Gratitude seems like it should be such a simple thing. Someone does something for you, you’re grateful, and you say thank you. But gratitude is more complex than that. In the story we read from Luke, Jesus healed 10 lepers. Nine of them did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They went to the priest to be certified that they were healed. The tenth leper was on his way to the priest, but he stopped in his tracks, turned back, and thanked Jesus for what he had done. Were the others not grateful? Jesus did for them exactly what he did for that tenth leper. Why did he turn around, praising God with a loud voice and fall at Jesus’ feet with gratitude?
It’s because the tenth leper received a second blessing. The first blessing was being healed of his disease. The second blessing was knowing who it was that healed him. The first blessing, the gift of healing, was wonderful. It sent nine lepers running to the priest to do their duty. The second blessing, the gift of seeing God at work, was even better. It sent the tenth leper running back to Jesus to fall at his feet.
Gratitude can’t be forced. It can’t be predicted. There’s not always a correlation between how much someone receives and how grateful he or she is. Think of all the countries that the United States helps with foreign aid that don’t seem to have the proper gratitude for what we give them. Think of how much we’ve poured into the Middle East. You’d think that people in places like Iraq and Afghanistan would be falling all over themselves with gratitude for all the effort we’ve put into building up their societies, and yet there is widespread resentment of us among their populations. Sometimes when people receive a gift, it just makes them feel resentful toward the one who gives it. The gift emphasizes that the giver has power over the one who receives it.
Seward Hiltner, a professor at Princeton Seminary and one of the pioneers of modern pastoral counseling, wrote about the complexity of gratitude. He identified something he called “reactive gratitude.” It’s that gratitude that springs up when we’ve received something wonderful but then melts away into anger and resentment. As an example, he tells of the very wealthy man who is diagnosed with a serious illness and appeals to his surgeon to do anything possible to cure him. Cost is no object. The surgeon operates and informs the man that he is cured. The man is so grateful he exclaims, “You saved my life. When I get home, I’m going to do something significant for the hospital.” The man gets home, and as the weeks go by, his gratitude begins to fade. In fact, when he gets the bill, he begins to grumble about how much he has to pay the surgeon, the same man for whom only weeks before he was going to name a new wing of the hospital.
Reactive gratitude is that reaction we have to some immediate and unexpected gift that starts out as enthusiasm but after a while turns to resentment for the power the giver has over us. The giver sees what he or she is doing as generosity, while the receiver sees it as one more example of the inequality of power. Whatever gratitude there is for what someone has done is overcome by resentment of the power that lets them do it. Oscar Wilde summed it up when he was talking about a certain man. “I can’t figure out why the man hates me,” Wilde said. “I’ve never done anything for him.”
This is stewardship season at Eastminster church the time of year when we consider our pledges of financial commitment to God, one way we acknowledge that we have nothing, not even life itself, that doesn’t come from God. So what keeps us from resenting one who has so much power over us? What is it that lets us say thank you to God with joy and genuine gratitude, like the man who threw himself at Jesus’ feet?
Jesus shows us that there’s something different about the power of God. He shows us that God’s power is pure, self-giving love. The cross, where Jesus died for us, is proof of the extent to which God has gone to bless us. God doesn’t sit comfortably on the throne of heaven and give us gifts that don’t cost anything. In Jesus Christ God gives us himself, love that is extravagant and knows no bounds, love that shares our hurts, our sorrows, our grief. In Jesus we know that the eternal power of God is for us.
The story of the ten lepers shows how extravagant and boundless that love is. The story doesn’t tell us anything about the motives or the expectations of the ten lepers Jesus healed. It doesn’t tell us whether or not they deserved to be healed. If you read carefully, you’ll see they didn’t even ask to be healed. They cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Some may have expected him to heal them. Some could just as likely have wanted a handout, or some words of comfort. Some may not have known what they were asking for, but thought they’d ask for something. Some may have seen Jesus as the Son of God. Some may have seen him as a magician. Some may have seen him as an easy touch. The story tells us nothing about what the lepers thought or what they believed. But Jesus healed every one of them.
Jesus is just as extravagant with us. We come to him with all kinds of motives. Some come to Jesus because they truly believe he is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. Some come because they want a good influence on their children. Some come to Jesus because they’re desperate for healing or hope, and they’re willing to try anything. Some come because they’re seeking meaning and purpose in life and they’re willing to give him a try. Some come because it’s what their parents told them they should do. Some come because they have nothing to lose. The gospels never say the people Jesus blessed had pure motives and perfect understanding. But he blessed them anyway.
