Our gospel lesson this morning is a miracle story. Jesus encounters ten lepers, whose lives had been devastated by a dreaded disease that left them as outcasts and beggars. “Jesus, Master,” they cry when they see him, “have mercy on us!” Jesus then responds by telling them to go show themselves to the priest, and as they go, they are healed.
This is one of many miracle stories in which Jesus drives out demons and gives sight to the blind. They describe the in-breaking of a healing power from another dimension capable of restoring life. Even though to this day we aren’t sure what to make of these accounts, it’s clear that they were a regular part of Jesus’ ministry. When someone called out to him for help, he did what he could to return them to the life they were meant to live.
These were what we might call his miracles of life, giving back to broken people the full aliveness for which they were made. “I came to bring life,” Jesus said in John’s gospel. That was his mission.
Jesus saw life itself as miraculous, and he spent his ministry trying to get his followers to see it the same way. Sometimes the miracle of life, the sheer, wild, shocking gift of it all is hard to see, especially when life is going really well, and we’re firing on all cylinders, and we’re just too busy to slow down and take notice of the cascade of goodness that greets us each morning.
Then something happens to knock the breath out of us. It happened with 9/11 when all of sudden we realized how fragile and vulnerable our society is. For weeks our nation seemed traumatized with fear. The smallest things such as eating meals at home with family and friends mattered more than ever. The miracle of dailiness, the wild gift of the simplest times together, was shining everywhere in those days when we thought even our ordinary lives were at risk.
The financial crisis has knocked our breath out again. Only this time the trauma has been less devastating, but has lasted much longer. We seem to have lost our confidence, and anger is infecting not only our elections but our broader culture. And again we are grateful for simple things like having a job and a paycheck, a roof over our heads, enough food and clothing to keep us going. Those now seem more like gifts, even miracles.
A close family friend of mine is a cancer survivor, now more than ten years cancer free. Having that cancer, she says, changed her life. She refuses to put in the long hours she once did. She’s determined to live every day as fully as she can. The closeness to God she found when she thought she might die hasn’t gone away. And what you sense around her is a deep, sober joy, a refusal to let petty worries and anxieties fill her days.
People glimpse the miracle of life in different ways. The lepers got their health back, a cancer survivor gets her life back, a nation survives a terrorist attack, a long recession leaves us more prudent and more grateful.
The great American poet Walt Whitman wrote a poem celebrating this miracle of life:
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water…
Or talk by day with … one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with … one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car…
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle…
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same…
(“Poem of Perfect Miracles,” Leaves of Grass)
Jesus came to give us this miraculous life here and now, to get us to see it, to heal those who are cut off from it, to call us to live it fully.
But there’s a second miracle in our gospel today, the miracle of the one who came back. Ten lepers are healed, and as best we can tell nine of them, thrilled with their good luck, just get on with their lives. They brush up against a great power that can heal them, but when they get what they longed for they just move on. They can go to work, marry a nice Galileean, maybe raise some kids, enjoy the good things.
One leper is different, though. The Samaritan, the foreigner, turns around and comes back skipping and jumping, it seems, praising God with yippees and “yesses” and “hallelujahs.” Then he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. “Where are the other nine?” Jesus wonders. “Did only this foreigner come back to praise God?”
Then he says to the one, “Go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The Greek word for “well” is the same one used for “saved” and for “whole.” Your faith, your gratitude, your trust, has brought you wholeness, completeness, salvation, Jesus is saying. With the first miracle Jesus said you have been made clean. Now he says you have been made well, whole, saved. That is the second miracle—the miracle of wholeness, salvation that comes to the one who comes back in gratitude.
God is showering our lives with miracles day by day—friends, family, mentors, work, the beauty of a fall day, even if it takes illness or catastrophe for us to pay attention. But if we don’t pay attention we will miss the heart of it all. Will we be among the nine who collect their miracles and never look back, or will we walk the way of gratitude?
This miracle is about our center, our soul, that interior place where we are most who we are, where we sort out the purpose and meaning of our life. And gratitude is the key. Writer Lewis Smedes survived a close encounter with death, with 20 to 1 medical odds, and from his hospital bed he wrote this:
It was then I learned that gratitude is the best feeling I would ever have, the ultimate joy of living. It was better than sex, better than winning a lottery, better than watching your daughter graduate from college, better and deeper than any other feeling. It is perhaps the genesis of all other really good feelings in the human repertoire. I am sure that nothing in life can ever match the feeling of being held by a gracious energy percolating from the abyss where beats the loving heart of God.
