November 19, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT DO YOU SAY?
Thank you notes are going out of style. I hate saying that, but I’m afraid it’s true. I guess it’s in the same category as hand-written letters of any kind. But I still love to get them, and I still try real hard to remember to send them.
I have a friend who got a thank you note from John Wooden, the basketball coach. It’s one of his most prized possessions. Coach Wooden ended the note with these words:
Although it is often used without true feeling, when it is used with sincerity, no collection of words can be more expressive or meaningful than the very simple word – Thanks!
Today’s scripture is about saying thanks. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus. But they don’t all thank Jesus. Only one of them does.
It’s a nice little lesson to reinforce what most of us were taught at home. Good manners matter. And a big part of good manners is saying thank you.
So, there you have it. What else is there to say about this other than the obvious moral of the story? It is good to be thankful. It is bad not to be thankful. And I still have 18 minutes to fill.
One thing about the Bible is that many of its treasures are buried treasures, and there is no way to find buried treasure without digging. So let’s dig a little deeper this morning.
Let’s test the assumption that the nine who don’t bother to say thanks aren’t thankful. Why do we think that? Where else in all the healings of Jesus do we find another person who bothers to thank Jesus for a healing? There might be one, but I can’t think of it. Does that mean this one leper is the only thankful one? Of course not.
Take the blind man in John chapter 9 for example. He doesn’t thank Jesus for giving him sight. Maybe he writes him a thank you note later. But all we have in the Bible is this man using his eyes to move forward with his life. He begins by responding to the Pharisees who are investigating this miracle and hoping to discredit it. They want him to agree with them that Jesus is a sinner. He says, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Reading between the lines, I would say there are at least a couple more things he knows. He knows that seeing is better than not seeing. And he knows that he is thankful beyond words for what Jesus has done for him.
I really think that was true also of the nine ungrateful lepers. We call them ungrateful, but they weren’t. If we had chased them down and asked, “Aren’t you even grateful that Jesus healed you?” they would have answered: “Are you kidding? We are so grateful; we can’t begin to tell you! Jesus is so awesome! Excuse our hurry, but Jesus told us to go to the priest so our healing can be certified! Then we can’t wait to tell our families! We can’t wait to get on with our lives! For the rest of our lives we are going to be telling anyone who will listen about this day – the day Jesus healed us!”
That doesn’t sound ungrateful, does it? They are bursting at the seams with gratitude! So why does Jesus say, “Where are the nine?” Why does Jesus praise the one and cast the other nine in a bad light?
It’s because the nine are like us. Jesus wants us to see ourselves in them. We too are grateful people, but we too have the very bad habit of feeling gratitude and failing to express gratitude. Or when we express it, we fail to express it to the one who most needs to hear it.
Like telling someone else what a great husband or wife you have, but it’s been a long time since you said that to your husband or your wife. Or maybe you’ve told someone else how much your parents did for you, but you never did, and maybe now it’s too late, tell them. You’ve told every one you know except your grandchildren how terrific your grandchildren are. You’ve told your dad how grateful you are for your mom. You’ve told your mom how grateful you are for your dad. You’ve expressed your gratitude. You haven’t kept it inside. But there’s somebody who really needs to hear it who is still waiting.
That’s bad manners. That’s rude. But we are not being intentionally rude. We are just being careless. We are assuming that the one to whom we are grateful knows that we are grateful. We are assuming that if we feel it, that’s enough. That’s not enough. When we fail to close the gratitude loop by thanking the one who needs to be thanked, we are being rude, intentional or not. Because when we don’t express the gratitude we feel, it feels to the other person exactly the same as ingratitude. And it feels exactly the same as rejection.
My poor mother. We do this to Helen, too, but not as bad as we did it to my mom. She would plan a delicious meal and then do the shopping and the cooking and the figuring out how to have everything that is supposed to be hot hot at the same time. That’s always been a mystery to me how that’s even possible. Finally, it was all ready. She would proudly announce, “Dinner!” And we would keep doing what we were doing. I don’t think we ever came to the dinner table the first time she called us.
After about the third call, maybe the fourth or fifth, we would show up. And we would eat fast, because it was always so good, and there was always something we were in a hurry to get back to. One by one we’d politely ask as we had been taught: “May I be excused?”
My mother rarely would let us know it, but she must have often felt it. Resentment. She had done her very best to cook us a wonderful meal, and we hadn’t even appreciated her efforts. The truth was, we did. We were grateful. But gratitude unexpressed feels like ingratitude. It feels like rejection.
Or my dad. When I was born, my mom gave up her career that had barely started as a teacher, so my dad was the one who brought home the paycheck. He was the one we had to go through if we wanted something that cost money. “Dad, I need this. Dad, I need that. Dad, I’m sorry about the broken window, I’m sorry about the dent in the side of the car, but it’s a good thing you have the money to fix it. Dad, why don’t we ever get to go on a real vacation to a place like Disneyland and spend real money like other families do?”
My dad never made a lot of money, but he sure spent a lot of money on us kids. And we were grateful. I know I was. But I have a hard time remembering telling Dad how grateful I was. And I’m sure that gratitude unexpressed felt to him exactly the same as ingratitude. It felt exactly the same as rejection.
Here’s the principle: If it isn’t expressed, it doesn’t exist.
It’s right here in the story of Jesus and the lepers. “Were not all ten healed? Where are the other nine?” You read between the lines, and it’s not hard to imagine where the other nine are. They are throwing a party. They are celebrating being well. They are celebrating no longer being lepers. They are so happy! They are so grateful! Surely Jesus knows that.
