Gratitude – the Secret of Wholeness and Joy

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, October 13, 2019.

There’s a wonderful story about a local Methodist minister went to a barbershop to get his hair cut. Later he asked the barber, “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing,” said the barber. “Just keep up your good work for the Lord.” The next morning when the barber opened up his shop, he found a basket of fruit, a loaf of bread and a note of gratitude from the minister.


Later that afternoon, an Episcopal priest came for a haircut. Afterwards, he asked the barber, “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing,” said the barber. “Just keep up your good for the Lord.” The next morning when the barber opened up his shop, he found a basket with champagne and caviar and a note of gratitude from the priest.


Later that day, a Presbyterian pastor got a haircut. He asked the barber, “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing,” said the barber. “Just keep up your good work for the Lord.” The next day, when the barber opened up his shop, he found six Presbyterian pastors waiting for a haircut.


How do you show your gratitude? Most of us were taught by our parents to write thank you notes. We did not always enjoy writing them, but it taught us that gratitude is vital. Izaak Walton writes, “God has two dwellings. One in heaven and the other in the thankful heart.”


It is easy, however, to forget to express our gratitude. I must confess that in my first year with you I worked enormous hours and did not take sufficient time to write personal thank you notes. Now, things are calmer and taking time to express my gratitude is a spiritual event because gratitude always puts us in a right relationship with God and with others and it transforms us.


Eric Liddell was called the “Flying Scotsman,” because he was a great runner. He was a member of the British Olympic team that competed in Paris in 1924. If you have seen the movie Chariots of Fire, you will remember his story. He was the favorite to win the 100 meter dash. But the Olympic Committee scheduled the qualifying heats on a Sunday, and because of his religious convictions that the Sabbath was reserved for God and worship, Eric Liddell sacrificed years of preparation and training in what many said was a “sure gold medal.”


He would have gone home empty handed had it not been for another member of the British Olympic team, Kenneth Lindsey, who was scheduled to run in the 400 meter race. Lindsey withdrew and asked Liddell to take his place. Out of the goodness of his heart, he sacrificed his chance to compete. Liddell caused an international sensation by winning the 400 meter race, by setting a new world record of 47.6 seconds, by winning the gold medal, and by winning after having never before run a 400 meter race in an official competition. It was simply amazing!


Eric Liddell went on to become a Christian missionary in China. He became a great man, respected around the world, but he died at the age of 43 in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China near the end of World War II. A friend of his wrote in his journal, “He did not have great leadership ability, he did not have an especially great intellect, he was but a man who knew who he was, knew what his God had done for him and knew what he ought to do.” His friend added, “Eric Liddell was one of the few whole persons that I have ever met in this life.”


I suspect that being a whole person a goal for each of us. It is the essence of Christian living. Being a whole person means reaching our full potential, leading a good and balanced life, and contributing to the world around us. When we become whole we experience a joy that endures, and this is what today’s gospel story is all about.


This morning, Luke tells us that Jesus and his companions were walking to Jerusalem when they came upon a group of lepers, who shouted out, “Master, have mercy on us.” Back then, people lived in utter fear of leprosy – a term that was used to describe a wide number of skin diseases. People believed that leprosy was radically contagious.


So, lepers could come no closer than ten feet from other people. They had to shout out, “I am a leper. Stay away.” Lepers were banished from their homes, from the loving touch of spouses, children and parents and cut off from their faith community. They lived in isolation and or moved about in miserable roving bands.


When Jesus saw the lepers, he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” In ancient Palestine only a priest could certify that a leper was cured and could therefore return home. As the lepers left to visit the priest, they were miraculously healed. Nine of them kept on walking, skipping or running with delight. Their skin was no longer putrid or swollen, but soft and smooth. They were eager to return to their families and friends. I wonder what it felt like to be healed like that.


