Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Thank You, Thank You, Thank You” (Luke 17:11-19)
Thanksgiving Day, 2014
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays because it includes several of my favorite things in life—family, friends, food, football—and watching the best animated television special ever: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973).
Charlie Brown is tricked into inviting several of his friends over for Thanksgiving dinner and shares his stress with his friend Linus, “I think I’m losing control of the whole world… I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner. All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.” Linus reassures him, “That’s right. I’ve seen you make toast. You can’t butter it, but maybe we can help you.” And Linus along with Snoopy and Woodstock help Charlie Brown prepare a Thanksgiving feast replete with popcorn, jelly beans, pretzels, and yes, even buttered toast ☺.
This past weekend I visited several Civil War battlefields in Georgia and Tennessee and was reminded about the connection between the Civil War and Thanksgiving Day—for it was on October 3, 1863 that Abraham Lincoln wrote a proclamation for Thanksgiving Day in which he recounted the following ways that God blessed this country even in “the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity”:
“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”
And listen to Whom Lincoln attributes all these blessings:
“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
And Lincoln was exactly right—all the blessings we enjoy are indeed “the gracious gifts of the Most High God,” and on Thanksgiving Day we give God thanks.
And yet giving God thanks can often be counter-intuitive for us. In fact, giving thanks to anyone at all is often counter intuitive. Think about your own life for a moment—how often have you done something for someone or given something to someone and received no thanks at all—and how often have you received from others and not responded with thanks. The truth is at times all of us are entitled and ungrateful.
And this is nothing new. In today’s gospel passage Jesus heals ten lepers of their leprosy. As you may remember leprosy was not only often terminal, it made you a social outcast. In fact, listen to what the Old Testament law required of lepers:
“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45-46).
As Jesus is travelling toward Jerusalem he encounters ten lepers, who obeyed the law by keeping their distance but cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
And Jesus did just that. He not only had mercy on them he healed them completely. And yet only one of the ten returned to Jesus, and Luke writes, “He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him,” and then Luke adds an additional detail—“And he was a Samaritan.”
In Jesus’ day the Jews hated the Samaritans, because during the years dating back to 722 B.C. when Samaria conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, there had been intermarriage between the conquering Samaria and the conquered Israel—and the Samaritans were the hated descendants of that intermarrying.
But Jesus loved Samaritans. Jesus loved outcasts. He still does. And Jesus had mercy on all the lepers, including the Samaritan—and Jesus healed all the lepers, including the Samaritan. And even though none of the other lepers returned to thank Jesus, Jesus did not retract the healing in order to teach them to be thankful.
And even when we are entitled and ungrateful, Jesus does not retract his mercy and grace from us.
In today’s epistle lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul writes about “the surpassing grace of God” that Jesus gives all of us, including the “lepers” or outcasts or Samaritans of our own day—no exceptions.
Jesus himself became an outcast, Jesus became unclean, and Jesus was taken outside of the city where he allowed himself to be conquered and nailed to a cross.
And on the cross—in spite of all our sins, in spite of all the ways in which we are unclean, in spite of all the times we have been entitled and ungrateful—Jesus “nevertheless remembered mercy.”
And in response we are simply called to follow the example of the healed Samaritan leper—to humble ourselves and give God thanks for his mercy and grace, for what the Apostle Paul calls “his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
A couple images of what giving thanks can look like…in the Oscar winning film Forrest Gump (1994) Gary Sinise plays Lieutenant Dan, who is severely wounded in Vietnam and loses both his legs. He is saved from death by Forrest Gump but for years is filled with bitterness. Later in the film, while working on a shrimp boat with Forrest, a hurricane rolls in, and during this hurricane Lieutenant Dan screams out in anger at God for what had happened to him, all his bitterness comes pouring out—and God meets him in that place and changes his heart.
The next day Lieutenant Dan is serene and he gently smiles at Forrest and says, “Forrest? I never thanked you for saving my life.” Then he drops himself into the Gulf of Mexico and begins backstroking with a huge grin on his face—with Forrest narrating: “He never actually said so, but I think he made his peace with God.”
On her debut solo album Jennifer Nettles sings a beautiful song of thanks to someone who changed her life:
Could I ever repay you for all you’ve done?
Out of all my blessings, you’re the greatest one
And I thought that you should know
How much you’ve helped me grow
And I want to thank you
I want to tell you this
That you’ve made me the happiest
Thank you, thank you, thank you
(From the song “Thank You” on her 2014 album That Girl).
And of course giving thanks to God occurs each and every time we celebrate Holy Eucharist, for the word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek verb eucharizo, meaning “to give thanks.”
As we celebrate Holy Communion we begin with what is called in The Book of Common Prayer “The Great Thanksgiving”—“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God…It is right to give him thanks and praise” (361). We continue in the Eucharistic prayer: “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (363)—and we are invited to receive “the surpassing grace of God” anew with the words: “The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving” (364-365).
So on this Thanksgiving Day—even if in some way in your life you find yourself “losing control of the whole world,” or in the “midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity”—even if you feel like an outcast or unclean—the good news of the gospel is that God has nevertheless remembered mercy, that God continues to give you his surpassing grace.
And in response we can simply say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”