A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 17:11-19
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I can see myself sitting at the white, round table in the family room of my childhood home, a piece of paper in front of me, a writing implement (probably a pencil) in my hand, knowing that I had to write my aunt a thank you letter.  And I was dreading it.  I had no idea what to say, and my mom said I had to.

“Dear Dorli, thank you for the [whatever it was]. I like it a lot.”  “Mom, what do I say after that?”

My nephew, the pasta and pesto king of our family (he grows his own basil), had a birthday a couple weeks ago.  I got a thank you card from him his week:
“Dear Jeff[,]
Thank you for the REI gift card and the cook book[.]  I am really ex[c]ited to cook with you.  I have a grate memory of when I told you to put the cheese in the pesto and you put in the whole block and it splat[t]ed every where.
Love you a ton[,] Sam”

First of all, the cheese didn’t splat everywhere.  It banged around in the blender until he stopped me and told me to grate the cheese first.  Second, yes, the uncle who burns water when he makes tea got is nephew a cook book for his birthday and promised to do come cooking with him.  And third, it is really clear that he is related to me because (1) the note has plenty of spelling mistakes and that’s a Spencer characteristic, and (2) if it’s not a spelling mistake, it’s a really worthwhile pun that his cheese memory of me is g-r-a-t-e.

Of course, I wonder if his mother had to make my nephew write the note.  I think this is a fairly universal experience for parents, and yet when I ask kids to pray (and I’ve seen this consistently at camps over the decades), their prayers are almost always prayers of thanks.  In my experience, it’s only in adolescence, and often not until late adolescence that the prayers start to move toward intercession.  Offering thanks to God in spoken prayer is easy, it’s natural for kids to do.  But ask them to write a thank you note, and parents feel like they’re pulling teeth.  I suspect it’s the writing part that’s problematic.  Giving thanks is natural, but as soon as we ask the kid to put it to paper, it becomes a homework assignment.

About a year and a quarter ago, I gave myself a nightly homework assignment.  While I haven’t fulfilled this assignment every night, I’ve come pretty close.  The assignment has two parts:  Part one is to review the day – think about what happened and how God showed up in what happened.  Part two is to write a prayer of thanks and post it on Facebook.

This is actually part of an ancient spiritual practice called the Daily Examen.  More than 400 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola encouraged Christians to twice-daily prayerfully reflect on the day and offer God thanks.[1]  The Daily Examen is a bit more nuanced than that and includes other elements, but prayerfully reflecting and giving thanks is the core of the Examen.  I’ve taken this core component and added a piece of 21st century social media to the practice.

I started this assignment as a way to explore if Facebooking could be used for spiritual practice – at least by me – for a workshop I would later lead.  The answer is a profound, “Yes!” and so I have kept up the practice, long after the workshop.

I’ve found two things from doing this assignment for over a year.  To my surprise, I’ve found that there are people who look forward to my prayers and who connect with them – I really thought I was doing this practice for me and God alone, and putting the prayer on Facebook was just a way of saying the prayer aloud.

The other things I have found is in me: a shift, a spiritual shift.  The practicing of gratitude has created a feeling of gratitude in me; the feeling has followed the behavior.  Even on days when I have found it very difficult to be grateful, I have been able to be grateful that I can be honest with God about how difficult it is to be grateful some days.  I have found that it is easier for me to let go of the “small stuff” that can easily be an irritant.  And I have found that I’m not nearly as stressed out by our pending move as I think I would be without this practice of giving thanks.

“Ten Lepers Healed,” by Brian Kershisnik

During the daytime Women’s Fellowship meeting on Monday, we looked at the gospel lesson we heard today.  Jesus and the disciples are on their journey and they are crossing the border between Galilee and Samaria.  There, in that liminal territory, in that area that crosses between two spaces, they encounter a group of ten lepers.  Now, when we say “leper,” we’re not necessarily talking about people with Hansen’s disease, we’re not necessarily talking about people who need to go live on Molokai.  We might be, but not necessarily.

The ability to distinguish between one sort of skin disorder and another wasn’t as acute then as it is now.  Because it was clear that leprosy is contagious, people with all sorts of skin problems were banished from the community, made to live on the margins, and told that they couldn’t approach people who were “clean.”  The only way for a Jew to get back into the Jewish community was to be examined by a priest and declared “clean.”

So Jesus and the disciples meet up with this group of ten people who were labeled “lepers.”  The ten cry out to Jesus and Jesus tells them to act as if they are clean.  ‘Go show yourselves to a priest, go get the examination that will restore you to community.’  So off they go, and as they are going, they are made clean.  One of the ten comes back to Jesus and thanks him.  And Jesus points out that the one who came back is “a foreigner,” that is, a Samaritan.

You know, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.  (Think about it for a moment.)

