More than Courtesy

There are several reasons not to give someone a compliment.

 Let’s suppose you’re at the theater and a person you know is in the cast. You thought their performance was less than stellar but tradition dictates that you go backstage after the show. One way to get out of giving an unfelt compliment is to simply say, “Thank you for that performance.”  Another: “Wow! Wonderful is not the word!”  Or, my favorite, to go to the person and say, “You, you, you….”

Compliments and thank yous are more complicated than we might think.  Sometimes it’s hard to compliment someone when that person does the same thing you do—and does it  so staggeringly-better than you do that you don’t even want to think about it, let alone say anything.  Other times, we don’t say thank you because we’re lazy or distracted or introverted or shy or assume that the person is getting it from plenty of other people.

Our most painful thank yous are the result of guilt and manipulation: “You never thank me for all I do for you.”

“Okay, thank you for all you do for me.”

“You’re only saying that because I asked you to.”

Our most fervent thank yous are when a last-minute rescue or surprise happens; when a surgeon has just saved your mother’s life with his skills; when someone helps you narrowly escape a tragedy or gives you the unexpected, perfect gift.

All of which is to say that there can be more to “thank you” than meets the eye.  I suggest to you today that sometimes thank you is not about courtesy; it is about our relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel is the story of the Ten Lepers.  All ten seek out Jesus for help, all ten are healed, only one returns to say thank you, and that one is a Samaritan, a foreigner.

Maybe the other nine lepers were so overwhelmed that they were healed that they never stopped to think how it happened or who made it happen.  Maybe they were so excited that they ran off to friends and relatives. And maybe the Samaritan didn’t have as much to run toward, maybe not as many things or people were calling to him, so he could pause for a moment and consider how this happened.

The Samaritan had unfinished business with Jesus.  Part of it was to say thank you, and maybe a part of it was also to see what else Jesus had for him to learn or to do.  Perhaps the key to entering a relationship with God is thank you—the lesson seems to say so.  The writer Anne Lamott says there are only two prayers: “please, please, please” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Both of these were the prayers of the Samaritan, but the second part was left off by the nine; it was only “please please please I’m outta here.”

Lamott says that what follows this sequence of please and thank you is “wow wow wow,” which is possible only if we thoughtfully ponder what happens between please and thank you and don’t just rush off to the next thing.

When Martin Luther was asked the question, “What is worship?” he responded, “Worship is the tenth leper turning back to say thanks.”

Maybe the need to give thanks is one thing that brings us to church, to worship. Certainly you can do this anywhere, but there’s something about coming to church that signals a commitment, a desire for a structure with prayer and Scripture, a need to be in community besides others who are whispering their own please and thank you.

I’ve read hundreds of articles about why people do or don’t go to church – they don’t go because they’re not getting their “needs” met, or they’re bored or they have trouble with authority or the good political programs are on Sunday mornings or the kids have soccer. It’s complicated.

The British poet T.S. Eliot wrote about a tiny church nestled in the woods 30 miles outside of Cambridge.  It was built in 1626 by the family of a man named Nicholas Ferrar as a house of worship and prayer, at one point was monastery chapel; Eliot says that this history is palpable in the building today. The chapel is called “Little Gidding,” which is also the title of Eliot’s poem. Eliot visited the church once in 1926 and then wrote these uncompromising words — the first part about getting to church, the second about what you do when you’re there:

If you came this way, 


Taking any route, starting from anywhere,


At any time or at any season, 


It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion.

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity 


Or carry report.

You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. “

In an ancient chapel in the English woods or in a storied stone church in St. Paul, we encounter the interaction of the timeless (Scripture, music, prayer, the Eucharist) with the present moment, and at that juncture, discover the strength to go on another day in our complicated, troubled and glorious world, to know what to teach our children to give them hope and purpose, to discover what God has for us today. And as Luther says, “Worship is the Tenth Leper turning back to say thanks.”

Another Brit, C.S. Lewis, says that the essential difference between heaven and hell is gratitude.  In his novel The Great Divorce, he pictures hell as “a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment.”  (Washington?) In Lewis’s hell, all of the souls of the damned feel they deserve better, as a matter of fact they feel entitled to something better.  Hell is the Kingdom of Entitlement.  “’I only want my rights,’ says one, “I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’”

Is it possible that the nine lepers felt entitled to be healed, that this was a long time coming and finally they were relieved of this terrible, unfair burden and that gratitude was, well, unnecessary?

In Lewis’ heaven “no one gets what he or she deserves, no one gets what he or she is entitled to.” What heaven has to give is Joy, Gods greatest gift. Joy comes as a gift to those who can receive with gratitude.

Of course, we have to address those times when gratitude is blocked with pain, the pain of God’s no to our most fervent requests, the harshness of what we perceive as God’s silence in the face of our loudest cries for help.  What Christianity offers at these times is the Cross, the unflinching statement that in moments of darkest despair and unrelenting pain – and they will happen– somehow, God is with us in all of it as we look to Jesus on the Cross, and ultimately, love wins. I think this is the bottom line of Christian faith.

In one of the most cynical posts I have ever seen on Facebook, someone placed a statement by the 18th-century philosopher and skeptic David Hume who said this: “It is an absurdity to believe that the Deity has human passions and one of the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause.”

Maybe not applause, but certainly something –look again at the Gospel.  When the tenth leper shows up with his thanks, suddenly Jesus starts asking questions: “Weren’t there ten lepers here a minute ago?”  “Where are the other nine?”  “Is it only this foreigner who knows how to say thank you?”

Does the God of all the world expect our gratitude?  Wants it as a generous grandmother wants to be thanked for her birthday gift? Can God’s mother heart be affected by our muttered thank you?

Many of us had mothers who kept our kindergarten artwork their entire lives, who gave us the feeling that we filled her days and her heart by our very existence.  Many of us, if we have children, try to be that parent. Sometimes it does not take much to make a parent’s heart overflow.  Because a child knows that his gifts to his mother mean everything, this gives him the confidence to offer them.  As we have the audacity to know that our gratitude is received for the God of all the world.

A poem by former poet laureate Billy Collins, called “The Lanyard:”

The other day I was ricocheting slowly


off the blue walls of this room,


moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,


from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,


when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary


where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist


could send one into the past more suddenly—


a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp


by a deep Adirondack lake


learning how to braid long thin plastic strips


into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard


or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,


but that did not keep me from crossing


strand over strand again and again


until I had made a boxy


red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,


and I gave her a lanyard.


She nursed me in many a sick room,


lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,


laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,


and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,


and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,


and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied,


which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,


strong legs, bones and teeth,


and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,


and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.


And here, I wish to say to her now,


is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took


the two-tone lanyard from my hand,


I was as sure as a boy could be


that this useless, worthless thing I wove


out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

 

                                                Amen.

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