October 31st. Halloween found us last week. Did you see any interesting critters running around your neighborhood? We had a gob in our neighborhood. Here are a couple that wound up in my house … plus our dog, Taylor, that is, yes, wearing a jack-o-lantern skirt. We’re now that family. You know, the one that dresses up their dog in human-like attire. Do you see the terror on her face? Trick or Treating must be among the cruelest, albeit exhilarating, experiences for dogs. Every ring of the doorbell, results in this breathless sprint to the door, leaping up into the door windows, barking excessively at the largest turtles and dinosaurs she has ever laid eyes on. By the time her blood pressure drops from one visit, the doorbell rings and we re-play the same thing all over again. All in all, good fun, however. The candy is gluttonous. I do enjoy those tiny boxes of Milk Duds and a good Reese’s Cup. I saw this picture posted this week. If you can’t read the text it says, “You’ve had 85 years to work at this, Reese’s. Figure it out…” Of course, if you’re a veteran Reese’s fan, you know you never eat them right away. You put them in the freezer. Once frozen, they always peel off the paper clean and the joy is overflowing. We found our way house to house in the neighborhood, a little chill and a rain surely contributed to me having zero voice when I woke up Thursday morning… still coming back bit by bit now. Before it was gone, I was among the many parents who had the talk with their kids before getting started. “Be gracious, boys. “Don’t be greedy. Be kind and polite and engage our neighbors.” And, of course, as every parent has done for generations, I closed with, “And when our neighbors give you something, what do you say?” THANK YOU!
Thank you is one of the first things we learn to say as humans. By far one of the most commonly used phrases in the English language. The average American says, “Thank you,” 2,000 times a year. Research suggests, however, that more than half of the time, we don’t mean it. It is simply transitional speech – ending an encounter – more so than taking to heart the gratitude we are theoretically to feel in such a time. What is gratitude then? Science even ways in on the matter.
Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that there are two key parts to gratitude. First, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. Second, we recognize that the source of this goodness is outside of ourselves. As people of faith, we point to God as our source of “every good and perfect gift” and that “all things work together for good” when God’s love is at the center of the effort. Gratitude. How are you doing with gratitude these days? Such will be the focus of our three-week stewardship series grounded in the practice of gratitude and filtered through this idea of the “Open Mic.” I’m grateful for Staci’s testimony this morning and look forward to others that will follow in the next couple of weeks. The hope of this series is for you to think of your very life as an Open Mic. You have a voice; you have a stage; you have an audience; no matter who you are. If you’ve ever been a roadie for a band or set up a sound system for some event, there’s always that moment when you check all the wires to ensure they are properly connected, you turn up the volume to ensure the channel is open and live, and then you walk up to that mic, tap the top of it and say, “Is this thing on?” That’s what we want to know about your life, and mine, as part of this series – Is your life, you own personal open mic, is it on? If so, what are you saying? Is your voice focused on a judgmental rant? Are you spewing challenge or encouragement? What? And perhaps most poignantly, are you a voice of gratitude in our polarized and hurting world?
Jesus had more than a few thoughts about what our lives should say to the world. Gratitude was near the top. On one occasion, as Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem, he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered the village, ten men suffering from leprosy hollered at Jesus from a distance. It was customary for them to keep their distance as those with leprosy were among those deemed, “unclean.” If you were considered unclean, you were exiled from your home, your family, the whole community. Levitical law prescribed this reality. “Don’t bring your issues and diseases to the rest of us!” sort of idea. While the distance was not always defined, at least one authority laid it down that the unclean person was responsible for knowing the direction of the wind. If a healthy person was downwind from one considered unclean, the person with leprosy, in this case, would have to stand at least fifty yards away. Nothing could better show the utter isolation in which the “unclean” had to live.
