Grace Ev. Lutheran Church, Racine, Wisconsin
Thanksgiving (Eve) Day- 2005
“Thanks – Why and to Whom?”
A blessed Thanksgiving holiday to you all. Thanksgiving is that national holiday in which we do just that – give thanks.
As I observe the way our culture celebrates this holiday, somehow the thanking seems to get lost in the mix. Behind all the food and family and cooking and cleaning and traveling and planning and shopping and football and whatever else we do… sometimes the thanks-giving is limited, it seems, to a prayer before the big meal. We should be giving thanks more and better.
But “why?” and “to whom?” These are the questions I want to wrestle with today. Why give thanks? And give thanks to whom?
In our country, most holidays, or “holy days”, have their origins in the Christian church. Christmas, Easter, even St. Patrick’s and St. Valentine’s day are church festivals which have been secularized, at least to some extent.
Halloween was a superstitious response to the Christian celebration of All Saints’ day. The thinking being, that the night before we celebrate the “holy people” (the saints), we must also acknowledge somehow what is “unholy”. And so you get All Hallows’ Eve, or, Halloween. But even this corruption of a church festival has become somewhat secularized.
Now, Thanksgiving is a secular holiday. Declared by president Lincoln, it is a “day of national thanksgiving”, peculiar to the U.S.A. So isn’t it ironic that we find ourselves here in church on a secular holiday? Not really.
For only Christians have a true understanding of Thanksgiving. Only Christians can answer the questions, “why” and “to whom?” And while giving-thanks, and being thank-ful are ongoing in the Christian life, it’s not a bad idea to set aside some time to count our blessings.
Let’s consider the appointed Thanksgiving Day Gospel reading, the account of Jesus healing the 10 lepers.
II. A Striking Story
There are many unusual features to this short narrative.
1. Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem for the last time, and along the way he is still teaching, and healing and working miracles. Not so unusual.
2. Slightly unusual – Jesus traveled along the border of Samaria and Galilee. As Luther says, he does this to show that he is the Savior of all people – to make himself available to all, Jew and Gentile alike.
3. Some Lepers called out to him – slightly unusual, as lepers were outcast from the community and forbidden to speak. Having to stand far off, their sickly voices might not have been easily heard over the noise of those following Jesus more closely. But their faith in Jesus was strong, and they called to him out of a deep desire to be healed.
4. Jesus speaks to them – not so unusual, if you know Jesus. He continually showed his love for the outcast and disenfranchised, the poor and the sick.
5. Jesus heals them – Miraculous! But…. also pretty standard, if you know Jesus. By this time in his ministry, his reputation had already preceded him. As then ten responded to his command, “go and show yourselves to the priests”, they were healed.
6. Later, one of them comes back, to THANK him – and now JESUS is amazed – “where are the other 9? Didn’t I heal 10 of you guys?” He of course knows the answer. And then he comments that this one that bothered to give thanks was a foreigner, a Samaritan. Your average Jew wouldn’t have expected that. And finally, Jesus encourages the man – commending his faith. That’s the real miracle here.
But back to our questions about giving thanks – “Why?” and “To Whom?”
III. The Samaritan knew why he was giving thanks.
He had been healed of a terrible disease, which robbed him not only of health but also his place in society. He was also considered ritually unclean. He had lost, basically everything. And now it was restored. He had been to the rock bottom of life, and had been raised from the pit. He knew why he was giving thanks. He had received a great blessing, and he recognized it.
Why did only the one give thanks? Perhaps the others forgot why they should. Perhaps they took their healing for granted. Hard to imagine that something so precious and valuable as a life restored could be treated as such a little thing. But don’t many act this way? Don’t we, at times, wander away from the one who has restored our life? Who has raised us from the pit? Who has snatched us from the very clutches of Hell to bring us to eternal, perfect, life? There’s some of the 9 lepers in all of us, and never enough of the 1.
And yet, we give thanks also because Christ heals us our spiritual leprosy. That disease which infects our very nature. That disease which makes us ungrateful, and unthankful in the first place. That makes us selfish and shallow. All is forgiven when Christ speaks his word to us. And we are made clean.
So much for the “why?”. Now to the “whom?”
IV. Clinging to the Giver
It’s not just enough to count your blessings. We must also count the giver of the blessings. It’s not enough to appreciate what you have. We must also show appreciation to the giver. So often in our world thanksgiving is a direction-less sort of thanks. As sort of inventory of the good things in life, without proper acknowledgment of who makes it all possible. And THAT’s why I say that only the Christian truly understands thanks-giving. We know the gifts, but we also know the giver.
Maybe those 9 lepers were thankful, in a sense. I imagine they were happy to have their health restored. If you asked them, they would probably say they WERE quite thankful. But there’s a difference between liking the gift and thanking the giver.
Luther said of the one leper, that his return, “embraces these two thoughts: not to cling to God's gifts, but only to himself, who gives them.” The leper gave thanks not just in general, but to a person, to his God, who had healed him. He fell at the feet of Jesus Christ.
For the Christian, Thanksgiving has a why and a whom. The whom is our Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our thanks are always given because of his gifts. Our thanks are always given in His direction.
We thank the Father, especially for the physical blessings of creation. Our life, possessions, relationships, and more. We spoke of those earlier in this service.
We thank the Spirit for bringing us to faith and strengthening us and guiding us and renewing us, and more…
But most especially, we thank the Son for his great work of salvation. For his perfect life lived for us. For his death on the cross. Yes thanksgiving, for the Christian is, like everything else, always about the Cross of Jesus Christ.
No, the leper didn’t heal himself, and he knew it. Nor do we save ourselves, as well we know it. Christ has done it all for us. He is worthy of our praise and thanks. We could never thank him enough, but let us never cease to thank him. He is the “why” and the “whom” of Thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving, count your blessings. I hope it takes you a while. Or, you may not think you have much to be thankful for. Maybe you’ve had a bad year. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one, been diagnosed with a disease, lost a job, gone through a divorce, failed at some great endeavor or had some other big disappointment. But you still have Christ. And he has you. And no matter what this life brings, we can be, and we Christians are – truly – thankful – for this greatest gift and blessing.