A sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on November 23, 2014.
Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
I don’t regularly preach about our secular, national Holidays,
but there is some considerable overlap that warrants
turning our attention to Thanksgiving.
I remember my very first thoughts of Thanksgiving,
images born of kindergarten dramas and grade-school assemblies:
Pilgrims and Native Americans,
Turkeys, Corn, a harvest feast,
Tables piled HIGH with food: a celebration of gratitude.
That romanticized portrayal of native peoples and European colonists
living together in peaceful harmony,
has left me with an enduring love for this National holiday.
…Never mind its historical inaccuracy.
Add to that the years of accumulated memories
of feasting with family and friends,
and THIS holiday, THANKSGIVING, looms large for me.
I gather my experience might mirror yours, as well…
The Thanksgiving holiday has become a kind of
SUSTAINING MYTH of the American Ethos.
Like clockwork, the fourth Thursday of every November reminds us
that we as a people have come through adversity
and ought to pause long enough – at least once a year –
to express gratitude.
As a nation, if we lose Thanksgiving – not only the holiday, but, more importantly,
that attitude of gratitude –
we lose SOMETHING of the American character.
I find it fascinating that recent immigrants to the United States,
those who have no direct historic link to the descendants of the Mayflower pilgrims—
or even to the lands from which those Pilgrims came—
that these new arrivals to our shores so readily adopt this holiday.
Perhaps only the 4th of July comes closer than Thanksgiving
to defining what it is that holds us together as a people, as a nation.
/ / /
Timothy Hart-Anderson is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis.
He too has reflected upon this interesting facet of new immigrants,
and has said this:[i]
My family and I moved to Minneapolis
from San Francisco only a few years ago,
and I still remember the last time we celebrated Thanksgiving in that city.
The evening before the holiday,
I was dispatched to the neighborhood grocery store
to pick up the missing ingredients for some delicacy.
Thanksgiving was less than a day away, and you could feel it in the air.
I marveled at the typically diverse San Francisco crowd in the store –
Asian, Hispanic, immigrant,
gay, straight, [liberal, conservative],
old, young, single, married, pierced, tattooed –
all the variety any American city can muster,
and every one of them – every one of them –
was preparing for the same feast.
I suddenly saw all at the same table,
and it was a marvelous, uniquely American, sight indeed!
In front of me in the checkout line was a European-looking woman
who spoke English with a heavy accent.
The clerk recognized her and asked,
“Do they celebrate Thanksgiving in Russia?”
“No,” she said, laughing as she started to unload her grocery cart
stuffed FULL of turkey, boxes of stuffing,
sweet potatoes, canned pumpkin, and a roasting pan,
“But I’m in America now,” she said.
Rev. Hart-Anderson provides a wonderful vision of a tradition
that happens all around this country this week, in San Francisco,
Minneapolis, Chicago, Rural Missouri, or Jackson and Johnson Counties.
Of course, those celebrants at the first Thanksgiving feast long ago – in 1621 –
were also immigrants, refugees really, in a strange land.
Perhaps newcomers to this country have always had the most reason to be grateful,
for like the Pilgrims of old,
they tend to come out of difficult places and trying times.
/ / /
Starting over somewhere new is a risky business at best,
and especially so in our land of late
since the heightened tension and security and suspicion
many foreign-born residents often experience after the terrorist attacks of 2001
and of course the highly fractious partisan debate
over immigration reform legislation.
Many naturalized citizens and foreign-born visa holders have regularly reported
being treated with suspicion at best, or discrimination at worse.
This flares from time to time, particularly after terrorist attacks
or foreign incidents.
I have a college friend, a Sikh,
born here in the US but regularly not presumed to have been
who has shared with me some of what he’s experienced
by what he describes anti-Muslim, anti-foreigner outrage
nevermind that he’s not Muslim, nevermind he’s not a foreigner.
It is hard. Hard in ways I can’t understand because I never experience it.
And it goes without saying that,
regardless of your feelings about those without papers
this is a hard environment for them too, a risky one.
I hope you don’t mishear me: This is not about illegal immigration.
This is not a sermon about immigration reform or borders or any of that.
I am not going to wade into the partisan divide about what to do
about undocumented people in our country. Not today.
I know there was a big speech on that this week,
and THAT question is all over the news
but I wrote most of this sermon before all of that.
Instead, focus with me on what is a somewhat REMARKABLE feature
of many naturalized and foreign-born residents in our land:
In spite of the challenges they face in this new country,
immigrants are often among
the most grateful for what this nation offers
in the way of freedom and opportunity.