So here are ten who are with an unclean condition, tasked to be meteorologists in order to determine where they could exist, or not, at any given moment in relation to the community. Presumably most of the ten are Jewish though we know at least one is said to be a foreigner, a Samaritan. We know that the Jews and Samaritans avoided each other at all costs. They funded negative campaign ads against each other that were plastered all over television and social media. “That Samaritan stole the full-size candy bars out of his kid’s Halloween candy basket. If he’ll steal from his own children, can you imagine what he’ll steal from the rest of us?” The comebacks were just the same, “He’s a left-handed guitar player with two first names – is that really the kind of guy we want making decisions about insurance in our county?” You get the point. They didn’t get along. At all. Yet in this band of ten, there was at least one Samaritan. A common misfortune had broken down the racial and national barriers. In the common suffering of their leprosy, they had forgotten they were Jews and Samaritans and remembered only they were humans who were more alike than not. Surely one of the things that should draw all humanity together is a common need of God… whose very nature is love itself. But… we are often too consumed with our own issues, needs, desires to stop long enough to see another as more like us than not.
I sat in my car one day this week, a friend in the passenger seat, out behind the church as we waited on another to join us. We had just learned of the death a close friend had experienced and we were mostly sitting in silence. Looking ahead of us at the playground however, there were tons of kids running and laughing and playing. We just sort of sat there silently and took in the sight. I finally broke the silence saying simply, “And the world plays on.” You never know, as you move about your daily agenda, who’s life has come to a screeching halt. It never hurts to put ourselves in the shoes of another from time to time. But for these ten? Not many giving them the time of day. Every day was a dead end… a screeching halt of a life. Enter Jesus.
The ten holler at him, heaving a Hail Mary of “have mercy on us” from the fifty-yard line toward Jesus in hopes that the pass may somehow, miraculously, be completed. It’s never worked to this point. But… Jesus “saw them.” Those three words may be sermon enough for today. Jesus saw them. Who do you need to see? Jesus saw them and with compassion says, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” May seem like an odd thing to say to you and me but in that time, if a person with leprosy was fortunate enough to experience healing, that person was required to show him/herself to a priest. Only a priest could certify that a person was truly clean and therefore able to return to the community. The ten take off for the temple but along the way, they are healed. Presumably they all realize this at some point but only one of the ten has the thought pop into his soul – “I’m going back to Jesus!” The other nine continue the beeline to the priest. After all, that was the instruction they were given anyway. Just following orders. And… they couldn’t see their families or go to Whataburger until the priest cleared them to re-enter society as a clean human being. If you had found freedom after being shunned for years, what would you do? There was one who went back. Jesus is clear to say it is the Samaritan (you may read as the democrat or republican or Immigrant or Texan… whoever is not in your camp). It is the Samaritan who goes back and throws himself at the feet of Jesus… the first person other than the other nine that he has been face to face with for who knows how long.
Gratitude just poured out of this man. The word may more accurately be worship. Jesus says, “Weren’t there ten of you? Where are your friends? Could they not sacrifice a few more minutes to give glory to God? No? Only you… the one least expected to do so.” And the key to the whole thing Jesus says next, “Get up. On your way. Your faith has made you well.” Ten were healed. Only one was deemed well. What does that say to us? Wellness is a matter of faith. Being made well is a matter of the heart. Gratitude seems to be the key… and not a flippant ‘thank you’ but a spiritual discipline… a life that led by gratitude. As the rock band Boston famously sang, “It’s more than a feeling.”
Researchers have noted that positive emotions wear off quickly. Dr. Emmons suggests that our emotional systems like newness. They like novelty. They like change. We adapt to positive life circumstances so that before too long, the new car, the new relationship, the new house doesn’t feel so new and exciting anymore. Gratitude, however, makes us appreciate the value of something. Valuing something presses beyond emotion and allows us to extract more benefits from it without us taking it for granted. Gratitude propels us to participate more fully in our lives. We become more present to the small things, the moments of grace and beauty that we may have previously overlooked. We become participants in the world, not simply spectators. According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, this improved living, a state of wellness, is true whether you are a healthy college student or an older person with an incurable disease. The study went down like this…
College students were asked to fill out a weekly report of five things for which they were grateful. They listed things like “the generosity of friends” and “the Rolling Stones.” Another group, made up of adults with incurable diseases such as polio, were asked to write down a list of things that made them thankful. At the same time, comparable groups were asked to count their hassles and frustrations instead. They listed aggravations such as “hard to find parking” (isn’t’ that the worst?) and “finances depleting quickly.” Instead of focusing on how rich they were, members of these groups focused on their poverty.
