Saying Thanks – the healing practice of gratitude
Last week I had the great privilege of visiting our dear friend and fellow parishioner, Jill Somerville, in the hospital. When I arrived, I found Jill sleeping, so I decided to simply sit and pray at her bedside, when she suddenly awoke, and looked at me with such pure joy and clarity and appreciation. It quite took my breath away! Although Jill’s face was bruised from her recent fall, her bright eyes shined forth with true optimism and abiding gratitude. Our talk together was such a gift to me: Jill repeated, like a refrain, what a loving church family we have, and what a loving home family she has. She recounted only the most positive, praiseworthy aspects of each person, and I was truly humbled by her faith.
It was such faith, I believe, that empowered the healing of the Samaritan man in today’s Gospel story. When Jesus tells him, “your faith has made you well”, what exactly is he saying? Jesus often says something like this to those whom he heals. So, how does our faith make us “well”, and what does true “wellness” look like? Do we have to be “cured” to be “well”? And can we be cured of our illness and still suffer from disease? Perhaps the wellness of which Jesus speaks has less to do with pronouncement from experts, and more to do with a wholeness of Spirit? And what is the path to such wellness?
Today, we once again hear the story of our ol’ pal, Naaman (I know we read from 2nd Kings, chapter 5 back in July and I preached on it, but this reading from Track 2 has much more resonance with the Gospel text. And less “taking” of wives; dear me!) As you may recall, Naaman, after some pretty dramatic resistance initially, became healed from his skin disease by demonstrating his faith and obedience to God. Naaman came to this faith with help from his servants – who themselves took a risk in faith by evangelizing their master! Back in July, we talked about the spiritual significance of skin diseases for the people of the Ancient Near East. The skin was a vital “boundary”, and when it was compromised by any kind of abnormality, the priests would pronounce the afflicted person “unclean”.
It was this pronouncement, oftentimes, much more than their ailment, which could endanger the life of the person suffering. Once you were labeled “unclean”, you became ostracized from society. You could not eat or worship with others; you could not work, or buy food. As an outcast, your “worthlessness” became a self-fulfilling prophecy toward your doom. Even if you were “cured” of your skin condition, only when the priests gave the go ahead could you be considered “clean” again. They were the gatekeepers, they decided the boundaries of society: who was “in” and who was “out”. And that was one reason they did not like the changes that Jesus was bringing, because Jesus was redefining these boundaries.
And so today we find Jesus, where we often find him, in a place between boundaries. He is literally between countries, between the faith regions of Samaria, whose chief place for worship was on mount Gerizim, and of the Galileans, who worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem. Here Jesus encounters among those who are begging for his mercy, a foreigner, a Samaritan. And Jesus “sees” him, as Jesus also saw the bent over woman at the Temple when he helped her to stand up. Jesus sees beyond our labels to behold our true value.
We can find that difficult at times, can’t we? To see beyond someone’s outer, social “identity”, to who they really are – their struggles, their strengths, their hopes and fears? When we meet someone new, someone perhaps “different” than how we perceive ourselves, we often, if only for expediency, form an immediate opinion of them based on our assumptions about their “labels”– their clothing, gender, sexual orientation; their political affiliation, economic class, level of education – and we filter everything about them through those assumptions. Yet each and every one of us longs to be “seen” and appreciated, don’t we?
I like that story of Naaman and his servants for that very reason. We can imagine that the servant girl – let’s give her a name, say, Lydia – saw beyond the power and privilege of Naaman, and beheld his suffering, and how the prophet, Elisha, might help him. That kind of insight takes courage; we don’t always like to have our “cover blown”. We can feel vulnerable, and get angry.
And at the same time, isn’t it a relief when someone sees our deepest longings and appreciates them? Perhaps that feeling – more than receiving a “clean bill of health” from the priests – is what prompted the Samaritan man to turn back, to “repent”, and kneel at Jesus’ feet. He felt grateful, grateful to be made whole, not only by having his disease “cured” and his exile ended, but whole because he was no longer alone in his skin. Because Jesus saw him.
The Scripture tells us that the men were “made clean” “as they went”. They didn’t really need the priests to make them clean; they were already clean, and whole! It’s like when Dorothy finds out that she was wearing the power to go home on her feet all along. We are created – all of us, Jew and Samaritan – as whole, beautiful, powerful human beings, full of “majesty and splendor”. And for that, along with Naaman, and Lydia, and the Samaritan, and the Psalmist, and Jill Somerville, we can “give thanks to the Lord with our whole heart”.
So when we stand with Jesus in that in between place – between where we hope to be, and where we are, between suffering and healing, pain and promise; between cultures, countries, genders, races – doing the good work with God, works of “faithfulness and justice”, works of “truth and equity”, let us not forget to say “thank you”. Thank you. To bow down at Jesus’ feet and humbly thank him.
For in this practice of gratitude — for food, shelter, compassion and redemption — perhaps we may find the wellness, the wholeness that we seek. This is true for us not only as individuals, but as a people, as a Church, as a congregation. While we are called to follow where Christ leads, which sometimes, as with the earliest of Christians, requires that we sacrifice and endure, we are nourished by the practice of giving thanks for our many blessings. For life and love, power and faith. We can focus and reflect on those people and gifts which fill our lives here at St. James on Kent’s East Hill, and that will heal us.
Jill may be moving soon to Snohomish, and as I lay my hand on her frail hand, I wondered if I would be blessed to see her again. Her skin is fragile now; the boundary between her and her reward may be more transparent, and she is somewhere in between with her Lord. I do not know if she will be cured. But I do know, with all my heart, that she is healed, and she is whole. I can see clearly in her shining eyes that she is joyful and grateful. And her faith has made me well.