Text: Luke 17: 11-19
Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 2011 at Pisgah Presbyterian Church, Woodford County, Kentucky
How good it is to be here together on this Thanksgiving Day in America. This long tradition between New Union and Pisgah Church, two of Woodford County’s oldest congregation, represents what is good and praiseworthy about church life, and what is most excellent about life in these United States. It is a joy to be here, and I am glad that you have chosen to be here also.
Many of you know that since August, I have taken on a second job, coming out of retirement just for this academic year, to help my alma mater, Transylvania. I’m the chaplain on a half-time basis to do a full time job with a fancy title that doesn’t make a lot of sense, theologically speaking, which is Interim Associate Dean for Interreligious Life. There is no such thing as “interreligious life,” of course. There IS interreligious dialogue, and there ARE interreligious concerns. But when it comes to life, we speak of having a religious or spiritual life. One can no more be interreligious than one can be inter-species. We are what we are. Particularity matters.
I tell you this because the new part-time position has kept me busier than I had become used to being over the past couple of years. So it was late last week when I looked at the texts that the revised common lectionary assigned for this Thanksgiving Day, read them carefully, chose a title, and sent it off to Pete. Only Tuesday, when I began to work on this sermon in earnest did I discover that over the 15 years that I have been sharing in these services, I have probably preached 4, maybe 5 sermons on these very texts. I went into a panic. After a certain point, it is hard to find something new and fresh to say.
But yesterday, when I finally had time to sit down to work on my sermon for you, it occurred to me that perhaps the lectionary repeats these texts for Thanksgiving Day year after year for a reason: maybe we need the repetition, over and over, to get the message, so prone are we to the diseases of entitlement, resentment, and consumption, the latter ironically a disease in former times, usually tuberculosis, that caused people to waste away. Now our consumption disease causes obesity in our bodies, and too much stuff in our lives, to the point where we are dying, spiritually, and sometimes physically, because of it.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to Michael’s—the craft and hobby store—to look for Thanksgiving decorations to use in the chapel in Old Morrison for the weekly meditation time that I’ve started. I was startled to hear from a clerk: “Oh, we didn’t get any Thanksgiving stuff this year. We went from Halloween to Christmas stuff. Thanksgiving is too short a season.”
As I look at our beloved country and this precious world in this season, I don’t see a lot of thanksgiving and gratitude. We are indeed a people, a nation, short on thanksgiving. Instead, I see resentment abounding. Sometimes justified resentment against people who make salaries with bonuses so large as to be absurd because no one could conceivably spend or need so much money in their lifetime, much less what some of those people, whose businesses were bailed out by we, the people, in the form of our federal government, could spend in a single year. Resentment by so many people against the government that is none other than “we, the people.” Resentment against legitimate injustices and aberrations of our political system because money has become the linqua franca of democracy rather than the benefit to citizens of a government that is committed to liberty and justice for all, and the general welfare of all its citizens. Some of those expressing the greatest resentment these days are not the unemployed, the poor who have been poor generation after generation, but those who are people like you and me: reasonably well-off (and rich compared to 9/10s of the rest of the world’s people); reasonably educated; reasonably employed; and who have a reasonably secure place in this world. Perhaps one of the major problems with our country, and the reason why we cannot get out of this dragging recession, is not that we aren’t shopping enough, or saving enough, or paying enough taxes, or paying too much in taxes, but rather that “Thanksgiving is too short a season”. Many will give Thanksgiving a half-hearted prayer over a groaning board of food, then move on to watch the football games on TV, perhaps share a few moments of conversation with friends and family who may be gathered with us, and a short walk—or short game of touch football—outside on a glorious late Autumn day, while preparing to go out at midnight to grab the bargains and spend more money than we actually ought to spend and make store clerks give up their holiday for the sake of our getting. So many people have created a garden of grievances, and they get up daily to hoe and weed and make sure that these weeds in our land can grow to outrageous size. Grievances rather than gratitude characterize much of our national life these days.
