Dr. Neil Carver on Gratitude (Oct 9)

Gratitude  Luke 17:11-19 (Proper 23C)  

Let me repeat what I’ve been sharing these past several weeks –  from its beginning to its end, the Gospel of Luke is a collection of stories. In its opening four verses, the writer of this gospel tells us the his purpose is to write in an orderly narrative of things that had been previously shared by others.

The bread and wine in our sacrament of Holy Communion do not change their substance, and yet we receive them to express our desire to participate in the life of Jesus the Messiah. In much the same manner, while this story is to be taken very seriously, we are not expected to take it literally. It identifies Jesus as the Messiah whose unrestricted mission is to extend compassion and kindness to all who might otherwise be considered beyond the boundaries of Judaism.

And so I ask – what did you hear when I just read this morning’s gospel? Those who first received this gospel would have clearly identified with the lepers in this story. They were among scattered Judeo-Christian communities in what was then known as the Roman Province of Asia Minor. They lived with other exiled Jews along the Syrian borders of Palestine and further beyond the Golan Heights They were at a far distance from Jerusalem and, because they opened up their fellowship to Gentile members, other Jews regarded them as unclean and kept them at a distance.

Without question, the early followers of Jesus would have readily identified themselves with the Samaritan and lepers in this story.

It begins with Jesus noticing the lepers. Luke says “When he saw them.” It’s a small but significant detail. Jewish law and human nature conspired to make lepers invisible. In those days lepers grew accustomed to the turned head, the averted gaze, the lack of recognition. They were unclean – which was to say, they were less than fully human. They were invisible to others. So, it must have startled them to look at Jesus and see his eyes looking back at them. That would have been enough, by itself, to fill their hearts with gratitude. “Someone actually paused to look at me! He saw me! I’m a person worthy of attention!”

But Jesus does more. He simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests. Nothing more. But they did it. They turned, not having yet been healed, and headed for the priests. I wonder if they asked themselves, “Unless we appear to be other than what we thought of ourselves, why else would this person have acknowledge us? He not only stopped to look at us, he also addressed us. Perhaps, indeed, we are not untouchable lepers but we are just as clean and as whole as any other person.” Indeed, they were sufficiently convinced that they prepared to do what he said, to present themselves to be authenticated as wholesome individuals. Then, we’re told, as they followed through with what they had been instructed to do by Jesus, they began to see themselves as being, indeed, fully whole persons. They continued to head straight for the priests as Jesus had directed. Except for one. He came back, “praising God with a loud voice,” then “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.”

Scientists have examined the links between religion and physical and mental well being. Dr. Robert Emmons studies gratitude for a living as Professor of Psychology at the University of California. He has published a book “Thanks: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier”.It describes a study demonstrating that gratitude plays a significant role in a person’s sense of well-being. He had several hundred volunteers keep daily gratitude journals where they wrote something for which they felt grateful. Doing so 4 times a week, for as little as 3 weeks, was often enough to create a meaningful difference in a person’s level of happiness. Another exercise was to write a “Gratitude Letter” to a person who has exerted a positive influence on one’s life but whom we have not properly thanked in the past, and then to meet that person and read the letter to them face to face. He found first that the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve – a few hours writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more.

Third, that cultivating gratitude brought other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time. The results of his study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Additionally, the volunteers experienced less depression and stress, were more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals. According to the findings, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved. Dr. Emmons also noted that gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people since one act of gratitude encourages another.

Why then, with all these benefits, are we not more grateful? Is it because we have nothing to be grateful for? I don’t think so. Only one out of ten returned to give thanks. That’s probably about the percentage of time on average that we actually do give thanks when we ought to. The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, said this: “If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.” It’s a prayer we can’t possibly pray enough.

Our former rector discovered this when he visited members of the church in Brazil who had so little and yet who shared so much. Peter described how he was constantly receiving words of thanks: ‘Thanks for your visit, your blessing, your sermon, your prayer, your gifts, your presence with us.’ When Peter spoke of these experiences, he stressed how for members of the church in Brazil, all of life is a gift, a gift to be celebrated, a gift to be shared. Those of us who have much can learn from those who have little, that life itself is a cause for celebration.

This morning’s story from Luke’s gospel emphasizes the importance of gratitude, but it also tells me something more. As I stressed when I began, this story may not be taken literally, but is told to taken very seriously. When I hear this story, I am asked to identify not only with the lepers but, because I seek to share in the Body of Christ, I am asked to identify with Jesus. If we are truly identifying with Jesus, we shall be responding to those who find themselves on the fringes of society and who require our concerned attention and respect. We, who call ourselves the Church of the Holy Saviour, must ask, “How well are we providing a safe and kindly welcome for those who struggle to find acceptance elsewhere?” Those to whom this story was first shared identified with Jesus – after all, they were called to be his Presence here on earth, their lives had been transformed. In gratitude, they lived his life of unrestricted kindness and compassion. May the same hold true for you and me today.

Carver 09.10.2016  The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo