Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and The Gospel of Luke 17:11-19
Sunday, October 9, 2016
When I worked at New York Presbyterian Hospital, I would see one particular security guard on a regular basis. She always had a smile on her face. Every day when I greeted her with, “How are you?”, she would pause and think for a moment and say, “I’m grateful.” I would sometimes seek this security guard out, because her answer would always put a smile on my face as I walked away.
One day we had a chance to talk and I asked her about her “I’m grateful” and commented that it appeared to not be automatic, but rather it seemed that she thought about it each time before she said it. She told me that working in a hospital had given her a different perspective on life and on death. She said that she was grateful because she had a good job, a good family life, and a close connection to God. It seems to me that her response was a choice that she had made, to consciously think about how she was. Gratitude for her was a choice she made.
It would appear that that was also a choice that the leper made who came back to thank Jesus. This one person, like the other nine, was probably overjoyed and maybe surprised by being made clean, and yet he chose to return to thank Jesus. He decided to stop and thank him for getting rid of his leprosy. I don’t know what led him to do that. Perhaps he thought that it was more important to thank someone who helped him instead of going to the priests for clearance to return to his community. Perhaps he didn’t have a community to which he could return. Or maybe, he just realized that in being made clean after living for years defined by his disease, he thought he should express his gratitude to the one who made it possible for him to be known as a person and not as a disease.
And what does he get for expressing that thanks? Jesus affirms that his faith has made him well. I wonder if the other nine lepers ended up back where they were. Trying to get back into their community, trying to find their way back into acceptance. By Jesus telling this man that his faith has made him well, I wonder if that opened different doors for him, even though he was a Samaritan, the ultimate outsider. I wonder if others who had also been made well by their faith welcomed him and considered him an equal along with the rest of this small band of Jesus followers. His showing his gratitude may have made a difference for him and for all of those who became his community. By the choice he made, his life changed.
I would hazard to guess that the security guard changed the lives of those with whom she came into contact by her choosing to respond to an ordinary conversation starter, with, “I’m grateful.” I know she impacted me. And, I know from her life story, that she had a very difficult marriage and divorce and that one of her children has health issues, and yet she says, that she honestly feels grateful for what she does have.
Similar to the security guard, working in a hospital, gave me a very different attitude about living and dying. Because I would be present during times when people were dying, either from a prolonged illness or from an unexpected incident, I came to realize the preciousness of life in a different way. I realized the importance of saying I love you each time I left Pat. I realized the importance of saying “thank you” and letting the people I cared about know that I cared about them. And, I found myself with a profound sense of gratitude for having been involved in an experience involving life and death and learned from it the importance of expressing my gratitude and letting people know that I was grateful for having them in my life.
In some ways, I was like that leper who came back to thank Jesus because I would find myself thanking him for my being more aware of the need to show gratitude and take the time to do so. In a way, my faith was making me well and continues to make me well, as I try to remember to show gratitude, deep gratitude for being able to help someone, to walk with someone through a part of their journey. Each day that I serve here with you, I am filled with gratitude.
This past week, as you know, we have opened our sanctuary to the Pleasantville Community Synagogue for their High Holy Day Services. Coming from a Jewish background, and having spent many years participating in both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, having this synagogue here has brought up a lot of different feelings for me. As I sat in my office on Tuesday and Wednesday I could hear familiar parts of the service coming through the open doors of the sanctuary. At times it filled me with profound gratitude for having been through that part of my journey.
It has also reminded me of the importance of these two holidays in the lives of our Jewish friends. There are always 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During those 10 days you are supposed to do a moral inventory. You are supposed to go and seek forgiveness from someone you have wronged. For example, if you have treated someone in a manner that was inappropriate or if you cheated them, you are to go and make it right. You are to atone for your shortcomings. In the liturgy for these two holidays are the following sentences: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall attain the measure of a man’s days and who shall not? On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.”
