The Way of Gratitude - Reservoir Church
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The Way of Jesus

The Way of Gratitude

Steve Watson

Nov 26, 2023

I hope you all had a good long weekend. A belated happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate.

It was a long, interesting weekend for my family. Kids were all home, which is a joy we don’t take for granted, as it’s not true most days anymore. There was some feasting with family in our house and in a local nursing home as well. And probably like your family gatherings, if you ever have those, there was a mix of warmth and belonging and a little bit of loss and struggle too. 

We did something new for us as a family this year on Thanksgiving Day. Beyond the turkey and the turkey trotting, we went to the annual Day of Mourning event sponsored by New England’s indigenous communities, held along the oceanside right by Plymouth Rock. That was a sad and complex event for our white and Asian-American family to attend, but it felt like a valuable way to mark the day as well.

Thank you to our friends there, the Tolles, who let us know about that. Reservoir is a special community, friends. I believe that relationships here can really enrich our lives. I appreciate you all for that. 

However you spent the holiday, friends, I hope you’re not all done with Thanksgiving. Because in keeping with the season, for our final Way of Jesus sermon this fall, we’re going to talk about The Way of Gratitude. And then I hope we’ll practice this way of gratitude – together, and throughout the days to come. 

When I lead us in prayer before communion, you’ll have the opportunity if you like to add your own “thank you” to God.

Our text for today is from the gospel of Luke. It goes like this:

Luke 17:11-17 (Common English Bible)

11 On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.

12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him,

13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”

14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice.

16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?

18 No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?”

19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

I used to read this passage and think Jesus sounded like a nagging parent. Like: what’s wrong with you kids who won’t write your thank you notes? This reading feels maybe justified – it is good to thank someone who has helped you. And sure, of course one should give praise to one’s creator God. But just because it was justified didn’t mean it did anything. Should’ing all over somebody rarely inspires them. At least not me. 

But I read this a little differently now. Let me share five fun facts about this passage that help me hear something different. Maybe they will for you too.

So fun fact, number one, Jerusalem.

Jesus is on a long, hard road trip with a horrible ending. The whole middle of the gospel of Luke is set during this walk Jesus takes from the region of the Sea of Galilee to the city of Jerusalem. It’s 120 miles, like walking from Boston along the Mass Pike all the way to New York. That’s a long way to walk. Jesus also faces increasing opposition to his work along the way and predicts that he’ll be killed when he arrives there.

When he first sees Jerusalem in the distance, he breaks down in tears, weeping over the city, as he imagines the Roman empire not only killing him that week, but destroying the whole place in the generation to come. So Jesus has every reason to be sad, anxious, and grumpy on this journey – and maybe he is sometimes – but we also see him like he is here, noticing people in need, looking to empower, help, and heal.

Fun fact, number two. The Samaritans.

Three times in this journey Luke brings up the Samaritans.  

The first time, Jesus and his crew walk into a Samaritan village, and not only are they not fed or housed, they are asked to leave. Then two of Jesus’ buddies ask him if they should try to pray down fire from heaven on them. Jesus of course tells them that is an awful idea, but you wonder why in the world are things so tense? 

Well, history tells us that it’s for lots of reasons. First century Jews and Samaritans are neighbors. But they live in separate villages mostly, and do everything they can to avoid each other. The beef goes back centuries. In the 9th and 8th century BC Israel had a civil war. Half of the people from that division got conquered by the Assyrian empire and some of them were assimilated into a people called  Samaritans. Two or three centuries later Jews and Samaritans had a series of conflicts over the new temple in Jerusalem and whose homeland that region was. In the second century, the Samaritans were allies with a Greek empire in a huge war against the Jews, a violent conflict that gave birth to the holiday of Hanukkah. In revenge for that, Jerusalem Jews destroyed the Samaritans’ temple and violently raided the whole area. And then a century after that, right around when Jesus was born, Samaritans – in revenge for that whole temple massacre – didn’t destroy the Jerusalem temple, but they scattered human bones all around the temple to defile it – kind of like when today you hear about a synagogue or church getting vandalized or burned. 

So this was no petty conflict. It was a centuries-old, violent cultural feud between neighboring peoples. Into this setting, when Jesus tells a story about what love looks like, he tells a story of a Samaritan, re-neighboring the land with his kindness. 

And then here, when ten people are healed with Jesus’ help, the one Jesus honors for his gratitude is also a Samaritan. Jesus is trying to heal not just bodies, but old conflicts, as he too re-neighbors the land. 

Fun fact, number three. Skin diseases.

On a number of occasions, Jesus interacts with people who have some sort of skin disease. Mostly, he heals them. Our Bibles have translated this skin disease as leprosy. So we hear that Jesus heals lepers. 

But scientists are pretty sure that there was nothing like leprosy in the first century Near East. Instead, they think this skin condition we hear about is something like severe eczema. 

As a parent of a kid who had severe eczema when he was little, this hits different for me now. I remember how much that kid would itch and itch and itch, unable to sleep at night as he scratched himself redder and redder. I remember a preteen girl I had in class years ago when I was a teacher, and how embarrassed she was by her severely dry, flaky skin. 

