One Turned Back

Luke 17:11-19
© Stacey Steck

One turned back. Just one. Ten had a life transforming experience and only one turned back.

One turned back. Just one. Ten had reason to just pause for a moment and give thanks and only one turned back.

Forget for a minute the fact that the one who turned back was a Samaritan, who probably had ten times as many reasons to be grateful as the others. Forget for a moment that the other nine were doing exactly what Jesus told them to do, and what, as good Jews they were supposed to do. Forget even that the skin disease they were suffering from wasn’t really as bad as we have been led to believe, and was probably something that might even have been as non-infectious as rheumatoid psoriasis.

Forget all of that stuff, all those theologically and medically and culturally significant parts of the story, and just wrap your minds around this one fact: only one turned back. Just one. Just one of these ten men who got their lives back turned around and went and thanked Jesus.

There are many great sermons to be preached from this passage, but the one you are going to hear today is about gratitude, a theme in life as important today as it was when Jesus made his comment to the air, “Was none of them found to return and give praise except this foreigner?” The truth of the matter is that we are rarely grateful enough, and we never have been. Remember those Hebrews fleeing from Egypt? “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt, Moses, that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” They’ve just been rescued, just been told that they are honor-bound to celebrate their rescue in perpetuity – that’s how assured it is – and they can’t muster up enough faith and gratitude to head off their fears and complaints. Be afraid! Fine. It makes sense that you’re scared when the Egyptians are bearing down on you with their six hundred customized chariots. But even in the midst of fear, it is, or it should be, possible to be grateful that God’s got you that far in the first place. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve don’t say, “Gee thanks, God, we never have to worry about our next meal. We really appreciate that.” No, they take it for granted so much that they go for the one foodstuff they were specifically told to avoid.

And what’s the universal refrain from parents in probably every culture ever? “What’s the magic word?” Yes, the magic word is “thanks” but it seems so hard to remember in the face of all the goodies. Our eyes and our imaginations get so overwhelmed by the gift in front of us that the rest of our brain shuts down, including the part responsible for gratitude. Now, I don’t have any brain research to share with you that this is precisely what happens. But I can tell you that it sure seems that our conscious awareness of ourselves and our social obligations just gets obliterated, goes right out the window. And none of those pointed “What the magic word?” questions ever seem to get through, do they?

The same is probably true of stewardship sermons. Year after year, we ministers stand before you and ask a variation of that magic word question. The answer we hope rolls off your tongue, of course, is the word “tithe.” We want you to turn back and give your thanks to God in that Biblical form of ten percent of your income. And then we gather up the commitment cards and we look and we lament like Jesus, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” We say this, metaphorically of course, not because we know the amount of your annual income and see that you’ve not pledged ten percent of it, but because we know what is the median income of our community and we know how to multiply that by the number of giving units, and we see that in the aggregate, collectively, the commitment is not ten percent of that number. Nine out of ten lepers, I mean, church members, do not, in the words of the story, “return and give praise to God” to the degree Scripture suggests.

But that’s OK. God is merciful. There are as many reasons why giving ten percent is a stretch as there were reasons for those other nine lepers to run off without so much as a “thank you.” Maybe a couple of them were in debt because of their condition and their families were about to be evicted. Maybe a couple more were afraid that if they stopped to question the gift, Jesus would tell them it was really just a joke. Maybe the last few were trying to get home to see a dying relative and thought there wasn’t a second to spare. And Jesus doesn’t condemn them. Jesus doesn’t take away the gift they’ve received. Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m not going to heal you until you say the magic word.” No, Jesus isn’t that petty. The thing is, however, that the other nine didn’t get to hear or experience what the tenth one did: “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” Nine got the goodies, one got the blessing. Nine probably checked every morning where their sores had been, inspecting themselves, worried they might come back. One never gave it another thought. Nine had clean skin, one got to look into the heart of God.

Yes, gratitude is magical. At least that’s what researchers tell us. Study after study demonstrates that practicing gratitude changes the brain. Two psychologists, Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, conducted a study in which they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After ten weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation. Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month. Managers who remember to say "thank you" to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not. Yes, gratitude really is a magic word. Saying “thank you” unlocks a whole host of benefits, and I have to believe that tenth leper experienced them all.

In two weeks, we’ll be celebrating Consecration Sunday again, that day when we ask you to reflect on the gifts God has given you, and to share with us your response of gratitude. There are of course benefits to the church from your financial giving. It helps us keep the lights on, and gets the grass cut, and provides music that stirs the soul and meals that fill the belly. It would be awfully hard to be the church without your generosity. When you look around, you can see the very tangible benefits from the faithful giving of countless generations of Thyatirans. But here’s what I want you to know. That there are intangible benefits as well that accrue from your response of gratitude. You see, as all those scientific studies have shown, there’s a link between your attitude and your gratitude, and the more you give, the more you grow. And if you don’t believe Harvard Medical School, believe Dr. Suess, who wrote a best-selling book on the effects of gratitude: “And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of *ten* Grinches, plus two!” And for what was that Grinch grateful? The smile of a little girl who gave him one hundred percent of what she had.

You can get away with giving just a little bit. But the grace you receive is proportional to the grace you give. One turned back. Just one. Ten had a life transforming experience and only one turned back. And we can only imagine the life he lived as a result. Your life is a gift. Will you turn back and give thanks? Amen.