Tag Archives: gratitude

Called to Receive Mercy – Sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

September 11, 2016

The books of First and Second Timothy, and Titus are called “pastoral letters.” They were written to encourage young pastors of new churches in the first century. Each letter includes some teaching about doctrine, because there was a lot of controversy early on concerning what Christians should believe, and how they should live.

It was hard to make up rules for living, without falling into the trap of becoming all about the rules, and not about faith. That had been the problem in Jewish religious practice, and the early church wanted to avoid it.

They wanted to keep the main thing the main thing: faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified, risen, and ascended into glory. Living out that faith in Jewish society was difficult enough, but living out that faith in a pagan society, like Ephesus, was even more challenging.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore discipleship through the letters to Timothy. As pastor of the church at Ephesus, Timothy and his congregation faced the same questions we do today. How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him? How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

  • This week, we take a look at Paul’s experience of being called into Christ’s service. We will see how discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s mercy.
  • Next week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord.
  • On the 25th, we will skip ahead to 2nd Timothy, to see how discipleship requires aligning ourselves with sound teaching,
  • and on World Communion Sunday, as we begin our Fall pledge campaign, we will consider how stewardship is an important part of discipleship.
  • But it’s all about how to follow Jesus, once we’ve received him as our Savior. And who better than a first century apostle, writing to the early church, to help us learn how to follow Jesus?

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

To fully understand this passage, we need to remember the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), and studied under one of the leading rabbis of the day in Jerusalem, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul joined the Pharisees, and was vigorous in his defense of Jewish traditions.

In his zeal, Saul persecuted the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On his way to Damascus, determined to arrest any who “belonged to the Way,” as the early church movement was called, he had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ that changed his life, and Christ called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1).[1]

Paul’s story gives us a dramatic example of what repentance looks like – turning away from sin, and going in a new direction as a follower of Jesus. We need to remember that Paul wasn’t turning away from one religion to follow a new one. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Paul’s conversion was within his understanding of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. He repented of being a Pharisee, and began to live out his Jewish faith in God in a new way, as a disciple of Jesus.

Before this experience, Saul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). Afterward, Paul became someone who rejected violence, and also the impressive rhetoric prized by the culture of the day.

Instead, Paul sought Christ to empower his speaking and strengthen his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). Paul repented from persecuting Christians and turned toward leading them; from promoting violence, to peace.

Paul saw clearly that what had happened to him was not his own doing. It was by the grace of God that Jesus had appeared to him on the road, and called him to become someone new. The only right response, in the face of such undeserved mercy, is gratitude. And Paul pours out his thanks to God for this amazing gift of love, mercy, and faith.

Paul recognizes that he doesn’t deserve this gift. After all, he had been operating against God’s purposes when he persecuted the church. Paul says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” He knew who Jesus was, certainly. But he didn’t know Jesus personally. His ignorant unbelief was grounded in the assumption that he was acting in God’s will, when in fact, he was acting in opposition to God’s purpose. Yes, he thought he was serving God and taking a stand for what he believed to be right. But he was wrong.

How often we do this! We think we have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and we stand up to what we think is evil, when we are really opposing God – because we are acting out of our own assumptions instead of God’s mercy! Yet God’s grace overflowed in faith and love for Paul, and God’s grace overflows in faith and love for us, too.

If you analyze these few verses, you will find that there are really only two sentence subjects: Paul, and Jesus. It’s personal, and it’s relational, this mercy and grace that Paul has experienced. For Paul, experience is more important than doctrine. The reality of knowing Jesus is more important than anything you might believe about Jesus.

There’s a phrase that identifies the core teaching of this passage: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” It occurs throughout the pastoral letters, and it may have even been part of the developing liturgy of the early church. It identifies key elements of belief, things we can all agree are the important tenets of our faith. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul tells Timothy. This is the main thing that needs to always be the main thing.

Christ came to save sinners. The missio Dei – or mission of God – has always been clear: To seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10), as we heard earlier in the gospel parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10).

Last week, I mentioned that we can get stuck here, so eager to see sinners saved that we focus all our attention on conversion. But that’s God’s job. Our mission is also clear.

In the Great Commission Jesus says: “Go make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It doesn’t say, “Go convince people to believe in me, and then leave them on their own to figure out how to follow me.”

Jesus came to save sinners, to redeem us for the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to save sinners, and that salvation transforms us into something new, something that continues to grow deeper in faith as we follow Jesus by his grace and mercy. Jesus came to save sinners, who then become disciples, following him day by day, moment by moment, growing ever closer to him, becoming more and more like him.