And Jesus blesses us whether we deserve it or not. People come to church and they find peace, joy, hope, community, and the fulfillment of serving others. They encounter the power of the living God here whether they understand it or not. And even those who don’t care a thing about God, he blesses them too. Jesus said the rain falls on the just and the unjust. God gives life to believers and unbelievers. People of faith and people of no faith have loving families, purposeful jobs, experience the warmth of human love. God’s blessings aren’t limited. They overflow and touch everyone, believer or not.
Sometimes we underestimate what God has already done for us, before we even ask. All you have to do is open your eyes, and you’ll see that God is good to you whether you believe in God or not.
In many ways those lepers were in a better position to recognize God’s blessings than we are. Leprosy was a horrible disease. It disfigured its victims by afflicting them with scabby sores. It turned their skin flaky white. It could eat away fingers and limbs. Not only was it physically devastating, it was a social death sentence. Ancient law demanded that lepers leave their family and friends and live on the outskirts of towns. They were not allowed to have jobs and had to depend on handouts for survival. They had nothing – no money, no job, no family, no food but what they could beg. And sometimes it’s when we realize how little we have that we’re the most grateful.
Our image of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation is of tables overflowing with game and produce, a celebration of the bounty of a new land. But that’s hardly the reality of the first Thanksgiving. In the Spring of 1621 the Pilgrims planted three crops: peas, barley, and corn. The peas were planted too late, and the sun scorched them while they were in bloom. The barley crop was described as indifferent. The corn was not the Silver Queen variety we feast on in the summer but native American maize, ears two to three inches long, grown without any pesticides, stuff we wouldn’t bother to pick today. Within a few months after the first Thanksgiving another ship arrived carrying 35 new mouths to feed but no extra food. By the time the second winter was over, they were surviving on a ration of five kernels of corn per person. But they gave thanks anyway, not for a bountiful harvest, but for what little they had.
A rabbi who lived in a community where I once lived told about spending the night at her boyfriend’s parents’ house in an affluent New Jersey suburb. She was asleep on the sofa in the living room when she was awakened by her boyfriend’s father padding down the steps into the kitchen. He went into the kitchen and cut himself a slab of rye bread, then stood with it in the dining room under the shadows of the street light. “’Chleb!’ he said finally, thrusting the bread into the air. ‘Broit’ – he held the bread against his pajama pocked. ‘Pan’ – he shook it. ‘Lechem’ – kissed it. ‘Bread’ – took a bite.” He did it over and over, saying the word in different languages, thrusting, hugging, shaking, kissing, until finally he stood there empty handed and went back upstairs to bed. The man was a holocaust survivor, and sometimes the contrast between what he had survived and what he had woke him in the night and he had to show his gratitude.
Just a month ago we observed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Do you remember what a spiritual awakening there was right after that? I don’t what it was like at Eastminster church, but the church I was serving had a surge in worship attendance for weeks afterward. That was due in large part because we were forced to see how vulnerable so many of the things we take for granted really are. Centuries ago St. Augustine observed that if you can influence something, you don’t have to be grateful for it. September 11 reminded us that there are some things in life we can’t influence. Every time there’s a new terrorist incident or mass shooting, we’re reminded of that vulnerability again. We’re not as invincible as we like to think we are. The proper response to that isn’t to roll over and give in to the things that can harm us or to create scapegoats and lash out blindly at those who are different, but to have a proper humility about ourselves and learn to rely on the power of God that’s stronger than anything within us.
We see the same thing happen in our own lives. Every time we’re hit with an unexpected illness or have to face surgery, whenever we feel the effects of advancing years, we are reminded that we are not invincible and don’t have complete control over our lives. Facing the reality of our limits, the proper response is to step back and be thankful for what we have, for families and friends, for freedom and faith. I’m not saying to give up and ignore the strengths and opportunities God gives us, but to claim that second blessing that the tenth leper received, the recognition that the blessings we have come from God and that they’re evidence that God is at work in this world through the grace of Christ – a glimpse of what God has prepared for us.
The pledges we will
be considering over the next few weeks are our claim on that second blessing,
the blessing of seeing God’s hand behind all we have no matter how much or how
little. They’re our pledge that we
notice God’s hand in all we have. We remember who blesses us. The tenth leper
laid himself at Jesus’ feet and claimed that second blessing of seeing God’s
love behind the miracle. We lay what we
have before Jesus and make our claim on that second blessing of knowing whom to
thank, the blessing of faith.
 Seward Hiltner, Theological Dynamics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), pp. 47-48.
