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.

Thanksgiving-Brownscombe

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.

 

Always Being Reformed: Sermon for October 29, 2017

This is the final sermon in a four week series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To start at the beginning, please click here.

Over the past month we have been on a journey through the landscape of the Protestant Reformation in preparation for this Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve. That day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkFor two weeks we talked about Luther, first as a young man, and then as a man who changed the course of Christianity and really the entire world. Then last week we talked about John Calvin, another key reformer. And I told you that this week I was going to talk a little about what all this meant to our own church, and our own faith tradition.

And in order to do that, I first want to turn to the Scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches about the heart of our faith.

Jesus talks here about “salt and light”. These were two very valuable things in Jesus day. Salt was useful for many things, not just cooking, and it was not inexpensive. And light, in these pre-electric days, was coveted too. And Jesus talked about how we are called to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. We are called to be valuable and useful.

You’ve heard a lot about being the light in this church. You know my affection for the song, “This Little Light of Mine”. I’ve told you before that even though we might think of it as a kids’ song, it’s really a profound testament to what it means to lead a Christian life. And it’s this passage in particular that spells out why:

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In other words, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” It was this very passage that spoke to some of the people responsible for our church being here.

Last week we left off with Calvin and how he started what we now called the Reformed tradition. And like the tradition that descended more closely from Luther, the Reformed tradition expanded too. Soon Reformed churches had spread to the Netherlands, some parts of Germany, and Scotland. Those Scottish Reformed folks would later call themselves “Presbyterians”, and would bring the Presbyterian Church to this country, particularly in the colonies south of New England.

But it was what was happening in England that most shaped us. England was in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Pope’s authority in the 1530’s and the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had become the official church. That may make it sound like England was a good place for Protestants, but that was only true if you were Henry’s kind of Protestant.

That was a problem for a group of Christians who had been influenced by Calvin’s ideas. They looked at the Anglican Church and they felt like Henry hadn’t gone far enough. They tried to change the church, but they met resistance and were persecuted. Some wanted to “purify” the church. They would later be called Puritans. Others believed the church was beyond repair. They were called Separatists, and they ended up having to flee from England to the Netherlands where they were building a church in exile.

MayflowerHarborYou might know the story that’s coming now. In the Netherlands some of Separatists decided to come to the New World, partially in order to find a place they could worship freely. Before their ship left their pastor, a man named John Robinson, preached a sermon to them. And in it he talked about Luther and Calvin and what we had learned about church from the Reformation.

And then he said these words, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from (God’s) word.” More light. The kind of light we cannot hide under a basket. These were the words that rang in the Pilgrims’ ears as they set off on a journey that would end up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Likewise, some Puritans who had stayed in England set off for this land too. Settling in Boston and on the north shore, they heard similar words from John Winthrop right before they landed. He said that the “eyes of the world” were upon them and, using Jesus words, that they would build here, “a city on the hill” that would be an example for the world. In many ways Boston became that city to them. It was meant to be a shining example to the world of the faith they embraced.

So, this sounds great, right? Forward-thinking, positive. Lots of light and understanding? Well, yes and no. Certainly it was more progressive than many places but. as was true in every other place where one faith reigned supreme, Massachusetts was a hard place for those who disagreed with what the people in charge said. And one of the people who kept running afoul of the more well-known ministers in the Boston area was a man named John Wheelwright.

You know Wheelwright because he was the founder of our church. His portrait is downstairs in the vestry. And like Calvin and Luther, Wheelwright really believed in the grace of God. He believed in it so much that the folks in Massachusetts thought it was a little too much. And when he called some of the other Puritan ministers out, they were done with him. They banished him to the frontiers of the most terrible place they could think of then: New Hampshire.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocSo that’s how our church got here. It was 1638. Only 18 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. Only 74 years since John Calvin had died. Only 121 years after Luther posted his big ideas to the door of a church. In other words, only a couple of generations into the Reformation. This church is 379 years old. That means that we’ve been around for a lot of the 500 years of the Reformation.

And that also means that we know a lot about what it means to reform. I’m not going to go deeper into the church history here. I preached a sermon on that last April for our birthday, and there are a lot of resources available if you want to read more. But I will say that we have never been a church that was not closely tied to the Reformation and to reformation itself. It’s in our very DNA.

There’s a phrase that Reformed churches use quite a bit: “The church Reformed, and always being reformed, by the Word of God.” More simply, “Reformed and always reforming.” The church is always changing. This isn’t change for change sake, but rather purposeful change, change that comes because we are following God into what is next.

To use a UCC catchphrase, “God is still speaking…” That means that we are called to listen, to act, and something to change.

That change is sometimes not easy. John Wheelwright knew that. So did our ancestors in this congregation who decided to support American independence, to work for the abolition of slavery, and to become Open and Affirming. The surest way to make others unhappy with you is to seek to change what needs to be changed. But they did it anyway, because, like Luther, they believed that they could “do no other”.

And so that’s the challenge that we now take up. If the church is Reformed and always being reformed, where is God calling us now? What are we being asked to reform, or to re-form? How will we grow and change for the next 500 years?

The Refomation began 500 years ago, but it has never really ended. The spirit of reformation, the Holy Spirit that guided Luther and Calvin, also guided the Pilgrims and John Wheelwright. And it has guided this church for generations too. And now it guides you and me as well.

And so long as we are following that Holy Spirit into the future God is already preparing for us, we will be on the right path. God is reforming God’s church, and that means God is again and again re-forming us for the work that is left to do.

IMG_6541What remains on this anniversary is the challenge that Jesus issued so many years ago on that hillside. We may not be a city on a hill, but we are a church on the hill, and we have a lot of light in this place. We must now take the light that shines brightly around us, and share it with the world.

It’s time to move aside the bushel basket, or anything else that would dim our light, and instead share the light with the world. No longer can we keep hidden what is meant to be shared. Because the reformation continues, and we are called to be the light. It’s time to take our places in the reformation, and it’s time to let it shine.