“Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.”
Merci, gracias, arigato, efharisto, yadow, a basket of fruit, a bouquet of flowers, a hug. These are words and gestures to express gratefulness to others. Learning to say thank you is often one of the first phrases mastered in a new language. It is a part of good manners, of course, but it really is more than that. Expressing gratefulness is a part of being in a relationship; it is a way of connecting the giver and receiver. It makes a circle of sorts, giving and receiving, receiving and giving.
Brother David Steindl-Rast in his book, Gratefulness the Heart of Prayer, says this about the relationship of giver and receiver. “The interdependence of gratefulness is truly mutual. The receiver of the gift depends on the giver, obviously so. But the circle of gratefulness is incomplete until the giver of the gift becomes the receiver: a receiver of thanks. When we give thanks we give something greater than the gift we received, whatever it was. The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving…In giving thanks we give ourselves. One who says thank you to another really says, ‘we belong together’. Giver and thanks-giver belong together.”
In giving thanks we give ourselves. Or as Mother Beth put it in the October Messenger: God gives. We give back. God gives more. When we express our gratitude we complete the circle between giver and receiver and that circle is never-ending.
Two of this morning’s lessons contain common themes, gratitude is one; wonder and surprise is another. Both lessons deal with the same disease, leprosy. This was a dreaded illness in the Biblical world because it was basically untreatable and thought to be highly contagious. This meant that those with the disease lived apart, as outcasts from other people, often for the rest of their lives. In addition to the physical pain of the disease there was also the emotional pain of being permanently separated from family and loved ones. Relationships were cut off once the diagnosis of leprosy was made. In the modern world this disease, known as Hansen’s disease has a much better prognosis, though there were still facilities in the United States in the late 20th century to separate those with the condition from the rest of the world. Still, we of the modern world do not dread this condition as did those in the Biblical world.
In the first reading today, we heard the story of Naaman, who held a very high position in the Aramean world as commander of the army. Naaman had recently won a war against Israel and had taken slaves as a part of his spoils. Now, Naaman had leprosy, the incurable disease. Perhaps because of his position he was not relegated to living apart from others, we don’t know. Ironically, Naaman learns of a possible cure through one of his wife’s servants. In that girl’s homeland, Israel, there was a prophet named Elisha, who she says is powerful enough to cure leprosy.
Seeking any chance of healing, Naaman travels to Elisha’s house, complete with all of his horses and chariots. He was an important and powerful man, after all. Elisha does not even come out of his house to see this “great” man who happens to be the enemy of his country. Instead Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go to the Jordan River and wash himself 7 times.
Naaman does not think much of this advice, but he eventually does it anyway. Like many with an incurable disease, he would do most anything that had even the smallest chance of a cure. And, to Naaman’s delight his skin was restored!
With great amazement at his cure he returned to Elisha, the prophet, the man of God, and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” What a wonderful expression of gratitude. Naaman’s delight resulted in a wonderful acknowledgement and thank you. There was a giver, God, and a receiver Naaman, and then a reciprocal giving of thanks from Naaman to the receiver God. The dual actions made that circle of giving and receiving, forming a relationship between the two. In giving his thanks, Naaman gave himself to God.
In the gospel this morning we also heard of a group of ten lepers who were miraculously cured of this same disease by Jesus. We are told that one of them, and only one, completed that circle by reciprocating the gift that Jesus had given him, in turning back to Jesus and thanking him. Again the thanks-giver was reacting in joy and amazement to his gift of health. By returning and prostrating himself in front of Jesus he gave not only his gratitude, but also himself.
In giving thanks, we give ourselves.
What about the other nine? They received; they got what they wanted and then were off to other things in life. There was no relationship built through their healing; the action was incomplete.
All of us have experienced what Jesus experienced in this story at some time. Each of us has performed some act of kindness only to watch the recipient walk off without showing the least hint of gratitude or offering even a murmur of thanks.
That is why we can understand how critical the words “thank you” are to relationships. When we say thank you, we affirm the existence and importance of others. We realize for moment that without others gifts, our lives would be very different.
Being grateful is not just good manners. It is not something we can just tell ourselves to do or will ourselves to do. Rather when we remember our own moments of surprise and awe, gratefulness will come. And once we have done that, our ability to see the gifts all around us will increase exponentially. Our hearts will then overflow with thanks to God who is the giver of all these gifts. Naming what we have received helps us to name more. When our focus is on what we have received as a gift, and acknowledging the joy of being the receiver, we naturally want to thank the giver. With awareness we want to complete that circle. We know it is unfinished without expressing gratitude for what we have been given.
For the month of October this year Emmanuel is focusing on the joy and wonder of all that God has done. You have received by now a Wonder inventory and asked to take a few moments to reflect on the past year at Emmanuel to recall how you have seen, heard, or known the Holy Spirit at work. Then you are encouraged to add your story to the “Wonder in All” board in the Great Hall. When we are aware of the gifts we have been given, offering thanks to God is an easy next step.
So, this morning I want to give two examples of what this wonder inventory meant for me.
Often when I am in public place or am in a situation of meeting a new person I am asked what I do. This is one way that people get to know one another. When I say that I am a deacon at Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church and am met with a puzzled look I will add it’s one of the churches near West Side Park. In the past this has mostly caused the other person to say, Oh, I know, the one with the red doors. Perhaps you have gotten that response also. Now, I am not saying that the red doors are not great, they are! But, I do think we are about more than our doors. I’m just saying…
Now in the interest of full disclosure, there was one time maybe twenty years ago where a homeless person, who did not know me, saw me in the park, pointed to Emmanuel and said that church was the place to go if I needed help. Nice!
And of course a year or so back the response I would get is you are the church that had the fire…True. But, most often the red doors are what I am told are our identifying feature.
Imagine my delight, my joy, my amazement this year when I told someone that I was a deacon at Emmanuel Church and they responded, O, that’s the church that has the beautiful music and Elizabethan English words. I immediately said, Yes, we do the 1662 Evensongs! That’s the church!
So on the Wonder in All Board you will see 1662 Evensongs with the sticker of making music on it.
You can write your entire story or just the title, it doesn’t matter.
Another example from this past year, fits into at least three of the categories: giving faithfully, offering help, changing the world and probably even more. That was our work with RIP Medical Debt. What a marvelous opportunity to make a meaningful difference in 3,617 individual’s lives. Others outside the church commented to me that is was unusual that Emmanuel would use surplus funds to help others rather than save it for future building needs. Perhaps so, but to me that was honoring the commitment we made when we started that fund—any excess money would go to charity. For me this was a prime example of joy and wonder and being filled with awe at what God did through us to make a difference.You get the idea? The Wonder in All exercise asks us to take some time to reflect on what God has done. When we are aware, when we stop and notice, our gratitude follows. We want to be like Naaman and the one leper who turned back to Jesus and offer our thanks. Being conscious of our blessings and gifts is the first step.
I began today with different ways of saying thank you. One of those I used is the Hebrew word, yadah. This word for thanksgiving also means praise. These words are interchangeable. When we thank God we are praising God and when we praise God we are thanking God. This word, yadah literally means to hold out ones hands. That is a position of both offering and receiving, taking and giving. It is the same action that the priest does in celebrating the Eucharist with hands lifted as the great prayer of thanksgiving is said.
The circle of giving is completed with our thanksgiving. God gives; we give back; God gives more.
Each week when we reflect, we know the many blessings we have received. So each Sunday we can echo today’s psalm, “Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.”