The key to gratitude is remembering who we are and what God has done for us. “All of us sinners, regardless of our sin, have one important thing in common: We are lost. We are hopeless. We are all bound for hell. We are eternally separated from God. That is, unless God does something to solve our problem with sin for us. The good news is that God did just that when he sent his Son Jesus into the world.”
Sermon Text: Luke 17:11-19
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Have you heard of the band called Asia? They were popular in the early-’80s. They had a few hits, including “Heat of the Moment” and “Don’t Cry.” I had the pleasure of seeing them in concert last Monday at the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points. And unlike so many old groups touring these days, these were the four original members of the band—living legends, as far as I’m concerned, from great ’70s bands like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and King Crimson.
I know that Asia isn’t exactly topping the charts anymore, but this medium-sized venue was packed with very grateful fans. And because it was general admission, my friend Mike and I were able to get there early and get right up to the edge of the stage. What a thrill to be so close to these musical heroes of mine! We were going nuts, cheering them on, yelling, whistling. Several people around us were making the Wayne’s World, “We’re not worthy!” motion. As my friend Mike said, this concert was a place where we could release our inner-dork. It was a safe place to be a dork, a geek, or a nerd, and nobody was there to judge us!
I haven’t cheered so loudly in years. I’m a Georgia Tech fan, after all. But it was cool that these four men saw me applauding and yelling and pointing at them and giving them the thumbs up. I made eye contact with them. Because I wanted them to know how deeply grateful I was to them for the gift of music they had given me, not simply on this particular night, but for decades. And I am grateful, not simply to these musicians and singers but also to God for giving us this gift of music, and blessing these men with their musical talent.
Gratitude! There was a Christian conference in town recently. One night of the conference, the band Gungor performed. They are the group that gave us the song “Beautiful Things”: “You make beautiful things out of the dust,” one of my favorite Christian songs. They were followed by a very popular Christian writer and preacher. When he came out, he asked the crowd to give it up for Gungor. And the place erupted in loud applause and cheering. And then he said, “Now let’s give it up for Jesus!” And the place once again erupted in loud applause and cheering, although perhaps not quite as loud as before. And at that point, a friend who was there tells me, this preacher scolded the audience for cheering more loudly for Gungor than for Jesus. How could we praise human beings more than we praise our Lord, you know?
I’m not sure how I feel about that; I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but I do get his point: I could improve in the area of worship and praise of God. I often don’t do it very well. I could express my gratitude to the Lord more enthusiastically, more emphatically, and more often than I do.
One of the lepers in today’s scripture certainly had no trouble expressing gratitude to the Lord. He and nine of his friends had what the Bible calls leprosy. “Leprosy” was a catch-all term that could describe any number of skin diseases. If you had one of these diseases, you had to separate from your community and keep your distance from everyone else. This sounds cruel, but it was a public health measure: it was a way of quarantining yourself until you were no longer contagious. When you no longer had any symptoms, you would go to the priest, who would examine you, and certify that you were well. At that point, you could return to your home and family. That’s why Jesus tells these men to go and show themselves to the priest.
The grateful ex-leper in today’s scripture, the one who returned to praise and worship and thank Jesus, was a double-outsider—he not only had a disease that ostracized him from society, he was also a Samaritan, considered a heretic and half-breed by that same society. Jews in Jesus’ day hated Samaritans. Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The shocking thing in that story was that Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero. To Jews living in Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. And yet, only the Samaritan responds properly to this seriously injured man on the side of the road and saves his life. In a similar way, only the Samaritan in today’s scriptureresponded properly to the healing that Jesus had given him. That this Samaritan, alone among the ten, got it—that he alone among the ten seemed to grasp the magnitude of the mercy and grace he had been shown, that he alone among the ten returned to express his gratitude—would have been very surprising to Jesus’ disciples, to say the least.
Which goes to show that we just don’t know who will or won’t respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We see that Jesus, in his ministry, is not very choosy about who he reaches out to and who he invites into God’s kingdom. He’s constantly reaching out to “outsiders” and outcasts and rejects and sinners.
When I was in seminary, I pastored a small Methodist church that was struggling… strugglingwith its attendance, struggling to pay its bills, struggling to pay its pastor. In fact, they couldn’t afford a real pastor, which is why they hired me. I was just a seminary student. I had no idea what I was doing! They were so gracious and patient with me. I am very thankful they put up with me for those three years. Anyway, the church was located on the edge of a nice subdivision, which was brand new when the church was built 30 years earlier. I’m sure they imagined when they built the church there that this subdivision would be its primary mission field—they would reach out to all the families that were buying houses and moving in.
Seemed like a nice plan, but guess what? That was not happening. It never did. But here’s the thing: Literally on the other side of the interstate from this church was an evenlarger community—a community of dilapidated “mill houses,” they were called. Decades earlier there was a thriving textile mill in town, long since shut down, and these were the houses that used to belong to the mill workers and their families. These houses were literally a few blocks from the church, but they may as well have been a million miles away. The people who lived there were poor. Many were Hispanic. Many were African-American. And we were, after all, a white, middle-class church, well-educated and professional. The people in the mill houses were invisible to us. Honestly, it’s like we didn’t even see them. When we talked about evangelism and outreach to our community, which we talked about frequently, we never talked about them. They weren’t on our radar. We would go miles out of our way—literally to the other side of town—to invite white people who looked just like us, dressed just like us, acted just like us, talked just like us, but we wouldn’t go across the highway to invite these neighbors! My point is, the people who lived in these mill houses were our Samaritans. They were our lepers. They were our outsiders. And we didn’t welcome them. We didn’t invite them. We didn’t reach out to them.
