Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

One More Thing – Luke 17:11-19

Posted by John Montgomery on November 19, 2008

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy travel programs and books. Watching Rick Steves’ on TV as he travels around Europe and the British Isles has taught me much. Perhaps you have cherished memories of trips. Recently I asked Chaplain Remington if she were going to keep a travel diary of her trip to Italy and share it with us as she did following her trip to Israel last year.

Travel narratives are nothing new. The ancient tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey are still studied in school. Among other things, the Biblical accounts of the Hebrew exodus, the years into the Promised Land, are a travel narrative. Scholars tell us that today’s New Testament lesson is a part of a travel narrative, the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, what he encountered, the teachings he gave, the unfolding drama.

Now we are told that Jesus must pass through the region of Samaria, not exactly friendly territory for Jews. But whether there or back in his homeland there was a colony or encampment of “lepers.” Now lepers (or people with some sort of loathsome skin disease) had to live apart, somewhat like they have to do today in India. Such afflicted persons were excluded from their families. If others came near them, they were to call out a warning, “Unclean! Unclean!”  When talking, they must keep their mouths covered; they were sort of the living dead, enduring a terrible quarantine.Yet these poor souls were desperate enough to approach Jesus and beg for help. One was a Samaritan, willing to beseech the Jewish miracle worker for healing.

We cannot know the details of what is traditionally called a miracle. Although Jesus once said that he was sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he did not place any boundaries on deeds of compassion and mercy. Again and again he showed God’s love to people of every con-dition, all nationalities, any whom life had treated cruelly. Because the priests were also public health officials, Jesus sent the healed persons to them that they might be certified as clean and permitted to return to normal life.

Here the story takes a strange twist. Only one bothered to turn around and “say a thanks” to Jesus or to praise God for the gift of new life. Now Jesus himself did not need thanks: but he did want the healed men to recognize that their newly bestowed well-being was a gift from God because it was by the power of God that Jesus was able to accomplish life transforming deeds.

I know you can see the relevance of this for our Thanksgiving season. Several weeks ago in the Wednesday morning Bible study I attend at First United Methodist we were talking about that ugly political word, “entitlements.” Is this not true of our spiritual lives as well? How often we take the good gifts of life for granted and fail to acknowledge the Creator. Or we fail to acknowledge the many people or the many things which make life pleasant, happy, and whole for us. Sometimes I wonder if we Americans are not the worst offenders at this. Because many of us have so much, we feel like we are entitled, that it is our right. Perhaps it is a sign that we are better than other people, that we do not have to be thoughtful or considerate of those less fortunate than we. Like the nine lepers we fail to really thank God and praise him for our bounty.

I wonder if this habit of thankfulness must not be at the very core, the very center of our lives, not just this next Thursday; or perhaps it is not at all. Since one of my undergraduate degrees was in English, it should not be surprising that I often refer to poems and poets. I was always attracted to the life and work of the 17th century British poet, George Herbert. He was born in the small Welsh village which bears my family name, Montgomery. Herbert left a prominent university position to become an Anglican priest in an obscure and impoverished country parish where he filled his days with care for the sick and needy. His poems and his written prayers were not published until after his death. One of his prayers had these words:

“O Thou Who hast given us so much, mercifully grant us one thing more, a grateful heart.”

“One thing more.”

A thankful heart, truly grateful heart, must indeed be the gift of God. Perhaps you might agree with me that God gives the recognition of this in “dibs and drabbles” across the years of experience.

In my boyhood years we were expected to tell our blessings at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Probably we kids – or I – said the obvious things, turkey and all the trimmings. Now in the autumn years of our lives my sisters and I often reminisce about the real gifts, the family love that surrounded us and formed us.

Our New Testament lesson today gives us one illustration of Thanksgiving. But in thinking about it I realized that the Bible is a sort of “book of thanks.” Even beyond the history, the laws, the teachings, almost every page seems to breathe messages of gratitude. The Book of Psalms seems like a cantata of thanksgiving. In many churches the words are sung. The 100th Psalm contains these words:

Enter his gates with thanksgiving. And his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.

And we could quote others with the same theme; they sound like a mighty chorus of praise.

Perhaps this is another way of saying that thanksgiving is a way of life and not just a day in our lives. It is good to rehearse the story of the Pilgrims, however accurate that might be. It is better that the story of our lives be an example of gratitude. Perhaps it starts in simple ways. Most of us here are old enough to remember the art work of the late Norman Rockwell whose illustrations graced the covers of The Saturday Evening Post and are oft repeated on commercial calendars. One of the most famous was in November of 1951. It depicted a old fashioned woman, hat and all, sitting with a young boy in a crowded restaurant. The two were saying grace; their table mates and curious onlookers seemed untouched by this display of piety. And yet who knows what influence it might have?

Alas, not all of us are not that forward even in such a simple expression of thanks. I am grateful for the example of one of our residents who always folds his hands in silent prayer before a meal. I wouldn’t tell him, but it is kind of rebuke to me or at least a reminder that my own spirit needs this continuing thankfulness.

Recently I became acquainted with the work and writings of a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast. He is known most for preaching and teaching the power that gratitude brings to our lives.

It is not only his words but that he himself is living example of thanksgiving. I have never met him personally, but I have listened to some of his lectures. There is much about him as a person which I wish I had in my own life.

This Catholic teacher makes some important observations about thanksgiving. First of all, he says that gratitude expresses trust. If nothing else, we must trust the graciousness of the other, be it God or a fellow human, to receive that thanks. Moreover, giving thanks brings with it courage and brings with it courage to go on, to keep doing the right thing. This is not heresy, but do you suppose that Jesus ever got discouraged? Then this grateful Samaritan showed his thankfulness, and Jesus might have said to himself, “It’s worth it all. I’m going on to Jerusalem, come what may.”

Brother Steindl-Rast believes that thankfulness spreads calm. It slows the confusion which bedevils us, tamps down the chaotic thinking, softens the doubts and fears that cripple us emotionally and sometimes physically. And then he adds something that all  of us surely need by saying:

“When you are grateful, your heart is open – open toward others, open for surprise.”

Surely the Samaritan by being thankful might have found further blessings the Master might give. And is it not true that our thanksgiving is important not only for what it does for us and also what it does for others. It boosts our sense of belonging and in the unity of togetherness we can accomplish much.

For many of us the coming Thanksgiving Day will find us with mixed feelings. In the autumn of our lives all of us have endured or are going through times of sorrow, loss and grief. Some of us will be totally separated from the comfort of family and friends; yet even in the emptiness there is a constant and sure companion, the spirit of thankfulness. In the words of Steindl-Rast:

“Live wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise, then you will discover the fullness of your life.”

And, “one thing more.”

In your bulletin is a copy of a 13th century English bishop’s prayer which speaks our gratitude to Jesus Christ. Will you join with me in this prayer:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for the all benefits which you have given us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.

(This is one version of the prayer by Richard of Chichester. It is also paraphrased in the song, “Day by Day.”)

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