Beyond Thank You Notes – Sermon for October 28, 2012

“Jesus Healing the Blind”, by Nicolas Poussin, 1650

Mark 10:46-52
10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

10:47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

10:50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

10:51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

10:52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

My mom is a big fan of thank you notes. Growing up she made sure that for Christmas, birthday, graduations, whatever the event we sent thank you notes for the gifts we received. Sometimes she would even give us a gift of thank you notes as a present. I think she was trying to give a little hint.

My dad’s mother, my grandmother, was even more into them. And she kept track. I’m pretty sure she had a thank you note scoreboard hidden somewhere in the house. And she would even engage in a mild form of public shame if you didn’t send one. Nothing huge, but something like a deep sigh and then, “I never did get a thank you note from them. As a kid I wrote thank you notes because my parents told me to, and because my grandmother, who I loved, scared me just a little, tiny bit.

Most of us learn how to say “thank you” at an early age. And that’s a very good thing. The world is better when we say “please” and “thank you” and when we acknowledge gifts that we are given. We write thank you notes. Maybe even when we aren’t feeling so grateful, the way we did for that package of socks that we got when we were 8. We do it because we were taught it was good manners, and if we are lucky we carry that skill with us when we are adults.

But if we are really lucky, something happens along the way. Something that changes the process of writing thank you notes from just a perfunctory thing we do when we get a gift, to a way to live a grateful life.

I wonder if the man in today’s story had ever heard of thank you notes? I don’t know that they were necessarily a thing back in Jesus’ day, and since most people didn’t write, I doubt that he had a mother who made them do them, or a grandmother who kept tabs on whether they came of not. But maybe he did have people in his life who taught him about being thankful. And maybe that’s why today’s story goes the way it goes.

Jesus is leaving the town of Jericho, and a man named Bartimaeus, who is described as a “blind beggar” is sitting by the side of the road. He hears that Jesus is the one passing by and he yells out, “Jesus…have mercy on me!”

The people all around him hush him and say be quiet, but he calls out again, “Jesus have mercy on me.” And Jesus stops, and calls him to him. The man springs up and comes to Jesus, and he asks Bartimaeus “what do you want?” And Bartimaeus says, “to be able to see again”. Jesus tells him, “go, your faith has made you well”.

Bartimaeus got back his sight, but there’s something about this story other than the fact that Jesus healed him that makes it stand out. Jesus heals a lot of people in Scripture, and each time it is miraculous. But we don’t always get to hear how the person who was healed responded.

This time we do. When Bartimaeus regained his sight, Jesus said “go…your faith has made you well.” Essentially, Jesus was releasing him to go back and live his life with his new gift of sight. But instead, Scripture tells us that “he followed Jesus on the way”. The healed man became a disciple.

Now, have you ever gotten a gift with strings attached? One that you knew came with expectations from the gift giver? Have you ever felt like accepting it was accepting a new obligation or commitment? What’s interesting to me here is that Jesus gives the man a huge gift, a gift of healing, and yet he doesn’t say “now you have to follow me”. He doesn’t list his expectations. Instead he essentially releases him. “Go”, he tells him. Not even an address to send a thank you note to. It’s grace at its purest form. A gift that comes unearned, and that expects no response.

But what Bartimaeus does is the proper response to grace: he shows his gratitude. And it’s not with a thank you note. It’s not even with a spoken thank you. It’s with his life. He leave the side of the road, and all he’s known, and he follows the man who healed him to wherever he is going next.

Sometimes we get gifts that are so incredible that the words we can put down on a piece of paper fail us. Sometimes we get gifts that are so big that we can only respond by living our lives as a sort of thanksgiving.

Today is the third sermon in a series we are doing on giving. Each week we are exploring another theme that has to do with how we give. The first week we looked at giving away the things that keep of from God. Last week we looked at serving as giving. And today we are looking at giving as gratitude.