Hart-Anderson, in his same meditation I quoted from earlier,
remembered fondly a restaurant
in San Francisco’s tough Tenderloin neighborhood
called the “Thank You Thank You Café”
The “Thank You Thank You Café”
It was owned and run by Vietnamese refugees.
Such a great name for a restaurant!
Gratitude comes quickly to the lips of those who are survivors.
I bet they’re serving up a fine feast this Thanksgiving
at the Thank You Thank You Café.
/ / /
Its not just foreigners, of course, that have this sense.
All who are in touch with how hard it has been
and the possibilities of the future, share this hope, this gratitude.
It is a paradox to me, but it is OFTEN those who have the least,
who are the most vulnerable,
it is Often those who remember most readily to be grateful.
Henri Nouwen, author on the spiritual life,
wrote of his experience living with the poorest of the poor
in an urban slum in Lima, Peru:[ii]
Slowly, I learned what I must have forgotten (Nouwen wrote),
somewhere in my busy, well-planned, and very “useful” life.
I learned that everything that is, is freely given by the God of love.
ALL IS GRACE.
Light and water, shelter and food, work and free time,
Children, parents, grandparents, birth and death –
it is ALL given to us.
Why? So that we can say gracias, thanks: thanks to God,
thanks to each other,
thanks to all and everyone.
/ / /
So the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in November of 1620.
After that first winter, over half of their small community,
more than 50 people, had died.
But by the Fall of 1621, there was cause for gratitude:
the harvest was plentiful, and fifty-two Pilgrims had survived—
half of them children.
Thanksgiving became a way of life.
They recalled the harvest feasts of their homeland,
and they remembered the biblical injunction to give thanks.
Those deeply religious Christians
remembered the Hebrew harvest festival of Sukkot,
a joyful feast of gratitude to God.
And so the Pilgrims gathered and feasted for three days on turkey,
nuts, fish, venison, corn, squash – and gratitude.
There they fed their grateful hearts, and
they were joined by a local native-American chief and ninety of his men—
and the Thanksgiving tradition was born.
/ / /
In the only existing first-hand account of that original feast,
Edward Winslow wrote in a letter dated December 12, 1621, these words:[iii]
“And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us,
yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want
that we often wish you partakers of plenty.”
He wrote THIS,
after their small community had been decimated in that first brutal year.
By the goodness of God, he was saying, we are alive.
In the words of the Psalmist, “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart.”
/ / /
If we do nothing else on this earth, let us at least be grateful.
Thanksgiving in the morning,
thanksgiving at noon,
thanksgiving at night
Thanksgiving all the day long!
Thanksgiving as a way of life – as our way of life since the start!
/ / /
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke,
we heard a healing story, a giving Thanks story,
Jesus and a group of people afflicted with
a horrible skin condition.
To understand this passage, we need to remember
how thoroughly the system of purity codes and cleanliness
spread throughout this society. It touched every facet of their lives.
To be clean meant to approximate being holy,
and it gave you access to holy things: to the system of rituals and rights
that brought you close to God, that made you “right” with God.
To be clean meant you could offer sacrifices to God
participate in holy days.
And there was a rather elaborate system of rules
that determined when you were clean and when you weren’t
either because of something you did
or because of something your body did
what you ate, who you touched, what disease you got.
If you want to learn more about this, just casually read through Leviticus
some day when you have an extra hour.
And people who were unclean couldn’t mingle with the clean
until they could be made clean again
through some ritual practice such as washing,
or through the healing of whatever the ailment was.
So, this helps us understand why
those who had leprosy in first century Palestine were required BY LAW
to live apart from the rest of community.
They were pariahs, relegated to ghettos on the outskirts of cities.
They couldn’t see their families. They couldn’t shop in the market.
They had no regular contact with anyone, except for others with the condition.
And it was one thing to be unclean from something that could be easily fixed
and something else entirely to have a skin condition
that they didn’t know how to cure.
Not only was the physical condition bad,
the emotional toll from the isolation was devastating.
As Luke tells it,
one day Jesus is walking with his disciples in the direction of Jerusalem.
As they came to a village, they passed by one of these leper colonies.
Ten lepers, their gray skin hanging from their bodies,
scuttle out, calling to Jesus.
They stop, at a safe distance, as required by the purity code and by law
and they shout to Jesus, asking for mercy. Pleading for help.
They are hoping for a miracle, and Jesus does not disappoint.
He tells them to go see the priest,
which is necessary before they can return to the community.
The Priests are the ones, you see,
who declare that someone is no longer unclean…
And on their way to the priest, they suddenly discover that their LEPROSY is gone!
Just like that. Its gone.
But, the story continues, most of them continue on to the priest,
to be declared healed, to be welcomed back into civilized society.
Nine of them continue on.
One of the healed returns to Jesus, to thank him.
/ / /
The writer of Luke takes great pains to add some important detail here
that we shouldn’t miss.
This one who comes back, this one who responded to
this opportunity for new life, this healing of a deep and complex hurt
the one who comes back: he wasn’t even from Jesus’ own people.
He was a Samaritan. He was a foreigner.
That one comes back to Jesus
and throws himself on the ground
no longer worrying about the distance required by the purity codes
and he offers his deep gratefulness.
And Jesus, frankly, is stunned!
“Were not ten made clean?” Jesus asks. “Where are the rest?”
/ / /
The one who comes back grateful was the outsider, the unwanted, the alien,
DOUBLY despised as both a foreigner AND a leper.
And yet THIS one, he is the one who knows and appreciates
the value of what he has been given.
The others? What of them? Hard to say.
There’s a lot of speculation in the literature.
Some point to the idea that they wanted to do exactly what Jesus told them to do
and not delay.
Some suggest that they felt entitled to what they received
that they took their cleansing for granted.
Its hard to say. But it is clear that the author notes that this one,
the one who had had it particularly rough, was inspired to come back
and to express a word of gratitude to Jesus.
And it has always been fascinating to me Jesus’ response:
“Get up, and go on your way;
your faith has made you well.”
His faith, this foreigner’s faith, this samaritan’s faith
his gratitude to God with a loud voice for this new life
this new opportunity
this healing in his body and in his heart
THAT has made him well.
The others had bodies that were healed, that were rendered clean.
But this response of gratitude, THAT is something more:
it is the reality of being more than clean, it is being made well.
We’re never fully WELL without grateful hearts.
/ / /
How can we, my friends,
have THAT gratitude grow in our lives?
Jesus didn’t say that the others’ COULDN’T have responded this way
and maybe implies that they should have, could have.
How can we cultivate a practice of feeding a thankful heart
and maybe learn something
from people who have recently experienced adversity
so that we too can turn to God and say “thank you. thank you.”?
/ / /
It sometimes takes a stranger in a strange land,
whether it is a Russian or Vietnamese or Somali
or Middle Eastern immigrant in 21st century America,
or a Pilgrim at Plymouth in 1621,
or a healed Samaritan leper in ancient Palestine,
to see clearly the importance of gratefulness.
Sometimes it takes someone who is keenly and daily aware of the joy
of having made it through adversity,
to help us get in touch with our own gratitude.
/ / /
Ironically, it was not until the height of the Civil War
that Thanksgiving was established officially as a national holiday.
In his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln,
like the Pilgrims before him, gave thanks for
“the ever watchful providence of Almighty God”.
Even in the midst of the terrible devastation of the Civil War—
perhaps especially in the midst of that war –
the President was able to offer a lengthy list
of the “blessings and bounties” provided by God.
With his Proclamation, President Lincoln intended:[iv]
to invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States,
and also those who are at sea
and those who are sojourning in foreign lands,
to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next,
as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise
to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
/ / /
From its earliest spontaneous celebration to its institution as a national holiday
right up to the present,
Thanksgiving has ALWAYS been
an occasion to acknowledge with gratitude
the work of God in our lives and in our land.
We are a nation conceived in gratitude.
It is ours, people of faith, to help keep the tradition of gratitude alive.
The resources are right there, in our holy texts
in the attitudes of our neighbors
in the love of those who, even though they come from myriad places
and look all sorts of colors
and have all sorts of names
are nonetheless our brothers and our sisters too
bearers of the same image of God as we…
We have all we need, my brothers and our sisters, to help feed our grateful hearts.
On this Thanksgiving Week, 2014, let us, in Lincoln’s words,
invite our fellow citizens in every part of the United States,
and also those who are at sea
and those who are sojourning in foreign lands,
to join us in embracing thanksgiving as a way of life,
trusting that in so doing,
we will bind ourselves to one another, to all humanity, and to our God.
Thanks be to God.
[i] From a sermon of Timothy Hart-Andersen from the 2000s, but I no longer have the original source citation. Some of this sermon flow attributable to Hart-Anderson’s thanksgiving sermons I’ve heard from years ago.
[ii] This Henri Nouwen quote is often cited, for instance here (accessed November 20, 2014) http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/excerpts.php?id=22546
[iii] Full text of the letter is available at http://mayflowerhistory.com/letter-winslow-1621/ (Accessed November 20, 2014)