We have incomplete data in the story, but the extrapolation is that the other nine were Jews.  Prior to their experience of Jesus, this group of ten had something in common.  They were all thrown out of their communities because of their skin conditions.  Labeled and thrown out, they created community for themselves by banding together, crossing barriers that otherwise would have kept them apart.  Now they have encountered Jesus, who sends them off to their priests to be restored to their original communities.  Would they remember the Jewish/Samaritan barrier-busting they had experienced when they were outcasts?  Or would they try to put the whole banishment experience behind them and work to fit back into the social norms?

I have a tendency to wag my finger at the nine who didn’t return to give Jesus thanks.  Jesus did this really cool thing for them, and they don’t even say “thank you.”  But I don’t think that’s fair.  They did exactly what Jesus told them to do.

Walter Wink points out that “Jesus does not use healing to bring others under the spell of his own charisma.  He merely sends these lepers on their way to the priest.  Their going, their trust, their acting on his command activates their healing.  He is not content merely to heal, but to restore their own sense of power: ‘Your faith has made you well.’”[2]

There may be an element in this story that is contrasting the difference between being cleansed and being whole.  All ten lepers were made clean (katharizo), but Jesus says something different to the leper who returns.  To him, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well (sozo).”  The word sozo isn’t just “to be made well.”  It also means “to be saved.”  By coming back and giving thanks, the Samaritan is transformed into wholeness.

There is something about the act of giving thanks that is transformative.

I would like to think that the other nine found a time and a place to give thanks to God.  Sadly, it is also possible that the other nine ended up thinking that they healed themselves.  I know it’s easy for me to think I’ve done something on my own.  That’s one of the reasons I find value in my daily practice of giving thanks.  It helps me realize that I don’t really do anything on my own and that realization brings me a greater sense of wholeness and connectedness – connectedness to God and to my neighbors.

Our discussion about this passage at Women’s Fellowship took an interesting turn at one point.  As we were talking about the power of giving thanks, about its power to transform, even to bring wholeness, one of the women asked if a practice of giving thanks can treat depression.  I am so thankful for the questions, and I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, let me share my answer to her question.

I can think of three types of depression.[3]  There is situational depression.  This is the depression that comes because of a situation, for example, the death of a loved one.  Like all types of depression, one who is situationally depressed will feel sadness and a lack of energy.  Often, with situational depression, helping others and giving thanks helps to alleviate the depression.

Clinical depression is a physical illness.  People with clinical depression typically have chemical imbalances in their brains that can be relieved with appropriate medication.  The causes of clinical depression can include genetics, situational depression that isn’t alleviated,[4] and (recent studies are suggesting) brain injuries like concussions.[5]  Because clinical depression is a physical illness, it needs to be treated medically.  Spiritual practices (like service and giving thanks) can help, but medical treatment is necessary.

The third type of depression I can think of is the depression that comes with bipolar disorder.  Like clinical depression, bipolar disorder is treated with appropriate medication – though different medication from that used to treat clinical depression because the brain chemistry issues are different.  I don’t know enough about bipolar disorder to know if spiritual practices (like service and giving thanks) can help alleviate some of the depressive symptoms that come with bipolar disorder – though it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.  What I do know for sure is that medical treatment works.

One reason I am so thankful for the question that was asked at Women’s Fellowship is that it opened the door to a really powerful discussion about depression.  I think just about everyone at the meeting had dealt with or had a family member who dealt with depression at some point in their lives.  Some were still dealing with it because their clinical depression was chronic.  This may have been the first time any of us talked about it openly.  And I don’t remember if I have ever spoken so clearly about depression in particular and mental illnesses in general in a sermon before.  I’m doing it now because that question opened the door.  For that, I give thanks.

Since Monday, I’ve had three opportunities to talk about this sermon as it was coming together.  All three times, I mentioned that I planned to talk about depression.  All three times, that mention elicited sharing about ways depression had touched their lives.

This suggests to me that people want to talk about mental health and mental illness.  But we don’t.  It reminds me of how the word “cancer” was avoided in polite conversation in the 1960s and 70s, at least in my experience.  Mental illness still has a stigma in our culture.  People living with mental illness are the often pushed to the margins by our silence.  Maybe my mentioning depression today in this sermon will help chip away at that stigma and open a door to conversation.  So I give thanks today for a question about depression that came up in a Bible study.

And giving thanks really is the topic for today’s sermon.  A point I made earlier is that giving thanks is transformative.  I think this is because giving thanks requires us to interrupt our preoccupations and to turn in our tracks toward the source of life and newness.  On this thanksgiving week, let us make it a practice to interrupt our preoccupations and to turn toward God and give thanks.

Amen.

[1] A simple overview of the Daily Examen can be found at http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/

[2] Walter Wink, “Divine Source, Human Means,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/divine-source-human-means-0 (accessed 17 November 2014).

[3] During coffee hour after worship, a church member suggested that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADs) might be a fourth type of depression.

[4] See http://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/depression/situational-depression/ for more on situational depression and clinical depression.

[5] See, for instance, “Teen Concussions Increase Risk of Depression,” Center for Advancing Health, http://www.cfah.org/hbns/2014/teen-concussions-increase-risk-for-depression (posted 9 January 2014; accessed 22 November 2014).

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