That is what the one leper saw—that real living begins in turning around to the Great Giver, the Great Healer, and offering thanks and praise. That’s what we’re doing here every Sunday, turning around to the Generous One, saying our version of thanks and hallelujah for the miracle of life. We come here to grow in friendship with this healer, this miracle worker. What a shame to receive so many gifts, but never come to love and know and serve the giver.
This is the beginning of stewardship season at the National Cathedral. Saying that may send shudders down the spines of some. ‘Here they go talking about money in church.’ My sense is most people don’t mind talking about money, but they don’t like discussing it in church. I was impressed some years ago when Harvard preacher Peter Gomes recalled a Congregational minister giving the clearest and shortest stewardship sermon he had ever heard. Here it is: “We need money. You have money. Please give us some.” Of course that’s not stewardship talk, that’s just begging.
In fact, Jesus kept trying to get us to catch on not so much to a theology of giving, but a theology of receiving. The point of our faith is that everything we have we have received. We brought nothing into this world, and eventually everything we have we will give away. So the only question is not, “What part of what I have can I spare to give away?” It is, “What part of what I have received do I need to hold on to for a while, knowing that ultimately I will give it all away?”
Giving in gratitude means, like the leper, turning around first, attending to our gratitude before everything else. We call that proportionate giving—giving a set percentage of our income off the top back to God for God’s work. The standard of giving in our Episcopal Church is 10% of our income, although many of us have needed to start more modestly. The hope, though, is that everyone will pledge some amount, no matter how small. That is a first, vital step on this path of gratitude and generosity.
I’ve often recommended the 2% rule. If you’ve never tried proportionate giving before, why not start at 2% of your income. What a vital, important step for you that would be. And if you’ve already taken that step, why not seek to increase it by 2% of your income this year? Or 5 or 7 or 10?
In this past year this Cathedral made tremendous strides in its giving, both within the congregation and among supporters across Washington and across the country. In challenging times our annual giving has been increasing. But the pressures on our budget are intense as we seek to be the nation’s spiritual home, a place of reconciliation and public dialogue, and a vibrant Christian community at the heart of the nation’s capital.
I have never been more keenly aware of the importance of this Cathedral than now. The Ignatius Forum this past week brought together major public figures to address the absence of civility in government, and the dialogue between Sunni and Shia Muslims that took place here last spring seemed to open some new possibilities of reconciliation. And the power of this Cathedral as a place to discover an inspiring, engaging, intellectually exciting Christian faith, and to experience the depths and riches of its musical and artistic heritage, is extraordinary.
We have an immense mission to this city and nation—speaking words of hope in a hard time, creating a new cadre of Christians who want to connect their faith to the public questions of our day, ministering to the needs of the struggling in our city, drawing pilgrims and explorers from around the world in person or through the web to grow in their faith through the riches of our programs. And this calling begins with the miracle of gratitude, turning back to the Giver, and growing in love and generosity.
A few years ago I attended a funeral for an old friend named Duncan, an Oxford professor, who had died suddenly in the night in his early 60s. He and his wife Lucy had been married only ten months, after enduring some hard blows in their own lives—an excruciating divorce for one, the death of a first wife for the other. Finding each other this late in life had been an unexpected gift and everyone who knew them shared their joy.
But now suddenly he was gone. At the funeral I asked Lucy how she was doing and expected to hear of bottomless grief. But instead she quietly and firmly said that all she can do every day now is to give thanks—that she and Duncan had had each other for even the brief time that she did. She said, “You know we never stopped thanking God that so late in our lives something like this could happen. Every evening at dinner we did the most important act of our day. We would reach our hands across the dinner table to hold each other, and then we would close our eyes, and just say, “Grateful. Grateful.”
“That’s all I can think even today,” she said.
There it is, my friends, the miracle of gratitude, of the one who came back to thank the Giver. And we have been given each other, and our Lord Jesus Christ, to hold onto and to say, Grateful. Grateful.
That is the key to this Cathedral’s life. And that is the key to life.