The Healing Power of Gratitude: Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, 2017

If you’re like me, you grew up with a certain version of the Thanksgiving story. My particular source for the story was the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving specials. There I learned that after a hard first winter in Plymouth, the Pilgrims, aided by the local Native American community, survived to plant crops and then collect a mighty harvest.

Filled with gratitude for having survived, the Pilgrims threw the first Thanksgiving dinner. They invited their Native American friends too, who brought more food. And together, at a big table filled with turkeys and cranberries and everything else, they had a happy feast with one another.


The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. It probably didn’t go do exactly like this.

And because of that, every November we do the same. And it certainly seemed to me like the show was saying this had been done every November since then, and like every great American from Washington to Lincoln had grown up sitting around the Thanksgiving table. But history, as I’ve said before, is often a little more complicated than that.

But first, the Scripture for this morning. Jesus is traveling and he comes to the outskirts of a village. He’s met there by ten lepers, who stand far away from him and yell “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They had leprosy, which was the most dreaded disease of that time. It was also highly contagious, so there was a lot of fear of the people who had it. They stayed far away from Jesus because they knew that they couldn’t come near anyone.

Jesus looks at them and says, “go show yourselves to the priests” and they are healed. They all take off running back towards town, back to show the priests what had happened to them. And nine of them keep running the whole way. But one…he turns back. And he starts to praise God. And he falls down in front of Jesus, and just keeps thanking him. And, most surprising of all, he’s a Samaritan, and Samaritans didn’t mix with good Jewish folks like Jesus.

And Jesus looks down at him and he realizes something. He asks, “Hey, didn’t I heal ten of you? Where are the other nine? Only this Samaritan, who doesn’t even follow our religion, came back and said ‘thank you’.” And Jesus looks at him and says, “go ahead and go…your faith has made you well.”

I used to read this text and think about those other nine who didn’t come back. In some ways I wondered if they were actually trying to do the right thing. See, I thought Jesus wanted them to go and show the priests that they were well again because then the priests would know that Jesus had healed them. Maybe then the priests would understand that there was something about this Jesus guy that they should pay attention to.

But then I learned a little more about what it meant to have leprosy in that time. If you had any signs of leprosy, just a little spot, you literally lost everything. You lost your home, you lost your community, and you lost your right to even live in town. You were sent to the outskirts of the city where you had to live with the other lepers. You couldn’t see your family or friends. You couldn’t have any kind of human interaction except from afar. That’s how scared people were of getting the disease. And, by extension, that’s how scared people were of you.
The only way to escape this life was to show the priests, the ones who would diagnose the illness, that somehow you had been healed. So when Jesus healed the ten, and told them to go see the priests, he was really telling them “you can go get your old life back now”. And that’s why they ran. Everything they had known before leprosy was waiting for them. Ten of them had been healed. Nine of them ran all the way to town. But only one said “thank you”.

Jesus says that it was the one who came back who was truly healed, and I think that’s true. That’s not to say that the others weren’t healed of their leprosy, but that is to say that only one of them had been truly transformed. Only one of them knew the amazing grace that he had received, and only one of them put saying “thank you” above reclaiming the life he had before leprosy.

The reality is that when you have been truly healed, and you know that healing, you know that you cannot go back to the way things used to be. You have experienced something so profoundly terrible that you have been changed by it. When you know that, and when you find some sort of healing or grace in the midst of it, your life will never be the same again, and it will never be the same again because now you have the chance to be grateful.

The other nine who didn’t give thanks…they just didn’t have leprosy anymore,…but they weren’t necessarily healed.

The hardest times in my life have also been the times when I have felt God’s healing the most. Those times have transformed me, and I am not the same. I do not look back and think “I wish that never happened” anymore. Now I look back and think, “that shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and God was there with me, and God saved me”. And I truly believe that the gratitude I have found as a result is what has truly healed me.

In this season we think about gratitude a lot. We think about what it means to give thanks, and that’s a very good thing. But there’s something that we as Christians should remember, and that is that Thanksgiving is not actually a Christian holiday. It’s actually a national holiday. We celebrate it in November. Other countries have something similar that is all their own. Canadians have their Thanksgiving in October, for instance.

These are certainly good celebrations, in line with our faith, and in line with many other faiths as well, but they are not church holidays. I’m not telling you this to be a church curmudgeon. It’s still good that we sing “We Gather Together” and decorate the sanctuary. But I’m saying this because if we limit our gratitude to one day a year, we are in danger of being a lot like those nine who just kept running. For Christians, every single day should be a day of thanksgiving. Every single day should be one where we run back to Jesus, fall down in awe, and say “thank you for everything”. We don’t need a holiday for that.

And that’s where I’m reminded of that old Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. I learned years later that Thanksgiving was not a 400 year old tradition. The Pilgrims were very religious people, and so they probably did have some kind of celebratory meal back in 1621 to thank God for the harvest. The Native Americans were probably not invited, by the way. And the meal became far from a yearly event. There would occasionally be times when various governors would call for days of thanksgiving to God, but it wasn’t routine. George Washington tried to start a tradition, but Thomas Jefferson, who believed in a strict separation of church and state, didn’t think there should be a national holiday that gave thanks to God, and so he ended it.

