“As Jesus entered a village, ten lepers approached him, keeping their distance” (Luke 17:12). These ten people aren’t even called people. They aren’t even acknowledged as human beings. They are called lepers. They are known as lepers. Their identity is leper. They are sick with a disease that made them outcasts.
But, with Jesus, the lepers are restored—and their restoration has everything to do with being recognized as members of the village, accepted as part of the community, received as people, as fellow human beings. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus tells them (v. 14). The priests are the gatekeepers to social acceptability. They determine who belongs and who doesn’t.
When the lepers are healed, one of them returns to Jesus. Before, when the lepers came to Jesus, it says that they kept their distance. But this time, this leper, now healed, draws close to him, his body close to the body of Jesus, to his feet. “He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet,” it says, “and thanked him” (v. 16). And, when Jesus sees the man’s gratitude, Jesus identifies his gratitude with faith: “Your faith has made you well,” he says (v. 19). Faith and gratitude. Gratitude has everything to do with faith.
This is a story about thankfulness, a story about the posture of the healed man before Jesus—at the feet of Jesus, moved by gratitude. Our faith has everything to do with this gratitude, thankfulness as a way of life, gratefulness as how we receive our days, how we accept one another, how we live with ourselves.
Our Anabaptist/Mennonite ancestors of the faith talked yieldedness as the heartbeat of this way of living, yieldedness as the pulse of our faith, of our life. A spirituality of gelassenheit is what they called it. They recognized that so much of their lives, so much of the world, was out of their control. No one can change the seasons. No one can keep the sun from rising and setting. They acknowledged their powerlessness, a powerlessness that recognized their dependency on God, the one, as our Psalmist says, “the one who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip” (Ps 66:9).
I could be wrong about this—I’m always hesitant to make generalizations about life, so please tell me if you think I’m missing something here. But I want to say that there seems to be two ways to respond to the lives we have, two postures toward the world we have.
The first is gratitude, knowing that despite our best efforts, despite our successes and mistakes, that the life we have now is the only one we have, and throughout the lead up to today, all the decisions that we have made, so much of what we have, so much of who we are, depends on factors beyond our control, variables beyond our power—the sheer unpredictability of life. As we gather up all the parts of us that make us who we are, here, today, we can only claim the smallest fraction of power, of control, of mastery. By and large, our lives are awash in dependencies—everything from genetics to relationships. There’s an otherness to our lives, an otherness that is beyond our grasp, beyond our ability to affect, to change.
Like I said, one response to all of this is the gratitude that comes with a posture of yieldedness, a constant return to God, to our dependency on God, the one who, despite it all, as the Psalmist says—the one who has not let our feet slip.
The other response, it seems, is resentment—resentment of ourselves and of others. We resent ourselves, because we have always imagined ourselves as in control of our lives, as in control of our world, and so we blame ourselves for what we don’t have, we blame ourselves for the lives we don’t have. We resent ourselves and others because, fundamentally, we are consumed with regret, with thoughts about how we should have constructed our lives differently, how we should have been smarter and wiser, back then, back when we made all the decisions that mattered, back when we could have made a difference.
If resentment is how we deal with the lives we have, then we give ourselves over to the weight of guilt, because, we tell ourselves, we should have known better, we should have done better, we should have been in control.
We find ourselves with two options for how to go about our lives: yieldedness or control, gratitude or resentment.
All of the lepers were healed. But only one of them responded with gratitude—only that one, Jesus said, had faith. It’s not that only grateful people get healed. Jesus heals all ten of them, no matter their response. That’s what grace means. Gratitude isn’t another way to get what you want. Gratitude isn’t another form of control—an attitude to convince God to give you what you want, to give you what you think you deserve.
Instead, what’s at stake in the story is faith—what it means to live in faith, to go on with faith, to respond to life with faith.
Healing happens. That’s beyond our control. But, what the one leper shows us, by example, is faith as gratitude—a yielded way of life that acknowledges our dependency on God, a way of life that remembers that what we have, the lives we have, that we have life at all, is a gift, is grace, is love, a sign that God has not abandoned us, our breath as a revelation that the Spirit is still at work, gratitude as a refusal to give up hope, a commitment to this life God has given us, to the days set before us.
Gratitude is the nature of our faith, how we rest into God’s love for us, God’s love for the life we have, God’s love for who we are right now.
“Get up and go on your way,” Jesus says; because “your faith has made you well” (v. 19).
This faith, this trust, this gratitude, will make you well—a life without resentment, the perseverance of hope, a commitment to today, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.
This sermon theme came to me before hurricane Matthew, before the devastation in Haiti. There’s an absurdity to talking about gratitude while our neighbors suffer devastation—so much destruction, so much loss of life. “I’ve seen flooding, but never something like this,” one Hatian survivor said today. “I’ve lost my appetite; I can’t eat, I just keep thinking about what I have to do to rebuild this.”
As I hear their voices, as I read about the ruins, there’s nothing to be grateful for. Only mourning the loss of life.
But as I think about how we are to live now, after the hurricane, in response to the devastation, I wonder if gratitude might be a motivation to act, to do something.
When I think about how to respond to people I don’t know, people who undergo violence and destruction, my first impulse is a sense of obligation, duty—that my Christian faith calls me to act, to seek the good of my neighbor, to work for justice and mercy.
But what if obligation misses the point. Because, what if the point of it all, the point of what we do, is love—the love of God, the God who, after the hurricane, mourns the loss of life, yes, but also is grateful for the people who have survived, grateful that they are alive. What if we were also moved by such gratitude—that every life, every survivor, is a reason for gratitude: that they have been kept among the living, as the Psalmist says. And that we can’t help but do anything for them to live through it all, to reconstruct their lives—to build houses and plant gardens again.
“He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” What if this is an image for our lives—to welcome each other with this kind of thankfulness, to welcome the world/to welcome the lives we have, these lives given to us by God, with the leper’s gratitude.