“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.” Luke 17:15-16
I have a few boxes of items saved from my teaching days, one of which is a collection of thank-you notes from students. They were fun to read on discouraging days to remind myself that I had in fact helped people learn some things along the way. One of my favorites is from a Japanese exchange student with whom I worked during my student teaching at Western Albemarle High School in Charlottesville. When I was leaving at the end of the semester, she gave me a card that included the sentence: “Thank you for had been teaching me English.” It was very sweet – and also made me wonder how well I had actually done with teaching her English.
Experiencing gratitude has some benefits. A newsletter from Harvard reports that when people acknowledge the goodness in their lives, they can see “that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves…whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”[i] People who express gratitude in tangible ways are generally happier and healthier than those who don’t.
Today’s First Reading gives us a case study in someone who needs help with gratitude. Meet Naaman. A powerful man, a commander of the king’s army in Aram (what is known today as Syria). Naaman is used to ordering people around and having them obey without hesitation. But Naaman also has leprosy, a horrible disease that surely must have made him feel self-conscious – and perhaps even shameful. Leprosy is a painful condition involving skin lesions that can sometimes lead to infections of the respiratory system and other parts of the body. It can mean nerve damage in one’s extremities and the inability to feel pain there, which, as we heard in the vivid account from the children’s Bible, can sometimes lead to losing fingers and toes. It must have been difficult for Naaman to reconcile his pain and his power.
When Naaman is finally convinced to go to the king of Israel for help, notice what he brings with him. He brings a letter from the king of Aram (written on Namaan’s behalf), a truckload of silver and gold, ten sets of clothes, and a bit of an attitude. Namaan shows up with all the trappings of his power, and he expects results.
Namaan thinks he can throw around his money, his connections, his power, his status, and he will get what he wants. But nothing goes as he expects. The king of Israel at first seems to reject his request, but lucky for Naaman, the prophet Elisha is good at eavesdropping. Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the river Jordan in order to be healed.
And how does Naaman respond? Is he thankful for a possible cure? Is he thrilled that Elisha has intervened on his behalf? Does he rush to follow Elisha’s instructions?
No. He somehow manages to get offended. He’s upset that Elisha didn’t come talk to him in person. He’s dismissive of the Jordan River and insists that the rivers back home are far superior. He rejects the entire premise of the cure that he’s been offered. This wasn’t the help he had wanted to buy. He wanted Elisha to come out and wave his hands around and make the cure more dramatic.
Imagine if you had a painful, debilitating condition, and the nurse practitioner working with your doctor told you that all you needed to do to be healed was to drink some orange juice every day. If you were to respond as Namaan does, you would cross your arms and pout that the doctor had not given you this information directly, and you would refuse to drink the orange juice because you would insist that apple juice is far better.
I love that the people who save Naaman from his own worst impulses are those with the least amount of power. Did you see that? In a world where Naaman expects money and power to buy influence, he needs the voices of a slave girl and the voices of his servants to set him on the path to healing. The slave girl – a girl who has been stolen from her family and forced to work for Naaman’s wife – is the one who recommends that Naaman go see Elisha in the first place. And when Naaman is having his little tantrum and refusing to do what Elisha says, it’s his servants who persuade him to follow what seems like a simple set of instructions. If he had asked you to do something hard, wouldn’t you have done it?
Sometimes our help does not come in the way we expect. We want help and healing on our own terms. We’d like to direct the narrative in the way that we imagine it. But when I think about the times I have been most deeply grateful, it was because someone helped me in a situation that I could not handle on my own or in my own way. I needed other voices to urge me toward wholeness.
We often try to twist gratitude into something endlessly complicated. We, like Namaan, want it our way, and we like to make ourselves central to the outcome of the story. But in the end gratitude can really look like that tenth leper in Jesus’ story – another foreigner who had suffered too long. The tenth leper simply turns back toward Jesus, praises Jesus for what he has done, gets humble and still, and says thank you. He literally flattens himself on the ground and says thank you.
What if we did that more often? Turned to Jesus, praised him, got still, and said thank you. We need what Jesus offers – that fullness of life that he wants each of us to have, even when we feel overwhelmed. What might happen if we acknowledged that need and felt grateful for it?
That verb for thanking Jesus? In Greek it’s eucharisto. That’s where we get one of our names for Holy Communion – the Eucharist. A meal of thanksgiving for the life that Jesus gives freely.