You already know the results. In the end, the grateful groups felt better about their lives and more optimistic about the future. The thankful college students exercised more, and the chronically ill adults who focused on blessings reported sleeping longer and waking up refreshed. The members of the grateful groups were also nicer to neighbors and more willing to help people with personal problems, leading the researchers to conclude that gratitude can serve as a “moral motivator.” “Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus to returning Samaritan. Jesus gives him a high five not so much for the faith that asked for healing, but for the faith that returned to give thanks. It’s a grateful faith, not a gimme faith, that saves us… that makes us well. Eugene Peterson, now a week into the resurrection, said, “There is a great market for religious experience [or healing] in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” Gratitude, not practiced as a discipline, puts us at risk of a life drowning in selfishness. We have to choose gratitude until we are grateful. It’s a discipline. You write it down. You say it. You think it. You feel it. You breathe it. Eventually, gratitude becomes the lens through which you see the world. I was convicted the other day seeing this image of Staff Sergeant Johnny Jones with his quote that reads, “People ask how I stay so positive after losing my legs. I simply ask how they stay so negative with theirs.” I’m not one who is into comparisons because that just sets us up as competitors – “My sickness is worse than yours. My life is harder than yours. My bank account is not okay until it has more in it than yours.” Comparative living is not generally helpful. But when I experience positive people… who may not be healed but are well… I am inspired to practice gratitude more intentionally. So often, however, when we get what we want, we never come back. How often have we been the nine, instead of the one who comes back to praise God?
Bishop Michael Curry, most known for the sermon he gave and Harry and Meghan’s Royal Wedding this summer, was interviewed this week as he has a new book coming out entitled, “The Power of Love” which also just happens to be, arguably, the title of one the best songs from 1985, “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. Back to the Future soundtrack. “The Power of love is a curious thing…” If I got that song stuck in your head, you’re welcome. Enjoy! But I digress. Bishop Curry was first asked to respond to the words of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers who experienced eleven of his own being executed a week ago Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The Rabbi quoted the Psalms, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. But,” he added, “I want those eleven lives back.” Curry noted that “When it hurts, it hurts and we need to own that.” He spoke of the Jewish tradition that never allows a dead body of one of their own to be left alone. He said, “We do it together. We have to exist in the rituals of faith which were beta tested a long time ago. Those disciplines hold us in the difficult seasons while God’s energy finds a way to be reinfused into the community.”
And then Bishop Curry spoke about wellness and gratitude saying, “Love is the only thing that will work. If you look at love only sentimentally, it may not work. But love, as Jesus demonstrates, seeks the wellness of others, even sometimes above my own need. That kind of self-less living is the only thing that has ever changed anything for the good. Think about it yourselves,” he continued. “Who are the people that actually made a difference in your life? They actually made a difference in your life not because they were doing something for themselves but because they actually cared about you. Think about any kind of social change that has ever happened in human history. It has been people who have been thinking more about others than themselves. Consider first responders – they don’t know who they’re going in to help. They do it because it’s selfless. Truth is, no good created and done by human beings has ever been done from the motivation of selfishness. It has always been selfless service and giving… which is what love actually is.”
Curry closed the interview with this. “Self-centeredness doesn’t work over the long haul. If I live that way then I make myself the center of the universe. If I am the center of the universe then you’re on the periphery and ultimately expendable. If we all live that way, we don’t have a society. Democracy depends on that. Human survival and life on this planet depends on our capacity to be unselfish and beings that give freely. The miracle? When we do that, we are actually blessed ourselves.”
Until we practice gratitude… allowing it to become a part of us… we will never be well in the way Jesus proclaims the grateful Samaritan to be. So today is ours… this moment at least, all we are promised. Will gratitude lead the way? Do you want to be well? Your life is an open mic. The mic is yours. What will you say?
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 https://www.njlifehacks.com/thanks-robert-emmons-book-summary/. Dr. Emmons research and findings included in this message come from this source as well as others where he says similar things.
 Exegetical support found in William Barclay’s “Commentary on the Book of Luke.” Westminster Press. 1975.
 Brown, David. “Counting blessings is healthful.” The Washington Post, March 10, 2003, A11.
 I saw this quote and picture on a Facebook post of a friend some time ago. I do not know the original source.