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From Whom All Blessings Flow
By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
Thanksgiving Sunday – October 11, 2020
Do you remember back in normal times, pre-Covid, every Sunday service included a time of thanksgiving? The organ would music would build and then would come the sound of one hundred feet scuffling and programs rustling as the congregation rose to sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” The benefits of practicing gratitude are now officially backed by scientific evidence – I read a paper this week all about the science of gratitude prepared for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Its author found that expressing gratitude measurably increases our happiness, our sense of well-being, our positive mood. Heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks had reduced inflammation compared to those who didn’t engage with the practice. Moods improved in classrooms where students were encouraged to write thank you notes to members of the PTA. Practitioners of gratitude, the author determined have less depression and are more resilient following trauma. They have better physical and psychological health and are less likely to suffer from burnout. The science of gratitude is clear, but the theology of gratitude, well, that can get a little murky.
Take today’s story. Jesus is travelling on his way to Jerusalem when he is met on the road by a group of people with leprosy, a condition we now know as Hansen’s disease after Gerhard Hansen, the Norwegian scientist who discovered the strain of bacteria that causes the illness. It is a debilitating infection that causes damage to nerve receptors, the respiratory tract, the eyes, and the skin. People who suffer from it often have a decreased sensitivity to pain, which means they can permanently damage their limbs because they don’t feel what’s happening to them. It’s a disease that’s easily treated by antibiotics today, but in Jesus’ day there was no cure, and so to prevent the spread of infection people with the disease were forced to live apart, to keep their distance from others. The group of people with leprosy approached Jesus as he entered the village; they stood outside its boundary. Nor could people with leprosy earn a living alongside others, for fear of spreading infection and so their only option for sustenance was begging. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” they call, hoping Jesus might give them a few coins. What ensues is miraculous, the stuff of legend they would recount to wide-eyed family members and friends in later years. Jesus said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” (in those days it was the priests who certified your healing from disease, allowing a person to mix again with the community), and as the men went – all of a sudden – they were made clean.
Nine of the men with leprosy carried on, straight to the priests, but the tenth one stopped and turned around, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet and thanking God in a loud display, “Praise God,” he might have said, “from whom all blessings flow.” Now biblical scholars invariably ask: why didn’t the nine do the same? Weren’t they also grateful for their healing? But really, how do we know that they are not grateful? A person can be grateful without addressing God. Perhaps the incident was the very first entry in their gratitude journals that evening as they looked back over the day. Perhaps it was this day they would talk about around the thanksgiving table as they held hands with their family members and went around one by one articulating all for which they wanted to give thanks. For me the more important question is why that tenth man with leprosy made his gratitude theological; why he connected his gratitude with a sense of being blessed by the Divine? The question for me this Thanksgiving is what that tenth one was feeling that his gratitude became an expression of faith?
Looking back at sermons I’ve preached on previous Thanksgiving Sundays it would seem this is an annual wrestling for me. I suppose I apply Socrates’ maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living” to faith as well – the unexamined faith is not worth confessing. If this weekend sees us acting like the tenth man with leprosy, stopping in our tracks, aware of a sense of God’s blessing, and feeling so moved to praise God from whom all our sense of blessings flow, we should be able to explain exactly how it is we’ve come to feel this way – why it isn’t for us as it is for the other nine.
The theology of gratitude is complicated. If God is the author of all the good things that happen in our lives, then what theological sense do we make of the bad things, the challenging circumstances, the tragic happenstances? Is God simply absent to us at these times? Are those living through painful circumstances unable to receive God’s blessing? “‘We’re so blessed,’ the couple says stepping away from the car wreck, or after in vitro fertilization, or about surviving cancer” writes Catherine MacLean in the book, Preaching the Big Questions. But “what about all those who would like to be in their shoes but are not?” she writes. What praise do these have for the Divine? What kind of gratitude? When I was in theological college I took a course called Clinical Pastoral Education. It took place in a hospital and we were learning about providing spiritual care to people in crisis. One of my classmates was visiting with an older woman, very religious, whose husband was gravely ill. My classmate had been asking her where she saw the Divine Presence with her – whether there was anything for which she was grateful – even in this hospital experience with her husband. But the question baffled the woman. Gratitude to God was what you expressed when things were good – when your bank account was bulging, when your health was robust, when your children succeeded, when you were admired by all. But the idea of experiencing thanksgiving when your husband is in the hospital? It just didn’t make sense to this woman.
