A work colleague of mine shared with me a story about her son having cracked his first joke. They have a routine at bedtime each evening of reviewing the day and identifying things to be thankful for. On this particular occasion, after a few rounds of this, her son pushed the boundaries a little further than usual, joyfully proclaiming his thanks for tissues to catch his sneezes before they both collapsed into laughter.
It’s a lovely story isn’t it and not least because that joke has something of a child’s wisdom about it pointing to the abundance of the blessing that we have received, the recognition of which is itself joyful blessing. In his well-known hymn Johnson Oatman wrote – Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Psychology research tells us that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.
In today’s Gospel we see that thanksgiving may draw us to faith in Christ. Elsewhere scripture holds a number of lessons about thanksgiving. For example that in thanksgiving God is glorified. In the second letter to the Corinthians we read – “And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory”. In thanksgiving we find peace. In the letter to the Philippians it says – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. Thanksgiving opens our eyes, in James’ epistle we find – “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights”.
For many of us, I certainly recognise this in myself, it is all too easy to fall into a state of ingratitude, taking for granted all of the blessings we enjoy. At other times we adopt an attitude of self-satisfaction for whatever comforts life has afforded us and we assume that peace will always follow us.
Paradoxically the more that we are inclined to apparent minutia in those things that we feel thankful for in our lives, the more our lives tend to expand, the less self-absorbed we tend to be and the more we are drawn to God and his purposes for our lives. This is hugely significant. A quotation from Bernard Shaw might summarise for us what is at stake here. He said ‘This is the true joy in life. Being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy’.
So let’s look more closely then at today’s Gospel and its significance. This is a story found only in Luke account. Only Luke extends Jesus’ ministry into Samaritan territory. Samaritans were descendants of Israelites and Gentile settlers from the Assyrian period – they had not undergone the transformation experience of exile. They worshiped at Mount Gerazim which was sacrilege to the Jews who insisted on the primacy of the Jerusalem Temple. There was enduring enmity between then between Jews and Samaritans but in the parable of the good Samaritan, again only found in his account, Luke contrasts the compassion of the foreigner with the heartless Jewish leaders who pass buy on the other side. A similar contrast is made in today’s reading.
Now it is sometimes noted that Jesus directs the ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem and there’s nothing in the story to suggest that they didn’t what Jesus commanded. Only the Samaritan returns though. As Jeffrey John former Dean of St Alban’s Cathedral notes – the significance of this story is the revelation that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s own presence and that God had acted in him to cleanse the lepers and in him God must be acknowledged. It is the Samaritans prostration before Jesus and his recognition of God’s grace specifically working in him that makes Jesus say your faith has saved you. Although all ten were cleansed, for the Samaritan alone these words have their full spiritual as well as physical meaning. “Your faith has brought you salvation”.
Elsewhere in Luke we find it is those who are outsiders who show a faithful response to Christ, exceeding that found in Israel – the Syrophoenician woman, the centurion, the women of the streets, the tax collector. Luke makes clear that the experience of being on the outside often enables people to respond to Christ with faith and thanks.
A key insight of the Christian faith is that we are more truly ourselves the more we give ourselves away. This is the mysterious dynamic of love. The ultimate expression of that mystery in the Christian life is the Eucharist. Eucharist being the Greek word for thanksgiving. In the Eucharist God in Christ continues to give himself to us as he gave himself to us in the incarnation and on the cross. These saving events are represented and made actual to us and at the same time we are gathered into them through our incorporation into his body, the church.
Scripture speaks of the worshippers sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving but this is not a sacrifice in the sense that praise and thanksgiving mean giving something up. Rather the spirit of praise and thanksgiving are themselves blessing. When we offer something of the bounty we have received back to God it is not loss, but joy.
I began with a child’s wisdom in thankfulness to God and also in a mother’s wisdom in establishing such a helpful practice as to take time to do so each evening. I’d like to finish sharing with you the wisdom of the Ignatian tradition and specifically the practice of the Examen – prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to be more alert to God’s presence and to discern his purposes in our lives. It is a straightforward practice – we make space to be present to God and in so doing to become aware of his presence. We simply take a step back and ask for the grace to see with new eyes to recognise the gifts of each day. In our haste, these often pass us by.
The examen can help break negative cycles, those patterns of thought that hold us back from recognising God’s gifts. How often do we find ourselves imagining that we will be happy when our circumstances change, when some challenge is removed or when we achieve some goal. This leaves us feeling unsettled and unfulfilled. The Examen encourages us to focus on and cultivate gratitude for the blessings we have here and now. When we become attentive to God’s overwhelming generosity, gratitude blossoms. Though we also sense our own insufficiency, the assurance of God’s love allows us to face this with hope. By reflecting on moments where we can perceive God’s presence we then look forward better able to discern where God may be calling us.
Most fundamentally, gratitude is the profound feeling that arises when we recognise and respond to the revelation that we are held in God’s infinite love. The Examen is an invitation to a daily point of rest in that love, giving rise to a gratitude that strengthens us for what lies ahead. Rooted in this loving relationship, we look forward in faith and hope.
ACHEW to that and Amen.