Luke 17:11 – 19 Pondering Happiness


A sermon preached on October 10th, 2010 based upon Luke 17:11 – 19, and on the occasion of Olivia’s baptism.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

The only time in my life I ever went deep sea fishing, I made the mistake of going to burger king immediately before boarding the boat for the four hour sail.  Within the first twenty minutes, I realized I was getting sick. It was terrible; absolutely horrible.   No way was the boat turning around; there were maybe fifty people who had paid to go fishing on that boat.  I was stuck waiting for the first eruption of my stomach which I knew was coming.

The unhappiness of that first hour on the boat had several dimensions.   There was the simple misery of the upset stomach itself, but there was more:  there was embarrassment — the knowledge that in short order,  I would be on humiliating display to all the hardy souls without such a weak stomach as mine.   There was regret — the waste of the money spent on something from which I would get no enjoyment.  There was self-accusation:  I should have had the good sense to stay away from the greasy food before getting on board!   And there was also fear.  Just how bad would it get?   Would I survive?  When exactly would the throwing up begin?

Sure enough, the upchucking began about an hour into the sail.  The interesting thing looking back was that once I reached this point, the experience shifted from being absolutely horrible to being okay.  I didn’t stop feeling so sick that I couldn’t stand up without feeling like I would lose it again, but I managed to let go of my embarrassment, my regret, and my fear.  I accepted my fate; there was nothing to be done about it other than to wait it out.

At this point I began to appreciate little blessings:  the coolness of the breeze on my fevered brow as I lay upon a bench…   the camaraderie I felt with some guy who was in a similar situation, with whom otherwise I might have concluded I had little in common.  We were brothers!

I share this story this morning not to warn baby Olivia never to eat greasy food before deep sea fishing, but in order to reflect about happiness and unhappiness.

In recent years the field of psychology has begun studying peoples’ perceptions regarding what we think will make us happy or unhappy in the future, as well as what in fact leads to a sense of contentment or misery in the present.  There are, it turns out, a lot of mistaken notions in regard to what will make us happy, or for that matter, make us feel unhappy.

If we were asked, “Which would you prefer happening to you:  a serious spinal chord injury or winning the lottery big time?”  we would all say, “Well, winning the lottery of course!”  The surprising thing, however, is that when researchers ask people a year after such experiences about their personal sense of happiness or unhappiness, the people who won the millions in the lottery tend to be, if anything, less happy than the people who are learning to cope with their paralysis.  This, of course, messes majorly with what we assume day by day to be true about life.

The data the researchers have gathered indicate that the only bearing that money has on a sense of personal happiness is its capacity to lift a person out of poverty.  If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or whether you will have a roof over your head, or if a doctor will be available to you when you get sick, well, these sorts of depravations do tend to lead people to feel unhappy.  Once, however,  you have enough money to take care of such basic necessities, then whether you are just getting by or are as rich as Bill Gates doesn’t seem to make much difference in regards to your sense of contentment in life.*

In my little story about my deep sea expedition, I managed to adapt to being sea sick.  The research of psychologists also shows that we underestimate our capacity for adaptation.   We think of the possibility of getting paralyzed, for instance, and we think that we could never survive such a tragedy.   It is certainly a pretty horrible thing to go through,  and yet by the grace of God people do adapt, and in that adaptation they discover strengths, abilities and blessings they might never have known about otherwise.**

Turning to our Gospel story, in those days, if you had asked people, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to you?”  high on everybody’s list of “worst things” would have been coming down with leprosy.   Beyond the physical dimension of the disease with the pain, loss of movement and possible threat to a person’s life was the profound social isolation it caused.  Coming down with leprosy rendered a person “unclean,” compelling them to leave their home, their family and friends to live in exile outside of the village.

It was, indeed a devastating experience to undergo.  And yet, human beings adapt, and although society appeared heartless in regard to its rejection of lepers, it did, nonetheless, make certain provisions for their survival.  Realizing lepers could no longer engage in the traditional forms of work, they became ritualized objects of charity.   Judaism required alms-giving, and so non-infected persons made a point of providing for lepers so they wouldn’t starve to death.

And although they were initially ripped out of their familiar social network, this did not mean the lepers were destined to live in perpetual isolation.  There were always other lepers — people who shared the same experience of heart-wrenching disruption as themselves, and so outside of villages little communities of outcastes were formed.

This particular exile community consisted of both Jews and Samaritans, for it existed on the border between Judea and Samaria.   People with these identities were obliged by their traditions to despise one another.   But here, as outcastes from their original communities who shared a common experience of rejection, the opportunity arose to come in contact with  the humanity of one another.  They experienced the gift of a community in which there was room in the circle for everyone who had hit bottom.

So in the story Luke tells, this community of ten lepers were waiting at the side of the road for the almsgivers who would pass by, and, keeping a safe distance, leave gifts of food.  Upon this very road, Jesus drew near.  They called out to him for mercy.  It is unclear whether they were calling out simply for alms, or whether they had heard of his healing power and were crying out for deliverance from their affliction.

Either way, Jesus instructed them to go to show themselves to the priests. For whatever reason, they obeyed him, and as they went, they discovered that they had in fact been healed of their skin disease, which the priest would shortly verify, allowing them to finally return to their villages and their families.

