St. Paul’s Congregational Church
November 22, 2020 – Thanksgiving Sunday, Year A
Luke 17: 11 – 19
Ten lepers sit outside the city as Jewish law requires, away from all other citizens. The disease was probably different from Hanson’s disease which we know today as leprosy – it was a type of mold or mildew, leaving green or reddish spots, creating not just a pallor in the victims but also terrible disfigurement. The victims were considered unclean – even forced to cry out “unclean, unclean” when others approached. These ten lepers sitting outside of the boundaries of the town included 9 Jews and a Samaritan. Healthy, these people would never sit together. Stricken with disease, they were unified in their disgrace.
So, they sit and in their misery they cry out to Jesus for mercy, to be healed. And his response: go and show yourselves to the priests. Go and participate in the ritual of purification and then return back to the community. So they went and were made clean. Their healing came in the very act of obedience – and they resumed their lives.
But not all of them: it’s the Samaritan who looks down, sees that he’s healed and returns to give thanks. The outsider. The one who is not obligated to observe Jewish law at all. The one who will not be welcomed back into the community anyway – because he’s a Samaritan. To the priests, he would still have remained the outsider.
When he returns to Jesus to express his gratitude, Jesus tells him, get up and go on your way – your faith has made you well. Your faith has made you whole. Yes, all 10 lepers were healed by their obedience – healed whether they turned to say thank you or not. It’s hard to imagine that those 9 were not thankful as well – but we don’t know that from the story, do we.
The Jews asked Jesus for mercy and he responded. They didn’t hesitate to follow his command and they were healed. But they didn’t turn back – why? Could it be they took his healing for granted? Could it be they somehow thought they were entitled to receive this gift?
There’s something missing here isn’t there – yes, obedience is a first step to faith. But what’s missing from the 9 is gratitude. It’s expressed gratitude. It’s gratitude that turns us outward, that moves us from emphasis on self to emphasis to other. It’s gratitude that saves us from the sin of pride. It’s so easy to get caught up in this materialistic, individualistic, opulent society. It’s so easy to go on about our business, thinking we “did it by ourselves” or that we’re entitled – that’s a big one today – that we deserve the wondrous gifts we have all received. It’s so easy to forget the one to whom we owe all that we have – the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
Those who do not need God cannot know God. Dependency and thanksgiving hold hands when we acknowledge with gratitude the gifts of our creator. It’s gratitude that allows us to stop and recognize, savor, the gifts we have been given and turns us to a state of reverence that simply says, thank you. It’s gratitude that leads us to a new relationship with God, and there’s a profound freedom that comes from living our lives in a humble, grace-filled way. Being grateful is life changing. When we slow down and take the time to recognize God’s grace in our lives, slow down and name God’s grace all around us: it’s then and only then that we can move from healing to wholeness. Just like the Samaritan.
The Jews saw and kept going. Gratitude happens when we see the blessings and decide to turn back, when we take the time to turn to the one who has blessed us – like the Samaritan. True gratitude is a way of life. True gratitude is expressed all the time in our very beings, in our very living.
And in these chaotic times, these frightening times, that’s hard, isn’t it. So very hard. But let’s remember this: thankfulness comes from our heads. Gratitude comes from our hearts.
Gratitude stirs us deep within our souls, quiets us, pulls us outward in awe, and touches our lives in ways we can’t imagine. Gratitude can help us get more life out of living – even these days! How? Because living with gratitude recognizes all life as a blessing – not a belonging, not an entitlement – all of life is a gift. Health, life, beauty, love, mobility, the simple things – these are all incredible blessings for which we must be grateful. And they are blessings that we don’t always see these days amid our fear and worry and such difficult times of isolation. No, we won’t have our great thanksgiving celebrations with full houses, family and friends this year – our Advent/Christmas celebrations won’t be the same. But God will be with us. That fact, that blessing, never changes: let us turn back, say thank you, and then move out into the world and make our own acts of Thanksgiving, our own acts of gratitude and find the joy, the wholeness, that comes with that.
Howard Thurman wrote a prayer of Thanksgiving that this week helped me to focus amidst the chaos, the fears, the sadness, the uncertainty of our times – I share it with you now and I pray it may touch you as it did me:
Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving. I begin with the simple things of my days: Fresh air to breathe, Cool water to drink, The taste of food, The protection of houses and clothes, The comforts of home. For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!
I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known: My mother’s arms, The strength of my father The playmates of my childhood, The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies And giants and all kinds of magic held sway; The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen; The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the Eye with its reminder that life is good. For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!
I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads: The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security; The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I Feared the step before me in darkness; The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest And the claims of appetite were not to be denied; The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open Page when my decision hung in the balance. For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!
I pass before me the main springs of my heritage: The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me, Without whom my own life would have no meaning; The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams; The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp And whose words would only find fulfillment In the years which they would never see; The workers whose sweat has watered the trees, The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations; The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons, Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places; The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream Could inspire and God could command. For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!
I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind: The little purposes in which I have shared my loves, My desires, my gifts; The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence That I have never done my best, I have never dared To reach for the highest; The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.
All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel, I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee, [O God] in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.
May your Thanksgiving be a sacrament and bring you comfort and wholeness, now and always. Amen.