One night many years ago, Ed Spencer, a student at a seminary near Lake Michigan, was awakened by shouts that there had been a shipwreck offshore from the campus. An excursion boat from the nearby Chicago harbor had collided with a freighter and was sinking. Spencer ran down to the lakeshore from which he could see lights from the boats. A strong swimmer, he plunged into the icy water and started searching for survivors.
For six hours Spencer swam out and back, pulling people ashore, battling stormy waves and powerful undertow. By dawn, he had personally rescued 15 people in as many trips. Exhausted, he sat down until someone spotted two more still in the water. Spencer dove in again and found a man and a woman clinging desperately to a piece of wreckage. He brought them in, too, and collapsed on the beach.
Fewer than one-fourth of the 400 passengers on that boat survived the shipwreck, 17 of them rescued by Ed Spencer. His own health, however, was irreparably damaged by his act of heroism, and he was never able to return to school, ultimately living out his days as an invalid. Years later, a reporter doing a story on Great Lakes tragedies found Spencer as an old man in a nursing home in California and asked for his recollections of that night. He said bitterly, “The only thing I remember is that not one of the 17 ever thanked me.” (1)
Ingratitude. For some people it is a way of life, a very ugly way of life. Everyone who lives a life dedicated to others encounters it at some time or another.
Golfing legend Arnold Palmer encountered it in professional golfers who do not appreciate what a fortunate situation they have. He says, “Players complain to me all the time about how hard it is to constantly sign autographs or talk to the press or spend time with amateurs,” he said. “I tell them all the same thing: ‘If you don’t like it, don’t walk out the [clubhouse] door. Quit. No one is forcing you to do this.’” He sighed. “A lot of players just don’t understand how lucky we all are to be doing what we do. I look at my life and all I can do is be thankful for everything I’ve been given by so many people over so many years.”
Author John Feinstein adds this comment, “Maybe that is the key to Arnold Daniel Palmer. After all these years; after playing golf with six presidents; after having signed every autograph; after granting every interview request; after making several thousand golfers wealthy men; he looks back and talks not about what he did for golf, but about what golf did for him.” (2)
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. His journey carried him along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into one village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The healed man was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to the man, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
I suppose a million sermons have been preached on that question Jesus asked that day long ago, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” Mark J. Molldrem in Emphasis magazine made a Top Ten list in the vein of comedian David Letterman of the responses that the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus might have said after Jesus healed them:
Leper 10: Bummer, now my acne will be more apparent.
Leper 9: Will I have to file a medical insurance report for this?
Leper 8: It’s not fair, now I’ll have to work for a living instead of begging off others.
Leper 7: Does this mean I can go to Planet Hollywood this weekend?
Leper 6: Great! I can get back into the dating scene again.
Leper 5: Now what excuse will I use to get out of going to the in-laws for Thanksgiving?
Leper 4: I wonder if Jesus would also do something for my allergies.
Leper 3: All right! Now I can buy a new wardrobe.
Leper 2: Why didn’t this happen sooner?
And Leper #1: Thank you, Jesus! You are my Lord and Master. (3)
Only one of the ten returned with this kind of response. But that one gave us some important lessons.
For one thing, we can see that faith and gratitude go hand in hand. If you truly trust God, you cannot help but have a profound sense of gratitude about what God has done in your life. Conversely, if you are a person without a sense of gratitude for what God has done in your life, you ought to examine your heart to see if God really does dwell there.
The real puzzle is why you and I aren’t bubbling over with gratitude. God has blessed most of us in so many ways. Yes, from time to time all of us experience heartaches, sickness and other forms of suffering. That’s what it means to live in a fallen world, East of Eden. But on balance, our lives are very, very good. Why on earth don’t we come into this church bubbling over with praise and thanksgiving?
Sadly, many people never think to even thank one another for deeds of kindness or even great sacrifice. So it is easy to see why that same lack of gratitude carries into our relationship with God. If we have ever really thanked God for all God has done for us, our lives would be transformed. We would have a sense of joy. We would have a sense of trust. God is with us. God has been with us. God will always be with us.