Do you remember the comic strip For Better or For Worse by the cartoonist Lynn Johnston? My mom would always be clipping out from the newspaper the For Better or For Worse strips that most resonated with her, or made her laugh. One in particular stayed pinned to the door of our fridge for years. The first frame shows Elly Patterson – the mom and main character of the comic – talking on the phone with a friend: “you did what with the bed pan?” she says, “I don’t believe it, you are too much,” she says bursting with laughter. In the next frame she hangs up the phone and bursts into tears. Her daughter walks into the room and asks what’s going on: “Well I have a good friend who’s dying,” the mom says. “When I talk to him, he makes me laugh, but when I hang up the phone I cry,” she says.
What I have come to know for sure about life and living is that pain is a constant part of our experience; a note that plays without stopping, sometimes loudly (when the pain is very personal), blocking out almost all other sound and sometimes softly, in the distance (when the pain is more removed, over there, on another continent perhaps) – always and throughout life. I’m aware that suffering is a constant note. But my experience moving through life as a person of faith is akin to also hearing another note, played alongside this first one and so holding it in tension; my faith helps me to hear two notes at the same time. Pain and beauty. Pain and goodness. Pain and kindness. Pain and compassion. Pain and courage and hope and resilience. In my hearing, suffering is never able to overpower the sound of the other note. This is how I would describe my sense of being blessed, as a person of faith. It is not praise offered to God because I have arrived at a place of having everything I want, but gratitude from a sense of being held and carried through those times when I am wanting, especially in those times of pain and challenge. When I examine my theology of gratitude, what I mean by having a sense of being blessed by God, of having gratitude to God, it’s all in my experience of hearing another note, a song of grace and then, how can I keep from singing? Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! Mom, the daughter says in that For Better or For Worse comic strip, “you’re having a rainbow day. When it’s raining and the sun shines at the same time,” she says. That’s grace, and it’s amazing!
Ten were healed in our thanksgiving story. Nine went off to express thanks and gratitude in their own way, but the tenth stopped and turned to sing the song that he could hear playing, personal to him: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!” He wasn’t feeling grateful because he was on top of the world – he was a Samaritan, it says in the text, shunned because the people of Israel at that time because they considered him a foreigner, a perpetual outsider, shunned because he’d been living with leprosy, pain a constant note playing loudly in his ears. But his gratitude is in his perception in that moment of another note, a sense of being held, of being carried; a sense he attributed in that moment to the Divine. We have thanks to give today because this story speaks to our experience, that God’s blessing isn’t reserved for those people for whom everything always works out. God’s blessing isn’t reserved for the privileged, for those who have never felt stung by stereotype. We have thanks to give because this story of the tenth man with leprosy speaks to our experience that God’s blessing isn’t reserved for those who list good health among all the things for which they are thankful; God’s blessing reaches even the sick, all those who are suffering from infection even today, all those who have had to keep themselves at a distance and quarantined, who need rest and recovery, who cannot work as they used to, who have been forced into accepting charity. We have thanks to give today as people of faith, for this echo of our own experience, that God’s blessing isn’t limited to those with wealth, or a house. God’s blessing comes even to those living outside of the city boundaries. We praise God from whom all blessings flow at Thanksgiving for exactly what we mean by that phrase, for that sense that has made us people of faith in the first place, that sense we have of being carried, that sense that we are held, that sense that we are loved – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, loved and cherished, till death us do part and in life beyond this life. That’s not everyone’s experience of gratitude, but it is our experience and who knows but our actions help others to have a sense of God’s presence. We give thanks today that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.