Abraham_Lincoln_O-77_matte_collodion_printBut then, in 1863, as a beleaguered and divided nation fought a great Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wanted to give thanks for the Union victory at Gettysburg that, despite the massive casualties on both sides, had turned the tide of the war. And so he proclaimed that every fourth Thursday of November would now be known as Thanksgiving Day.

The stories of a first Thanksgiving, embellished a little with Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting side by side, held special meaning for a nation divided into North and South. The holiday became a tradition, first in the north, and then in the reunited nation. And that’s why you and I will sit down to turkey and potatoes on Thursday, and we will give thanks.

It’s also why Charles Schultz, who may or may not have known the real story wrote a story about Charlie Brown, the hapless hero who was pressed into preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for his friends. Being a child, though one who seems routinely unsupervised by any kind of adults whatsoever, he cannot make a turkey. And so he makes toast, and popcorn, and jelly beans, and serves them to his friends.

Sitting down at the table, Peppermint Patty, who had invited herself over, is less than impressed. Where are the mashed potatoes? Where’s the cranberry sauce? Where’s the pumpkin pie?

CHEF SNOOPY PRESENTS THANKSGIVING DINNER AS A CONFUSED PEPPERMINT PATTY LOOKS ONWhat follows is a reminder of what it means to be grateful, even when your plate only has toast and jelly beans. After some arm-twisting, Peppermint Patty apologized to Charlie Brown and thanks him for the meal. An invitation from a grandmother whose Thanksgiving table never seems to stop growing is offered to all of the kids. And Snoopy and Woodstock even roast their own turkey which, as an aside, somehow Woodstock, the bird, feels fine eating. Weird, right?

We’ve all been Charlie Brown at one point or another, trying to do the right thing despite the odds. We’ve all also been Peppermint Patty, forgetting to be grateful when so much has been given to us. Likewise we’ve all been the one person who has run to God to say “thank you”. And we’ve all been one of the nine who has kept running after all that we think that we should have.

Thanksgiving is a day for all of us to stop running, and to take a seat at a table that is big enough for all. It’s a time for us to reflect on what God has given us, and it’s a time to say “thank you”. Though the food may be a little better on this particular day of thanksgiving, it’s worth remembering that it’s just one day of many that God has given us for giving thanks. May we never take our gifts for granted, and may we never forget the one who gives them to us.


Gratitude Lists: Sermon for Thanksgiving Week, 2014

Luke 17:11-19
17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

17:12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,

17:13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

17:14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.

17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

17:16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

17:17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

17:18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

17:19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Last Sunday a group of our third through fifth graders gathered at the church in the afternoon for our own Charlie Brown Thanksgiving dinner. If you’ve never seen “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”, or if it’s been a while, let me remind you what was on that menu: jelly beans, toast, popcorn, and pretzels. Not exactly turkey and mashed potatoes, but our kids seemed happy. Their parents, who we sent them home to after giving them lots of sugar? I’m not so sure.

Regardless, spending the afternoon with them helped put me in the Thanksgiving mood. That’s in part because as long as I can remember, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” has been a part of my Thanksgiving tradition. We always watched it in my house growing up. And I love it, except for one thing.

The story revolves around Charlie Brown, and Thanksgiving dinner. Charlie Brown is supposed to go to his grandmother’s for Thanksgiving. But before he can, his friend Peppermint Patty calls him and invites herself, and a group of other friends, over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. And then, when she comes to dinner and gets served the improvised menu of popcorn and jelly beans, she criticizes her host and tells him that she is having a terrible Thanksgiving because of him.

That’s the part of the story that has always upset me, even as a small child. Because I always felt so bad for Charlie Brown who didn’t ask for guests on Thanksgiving, and who had done his best. And in the end he doesn’t even get a “thank you”.

ABC#00841I think, in an odd way, that Jesus would understand Charlie Brown. He knew what it was like to not even get a “thank you”. In today’s Scripture ten lepers, ten people who have been completely outcast from society, are following behind him. And they are calling out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Jesus tells them to go and see the priests, and as they leave he heals them. All ten of them suddenly are clean. No more leprosy. No more being outcast. No more pain.

They are only a little ways down the road from Jesus when this happens, and they suddenly realize they have been healed. And as soon as it happens one of them, a Samaritan, turns around and runs back to him. And he begins praising God, and falls at Jesus’ feet thanking him.

But Jesus realizes that he’s the only one. And he asks, “Wait a minute…didn’t I heal ten of you? And only you, a Samaritan who doesn’t even share our faith, came back to praise God?”

When we read this story, we all know what the other nine should have done. They should have come back, right? They should have praised God. They should have said “thank you”. It’s as obvious as the fact that Peppermint Patty shouldn’t have invited herself over for Thanksgiving dinner. And any of us who grew up being told to write thank you notes, and have good manners know that.

But is this really just about good etiquette? Or is it something more?