 John W. Wilson, “Preaching on Thanksgiving,” Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1992, p. 21.
 Susan Schnur, “On Being Grateful: Life’s Constraints Make It Possible,” The New York Times, July 25, 1985.
A young minister arrived at his first parish right out of seminary. It was a small, thriving congregation in rural Kentucky. Full of zeal to proclaim God’s truth, he preached his first sermon on the evils of smoking. After he had greeted the stony faces at the church door following the service, one of the elders pulled him aside and said, “Son, do you know what that stuff growing in the fields around here is? It’s tobacco. That’s what pays your salary.” The next Sunday he took another tack and preached a rousing sermon denouncing the evils of drinking. He got the same response from his congregation. The elder pulled him aside and said, “Son, don’t you notice those big buildings you drive by every day where half this congregation works? What do you think they make in all those distilleries around here? Holy water? You’re living in Bourbon County!” Well, the poor minister was starting to wonder what vices he could preach against. So the next Sunday he preached against the evils of gambling. Same cold reaction. Same elder pulled him aside after the service. “Son,” he said, “you see those horses out there in the field? We don’t raise them for pony rides. Those are thoroughbreds. Haven’t you ever heard of the Kentucky Derby?” The next Sunday, it was obvious the young minister had learned his lesson. After the service the congregation was beaming. People told him they agreed with every word he said. He had given them a rousing sermon against the evils of nude sunbathing in the Seychelles Islands of the Indian Ocean.
I used to be a pastor in Kentucky, and I remembered that story every once in a while when I got my paycheck. Sometimes I wondered where the money came from. How much of it could be traced back to companies and financial dealings I’d rather not be associated with? I really wanted to be pure and spotless, a true disciple among that chosen race, that royal priesthood whom Jesus has called apart from the world to holy and perfect. So as a way of keeping my spiritual focus, every three months I took a day-long spiritual retreat to a Trappist monastery. I’d go to get away from it all, to spend quality time with the Master. But even there, among the brothers who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, sitting on the registration desk were full color brochures selling the line of products the monks manufacture to support their ministry. The biggest seller? Fudge. Whiskey infused bourbon fudge.
You can’t get away from money or the impurities of the world, and wherever you encounter it, there’s something ambiguous about it. The gospels reflect that ambiguity. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich,” yet he eats with Zacchaeus the tax collector who got rich by taking advantage of the poor. After meeting with Jesus, Zacchaeus repaid everyone he had defrauded and gave away half his fortune to the poor, but that meant he kept the other half which meant he was still pretty well off. When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to proclaim the kingdom, he told them to take nothing with them that would encumber them on their way, but Jesus blessed those who had the means to provide for him and the disciples along the way. Jesus proclaimed, “blessed are the poor,” yet he praised the woman who spent a lavish sum of money to anoint him with precious perfume. And in the parable we read this morning, he commends the dishonest steward for cooking the books. Of all the things God gives us to do the work of the Kingdom, there’s nothing more freighted with ambiguity and uncertainty, nothing that carries such potential for both good and for ill as money.
When you read through the gospels, you’ll notice that Jesus has a lot to say about money – a lot more to say than he does about sex. I think he says so much about money because he knew it would be such a big concern for his disciples. For one thing, so much of our sense of self-worth is connected with our money. How much money we have determines if we dine on beans or steak. It determines whether we live in cramped, inadequate housing or a spacious home in a nice community. It determines what kind of car we drive and the education our kids receive. We know those material things shouldn’t be connected with our sense of worth, but it’s hard not to make the connection.
After my father-in-law died in an automobile accident several years ago, I was talking with the family lawyer about the insurance settlement. He explained that it was going to take a while to settle because we had to prove the value of my father-in-law’s life. Showing my naiveté in these matters, I expressed my shock. “What do you mean by the value of his life? How can you put a value on a life?” He explained that we had to put a cost on the loss of his law practice and the value of his care for my mother-in-law who had Alzheimer’s disease. From the insurance company’s perspective, I understand what has to be done. But you can see why we get so uncomfortable when we talk about money in church. It’s not long before it gets tied up with our sense of worth.
There’s a legend that says when certain barbarian tribes of Europe were converted to Christianity, they submitted to baptism, but when they were immersed in the water, they kept their swords raised in the air. They were willing to give over most of their lives to Jesus, but they were warriors who lived by the sword, and they didn’t want the Prince of Peace to lay claim to their swords, their livelihood. Sometimes we’re like that with our wallets. We don’t mind giving Jesus our prayers, our time, our worship, but we depend on our money for survival, so we don’t risk subjecting it to him.