When I was young, my friends and I wondered if we had been written in what we called “the Book of Life.” I used to spend the weeks after Yom Kippur wondering if I had been written in the book of life or the book of death. But eventually, it would fade from my memory and I would go back to living my mostly carefree early teenage life. But, every year, once again I would be asked to examine what I had done over the past year and do the best I could do to make amends, and mean it. After all, I wanted to be written in the Book of Life, not the Book of Death.
In the past 48 hours, I was again reminded of the importance of atonement and what it really means to seek forgiveness. I was watching CNN on Friday evening when the person who was filling in for Anderson Cooper, was discussing with a panel of Democratic and Republican commentators, Mr. Trump’s sort-of apology for the disgusting video-tape that had surfaced. One commentator said that as a Christian, she had to accept Mr. Trump’s apology. She explained that Christians needed to forgive each other and so she had forgiven him and was ready to move on.
For one of the first times I can ever remember, I actually talked back to the television! I could not believe what I was hearing from this commentator. Seeking forgiveness requires more than a “well, if anyone was bothered by it, I apologize” which is not even a half-hearted apology. An apology without a contrite heart and a strong desire to change one’s attitude and actions, is what God expects of us as Christians. Otherwise, that would make our religion lip-service and doesn’t acknowledge the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf and the importance of our treating each other with love and care. It was certainly not what I had learned as a young person in synagogue during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
True repentance and apologizing requires more than just words. It requires that one turn another way and then lives their life in a different way. Unfortunately, that is not what I observed from Mr. Trump’s apology. Being a Christian is hard work and it requires of one that we live by certain standards of decency and care of each other, no matter our sex, our nationality, our culture, or anything else that makes us different. As Christians, we are required to treat all others with respect and with dignity and with love and when we seek forgiveness, it is with contrition in our hearts after having done soul searching and not deflecting what we have done wrong by equating it with what someone else might have done right or wrong. It is admitting our wrong and not offering excuses for it, or mitigating circumstances. It is truly turning to a new way, a different way of being who we are.
And, that is where gratitude comes into this. If we really seek forgiveness, if we really search our hearts and souls and truly repent, then the gratitude we feel when we know deep down that we have been forgiven, is almost overwhelming because of the love that wells up within us and brings us even closer to God.
Here is my disclaimer: Please do not hear what I am saying as an endorsement of one candidate or another. I am speaking in reaction to a commentator and her statement that because she is a Christian she accepts someone’s apology without considering what is required of us when we do apologize or seek forgiveness. Our actions speak far louder than our words and as Christians, our actions should reflect both our Christian values and not taking a decision to seek forgiveness nor ask for forgiveness, lightly.
I admit that these days, it is sometimes hard to find things for which to be grateful. Interestingly, the other lectionary reading for today, from Jeremiah, gives us some clues for our own lives. Even though the people to whom Jeremiah is prophesizing are in exile, God tells the people to build houses, plant gardens, marry, and have children. Jeremiah tells them to seek the peace of the city, the prosperity of the city. And, he tells them that God says to pray to God on behalf of the city, because if it prospers, they too will prosper. Our own well-being is dependent on how we support and are a part of where we live, and I believe, where we worship.
And, our own well-being includes realizing and naming those things for which we have gratitude. Going back to the Samaritan that Jesus healed, he showed his gratitude by returning to Jesus and Jesus affirmed his faith. Gratitude brings us to a new place within ourselves and in our life. I believe that is what Jesus was talking about when he told the man that his faith had made him well. Our faith requires that we help others and when we do help others, we can’t help but feel good about it. These cards that you wrote on last week are a testimony to your doing for others. They blew me away and I realized that sometimes, we too, need to have our faith affirmed. Because of our faith, we come together as a community, we take time to be together, supporting each other and reminding each other that our faith has made us well so that we can go out and do for others.
Friends, we do have a choice and we can choose gratitude. Because I know it is not easy for any of us to publicly own those things for which we are grateful, I would like to ask that you turn to your neighbor and taking just a minute or so, talk with each other about those things for which you are grateful. We will then end by singing, Now Thank We All Our God.