The Kingdom Already in our Midst: A Recipe for Gratitude

images-1 (Luke 17:11-19)

In the Bible “Lepers” come up a lot. Even before I knew anything about Christianity, I associated Lepers with the Bible. The closest I had ever gotten to leprosy, as far as I knew, was when a born-again friend in high school invited me to her church’s “passion play.” The refurbished warehouse church had been transformed into an ancient near-eastern market place with vendor stalls where folks were pretending to sell everything from fresh bread to live goats. There was even a real-live camel–which I am still trying to work out how they transported to rural Virginia…but anyhow. Off in the far-corner of the room was a group of teens with messy/teased hair and something that looked like rubber cement all over their faces giving the impression that their skin was peeling off, layered on top of the faux skin was lipstick smudges to look like open sores.

But of course, in reality leprosy was and is much more serious than lipstick and rubber cement can convey. Not too long ago my mom was searching around on Facebook and came across the profile of one of my childhood neighbors, who lived across the hall from us at the University of Virginia. Ming, was my same age and her father was doing doctoral work, like my mom, so we ended up swapping childcare and hanging out to watch Mr. Rogers in the afternoon. I remembered that Ming’s family was from Cambodia, and that her father had unusual skin on his face and these stubby, almost absent fingers on one hand. At five the details of their life were not important to me, so in this recent conversation I was asking my mom to tell me about the family. It turns out that they had to flee Khmer Rouge and that somewhere along the way Ming’s father had been exposed to leprosy at one of the many camps where they stayed. It turns out, and this is fascinating, that only 5% of people are susceptible to leprosy– the rest of us are naturally immune, and even for that 5%, they might not contract the bacterial infection, unless they have a severely weakened immune system. What this means, of course, is that leprosy disproportionately affects folks who are malnourished or living in exposed conditions.Well, Ming’s family lived in a variety of refugee camps after escape and it was quite some time before they were settled and had access to medical care. By then, the leprosy had taken a toll on her father, causing nerve damage and leading to his body reabsorbing cartilage and bone in the hand.

But even so, he still counted himself lucky, and for good reason– here he was with a full vibrant life, family and future career on the horizon. Many others will never be so lucky. Even today, leprosy is impacting people throughout the world. For those who have access to medical treatment, they can be cured in a few short weeks, but for those who don’t have access to care, the bacterial infection can eat away not only at their skin and cartilage, but also at their livelihood and ability to support themselves and their families.

AND, a couple thousand years ago, leprosy was an even bigger deal. At that time, leprosy meant social exile. A leper was sent away from his family, his town, his entire life— and forced to live on the margins of society for as long as he could beg and scrape by. For those who loved you, leprosy was akin to your death. They would not be able to spend time with you again– and for all intensive purposes, your were gone.

Which brings us to where our story starts today. We are in the borderlands region between Galilee and Samaria, and like the borderlands in our own country, it was a liminal/in-between space, a place where cultures were bumping up against one another. It is here where Jesus is walking along and sees a group of ten lepers. We learn later that this group was ethnically mixed, with at least one member being a Samaritan. As Jesus walks by the group calls out loudly asking him, not for healing but for pity. I think this choice of words is illustrative of the fact that in that time (and in some cases still today) people saw leprosy as evidence that someone was sinful… they had done something to bring this upon themselves. And thus, their marginalization was justified. But Jesus does indeed have pity, and tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, the only ones who have the ability to declare someone clean or healed. Along the way, we are told that they are cleansed, and by the time they arrive they are ready to be re-instated into society. For these folks, this was not a minor miracle, it was the reversal of a life sentence.

Why do I tell you all of this? Well, as I started looking at the scripture this week, this story was repeatedly called, “the grateful leper.” Of the many interpretations I read, almost all of them suggested that only one of the ten lepers was grateful and the other nine were ingrates. I even read one interpretation that creatively went through and imagined what had happened to each of the other nine, painting them each as a particular kind of entitled thankless person and describing the miserable un-transformed lives they each went on to have. And while this it was very creative, given the severity of their malady and the enormity of what healing would mean, I kinda doubt that they weren’t grateful In fact, the only thing we know is that one returned to overtly give praise, but the others may have rushed instantly home to their families and gushed about this amazing healing or gone out into their communities to proclaim this miracle. All we know is that they did not come back to say anything to Jesus. And we also know that the only one who came back was a Samaritan, or a stranger.

