Almost all of the world’s religions have teachings about the importance of gratitude. For instance, in the Buddhist Katannu Sutra,the Buddha has this to say- "Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful & unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful & thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity”. (1)
A similar call for thankfulness and gratitude resounds throughout the biblical texts. The book of Colossians says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (4:2). In 1 Thessalonians Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (5:16-18). And near the end of the book of Revelation, just before the coming down of the New Jerusalem, the author writes that he “heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderclaps, crying out,
“Hallelujah!For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory”. (19:6-7)
The Bible proclaims that gratitude and thankfulness are central to a life lived with God. The Psalm we heard today has been termed by scholars a “Psalm of praise”. There are a variety of different literary forms in the Psalms, including the Psalms of lament and ‘creation Psalms’, or Psalms that celebrate creation. They all serve different functions, and Psalms of praise help to bring us into a posture of thankfulness for the world and for life. Praise is a type of worship that recognizes God as the ultimate source and giver of all good gifts. Acknowledging this makes us present to the beauty and glory of creation. It breaks through any delusion our ego might have that we’re in control, or that everything exists for us. It allows us to bite into a plum, or see the morning mist on the mountains, or look into the eyes of a friend, and say wow, life is amazing. Life reveals itself as a miraculous gift when we open our arms and exalt in this gratitude filled way.
It should be noted that these Psalms of praise are not just some New Age “life is bliss” type statements either. It isn’t all kittens and unicorns in these Psalms. The Psalm we read today also talks about how difficult the journey with God has been. It says, “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place” (10-12). When silver ore is tried, or refined by intense heat, the pure silver can be separated from the other less desirable minerals. And the psalmist says that God has pulled out the silver in them through many trials by fire. And yet the Psalmist still bursts with praise. There’s still gratitude and thankfulness for what God has done, despite these difficult challenges.
In our parable from the Gospel of Luke today, Jesus is also teaching about the importance of gratitude and thankfulness in a life lived with God. We know that Jesus read the Psalms intensely as a part of his religious practice, and here he carries their message forward. Jesus is nearing the end of his teaching ministry, and is now heading towards Jerusalem from the border region between Galilee and Samaria. On the way he comes across ten lepers who call out to him saying, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” He tells them to go show themselves to the priests, as it was the custom for the priests to inspect people and declare whether they were clean or not. The ten obey Jesus, and they are made clean along the way. When one of the ten realizes he’s been healed, he immediately turns around and comes back to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, and then prostrates himself before Jesus and thanks him. Jesus gets a little grumpy and asks where the other nine are. But then he turns back to the one who has prostrated and given thanks, and says, “your faith has made you well”. The phrase “made you well” can also be translated as “saved you”. And to be saved means, “to be made whole”. So this person has been made whole, has been restored to health and wholeness, by his orientation of gratitude towards God.
Let’s talk about some other parts of this parable before talking a little more generally about the importance of gratitude practice. It’s important to note that the only one of the ten who turned around and praised Jesus was a Samaritan. This would’ve been shocking to Jesus’ audience, because the Jews saw Samaritans as a lesser people, as the deplorables of their day. And the Samaritan was the only one of the ten that got it right? This would’ve been outrageous. It’s often the case in the gospels that those at the margins are the ones who understand Jesus’ message the best, whether it be a woman or a tax-collector or in this case a lowly Samaritan. And it’s often the case in the gospels that those who think they’re the most spiritually advanced or the most religiously observant, such as the Pharisees, are not at all. This egoic self-image gets in the way. It makes us forget that in the end we’re totally dependent on God for our existence. It hinders our ability to prostrate and give thanks.
This parable really shows just how easy it is to forget about gratitude when we’re doing well. These nine people get healed fromleprosyof all things, and when they’re healed, they just simply walk away and move on. They’re good now. They have their life back. But this is true of many of us isn’t it. When we’re doing well, when we’re hashtag winning, somehow being grateful and thankful seems to fade from our memory. And our culture amplifies and encourages this forgetting, with its rampant individualism and it’s myth of the ‘self-made man’. Our culture is inundated with messages and advertising telling us that we’re in charge, that we’re all unique individuals meant to forge a life in our own image. This gets us far away from the truth that without God the creator and sustainer, nothing would be here at all. Our life is both precious and precarious, and creation, if we stop to observe it, is incredibly beautiful. God’s glory is on open display all around us. But these truths are harder to see when things are going well. Gratitude and awe tend to hit the backburner when things are going our way.
