Thanksgiving, 10 Lepers and giving thanks isn’t the point

GOSPEL: Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

Thanksgiving has always been kind of weird Sunday to preach on. The theme of Thankfulness seems like a pretty obvious one for the church. Thankful seems like a good thing to be as people to faith. We use the term Thanksgiving regularly in worship. The greek word Eucharist, which is one of the names we use for communion, is translated as “Thanksgiving.”

And yet, Thanksgiving is a decidedly secular holiday. It is rooted in the meal shared by the pilgrims who arrived in North America with their indigenous hosts… or least the myth goes. Of course colonialism was not that at all, but is another sermon. Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival and its date was decided by an act of parliament in 1957, though it has a much longer and varied history going back to the 16th century. 

But it is not a church holy day. There is no thanksgiving story in the bible nor any commandment to set aside a day to give thanks. Maybe more difficult is that at the heart of Thanksgiving is an imperative for us to be thankful – something that we do.  Whereas the Gospel is rooted in God’s action – something that God does for us. 

Still in some kind of twist of fate, today’s Gospel lesson from the regular set of Sunday readings is all about thankfulness… and this story of the 10 lepers is centred around the return of the one to give thanks for what Jesus had done. 

So here I am, on Thanksgiving, having to preach about thankfulness!

As we pick up with Jesus, he is on the road, presumably still with his followers who were asking for increased faith last week. As comes into a village he is met by a group do 10 people with leprosy. Lepers were often segregated outside of towns and villages, even though leprosy in modern times we have discovered that it is likely not to be spread between people. The 10 lepers must have heard of Jesus before so they call out to him by name. They ask for his mercy. Now because we know the end of the story, we assume that what Jesus does next is heal them. But that isn’t so obvious. Instead, Jesus appears to redirect these lepers towards another source of healing, Jesus tells them to go to the priests. Whether the Jesus meant the priests of Jerusalem or some in this borderland town between Galilee and Samaria, the 10 turn and go.

Along the way, the 10 lepers are made clean. One of them notices that he was healed and turns back to Jesus in order to give thanks. When he returns praising God, Jesus asks why the other 9 haven’t returned along with him. Oh, and Luke mentions that this one was a foreigner, a Samaritan. 

The message here, especially on Thanksgiving Sunday, seems pretty obvious: Don’t forget to demonstrate your gratefulness. Maybe Luke was wanting to make sure we don’t forget our manners. 

Except it wasn’t good manners that allowed this Samaritan to turn back. It was that he likely didn’t know where he was actually headed to in the first place. It would have been difficult enough for these 10 Lepers to make their way through town and reach the priests being considered dangerous and unclean. But even if cleansed of his disease, the Samaritan would still have been unclean and unable to access the priests. 

Maybe what this one Samaritan recognizes is not the need for gratitude but something else. As an outsider in this borderland town, one existing on the margins, he cannot help but see that he has been healed from an unexpected place. 

The other 9 perhaps never even considered that it was Jesus who healed them, but assumed it was the cleansing rituals performed by the priests. According to their religious understanding this would make sense. They had gone and followed the commandments, they had fulfilled religious law and they had achieved righteousness. 

When we hear this story with 21st century ears, we want to learn the lesson of gratitude. We want to be the like the obedient ones who don’t just move on with life selfishly, but give thanks for our gifts. It is an easy position to take. 

Pointing to the ingratitude of others is all too common. Boomers claiming that millennials are entitled and self-centred, and millennials out of touch and unaware of their privilege. The rich giving thanks for their power to earn while slagging the poor for not doing better. The educated look down on the uneducated. Political tribes believe they are righteous while their opponents don’t get it. 

We are pretty good misidentifying the source the blessings, benefits, mercies or righteousness  that befall. Far too often we thank ourselves for our good fortune and good luck. And as people of faith it is no different. 

Like the 9 lepers who incorrectly identified the priests or their own obedience to the law as the reason for their healing and salvation, we too often forget the source of our salvation. Even as we hear and proclaim the gospel week after week, our thinking so easily flips to our salvation being because of our goodness – our being moral, loving our neighbour and doing good works.

Failing to remember who has granted us mercy, who has saved us, is all too easy.

Now if you have been paying attention the past number of weeks, you might catch some familiarity with the numbers 10, 9 and 1. Just a few weeks ago we heard the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. The shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one and the woman  10 coins who tears apart her house to find the lost one. The 10 lepers are meant to evoke connections to these stories. 

And the one leper who returns? He isn’t the point of the story, his giving thanks is only incidental to the action – he doesn’t even get any lines. 

Instead as Jesus narrates the action, we are reminded again – just as we were in the parables of the lost – of what God is up to in our world. Jesus’s healing and salvation is given whether we know it or not, whether we see it or not. The Samaritan leper’s return highlights this: unclean because of his disease, unclean because of his ethnicity he has nowhere else to turn, nowhere but to Jesus. 

And once the Samaritan returns Jesus identifies his station, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus makes it clean that this one leper who has returned is one who is still on outside, still marginalized, still excluded from the faithful and righteous community. 

Then Jesus changes all of that. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Faith, trust, relationship to the one who is trustworthy and who grants faith… this One makes well. The God of Israel, the Messiah sent to save, the One who has been healing and teaching throughout Galilee, the one who is about to go to the cross and be raised on the third day… this One has declares the Samaritan acceptable and righteous, this One welcomes  the man into the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Whether this man was a leper or a Samaritan or a beggar – Jesus says that he is one of the faithful. This man to belongs to God… We belong to God

Then… just like the ones that Jesus has been sending out in his name throughout the book of Luke, like the Apostles on the road last week who asked for increased faith, Jesus sends this man too. Out of the borderlands, away from this place of isolation and into God’s world.

Today, Jesus says the same to us. As we come needing Jesus’ mercy, as we beg for healing and wholeness… Jesus grants us salvation whether we know it is from him or not. Jesus makes us whole even if we think it is because of something we did all on our own, or whether we have nowhere else to turn. 

And in this world that wants to convince us that we are the source of our own righteousness, Jesus brings us into God’s Kingdom. Jesus reminds us that God is the source of salvation. Jesus doesn’t wait for our gratitude or praise, but sends us into the world healed and renewed. 

Then Jesus declares that our faith makes us well also. Our trust in the One who is trustworthy, our faith granted by the One who is faithful restores us to health, returns us to community and joins us to the Body of Christ. 

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we given the same reminder that we receive every other week. That here in this community of faith, that here gathered around the Word, here made clean in the waters of Baptism, that here fed at the banquet table of the Lord… here God is doing what God has always done. God is giving out mercy to all who are in need – God is giving salvation to us. 

Artwork: Ten Lepers by Bill Hoover, 2013

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