is the profound recognition that an incredible, unmerited gift has been given to us, and the humbled heart has no other course than to spontaneously praise in response.

While on a short-term mission trip, Pastor Jack Hinton was leading worship at a leper colony on the island of Tobago (in the Caribbean). A woman who had been facing away from the pulpit turned around.

“It was the most hideous face I had ever seen,” Hinton later said. “The woman’s nose and ears were entirely gone. She lifted a fingerless hand in the air and asked, `Can we sing “Count Your Many Blessing”?’”

Overcome with emotion, Pastor Hinton had to leave the service. He was followed by a team member who said, “I guess you’ll never be able to sing that song again.”

“Yes, I will,” replied Hinton, “but I’ll never sing it the same way.”

All ten lepers were healed. None were worthy. None entitled to God’s grace. Only one out of ten had the humility of heart sufficient to return to give thanks and praise.

True gratitude is a condition of the heart which resides—as the Apostle Paul said—fully in Christ Jesus and understands the gift of new life to be an act of sheer divine grace and simply yearns to somehow, in some way joyfully respond.

A minister got on a train at Victoria Station in London and happened to be seated in the little train compartment across from two men he didn’t know. They exchanged pleasantries, and the minister discovered they were both transplanted Americans, one having lived in England for many years, the other only recently arrived. About ten minutes after they pulled out of the station, one of the men was horribly wracked by an epileptic seizure. His eyes rolled back in his head. His whole body trembled. He rolled off the seat and tumbled to the floor and shook violently and uncontrollably. It was brutal to watch. But his companion picked him up and gently placed him back on the seat. He took off his overcoat and wrapped it around him like a blanket. He rolled up a newspaper and put it in his friend’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. And then, as if wiping the tears of a child, he lovingly blotted the beads of perspiration on his friend’s forehead. After a few minutes, the seizure loosened its grip and the stricken man fell immediately into a deep sleep.

When the other man had settled his friend comfortably he turned to the minister and said, “I’m sorry you had to see that. You’ll have to forgive us. He doesn’t have these seizures very often, but we never know when they’re going to strike him.” The minister assured him it was OK, and then the man began telling his story.

“We were in Viet Nam together,” he said. “We were both wounded at the same time. I lost a leg,” he said, pointing to his right leg. “This is an artificial leg, but I’ve learned to walk on it pretty well. But my friend here had half his chest blown off by a hand grenade. There was shrapnel all through his chest, and every time he moved he just about passed out from the pain. Now the helicopter that was supposed to rescue us was blown out of the sky by an enemy rocket, so we knew there was no hope of being pulled out of there, at least not any time soon. So my friend here somehow picked himself up. He screamed in pain with every move he made, but he managed to stand up. And then he reached down and grabbed hold of my shirt and started dragging me through the jungle. I told him, `Just give up on me. Save yourself if you can. There’s no way you’re going to get us both out of this jungle.’ And I kept on like that until he said something I’ll never forget. He said, `Jack, if you die out here in this jungle, I’m going to die here with you.’ I don’t know how he did it, mister, but step by step, scream by scream, he pulled me out of that mess. He saved my life.”

After the war we kept up with each other, even after he moved here to England. And about a year ago, I found out he had been diagnosed with epilepsy and somebody had to be with him all the time. So I closed down my condo in New York, sold my car, and came over here to take care of him. I hope you understand.”

And the minister said, “Jack, not only do I understand, but I have to say I’m terribly impressed.” And Jack replied, “Hey! Don’t be impressed. You see, after what he did for me, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him.”

Ten lepers were healed, only one came back to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “The other nine have all gone on their way. Why did you come back?”

And the man said, “After what you’ve done for me, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you!”

That’s true gratitude. It’s a quality of the mature Christian.

“And it comes from the heart, or it doesn’t come at all” (Paris Donehoo).



*Gratitude to the Rev. Dr. Paris Donehoo & the Rev. Dr. William Willimon for input and inspiration when developing this sermon.