Thanksgiving A Sermon (2008)

Thanksgiving Eve
Texts: Luke 17:11-19;
Phil. 4:6-20; Deut. 8:1-10


Jesus said to the Samaritan, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you. Your faith has made you whole! You are well.” The question we now raise is “What about the other nine?” Weren’t they saved? Or were they somehow not completely whole? The text is clear: ten lepers were cleansed, yet only to the Samaritan does Jesus say that he has been made whole. What extra wholeness did this man receive beyond being cured of so terrible a disease?

Can you imagine the ten lepers in a row? “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” We can understand, because there are times in our lives when we cry out for help – when know our needs are huge and our strength small, then we call for help. The word “God” shapes our lips – echoes inside our minds. The examples are numerous:

Your doctor says there is a shadow on your X-ray. “Better not wait,” she says, “we better schedule surgery right away for tomorrow.” “O God,” you say.

Or a loved one is dying. You don’t know how to talk about it, even to each other — and you’re afraid of what’s coming. You begin to daydream what it’ll be like without him during the holidays: “Oh God, help me,” you cry.

We’re human, and there are tragedies that touch us all. Often when we’re out of hope and there’s nothing else to do, we find ourselves saying a kind of prayer – even if we aren’t sure we believe – “God, oh God.” Like the desperate lepers all lined in a row, bawling at the top of their lungs, “Jesus, Master, have pity!” Can you see the ten lepers calling for help?

You may be thinking, “Gee, Pastor, we don’t want to see those lepers or think about depressing times in our lives! Not today – it’s the beginning of the holiday season!!” Have you heard the saying, ‘we wouldn’t truly know what pleasure was unless we also knew pain’? My answer is similar – we can’t fully understand the depth of the Good News without first knowing the bad. To understand the good news Jesus had for that Samaritan leper, we first must identify with his crying out to his Lord. We need to identify with the disease that afflicted the first humans, afflicted the people Jesus walked amidst, and still afflicts us all today. Worse even than leprosy, this disease invades everything. It is the disease of sin.

We see it in the nine lepers who didn’t return – their true disease was not recognizing Jesus for who he was – the One who has the power to heal. Don’t we do that same thing? Are we at times afflicted with the disease of not fully opening our lives to the One who gave us life? Sin is the mistake of not giving God the due that God deserves. Instead, we get caught up with what we do — D-O — and we don’t give God the due – D-U-E.

Physical disease, like leprosy, is obvious. But it’s not so obvious to see sin, and it’s often difficult for us to know that we suffer from it. We can identify with the lepers at times in our lives when we need to cry out for God’s help. But when we see most of our lives as devoted to being healthy, we seldom consider “doing” a sinful disease! We desperately try to derive our own self-worth by the things we do. We fill our lives with things that make us feel productive. Then when this time of year comes around, the act of Thanksgiving often becomes just another one of those things we do, to be a productive, honest member of society: we say, “I give you thanks, God, for all your many blessings to me.”

But truthfully, our expression of thanks might go: “I give you thanks God, for all your many blessing to me — because, after all, I do deserve it.” We spend so much time trying our best to be good and productive people. Haven’t we earned the things we give thanks for?

Jesus probably knew what the outcome would be in giving these lepers something to do. He gave them a task: to show themselves to the proper authorities. Now, their healing wasn’t just Jesus; there was something they could do to show themselves worthy. And having fulfilled that task, having been obedient, hadn’t they then earned the healing they received? They were anxious to get back to their lives of productive doing. After showing themselves to the priests they could get back to spouses and children, back to honest work, back to being a normal member of society again. Is it so bad that they — that we — should want that?

Again, we look to the story for our answer: even though Jesus knew the seriousness of the disease called sin, the reality was still a painful disappointment: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” One can almost hear the pain in Jesus’ voice. He knew what would happen by granting them their healing along with a task to perform, but it still hurt: they couldn’t stop what they were doing long enough to return and give thanks to the healer? No, we cannot gloss over the fact that there is much sadness in this story. Nor should we gloss over the sad fact that we are often among the nine.

But despite this sad reality of sin, this is also a story of Good News. First of all, it’s good news that there was one who did return and give thanks! There was one who immediately turned back and whooped it up, falling at Jesus’ feet and praising God with a loud voice, a non-stop cantata of praise. One leper did come back to worship. Martin Luther once defined “worship” very simply as “the tenth leper turning back.” Yes, this one leper turned back to give thanks, and that is good news.

And it’s also good news that, through the grace of God, we are sometimes that tenth leper. And there’s more good news! For us, like the leper, the Good News is that God will always wait. God waits for those times when we are the tenth leper. God does not coerce or manipulate our thanksgiving out of us, any more than Jesus demanded thanksgiving from the lepers in this Gospel story. And just as God does not rescind the healing of the nine, so God will never take from us the promise of healing, of forgiveness, and of unconditional love.

The Good News goes beyond the scope of this one story — it is centered on the entire story of Jesus, the one who came to show us what a whole and healthy life looks like. He lived his entire life in thankful service to his Father in heaven. In Jesus we see that being whole and healthy doesn’t mean that there will be no pain in our lives. This life of perfect wholeness took him to the cross, mostly because our sinful, unhealthy ways of living. In the cross we see that it is painful to try to live such a healthy life in the midst of a world still infected by the disease of sin. But God also raised this Jesus up that we might see his forgiveness, and so that we might have the offer of his very Spirit. As we worship and open our lives to the Spirit of Christ, God helps us to live Jesus’ life of thankful service. Yes, our lives are about doing. But truly thankful hearts must come first before doing, so that all we do become acts of thanksgiving. Therein lies true and complete wholeness – we become the tenth leper. It is then that Jesus says to each of us, “Rise and go your way, your faith has saved you. Your giving thanks shows that you are well.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church,
Portage, MI, November 26, 2008

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