Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
There’s a great scene in the 1965 Civil War movie Shenandoah. I posted it on our Facebook page this week; maybe you saw it. Jimmy Stewart plays a widowed farmer. Trying to heed his wife’s dying wish that their seven children be raised as good Christians, he prays before a meal. “Lord, we cleared this land; we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here; we wouldn’t be eating it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we are about to eat. Amen.”
In our epistle reading this morning, from the second letter to Timothy, Paul seems to offer a similar sentiment. “This is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal…therefore I endure everything.” I think it sounds a little like Jimmy Stewart’s prayer. Sometimes it’s hard to see anything beyond ourselves.
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about the letters to Timothy. As you probably recall, the bulk of the New Testament, after the four gospels and the Book of Acts, is made up of letters to the early church. The epistles, as we call them, are written in characteristically Greek formats, and each usually covers a rather narrow set of topics. That makes sense, right? They are written to specific communities, often in response to specific circumstances.
Their authorship, like that of most of the Books of the Bible, is cloudy. Many are attributed to the apostle Paul, our patron saint, with much debate among scholars as to which ones could actually have been written by him. Paul’s two letters to Timothy and his letter to Thomas are often grouped together under the moniker Pastoral Letters, because they deal mostly with issues of church leadership, and most scholars do not think they were written by Paul.
And yet, the writer of this second letter to Timothy sets up a very specific event in the life of Paul—when he was imprisoned. The Bible notes several instances of Paul in prison—one of those is pictured in our windows of the life of Paul above the altar (and I’ll give extra points to anyone who can tell me where that scene appears in the Bible!). But this imprisonment is a very specific one: it is in Rome, just before the end of Paul’s life.
As one commentary notes, he was “abandoned by all but a few of his friends and facing eminent death. The Letter thus assumes many aspects of a final testament, a [specific] genre in which a dying patriarch exhorts and blesses a faithful child, warning him of problems to come.”[i]
So, if we are to assume that Paul is about to die (several early sources say he was beheaded in Rome on the order of Nero, probably around the year 67 CE), then perhaps his complaints are justified. Paul has “suffered for the gospel, built church communities with his own sermons, [and] jumped into the flames for his spiritual children.”[ii] Paul did a lot for God—so what was God doing for him at this point in his ministry?
At this moment, Paul falls into a habit we all recognize: He is self-focused. We worry about what’s going in our lives—our work, our health, our families, and our own hurts and slights. And like Paul, “at times we are tempted to list our accomplishments as if we had done them all alone. Complaining is one way to get to the bottom of our humanity, and there we come face to face with our strengths and weaknesses, our abilities and our limitations,” says one theologian. “It is a way of saying, ‘God help me.’”[iii]
But sometimes our self-centeredness manifests in other ways. Look at our gospel lesson. Ten people in need ask Jesus to heal them, and he does. Only one returns to say thank you. Did the other nine do wrong? No. They asked for healing and were healed.
Being grateful was not a prerequisite for God’s healing. But the healing isn’t the focus of this story, is it? Instead, this story is about getting outside of yourself—in this case in the act of turning back to Jesus and expressing gratitude. And perhaps this story also helps us understand the worth of moving beyond ourselves.
The leper who perceives the source of the gift he has been given and so returns and thanks Jesus, receives more than just healing. Note that the text says that all ten were made clean; but the one who returned to thank Jesus was also made well. Actually, the Greek word translated here as well means more literally to be whole and saved. Now, let’s be clear: he was not healed because of his faith; rather his faith led to faithful actions, namely being a little less self-centered, which made him whole and complete.
Note also the use of the term “turned back” for the action of the Samaritan who returns to Jesus. This is similar to the term we translate repent – turning around. One scholar has said this is “a movement of the whole person, initiated by God’s graceful work, a redirection of orientation toward God.” Healing and salvation cannot be disassociated here. As the Samaritan redirects himself outward and toward God, God makes him whole.
But of course there is more here in this gospel lesson. This is a story focused on gratitude. And scholar David Lose says, “The one [who returns to thank Jesus] receives the blessing that comes from recognizing blessing and giving thanks…the blessing of wholeness and salvation.”[iv] Gratitude draws us out of ourselves – it is an acknowledgment of a gift received. What acts of gratitude do you undertake regularly?