“Were not 10 made clean?” Jesus asks poignantly, sadly. Or we might ask, “Were not, at one time, each of us dependent on help and mercy, in some way, from someone else? Have we not been sent on our way in this life by the assistance, the friendship, the grace, the kindness of many people?”
I mentioned at the outset that America on Thanksgiving Day, in the 11th year of the second millennium, seems to be suffering from three diseases: entitlement; resentment; and consumption. Of the 10 lepers in the story that only Luke tells, and which is probably meant to suggest to his readers that the gospel will touch and transform the whole world, not just the Jewish people, only one is designated as a foreigner, an alien. The others, although they have the humility to ask for mercy, given their skin condition which keeps them from temple worship and from participation in the society around them, which requires that they cover their mouths, wear their hair disheveled, and stay well outside the city, ostracized from their families, their livelihoods and their communities, may have thought, that as Jews, that they were entitled to cleansing. We can imagine that of the nine who did not return to give thanks: one waited to see if the cure was real. One waited to see if the cure would last. One said he would see Jesus later. One decided that he had never had leprosy in the first place. One probably said that he would have gotten well anyway, in time. One may have given glory to the priests. One said, “O well, Jesus didn’t really DO anything.” One said, “Any rabbi could have done it.” And the last probably said, “I was already much improved.”
A sense of entitlement, dear people, means that we think we are owed the good things of life, rather than perceiving how much of who we are and what we have is merely an accident of our birth in this great land at this particular time, an accident of having been born into a family that claims allegiance to the dominant religion of our society, thereby giving us privileges unknown to people of other religions.
One of my daughters is doing a residency in a dental specialty. She is frequently appalled at her fellow residents, most of whom come from families of wealth and privilege, and who seem more focused on the money that they anticipate making in their futures in the easiest fashion than they are concerned with providing patients with the best possible care, or with the needs and life issues of their fellow workers in their clinic. Similarly, we Americans seem to feel entitled to have the biggest share of the world’s wealth, and to use more of its resources. When you feel entitled, you are not likely to feel gratitude or to express thanksgiving. My daughter comments that her fellow residents rarely say please, or thank you, to fellow workers, much less to patients.
Gratitude begins in humility, acknowledges debts to others, and results in appreciation, respect, the offering of thanks….all of which lead to joy, which is the ultimate way of being “whole”, or saved.
Do you remember the story from Rabbi Harold Kushner that I have told on several Thanksgivings? A rabbi once addressed a member of her temple: “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. Tell me, where are you running all the time?” The individual answered: “I’m running after success. I’m running after fulfillment. I’m running after the reward for all my hard work.” And Kushner’s colleague replied, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, trying to elude you and if you run fast enough, you may catch up with them. But isn’t it possible that those blessings are behind you, that they are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?”
One of the ten lepers turned back. Perhaps his consciousness that he was an outsider, brought him to gratitude and praise for what he had been given. Turning back, he was able to go on, but now having been made whole.
Jesus is on a journey…”on the way to Jerusalem”, on the fringes of his country, his society. I’m sure he would have much rather have had the Sanhedrin and the Scribes and Pharisees acknowledge what they saw: God’s love in person on earth. But he meets lepers. And he sends them on a journey, as each of us is also sent on a journey. In the going, in the living of our lives, many will go on thinking they are healthy, when they are, in fact, rotting away internally because of the diseases of entitlement, resentment and consumption. A few, perhaps some of us, may find the eternal truths, the grace, the hopes that make us clean enough to be acceptable to others, relinquishing our arrogant sense of entitlement, our resentments at the way things are, and finally coming to understand that consumption will not grant us the security we seek, nor the love we need.
In turning back to the source of all life, and all love, and in bending our knees in humility, and bow our heads in utter gratitude, we go on to discover what it is to be made well. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century mystic, once said that “if the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, that will be enough.” And contemporary writer Anne Lamott says that there are only two prayers: “Help me” and “thank you.” Saying “help me” erases all sense of entitlement, and acknowledges that consumption, material possessions, status, even education, will not make life worth living. Saying “thank you” turns us back in gratitude, so that we may go on in hope. So may it be for you this Thanksgiving season. Don’t let it be too short. Amen.