by: Denise Robinson
An Attitude of Gratitude
The Lady Elgin was a steamboat built in 1851 to serve as a cargo and passenger ship on the Great Lakes, making trips from Chicago to Superior, Wisconsin and back. When the steamboat departed from Chicago’s LaSalle Street dock around 11 p.m. on Sept. 7, 1860, it was the start of a routine trip up the coast of Lake Michigan with its first stop in Milwaukee the next day. It never arrived. When the Lady Elgin left Chicago, it was a foggy, stormy night on Lake Michigan, but there was nothing for the 398 people on board to be overly concerned about until about 20 minutes after 2 a.m. The Augusta, a schooner on its way to Chicago, unaware of the presence of the Lady Elgin and unable to see the other ship in the fog, struck the Lady Elgin in its side. The tiny Augusta sustained some significant damage and started to leak heavily, but it arrived in the Windy City just a few hours later in the early morning with its crew intact. By the time the Augusta docked, the Lady Elgin was underwater and its passengers — those that were still alive — were fighting for their lives, hoping for a miracle to bring them to the close-yet-so-far North Shore. For 17 people that day, a man named Edward Spencer was their miracle. Edward Spencer was in his mid-20s and a student at the Garrett Biblical Institute — now the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary – a Methodist seminary located on the campus of Northwestern University just north of Chicago. Spencer was known as a great swimmer and diver, and when he heard of the Lady Elgin’s situation, he rushed to help. Spencer swam through the breakers of Lake Michigan to get to survivors and help bring them to safety. Of the fewer than 100 people who survived that night, Spencer is credited with saving 17 of them. Spencer wasn’t the only person to help save lives that night, but his story made national and even international news. Ed Spencer never completely recovered and lived the rest of his life in broken health. He never graduated from college, never became a minister. But one tragedy of Spencer’s story is this: in a notice of his death some 57 years after his rescues, it was reported that not one of these 17 rescued persons ever reached out thanked him.
Our Scripture reading for today comes from Luke 17:11-19. Jesus has been wandering around Galilee and is now headed toward Jerusalem. What happens?
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Luke 17:11 tells us that this happened as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, as he was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. Earlier, in chapter 9, Luke told us that Jesus knows his time is near to its end yet he “intently set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, of course, is where Jesus will die in accord with God’s plan. Luke reminds us periodically that Jesus is on this journey, a journey that will end when he arrives at Jerusalem in 19:28. With each reminder of Jerusalem, we who know the rest of the story see the cross looming in the distance.
Next we learn that this takes place as Jesus was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee.” It seems that Jesus has not made much progress toward Jerusalem thus far. His disciples entered a Samaritan village at the beginning of the journey (in chap. 9), and Jesus is still at the northern border of Samaria, far from Jerusalem, eight chapters later. Samaria had been the home of tribes of Israel, but Jews and Samaritans had a falling out over 800 years earlier – and in Jesus’ time did not even speak to one another, let alone go into one another’s territory.
Into our story come ten lepers. In Jesus’ time, just about any type of skin disease was considered leprosy. Some were curable and some weren’t, but all were considered contagious. Priests were responsible for diagnosing leprosy, and the Torah, in Leviticus, provided specific guidelines for doing so. A diagnosis of leprosy was treated as a death sentence. Infected persons were required to isolate themselves from all society, including their families, and if approached by a healthy person was required to shout that they were unclean. In addition to the social stigma, people tended to regard leprosy as a sign of God’s judgment. That made them less compassionate than they might otherwise be, because they believed that the person has brought suffering upon him/herself. We are told that the lepers follow the rules and stand at a distance from Jesus and the disciples. Together, they cry out to Jesus for mercy. It isn’t clear that they are asking for healing, but given the way they call out specifically to Jesus, we are left with the understanding that their request is to be healed. What happens next?
First, we are told that Jesus saw them. That is a small but significant detail. Jewish law sought to make the leper invisible. It’s not much different today, when we are inclined to ignore sick or dying people, because suffering and death make us uncomfortable. But Jesus not only sees them, he speaks to them telling them to go and show themselves to the priests. Why does he do this? Under Jewish law, if the person had a skin disease and was healed, only a priest could examine them, proclaim them clean, and restore them to their place in society. It’s clear that the lepers understood what Jesus was saying, because they immediately went. No questions asked, they head out together and as they went, they were cleansed. As they obeyed Jesus’ command, they were healed.
