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.

 

Beyond Thank You Notes – Sermon for October 28, 2012

“Jesus Healing the Blind”, by Nicolas Poussin, 1650

Mark 10:46-52
10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

10:47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

10:50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

10:51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

10:52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

My mom is a big fan of thank you notes. Growing up she made sure that for Christmas, birthday, graduations, whatever the event we sent thank you notes for the gifts we received. Sometimes she would even give us a gift of thank you notes as a present. I think she was trying to give a little hint.

My dad’s mother, my grandmother, was even more into them. And she kept track. I’m pretty sure she had a thank you note scoreboard hidden somewhere in the house. And she would even engage in a mild form of public shame if you didn’t send one. Nothing huge, but something like a deep sigh and then, “I never did get a thank you note from them. As a kid I wrote thank you notes because my parents told me to, and because my grandmother, who I loved, scared me just a little, tiny bit.

Most of us learn how to say “thank you” at an early age. And that’s a very good thing. The world is better when we say “please” and “thank you” and when we acknowledge gifts that we are given. We write thank you notes. Maybe even when we aren’t feeling so grateful, the way we did for that package of socks that we got when we were 8. We do it because we were taught it was good manners, and if we are lucky we carry that skill with us when we are adults.

But if we are really lucky, something happens along the way. Something that changes the process of writing thank you notes from just a perfunctory thing we do when we get a gift, to a way to live a grateful life.

I wonder if the man in today’s story had ever heard of thank you notes? I don’t know that they were necessarily a thing back in Jesus’ day, and since most people didn’t write, I doubt that he had a mother who made them do them, or a grandmother who kept tabs on whether they came of not. But maybe he did have people in his life who taught him about being thankful. And maybe that’s why today’s story goes the way it goes.

Jesus is leaving the town of Jericho, and a man named Bartimaeus, who is described as a “blind beggar” is sitting by the side of the road. He hears that Jesus is the one passing by and he yells out, “Jesus…have mercy on me!”

The people all around him hush him and say be quiet, but he calls out again, “Jesus have mercy on me.” And Jesus stops, and calls him to him. The man springs up and comes to Jesus, and he asks Bartimaeus “what do you want?” And Bartimaeus says, “to be able to see again”. Jesus tells him, “go, your faith has made you well”.

Bartimaeus got back his sight, but there’s something about this story other than the fact that Jesus healed him that makes it stand out. Jesus heals a lot of people in Scripture, and each time it is miraculous. But we don’t always get to hear how the person who was healed responded.

This time we do. When Bartimaeus regained his sight, Jesus said “go…your faith has made you well.” Essentially, Jesus was releasing him to go back and live his life with his new gift of sight. But instead, Scripture tells us that “he followed Jesus on the way”. The healed man became a disciple.

Now, have you ever gotten a gift with strings attached? One that you knew came with expectations from the gift giver? Have you ever felt like accepting it was accepting a new obligation or commitment? What’s interesting to me here is that Jesus gives the man a huge gift, a gift of healing, and yet he doesn’t say “now you have to follow me”. He doesn’t list his expectations. Instead he essentially releases him. “Go”, he tells him. Not even an address to send a thank you note to. It’s grace at its purest form. A gift that comes unearned, and that expects no response.

But what Bartimaeus does is the proper response to grace: he shows his gratitude. And it’s not with a thank you note. It’s not even with a spoken thank you. It’s with his life. He leave the side of the road, and all he’s known, and he follows the man who healed him to wherever he is going next.

Sometimes we get gifts that are so incredible that the words we can put down on a piece of paper fail us. Sometimes we get gifts that are so big that we can only respond by living our lives as a sort of thanksgiving.

Today is the third sermon in a series we are doing on giving. Each week we are exploring another theme that has to do with how we give. The first week we looked at giving away the things that keep of from God. Last week we looked at serving as giving. And today we are looking at giving as gratitude.

