Please and Thank You -- A Thanksgiving Homily

Luke 17:11-19

We’ve gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing and to give thanks for the bountiful gifts of God. Giving thanks is deeply rooted in our faith tradition, going all the way back to our Jewish ancestors who heeded the Psalmist’s call to make a joyful noise, worship with gladness, and come into God’s presence with singing, because the Lord is God. Yes, we’ve heard the call to “enter the gates with thanksgiving, and the courts with praise . . . For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100 NRSV).

1. Being Thankful

Thanksgiving is a national holiday, but it has a strong spiritual dimension. For some this is simply an expression of civil religion that can be quickly dispensed with before watching the game and digging into the feast. For some Thanksgiving will offer a rare opportunity to gather as family or with friends for a time of merriment and sharing, that may or may not have any spiritual dimension. But, it also could provide an opportunity to stop and give thanks for the blessings of life, even if done briefly. We’ve come here because we believe that giving thanks has a broader, more spiritual sense to it.

Tonight we gather as a Christian community, but I’d like to link this observance to another gathering that some of us participated in this past Sunday evening. That event was interfaith and it reminded us that ours is a diverse nation, made up of people who share many different faith traditions. That event reminded us to give thanks for the freedoms provided by this nation to people from a multitude of religious traditions to safely gather together for prayer and worship and service in a way that is appropriate to that tradition. Our gathering this evening may be a Christian one, but it shares in this broader dimension of freedom. Therefore, as we gather in the name of Christ, let us give thanks for the freedoms we share with fellow citizens whose beliefs are different from ours, knowing that around the world there are many who do not share in the protections of our nation’s Constitution.

But, whether or not there is government sanctioned freedom to worship, we still can give thanks that God is present in our midst. Our ability to give thanks doesn’t ultimately depend on such freedoms. Therefore, we gather to give thanks to the God we know in Jesus Christ for the steadfast love of God that endures forever, not just for Americans but for all of creation. And in that spirit, we’re able to sing the words of a Thanksgiving hymn:

Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom the world rejoices,
who, from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. (Chalice Hymnal, #15)

2. The Meaning of Thanksgiving

If our calling is to give thanks, then we must ask – what does this involve? As I considered this question, I realized that it would be easy to fall into a discussion of niceness and politeness. That is, I could focus my attention on the importance of saying please and thank you. Like many of you, I was taught as a child to even say thank you to Aunt Martha for that hideous sweater that you would never, ever wear in public. You see, if you use these words with practiced efficiency, you’ll be successful in life. Although, there’s nothing wrong with being polite or saying please and thank you, even to Aunt Martha for that sweater, I don’t think that is the point of this season of Thanksgiving?

I raised this question of politeness because tonight’s gospel reading for tonight is a bit odd. If we’re not careful, we could end up with an Emily Post kind of interpretation and use it to reinforce the principles of proper etiquette. But if we did that, we’d miss Luke’s point.

In this story, which appears only in Luke’s gospel, there are ten people with skin diseases, making them spiritual and social outcasts, who came to Jesus as he was wandering along the border regions of Galilee and Samaria. Wherever this village was located, it appears to be one of those places where Jew and Samaritan mingled, and where disease seems to have transcended ethnicity and religious observance. They cry out from a distance, because they knew that it wasn’t appropriate to approach people who weren’t infected: “Have mercy on us!” We’re not sure what they wanted. It could have been money, or maybe they’d heard rumors that Jesus was a healer and hoped he would heal them. Whatever the case Jesus simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priest, directions that they chose to obey. Now, the reason Jesus sent them to the priest, was that priests served not only as religious functionaries, like we clergy do, but they were also public health officials. Since the Temple was far off, maybe they headed off to a branch office to get their all-clean report, and in the moment that they left to see the priest, they were healed. And as Luke notes, while nine of them continued on, one returned to give thanks. That one person who turned back to Jesus was, Luke says, a Samaritan and a foreigner. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus and offers his word of thanksgiving, Jesus wonders out loud where everyone else had gone, even though they were doing what he had told them to do. Could it be that this man returned to give thanks to Jesus because he was a Samaritan and didn’t have anywhere else to go?

What should we do with this text? Should we use it to reinforce proper etiquette, using the Samaritan as our model citizen? Or do we take it a step further and deeper, and hear in this story a call to give thanks to a God whose love is inclusive, a God who reaches out and touches the lives of citizen and foreigner alike? It matters not to God whether, one is Jewish or a Samaritan, God’s bounty is poured out on both without discrimination. It’s this indiscriminate love of God, which draws us from the margins back into the center, that calls forth words of thanksgiving. It matters not to God, why society chooses to exclude us, whether it be disease, ethnicity, or religious differences, for God’s love covers us all, and therefore we can and should give thanks to God. And what better words to use in closing this meditation than the doxology, which so many of us sing each Sunday:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service
Lutheran Church of the Master of Troy
November 23, 2010


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