And it moves me that Jesus healed people with severe eczema – that he cared about that. 

For Jesus, though, and his contemporaries, this skin disease wasn’t just flaky, dry skin. That peeling skin reminded them of death, so much so that this skin condition rendered you ceremonially unclean. 

This is a complicated part of the Bible’s culture that reminds us that we live in a really different time and place. But in this religious culture, there were a bunch of things that could happen with your body that weren’t anyone’s fault, but made it so you couldn’t go to the temple. One scholar who writes about this time calls all this calls these conditions the forces of death. People had these superstitions about these conditions because they reminded people of death. 

And it turns out that these are many of the conditions Jesus healed, because he wanted people to be able to participate in the spiritual and religious life of their communities. And he just hated death. He wanted people to live and in their bodies and hearts just be full of life! I love that about Jesus.

So I wonder if here Jesus heals this skin condition, because people think it’s a force of death. And I wonder if Jesus sort of harshes on nine people’s ingratitude because not being grateful is its own kind of force of death in our life. 

Speaking of healing – Fun fact, number four. Faith.

Jesus was quite insistent that he is not responsible for people’s outcomes. They are responsible at least as much as him. That’s pretty deep when you think about it. Everything in our life – all the bad stuff – it might not be our fault at all. But in the end, everything in our life is our responsibility. We have to live with ourselves.

When Jesus says goodbye to this grateful Samaritan with the now shiny, healthy skin, he says to him: it wasn’t magic. It wasn’t mostly me. He says: your faith has healed you.

Your faith has healed you. Jesus says that a lot. And I think he really means it. 

Now this doesn’t mean the opposite is true. Life is not just an algebra equation.

Don’t ever say to someone else that they didn’t get what they wanted from God because they didn’t have faith. Please don’t ever think that about yourself either. Life is just more complicated than this. There are so many reasons things get better and things don’t get better.

But we know that mercy and kindness, including the mercy and kindness we welcome from God, matters. And we know that faith matters too. 

In this case, Jesus’ mercy, plus the Samaritan’s faith create the conditions for healing.

And now fun fact, number five. Gratitude. 

Ten people are making their way to the priest, as Jesus recommended. And they all start looking at each other – like hey, what has happened to your skin? You are looking so fine now. And they: thank you, and hey, wait, you are looking pretty smooth and shiny yourself. How about that? It must have been kind of wild. 

What happens then? I wonder how many keep going to the priest for their ceremonial reentrance to the religious community. And I wonder why the Samaritan is the only one who goes back to say thank you to Jesus. Would that Samaritan even have been welcomed by the priest anyway? I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, Jesus notices. He’s like:

this is a good thing, this gratitude, this giving praise to God.

What does Jesus mean by this?

  • Is he commanding us all to thank and praise God?
  • Is he annoyed at the ones who didn’t?
  • Is he honoring the good character of this grateful Samaritan?
  • Being honest that it feels good when someone says thank you?

I don’t know. Maybe all four.

I think it’s OK to acknowledge that our gratitude is good for God. God isn’t petty or needy, I don’t think, but God is relational. God appreciates attention and love and gratitude, like any good parent. So sure, thankful people make God happy.

But I guess in light of all these things – Jesus’ interest in healing enmity between people, Jesus’s awareness of the healing power of our outlook on God and our outlook on life, Jesus’ desire to destroy the forces of death among us – I think in light of all that, it’s fair to say that Jesus wants more gratitude in our lives because it’s good for us as well.

Gratitude helps people live longer, happier, healthier. Gratitude bonds people in relationships. It cultivates less resentful and entitled communities, and more generous and grateful ones.

Gratitude is really good for us. 

This is one of the foundational points of Diana Butler Bass’ really powerful book called Grateful. It’s about the “transformative power of giving thanks.”  

Bass starts her book with what seems like a riddle. The great majority of Americans report experiencing profound gratitude at least every week. 

And yet, as a society, we also are growing in the bitter fruits of ingratitude. We are more anxious and resentful than ever, less optimistic and less trustful, and more compulsive and addicted.

What’s going on here? And what to do about it? 

Well, it may be that our gratitude is too narrow and too personal.

We may be grateful for our good luck or our material blessings. 

But gratitude isn’t just a happy feeling when something good surprises us. It’s an ethic of humility, relationality, and wonder. Gratitude notices the many unearned goodnesses in our lives – from the very breath in our lungs on. Every good gene in our body, every person who’s ever loved us or even done us kindness, every good in the world that we enjoy or depend upon. We didn’t make that happen. It has come to us as a gift. 

To cultivate attention to these gifts and to thank our Creator and to thank our fellow creatures who have gifted us gives credit where credit is due. It’s a kind of healthy and freeing acknowledgement of how interdependent we all are. No one does life alone. 

And it better connects us, grows optimism and resilience in us, opens us up to more smiles, more joy. Protects us from our worst selves. 

