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.
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.
But 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?
What 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.