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Archive for October 10th, 2010

Practicing Gratitude

Thanks be to God for this beautiful day!  What follows is the sermon from the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  I will be on vacation next week, then back to the blog for Sunday, October 24th.

“Practicing Gratitude”

Luke 17: 11-19

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 10th, 2010

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything [God] has given us—and [God] has given us everything.  Every breath we draw is a gift of [God’s] love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from [God.]  Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God.  For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience.  And that is what makes all the difference…”  Thomas Merton.

I started this week off in a bit of a funk.  I was tired, didn’t feel good, stressed, and just generally off-balance.  I had already planned on preaching on gratitude this Sunday.  But I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful.  My mood just wasn’t right, which was ridiculous because I have so much for which to be grateful.  So I said to myself, “Teri, just make a list.  Make a list of everything you have to be grateful for.”  And I did.  I wrote a list in my journal.  And I added to the list every day this week because doing so brought me back to life.  It awakened me.  It renewed me.  It improved my funky mood.  It brought me back to the grace of God that is constantly embracing me.

In today’s scripture passage Jesus meets ten men on the road to Jerusalem who are in a serious funk.  The life of a leper in 1st century Palestine was a life of misery.  First of all, just imagine contracting a disease that disfigured your face and limbs in such an alarming, grotesque way that people looked on you with horror.  You and your monstrous appearance were the stuff of nightmares…your own and anyone who happened to meet you along the road.  If the disease itself wasn’t bad enough, though, your community, then, by law had to evict you until you could be made clean.  Any person with a leprous disease was required to live on the outskirts of their camp, or village, or community, and they had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean” if anyone accidentally came too near.  To say, then, that the ten lepers Jesus met along the road to Jerusalem were in a serious funk is obviously an understatement.  These men were miserable.  They had no life.  They had no love.  They had no grace in which to enfold themselves.  Leprosy had claimed their lives and marked them for dead even though they were still living and breathing.  Can you imagine?

But then along comes Jesus, a man who wasn’t afraid of those deemed “unclean,” a man who wasn’t afraid to approach the unapproachable.  The ten miserable men called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.

I wonder how far they had gotten from Jesus before they realized what he had done?  I wonder at what point they realized that they were no longer lepers?  Maybe they knew it immediately.  Maybe they didn’t know their flesh had been made whole until they stood in front of the priests who had to give their stamp of approval before they could go home to their families again.  Well, wherever they were in their journey, it is interesting that only one of the ten found his way back to Jesus to say thank you.

I don’t think it would be fair to label the nine who did not come back as “ungrateful.”  I’m sure they were very grateful, they just didn’t think to say thank you.  They just didn’t think to express their gratitude.  Haven’t we all done this at times?  Haven’t we all failed to express our gratitude, even though we were grateful?

One did return to Jesus, though.  One did think to say, “Thank you.”  And this one, a Samaritan, got more out of that simple act of gratitude than he could have ever imagined.  He returned to Jesus, kneeled at his feet, and thanked him for caring enough to heal.  Jesus seemed surprised that the other nine didn’t return as well.  But he quickly turns his full attention to the man kneeling at his feet and he says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

To understand the full significance of these final words of Jesus, you need to know that “Your faith has made you well,” can also be translated as “Your faith has saved you.”  Ten lepers were healed on the road to Jerusalem that day.  Ten lepers were cleansed of a disfiguring, horrifying disease.  But only one, one of those lepers was saved, was made well, was brought back to life by faith and by gratitude.  We may all be grateful, but those who express their gratitude or practice it are the ones who are brought back to life.

It really is amazing how practicing gratitude can transform your life and your perspective.  Practicing gratitude changes how you see the world and the context in which you live.  Practicing gratitude awakens you to all that you already have and to all that God has given you.  Practicing gratitude opens you up to life and to the beauty that can be found everywhere if only we will notice and give thanks.

I recently read a prose poem about the gratitude Dietrich Bonhoeffer practiced while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.  As a political prisoner who had dared to speak out against Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew he would eventually be killed by his captors.  He knew what his fate would be.  So to survive such knowledge and to survive each day he lived imprisoned, Bonhoeffer intentionally practiced gratitude.  He practiced giving thanks for every little thing.  And by doing so, Bonhoeffer was awakened to beauty even in a place of death and he was awakened to the undying graces of God that saved him when no one else could.

The prose poem, written by Robert Cording, is entitled simply, “Gratitude.”

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer is thankful

for a hairbrush, for a pipe and tobacco,

for cigarettes and Schelling’s Morals Vol. II.

Thankful for stain remover, laxatives,

collar studs, bottled fruit and cooling salts.

For his Bible and hymns praising what is

fearful, which he sings, pacing in circles

for exercise, to his cell walls where he’s hung

a reproduction of Durer’s Apocolypse.

He’s thankful for letters from his parents

and friends that lead him back home,

and for the pain of memory’s arrival,

his orderly room of books and prints too far

from the nightly sobs of a prisoner

in the next cell whom Bonhoeffer does not know

how to comfort, though he believes religion

begins with a neighbor who is within reach.

He’s thankful for the few hours outside

in the prison yard, and for the half-strangled

laughter between inmates as they sit together

under a chestnut tree.  He’s thankful even

for a small ant hill, and for the ants that are

all purpose and clear decision.  For the two

lime trees that mumble audibly with the workings

of bees in June and especially for the warm

laying on of sun that tells him he’s a man

created of earth and not of air and thoughts.

He’s thankful for minutes when his reading

and writing fill up the emptiness of time,

and for those moments when he sees himself

as a small figure in a vast, unrolling scroll,

though mostly he looks out over the plains

of ignorance inside himself.  And for that,

too, he’s thankful: for the self who asks,

Who am I?—the man who steps cheerfully

from this cell and speaks easily to his jailers,

or the man who is restless and trembling

with anger and despair as cities burn and Jews

are herded into railroad cars—can

without an answer, say finally, I am thine,

to a God who lives each day,

as Bonhoeffer must, in the knowledge

of what has been done, is still being done,

his gift a refusal to leave his suffering, for which,

even as the rope is placed around his neck

and pulled tight, Bonhoeffer is utterly grateful.[1]

Practicing gratitude can save us each and every day.  Practicing gratitude awakens us to that which we cannot see or know unless we are grateful.

It worked for me this week.  Practicing gratitude worked me out of my funk.  Inspired by the grateful Samaritan and by Dietrich Bonhoeffer I made a list this week of all the things for which I am grateful.  Here are just a few…

I am grateful for…

A new day

A new day that begins with a son who likes to cuddle in the morning

My daughter’s infectious and toothy smile

Laughter

I am grateful for…

A long morning run on a soft trail

Reading something that inspires me

Work that I find meaningful

Opportunities to be known and let my voice be heard

I am grateful for…

A husband who inspires me and challenges me to be more than I thought I could be

Parents who support me

A church who loves me through all the ups and downs of life

I am grateful for…

The God I know and experience

In you

In the countless graces I receive every day

In the beauty of this amazing world

In the knowledge that love exists

I am grateful.  Each and every day, I am grateful.  Even for those days when I am in a funk, I am grateful because the funk reminds me that I am human, that I have limits and limitations, and that I am alive.

So what’s on your list?  For what are you grateful?  Let’s practice gratitude together today so we might all be awakened, and renewed, and saved.

Now to the God from whom all blessing flow, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Robert Cording, “Gratitude,” published in The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, edited by Philip Zaleski, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pgs. 42-43.

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