Paul adds his own personal testimony to this statement of faith:
“—of whom I am the foremost.”
This is the gospel: Jesus came to save sinners – and I’m the worst one.

And that brings us right back to Mercy and Grace. It’s because I am the worst sinner on earth that I can experience this amazing grace, this abundant mercy and forgiveness. Verse 16 says, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

This is why God shows me mercy: so that I can be an example to anyone else who wants to come to Jesus, but thinks they aren’t worthy, or don’t qualify for such grace. None of us qualify. So all of us who have received God’s mercy can show others, “no matter how bad you think you are, if Jesus could forgive me, Jesus can forgive you.”

Just as Jesus called Paul to turn on the road to Damascus and begin a new life in Christ, he calls us to turn on our road to wherever we think we’re going, and follow him. This act of repentance has to happen over and over again, not because Jesus changes the path we are to follow, but because we keep wandering away from it. Just like Saul, we think we are doing the right thing, and in our stubbornness we fail to see that we are opposing God’s good purpose for us.

That’s why we have each other, to encourage one another along the road, to hold one another accountable for staying true to the way of Christ. Following Jesus is a relational endeavor.

God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. When we stray, lose our way, or even run from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. To answer the call to receive mercy, you have to turn toward God, and away from everything else.

Last week, Jesus challenged us to give up everything that matters to us most, in order to put him first and be his true disciple. Receiving mercy requires admitting that we belong to God, and being willing to live our lives in a way that shows others we belong to God. And what can we say to such amazing grace, to such profound mercy?

Paul has an answer for this question. The only thing we can do is praise God for his goodness, and thank him for his mighty love. Our lives praise God. Our prayers and songs give God glory. And as we lift our voices and show our gratitude by the way we live, encouraging one another and helping each other stay true to the gospel, we become examples to those who would come to believe in Christ Jesus for eternal life.”

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

[1] Christian Eberhart, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1768

Thanksgiving Eve 2013 – Thanks and Praise

For the past couple of years, I have seen a lot of gratitude postings on Facebook during the month of November, as many of my friends participate in 30 Days of Thanks.[1]  You may have seen this, or even participated yourself in the practice of consciously engaging in (at least) one moment of thankfulness every day during the month of November.  It’s a great exercise, and it warms my heart to see so much gratitude being expressed.  But something also bothers me about this little internet meme, and it took me a while to put my finger on it.

At first, I thought it was the limitation of thirty days.  What, you aren’t grateful the other 335 days of the year? You have to save up your gratitude for the month of November, only? But that wasn’t it.

I pondered that it might seem just a bit self-congratulatory to announce to the world how wonderful one’s life is every day. “I’m so thankful that I’ve been blessed with the best husband ever” or “the most amazing children” or even  “the ability to do so much for others who are less fortunate.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” ? But that wasn’t really what bothered me, either.

Then it hit me as I read the Psalm for the day, which happened to be Psalm 106 that particular day, but really, almost every psalm has at least one verse in it that expresses this same idea. I realized that all this “I’m thankful for…blah, blah, blah…” floating around Facebook was missing something really important.

Who is getting thanked? Who is receiving all this gratitude?

Being thankful all the time is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It helps us stay humble as we recognize the many blessings we experience in life, blessings for which we can take no credit whatsoever. That is important.

But even more important, I think, is remembering that just being grateful isn’t really going to change us into Christ-like people. Because being grateful is all about me and how feel. But giving thanks is all about the One to whom I owe gratitude. Actively thanking God puts the focus on God, where it belongs.

And that’s how our thanksgiving becomes praise.

The Psalm for today, Psalm 100 gets it in verse four, and to make it even clearer, I’m going to replace the pronouns with the proper noun to which they refer: “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless his name …”

Thanks and praise go hand in hand. Thanking God is an act of worship. Psalm 100 goes on to tell us why we should thank and praise God: “for the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” We thank God for what he has done, and we praise God for who God is. We worship God in both our thanks and our praise. For, when we thank God for his goodness to us, how can we not praise him? And when we praise God for his mighty work, how can we be ungrateful?