We’re conflicted, and we look to Jesus to deliver us from the unsavory things that we often associate with money. Bernard Madoff’s greed for money led him to deceive hundreds of people who lost their life savings to his dishonesty. Floods of money from special interests threaten to corrupt our democracy. We can’t win the war on drugs because so many people, from Afghanistan to York, are making fortunes off illegal drugs. There are too many stories about movie stars and sports heroes whose decency is eroded by too much money and the fame and power that come with it. 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and it makes us squeamish to think that Jesus would have anything to do with something as corrupting as money.
But Jesus didn’t come to make us pure by removing us from the world. Rather, in Christ we’re changed into people who are fresh and new so we can live in the world for him. It’s like he gives us a new set of eyes so we can see how to use the things of this world – like money – to save the world, and to save ourselves.
That’s what the manager in the parable did. He was about to be fired for squandering his boss’s property. Anyone who knows anything about personnel management would have fired the guy on the spot, but the boss told him first to settle up his accounts. The manager was shrewd. He marked down the bills his boss’s debtors owed so he could get on their good side and they’d provide for him when he was out on the street. Instead of condemning his dishonesty, Jesus commended the manager as an example for us. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” he said, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
In this world, in this life, money has power. So Jesus tells us to make the best of it and use wealth to further the kingdom, to take what can be dangerous to our spiritual welfare and use it to prepare for that time when money won’t matter.
One way we do that is by using the money we have to make possible acts of love and mercy and healing that proclaim the reign of Christ. When we give to the church or to hospitals, seminaries, or relief organizations, we harness the power of money and put it in the service of forces for good. I admire this church’s trustees, how they bring their knowledge of money management to the task of making sure every dollar we give to the church is squeezed as tightly as possible through sound investments, good money management, and careful budgeting to make sure that the wealth we give is working as hard as it can for Jesus.
But giving our money isn’t just about making the world a better place. Giving away our money changes us. How we use our money is a spiritual practice. If you want to know what someone’s values really are, look at how they spend their money. We can talk all we want to about what’s important to us, but how we use our money is the real proof of what we believe. And that’s where money can be our spiritual friend. If God truly is the most important thing in your life, then the first thing you’re going to do with your money is to give it away just like God gives to you.
One big objection to giving generously is, “Well, I’ve got all these expenses. I can’t afford to give generously.” What does that say about your values and your priorities? Once you start to give generously, you’ll see how God can reshape your priorities so maybe you don’t need as much as you thought you did. It doesn’t matter how much you earn. In fact, Americans with lower incomes give a higher percentage of their income than those who are wealthy.
Sure, the church and charities need the money you give. Over the next few weeks, you’ll see how much Eastminster Church needs. Those needs are real. But the even bigger need is our need to give. We are made in the image of God, and God gives. In our giving, we follow God. Our giving shapes us in generosity and in gratitude. The real blessing of money isn’t what it buys us, but how we can use it to have a part in the work of Jesus, and to practice being generous, just as he is so gracious to us.
Psalm 137 is one of the most disturbing passages in the whole Bible. Its closing line is what bothers me most: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” An outburst like that seems out of place in the same book where Jesus teaches us to bless those who persecute us and forgive those who have sinned against us.
Some have suggested that the psalm, so full of anger and hatred, shouldn’t really have a place in the Bible now that Jesus has come, that it’s made obsolete by Jesus’ gospel of love and forgiveness. The problem is that God reveals himself to us through the entire Bible, not just those parts that suit our taste. II Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” There are certain practices in the Old Testament that we’re no longer bound to do now that Jesus has come. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul said that women should keep quiet in church, but we no longer have to refrain from eating certain foods like pork or shellfish. Those restrictions were one way the Israelites set themselves apart from other nations, and now all nations are one in Christ. We no longer prevent women from speaking in church. Those restrictions were accommodations to social norms of the time. But the anger that the psalmist expresses is as real today as it was 3000 years ago. The only difference is that now instead of having to resort to rocks and spears to avenge anger, there are missiles and tanks and car bombs to use against enemies.
One thing that can help us understand this psalm is to remember that although the Bible is inspired by God, it was written by and for human beings. One characteristic of the Bible that makes it so valuable is that it deals with every human emotion, from lust to greed to pity to romance. The Bible has been called “the book that reads us.” It not only tells us about God, it also tells us about ourselves. As we learn about who we are from the Bible, we can also learn something about the way God relates to us.