I believe good manners and thank you notes are important, but I also believe that the Gospel is rarely just about social niceties. Jesus wasn’t upset that he was missing nine thank you notes. It went much deeper than that.

And that’s because this is about gratitude. And gratitude always goes deep. Because gratitude is about more than just saying “thanks”, though that’s important. It’s about living a life of thanksgiving.

That’s an important distinction to make this week as we approach Thanksgiving Day. Because come Thursday we will be sitting at our tables, enjoying dinner, celebrating with friends and family. And there may even be that moment when everyone goes around the table and names something for which they are grateful. And that’s all wonderful.

But, if that moment of gratitude ends as soon as the pumpkin pie is put away on Thursday night, then we are doing it all wrong. Because giving thanks is not something that should happen once a year. Hopefully we know that, but sometimes our actions don’t always show it.

Many others have pointed it out, but have you ever considered the irony of how on Thanksgiving we talk about how grateful we are for all we have. And then the next day (or even that same night) we start the annual run-up to Christmas where we try to get even more? I think it goes to show that gratitude is an incredibly fleeting feeling. It doesn’t take long to lose.

I think that’s because gratitude takes work. Because the thing about gratitude is that it’s more than just counting our blessings. Like I said last week, we aren’t blessed just to be blessed. We are blessed for a reason. And likewise, when we receive grace of any kind, it’s not enough just to receive it. We are called to do more. We are called to respond to it.

And that’s what gratitude is all about. It’s about responding to the grace we have received. And when Jesus healed the ten, and only one showed any kind of response, any kind of gratitude, I think that’s what bothered Jesus the most. It wasn’t just Peppermint Patty inviting herself to dinner. It was Jesus offering something life changing, and only one out of ten recognizing it.

Because in the end, that’s what it means to be grateful. It’s to see the way your life has been changed by the blessings you have received. And it’s about more than just saying “thank you”. It’s about deciding to live your life as a “thank you”.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus didn’t care much about being thanked. He wasn’t someone who did things for accolades after all. But maybe why he really wanted to know whether or not those nine other people were grateful is because he wanted to know if the lives of those other nine people had been changed. Maybe he wanted to know if their whole lives would now become “thank yous.”

And maybe he wanted to know that they had been healed for something, and not just from something.

We can read this story and think, “How could their lives not be changed?” And we reassure ourselves that we would do things differently if we were one of the nine. But sometimes I wonder, “Would I?” I sure hope so, but I’ll bet those nine people who kept on going thought they would too.

And I wonder, did they keep going because they somehow justified it? Did they think maybe they had deserved the healing? Did they think they had done it themselves? Were they so excited they forgot to turn around? Or, when the healing happened, did everything change so radically that all they could think about was “what next”? And all of a sudden they had a whole other set of things to worry about.

I think we’ve all had those experiences. We have wanted something so badly that when we got it we forgot to be grateful. We just moved on to the next step, the next want. I think that’s why all too often Thanksgiving becomes a once a year holiday, and not a daily practice.

But what if it doesn’t have to be that way?

People in the recovery community have long used a tool called a “gratitude list”. The idea is that when things feel hard, or when it feels like nothing is good in your life, that’s when you make a list of all that you have to be thankful for. The first time someone told me to make a gratitude list I immediately felt less-than-grateful for them. But I tried it.

And what I found is this. There is no way, for me at least, to make that list and not feel grateful. You start with the easy things: I have a warm place to live, I have enough food to eat, I am safe. And then you move on to the deeply meaningful things: I have people I love who love me. I have meaning. Until finally you reach this conclusion: I have more than I need. I have plenty to give away. I have a life I can give to God to use.

Gratitude can change everything. Our mood. Our actions. Our lives.

And the best news is this: it’s never too late. I don’t know what happened to those nine who didn’t come back to Jesus that day. But, I wonder if they came back later. I wonder if they were there in the end. Maybe they finally realized what they had been given, and they couldn’t help but to live their lives as “thank yous”.

The same is true for us. We have all been given so much to say “thank you” for in our lives. It’s not too late to use our lives to say that thanks. And this week is as good a time as any to start.

Last Sunday, before their Thanksgiving meal, our third, fourth and fifth graders all worked together on a craft project. They made turkeys out of paper plates and coffee filters and muffin wrappers. And they glued on leaves that said “you are blessed”. Those turkeys will go out today in our Thanksgiving baskets which are going to people who need the meals.

But I think our young people got that those leaves that said “you are blessed” were meant for them too. I think they understood that as afterwards they filled their plates with jellybeans and popcorn and we watched Charlie Brown. Because I think that sometimes the ones among us who still find joy in the smallest of gifts, even an afternoon spent serving others and having a little fun, understand gratitude the most.

I hope it’s something we continue to teach them, this intersection of joy and gratitude. But, equally important, I hope it’s something they continue to teach us. Because this Thanksgiving, I hope we take a page from them, and that we live a life of everyday joy, and everyday giving. And may each day, from this November until next, be a day of living our lives as a Thanksgiving to God. Amen.