I often wish we celebrated Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, at the same time as our Canadian cousins to the north. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and if we celebrated it now, instead of late November, it might allow us to stay true to the spirit of the day. We might remain focused on the idea of being grateful for what we have, rather than gearing up for a frenetic Christmas Shopping Spree the next morning. I like Thanksgiving the best because it’s about being grateful for all the things God has given us; it’s a spiritual exercise in seeing all the ways in which we are blessed, and being willing to accept the blessing we are offered rather than moaning about all the things we don’t have.
I think that if more people were as energetic and excited about Thanksgiving as they are about Christmas, the world would be a better place. And while one does not need to be a Christian to live a life of gratitude, it is expected that anyone who seeks to be a follower of Christ, a disciple, will be a person who strives to see the world through the lens of giving thanks.
Today’s readings offer us some insight on this idea of living a life of gratitude.
First, there is Jeremiah. After all those weeks of god-awful bleak, gloomy, depressing readings, today we finally hear the beginning of a shift in his writing. In this passage he writes a letter to those in Exile. They are convinced there is nothing about which to be hopeful or grateful. They are only seeing all the things they don’t have. Jeremiah calls on them to change their attitude: rather than dream wistfully of all the things they lost, they should put their energy into making a home for themselves, claiming the space where they are in as a place where God’s blessings can be found. We don’t get my favorite verse (29:11), the promise that God is always ahead of us, preparing a way for us so that we will have “a future and a hope,” but that is where he is heading as he writes this. They are told to pray for the welfare of the city in which they find themselves. The word in Hebrew is shalom. Pray for the shalom of the city where they find themselves. Find the peace in the place where you are.
Those Exiles—or at least their children and grandchildren—eventually returned to Jerusalem. they thought they would be able to reclaim all they had lost. But it didn’t work out that way. They were still technically vassals, people whose lands belong to someone else, some other king or empire. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, it’s the Romans who are in charge, trying to convince everyone that they are the ones in control, and using as much violence as necessary to enforce the “Pax Romana”—the peace of Rome.
But Jesus has a different future in mind—one none of them (or honestly us) can imagine.
Jesus is “on his way to Jerusalem.” This is that same “on his way” that began a couple of months ago when we read that he “set his face toward Jerusalem.” So everything that happens is under the shadow of the cross that is ahead of him. Here, we read that he is going through the region “between” Samaria and Galilee. Now if you look on a map, you won’t find such a space. This is “spiritual geography”—the “no man’s land” where the lepers, and the demon possessed, and the outcasts live in their own, odd sort of community. A community formed by circumstances rather than by choice.
Ten lepers approach Jesus. This is peculiar. Lepers were supposed to shout out “Unclean! Unclean!” so that people would be warned off. People were terrified that they might catch their disease and be cast out of society themselves. But instead, these ten are begging for mercy—from a safe distance, the text tells us. But clearly word of Jesus has reached them and they see their chance.
Those who know their Hebrew prophets might recognize that cleansing lepers was one of the signs of the “kingdom of God” being at hand. But I suspect these ten are not thinking in broad “kingdom of God” terms. They are thinking in personal, “help me Jesus” terms.
Jesus responds by telling them to go to the priests. So they go—and on the way they are made clean; no more leprosy.
Going to the priests, that’s what their religious Law required. Only a priest could declare a leper ‘clean.’ Only a priest could restore him to community. So they obey Jesus. They demonstrated enough confidence or faith in him to do as he tells them. It is in doing what they are told to do that they receive the blessing. That’s one layer of meaning to this story. At the pool on Friday I was talking to Tim, the owner of the place, about this passage, and that’s the primary lesson he takes from this passage: obey Jesus and you will be blessed.
It’s not a horrible interpretation of what is going on here. It’s not a bad place to start.
But there is just so much more to it. Because the person who receives the greatest blessing is the one who did NOT do what Jesus told him to do! The Samaritan turns back. He goes back to Jesus and thanks him. He expresses his gratitude to Jesus, and Jesus declares him “well”—whole, complete. In a way the other nine are not.
Now don’t judge the other nine as ungrateful wretches. There is no reason to read this that way. They did what Jesus told them to do, they did what the law required. You might, instead, pity them, because they couldn’t see that their healing was sign of the new Kingdom of God. They chose to go back to the OLD system of the Law, of reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior. The old system of always striving to be “good enough.”
But see that old system has no room for the Samaritan. He’s a Samaritan; in the old system, he is genetically unclean. The only reason he had been in community with those other nine is because they were all outcasts. When everyone is freed from the burden of leprosy, he actually loses the community he had. He is still an outcast, because there is no priest in that old system who can declare him clean.
But it occurs to the Samaritan that maybe Jesus can. So he goes back, and thanks Jesus for clearing up his leprosy. And Jesus does declare him “well,” or whole. And in that moment, we see a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, the new system that offers healing and inclusion to any who will receive it. A system that is not particularly worried with separating the “unclean” out so that they can’t infect everyone else, and instead seeks to draw everybody in, offering healing and wholeness and welcome to anyone.
Living a life of gratitude can free us from seeing the world through the lenses of despair and hopelessness. It’s not a matter of living in denial, pretending that there aren’t hard and frightening things out in the world. Those Exiles in Babylon were not being asked to pretend everything was perfect. They were being asked, instead, to look for the good in the moment, as a reminder that no matter what was going on or where they were, God was there. Likewise, in seeking the blessing in whatever comes at us, we are reminded that we are not alone in those moments. God is always with us.
Make fostering gratitude your spiritual discipline. Maybe leave a notepad beside your bed or calendar or bathroom mirror, and take time each day to jot down at least one thing for which you are grateful. I shared with the Wednesday church group that it can be the smallest thing. One day several years ago it was that a little girl in kindergarten was able to tie her own shoes. Just take time to notice it. I have here a picture to get you started. Use the lines to write down one thing for which you are grateful every day. And don’t worry if in a day or two you discover you’re running out of lines, because there are just so many little blessings in each day.
Finally, there is a word hidden in this passage today that we don’t notice because we don’t hear it in the original Greek. The man falls down at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks, which in Greek is eucharisteo.
Our weekly feast of Holy Communion is properly called the Eucharist—the giving thanks. Every Sunday is Thanksgiving Day for us in the church. Every Sunday is an opportunity for us to follow the example of that Samaritan man, healed and restored to wholeness, expressing our gratitude to Jesus and being formed into the New Community of Christ to which we belong—along with the lepers, and the outcasts, the sinners and the imperfect. We gather together at God’s table, all of us there together, not because we’ve earned it, but because God loves us and wants us to be there.
We don’t live in Canada—even if the current political situation makes some of you fantasize about it—so it’s not really Thanksgiving weekend. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take time to give thanks to God and others. Start that discipline today, and perhaps by the time it really IS Thanksgiving weekend (and this long election season is finally over, for better or for worse), you will discover your whole outlook has changed.