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes: “Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give.” But Brueggemann adds a warning: “While God’s gifts are welcome, in fact they do disrupt.”[2]  Brueggemann goes on to explain how God’s gift of truth disrupts the dishonesty that finds its way into every corner of our culture. God’s gift of generosity contradicts our stingy selfishness that puts our own interests ahead of others. God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference to the many needs around us, needs that would break our hearts if we really paid attention to them. God’s gift of justice exposes the injustice of our social structures. God’s gifts amount to an inconvenient reality among us; they remind us that what we have come to regard as “normal” actually promotes a deep abnormality in God’s design for the world he made and loves. What a different world that might be if God were truly at the center of it, if God were truly the focus of our thanksgiving and praise!

In our various congregations, as we celebrate Holy Communion, which might also be called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, depending on which church you attend, we draw on ancient words that Christians have repeated through the centuries in one form or another, in what we call The Great Thanksgiving. In fact, the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.” As we celebrate our life together as the Body of Christ, we may say something like this:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

These ancient words, spoken over countless Tables for countless centuries, introduce the Sacrament of Communion to Christians throughout the world. They serve as a universal reminder that we commune not only with Christ, who welcomes us to his Table, but also with one another, and with Christians we have never seen nor will ever meet. We are one in Christ’s Body. As we join together to remember Christ’s sacrifice for us, it is right to give God thanks and praise. It is right and a good thing to remember that God has provided for us, and will continue to provide for us. We give God thanks and praise, not because God needs to hear it, but because directing our thanks and our praise toward our Creator changes us, making us into better human beings, making us more and more like Christ.

And it is good to do this together, being Christ to one another as we offer bread and cup. You see, giving God our thanks and praise works best when we do it in community with others, multiplying our gratitude and our praise exponentially by offering our worship as part of the family of God.

If we look back to the origins of Thanksgiving – and I mean way back, past the Norman Rockwell image, past the post-Civil War declaration of a national day of Thanksgiving, even past the Pilgrims and Indigenous People who gathered for that first multicultural feast – we hear the words of Deuteronomy calling us to worship, calling us to give thanks and praise to the Lord.

Every single year, when people gathered in their crops, they took the first fruits of those crops to the temple, offered them up, and then they did a powerful thing: instead of gobbling up the good food they had just brought in from the fields, they took some time to think about their history. They remembered, together, a time when they couldn’t grow crops, a time when they couldn’t live in their own places, freely and peacefully. They remembered what it was like to be torn out by the roots, denied the rights of citizenship, treated like slaves. And they remembered, there in the temple, surrounded by the fresh produce of their own precious fields, that their freedom and their land and their harvest were all gifts from God.[3]

In this passage, we find a curious detail that deserves our attention. Seven times in these eleven verses the author uses the word “to give” (nātan). In verses 1, 2, and 3, the verb refers to God’s giving of the land and in verses 9, 10, and 11, the reference is to the good gifts provided by God. The seventh use of the verb “to give” occurs in verse 6, and our English translations might make it difficult for us to recognize that the same word is being used. The text reads, “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing (nātan) hard labor on us.” Literally, that might read as “by giving us hard labor.” In the six other usages, God is clearly the subject of the verb, yet in verse 6, the subject changes. Israel remains the recipient, but it is Egypt who carries out the action.  Instead of land or good gifts, Egypt “gives” Israel hard labor and oppression. These two very different uses of the word “give” offer us a fuller understanding of gratitude. The gratitude for the land being given by God can never be understood apart from the hard labor “given” to the entire community while they were slaves. The One who delivered them out of Egypt with a “mighty arm” is the same One who has delivered them safely into the land flowing with milk and honey. The produce harvested and brought as first fruits is never offered apart from the remembering of deliverance.

Maybe that’s why those 30 Days of Thanks comments rub me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I don’t get a sense that the gratitude being expressed has any element of what we’ve been delivered from, as well as what we are being delivered to. We don’t like to dwell on the past, especially if our memories are painful ones. We don’t like to remember the struggles and hard times we have experienced, the times we have doubted God’s goodness, or suffered unbearable pain. And yet, it is those harsh memories that anchor our remembrance of blessings and give them a sharper focus. It is the backdrop of our pain that highlights our joy.

So, as the children of Israel brought their first fruits to the temple, they did a remarkable thing. They sat down, “together with the Levites and the aliens” who lived among them, and they celebrated with all the bounty that the Lord God had given to them. They sat down together. They sat down with Levites, who had no land of their own, who depended completely on the other tribes for food, as they ministered in the temple. They sat down with aliens, or foreigners, who had no land of their own, and who were completely dependent on the generosity of the children of Israel as they lived and worked among them. They sat down together and feasted on the bounty the Lord had provided to them.

