In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It seems that praise and thanksgiving are hard to come by these days.
And perhaps for good reason.
In recent years our sense of stability about our way of life seems to have been constantly pummeled. Beginning with the terror attacks of 2001, we entered this decade with fear and trembling. Since then, at nearly every turn, our fear and trembling seems to be too-often justified. We’ve found ourselves in the midst of two wars, leading to the death, injury, and mental illnesses of too may of the young women and men of this generation. We have endured a staggering financial crisis that has affected all of us to one degree or another - whether it’s extended unemployment, a lack of access to health care, a lack of access to credit in an economy that practically requires it, or simply from the crisis of confidence that comes from seeing the recession’s more tangible effects in those we care about all around us - we’ve all felt it in one way or another.
And if these crises born out of our own and our neighbors’ human error weren’t enough, a seemingly constant steam of earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes has undergirded this decade of fear and trembling. It begins to feel like everything in the world is stacked against us. We begin to wonder if we will ever climb out of the hole.
In the face of what seems to have become a culture of fear and trembling, it’s hard to give ourselves over to an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.
The culture of fear and trembling becomes kind of self-fulfilling. The more we experience it, the more we expect it. The more we expect it, the more we find it in new ways. It’s one of the truths of human experience that we tend to find what we’re looking for, and when we’re accustomed to looking for fear and trembling we’re rarely disappointed.
In the Gospel lesson for today we hear the story of a group of people for whom life has made it hard to see anything other than fear and trembling. We are told that Jesus and his disciples encounter a group of ten lepers.
Leprosy is an interesting designation in biblical literature. It doesn’t necessarily refer to the specific diagnosis of leprosy as a particular illness that we think of today, but to any number of different kinds of skin conditions - whether they be communicable or not; whether they be life threatening or not. Biblical leprosy could refer to a rash that can be transmitted between people - making it more understandable (though of course no less cruel) that the leper might be ostracized from his or her community. But biblical leprosy might also refer to any other malady of the skin - ailments as benign as eczema or acne.
But whatever the medical diagnosis, the symbolism of biblical leprosy is profound even in our own age: it was something beyond the afflicted person’s control that set them apart. Moreover, that which set them apart was right there on their skin - for all the world to see.
There was no hiding for a leper.
So, it’s really no surprise that most of the lepers didn’t turn back. They had been cast out from society. They had been ostracized and taught through all their social interactions to live their lives with fear and trembling from the margins. And in such a culture of fear and trembling, it’s hard to give oneself over to praise and thanksgiving.
One of the lessons of faith that is oftentimes taught is that when we find ourselves in doubt and lacking faith, we should pray as if our faith is resolute until it is. We find what we are looking for. If we are seeking deeper faith, it will come.
But by the same token, if we are caught in cycles of fear and trembling to such a degree that we have trained ourselves to see only that, the likelihood is that we will be correct.
It’s no wonder that the nine healed lepers never looked back. It’s no wonder that they couldn’t find the words for praise and thanksgiving. Praise and thanksgiving were foreign concepts for these who had been so put upon by society.
The real wonder of this story is not that the nine turned away, but that the one turned back.
The real wonder is that despite the systems of oppression that had hurt this man and taught him to live a life of fear and isolation, he still found a way, nonetheless, to return to the community and to express his praise and thanksgiving for the grace he had received.
We all know that we have plenty of reasons to be afraid. We have plenty of reasons to isolate ourselves. We are the lepers of the biblical heritage. Our experiences as a society through this past decade or so have made us sick and we wear it right out on our skin.
There’s no hiding.
No, the real challenge is looking past our patterns of fear and celebrating that healing that we have been given.
If we look for fear, we will find it. But if we look for thanksgiving, we will find that, instead.
Our challenge is to look for occasions of thanksgiving. Fear is pounding all around, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. Fear is constantly demanding our attention, but that doesn’t mean that we have to supply it.
Thanksgiving is quieter, but more powerful. It’s usually not pounding, but always present. If we reach out and allow it in, it will always triumph over our every fear.
So practice looking for it. Practice finding gratitude even when fear seems to be the only option. It will draw you in from the solitude, and it will change your life. It will wear right there on your skin for all the world to see. And gratitude is just as contagious as fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.