Noted nineteenth century preacher Henry Ward Beecher once penned a really good image of what it means to live a life of gratitude.
“Suppose someone gave you a dish of sand mixed with fine iron filings,” Beecher opined. “You look for the filings with your eyes; you comb for them with your fingers. But you can’t find them. Then you take a tiny magnet and draw it through the dish. Suddenly the magnet is covered with iron filings.
The ungrateful person is like a pair of hands combing through the sand. Such a person finds nothing to be thankful for. The grateful person, on the other hand, is like the magnet sweeping through the sand. That person finds hundreds of things to be grateful for…”
Keeping Henry Ward Beecher’s image in mind, do we recognize moments of grace or moments of gratitude in our lives when they happen? And if so, how do those moments transform us? This morning’s Gospel story of the ten lepers addresses those questions in a provocative way.
On the surface, the story of the ten lepers is fairly straightforward. Ten lepers are healed, but only one leper returns and drops to his knees before Jesus. This one leper is a prime example of how to live with gratitude. Instead of walking away, as the other nine lepers did, acting as though they were entitled to be healed, one leper did the opposite. He humbled himself before Jesus, admitting that he didn’t do anything to deserve having his life changed, and then he expressed thanks for the incredible gift Jesus gave him.
When you delve deeper into today’s story, however, the nuances of the story make the message that much more compelling. Given the severity of their medical diagnoses, the ten lepers in the story would have been forced to live on the outskirts of society. In ancient times, people with leprosy were subject to having their clothing burned. Some had their houses torn down. All of them were shunned and strictly avoided.
As the story unfolded, ten lepers begged Jesus for mercy and Jesus decided to skip the compassion and the pastoral care. Jesus, instead, went right to a command. “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And all ten of them acted accordingly, seeking out the priests and being made clean.
All ten of the lepers did as they were told. All ten of them were healed. And all ten of them were undoubtedly ecstatic. They were so overjoyed, in fact, that it’s hard to blame nine of the lepers for going full speed ahead. Wouldn’t any one of us start running as fast as possible if we had been granted a brand new lease on life? After we’re healed and our lives are changed for the better, our first instinct would be to not waste any time and get right to it.
But one leper stopped in his tracks, overcome by the new possibilities in his life and overwhelmed by the unexpected magnitude of the miracle he received. And when he stopped, the one leper decided to follow his heart rather than following the instructions. He needed to offer his praises. He wanted to express his thankfulness. So he wheeled around and ran back to Jesus, “praising God with a loud voice.”
That the one leper who turned around and headed back to Jesus was a Samaritan comes as no surprise. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, outsiders were often the ones who recognized Jesus for who he truly was. Outcasts were the ones who witnessed the grace of Jesus Christ and responded freely…
People who are outcasts and outsiders are like that. Forced to the margins of society, outcasts and outsiders are not allowed to conform to rules and restrictions. They operate beyond the boundaries. They have no choice but to create their own set of guidelines for daily living. And they have to be flexible…willing to make things up on the spur of the moment because life often threw them unexpected challenges.
As a result of his birthplace and his disease, the Samaritan leper was forced to live as an improviser. Jesus gave all ten lepers a specific script to follow. He gave them a set of lines they needed to remember and rehearse before they shared their request for healing with the priests. But one of the ten lepers heard the script, rehearsed the lines, received the healing he desired, and then took the opportunity to do something outside the box. While nine lepers ran off to start their new lives, one leper turned around and improvised gratitude…
Our choir members, who happen to be singing in West Hartford this morning with the choir from the Unitarian church who were here last Sunay, know something about improvisation. As they rehearsed for their jazz mass performance, they worked with a talented group of local jazz musicians. And improvisation is one of the hallmarks of jazz music…
When someone learns to play an instrument, they have to learn basic fingering, how to read music, and in some cases, the discipline of breath control. The first pieces of music a beginner learns are simple and relatively easy to translate into melodies. As time goes by and a person practices regularly, the melodies become more complex and they require greater coordination and dexterity in order to play them.
Eventually, some musicians become amazing technicians, learning to play their instrument with near flawless execution and great passion. But one of the qualities you find in the best jazz musicians is their ability to improvise. They internalize the notes they see written in front of them, they sense the ebb and flow of the music, and then they go on their own riffs, floating free of the written notes. All the while maintaining the integrity and the theme of the music while enhancing it with their own unique grace.
There are some parallels when it comes to learning gratitude. When we start expressing gratitude, we mouth the words and we express our sentiment to another person. Soon, as we practice gratitude, we manage to express gratitude in more complex and meaningful ways.
Eventually, some people become so good at gratitude that they seem to ooze gratitude effortlessly. They communicate a sense of gratitude in the choices they make, in the words they articulate, in the actions they undertake, in the compassion they offer, in the love they share.
And a few people find ways to live gratitude. To embody the idea that every day is truly a gift or a blessing. Even when the situation doesn’t call for gratitude or calls for the opposite of gratitude, there are some people who have internalized gratitude to the point that they can see how and why and when to be grateful in nearly every situation. Some people are so in tune with their blessings they can actually improvise gratitude.
When I’m at my very best, I like to think I can improvise gratitude in my own life. When I see a fiery orange and yellow sunset on the horizon. When I hear the unbridled laughter of a small child. When I come in from shoveling through an unexpected November snowstorm and warm my hands by the fireplace. When I’m the recipient of a random and surprise act of kindness. When I help resolve a disagreement in a way that leaves all parties satisfied.
Other times, I find my senses dulled by daily routines or my thoughts consumed by anxiety or pettiness or stressful expectation. During those times, I think I do pretty well to follow the score. I try to stay faithful and honest, treating others with as much respect as I can muster and demonstrating kindness to the best of my ability. But when I’m tapped out, even a little bit, it’s hard for me to get to the level of improvising gratitude. At least not without some help or some insight from God.
Living the melody of gratitude is not always easy. We sometimes play haltingly. We are sometimes undone by our own petty insecurities. Other times we feel more like weeping and whining and humming depressing dirges to ourselves.
But sometimes, by the grace of God, we hear whispers of encouragement, gentle reminders to keep on playing. And when we do, God complements our best efforts, transforming us in ways you and I never dreamed possible. In those moments, we see or feel something that others, like those nine other lepers, miss. We see that life is a gift, this day is a gift, and God is both the creator and author of that gift.
Those who are able to see gifts, even in the everyday, are those who cannot simply live according to the rules, walking down the path they are supposed to travel. Instead, they live according to the deep passion that stirs in them. They stop and offer thanks. They generously express joy and hope. Their lives are pure jazz…
And God accompanies every note. Amen.