I was inspired this week to frame my sermon around Anne Lamott’s wonderful book “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers” (2012, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Books USA Inc., New York). I’ve noted at each of the quotes I used where they are located in the hardbound version.
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Dear friends, grace, peace, and light to you from our gracious God, through the healer Jesus. Amen.
So, is this gospel story about healing, about faith, or is it about thanksgiving and gratitude?
Or is it about something else altogether?
As Lutherans we are a both/and kind of people, so we don’t have to choose.
But there is a lot happening here. On its face, this is a story about healing. And while in this story healing means cure, it’s important to remember that those are not equal terms.
This story also encompasses gratitude, in the one leper who returns. Note that Luke makes a note that it was the SAMARITAN leper who returned. Luke’s gospel is tireless in its efforts to help us see the other, to see the marginalized who he tends to center in the story alongside Jesus.
But this story is set along Jesus’ way to Jerusalem, and a lot of profound things happen on this part of the journey. Part of what’s happening here is a particular recognition by the Samaritan leper. More about that in a moment.
You may be familiar with the author Anne Lamott. She’s written a number of books that grapple with faith in the midst of everyday life, and her 2012 book is called “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” And if you think about it, she’s right. Those really are the three essential ones, sort of like the praying version of the hiker’s Ten Essentials.
About help, she writes “when…..my other friends and I have run out of good ideas on how to fix the unfixable, when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick, stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we say the same prayer. We say, “help” (pg. 29).
She continues: “Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say, ‘dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help’ (pg. 35).
This is the cry of all ten lepers in our gospel story. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” How they knew who he was, of all the people passing them by at a distance, remains a mystery. But their prayer, “have mercy on us!” is a biblical version of Anne Lamott’s ‘help’ for sure.
She composed a prayer of her own: Hi, God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon – say, two-ish? Thank you in advance for your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen (pg. 34).
And isn’t this our cry, so many times, in so many different words? Help.
When Ms. Lamott comes to the chapter about Thanks, she observes how that word can come from many places. “Now, as then, most of the time for me gratitude is a rush of relief that I dodged a bullet – the highway patrol guy didn’t notice me speed by, or the dog didn’t get hit by someone else speeding by. Or “OhmyGodthankyouthankyouthankyou it wasn’t all a dream, I didn’t appear on Oprah in my underpants. …..” (pg. 43).
“The second and third levels of this second great prayer,” she goes on, “are said with a heaving exhaustion of breath – THANK you, whoosh. I found my passport. The brakes held. The proliferation of white blood cells wasn’t cancer, just allergies. Oh my God. Thanks” (pg. 44).
“We and life are spectacularly flawed and complex,” she says. “Often, we do not get our way, which I hatehatehate. But in my saner moments, I remember that if we did, we would shortchange ourselves. Sometimes circumstances conspire to remind us or even let us glimpse how thin the membrane is between here and there, between birth and the grave, between the human and the divine. In wonder at the occasional direct experience of this, we say: Thank you” (pg. 45).
This seems to be the central part of our gospel. “Thanks” is only uttered by one of the ten lepers, the one who is doubly condemned as a Samaritan. Not only is he an outcast because of his illness, but because of his ethnicity. There’s a sign at the Temple in Jerusalem that forbids him from entering, so Jesus’ instructions “go show yourselves to the priest” don’t work for him.
Think about that for a minute, and imagine you are the Samaritan leper. Jesus, the Jewish Master, has healed you from this horrible skin disease, and you realize you can’t even re-enter society because you weren’t welcome in the first place. And so you do the only thing you can: turn back and thank him for releasing you from the disease, so maybe you could at least try going back home. In so doing, of course, you are disobeying Jesus.
Or are you?
Maybe this simple action of turning back and saying “thank you” is actually an unconscious realization that it is not what we have done that saves us – the action of going to the priests – but instead what God has done for us, through Jesus directly in front of us.
By turning back and falling before Jesus, the Samaritan formerly-known-as-a- leper has worshiped God in the deepest way: at Jesus’ feet. We gather week after week in the same way, at Jesus’ feet at the foot of the cross, to tell the stories of remembering what God has done for us in Christ. Not reserving our thanks for when we get what we want. And gathering together so that on the days when ‘thanks’ is too hard to pray, the community can hold us and pray it for us.
And then there is the third essential prayer Anne Lamott describes: wow.
You might think of a prayer of “wow” as a happy one. Her definition is broader:
“The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or and unexpected flash of grace. “wow” means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Center towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time. “w” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes” (pg. 71).this is the place the other nine lepers find themselves. As they turn to go to the temple, they find they are healed. WOW. I mean, WOW!
But what about our Samaritan leper? Where is his wow?
We might say his wow is wrapped up with his thanks, because while he can’t go to the priests, small p – he can and does go to THE Priest, capital P. Jesus.
But we of this age can also skip ahead in the book, to the story of Pentecost in Acts. The book of Acts is considered by scholars to be by the author of Luke, and so it’s possible to consider that perhaps this Samaritan man was present at Pentecost, as one of the hundred and twenty or so believers. Perhaps his WOW is his sharing in the events of Pentecost, of bearing witness to God’s deeds of power. Of bearing witness to his healing as one of those deeds of power.
We have nothing to guarantee that this is true. But it is certainly possible. The whole event of Pentecost is a communal WOW.
Closer to our own practice, we might turn once more to Luther, as we did last week using his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.
This week, we turn to his explanation of the first article:
I believe that God has created me and all that exists.
God has given me and still preserves my body and soul
with all their powers.
God provides me with food and clothing, home and family,
daily work, and all I need from day to day.
God also protects me in time of danger and guards me from every evil.
All this God does out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy,
though I do not deserve it.
Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey God.
This is most certainly true.
Luke, Anne Lamott, and Luther. Separated over a couple of thousand years, yet all claiming the three essential prayers: