Guest reflection: What can you give for the gift of life?

Published October 13, 2010

Photo: Kelly Redinger

For the first 51 years of my life, I had never been in the hospital except to have my tonsils removed as a child. I always considered myself to be in reasonably good health. But then it happened. One night as I was reading in bed, I felt the most awful pain I have ever experienced. It was so painful I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom. Honestly, I thought I was going to die. Remember what Jesus said about the end coming like a thief in the night? Well, it seemed like the end to me.

Heather rushed me to the emergency room where it was discovered that I had a bad case of kidney stones. It wasn’t as serious as I had feared, but that experience was a wake up call. What if the kidney stones had been a heart attack? What if I had died? That night in the hospital I resolved never to take life for granted again.

What a marvelous, wonderful gift life is! How precious, how dear, and yet how fragile! We think we will live forever, but a virus we can’t even see can kill us, and a tiny little kidney stone in the wrong place in our bodies can make life awfully uncomfortable.

None of us are immortal. None of us will live forever – which is why the time we have on this earth is so vitally important. So question for us on this Thanksgiving weekend is this: Do we live each day of our lives as a gift from God?

Life is gift, all gift. The sooner we recognize this truth, the more likely we are to live with meaning and satisfaction and joy.

In our gospel today [Luke 17:11-19], Jesus heals 10 lepers, but only one returns to give him thanks. Leprosy in the ancient world was an awful disease, not just physically but socially. No kisses, no hugs, no embraces for lepers. If anyone approached lepers, the law required them to shout “Unclean! Unclean!” lest another human being touch them. Lepers were ostracized from family and friends. They were outcasts from their communities. They were dying men struggling to survive one day at a time.

It’s hard for us to imagine how desperate these 10 lepers were – desperate enough to seek out Jesus and cry out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Some of us know the sound of that cry because we have made it ourselves during moments when we, too, were desperate. When the world starts to crash in on us, and everything we hold dear begins to fall apart, we have cried, “God help me. God, give me strength to face these challenges. Heal my aching body. Ease my anxious mind. Guide my decision-making. Be my light as the shadows overwhelm me. I desperately need your peace, your power and your presence in my life, O God.”

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Yes, you and I know that cry in our own lives because we have been there.

Jesus hears that cry. He says to the 10 lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” So they went, and along the way they were healed. But only one returned to give thanks. Ten were healed, but one gave thanks. Only one came back, and Jesus says that salvation came to the man who gave thanks for the gift of his life.

What can we give for the gift of life? Life – physical life. We waste it. We abuse it. We take it for granted. We cut it short. We even become oblivious to it. And yet there are moments in our lives when the gift of life is brought home to us – when we begin to appreciate that which we have always taken for granted.

During World War II, a priest in England saw a young boy come into his church one weekday to pray. The boy remained so long upon his knees that the priest went up to him to know what the matter was. The priest asked, “Do you often come here to pray?”  

“I have been here four times in the last five days” the boy replied.

“Have you anyone fighting at Dunkirk?” asked the priest.

“Yes, sir,” said the boy, “I have been praying for my father. He came home today, and so I came back to thank God for sparing his life.”

Like the one leper who was cleansed in today’s gospel, the boy returned to thank God because he knew what a great gift life is.

What can we give for the gift of life? Life – new life in Christ. I presume you are here today because somewhere along the way you have said “yes” to Jesus as your Savior and Lord. Somewhere along the way Jesus has touched your life. You have discovered that there is something wonderful about being a Christian. Life, which so many of us fear to lose, takes on security. Life, which frightens us with all the rapid changes in the world, takes on permanence. Life, which contains an unknown future many of us dread, takes on the promise that the best is yet to come. Quite simply, because Jesus died for us, we live with a life that belongs to him.

When I was a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, I was an eyewitness to one of the greatest airline disasters in that city’s history. It happened in January 1973. A commercial jet attempting to take off from Washington’s National Airport crashed into the icy waters of the Potomac River. Battling darkness, wind and sleet, helicopters dropped life-lines to the numbed survivors in the water. One man grasped the life-saving rope time and again, only to turn and help someone else catch hold so that person could be pulled to safety. The last time the rope came, no one was there. The deadly cold prevailed. The man died – but not before he saved many of his fellow passengers.

Now that is what Jesus did in giving us the gift of life. We were sinking in the icy cold waters of our own sin, but Jesus handed us a lifeline, even though it meant his own death on the cross. Jesus died so that we might live. He gave his life for us. We now live with a life that comes from him. The question is, “How do we say thank you?” What can we give for the gift of life?

Money isn’t enough – God already owns it all. Good works aren’t enough, because we can never be good enough to redeem our own life. Neither are our time and talents enough, because every good gift comes from God. The simple truth is: there is nothing of ours that doesn’t belong to God.

There is only one thing you can give for the gift of life – your life. Nothing short of your life will do. In the biblical concept of sacrifice, it’s life for life. Jesus gave his life for you; you give your life to God. Life for life – it’s what we call a divine exchange – gratitude in response to grace.

Dr. Joseph Clarke of Katanga was one of the most famous missionaries in 19th century Africa. One night a group of natives brought a young man to him who was fearfully mangled by a lion. Dr. Clarke worked feverishly to save the man. Night and day he tended his wounds until, months later, the man fully recovered. As he left Dr. Clarke, the young man said, “I will return.”

Years later, a group of natives appeared at Dr. Clarke’s mission. The leader said, “You don’t remember me, but I am the man you healed from the lion’s wounds. This is my family. They carry my goods. I am yours, you saved my life. These are yours. All I have is yours.”

We owe everything to God, absolutely everything. That’s the bottom line of the Christian life, isn’t it? Perhaps some of us can say, “I attend church regularly. I give generously to my church. I volunteer in some ministry or other. I do what is expected of me.” But is that enough? God gave himself fully to us and now God wants us to give ourselves fully to him. I know, this sounds extreme to us Anglicans who live by the motto: Moderation in all things. But it’s not extreme to give yourself wholly to God; it’s just gospel.

Ask yourself: What would it be like if I truly lived as a thankful person for everything that God has given me and continues to give me still? How would my life change if I truly accepted that everything I am and everything I have comes from God? My guess is that you would experience a great deal more joy in your life. You would happily give yourself to others and to the causes that matter most to you, knowing that God gives himself freely and fully to you. You would live in exuberant praise to God who has given you everything. Yes, there is a wild, joyful freedom in living for Jesus.

The only way you are going to find out is to try it. Look, you got to jump in the water to learn how to swim. Are you ready to take that leap and trust Jesus with your whole life? After all, he gave his life for you.

Now that is something to be thankful for.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at Saint James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.  He delivered this sermon on Thanksgiving Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010.


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