Diana Butler Bass points out that gratitude also isn’t just a “me” thing, it’s a “we” thing. Gratitude in our relationships, among our family and friends and acquaintances, and in our public life heals our communities and our society. 

It’s really hard to be grateful and greedy at the same time. 

It’s hard to be grateful and critical at the same time. 

It’s really hard to be grateful and resentful at the same time.

Maybe you can do it, if you try, but it’s hard. 

It’s really hard to be grateful and violent at the same time. 

So I think the Spirit of God would long for more gratitude in our public lives. 

One place I’ve seen this is through our partners in India with the organization Asha. Asha is a public health and community development NGO in New Delhi, India. Their health care and education and empowerment programs among the urban poor are transformational. When I’ve traveled to visit them, I’ve done so with teachers and social workers and doctors from our community who have volunteered with them but also learned from their powerful, effective work.

But the thing that grips many friends of Asha the most is the way they do their work in community. Their model of community empowerment is driven by a series of spiritual, relational values, one of which is gratitude. 

Asha’s leader, and friend of Reservoir Dr. Kiran Martin puts it this way. She writes:   

Gratitude is not just a feeling of thankfulness in response to a gift or a kind gesture. Gratitude is a way of life. It is a conscious choice to focus on life’s blessings rather than on its shortcomings. It magnifies goodness and therefore blocks toxic emotions such as envy, resentment or depression that destroy one’s optimal well being.

One of the ways Asha has lived this value in their communities has been through gratitude campaigns. One form this has taken over the years has been encouragement for people to write thank you letters to another person and then instead of just mailing or delivering that letter, to read it out loud face to face to the person you are thanking. 

Have you ever done this? Written a thank you note to someone and then read it to them, face to face? Has anyone ever done this for you?

I don’t think I’d ever done this before I got to know the work of Asha. But I have since then, a number of times. And each time a few things happen. 

Sometimes the person receiving the thanks is a little awkward or shy about it. But mostly they smile, it surprises them and makes them happy. They say thank you. 

For the person who wrote and read the letter, the effect is at least as powerful. The gratitude releases joy. There’s almost always a hug or at least a handshake. Gratitude sparks love and connection. It’s so good. Highly recommend this, my friends. 

Another place we can see gratitude happen together is civic gratitude. Our own Ed Gaskin is behind a project in Boston that honors the contributions of Black women to life in our region. There are 212 banners along Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury in Dorchester, each of whom names and shows the picture of a Black woman who made contributions to a better community or a better city. 

There are authors and activists, seamstresses and politicians, bishops and educators and grandmothers to families of foster children. So that as you walk or drive up and down Blue Hill Avenue, you’re encouraged to give thanks for the contribution of mostly unsung leaders of our past, and wonder who are the unsung leaders among us now, who is the unsung leader within us even. 

This isn’t just a long overdue act of recognition and respect in Boston. It’s also a profound gift to our community. Ed, we appreciate you for spearheading this incredible initiative. It’s an example to us all. Thank you, Ed. 

You know, we have leaders in public life – lots of them – who lead by making us more fearful, more entitled, and less grateful. Once you start looking for this, it’s easy to spot. Because fear, entitlement, and resentment stir their own kind of loyalty, their own kind of action. But it’s just terribly toxic for everyone involved, and it brings out all the ugly among us. Don’t follow leaders like this. Don’t be one.

Instead, we can respond to leaders, we can be leaders who lead by cultivating hope, gratitude, and love. One simple way Diana Butler Bass encourages this is that in any public sphere where we have leadership whatsoever, create space for gratitude. This can be in a family, a household, or a friend group, encouraging little daily or weekly rituals of gratitude. If we ever lead meetings – even small ones – we can open or close the meetings with invitations to thank someone for their help at work or to connect around our gratitude. 

I’m going to wrap up here, with an invitation to two ways we can practice public, community-based gratitude together right now.  

There’s more to our lives than goodness and blessing. Some of us are fresh off of complicated family gatherings. Some of us enter these holiday seasons, and these dark, early days of winter are sad, lonely, or scared. I mentioned being at a Day of Mourning event on Thursday. There’s lots to grieve in our lives and in this world. We’re not thankful for everything. We can’t be.

But we can have more joy, more connection, more health and goodness in us and around us, when we can be thankful in everything.

So in just a moment, I’ll lead us in prayer before communion. And I’ll leave space where as many of you as want to can call out loud something you are thankful for. Be as loud as you’re able, so it’s easier for us to share in your thanks. Keep it short, just say: Thank you God for…. (whatever you like). And don’t worry if more than one person goes at once. Let’s have a kind of festival of thanksgiving moment together.

And then communion itself. When we eat these bits of cracker, drink this bit of juice together in memory of Jesus, we are practicing communion – connection, fellowship together with God. And we are also practicing what Catholic Christians call “the Eucharist” which means giving thanks. We’re thanking God for feeding us, and thanking God for sharing God’s forgiveness and love and life with us, in the person of Jesus who walked among us, lived, died, and rose again, and who is with us still by the Spirit of Jesus. 

So friends, let’s give thanks together.