You can’t command someone to be thankful. It doesn’t really work like that. You can’t be forced to say “Thank you,” and really mean it.
In one scene of the movie, A Christmas Story, a nine year old boy, and his family are opening presents beneath their Christmas tree on Christmas morning. Ralphy receives a gift from his Aunt Clara who in his words, “…had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually four years old, but also a girl.” Ralph suspiciously opens his gift to find a very fuzzy, pink, set of bunny pajamas. They have little bunny faces on the feet and big floppy bunny ears that are attached to the hood. Ralph’s mother tells him that his Aunt Clara puts so much hard work and thought into her Christmas gifts and asks Ralph to model the new pajamas. The thoroughly embarrassed Ralph reluctantly wears the bunny suit as his younger brother giggles uncontrollably and his father tells him that “he looks like a deranged Easter Bunny” and “a pink nightmare.”
Ralph’s mother tries to convince her son to appreciate the odd, but very thoughtful gift of his aunt. But no matter how much his mother pleads, Ralph cannot force himself to feel grateful for the gift.
You can’t force gratitude. You either see the blessing in front of you or you don’t, and you can’t give thanks for something that you don’t see. With God we may be appalled by what is presented as a blessing (as was the case with Ralph) or we may simply not see the gifts that are given to us.
Ten lepers approach Jesus and beg him to have mercy on them. Jesus tells them to go to the priests of the Temple. On their way to the priests all ten of the lepers are miraculously healed. One of them sees this blessing and is so thrilled that he runs back to this Jesus person who had healed him and gave thanks.
I love the image of the Samaritan leper as he returns to Jesus. The text says that he turned around as soon as he saw that he had been healed and was “praising God with a loud voice.” This is no subdued head bowing and a silent prayer kind of thanks. This is pure, unadulterated joy. I can imagine him literally leaping for joy and shouting, “Wahooooo! Yipeeee!”
Jesus then asks where the other nine lepers are. Why didn’t they return to give thanks? We might want to answer for him. “Uh, Jesus, they are doing exactly what you told them to do. They are on their way to the priests…” The other nine were still healed. Their healing was not given to them under the condition that they return leaping for joy and praising God. They received the blessing of God in the form of this healing, but they did not pause to reflect on this healing and return to give thanks. I don’t know why only one turns around to give thanks and praise to Jesus. Maybe the other nine were afraid that if they didn’t go to the priests like Jesus had commanded, the healing wouldn’t stick. Maybe they were so focused on getting healed that they didn’t realize they had already been healed. Maybe they were too tired to make the return trip back to Jesus. Who knows? But we do know that the Samaritan leper was overcome with joy when he realized the blessing he had received from Jesus. In a sense, the Samaritan leper gets a double blessing. First, Jesus hears his prayer for healing and gives it to him as well as the other nine lepers. Second, the spontaneous and abundant thanksgiving of the Samaritan leper draws him into a deeper faith and a deeper relationship with Jesus. He is hooting and hollering because he is so aware of the blessing and joy that comes from knowing Christ. This is the love that is freely given to someone even as supposedly unclean and outcast as him- a man with a disgusting and/or debilitating skin disease and as a Samaritan- one who was also considered to be a heretic, an idolator, and an untrustworthy person.
There are lots of places in this world that are clearly awaiting healing and for those places in our own lives, the lives of neighbors near, and the lives of our neighbors far, we pray that we might know the saving grace of God’s unconditional love. We pray that God might intervene in places like Trenton, Ferguson, Israel and Palestine, Syria, our prisons, our schools, and countless other parts of our world that are hurting and in need. It is also important to stop when we see God’s blessing and give thanks. Such praise and thanksgiving ends up being a double blessing for us as we are shaped and inspired by the grace of God.
So what are you thankful for? Me, I am thankful for my family and my friends who support and love me as I am. I am thankful for this place, St. Bart’s, where I get to join in proclaiming the goodness of God in Word, Sacrament, and service with the incredible people of this congregation. I have seen people holding each other deep in prayer, volunteering their time to serve as nursery attendants, put together bulletins, assist in worship, count offering, cook big meals, give rides to people without a car, trudge up and down the stairs letting people into the Clothes Closet, and I can guarantee that there are lots of other blessings that I, like the nine lepers, have not noticed. Those are the kind of things that make me want to “praise God with a loud voice” as the Samaritan leper did. What are you thankful for? What things in your life can you point to and say, “Yes. That is a blessing from God.”
Sometimes we can easily point to the blessings of God. Other times we are more like the other nine lepers who have not noticed the blessings of God, are too focused on taking care of our problems, or are too tired and defeated to shout for joy and give thanks. For those places in our own lives that are hurting, for times when we simply cannot give thanks because it is so hard to see it in our lives and in our world, we trust that God is still thankful for us. God gives loud shouts of thanksgiving for us. God is so very grateful and filled with joy for the lives of all of God’s children that God could not possibly forget us in our need. In our hurts, God yearns to wipe away our tears and bless us with something to be thankful for. We have a God who has not forgotten us and never will. Christ did not forget the Samaritan leper who was able to give thanks, Christ did not forget the nine lepers who did not give thanks, and Christ will not forget about us. The healing gift of Christ is there for us all. Amen.
Thanks to David Lose for the ideas about being unable to force thanksgiving.