I don’t know if this bothers you, but I am becoming increasingly tired of the constant use of the phrase “Thank You” in our culture. It’s not, mind you, that I feel there’s too much genuine gratitude around. It’s rather that in everyday dealings people seem to have come to rely on “Thank You” to express every possible emotion or idea. Just as 50 is the new 40, so “Thank You” is the new “No Problem.” There IS a problem, though: by saying thanks so often and so routinely we lessen the possibility of any expression of genuine gratitude.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, and I’m thinking here about interchanges in the supermarket. When I pay the checker says, “Thank you.” When I receive my change I say, “Thank you.” When the checker hands me the receipt, she says “Thank you for shopping at Safeway,” and when I take the receipt, instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” I then say the fourth “Thank You” in the interchange. Do we really mean even one of these rote expressions of thanks?
What brings this all to mind, of course, is the Gospel for today, Luke’s account of the ten lepers cleansed. Some of Jesus’ teachings are hard to figure out, and some of them are crystal clear, like this one. Ten lepers yell out to Jesus, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He heals the ten of them and then commands them all to go show themselves to the priests. Nine of them go on their way; only the tenth, and a Samaritan at that, has the grace to turn back to Jesus and say, “Thanks.” “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” In this respect, first-century Palestine was no different than twenty-first-century America. Formulaic “Thank Yous” may abound, but it’s hard to find an authentic expression of real thanks.
Jesus healed ten people in this morning’s Gospel. Nine of them went on their way, one turned back to say thanks. Here’s the question this story poses for each of us: Am I going to be one of the nine, or am I going to be the one who expresses gratitude? And if I want to be the one who says “thank you,” how does God want me to do that? How, in other words, do I express my thankfulness not just verbally? How do I live it, functionally?
As clear as the Gospel story is on our need to acknowledge God as the source of our being, our gifts, our blessings, it is today’s Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah, that opens up for us how God would have us express our thanks.
These last several weeks we have been reading serially through the book of Jeremiah the prophet. Week after week we have heard his dire message of judgment, and in this morning’s reading we hear that it has come to pass. Jerusalem has been laid waste, the people have been deported to exile in Babylon, and now they are asked to sing God’s song on an alien soil. Given his continued emphasis on faithfulness to Israel’s God, you would think that Jeremiah would counsel the exiles to hunker down and keep the faith purely even in a foreign land. But the surprising, wonderful thing about this morning’s reading is the advice that Jeremiah, the grumpy prophet of doom, gives to the captive Israelites in Babylonian exile. Here is what he says:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. … [S]eek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7)
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” There is deep wisdom in Jeremiah’s counsel. Here the prophet acts counter to everything we know about him and gives wise, helpful advice to God’s people. Instead of suggesting that they turn themselves into a hermetically sealed ghetto in Babylon, he tells them to do the reverse: the best way to get along in new and trying and confusing circumstances is to root yourself down where you are. Give yourself over to your new place. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Don’t waste your energy lamenting what you have lost. Be present to the life and the place God has given you to live in and to love and seek its welfare.
Jesus tells the cleansed lepers to say “Thank you” by showing themselves to the priest. Jeremiah tells the exiles to say “Thank you” by seeking the welfare of their new city—“for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” And so for you and me: we are called to say “Thank you” both by worship and by action. As a praying community, we focus our corporate life on giving God praise and thanks. But how do we live lives of genuine gratitude? How do we seek the welfare of the place where God has put us? In answer to that, I have two thoughts.
Here is the first thought. Suffering is a part of everyone’s life, and when we suffer our first thought is to feel aggrieved and resentful. Why does everyone else seem to have what I do not? Nobody looks good when they are feeling aggrieved. One way we give thanks to God is to reorient our inner lives away from resentment and toward gratitude. Try to remember, on a daily basis, the full extent of what you have been given, of how much you did nothing to earn. The nine lepers who never said “Thanks” probably felt, as they were being healed, that they deserved it. “It’s about time!” I can hear them thinking. The one who turned back knew that his healing was a gift. And so for us: life, love, purpose, community: all these are gifts. If we start with that recognition, everything good and generous will follow.
And that leads to a second thought. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” We live out our gratitude not only in saying thanks. We live it out most authentically in standing with and for others, especially those who are up against it. Grateful living means taking on the concerns of those who suffer: the sick, the lonely, the hungry, the poor, the oppressed. Christians care for the world not because we’re do-gooders but because we recognize our kinship with all those who are lost. Lepers are not some species from another planet. Lepers are us. So are the homeless, the jobless, the sick, the bereaved, and those without healthcare. Our job as people and as a people is to express our thanks by seeking the welfare of the cities in which we live. In seeking their welfare we will find our welfare.
When we say “Thanks” and try to live it, the God we know in Jesus is not one who thoughtlessly answers “Thank you” back as they do at the supermarket. The God we know in Jesus is a God who will say, as we should when we give, “You’re welcome.” You are welcome to God’s abundant gifts. God gives you so much because God loves you. God gives you so much because you are worth everything to God. You are precious. You are unique. You are welcome to all the myriad wonders of God’s creation. They are here for you and your care and enjoyment. All you need to do as you receive them is to say thanks and to let God tell you that you are welcome to them all. And because you are welcome to them you are free to share them with others. If that is not a cause for joyous thanksgiving, I surely don’t know what is. Amen.