Psalm 137 shows us what kinds of things we can bring to God in prayer. Many of us think of prayer as something we can only do when we’re in the right frame of mind – our souls have to be fresh and scrubbed and filled with pure, clean thoughts. Maybe that’s why many of us pray so little: we’re rarely in the right frame of mind. We try to put away all our anger and hatred and pettiness before we come to God so God can see us at our best, and we find that so often, when we sit down to pray, we’re just not ready.
Now, that’s a noble goal, to try to be our best before the Lord. But one wonderful thing about God is that God invites us to come before him just as we are. We don’t have to have our spiritual house in perfect order before we can pray.
In the 137th psalm the psalmist makes no pretense that he has any kind thoughts toward those who burned his home, raped his sisters, and carried his nation into exile. He doesn’t pretend to keep his sense of humor when his captors make fun of his most deeply held beliefs by forcing him to sing sacred songs intended for God as light entertainment to help them wile away the evening. No, the psalmist doesn’t try to put a pleasant face on his feelings. He’s totally honest with God. He would love to see the things most precious to the Babylonians, even their children, thrown headlong against a rock.
Sometimes we have to voice our rage before we’re able to forgive. As one writer put it, “Grief and sorrow that go unspoken may break the heart that hugs them tight.” (Herbert Anderson, All Our Sorrows, All Our Griefs) And where better to take that rage than to Almighty God? God allows us to bare our meanest, most vicious side to him. After all, God created us and knows our deepest feelings. We can bring God our most human emotions confident that God doesn’t reject us. God doesn’t turn us away because we’re made of flesh and blood and not perfect angels.
It’s important to note that the psalmist didn’t actually go out and organize a posse to murder Babylonian babies. He told God how he felt, but didn’t act on that bitter feeling. He cried out to God for vindication, and left it in God’s hands. About 100 years later God did deliver the Jews from captivity. The Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go home to Jerusalem. But Cyrus, King of Persia, was a relatively gentle conqueror by the standards of the time. He didn’t murder babies. He didn’t ravage Babylon like the psalmist wanted. God did deliver the Jews from captivity, but in God’s own way.
Another thing this psalm tells us about ourselves is that forgiveness isn’t something that can be forced too quickly. It would be a lot easier to accept if the psalm ended on a note of forgiveness, if we could see some peaceful resolution in the heart of the one who wrote it. But it doesn’t resolve itself that way. It ends on a note of bitterness and resentment. Sometimes anger has to run its course before we’re able to forgive. And this psalm stops before it ever gets to the point of forgiveness.
To those who have never lived in exile, who have never felt the cold grip of the oppressor, who have never felt completely powerless over our destiny, such unresolved anger may be hard to understand. I find the bitterness of the psalm, well, embarrassing because it’s just not proper to be so angry. But not everyone in the world has the luxury of forgiving easily. This psalm is a link with those who live in situations that seem hopeless, those whose only relief in suffering is to cry out their complaint to God who hears. Although these cries of an exile may sound harsh to us, they resonate in the ears of a Palestinian who has been deprived of her homeland and is rearing a fifth generation of children in a refugee camp. The words of the psalm may be the words of an Honduran father whose child was killed by in a gang war. These words could be those of a woman in Syria who has been enslaved by ISIS and forced to be the wife of someone who has murdered her family. These could even be the words someone in your neighborhood who is held emotionally captive by an abusive spouse.
Most of us have so many things that preoccupy us that it’s easy to overlook the kind of suffering and oppression that goes on in the lives of others, especially those who are separated from us by an ocean. When you have a job to hold down, a family to rear, bills to pay, there’s not much time or emotional energy left to give much thought to people whose situation is very different from yours. This psalm is our link with those whose only hope is in raising their cries of anger to a just God. It’s one way that we who are free from oppression keep from seeing our freedom as something to take for granted. It does something to our prayers to realize that they’re heard by the same God who hears the anguished cries of those who have been abused, that our prayers are mingled in the ears of God with those who have been put down and degraded.
In Christ we have the assurance that he will come to make all things right, to deliver this world from all pain and suffering and oppression. We know that in him there is nothing that can overcome us. But God doesn’t expect us always to have a smile. There are times when smiles aren’t appropriate. It’s comforting to know that between the promise of the resurrection and its fulfillment on the day of judgment, we can come to God with our most human emotions, even our most precious hatreds, and God will hear us. God meets us where we are. That’s not always where we want to be, but not even our anger, our grief, our hatred can keep God away. He hears us and draws us to this table, where we partake of his healing grace along with all who have ever called on God’s name. Come. God meets us here.