“Except This Foreigner”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
October 13, 2019
When I was first starting out in ministry, I was only a few years distant from being a teenager. I felt that my relatively young age would be an advantage as I tried to relate to the kids and win their trust. I was generally right about that, but, at times, I was terrified.
One of the things that happened on a regular basis — just like nowadays — was when a confirmand or a youth group member would say they didn’t believe in God or anything like God. I tried my best to meet them where they were. I would say, That’s OK. At our church, we get to choose what we believe or not believe. Just try to enjoy the community and absorb what seems good and give what you can to it.
One day, I was on a service trip at an orphanage in Puerto Rico with a group of high schoolers and a particularly sassy girl said the thing: I don’t believe in God. The awkward part was that we were in the middle of an informal worship service at the time.
The blessing in that moment, though, was that she paused and then said, but… I feel so grateful for my life and for this group and this experience, so I have to thank someone or something. I’m so thankful for all of you.
Her deep gratitude brought her to a place where she could at least consider the presence of a power greater than herself. It didn’t have to be my idea of the traditional God, but it was something wonderful for her. I was moved and I was grateful for her presence in the group. Teenagers often teach us important lessons just by being their authentic selves.
Gratitude is at the heart of our experience as people of faith. Gratitude is not the only thing that matters to us here, but in worship, we emphasize it because it’s good for our souls. Acknowledging that we rely on God, we rely on family, we rely on friends and neighbors and church and government and the earth and on animals and on so many other entities to survive and thrive, is essential to our spiritual health.
Gratitude makes us humble. It keeps us honest. It helps us to let the air out of the myth of the self-made person. I know that many of you have worked incredibly hard to get where you are, but we all know that not one of us did it by ourselves.
The Psalm for this morning is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving to God. And it’s such a delightfully earthy poem. The psalmist thanks God for safe travels, for liberation from slavery, and for bringing him and his people to a spacious place. I picture Wyoming, with those huge skies, or being out on the ocean and looking all the way out to the horizon. Spaciousness feels freeing and inspiring; it opens up possibilities in our minds and hearts and spirits. So thank God for elbow room when we need it.
The passage from Luke is also about gratitude. Jesus encounters ten people with leprosy and he heals them.
Now, many of you know some of this already, but it’s important to note a few things about leprosy in the Bible. There is a disease in modern times that we call leprosy. It’s technically called Hanson’s Disease and it’s caused by bacteria that can effect not just our skin, but also our eyes and our nerves. For a long time, it was considered a highly contagious and frightening disease that could lead to death. Nowadays, thankfully, it’s completely curable.
In the Bible, leprosy is not just about Hanson’s Disease. Leprosy a catch-all phrase for various skin diseases that were not necessarily fatal. The worst part about being a leper in Jesus’ time was not the physical symptoms, but that it separated you from your community.
It was very difficult to make a living. You couldn’t come into the Temple if you had one of these diseases. Your family might not welcome you into your own home. You were an outcast and there were specific rules about how to be readmitted to society and home and family. One of those rules was that a priest in the Temple had to examine you and declare that you were clean so you could come to worship and work and eat at the dinner table again.
So, Jesus comes along and heals ten lepers at once, a mighty feat that is often overlooked. Everyone talks about that time Jesus walked on water, but healing ten people at once? I think that’s pretty impressive.
But only one of the ex-lepers sticks around to say thank you.
And on the surface, that is the moral of this story. We often forget to be truly grateful for the blessings in our lives, for the surprising moments when we receive something we didn’t necessarily deserve, but that will make our lives so much better. Moments of loving generosity. Moments of grace. Being bailed out financially. Being forgiven.
What happened to the other nine ex-lepers? Why didn’t they express gratitude? That’s Jesus’ implied question here. Did they have a dentist appointment? A dinner date? Shopping to do?
What keeps us from truly feeling — and expressing — gratitude?
Is it that we think we shouldn’t have
problems to begin with? That we deserve pain-free, stress-feee, problem-free,
loss-free lives? Or is it that we think we deserve the very best when things go
Or is it that we are simply human and forget sometimes to be grateful because we are lost in relief when we are given a reprieve from life’s problems?
I’m not sure of any of that… But…
I am sure that Luke tells us this story not just to spur us toward gratitude (which is a worthy goal in itself), but because he wants us to think about gratitude at a deeper level.
Remember with me that the one ex-leper who thanked Jesus for the healing was a Samaritan.
Again, I know that some of you are aware of this, but Samaritans were ethnic and spiritual cousins of the Jewish people. But they had different histories and different places of worship and they didn’t trust each other. Samaritans were in the minority, so they were considered lesser-than.
In the Gospel of Luke, particularly, Jesus chooses to make a Samaritan the hero of several of his parables. Parables are all about the character of God, so what do we make of this?
I think making a Samaritan the hero of this story changes it completely. Suddenly, it’s not just about being grateful, it’s about expanding our understanding of what it means to be grateful in the first place.
If a Samaritan, a rejected minority, can be grateful, and not just grateful but the only one in ten to be grateful, then maybe we should be paying attention to that one. Perhaps we should be re-evaluating and learning from those in our community, those in our state, region, nation and world who have experienced rejection and isolation — and yet are still feeling grateful.
If the detained immigrant who is at long last released can feel grateful, can we? If the wrongly imprisoned black man who is finally let out of jail can overcome resentment and feel grateful, can we? If the unemployed person in a wheelchair who finally gets a job… the gay person who can finally get married… if they can feel gratitude for the blessings in their lives, can we learn to do the same as we reflect on our own blessings?
Can we, who feel entitled to having good things happening to us, even recognize the blessings in our lives? I do not ask that question as a criticism, but as a brother who also struggles with entitlement. Some people who are trying to break out of depression keep gratitude journals. Maybe, for our mental and spiritual health, we should all do that.
If, with God’s help, we do become aware of our blessings and we do feel gratitude, how do we express it?
Oh, there are so many ways. Show up. Share the wealth. Make the meal. Sing the song. Say the words. Whisper the prayer. Serve. Lead. Forgive. Let’s find a way to say thank you together.