Would we have been successful if we tried? Who knows? But I feel convicted by the Holy Spirit that we should have tried!
In his new memoir, Andy Stanley talks about an event that happened back in 1987. He was working at his dad’s church, First Baptist Atlanta, which used to be in midtown. It turns out there was a Gay Pride parade on that Sunday morning, and the parade organizers had arranged to have the parade pass in front of First Baptist Church at noon, the time when the service would be over and Baptists would be going to their cars. First Baptist found out about it, so they arranged to have their service end early, and they directed their members out the back door, so they wouldn’t have to look at all these gay people, I guess!
Well, the Baptists looked anyway, Stanley said. And he looked, too. And one thing he saw made a profound impact on him and his ministry. He saw the people from the church across the street, St. Mark United Methodist—yay, Methodists!—“standing along the street handing out cups of water to parade participants. While some handed out water, others held up posters that read, Everybody Welcomed! Come Worship with Us! God Is Love! The contrast,” he said, “could not have been more pronounced. It was embarrassing.”
One thing that Andy Stanley learned from that experience that shaped his ministry at Northpoint is that the message that the church so often communicates to outsiders is, “Once you get your act together, once you start behaving properly, once you become just like one of us, then you’re welcome to join us.”
There’s a new movie out called Flight. Lisa and I saw it last week. Denzel Washington plays a commercial airline pilot whose plane experiences a fatal mechanical failure one morning on his way from Orlando to Atlanta. Fortunately, Washington’s instincts, his split-second decision-making, his grace under pressure, enable him to crash-land the plane in an empty field south of Atlanta, saving 98 of 104 passengers and crew on board. The news media and the public hail him as a hero. But Washington has a dirty little secret: he’s an alcoholic, and a drug-user. And he was drunk and high when he piloted the plane that morning. While his personal failings had nothing to do with the plane’s mechanical problems, he still faces a choice: will he tell the truth under oath, for all the world to hear, that he’s an addict, even though it means that he’ll go to jail—or will he, out of fear and shame and pride, continue to lie to everyone about his problem, including himself?
I won’t spoil it for you… My point is this: at one time or another, each one of us wasn’t so different from Denzel Washington’s character—whether we’ve struggled with addiction or not. We’re not so different from Washington, because if we are Christians, that means that we have all faced a similar choice at one point in our lives: the choice to admit that we have a problem, a problem that we are completely helpless to solve on our own. And our problem is sin. And if we’re authentically Christians, that means we have chosen to confess to God and confess to the world that we are sinners. I wish we had time to begin every church meeting like an AA meeting. I would gladly stand up and say, “Hi. My name is Brent, and I’m a sinner.”
One thing that Andy Stanley learned from his experience with the Gay Pride parade is that churches often act as if some kinds of sinners are more respectable than other kinds of sinners. And some churches like to extend a warm welcome only to the respectable kind of sinner. But we know better, right? See, all of us sinners, regardless of our sin, have one important thing in common: We are lost. We are hopeless. We are all bound for hell. We are eternally separated from God. That is, unless God does something to solve our problem with sin for us.
The good news is that God did just that when he sent his Son Jesus into the world. Out of love, he took upon himself our sin, our guilt, our shame. He suffered the penalty our sins deserved. He suffered the death that we deserved to die. And he took care of our biggest fear of all—death itself. Through his resurrection, Christ conquered death for us, and by trusting in him, we will also have eternal life and resurrection.
Years ago, there was a funny beer commercial, of all things. And the premise of the commercial was that one guy really wanted his friend to give him his beer. And there was only one left, apparently. And so he pretended to get all sentimental and mushy and emotional and said, “I love you, man!” It was funny because we guys don’t normally say stuff like that to each other. Twenty-eight years ago, I was on a youth group retreat in a place called Black Mountain, North Carolina, near Asheville. And I was sitting around a campfire. I had just had Communion for the first time in my life. I had also just publicly told several dozen of my fellow youth and youth workers that I had decided to give my life to Jesus Christ. I made a profession of faith in Christ. I was in tears. Tears of joy! I had never before experienced the kind of love that God poured out on me that weekend. And—I’ll never forget—after I made this profession of faith, one of our youth ministers, a young man named Lee Bonner, put his arm around me and said, “I love you, man!”
No, actually, he didn’t say, “I love you, man.” He said something even more powerful: He said, “I love you, brother.” I’ll admit that it sounds incredibly sappy—like the beer commercial. I don’t usually go for that sort of thing. But you know what? Sometimes life is incredibly sappy—and real! This was the realest thing I had ever experienced in life. In that moment, I knew that this sinner was now a beloved child of God, a brother of Jesus himself, with a whole new family of brothers and sisters in the faith, and nothing in the world would ever change that.
And besides feeling overwhelmed with love, do you know what else I felt? Gratitude.
If you’re grateful for what God has done for you through Jesus Christ, can you say, “Thank you, Lord.” “Thank you, Lord.” “Thank you, Lord.” Amen. Hallelujah.
And now may the Holy Spirit enable us to live out our “thank you” every day.
 Andy Stanley, “Creating a Church of Grace and Truth,” Outreach Magazine, http://www.outreachmagazine.com/features/4897-becoming-a-church-of-grace-and-truth.html (24 November 2012).