Sermon for October 10, 2010 (Proper 23, Year C, RCL)
Luke 17: 11-19
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him…Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Isn’t this a curious story! A bunch of lepers beg Jesus to heal them, and without complying or giving any indication that he plans on doing so, Jesus sends them off to the priests who can certify one’s cleanliness like the good housekeeping seal of approval.
Maybe these poor lepers have nothing better to do on this particular day, or maybe they figure they’ve got nothing to lose, but they actually listen to Jesus and obey him –even though he hasn’t answered their pleas for mercy yet. Then lo’ and behold, while they’re on their way to see the priests, the lepers are miraculously healed after all. But only the Samaritan, Luke tells us—whose not allowed anywhere near the priests anyway—only this Samaritan comes back to say thank you. Who knows, maybe the others had already forgotten their encounter with Jesus. In any event Jesus is not happy about it. “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?”
Luke paints a curious picture of this Samaritan, too. He may seem to us like a sort of first century “holy roller.” He has a major ‘ah-hah” moment, does a 180, not only praises God but does it with a (heaven forbid) “loud voice,” then throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him profusely. And while we might think this could be kind of embarrassing for Jesus—what with the man making such a public spectacle of himself and everything—instead of shooing the man away, Jesus wants to know why there aren’t nine more bodies strewn around his feet praising him for what’s happened.
Now, surely Jesus isn’t expecting thank you notes from the other nine lepers. Nor is he like to be seeking recognition, or suddenly attaching strings to his generous acts of compassion. So what’s going on here? It reminds me of the number of times I’ve been asked why it is that in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures we’re always being reminded to give God thanks and praise. After all, if God’s God, why does he need thanks and praise from us?
Well, the answer of course, is that God doesn’t. The thanks and praise isn’t for God, it’s for us. God doesn’t need our thanks or our praise. But to be fully human, to be fully alive—we need to be in right relationship with our Creator. We need to be right-sized in proportion to God. And without the spiritual discipline of thanks and praise, God knows (quite literally) than we can’t get there from here.
“Praise is the sound of life,” writes theologian James Mays. Yes, and praise is the sound of life fully centered in God’s reality rather than ours. The spiritual practice of giving thanks and praise keeps us right-sized— it keeps us living in the enormity of God’s reality rather than our ego-inflated versions of it.
Let me tell a story on myself to explain what I mean by that. Writing and giving sermons is obviously an important part of what I do. But it does not come easily to me. Every time I start working on a sermon and face that blank piece of virtual paper on my computer screen, I am painfully aware of my dependence on God for inspiration. And every time I get up here in the pulpit—after a lifetime of being seriously phobic about public speaking—I am even more painfully aware of my dependence on God. Yet the minute the service is over and you all start thanking me for the sermon, or saying how much you liked it, if you were inside my head you’d have no idea there was any such thing as God! It’s crazy—it’s as if all of a sudden, like the nine lepers in this morning’s gospel, I have completely forgotten my encounter with the divine begging for help—and instead my ego just laps in all the thanks and praise as if I, rather than God, totally deserved it!
Now you may not write sermons, but I’m willing to bet you’ve all had the same kind of experience—of calling on God to help you meet a challenge, face a situation, or accomplish something important. And then when it’s all over you’ve completely forgotten to give God credit where credit is due, right?
Well, take comfort that we’re all in good company. The entire biblical story from Genesis through the Revelation of John–the whole story of humankind’s relationship with God since the beginning of time until this very moment–is one of human beings repeatedly forgetting who’s God and who’s not…of deluding ourselves into thinking we’re master’s of our own fates and captains of our own souls. And I can assure you that if I didn’t make a spiritual discipline of intentionally giving thanks and praise to God every Sunday after church, that instead of living in the reality of God’s generosity, I’d be walking around in the deluded version of it that my ego seduces me into believing.
Because it’s only when we notice God’s footprints in our lives and give credit where credit is due that we stay right-sized—and that’s a prerequisite for being in right relationship fully alive in God. When we practice thanks and praise, we are awed by the mystery of God’s being. We are humbled by the recognition of His presence in our little lives. We become mindful that all that we have and all that we are is pure gift. Whether it’s in the natural beauty of the cosmos or in the special intimacy of deep friendship…in all the graces and “holy coincidences” that pepper our days or in the profound spiritual awakenings that change our lives for ever…in our talents and accomplishments or our victories over weakness and sin…the God we worship is always present…always there acting…His steadfast love never ceases. Were it not for Him, we would not be.
“Nothing” wrote John Calvin, “is of greater use to confirm[ing] our faith than the remembrance of those instances in which God has clearly given us proof –not only of His grace, but of his truth and power.”
And what a source of joy and delight that confirmation of our faith is! The very act of giving thanks and praise frees us from the bondage of ego and self. It liberates us from the confines of our pinched little perspective on the world and lifts us into the expansive embrace of God’s magnificent reality. It’s a reality we intuitively recognize. The soul dances with delight in recognition of it, feels such relief in remembering the truth of its identity: He is the creator, we are the creation. He is the potter, we are the clay. He is the director, we are the actors. In perfect freedom from self, joyful thanks erupts like song into praise.
There are a million different ways of practicing the spiritual discipline of giving God thanks and praise. We do it every week in our worship here. That’s precisely why we feel so much better when we leave here than when we arrive—we’ve just spent an hour giving credit where credit is due. We’ve just done a 180, praised God with (relatively) loud voices, and thanked Jesus profusely.
Our Book of Common Prayer is filled with wonderful prayers of praise and thanksgiving. We praise God for everything from “drops of dew and flakes of snow” to “beasts of the wild, flocks and herds”; we thank him for everything from “the beauty and wonder of creation” to giving us “minds to think, hearts to love and hands to serve.” Just praying the Litany of Thanksgiving on a daily basis is enough to transform our thinking and put things in their proper perspective with God at the center.
Praying the psalms is another traditional way of giving thanks and praise. The psalms have been giving expression to joyful praise for generation after generation of faithful Jews and Christians, and they link us to thousands of years worth of worshippers from David to Jeremiah to Paul and Jesus, all of whom would have had the entire psalter memorized. Did you know the psalms are quoted in the New Testament more than any other book from the Old Testament? They were like the Book of Common Prayer to the Hebrew people.
These are but a few ways of giving God thanks and praise. Not because God needs us to, but because God knows we need to. St. John Chrysostom said it rather succinctly in the 4th century when he wrote that, “God does not need anything of ours, but we stand in need of all things from him. The thanksgiving adds nothing to him, but causes us to be nearer him.”
“Hallelujah!” shouts the psalmist this morning, “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart…Awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—those who act accordingly have a good understanding.”
A good understanding, indeed! Thanks be to God. Amen.