So come forward today. Turn to Jesus. Be still for a moment. Receive his healing presence. Experience gratitude. And then carry your grateful heart out into a world that longs for the healing that only Jesus can give. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Luke 17:5
Maybe you’ve found yourself awake in the deepest, darkest part of the night because you are so worried about someone you love. They’re facing a health crisis, perhaps, or struggling with an addiction, and you have no idea how to make things better. You wish you had more faith so you could feel sure everything will be OK.
Maybe you’ve found yourself caught in the middle of a really contentious disagreement with a family member or a friend. The whole thing drains you of energy and you can’t figure out how to repair the relationship. You wish you had more faith so you could fix things with this person.
Maybe you’ve found yourself feeling anxious because of the news. Violence everywhere. You’re worried about where the next mass shooting might break out. Or you wish politics weren’t such an ugly business these days. You wish you had more faith so you would feel less scared and less angry.
All of us at one time or another can relate to the words of the prophet Habbakuk that we heard in our First Reading: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” It’s the desperate plea of someone who has seen terrible things and longs for God to make it all stop.
So we understand why some of Jesus’ followers come to him with their own desperate plea: “Increase our faith!” We want a faith that is strong enough to stand up to all that life throws at us, and sometimes it feels like whatever we have just isn’t enough.
But here’s the challenge. Faith is not really quantifiable. How would we even measure it? I don’t have some sort of scale for you to stand on that will tell me how much faith you have so I can write it in your spiritual chart and compare this year’s number to next year’s when you come for your annual check-up. I’m not going to give you a faith report card, where we divide faith out into different categories and assess how you measure up. That’s not how it works.
Jesus responds to this request in a few ways that may not seem helpful. First he tells his followers that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could toss trees into the ocean. It’s a confusing image, but remember that mustard seeds are among the tiniest of seeds, and yet the bush that grows from them is big and bushy and grows in all directions. It looks more like a tree. His point might simply be to remind us that what feels like a little bit of faith, what feels like “not enough,” can actually do more than we realize.
Jesus then uses another comparison that is more difficult to hear with our modern sensibilities. He compares having faith to being a slave. We of course don’t understand Jesus to be endorsing slavery here; but keep in mind how widespread slavery was in the ancient world. Many of the people listening in on this conversation might have been slaves. Jesus is telling us not to turn the commitment to living our faith into a calculus problem. You know what faith involves, he says. You know the role. Just do it. Set the table. Get to work.
In verse 10, the last verse of today’s gospel passage, Jesus imagines these servant followers saying, “’We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Let me offer another translation that I think works better. “Worthless slaves” can also be translated as “unworthy slaves.”[i] That helps me change my thinking about living my faith. Being “unworthy” seems more truthful than being worthless. I know that I don’t really deserve what Jesus has done for me. If there were a way to quantify what Jesus has done (which there isn’t), I could never pay it back. So why not just live in gratitude for his sacrificial love, for his gift of life that does not demand that I am worthy in order to receive it? Why not just do the things that he invites me to do – be present with God, care for my neighbor, pray, worship, serve, forgive, love?
I think the disciples got something right with their request. They say: “Increase OUR faith…” I like the use of the plural pronoun “our.” Increase our faith. Faith is something that we practice in community. So, when we come together in worship, one person might be struggling to hold on to hope, but the rest of us can sing on that person’s behalf. Another person might find it hard right now to summon the words to pray, but the rest of can pray with and for that person. Our shared faith is stronger than any one individual’s could ever be.
I’m also reminded of that shared faith by part of our second reading. The author of this letter writes to Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” This speaks of a faith that is shared, passed down from one generation to another. It makes me think of the people in my life who shared their faith with me and helped me live my own faith. These words invite us to renew our commitment to sharing the faith with the youngest generations in our community. Just as they share their faith with us.
You have a bulletin insert that I really want you to take home and try using. Over the next several weeks the Weekly Word and the bulletin will include ideas for living our faith. In this first month we’ll focus on prayer. So by the end of October you’ll have four ways of praying to try as a household. Today’s, for example, outlines a simple way to share highs and lows as a family and then to incorporate those highs and lows into a prayer. If you live alone like I do, you can reflect on the ups and downs of the week and offer those to God in an individual prayer.
I know that life is busy. I know these things can sometimes feel a little strange. But I also believe it will make a difference in our lives to take time to talk to each other and talk to God.
So try these things out. See how they go. I hope you’ll discover which practices seem to connect for you or for your family. I hope you’ll let me know how they’re going, and I hope you’ll ask questions along the way.
That letter to Timothy goes on to say: “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
We already have what we need. God has given us what we need – a spirit of power and love. It lives in us. It is more than enough.
Now what will we do with it? Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