Maybe thirty days of thanks isn’t such a bad idea. If that seems too much, perhaps you will consider the 24 days of Advent, the season of expectation that will begin this Sunday. As we wait expectantly for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, perhaps we can contribute something toward making that a reality. Perhaps we can offer our daily thanks to God for what he has done, and our praise to God for who God is. Maybe remembering that God has delivered us from slavery to our own desires can help us remember to give God thanks and praise. But be warned: this daily practice of praise and thanksgiving may change you!  Taking time every day to offer God thanks might turn you into a person who finds more goodness around you, a person who praises God more and more. You might even become more and more like Christ. Thanks be to God. Praise the Lord! Amen.

[3] Paraphrased from Sermon for Nov. 24th 2013 (Thanksgiving C) “Milk and Honey & Zombies and Aliens” – the copyrighted work of Rev. Holly Morrison and used with permission of the author.

Ten Per Cent Return – Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 (October 13, 2013)

Would you consider ten percent to be a good return on an investment?  Of course, it depends a lot on the investment doesn’t it? Investing in a fast food franchise will look different from a certificate of deposit at the local bank. In any case, if you put something in, it’s usually with the expectation that you will get back something more.

By now, you have read the sermon title, and you may be thinking that you’re in for the annual stewardship sermon, that sermon you never like to hear because it makes you feel guilty about the amount of money you contribute – or don’t – to the church budget. If you’re looking for an easy way to sneak out of the sanctuary about now, you can relax. I already preached the stewardship sermon for today.  It’s sitting over there in that apple core. No, in today’s gospel lesson, Luke tells us of a kind of investment that goes beyond money. Luke isn’t talking about finances here, but about faith. While it might seem that Jesus sees only a ten per cent return on his investment in an outcast’s life, the actual return cannot be measured as easily as a savings account balance. Let us hear the Good News, as recorded in the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, verses 11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?  Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the march toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. But there’s a slight problem with Luke’s geography: The boundary between Galilee and Samaria actually runs east-west: it isn’t “on the way” to Jerusalem. Maybe Luke isn’t talking about geography as much as he’s giving us a time frame for this story. Though Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem for several chapters, he’s still nearer the beginning of his journey than the end. Luke doesn’t want us to lose sight of the final destination, however. Jesus may be taking the scenic route, but Jerusalem is where he will eventually go.

We have our first hint that something unusual is about to happen when Luke tells us that these ten lepers approached Jesus. By law, they were supposed to maintain a safe distance from others, warning people away with shouts of “Unclean!  Unclean!” But the lepers draw near to Jesus, at least near enough to call out to him and get his attention. Leprosy could mean any of a number of skin diseases, but whatever the disease, being “unclean” meant being an outcast, unable to participate in normal society.

So here we have ten lepers outside a village. But instead of warning Jesus to stay away, the lepers do something that is highly remarkable. Not only do they call out to Jesus to have mercy on them, they call him “Master” – a title that no one else uses to address Jesus in all the gospel accounts, except for the twelve disciples. It’s worth pondering how these ten outcasts, who have been excluded from social interaction with the general population, could possibly know who Jesus was, or that he had the authority to help them. But they readily appeal to that authority.  Instead of warning Jesus to keep his distance, they put themselves at his mercy.

This particular healing story appears only here, in Luke’s gospel. These ten lepers don’t get as much publicity as the one in chapter 5, whose story also gets told by Mark and Matthew. But this is a much more dramatic healing, because Jesus doesn’t even have to touch these lepers in order for them to be cleansed. He simply sees them.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man passed right by Lazarus, day after day, and never saw him until it was too late. His wealth and his self-centeredness did not allow him to really see Lazarus. It is so easy to ignore the needs around us as we go through our daily routines. When I lived in the Twin Cities, it was easy for me to look the other way whenever I saw a beggar on the street corner as I drove through town. How often do we turn away from people who make us uncomfortable, only because they are different from us?

But Jesus sees these ten lepers, and immediately tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This must have sounded a little strange to these lepers. Showing yourself to the priest was something you did after your skin disease had run its course and you were well again. Jesus was acknowledging the faith these lepers had shown when they called him “Master.” The lepers had already demonstrated their willingness to submit to Jesus’ spiritual authority. When he sends them off to the priests, they don’t ask questions. They just go.

And as they went, they were made clean. Jesus didn’t need to touch them for them to believe that he could heal them. His word alone was enough to send them on their way. They obeyed without question, because they had faith in him. As they acted on their faith, they were made clean. Their leprosy was gone.