How can we walk around with so much uncertainty and doubt? How can we have such gloom written upon our faces? God has done wondrous things for us. As we sing in John Newton’s immortal hymn Amazing Grace, “Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” What is it that keeps us from bubbling over with thanksgiving? Faith and gratitude are forever linked together. The real puzzle of life is why you and I don’t express our gratitude in our daily lives.
Notice how this story ends. Jesus says to the man, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Jesus doesn’t praise the man for coming back and giving thanks. He doesn’t have to. He knows the man’s heart. This man is in tune with God’s will for his life. This man knows God loves him. His life is a study in thankfulness. Jesus simply affirms that this man is a man of faith, and that is all that is necessary for this man to live a whole and complete life.
There is healing in an attitude of faith and thanksgiving. I am convinced we would have far fewer people suffering from both emotional and physical pain if they incorporated faith and a sense of gratitude into their lives. I remember a time in my life about 35 years ago. Very discouraged, depressed, with failing health. I spent about two hours in my morning bible reading and my prayer life.
But what helped me as well was taking my hymnal and singing hymns for maybe half an hour or more. Just walking around my dining room table pouring out my heart in song, and God healed my broken heart, confusion, and physical condition.
Barbara Sholis, wrote an article for Christian Century in which she talked about her own experience of being healed. Having faced the specter of cancer, Barbara said she could identify with these ten lepers and their disease. This is a passage she lives close to.
“When chemotherapy causes your hair to fall out, robs you of your energy and fills your mouth with canker sores, you begin to develop empathy with the lepers. There is no hiding the fact that you are diseased. Your cancer walks into the room before you do and people who know better still flinch as they did before the lepers, who were made to live outside the community, who had to beg for survival.”
Now that she is well, Barbara identifies closely with the tenth leper, the one who returned with gratitude. “Like the tenth leper,” she writes, “I never want to lose sight of the miracle of God’s grace. Being grateful as I awaken to the gift of each day is the key.” She has come to believe that gratitude is “the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition.” (4)
Barbara’s right. Gratitude is the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition. And there’s healing in such gratitude. I believe it is the answer to stress and some forms of depression.. It’s the answer to heartbreak and loss. I believe that all of us would have healthier minds and bodies if we could have such faith and gratitude.
A Salvation Army preacher in England, during the first half of the twentieth century, had this to say about gratitude. He wrote:
“Born in another man’s stable, buried in another man’s grave, his first pillow straw, and his last a crown of thorns. His first resting place somebody else’s manger, and his last somebody else’s cross and it was for you and me. Have you ever thanked Him? Have you ever gotten down on your knees and showed gratefulness? You have cursed Him, taken His name in vain, rejected and spurned Him, and spurned His followers and ridiculed or criticized unmercifully, but have you ever thanked Jesus? That is the damning sin‑-ingratitude. Don’t forget! My brother, there is nothing that cost God so much as this. They used to go to the cross and die, now they can go to the cross and live. It used to be the place of death, but now it is the place of life.” (5)
Are you one of the nine healed lepers who did not give thanks? Or do you feel a great sense of gratitude to God this day? When you come to the altar to receive communion, remember to look at the Christus Victor, and imagine taking hold of the feet of Jesus, and praising him and thanking him. And then, I hope each of us will leave church today bubbling over with joy about all the great things God has done for us.
*Sermon resources: Christian Globe Networks, Inc., Dynamic Preaching Sermons Fourth Quarter 2010, by King Duncan
- Michael Halleen, Monday Moment, 4-28-08.
- John Feinstein, A Good Walk Spoiled Days and Nights on the PGA Tour (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1996, pp. 197-198).
- Nov/Dec. 1999, p. 36.
- Barbara Sholis, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, October 5, 2004, p. 20. Cited by Rev. Karen Chakoian, http://www.granpres.org/Sermons/2004‑10‑10.htm.
- Pastor Dan Mangler, http://www.smlc‑elca.org/Sunday_sermons/october_10_2004_sermon.html.