In seminary our theology professors beat into our heads the central idea of Reformed theology, the theology that the UCC and the Presbyterian church and others were formed by, which is that we all receive grace from God, and that the only proper response to grace is gratitude.

And when the grace, the gift, we have received is as big as the one’s that God gives us, that only gift we have that is big enough and fitting enough to give back is our own lives. The only way we can ever respond to that grace, note I did not say pay that grace back, is to say thank you. Our gratitude becomes the way we give, and our life becomes our thank you note to God.

I talked at the beginning about thank you notes and how they sometimes seemed like a necessary burden, a sort of social nicety, as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, they’ve felt less burdensome, less of a perfunctory social nicety, and more meaningful. Less something I have to do, and more something I want to do.

I’ve been writing a lot of them recently because of the upcoming wedding. Some of our close friends held a shower for us down in Massachusetts, and it was a wonderful time being with our friends. Afterwards we wrote thank you notes to them all, and what I found as I was writing the notes was that I was feeling genuine gratitude for the people in my life, not the salad tongs or whatever else we had been given. Though I like the salad tongs. But more importantly, I love the people who gave them to us, and I love that they thought about us and shared some time with us and are a part of our life. That is the true gift for which I am grateful.

Sometimes I wish that I could sit down and write a thank you note to God that really expressed my gratitude for what God has given me, and for what the ways God has given me real healing when I need it the most. I wish I could find the right words for that. But the reality is that part of me knows that’s the easy way out. If I could just say “thank you” and be done, it would be sort of like if Bartimeaus had just gone his own way after Jesus healed him. I would have received the gift, but I wouldn’t really have responded to it. It would have changed my life, but it wouldn’t really have changed me.

Instead, we have an opportunity to respond to that grace. And if it’s really grace, we will find that we can do none other than to respond to it. We have the chance to live our lives as that thank you note that we can never write.

Now, God is not the grandmother with a gigantic thank you note scorecard in the sky. God is not telling everyone that the note never came. God gives grace freely, the same way Jesus did on that road, healing with no strings attached.

But for us, if we have received that grace, we will never feel quite right until we respond to it, and until we offer a thank you that is more than a perfunctory prayer mumbled over dinner, or a quick prayer of thanks. We will never feel quite whole, until we find real ways to express our gratitude.

So, what do you get the God who has everything? Well, really nothing. Nothing except for your love.

But what do you do for God’s people? That’s the question to ask. What is it you have in your life that you can give to the ones who need it the most. What is it that you can do for them that will also say thank you to God?

One of the things that 12 Step programs focus on, which is relevant to those of us who are Christians as well, is gratitude. They teach that gratitude has the power to transform lives and to focus our lives on what matters the most. One of my favorite sayings is, “that grateful heart never drinks”. And that’s true. When you are aware of how much grace you have received, and how much you have to be thankful for, the last thing you want to do is ruin that by choosing to destroy yourself. Instead 12 step members show gratitude by doing service, by helping newcomers out, by taking care of their group and their program.

We can learn a lot from them, because the same should be true for Christians. When we look around, truly, and see what has been given to us by grace, we are compelled to live a life of gratitude. Not one of us has been passed over by God’s grace, whether we know it or not, whether we think we ever needed it or not. We did. And we received it. And not forgetting that, not going off our own way and forgetting that man we met on the road one day who healed us, is the start of being grateful. That man Jesus healed got what he wanted. He could have gone off his own way after that, content that he got his piece of the pie. But he didn’t. He changed his life, and he decided to follow Jesus.

So what’s the next step for you? For us? What would it look like for you to live your life as a thank you to God? What would it look like to dig down deep and give to God by giving to others in your life? What would it look like if you made gratitude the central theme of your life? For most of us, I think it would change everything. Because a grateful heart never looks around and says “there is too little”. A grateful heart looks around and says, “there’s enough for me…and there’s enough for others too.” It may sound naive, but I think that’s the sort of perspective that could change the world. And even if it doesn’t change the world, maybe, just maybe, it will change you. Amen.