Thanksgiving Day – 11/26/2020 – St. Paul’s
Grace, peace, and much joy to you, people of God on this Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving Day is an American holiday and a Christian occasion (not even a Commemoration, much less a Festival, on the Liturgical calendar). When the Mayflower landed at Plymouth (not England; rather, what would be called Massachusetts) in 1620, hard times lay ahead for the colonists, the Pilgrims, who signed the Mayflower Compact. Half of them did not survive the first winter. When, in 1621, they finally brought in a harvest, they celebrated with the Wampanoags, the local Native Americans (with whom they lived in peace until King Philip’s War in 1675).
Celebrations of Thanksgiving Day in the United States were pretty sporadic until President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of a Day of Thanksgiving in 1863. In some ways 1863 is a turning point year in the American Civil War—the Emancipation Proclamation, the fall of Vicksburg, the battle of Gettysburg—but hard times still lay ahead for our divided nation. But, as the Mayflower Compact had based its commitment to just and equal Laws on the Christian faith of the Pilgrims, so Lincoln invoked the ever watchful providence of Almighty God …[i]n the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, in calling for the observance of a Day of Thanksgiving.
As the global pandemic drags on and President-elect Joe Biden predicts a dark winter, hard times lie ahead for our divided nation. The Pilgrims who survived their sea voyage and dreadful winter gave thanks to the God whose providence had nevertheless appeared to them in the form of a harvest. Americans in the midst of a Civil War that took the lives of 620,000 of their countrymen nevertheless gave thanks to the God whose providence transcended and even somehow encompassed newspaper lists of the dead. Can we Christians find some gratitude even on this dark and divided Thanksgiving Day, which Americans in many states have basically been asked to not celebrate as usual?
The story of the ten lepers whom Jesus encountered on his way to Jerusalem is always the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day. It begins with the appropriately socially-distanced lepers—per the public health guidance of Numbers 5.2–4—crying out to Jesus for mercy. We have cried out for mercy through this year, if not for ourselves, then for family and friends afflicted by the virus. That is our vocation as Christians: to be in prayer at the place where mercy is found in the midst of pain.
This is a story about giving thanks! So, let’s use it on Thanksgiving! The lectionary folks really were just looking for key words on this one (sorry to be catty, it’s been a long year). Giving thanks is a big moment in this story, but I don’t read this as a story about thanks. I read it as a story about healing. It is also one of those ones best taken step-by-step, so here we go!
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. Jesus was walking the line. From the perspective of a traditionalist at the time, one might say that he is not just walking geographic border, but he’s walking a bigger metaphorical line.
People on one side were God’s people who did things the right way. People on the other side were not because they didn’t pray the right way, weren’t the right skin color, didn’t have the right last names, had a heretical religion, didn’t have the right customs, and eat the right foods. And the bad people were the…Samaritans. Jesus was walking this line by going through this region between these two places. We tend to think of Jesus as on either the good or the bad side of things, not spending a lot of time in the gray area between.
As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Whether a Galilean, a Samaritan, or a Roman citizen, if you were a leper, no one wanted you around. They were equally bad, threatening, and scary for folks. It is important to recall that many folks might have even felt that the lepers brought their illness upon themselves due to their sinful ways that displeased God (any person nowadays with an STI, HIV, trauma-induced addiction, etc…) While Jesus was in a land that no one liked, ten people that no one wanted came up to him.
Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! Keeping their distance. Maybe because they were sick and didn’t want to get Jesus sick, but that doesn’t seem like a right reading to me since they are asking for the rabbi’s mercy. More to me it seems like maybe they have been harassed by others and were afraid to get close to anyone, not the least a community leader or a religious figure. A lot of people presently stay away from Jesus because they’ve been hurt by the communities that gather in his name.
When he saw them, he said to them, Go and show yourselves to the priests. And as they went, they were made clean. This seems like a terrifying prospect. Nearly everyone they know would change their minds about them if the priest ruled that they were clean again.
However independent from our leaders we may perceive ourselves, as it turns out, most people follow the example, word, or ruling of the leaders they respect the most, whether a minister, a jurist, or a president. The lepers were made clean as they left and did as Jesus commanded. It is interesting that this is one of those healings where Jesus doesn’t touch anyone. He just wills something, and it is done.
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.
One of them didn’t follow Jesus’s instructions. Anyway, one of them comes back and does a little thing folks in the evangelical church call a praise break. Now, not thinking about the story itself, but thinking about the reception, it seems reasonable to me that folks at this point are really on this ex-leper’s side. He’s showing gratitude for being healed. Piety, joy, love, and a witness to a miracle. What a hero. I wish I was that grateful for most of the mercies in my life, but honestly, I usually just take them for granted.