But only one of them seems to notice what has happened. Only one of them saw that he had been healed, just as Jesus saw him to heal his disease. Only this one turned back toward Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. The same loud voice that, moments before, should have been yelling “Unclean!  Unclean!” had called out “Have mercy!” instead. Now, this very same loud voice was whooping and hollering in praise to God. He knew that it wasn’t some magic trick or the number of steps he had taken toward the priests that had healed him. He knew it was God’s work, accomplished through Jesus. The leper saw. And the leper’s awareness is, quite literally, the turning point in the story.

The leper turned back. What a beautiful picture of repentance Luke paints for us here! The leper turned away from mindless obedience to empty rules, as he turned toward the Source and Giver of Life. The leper’s response was spontaneous and authentic. The leper praised God, but he also prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The leper’s faith had shown itself in action as he headed for the priests, but the glory he gave to God showed itself in humility and thanksgiving.
Then we get to the punchline.

And he was a Samaritan. Luke loves to remind his readers that Jesus came to reverse the status quo, and one of his favorite ways of doing this is to call attention to Gentiles whose faith brings them into the family of God. First century Jews thought they had exclusive rights to God’s love and goodness. Luke, who was Greek and addressed his writing to a Gentile audience, delighted in pointing out that God had promised salvation to all nations, that God loved all people, and that Israel had no more claim to God’s grace than any other nation.

But there is more at work here than the theme of reversal that threads its way throughout Luke’s writing. Luke carefully sets up the story so that one might assume all ten lepers, though they may be outcasts, are acceptable outcasts. Their leprosy at least has the potential of disappearing after a time of quarantine, and they therefore have the potential to become acceptable again, welcomed back into society. But to a first-century Jew, Samaritans were a particularly distasteful type of outcast. Samaritans were un-redeemable because they refused to acknowledge the Temple in Jerusalem as the only appropriate place to worship God. No Jew in his right mind would ever welcome a Samaritan into fellowship.

Like a good mystery writer, Luke has planted a tiny detail at the beginning of his story that seems unimportant at first. Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. We don’t know exactly where the village is located. We don’t know if the lepers are Jewish or Samaritan, or some unusual combination of outcasts from both nations. When they head for the priests, we don’t know which direction they go. But this tiny detail sets the scene for Luke to shock his readers with the punch line: oh by the way, the guy that showed the right response to God’s grace? The only one who came back to glorify God and give thanks? That guy? Yeah, HE was a Samaritan! He was someone you would avoid at all costs on at least two counts: a leper and a Samaritan. A double outcast! And yet, Jesus saw him and healed him. What’s more, this Samaritan leper was the only one of ten who saw Jesus for who he really was, the only one who returned to thank Jesus and give glory to God.

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 

For the first time, we get a hint that Jesus is not traveling alone. The disciples have not been mentioned in this story. But now Jesus begins to teach by asking a series of questions, so we get the feeling that the disciples have been nearby all along, watching the story unfold before them. Interestingly, the word given to us in the New Revised Standard Version as “asked” really means “answered” in the Greek. Jesus is answering, or responding to, what has just happened, and he grabs this teachable moment to show his disciples again that the Kingdom of God is not what they expect it to be.

All ten of the lepers had faith enough to call on Jesus, submit to his authority, and ask for his mercy. All ten responded to Jesus in obedience, and all ten received physical healing. But where are the other nine? The obvious answer is that they are still headed toward the priests. Whether this is because of their blind obedience to the Law, or simply their eagerness to be restored to society, they are still going the other way. They may have recognized Jesus’ power to heal, but they have missed the point. They have not seen, as the Samaritan has seen, that faith means more than blind obedience.

Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The word “foreigner” is used only in this one instance in the New Testament. Jesus calls attention to the fact that this one, born outside the people of God, is the only one who behaves in a manner appropriate to a true child of Abraham. Only this foreigner, who could not enter the inner courts of the Jewish temple, has shown the kind of faith that responds in gratitude to God’s grace.

Jesus restores the one at his feet by telling him to get up. As he has done before, and will do again before he finally reaches Jerusalem, Jesus announces, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus is talking about more than leprosy here. He is proclaiming the Samaritan’s salvation as well as his physical health. Another pastor friend once commented, “All ten lepers were saved from leprosy, but only one is saved from despair.” Only the one who came back to give thanks, praising and glorifying God, showed the kind of faith that leads to salvation.

The lesson Jesus teaches is clear: The only authentic response to God’s saving grace is faith shown in action, and gratitude that erupts in praise, giving glory to God. So what keeps us from showing our faith by acting on it? What prevents us from being so grateful we can’t help but praise God?