Being grateful and giving thanks isn’t something we should do out of obligation, or fear, or strict religious observance. It’s something we want to do because it has a powerful healing effect on our being, as science is increasingly coming to understand. I was listening to a podcast this week- one not on Christianity- and one of the hosts talked about how gratitude practices change our physiology. That’s a very timely lead, I thought, in a week where the scriptures were focused on gratitude. So I looked it up, and sure enough it’s true. Several studies have shown that a gratitude practice- maybe at the beginning of the day or before we go to bed, where we name a few things we’re grateful for- reduces both anxiety and depression, and helps in the fight against addiction.
How many of us say grace before a meal? I admit I try to and probably do before at least one meal a day. Sadly life is busy and forgetfulness all too easy. But studies show that “Blessing food can affect changes in our physiological readiness for eating and cause changes to the structure and energy state of the food itself. The physical process by which blessing food works comes right out of physics and physiology textbooks. Salivation increases, digestive enzymes are secreted, hormones are released, breathing patterns shift, and brain patterns shift to a receptive mood ready to enjoy” (1). Gratitude practices and saying grace before meals are powerful ways we can be made whole, powerful ways that we can open up to the healing power of turning toward God in a posture of thankfulness.
There are some things that can block us from opening up to gratitude though. Grief and pain are a big one. If we’re sitting on a load of grief that hasn’t been processed, gratitude becomes much harder. That grief needs to be named and released. We need to cry. Bottling up that pain can block access to thankfulness. And let’s face it, many of us have had tragedy or trauma in our life that makes gratitude hard. I think about my brother-in-law for instance. About eight years ago his seventeen-year-old daughter committed suicide. It’s been a long struggle for him to unharden his heart and be open to thankfulness again. And then about a month ago his family got a puppy for his other daughter whose now eleven years old. They were all falling in love with it, including him. He was smitten, despite himself. And last week the dog ate some death cap mushrooms that were in the front yard, and died. So senseless. So painful. How does one express gratitude and thankfulness amidst such sorrow and pain? And yet the Psalmists say that even thought the hottest fire has forged them on their journey, they still praise God for this life. And the gospels tell us that no matter what we’re going through, gratitude will heal us, it will make us whole. It’s a gift of God’s grace that’s open to us no matter what we’re going through. Even lepers, hideous outcast feared by all, can be healed and made whole. So no matter where we find ourselves today, no matter the darkness and the pain we might be living through, let us still turn to God and say thanks, and receive our healing gift.
But as we open to this gratitude, to this gratefulness to God for our one precious life, another roadblock may rear its head. Death. Or more precisely, our fear of death. Because when we move into a realm of gratitude, and the radical amazement that accompanies it, we often also suddenly realize the brevity of life, its transience and its finitude. And this can frighten us. It can make us snap our heads back into our shell like a turtle. Ignorance is bliss becomes our protective mantra. It takes courage to live in gratitude because we simultaneously recognize how short and fragile our time here really is.
Gratitude brings us into presence, and presence makes us aware of death. The two things come together. They can’t be separated. But there’s good news. The Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast puts it this way- “The finality of death is meant to challenge us to decision, the decision to be fully present here now, and so begin eternal life. For eternity rightly understood is not the perpetuation of time, on and on, but rather the overcoming of time by the now that does not pass away. But we are always looking for opportunities to postpone the decision…What remembrance of death is meant to do, as I understand it, is to help us make the decision.” (2).
And that decision is to embrace life in all its glory, and all its pain. It’s to turn toward God in a posture of gratitude, and be thankful for the very gift of life itself. It’s to be healed and made whole. And friends, as we gather on this special Thanksgiving weekend, let us remember that gratitude is to be practiced all year round. Damn the torpedoes, and damn the pain. Let’s say Yes to life and be healed through our defiant thanks, despite the darkness. The fountain of God’s healing love awaits us. Let’s take a drink, today and always. Amen.
(1) Kattannu Suttas. accesstoinsight.orghttp://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an02/an02.031.than.html
(2) Parabola Magazine. https://parabola.org/2016/02/29/learning-die-brother-david-steindl-rast/