Covenant Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2017, Joint Thanksgiving Service with Grace and Covenant churches
To Be Thankful
I confess that I’m not used to Thanksgiving worship services. I’ve seen them before, but it has admittedly been a while, and this is my first time to participate in one as a clergy person. I am also compelled to acknowledge Thanksgiving as a national holiday does not necessarily have specifically religious origins (it was declared and fixed on the calendar by presidents ranging from Washington to Lincoln to FDR), and there were Thanksgiving observances in the Virginia colony as early as 1607 and even in Florida before that – well before those New England Pilgrims even showed up. But regardless of origins, Thanksgiving – or gratitude, to use a more theological word – is certainly a Christian ideal, one worthy for all of us to pursue.
Admittedly, at this time of year it’s possible to feel, perhaps, a little hectored or pestered about overtly displaying gratitude – maybe you grew up in a family where you had to say something you were thankful for before you finally got to dive into the turkey? I can’t rule out the possibility that the ancient Hebrews miiiiiight just have felt that way when Moses was delivering the speech recorded in our reading from Deuteronomy. (I’m sure we probably tend to view it like a scene from The Ten Commandments, with everybody looking reverently at Charlton Heston, but I’m not so sure.) Yes, Moses, we promise, we’ll remember. Really. You’re repeating yourself, Moses. We promise. But of course, continuing to read the history of that people in Hebrew scripture — through Joshua and Judges and on from there — reveals that, in fact, they didn’t do such a good job of remembering, forgetting their God and pursuing idols almost as quickly as they settled down in their newfound home. So much for gratitude, hmm? So being reminded to be grateful is probably a good thing every now and then.
In the story from the gospel of Luke, we do see a direct expression of gratitude. Of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, one of them turns back to offer his thanks to Jesus for that healing.
When we tell this story we often make a point of singling out this one for extra praise. Often we do so as much by shaming or scorning the nine who did not return as by praising the one who did. It’s possible that’s not the best lesson on gratitude to learn from this account, though.
For one thing, the nine were doing what Jesus told them to do. As far as we know, since they don’t show up again in the gospels, they went to the priests and showed themselves to be clean. Presuming the priest did his job properly, the nine were then “cleared” and allowed possibly to return to their families and freed from the isolation and expulsion that victims of leprosy suffered in that time period. You might say they got their lives back, and to them, that must have been the best thing ever.
The one, on the other hand, would have gained no benefit from a visit to the priest. You see, even if he was no longer a leper, he was still a Samaritan. The priest would have likely refused such a proclamation of health to a Samaritan. Even a return to Samaria might not have been of any benefit if Samaritan authorities found out that he had been healed by a Jew. In turning back to Jesus, the one in fact turned back to the only One who would receive him, and would in his final words acknowledge him as not only being made healthy, but also being made whole – so much more than simple physical healing.
You can be healed of your physical infirmity and still be quite broken. It’s not hard to see in this vocation. What Jesus gives to those who turn to him is so far beyond physical healing. And that is most certainly worth our thanksgiving and gratitude.
The nine got their lives back. The one received new life. In the difference between the two is all the motivation for gratitude we should ever need.
For new life, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #336, We Gather Together; #367, Come, Ye Thankful People, Come; #643, Now Thank We All Our God