LIVES OF THANKFULNESS
“THANK GOD FOR JESUS! THANK GOD FOR JESUS!” This sermon is about living lives of thankfulness. In 1952 my Dad was working at his desk in our house in Kansas City. Through the house came the words, “Thank God for Jesus!” Dad poked his head around the corner and crept into the kitchen to find Classie scorching her way through one of his white shirts. Both my parents worked and Classie was the cleaning lady, cum laundress. She weighed in at about two thirty and could bench press a complete load of wet laundry with ease. “Are you okay, Classie?” Dad asked? “I sure am! Thank God for Jesus!” “Why do you say that?” “Because He keeps me going!” Dad slunk back to his office while Classie helped herself to what was left in the refrigerator.
When Dad told the story at dinner that night, we started to laugh. He cautioned us, “Classie is a sincere and devout Christian. She loves her family and she loves Jesus. She reminds us how important it is to be thankful in all parts of our lives.”
When I read the Gospel story for today, I remembered Classie and her full-blown, free wheeling thankfulness for Jesus. Her life was hard and monetarily she certainly didn’t have much for which to be thankful. She was, however, blessed with faith and a spiritual community in which she could nurture her thankfulness and her faith. She had her church.
Now the more closely I look at the Gospel passage from St. Luke the more I am struck by the fact that this relatively short story has a very high Christology. By that I mean that both implied and articulated in this story is a very complex and sophisticated concept of the nature of Jesus. He is more than a simple traveling rabbi/faith healer. First of all he is “Master” or “Lord.” He merits respect and obedience. Secondly, Jesus tells the lepers to go show themselves to the priests (that is in accordance with the liturgical laws of ritual cleanliness following a healing). But one fellow turns back and presents himself to Jesus. Jesus, then, is his priest. The man praises God for what He has done in Jesus and thereby in the formerly leprous man. This leper is a Samaritan. Thirdly, Jesus assumes authority to break boundaries and goes to the outcasts. Furthermore, fourthly, by acts of healing Jesus fulfills one of the many signs of messianic expectation, given in the prophets (the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed and the dead raised). All of this takes place on Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem, and the cross, where he will be a sacrifice for the sins of the world. So when Jesus tells the man, “Your faith has made you well,” there is a lot of implicit theology in the text. To cap it off, the term “healed” is the same term used for the word “saved.” We already know the man is healed (as are the other nine), but this man has faith, therefore he is “saved.” He has found salvation.
All of the implicit and explicit theology that is found in this passage of the healing of the lepers is part of the theology of the Church into which you and I were baptized. It is this theology that gives meaning and purpose to our lives as we seek to do meaningful work and cease doing the things that get in the way of our proclaiming the Gospel fully and joyously. This theology is also the basis for our living “thankful lives.” We have much for which to be thankful: We are saved. We are forgiven. We are offered healing. We are assured of eternal life. We are given hope and eternal love. We have lots of reasons to shout, “Thank God for Jesus!”
St. Luke and the Church may have a “high Christology” and a sophisticated theology, but I have a “low anthropology.” I seem to get along better with animals than I do with humans. I think we share some basic instincts and urges that are God given. “Thankfulness” or “gratitude” seems to be one of them. Last year I was in Old Saybrook at our summer house. Old Saybrook is a dog walker’s paradise. You could see how thankful the owners were to have their companion animals. But more importantly, you could see how thankful some of the dogs were to be alive. I would go for a walk and meet some of the dogs. I had a wonderful five minute conversation with a yellow lab one Monday and then again on Wednesday with another yellow lab, “Russell.” He is ten years old and lives at the hardware store. We thoroughly enjoyed being with each other. We shared our gladness at being alive.
When I read the story of Jesus’ healing the lepers, I could not help but think of the number of times when I have seen little children, who are loved and adored by their parents, sent out to play. The children burst into the yard full of energy. The mother or father stands in the doorway and watches them. One of the little ones stop, turns around and rushes back to the parent and throws her arms around the knees of the parent and tightly hugs the parent. “I love you.” The child says. “I love you too,” replies the parent. The child is so thankful for the love and security of the parent that she lets out a yelp and runs back to the others. Haven’t you seen that? Haven’t you experienced that? The child is bursting with gratitude and love, with thankfulness and joy. On the most basic level, that is what this Gospel passage is appealing to. We want to give thanks. We want to praise. We want to be grateful. We want to love.
Unfortunately, it is hard to live thankful lives. We are acultured out of it early on. The child learns not to run back to the parent. The child learns to pick up the cues of the pack and the folkways of society and culture. We learn to focus on our needs, which are legion. We seek to deal with insolvable problems: sickness, employment, care of aged parents, the fear of war or homelessness. We find refuge in alcohol or drugs. The instinct to give thanks, to be grateful, is pushed down over and over. We fear being thankful because maybe it will bring bad luck. Maybe we will lose what we have. Maybe we will be rebuffed or hurt. To express gratitude is to acknowledge our vulnerability; it is to leave us open to manipulation or rejection by others. Not having been able to say “thank you” in the way we live our lives as we grow up yields adults who fear genuine intimacy and are emotionally stunted. Not too long ago I thanked a priest for saving my life. He replied, “Well, well. How good to see you. Hope all is going well.” That was distancing and off putting. He should have said, “Thank you. I am glad you told me that and are doing well.”
It is the function of the Church, its worship and its liturgy to help people give thanks. To give thanks is “healing.” To give thanks and praise is “saving.” It is part of the process of salvation. We do not whoop and holler like the Baptists or Pentecostals, or like Classie’s church. After all, we are Episcopalians- those who are burdened by impeccably stifling good taste. Our Book of Common Prayer calls our Mass, the service of Holy Communion, “The Great Thanksgiving” and yet, sometimes it is read like a train schedule. No whooping and hollering here! There are times when the “alleluias” are squeezed out through clenched teeth. Some parishes eliminate the Doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” probably because it is sung as a dirge.
There is, however, in our Book of Common Prayer a prayer of thanksgiving that is glorious. It is found in the service of Morning Prayer.
“Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen” BCP pp. 58-59.
This is an example of the Church at its best, responding to our God given desire to give thanks by articulating our thanks and praise. Brothers and sisters, allow yourself to say “thank you.” Allow yourself to express your gratitude to others and to God in a free, but appropriate, manner. Allow yourself to let the Church and the liturgy move you along and lift you up, as it can when done well, so that you can break from the pack, run with joy and throw your arms around the knees of Jesus, and say, “Thank you. I love you.” Allow Jesus in the Mass to say to you, “Thank you. I love you too.” Then, just maybe then, in a moment of joyful reflection, you and I can say, “Thank God for Jesus! He keeps me going.” – Amen- Fr. Gage.