Okay, so now, how many of you are parents? Have you ever had the experience where you had a bunch of kids over to your house to play as a big special gift to your kid. You get pizza and movies and really do it up to make sure the kids have fun. Your own kid never thinks to say thank you– but on the way out another kid, maybe even one you barely know, makes sure to come up and thank you? Or maybe you host a holiday at your house and you go to town decorating, cooking, sending out directions and making up the beds etc. After the whole thing is over, you never get so much as a thank you note from your own family, but this random woman that one of your brothers brings as his date sends you the nicest thank you card acknowledging what an amazing job you did. Or, if I turn the mirror on myself, I know that after this amazing giant wedding, Piper and I are in the process of writing thank you cards to the incredible people who helped us to make it so special. But even though we had gone over the list a dozen times, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this sermon that I noticed that I didn’t think to put my own mother and siblings on the list. It is not that I wasn’t grateful for what they contributed, in fact, I have gone around bragging about them to many of you, but it didn’t cross my mind to let THEM know how good they had made me feel.

So right now, I am going to ask you to join me in an activity. First, I would like everyone to get comfortable, and then close your eyes. Take a giant deep breath and let it out. Again. Now on the next inhale, I want you to imagine your week, and then think of a couple of things that happened for which you are grateful. They can be mundane: your spouse packed you a lunch, or your kid randomly gave you a hug. It could be a moment that you noticed the beauty of the pumpkins in front of our church, or a good bowl of soup you shared with a friend. Let’s just take another minute of silence as you think of a few things.

Now, does everyone have something in mind? Okay, so NOW, I am going to ask you to turn to someone around you, and share one of the things your are grateful for. I am going to give you just a minute or two to share. Make sure you each get a chance to say something and keep it positive. Stick with gratitude for as long as you can!

Okay, now everyone come on back. Close your eyes again, and notice how you feel. How was that? Nerve wracking, interesting, uncomfortable, was it nice? Notice if you are smiling. Okay and open your eyes when you are ready.

This leads me to a video I saw this past week on Upworthy. In fact, I re-posted it on the church Facebook page so some of you might have seen it—or can take a look later. The video is based on a study of gratitude, and they replicate some of the steps. First, random folks are brought in and complete an extended questionnaire that ranks how happy they feel in the moment. Then they are asked to sit down and write about a person for whom they are grateful. You watch as they loving tell the story of someone who has profoundly impacted their lives. When they are done, and think the task-at-hand is over, the facilitator asks if they would be willing to call the person they wrote about and read them what they have just written. The participants, across the board, look a little taken aback and, even, embarrassed…but, they all agree to make the call. You watch as they read their words of thanks, and, in some cases, you even hear the other party’s tears or joy. At the end of the call, they are given another extended questionnaire that ranks their happiness in the moment. Even without knowing the results of the questionnaires, the increase in joy is evident, just by watching the participants faces…just like it was from this vantage point, watching your all share your gratitude with someone sitting next to you. And sure enough, the evidence from this replication of the study and the scientific study itself reflects this simple truth: expressing our gratitude increases our happiness.

John Stevenson shared this morning about the God Moments he began experiencing, once he became more present to the community around him. His is a story about what happens when you notice the every-day blessings in your life, and listen for where they are leading you. And I found myself inspired listening to how his spiritual life has unfolded in this church. As you all know, I am still new here. In fact, Piper and I came for our first visit to Granby just about a year ago this week. And what that means, of course, is that every single one of you is new to our lives. And yet, just a few weeks ago when many of you joined us in that field as Denny blessed our marriage, we felt as though we were surrounded with more love than we ever could have asked for. This is an extraordinary community, and this is wildly open-hearted church who continues to extend blessings to all who pass through these doors.

n the book of John, when Jesus is asked when the Kingdom of God will come, he replies, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is already in your midst.” And today what I am suggesting, is that gratitude is like a doorway into experiencing that kingdom. So, having just had the wonderful opportunity to express my gratitude to all of you, I would like to give each and every one of you an assignment for the week. I would like you to think about the people in your life for whom you are grateful. I want you to think about the people who have had pity on you in your darkest or most isolated moments. BUT, I don’t want you just to THINK about how grateful you are. I want you to call one or two of these people, or write them a letter. Be like the Samaritan who was healed and then remembered to go back and express his gratitude loudly. Let someone in your life KNOW what they mean to you. And see if it doesn’t multiply those blessings, allowing you both to glimpse the ways that we are already so very blessed.

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