When I was a little kid I thought playing cards were super cool. I taught myself how to shuffle, how to play Hearts and Spades with my Grandma, and I even bought a big book about strategy in card games. Blackjack was the game I was most interested in and so I studied the blackjack section of this book, and learned about odds. The odds, are the statistical probability of a certain outcome. In the game of blackjack, all face cards have the value of ten, as do the number 10 cards, which means that out of the 52 cards in the deck, 16 of them have a value of ten. So the odds that you’re next card will be a ten are 16/52, or 4/13. Four out of every 13 cards dealt will have a value of ten.
All this study of card games, never made me a gambling fortune, but it did help me to pay attention to odds and probabilities. So much so, that even when I’m reading the bible, I can’t help but see the odds jump out at me from the stories. For instance, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, if you’re half dead by the side of the road what are the odds that someone will stop to help you? 1 out of 3, right? The priest and the levite, will pass you right up, its not until the third person that you get any help. The odds in our story for today, the story of the Grateful Samaritan, are even worse. Out of ten lepers healed, how many return to show gratitude? One. One out of ten.
In the story, Jesus is walking through Samaria and Galilee when a group of 10 lepers calls out to him for help. Jesus responds by telling them to follow the protocol of Israelite law at the time and visit the priests who could declare them clean. During the trip, the 10 are miraculously healed. One of them returns to Jesus and shouts praises to God and falls at Jesus’ feet giving thanks. Jesus gives voice to our shared sense of indignation at the other nine, “Were not ten cleaned? Where are the nine? Was none found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” What’s the deal with the other nine lepers? This guy just healed your chronic, painful, socially isolating disease, for free after having just met you, and you can’t even be bothered to say, “Thanks?” What a bunch of jerks.
Our shared indignation at the lack of gratitude shown by the other nine, raises the question of in what sense were they healed? The story is clear that all 10 were cured of their leprosy. But do we think that the other nine are better people as a result of their cure? Have they been made whole? Has their spirit been healed, or only their bodies? We don’t know the answer to these questions, but the action of the one grateful Samaritan, certainly suggests that he has been changed beyond the mere physical cure. After experiencing the miracle of his healing, he returns to its source, he shouts praise to God, and throws himself at the feet of Jesus Christ. His body has been cured, but so too has his life been changed. The gratitude for his healing has transformed him and the course his life will take. All 10 are now lepers who have been cured, but this one is also now a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Stewardship refers to the management or care of something valued. As I was thinking about our pledge drive this year, I was reminded of a previous stewardship campaign at a church I served in Berkeley. The leader of the stewardship drive that year was a father of three in his forties. Although he was relatively new to the community, and not terribly religious himself, he was a businessman in the community and it was thought that his financial sense would made him a good choice to lead the campaign. I can’t remember his pitch word for word, but I’ll paraphrase. He told the story of he and his family began coming to the church. Like many of you, they had little kids that they were trying to raise with good morals, little kids that would ask cute but terribly difficult questions about life and God. So they began looking for a church, and they stumbled into First Congregational Church of Berkeley. At first, they just attended worship, and then Sunday School. And soon they were going on trips to the food bank, or planting trees in rough neighborhoods in Oakland. They became regulars, they started to really care about the church.
And then the man had a thought that caught him by surprise, “Who’s paying for all this?” Each Sunday, when the basket came around he’d put in whatever cash he brought with him, sometimes a good amount even. But when he thought of the volume of expense involved in the operating of the church, he realized his contributions were peanuts. The property the church owned, he had not purchased. The maintenance of the property over 100 years he had not contributed too. The staff who dedicated their working lives to building this Body of Christ, had to be supported financially. When the thought first occurred to him, he was upset and a little embarrassed? Why hadn’t anyone charged him anything? He and his family had walked in off the street and just started participating, taking advantage of all the programs and buildings, like a bunch of freeloaders. Why hadn’t anyone asked for a membership fee?
But then his thoughts moved to where all the money to run the church must have come from. People before his time, even before he was born, had freely chosen to give substantially of their time and their money to create this congregation. Over years and years of their lives they had given money, money that was saved and invested and purchased the incredible buildings that the man and his family were free to walk in off the street and begin to use. They had taken their own hard earned money and given it away so that the congregation could support a Pastor to care for the entire community. These people had done this without knowing who would make use of their congregation. They didn’t know who would join, who would get to use their buildings, be cared for by the Pastors they funded. They didn’t know if the people who came would be grateful for their years of sacrifice and commitment. And most of the people who came probably weren’t, they probably didn’t give much thought to all the work, the money and the time that went into creating the Body of Christ at First Congregational Church of Berkeley. The man knew that up until this point, he hadn’t given it much thought.
But now, thinking about these people who had given freely so that he and his family could discover this loving community, be welcomed and embraced by it, and participate fully in its life and ministry, filled him with incredible gratitude. That they had given so much with no expectation of reward or thanks. That he and his children had the beneficiaries of this selfless gift was overwhelming. It was a profound experience, which he said he allowed himself to sit in and experience for several moments. That gratitude transformed his life and his relationship to the church. He knew that he wanted to be like those people who had gone before him. He knew that he too wanted to give selflessly so that others could have this experience. Though he had never been much of church person before, he now felt incredibly invested in this Body of Christ, because of what it had done for him and what he now felt called to do for it.
If the odd’s from Jesus’ parables hold true, this man and the transforming gratitude that he experienced are the exception, not the rule. For the one grateful leper, there were nine others who did not return to say thanks. There were certainly countless other people in Berkeley who stopped in the church for a few weeks, a few months, even a few years and never felt the profound sense of gratitude that that one guy did. But for the one leper, and the one man, the experience was life changing. They didn’t just find a cure, or a nice community, they found a sense of calling, a sense of purpose, a cause greater than themselves for which they wanted to devote themselves. They were not just cured, they were made whole.
We too are the beneficiaries of generations who have gone before us. People who never knew us, but who nevertheless gave freely of themselves so that we might have a loving and serving community to be a part of. Entire lives spent serving and building up this congregation. Purchasing land, building a sanctuary and fellowship hall and parsonage. Supporting Pastors and teachers. Educating and caring for children. The fruit of their labors is here for us to enjoy. There is no membership fee. There is no charge for receiving or participating in the ministry of this church. But if you want to make the most of this congregation and of your life with us, I advise you take just a few moments and consider all of the sacrifices that people made to create this congregation and to keep it going. Allow a feeling of deep gratitude to fall over you, to fill you to overflowing. Let yourself appreciate what God and those whom God has called have done for you and for your family. Each one of us has the opportunity to give thanks, to fall at the feet of Jesus Christ in gratitude. And gratitude has the power to transform us, to inspire us, to heal us. If allow ourselves to be truly grateful for all that we have received we might realize that we have the opportunity not only to receive, but to give. Not only to be served, but to serve. We have the opportunity to be like one of those that came before us, those whose gratitude resulted in their lifelong service to this congregation. We have the opportunity to not only be cured, but to be made whole. May it be so.