And he was a Samaritan. Aaaaand there it is. This is when the gospel lets the other shoe drop. It gets us all on this person’s side and then tells us that he is one of them. This is where one is tempted to take refuge in the idea that the Samaritan who was healed didn’t actually follow Jesus’s instructions. There’s hope yet for us, friends, that the Samaritan may get a good chiding from Jesus for not following a divine command. Just like a Samaritan to get God’s instructions wrong.
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.
And, if we’ve really been following the themes of this story, then we’re not happy here. Jesus praises the person with the heretic religion, the stupid culture, the dumb habits, and the gall not to follow Jesus’s instructions like the others did. At this point, we should be the ones begging Jesus to have mercy on us and declare the degenerate unclean again. Alas, we suffer still. And that’s all he’s got to say to us about it.
A century ago, Albert Schweitzer, theologian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, remarked:The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this know what it means to live. He has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.
Schweitzer was restating a bit of wisdom from the New Testament. Rejoice always, advised the Apostle Paul, and pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And he was, of course, correct. To learn gratitude is to know the mystery of life.
But he was also wrong in a very important way.As I watch the news fearing whatever comes next, that Bible verse, the one Albert Schweitzer alluded to, comes to mind: In all things, give thanks.
That verse, however, is a bit of a double-edged sword. It is often used to demand thanks. No matter how sad or scary or angering a situation, some well-meaning and eerily cheerful person will say, you should be grateful for that or give thanks for everything. But this is a misuse of the verse.
It does not say, as Schweitzer misquoted, and as many people seem to think, For all things, give thanks. Gratitude is not about giving thanks for anything that is evil or unjust. Never for violence, lying, oppression, and suffering. Not for illness, hunger, or abuse. Do not be grateful for these things.
The verse says, Give thanks in all circumstances. That little Greek word, en, means in, with, within, and throughout. It locates us, in the here and now. In the past, in the future. In happiness, in despair. In all things. In all times. In all situations.
We shouldn’t be grateful for COVID, for the political chaos, for the broken climate, for economic suffering. But we can be grateful through these times, while we are struggling in them. I’m not grateful for COVID, but through these days I’ve been reminded of the fragile gift of life, treasuring what I had taken for granted. I’m not grateful for political corruption, but through it I’ve come to value democracy and activism more than ever before. I’m not grateful for destructive fires and storms, but through them the awesome power of nature still stuns, reminding us of our dependence on the earth. I’m not grateful for economic distress, but through it I’ve remembered how we can live more simply and with more generosity and fairness. All of this has made me understand the giftedness of life, work, and wonder — strengthening my love of God and neighbor, more deeply aware of the tenderness of life and the necessity for dignity and justice for all.
None of us should be thankful for this terrible year. But, if we stop and reflect, we see that we can be thankful through it. 2020 needn’t have the final word and steal from us the possibility of thanks and joy.
Gratefulness grounds our lives in the world and with others, always reminding us of the gifts and grace that accompany our way no matter how hard the journey. Gratitude is an emotion. Gratitude is a practice, a disposition, an awareness, a set of habits. But ultimately, gratitude is a place – perhaps the place – where we find our truest and best selves.
To know the mystery of life is to be grateful in all things. In. In all things. With all things, through all things.Sometimes the world turns on a preposition. To be grateful in these days is an act of resistance, of resilience, of renewal. We may not be able to gather around familiar tables. We may not meet with friends and family. We may not have the usual bounty of Thanksgiving. We may be worried about what lies ahead. We are NOT thankful for any of this. But the mystery of it all is that we can still be grateful as we make our way through it all.
Our vocation in hard times is to be in prayer at the place where mercy is found in the midst of pain. That place is the healing presence of Jesus himself, and in his death and resurrection above all. Our trust in him, his dying and rising, finding life by losing it, is the faith that saves, even in dark and divided times. No Thanksgiving Day Parades, no football as we had enjoyed it before Covid, no family gatherings, but there is the gratuitous gift of life itself, and our gratitude that shows itself as we pilgrim prisoners of hope give thanks for the gift, and the voice of the Giver that responds to our gratitude with a new command: Rise, your faith has saved you..
May The God of laughter send you out.
So we can share joy with everyone.
May Jesus, The Brother of the poor send you out.
So we may bring hope and healing to the broken and despairing.
May The Spirit of wonder send you out.
So we may join all creation in offering thanks
Because we all have the Blessing of God Almighty,
Invitation to the Offering
In the spirit of Thanksgiving,
let us remember to bring forth our gifts with gratitude.
Prayer of Dedication
Weaver of all life, in this joyous season
we offer our heartfelt thanks
for the abundance that surrounds us
and ask that you remind us
to extend the season of thanksgiving
as we share these your gifts with your people
that they may know a better harvest