11/27/2014 sermon: “Surprising thankfulness”

Location: Meade Memorial Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Luke 17:11-19
Thanksgiving Day 2014

Surprising thankfulness

There’s a big controversy that brews this time each year about when the first Thanksgiving Day occurred here in our country. We know that President Lincoln made the fourth Thursday of November a federal holiday in 1863, during the Civil War, when there seemingly was little for which to be thankful.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621, 1899 (Wikipedia)

Of course, Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts has often been credited with holding America’s first Thanksgiving Day. In 1621, the year after the first three British ships arrived in New England, the half-starved colonists spent three days partying with Native Americans. Of course, 1621 was about the time that other ships began arriving in America, ships that carried not colonists but human property—people who nevertheless gave thanks to God, despite their grim reality.

We in Virginia know that the first Thanksgiving Day actually occurred here, in 1607, and that the Jamestown Colony held a day of thanksgiving in 1610 and annually thereafter. Lest we Virginians get too proud of edging out the New Englanders, though, we should remember that the Spaniards held Thanksgiving Days in the Americans in the 1500s. I’ll bet that Native Americans, before the Spaniards arrived, took time out to give thanks to their creator.

Ironically—but perhaps not coincidentally—what has prompted our largest thanksgiving observances has been hard times. Without hardships, we assume good times and plenty are what we deserve. Ironically—but perhaps not coincidentally—the people we least expect to give thanks do so the most. This is surprising thankfulness.

Martin Rinkart (1586–1649) (Wikipedia)

One often-remembered example is a German pastor named Martin Rinkart, who wrote the words for the hymn “Now thank we all our God.” As told in many places online, Pastor Rinkart served in the walled town of Eilenburg during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. This town became an overcrowded refuge for the surrounding area, a place where refugees suffered from epidemic and famine. At the beginning of 1637, the year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenburg. But one soon ran away. Pastor Rinkhart officiated at the funerals of the other two. As the town’s only pastor, he often conducted services for as many as 50 people a day–some 4,480 in all. In May of that year, his own wife died. By the end of the year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services. This is when Pastor Rinkart wrote “Now thank we all our God,” a hymn we often sing on Thanksgiving.

Does the background of this hymn surprise you? I am always amazed and delighted when people thank God for what they have, even in the midst of loss and despair. And oftentimes the most surprising people are the ones who give the most thanks.

This is the case with our gospel lesson today. This lesson has four main actions:

  • First, ten lepers called out to Jesus, asking him for pity, asking him for whatever he could spare them. Probably like they did every day to anyone who crossed their path. No doubt they needed a lot of pity, as leprosy was a very debilitating and socially ostracizing disease. Note that they asked for pity, not to be healed.
  • Second, Luke says that Jesus “saw” them. For Luke, Jesus’ “seeing” isn’t just the casual look at the outward appearance, but seeing into their plight. For Jesus, “seeing” isn’t “judging.” For Jesus, “seeing” is understanding, and understanding is empathizing and taking action.
  • Third, Jesus told the lepers to go show themselves to the rabbi. This was the law for people claiming to be healed. And guess what? Being cleansed of leprosy didn’t happen very often. When all ten had done as Jesus has instructed and had set out to see the rabbi, they hadn’t yet been healed. Much has been rightly made of their setting out, in faith, as Jesus had instructed. Their faith cleansed them of their disease.
  • Fourth, only one of the ten, when he had been healed, turned back and threw himself at Jesus’ feet, thanking him profusely. Did you notice that the man apparently turned back to Jesus before he had reached the rabbi? Jesus wondered aloud where the other nine where, and told the man that he had been “saved,” in addition to having been cleansed of his disease.

There’s a lot in here, and we could linger on any one of these points. I want to do what Jesus did, though, and tiptoe around the edge. I want to focus on what came just before these four main actions, and what came just after.

If you inspect verse eleven, you’ll see that Jesus hadn’t avoided Samaria, as was the custom of that day. The text says that Jesus “was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” This is ironic, because there was no physical place between the two. Samaria and Galilee bordered each other. You could not literally be between the two.

And yet, Jesus was. Jesus always could be found at the margins. Jesus always “saw” all there was to see and understand about marginated people. Jesus always pulls and tugs and points those in marginated spaces to the people in the center. He also shoves those at the center toward the people and places they’ve marginated. Sometimes the process is very painful, as is the case in Missouri this season, if not right here in our own lives also.

Because Jesus is always calling us to reconciliation, to understanding, to “seeing” each other, the “surprise” ending to this gospel lesson shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone today. At the very end, Luke says the only one of the ten cleansed lepers to turn back and give thanks for his healing was a Samaritan. But this was surprising thankfulness at the time.

Ten people were miraculously healed that day. There is nothing to suggest that the nine who turn back to Jesus weren’t grateful for their healing; they just didn’t act on whatever gratitude they had. Instead, they apparently went their own ways, to celebrate however and wherever they called home.

These nine remind me of an old story, of a young man who was unemployed. He had a job interview, though. The only trouble was that he literally didn’t have any money. So he prayed, “Lord, I need a parking space and I don’t have to pay for, and please make it one near the building so that I won’t be late. You know how much I need this job. I can’t be late and I can’t pay, so if you give me a parking spot I’ll give you half of all my earnings.”

Then, as the young man turned the corner, he saw an empty space right in front of the building. And, wouldn’t you know, the meter—I told you this was an old story—the meter had been maxed out, paid infull. So the man said to God, “Never mind; I’ve got this.”

We laugh at jokes such as this, but we make these kind of prayers all the time. When the diagnosis changes, we don’t think we’ve been healed, but that the original diagnosis was wrong. We go our way; sometimes we even think to turn back and give thanks to God for what he has done in our lives, and for giving us life in the first place.

Sometimes, we notice that we are surprised by which person does this turning and thanking. Those who have less to be thankful for often give more thanks than those who have much for which to thank God.

In Pastor Rinkart’s words:

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

Whatever your circumstances today, I invite you to give thanks to God. Jesus “sees” all, knows all, loves all. Ask him for pity, or even for healing, but don’t forget to give thanks.

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