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The First Congregational Church, Columbus
October 10, 2004 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister

Dedicated to all the "Samaritan Lepers" who return thanksgiving and always to the glory of God!
Returning Thanks!

Luke 17:11-19

There is a lot happening in today's Gospel text. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem somewhere between Samaria and the Galilee. He enters a village. Ten lepers cry to him for healing. He hears them. He sees them. He speaks to them telling them to show themselves to the priests (a way to officially verify their healing). They take off in search of the priests! But, one of the ten - a Samaritan, a gentile, a nonbelieiver - seeing that he is healed, that he is already free of the disease of leprosy - turns around and praising God, falls on his face at Jesus's feet and "keeps on thanking him." For all to hear, Jesus points out that, although ten were healed, the nine who were supposedly "in the faith of Abraham," didn't say "thank you" for the healing of their disease. They took off and never gave a second thought to thanking Jesus for saving their lives. They were long gone! Only "the foreigner" turns back and gives glory to God. With this notation, Jesus commands "the one" (of ten) to rise and go. His faith has made him well.

This is a lively text! It is a text that rings as true today as in the days of Jesus. In the short time I have today, I want to focus briefly on three thoughts that this lively text offers our lives. First, the stories of our lives happen in those unexpected places, with unexpected people, on the way to where we are going. In other words, the journey is our destination. Second, we need to stop and return thanks to people on the way. Third, we need to return thanks to God, as well.
How many of you have discovered that your journey is your destination? By this I mean, it is not where we are going but THAT we are going which matters most. Some of us are caught up in our titles, our job descriptions, our salaries, the recognition others give us, and of course, our plans for the future. We want to be "known" -not so much by God, but by other people. We get so caught up by our climb to the top that we miss the assent, the views and the people along the way. In fact, we are often so busy stepping on others (in our assent) that we do not recognize they are there. For those being stepped on, be graceful, not resentful. For those doing the stepping, look under your feet, there are people down there!

These problems were foreign to Jesus. We need to follow his example and keep them a safe and healthy distance from our lives as well. Jesus lived lovingly in the moment. He realized that situations and persons come to us "on the way." He knew that each moment, each minute, hour, and day, each encounter was Holy. That is what set him apart. It is what can and will set us apart, too. For Jesus it almost seemed like time stood still around him so he could celebrate each moment as the gift from God - a gift never to be squandered, but rather to be savored and shared with love, grace, and gratitude. Lesson #1: Slow down, soak in, savor, and pay attention to the moment, be aware of the journey, for truthfully, it is your destination.
Secondly, once you have moved into the moment, you will have no choice but to become a Grace-filled Thanks Giver! Why? Because, in the present, the presence of God becomes real. That is why it is called the Present - because the Present is a Gift from God!

Are your eyes open this morning? Are you awake today? I need to know if you are alive out there! If your eyes are open, if you are awake, if you are alive then I know you are present! I also know you have been praising God and giving thanks to God all morning long! When you woke up this morning, you were presented with the miracle of a new day - no bombs exploding and hurricanes a distant thought. As you rose from your bed, showered, dressed and got in your car to come here, I know you were grateful to God for the bed that had comforted you through the night, the water which flowed freely from your shower head, the clothes you were fortunate enough to have and put on, the car to drive, the gasoline which fueled it and of course this house of worship as your point of arrival. You must have inwardly and outwardly been giving God the glory, the praise and the thanks!

As you drove up to the building, and prepared to come to worship (and hopefully education hour), I am sure you were aware what an incredible gift it is to worship God anywhere, anytime and additionally to come into this holy house to praise the Lord, to lift your voice in song, to hear this choir of angels, and to be blessed by two of the finest organs in this nation, played by one of the finest organists in the land.

I am sure you were grateful for the Kelvin Murphy who opened the building for you this morning. I am sure you were thankful for all the lay leaders and staff who gave their time to greet you joyfully, make your coffee, teach you and your children not only the faith unfolding, but also how to sing this faith. I am sure you have been returning thanks this morning for those who prepare the Sunday bulletins, the texts of prayer, the Bibles for the Fourth Graders, the music, the sermon, and the cookies after worship (taking special care to prepare cookies for diabetics among us). To operate our church, it takes many hands working many hours to give you the gift of God's presence. Our Gratitude needs to be at the heart of our faith!

In his small book, Before God, George Stroup observes that we live in a time when many people no longer understand that our lives are lived "Coram Deo," before God. Stroup brings special focus to talking about gratitude as the essence of Christian practice. On that topic he quotes Karl Barth: "Gratitude is the precise creaturely counterpart to the grace of God." He also observes about prayer that "If one wants to know what a person truly believes about God, it is not so much what he or she says about God as what he or she says to God." (George Stroup quoted by John M. Buchanan in "Grace Note" The Christian Century, September 7, 2004). So how, as a creature of the Creator, do you respond to the grace of God? What is it that you say TO God in your prayers and meditations? How are you "Coram Deo" - Before God?

Finally, as you have been blessed by God, you need to return thanks to God! The theme of our Stewardship campaign this year is "Your Response to God's Blessings." The title is easily turned to a question - how do you respond to God's blessings? This question should drive all our decisions in life. Allow me a practical moment. Here at First Church, the Budget and Finance Committee works closely with the Stewardship Committee under the leadership of Janice White, our Administration Commissioner. The right hand (Budget and Finance) must know what the left-hand (Stewardship) is doing. Budget and Finance has been wringing its hand in recent days - asking if we are going to meet our pledge commitments for 2004. Meanwhile, Stewardship wants us to come to potlucks and forums to talk about the needs of the church and how you I might respond by increasing our pledge commitments for 2005. It all seems so simple. If we make a commitment for 2004, we will meet that commitment (if we are able to do so). Then, looking ahead, we will step up and make a greater commitment for the coming year. My questions are simple - as I try to pull the two hands together (a gesture that, as you see, is one of prayer). "How are you returning thanks to God for all the amazing blessings you experience here? Where is your gratitude? How is your faith at work?"

To be "the servant church of the servant Christ" (As our communion prayer says), we need to return! We need to say thank you to the people who have been touching our lives. We need to return to say thank you for the miracles happening our lives. We need to return to God - and in so doing we need to return "thanks" to God.

Our lives are truly lived "Coram Deo" - Before God! Karl Barth is right, "Gratitude is the precise creaturely counterpart to the grace of God." More simply put in the gospel of Luke, "one man fell on his face at Jesus' feet and kept on thanking him." Are you that one man? Are you that one woman? Thanks be to God for the one who returns thanks! Amen.


Copyright 2004 First Congregational Church, UCC, Columbus Ohio