I find that I’m a lot like the nine lepers who disappear down the road: it’s a lot easier for me to simply act on my faith than it is for me to praise God out loud for all the world to hear. I’d like to think I remember to be grateful for God’s goodness to me. I do say prayers of thanksgiving every day, but, if I’m honest, I also know that I’m a little embarrassed when I hear someone praising God for the traffic light staying green until they are through the intersection, or for the price on the gas pump going up just after they’ve pumped a tank-full of gasoline. “How nice for you” I think. “What about the person right behind you?” But the truth is that, while I am judging others for being self-centered in their gratitude, I’m not giving God very much glory in my day-to-day life. I can’t honestly say that praise erupts from my lips whenever I notice how good God has been to me. I’m a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. What kind of weirdo would people think I am?

Luke gives us Jesus’ answer over and over: the kind of weirdo who turns away from the status quo and worships shamelessly at Jesus’ feet. It is no accident that the one who gets it right in this story is the Samaritan, the double outcast. The truth is that we don’t like to identify ourselves as outcasts, as undesirables. But that is what Jesus does time and again throughout the gospel story. He not only reaches out to the dregs of society, he identifies with them, eats with them, walks with them.

Luke often describes society’s “undesirable” people as models of faith and examples of Kingdom living, and the Samaritan leper is a prime example. Luke forces us, along with his first century readers, to recognize that God loves every single person ever born, and God wants every single person ever born to participate in Kingdom joy and fellowship. Luke reminds us that everyone is eligible to participate in the Kingdom of God. Luke uses the theme of reversal to keep us on our toes, to keep us from falling into the trap of thinking we’ve made it into the “desirable” club. The truth is that God doesn’t care how “desirable” we are by the world’s standards. In fact, if we take Scripture seriously, God loves the ones we consider ‘undesirable’ at least as much as He loves anyone else. And he calls us to love them, too. Not judge them. Not scold them. Not ignore them. Love them.

God wants each of us to become the full person we were created to be, so that we can enjoy God’s fellowship. That transformation can only take place when we put our complete trust in God, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so, just as the ten lepers started walking toward the priests before there was any evidence that their leprosy was gone.

To be fully transformed, however, means that we not only let our faith show in what we do, we express our thanks in ways that give glory to God. As we repent of our sin and turn toward Christ, God continues to transform us and we become people who, like the Samaritan leper, spontaneously give glory to God. Through the power of his Holy Spirit, God changes us into the more and more perfect image of God we were created to be. And it is this image that God uses to attract others – outcasts like us – into the Kingdom of God.

So how does this fit with our Sowing Seeds of Faith stewardship drive that begins today? It’s simple, really. As God continues to work in us, and as we continue to trust him, we become more and more like Christ. As we see with the eyes of Jesus, our hearts are moved to compassion just has Christ’s heart is moved. We may not have the gift of healing that let’s us say, “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” But we do have gifts we can share. Trusting God to use them for his glory, we offer them as our own act of worship. When we begin to see the other outcasts around us, and we admit that we are outcasts, too, we become free. We’re free to give God thanks and praise for the work he is doing here. And God calls us to be part of that work, sharing our gifts, meeting the needs we see, contributing whatever we can to the ministry God has given us to do in this time and place. Sowing Seeds of Faith is just one way to do that. But it’s a start.

Who You Gonna Thank?

I have seen a lot of gratitude on Facebook during the month of November, as many of my friends participate in 30 Days of Thanks, writing about the first thing for which they are thankful each day. It’s a great exercise, and it warms my heart to see so much gratitude expressed. But something bothers me about this little meme.

At first, I thought it was the limitation of thirty days. What, you aren’t grateful the other 335 days of the year? You have to save up your gratitude for the month of November, only? But that wasn’t it.

Then, I pondered that it might seem just a bit self-congratulatory to announce to the world how wonderful one’s life is every day.  Isn’t this a bit like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” as he stands in the temple? But that wasn’t it, either.

Today, it hit me as I read Psalm 105, which begins, “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!” All this “I’m thankful for…” floating around Facebook is missing something really important: a direct object.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 106, among many others). Being thankful all the time is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It helps us stay humble as we recognize the many blessings we experience in life, blessings for which we can take no credit whatsoever. That is important.

But even more important, I think, is remembering that being grateful is all about me and how I feel, while giving thanks is all about the One to whom I owe gratitude.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. Happy Thanksgiving.