It would be easy for us, having read of this miracle, to conclude that the story has ended – but in reality, this is just the beginning. Because Luke tells us that one, only one, of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back to Jesus to thank him. I don’t doubt that all ten lepers were thankful for their healing – and really, to me, it’s amazing that one man resists the urge to run back to his home, his family, his job, his life, and returns to thank Jesus. And then we learn an interesting fact! The one who returned, who came back to thank Jesus, is a Samaritan. An outsider. A foreigner. Someone who is with the other lepers in their illness, but who wouldn’t have been given the time of day had they all been healthy.
Jesus then asks, “Where are the other nine?” Jesus’ rhetorical questions draw attention to the nine who did not give thanks and to the “outsider” status of the one who did. Jesus is critical of the nine, and we are tempted to join him in his criticism. How could the nine fail to give thanks? We should consider, however, how eager they must be, after such long isolation, to rejoin their families and to resume normal life. Under the same circumstances, would we stop to give thanks? How often do we stop to thank God for our blessings? How often do we forget to thank God?
If you’ve read this story before, or even if you’ve just heard it for the first time, perhaps you wonder why the other nine didn’t return. I don’t know, knowing human nature, I can guess. For one, perhaps it just wasn’t convenient. Maybe another was too proud. Perhaps another didn’t think it was necessary. Another might’ve felt too self-conscious, not sure what to say. Maybe another figured there was no point; certainly, Jesus knew he was thankful. Another may have just been preoccupied with getting back to his old life and was just too busy. If we’re being honest, it’s hard to blame the nine who didn’t come back and give thanks. They had been ill for some time, isolated from family and friends, denied the right to work, viewed as though they’d done something to cause their disease, shouted at, made fun of – and now they are healed and can get back to living.
One of the greatest truths we can learn in the Christian life is to do right because it’s right to do right—regardless of our feelings. If you wait to thank God when we feel like it—we might never get around to it. I don’t know how many times in my Christian life I haven’t felt like doing something, but I did it anyway, and in the process, my feelings changed. Sometimes I don’t feel like reading my Bible, but if I’ll just start, because it’s the right thing to do, before long, I feel like doing it. My feelings change. Sometimes I don’t feel like praying or going to church, but when I do it anyway despite how I feel, before long, I’m into it and enjoying it. Giving thanks has been especially difficult this year – 2020 has hit many of us with one emotion, one crisis, after another. And yet, expressing gratefulness to God is one of those things we should do – whether we feel like it or not, when we’re happy or sad. The Apostle Paul says, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
The hymn just before the sermon, Now Thank We All Our God, was written by a German Lutheran pastor named Martin Rinkart. The year was 1637 and these were difficult times in Germany. They were embroiled in a 30-year war which had brought poverty, famine, and disease. Now a plague came to the city where Rinkart lived and served, and thousands died. He was the only surviving pastor and as such he found himself called up to conduct as many as 50 funerals a day. His own wife’s funeral was one of the many he performed. In the midst of all this pain and suffering, Rinkart wrote these words: “Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices. Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices. Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way; with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.”
I have heard it said, “In happy moments, praise God. In difficult moments, seek God. In quiet moments, worship God. In painful moments, trust God. In every moment, thank God.”
Many people look at the Bible and see it as a collection of stories rather than as one story. If we see the Bible as one story after another, we tend to try and put ourselves into each story – the Bible becomes about us and how we’re supposed to behave. However, if we see the central narrative of Scripture as one story – the story of God’s glory, love, and grace, then we will find our place in light of who God is. In that sense, the Bible is not about us, it’s about God – what God has done, is doing, and will do in this world and the world to come.
For the one leper who came back to Jesus, Jesus says to him, “Get up, and go your way. Your faith has healed you.” On the surface, this doesn’t make sense, because all ten were healed. So, there must be something more that has happened to this Samaritan. The Greek that is translated “has healed you” is from the Greek verb, sozo. “Sozo” can be translated, “has saved you.” Jesus healed ten lepers. He saved this one.
We see, in these few verses from Luke, God’s unconditional love for us. We are unclean, we don’t deserve forgiveness and healing. But God’s love doesn’t depend upon our goodness or on us deserving it. The ten asked for mercy and all ten received. No questions, no background checks, no judgment. But these verses also teach we that we need to respond with an attitude of gratitude. We give thanks with a grateful heart for all the blessings God has given to us. We give thanks that God gave us Jesus Christ. We give thanks no matter our circumstances because God, through Jesus, has given us the gift of salvation, of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In all things, in every circumstance, we give thanks.