I’ll give you one—think of it as the free space in the middle of your Gratitude Bingo Card. The act of taking part in Holy Communion is an act of thanksgiving – the Greek noun eucharistia means thanksgiving.
I think that giving to others is also an act of gratitude. Working for others, like volunteering at the Lee Food Pantry, as some did just yesterday, or assisting in worship, or preparing the delightful food and drink we enjoy after the service—these are acts of gratitude. We chip in and serve others because we believe in the cause and want to be helpful.
Likewise financial gifts to help others, and to support institutions that serve us and serve others (like the stewardship gifts made to St. Paul’s) are acts of thanksgiving. Giving as gratitude is also the idea behind the United Thank Offering, which was instituted at the Episcopal Church General Convention of 1889, by the Convention’s Women’s Auxiliary (The first authorized women as representatives at the convention, known as deputies, were allowed in 1970 – astonishingly, only 49 years ago.) The Mission of the United Thank Offering is to invite people to offer daily prayers of thanksgiving to God and to offer outward and visible signs of those prayers that will benefit others.
For me, I have found that regular prayer is indeed my best insurance that I will stop to be grateful on a regular basis. Our wonderful Book of Common Prayer is a great guide for this: the prayers of the Daily Office—Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline, as well as simpler forms for prayer at these times of day, provide language to, among other things, offer regular thanksgiving.
Regular prayer, and other forms of thanksgiving, are about striving to be our best selves; about living our best lives. Being grateful makes life better. And one’s ability to be grateful is a sign of one’s maturity and centeredness. C. S. Lewis said of the connection between gratitude and personal well-being: “I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most: while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”
The forms we use for the Prayers of the People include many prayers of intercession to God, and also include prayers of thanksgiving. I am sometimes dismayed that we always seem to have a list of things or people to pray for as intercessions, but much less often have anything to list as a thanksgiving.
Maybe that’s because of the fact that life is hard. We have many needs, many concerns in life, and they overshadow everything else. I know that there are some of you that are dealing with hard things right now, and it may seem difficult to be thankful. We bring our intercessions to God because these needs are real, they preoccupy us, and we don’t know what else to do with them. But sometimes they make us self-centered.
And that brings me to that peculiar and wonderful phrase in Paul’s letter to Timothy: “But the word of God is not chained.” (2 Timothy 2:9b) We may feel weighed down by the problems in our life; but the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have God on our side! God’s love is so much bigger than anything that might assail us. And even though that promise doesn’t make our difficulties go away, it does give hope for the future.
I hope that thought brings you comfort; it certainly does for me. Whatever we might have to endure, we are assured that we are part of something much bigger, something that offers hope in the midst of suffering, promise when we are in pain. There is a greater truth than those things that assail us. Paul reminds Timothy that, “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him…[and even] if we are faithless, he remains faithful.” (2 Timothy 2:11-13).
We need not be self-centered, because we have God at our center; that’s the good news! And that alone is worth giving thanks.
What would it mean for you to live your life more fully in an attitude of thanksgiving? Even if you are in a place of deep need and self-centeredness right now—perhaps especially if that is so—I’d like to suggest that spending some time in thanksgiving each day might improve your life. Know that, just like those other nine lepers, God does not require your thanks. But maybe we require that thanks for ourselves—maybe that thanks is what will make us complete.
A few moments ago I mentioned the Daily Office. At the end of Morning and Evening Prayer we are invited to say “The General Thanksgiving,” written in the 17th century and possibly inspired by a private prayer of Queen Elizabeth from the late 16th century. It was included first in the Prayer Book of 1662, after the Puritans, of all people, complained that there were not enough prayers of thanksgiving in the Prayer Book. I’d like to conclude this morning by praying together that prayer. It may be found in the BCP on page 101. I think it is a great antidote to that movie prayer I began with.
Let us pray together:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise; not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
[i]Bassler, Jouette M., The Harper Collins Study Bible [New Revised Standard Version]. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1993. p 2238.
[ii] Hinnant, Olive Elaine, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 160.
[iv] Lose, David, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2796, accessed 10/11/2019.