A Thanksgiving Weekend sermon for October 9 on Luke 17:11-19
It is Thanksgiving weekend, which means our numbers are a bit thinner than usual. Some people are traveling, some are closing down cottages for the season, and some are gathering with families for their turkey dinners. Those are all good things to be doing this weekend, but it is also good to be here. In Canada Thanksgiving has been officially celebrated as an annual holiday since 1879, though if you really wanted to go deep you could make a case that it was first celebrated in 1578 by the arctic explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew. The actual timing of the Thanksgiving bounced around a bit until 1957, when the Canadian Parliament issued a proclamation stating: “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.” Did you catch that? A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God. That proclamation was made just as the era that we know as Christendom was about to move toward its end. In 1957 no one questioned prayer in schools or at the opening of city council meetings; no one would have shied away from saying Merry Christmas instead of the rather generic “happy holidays”; no one would have questioned just which “almighty God” was to be thanked. Our almighty God, of course.
- To Listen to the sermon, click play:
If you’ve listened to the radio or read the newspaper over these past few days, you’ll have heard lots of talk of turkey and family gatherings, but no reference to thanking God… it is a general thankfulness that our society celebrates; a posture of gratitude around living in a safe, stable, and generally humane country. We might be particularly smug these days, that we live north of the 49th parallel…
I think for me, though, a general thankfulness only goes so far. If someone does something for me—if someone gifts me with something—I find that I need to acknowledge that with a word or gesture of thanks. Similarly, if I’m going to make any sense at all of this weekend, I need to orient my posture of gratefulness to someone; to the giver of the great gift.
Well, tonight the lectionary has given us a thanksgiving gospel if there ever was one. Funny, but it is actually a bit coincidental, because the Revised Common Lectionary is international, and its architects weren’t thinking Canadian Thanksgiving when they landed this story on our laps.
Here’s the set up. “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!’” First of all, notice that he’s in a kind of in-between space, socially and geographically, “between Samaria and Galilee.” The tension and animosity between Samaritans and Jews was enormous, like that between Serbs and Croats. As the story unfolds we’ll be told that this group actually consisted of nine Jews and one Samaritan, which defies normal social conventions. But in that world, to have that skin disease threw you out beyond all social conventions and acceptance, and so their shared alienation and disorientation had bound them together as an odd sort of community.
“Go,” Jesus says to them, “‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’” And they keep moving, maybe thinking that he’s healed them? Or maybe they just keep moving, because that’s all they can really do. “And as they went, they were made clean.”
At that discovery, the nine Jewish lepers—healed lepers, as the case is—keep going. All they can think about is having the priests declare them ritually clean, so they can go back and try to resume their normal lives with their families in community. In some sense, who can blame them?
“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.” He wasn’t under the authority of the Jewish priests, so he didn’t need to run full out to get their bill of health and declaration of ritual purity. Still, he would have been answerable to his own priests and their ritual practices, so it is fascinating that he still turns back to offer thanks. “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?’” It might sound like there’s a bit of bite to that word “foreigner,” but it would have simply been a statement of fact. The nine who were members—outcast members, sure, but still members—of the covenant people of Israel were so wrapped up in their need to rigidly satisfy the letter of the law that they didn’t even think to come back to the giver of the gift, but the outsider did. Of course something like this happens again and again in the gospels, doesn’t it? The most “outside” and lost people completely get it, while those who should have a bit of insight are shown as being so bound up in religiosity that they miss what is going on.
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’” That’s an interesting line, isn’t it? Presumably the other nine remain cleansed of their leprosy, but this one Samaritan is declared “well”—“whole”—on account of his faith. What’s the difference? Here’s what Robert Farrar Capon says:
The Samaritan goes away with his life saved because, like the prodigal son, he has not put his derelict life into forgettery. At Jesus’ feet he sees himself whole: dead and risen, an outcast and accepted, a leper and cleansed. And he sees himself that way because, like the prodigal, he has not hated the light and he has not lived the lie of trying to keep his wretchedness away from the light; rather he has done the truth and come to the light with the whole sum of his life…
He was dead and is now alive, and can’t for a minute forget both the deadness and this new aliveness. And because of that, his posture— prostrated at Jesus’ feet—is one of profound thankfulness. He knows what he was, and he knows what he now is. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I love the writings of the poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch—yes, undertaker—and he has some words on “thanks” that speak both to this gospel and also to our own day-by-day lives. Listen.
Someone told me that I should just say ‘Thanks,’ and that all my prayers should begin that way and never stray far from the notion that life was a gift to be grateful for. I began by giving thanks for my family, for the blessings of my household, the gifts of my children. Then the daylight and the nightfall and the weather. Then the kindness you could see in humankind, their foibles and their tender mercies.
And every time I say it, the prayer gets answered. Someone, out of the blue, every day—maybe my wife or someone at the office or the guy in the line at the airport or something in a letter that came in the mail, or something in the lives of my sons or daughter—someone gives out with a sign or wonder in the voice of God, in some other voice than mine, to answer my prayer. Every day, every time, never fails, if I just say “thanks,” I’ll get the answer, before the darkness comes—“You’re welcome,” it says. “You’re welcome.”
That’s a posture to assume before God, in good times and in not so good times. When the light is blazing, or when the dark refuses to lift. Find the gift that is there, even if it seems hidden. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Like the Samaritan who turned around to offer his thanks, we’ll find aliveness even as we acknowledge the deadness we’ve been living with; we’ll find a bit of light even through the darkness.
That’s a Thanksgiving worth roasting a turkey for.