This past Thursday I celebrated my 50th birthday. It’s a milestone to be sure, one for which I received any number of gag gifts from my always supportive staff friends – heat wraps for my aging back, a two quart bottle of prune juice to keep my life flowing smoothly, a special container to hold any future dentures, and an extra large box of Depends for men! It was a great day. However, in spite of the ribbing, I honestly have to say that other than it being a nice round number, turning fifty hasn’t really fazed me. I was ten years old when my own father turned fifty and I was positive at the time that he was absolutely ancient. Well, in spite of the fact that I am still trying to write checks that my body can no longer cash, I don’t feel ancient – I feel grateful.
I am grateful to be alive, grateful to be able to be a part of this remarkable community, grateful for the blessing of so many supportive friends, grateful that I have a family to love and grateful that I have a wonderful family that loves me in return. This morning when I woke up rolled out of bed and took a slow deep breath, I was aware that that breath was the first of more than 25,000 breaths I would take today. Standing by my bed, I put my hand on my chest and felt my heart beating knowing that, if I was fortunate enough to live another day, it would beat 115,000 more times before Monday. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by the unbelievable grace that in the past fifty years this, much taken for granted, little muscle has been squeezing blood around my body more than 2 billion times. What a miraculous thing! When I think about these realities, how can I not be grateful to God for this miracle that is life?
I am convinced that the key to the faithful life is living a grateful life. Faithful living equals grateful living. “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” That is what Jesus is trying to tell us in our lesson for today. The important thing to pay attention to in this section from Luke is not the fact that Jesus healed ten lepers but that only one of those ten returned to give God thanks. Only one of them, a Samaritan no less, was grateful enough to fall down in front of Jesus and give God praise for the blessing he received. As a result Jesus tells him – “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus healed the Samaritan of his leprosy but it was his faith and the gratitude that came from his faith that made him well, it was his gratitude that made him whole.
Patrick Wilson in his sermon, Deep Gratitude, tells the story of a minister who served a small church in Aberdeen, Mississippi. During his first year at the little church the new pastor was visited by three men inquiring about one of his members, a widow who lived by herself. “Was she getting out?” they inquired. “Were her friends in Aberdeen keeping in touch?” they wanted to know. “Was there anything they needed to do for her?” The three men explained the situation, gave him their cards, and told him to call them if there was anything they could humanly do to make her life happier or easier.
These three men arrived each year bearing presents their wives had picked out in the shops of San Francisco and New York. The men hired a family who mowed the woman’s yard, trimmed the bushes, and checked on tree branches and gutters. One of the men prepared the woman’s tax returns each year, another contracted repairs on her house or made them himself. Sometimes they helped her shop for a new car. They were meticulous in wanting to check on everything and anticipate every difficulty the woman might face.
Each year they visited the President of the Bank of Mississippi in Aberdeen passed out their cards and explained that he was to notify them of any special needs this woman might have. Then they explained to the bank president the situation. The situation was this: More than sixty years ago the three men had been soldiers standing on the ground floor of a house in Normandy just a few days after D-Day when a German grenade came bouncing down the stairs. A fourth soldier, the woman’s husband, threw himself on the grenade, absorbing most of its impact. The three men lived because of his sacrifice.
After the war was over the three men began making their way to Aberdeen on a regular basis to make sure that this man’s widow would lack for nothing they had within their power to provide for her. They had been doing that for more than twenty-five years when this pastor first started his ministry at the church in Aberdeen.
It’s a remarkable story. But what’s even more remarkable is that there were eighteen soldiers on the first floor of that house in Normandy. All eighteen of them were spared by the action of that one soldier’s sacrifice, but after the war only three of them made their regular pilgrimages to Aberdeen, Mississippi. Three out of eighteen: that’s about 17%. How difficult it is to imagine 100% gratitude? What does it take for us to recognize that life is a gift, and the only possible human response to this gift is gratitude?
The faithful life is the grateful life. Faithful living equals grateful living. Even with all of our struggles, illnesses, losses, and difficulties, each of us has been blessed in more ways then we could ever count. Do we live our lives saying thank you to God or do we more often spend our days thinking about what we don’t have, what we ought to have, what we’ve lost, what we deserve and didn’t get, what we want and can’t afford. Living gratefully changes how we see life because it brings into focus all the blessings that surround us every minute of every day. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book, Who Needs God, “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make the difference.”
Living gratefully is a way of seeing the world that focuses on God’s grace and the blessings that come our way every single day of our lives. Living gratefully does not deny the hard realities, the difficult things that inevitably happen to all of us. Rather, grateful living focuses on the blessings, the grace that is there even when life is very hard. As followers of Jesus our job is to learn this way of seeing the world. Our job is to give God thanks for all the grace filled blessings that come our way and to strive to be agents of grace for others. To understand that you are blessed and to spend your time being a blessing to others is the key to the faithful life. Amen.