What Do You Say?

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C. 
Readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

Let’s begin this morning with a little song:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

How many of us can truly say that we are happy this morning? Life is good, nothing to complain about, nothing we’d change? If so, are you grateful? Do you give thanks this morning because life is so good?

It’s easy to be grateful, to give thanks, when things are going our way. It feels good to say thank you for the things that make us feel good. But, how many of us give thanks when things turn sour? How many of us express gratitude when life takes a downward turn? Not many of us – myself included. I’m not a big fan of saying, “thank you,” when I’m not feeling good about what’s going on in my life or in the world.

Back when I was a tiny child, my mother would say this one phrase in an effort to instill some sort of manners in an otherwise stubborn and unruly child. It’s true, I’m still a stubborn and unruly adult, but because of this one phrase my mom used, I do have a modicum of manners.

Whenever we were in a situation where I received something, whether it was something I really wanted or not, Momwould always ask me, “What do you say?” I can tell you from harsh experience that the correct answer was not, “It’s about time! What took you so long?” Instead, the correct answer was, “Thank you.” Whenever mom said, “What do you say?” you always had to answer, “Thank you.” That was the right answer, even if you didn’t want to say it. Believe me, there were times when I gritted my teeth and said, “Thank you,” even if what I had received were beets, or carrots or anything less than what I had asked for or wanted.

One of the ten lepers that Jesus healed in today’s reading must have had a mother like mine who asked him repeatedly, “What do you say?” He’s the only one who came back to thank Jesus. He’s the only one Miss Manners – and my momma – would be proud of. There’s something important about this leper – or ex-leper – that we must remember. He was a Samaritan which means that even before he had leprosy, he was an outcast. John 4:9 tells us that Jews had no dealings at all with Samaritans. You’ll remember it was a Samaritan woman that Jesus speaks with at the well. It was scandalous for a Jew to speak to a Samaritan, even more scandalous than a man speaking to woman. The Samaritans were as hated by the respectable religious people of Jesus day as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are hated by the respectable religious folks of our day.

Just put yourself in this ex-leper’s shoes for a minute. Before he got sick he was already hated and then those spots started appearing on his flesh and he knew he was done for. Life was over for him. Imagine how depressed he must have been. There was no ancient Prozac to help our poor Samaritan leper feel good about the crappy hand that life had dealt him. He simply had to deal with it all the best way he could – by begging for a living, by banding together with the other outcasts and eking out whatever kind of life he could.

Like this leper, and many of you, I have dealt with crushing depression. There was a time in my life when I hit the bottom emotionally. I told my therapist that I was in the middle of a “don’t-give-a-crap” part of my life. I used stronger language, but this is church, after all. Life had become so crappy that no matter what happened, I truly didn’t care. The house explodes? Don’t care. The car dies? Don’t care. Lost my job? Don’t care. I won the lottery? Don’t care.

Nothing could lift me out of the depths of my depression. Friends tried to help. They worked hard to lift my spirits and get me out of the doldrums, but nothing worked. In fact, if I had heard one more Pollyanna tell me to “count my blessings” they would have heard a tirade of language not fitting for a pastor to say in or out of church. When life sucks that badly the last thing on your mind is developing an “attitude of gratitude.”

I imagine all of those lepers were going through deep depressions, being sick, outcast and reduced to begging to survive. It’s depressing just to describe it. But, only one of them – the one who had been doubly excluded and the one with the most to be depressed about – could still feel a sense of gratitude and an urgent need to go back to Jesus and express it.

We have a lot to learn from this ex-leper. How often do we say thank you, not just when life is crappy, but when the crappiness lifts and life improves? How often are we like the other nine lepers who disappear without so much as a “thanks” when the rain finally ends and sunshine breaks through the clouds of our lives?

If God prompted us like my mom and asked, “What do you say?” how many of us would reply with, “It’s about time! What took you so long?” instead of a simple, “Thank you”?

The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to give thanks in all circumstances. For those looking for a loophole, give it up. When Paul says “all circumstances” that’s what he means. Even when life is crappy, we’re expected to give thanks. As Pollyannaish as is sounds, we must count our blessings. Why? Because if we don’t give thanks – even in the darkest, crappiest times of our lives – we will neglect to give thanks during the good times. If we are not constantly grateful for our lives then just like those nine lepers, we’ll take our healing for granted.

Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians echoes the prophet Jeremiah’s advice to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. He tells them to settle in. They’re not getting out of exile any time soon, so they need to make the best of it. Build houses, get married, have kids. This is your life right now, so you may as well quite your bellyaching about being in exile and get on with your life.

When our lives get crappy, it’s just like being in exile. We’re far away from the homey feelings that make us happy. We’re out of our comfort zone. We’re in a strange and foreign land, held captive by emotions that will not let us go. Have you experienced that exile? Are you living in exile now in any area of your life?

If so, take Jeremiah’s advice. Settle in, because the only moment you have is right now. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here yet. Settle in – make yourself comfortable here despite the troubles and doubts – despite the sadness and misery. Get comfortable – set up housekeeping – make this misery your home – because you will never see your way out of discomfort until you can be present in it now. You cannot map a better future until you know where you are now.

Give thanks for being here right now – despite all the misery, all the despair, all the hopelessness that you may feel. Settle in. Enjoy your breath. Enjoy your beating heart. Enjoy the blood flowing through your veins. Take a deep breath. Be here now.

What do you say? “Thank you.”

The 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you ever pray is, ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.”

No matter what our lot in life – no matter if our circumstances are bad or good – we must always be quick to say, “Thank you.” It needs to always be our first thought – the first words on our lips. We must always be present to our circumstances, whether they are good or bad. Settle in – make yourself at home – enjoy the present moment no matter what it brings you – then, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you find a new job, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you lose that new job, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you find that perfect mate, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you lose that perfect mate, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you get that brand new car, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you lose that shiny, beautiful car, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you’re happy today, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you’re sad today, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you’re in perfect health today, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you’re sick as a dog tomorrow, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you’re rich today, what do you say? (Thank you!)

If you’re poor tomorrow, what do you say? (Thank you!)

Let’s revise our song.

If you’re crappy and you know it, clap your hands
If you’re crappy and you know it, clap your hands
If you’re crappy and you know it, then your face will surely show it
If you’re crappy and you know it, clap your hands

Give thanks in all circumstances. Whether life is fantastic or craptastic, what do you say? (Thank you!)

What do you say? Thank you!