In seminary our theology professors beat into our heads the central idea of Reformed theology, the theology that the UCC and the Presbyterian church and others were formed by, which is that we all receive grace from God, and that the only proper response to grace is gratitude.

And when the grace, the gift, we have received is as big as the one’s that God gives us, that only gift we have that is big enough and fitting enough to give back is our own lives. The only way we can ever respond to that grace, note I did not say pay that grace back, is to say thank you. Our gratitude becomes the way we give, and our life becomes our thank you note to God.

I talked at the beginning about thank you notes and how they sometimes seemed like a necessary burden, a sort of social nicety, as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, they’ve felt less burdensome, less of a perfunctory social nicety, and more meaningful. Less something I have to do, and more something I want to do.

I’ve been writing a lot of them recently because of the upcoming wedding. Some of our close friends held a shower for us down in Massachusetts, and it was a wonderful time being with our friends. Afterwards we wrote thank you notes to them all, and what I found as I was writing the notes was that I was feeling genuine gratitude for the people in my life, not the salad tongs or whatever else we had been given. Though I like the salad tongs. But more importantly, I love the people who gave them to us, and I love that they thought about us and shared some time with us and are a part of our life. That is the true gift for which I am grateful.

Sometimes I wish that I could sit down and write a thank you note to God that really expressed my gratitude for what God has given me, and for what the ways God has given me real healing when I need it the most. I wish I could find the right words for that. But the reality is that part of me knows that’s the easy way out. If I could just say “thank you” and be done, it would be sort of like if Bartimeaus had just gone his own way after Jesus healed him. I would have received the gift, but I wouldn’t really have responded to it. It would have changed my life, but it wouldn’t really have changed me.

Instead, we have an opportunity to respond to that grace. And if it’s really grace, we will find that we can do none other than to respond to it. We have the chance to live our lives as that thank you note that we can never write.

Now, God is not the grandmother with a gigantic thank you note scorecard in the sky. God is not telling everyone that the note never came. God gives grace freely, the same way Jesus did on that road, healing with no strings attached.

But for us, if we have received that grace, we will never feel quite right until we respond to it, and until we offer a thank you that is more than a perfunctory prayer mumbled over dinner, or a quick prayer of thanks. We will never feel quite whole, until we find real ways to express our gratitude.

So, what do you get the God who has everything? Well, really nothing. Nothing except for your love.

But what do you do for God’s people? That’s the question to ask. What is it you have in your life that you can give to the ones who need it the most. What is it that you can do for them that will also say thank you to God?

One of the things that 12 Step programs focus on, which is relevant to those of us who are Christians as well, is gratitude. They teach that gratitude has the power to transform lives and to focus our lives on what matters the most. One of my favorite sayings is, “that grateful heart never drinks”. And that’s true. When you are aware of how much grace you have received, and how much you have to be thankful for, the last thing you want to do is ruin that by choosing to destroy yourself. Instead 12 step members show gratitude by doing service, by helping newcomers out, by taking care of their group and their program.

We can learn a lot from them, because the same should be true for Christians. When we look around, truly, and see what has been given to us by grace, we are compelled to live a life of gratitude. Not one of us has been passed over by God’s grace, whether we know it or not, whether we think we ever needed it or not. We did. And we received it. And not forgetting that, not going off our own way and forgetting that man we met on the road one day who healed us, is the start of being grateful. That man Jesus healed got what he wanted. He could have gone off his own way after that, content that he got his piece of the pie. But he didn’t. He changed his life, and he decided to follow Jesus.

So what’s the next step for you? For us? What would it look like for you to live your life as a thank you to God? What would it look like to dig down deep and give to God by giving to others in your life? What would it look like if you made gratitude the central theme of your life? For most of us, I think it would change everything. Because a grateful heart never looks around and says “there is too little”. A grateful heart looks around and says, “there’s enough for me…and there’s enough for others too.” It may sound naive, but I think that’s the sort of perspective that could change the world. And even if it doesn’t change the world, maybe, just maybe, it will change you. Amen.