Maybe Jesus does. I think Jesus pretty much knows everything. But even for Jesus, it feels good to hear those magic words, thank you. And it feels bad not to hear them.
If we probe a little deeper into this story, it’s significant that the greatest pain lepers felt in that day was not physical pain. It was social pain. It was rejection.
Early in the story we are told that these lepers stood at a distance from Jesus. To get his attention, they had to cry out with a loud voice because they were so far away that was the only way he could hear them. They were required by law to stay away from healthy people. When someone got too close, they had to yell, “Unclean! Unclean!” That way they wouldn’t accidentally get too close. They were living a life of rejection. They just assumed God had rejected them. That’s why they were lepers. And because everyone else was so afraid of catching their disease, everyone else rejected them, too.
So here we have nine of the ten who have been healed. Their life of rejection has finally ended. They hurry off without bothering to say thanks. And by doing so, by failing to express their gratitude to Jesus, the rejection they once felt is now transferred to Jesus. Jesus is the one who feels rejected, because that is exactly what gratitude unexpressed feels like.
Rejection doesn’t feel very good. I don’t have to tell you that. God made us with a basic need for the opposite of rejection. We crave acceptance. We are acceptance magnets. We will go where we are accepted. That’s where we want to be. And we will stay away from where we are rejected. Or if we cannot stay away physically, we stay away emotionally.
That’s the price we pay for not bothering to say thank you. Whether it be at home, at work, at school, with your friends, at church, wherever. When we take people for granted, when we act like we’re entitled to whatever it is they are doing for us, when we hold whatever gratitude we feel inside and don’t let them know, we are driving their hearts out of the relationship. We are depriving them of acceptance. We are giving them what we all hate. Rejection.
The marriage will probably survive. The parents probably won’t put their children out on the street. The boss probably won’t fire you. The employee probably won’t quit on you. But the relationship that was there has been damaged. It’s not the same anymore. Or the relationship that could have been, is not going to be. We wonder why. We wonder what we did. Chances are, we didn’t do anything. That’s the problem. We didn’t take time to express our gratitude.
Only one “returned” to Jesus. We have that expression. We “return thanks”. The idea is a circle that needs to be closed. If a circle isn’t closed, that means the circle is broken. Gratitude closes the circle. But only when it is expressed. Gratitude expressed closes the loop in our relationships.
So be a returner. A returner is someone who is willing to go back to someone who made it possible for you to move forward. Ten were healed. Ten were now able to move forward with their lives. Only one was a returner. Only one went back to Jesus who made it possible for him to move forward.
Who has made it possible for you to move forward? If we are honest with ourselves, we know that, wherever we are in life, we didn’t get here by ourselves. We had help. Lots of help. Lots of helpers – people for whom we are grateful. But have we told them?
We’ve all been to birthday parties for children. Presents everywhere. The little girl or little boy is so excited and so eager to tear them all open. Let’s say Joey is the birthday boy and he has just opened the present from Susie. It’s a football. He loves it. It’s just what he wanted. But there are other presents. So he quickly sets the football down and grabs for the next present. But his mom stops him. His mom has taught him manners, but in the excitement of the moment it is easy to forget. His mom says four words. I’ll bet you know those four words by heart: “What do you say?”
And little Joey, duly reminded, turns to little Susie and he says, “thank you”. Because the mom understood what Joey doesn’t quite have down. The loop isn’t closed until he thanks the one who gave him the gift.
Have you thanked the one who gave you the gift? There are lots and lots of people on that list. But topping that list is God. How often do we feel gratitude but not express gratitude to God? Thanksgiving Day is this week. It’s our annual reminder that we have a lot to be thankful for. We have a lot we typically take for granted. And we need to close the loop. Our relationship with other people suffers when we don’t. So too our relationship with God.
If you don’t feel particularly close to God these days. If your relationship with God is not what it once was, or what you think it might be, here is a simple exercise. Just make a list of as many of the blessings God has given you that you can call to mind, and give God thanks for each and every one.
Gratitude, when it is not expressed, can do great harm to any relationship. Especially your relationship with God. But gratitude, when it is expressed, regularly, often, with feeling, can improve any relationship, especially your relationship with God.
There’s on old poem that’s been coming back to me as I’ve worked on this message. It’s a poem about love, not gratitude. It would fit better in my Valentine’s Day sermon than in my Thanksgiving sermon. Here it is:
A bell is no bell till you ring it.
A song is no song till you sing it.
And love in your heart was not put there to stay.
Love is not love till you give it away.
I’m going to change one word. Jesus did not put his teachings to rhyme, but if he did, that day he healed those ten lepers, and nine went their merry way, and one returned to say thanks, he might have said this:
A bell is no bell till you ring it.
A song is no song till you sing it.
And thanks in your heart was not put there to stay.
Thanks is not thanks till you give it away.
Dear God, you have given us so much. Thank you. Thank you not because it is the week of Thanksgiving and that’s what we are supposed to say, but thank you from the bottom of our hearts, because we truly feel gratitude and we know we have too often neglected to let you know. And God, we’d have a lot of thank you notes to write this week if we were to thank all the people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. But rather than conclude that it’s impossible and do nothing, you know and we know that one person who came to mind. That one person who we appreciate but may have no idea because we haven’t bothered to say so. Whether it’s a note or a phone call, or best of all, face to face, may we be a returner this week. May we go back to that special someone who made it possible for us to move forward. In Jesus’ name, Amen.