Only one leper, a Samaritan, who was despised by the Jews as being culturally, theologically and liturgically inferior, turned around, found Jesus and fell at his feet in gratitude. Jesus was disappointed that only one leper returned to give thanks, but he told the grateful leper who had been healed, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”


Jesus had physically healed the leper, but gratitude had made him whole. Luke notes that the Samaritan returned to “give thanks.” The Greek word for “to give thanks” is “eucharisto” from which we get “Eucharist,” which we celebrate every Sunday. Our worship is designed to help us reflect upon our lives and to give thanks. When we practice gratitude, we are transformed and we put ourselves in a right relationship with God and with others and it makes us whole.

We read that the leper “turned around.” This is Luke’s way of showing how someone has been touched by God and has been redirected onto a new and healthy path. Turning is the first step in the Way of Love, which we have been studying this fall. For Jesus, faith is not whole unless it includes gratitude. Medical studies now indicate that grateful people have a health edge for gratitude reduces stress, increases hope and boosts our immune system. We humans were designed by God to be grateful beings.


The man who wrote in his diary about Eric Liddell’s death, also wrote in his diary that whenever people praised Liddell for winning that gold medal in the Olympics, Liddell always said, “I only supplied the sweat. The opportunity and the ability was given by others.” Liddell was referring to two things. First, Kenneth Lindsey sacrificed his place in the 400 meters race to allow Liddell a chance to compete. It was a gift of grace. Second, God gave Liddell the gift of speed. Liddell simply supplied the sweat, but he always said that it was a two to one ratio, Lindsey sacrificed his place and God gave him great speed to which Liddell added his own sweat.


And isn’t that the way it is for each one of us. We have supplied the sweat, but others have made sacrifices and God has given us gifts to allow us to achieve what we have accomplished. Life is based upon grace and our God-given gifts. When we stop and turn to express our gratitude and share our gifts with others, we experience the fullness of life and what it means to be whole.


Edward Spencer was a student at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois in 1860. One cold night, he was awoken by a seminary classmate who told him that two great ships had collided on Lake Michigan. A lumber freighter had collided with an excursion boat called the Lady Elgin, and 400 passengers were in the cold lake and likely to drown.


Edward Spencer threw on his clothes and ran three miles from the seminary to the shores of Lake Michigan. The wreck of the ships had occurred far out, but Spencer was a strong swimmer. So, he threw off his clothes and swam out to the wreck and brought one person back with him. He saved that person’s life, and he repeated that 15 more times. It took him six hours to do it. He had saved 16 people when he nearly went under. As morning broke he was warming his exhausted body by a fire when someone cried out, “There’s two more people still out there in the water, a man and a woman.” Edward Spencer swam back and forth and rescued both of them.


Two hundred and ninety-five people died that night, only 90 were saved. Edward Spencer saved 17 of them single-handedly. But his incredible expenditure of energy broke his health, and he never fully recovered. He never become the minister that he longed to be. Instead, he spent his life living as an invalid in California. When his face was wrinkled and his hair was white, a Los Angeles Times newspaper reporter interviewed him and asked, “What do you remember most about that fateful night?” Spencer replied, “I’m sorry to say that the thing that stands out most in my mind, is that not one of those 17 people ever said thank you to me.”


Do you stop to express your gratitude? It is so important. I stood outside a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue this week with a parishioner. He said, “I can’t figure it out. There are so many unhappy people in this community who are always complaining about something, and they have everything that they could ever want.” As I listened to him, I suspected that the one thing missing is gratitude, because having a grateful heart transforms us and everything around us.


The lepers were happy to be healed and to be able to return home to their family and friends, but most of them forgot to turn around and say, “Thank you.” They had been healed, but they were not made whole. Eric Liddell notes that when he was born, his father sat down in his missionary’s quarters in China and hand wrote countless birth announcements and sent them to friends and family in Scotland. To each he wrote, “The gift of life was given to Eric Henry Liddell on November 9, 1905, in Tientsin, China. His grateful parents, Dr. and Mrs. H.H. Liddell invite you to join them in giving thanks to the giver, Jehovah God.”


Eric Liddell and his parents knew that God was behind all of the opportunities, success, abilities and the grace that came their way. Behind everything there is a giver, who gives us life itself. The secret to enduring joy is being content with what we already have and cultivating a grateful heart. That is what heals us and truly makes us whole. Amen.