A wonderful thing had happened, and yet, it seemed that only one of the ten — a Samaritan and not a Jew like Jesus — experienced gratitude for the healing.  He turned back, returned to Jesus, fell at his feet and offered praise and thanksgiving.

What about the other nine?   Why didn’t they pause to celebrate and give thanks to the God who has healed them?  We don’t know for sure.

The cleansing of their skin, however, would have required yet another adaptation  with  a new set of problems to address.    Cleansed of their leprosy, they could no longer rely on the charity of almsgiving to assure their survival.   Perhaps the other nine immediately began to address the question of how, now do I earn my daily bread?   The opportunity to return to their original communities meant the end of the social connection that had sustained them for however long they have been in exile.    After having been away for so long, perhaps they wondered what kind of welcome they would receive at home?  In their absence, had they been in some sense replaced?

There is, if someone were so inclined, much to begin worrying about.  In their minds there may have been no time for gratitude; there were problems to address.

Clearly, however the man who returned to Jesus was experiencing his life on a profounder level than the others.   He knew himself to be blessed, and he took time to simply celebrate this blessing.   He understood that there is more to wholeness than physical health.  Wholeness involves gratitude.

The story represents a kind of primitive poll-taking in regard to peoples’ perceptions of happiness or contentment.  It suggests that in a random sampling of people, only one in ten had managed to experience contentment.

So, on this day in which we have baptized Olivia into the family of God, it’s good to give some thought to what makes for a blessed life, or rather, a contented life, since in truth we all are blessed.   The question before us is whether or not we will be conscious of our blessing.

How can we show Olivia how to live a life in such a manner that she can live her life  more like that the one and less like the nine?  Which is to say, of course, how can we ourselves move in that direction, because our best hope of teaching her this is in modeling it in our own lives.

A contented life involves a lifestyle of learned habits and values that contribute to a sense of contentment.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Contentment requires learning the secret of “enough.”   How much is enough?   The world encourages us to think that we never have enough, that we would always be better off with more; that the present can always be improved upon — made better.  Accepting this idea, we get locked onto a treadmill, never fully present to the blessing of the moment.

Money, power, status, physical beauty  these are some of the things we get seduced into wanting always more.  But more and more won’t make us happy; on the other hand, “enough” will.

2) Kindness really matters.   Contentment shows up in the lives of people who, like Jesus taking time to help the lepers, routinely help others.  Simply put, people who rarely engage in offering kindness are miserable people.  Build into your life ways to serve.  Serving others is the antidote to the self-absorption that breeds misery.

3) Being a part of a caring community is essential.  Families are important, but you need more than your family.  You need to be a part of a group of people who will go to bat for you, and for whom you are willing to go to bat.   You need church.   Without deep, sustaining,  soulful connections we human beings wither away.

4) Don’t travel too fast through life.  Be mindful.  If you’re going too fast to notice things in your life, you’re sure to end up miserable.  The irony of my deep sea fishing experience was that getting sick slowed me down enough to notice little things;  it is, however, better to slow oneself down without having to get sick for it to happen.

It’s a cliché, but true:  take time to smell the coffee.  Marvel at the mystery of the people around you, and the mystery of your own soul.    Ponder beauty; weep at real sadness.  Take life in.***

5) Gratitude involves an act of will.  It requires that you intentionally set aside time to be grateful.   To this end, I have a little homework assignment for you.  I’m calling it an experiment of gratitude.   Each night for the next week before you turn out the lights, jot down three things that went well for you in the course of your day.  They need not be “big things.”  Little things are good.  “I ate a tasty meal.”  I laughed at a funny joke.”   And each day write down one thing in general for which you are grateful.   The only requirement is that it be something different each day.  Do this for a week, and see what kind of difference it makes in how you experience your life.


*Dan Gilbert, the author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” writes  “The difference between an annual income of $5,000 and one of $50,000 is dramatic.  But going from $50,000 to $50 million will not dramatically affect happiness. It’s like eating pancakes: the first one is delicious, the second one is good, the third OK. By the fifth pancake, you’re at a point where an infinite number more pancakes will not satisfy you to any greater degree. But no one stops earning money or striving for more money after they reach $50,000.”

**“Much recent data show that people fare reasonably well in a variety of tragic and traumatic circumstances—Christopher Reeve was not unusual,” Gilbert continues.  “Paraplegics are generally quite happy people. And blind people often say that the worst problem they have is that everyone assumes that they are sad: ‘You can’t read.’ ‘But I can read.’ ‘You can’t get around.’ ‘But I can get around.’ People do feel devastated if they go blind, but it does not last. The human mind is constituted to make the best of the situations in which it finds itself. But people don’t know they have this ability, and that’s the thing that bedevils their predictions about the future.”

***One of Gilbert’s colleagues, professor of psychology Ellen Langer, prefers to spend her time in the present, and she aims to analyze and share that experience with others though her many books—like On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity—all of which explore her central theme of mindfulness. To Langer, mindfulness means noticing new things and drawing new distinctions. “It doesn’t matter whether what you notice is smart or silly,” she says, “because the process of actively drawing new distinctions produces that feeling of engagement we all seek. It’s much more available than you realize: all you need to do is actually notice new things. More than 30 years of research has shown that mindfulness is figuratively and literally enlivening. It’s the way you feel when you’re feeling passionate.”

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