Thanksgiving Day, Year A, 9 October 2023
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
When our children were in elementary school Thanksgiving always involved the making of crafts, like much teaching in elementary school does. Being a life-long vegetarian, our family being vegetarian, I always wondered what turkeys had to do with Thanksgiving. I mean, I know that many people eat turkey on Thanksgiving, at least in this culture, but Thanksgiving is about more than a particular food, it’s a universal human celebration, tied to harvest, remembering that the earth produces abundantly, while also remembering that there are times when the earth does not.
Thanksgiving begins with food because food is a basic human need, yet it is not about the kind of food we eat. Rather, giving thanks is part of what makes us human for we know that life is both fragile and a gift, and the nature of a gift is that it is given, not earned. We don’t just eat the food before us, though there are times when we do, but before each meal we pause to give thanks. The giving of thanks is a deliberate act. That is why Bart Simpson’s Thanksgiving prayer is a critique of those who think that they are self-made, that everything they have they have earned, and that they do not owe anything to anyone. In case you do not remember, Bart had prayed, “Thank you God for the food that we bought with our own money and prepared with our own hands, so thanks for nothing.” It is, in fact, an example of nihilism.
In contrast to Bart’s prayer and the myth of self-made people, giving thanks is the embrace of community, not of independence but interdependence. Being unable to give thanks makes you a sociopath, and some of that social pathology we see in our political discourse when people say that the problems of some are not the problems of all. All things are connected.
To be able to give thanks then is not restricted to people of faith, it is a sign of understanding oneself as part of a community, and that is why it is an expression not only of faith but also of culture.
And yet, the ability to give thanks does not come naturally. It is not innate but must be learned. And so we teach our children, “What do you say? Say thank-you.” It is something parents remind their children of over and over. And interestingly, when someone receives a gift, the gift will demand our attention, and yet before we can turn to the gift, we must turn to the giver. We do the same thing when we say grace before a meal. And so saying thanks brings with it a shift in orientation from object to person and to community. The object becomes a symbol of love and attention and the act of giving becomes more important than the gift; though that takes a long time to learn, especially in an age like ours where we are constantly prompted to desire new things, because what we have could not possibly suffice.
Our Gospel reading gives us a group of people who are socially isolated, no longer part of the community. Leper has become an idiom for outcast. Lepers are the people who are unclean or uncouth, whose views or manners are offensive, who may be annoying, who carry a stigma, whose condition is contagious, and whom consequently we do not wish to be associated with.
When I was in middle school a class mate illustrated this on a field trip. A bit of a class clown, he always pushed the limits and it got him the attention he wanted. My friends and I walked together. Though Thomas belonged to our circle, he walked by himself about five metres behind us. When we asked why he wasn’t walking with us, he responded, “Because I don’t want people to think we belong together.”
The lepers in the story were not only physically ill but were social outcasts and socially isolated. Jesus is not afraid of outcasts. He hears them and sees them, not only with his eyes and ears but he sees them as human beings, he sees their plight, and has mercy on them.
The priests in the story to which he sends the ten are the public health nurses of the day. If they say the ten are clean, then the ten are restored to society.
It makes sense that they hurry back to their old lives. Who knows for how long they have been in the leper colony? Perhaps they want to embrace their spouses and hold their children. I don’t think it is helpful to dwell on the lack of gratitude of nine of them. This is not a moralistic tale that Luke tells to beat gratitude into us.
Rather, I believe, this is a story about relationship. One of the ten chose to be in relationship with Jesus, the other nine did not.
If giving thanks means to understand that we are not self-sufficient, that there is no such thing as self-made men and women, that we are not independent but interdependent, and that therefore we have much reason to give thanks, then giving thanks is about relationship. And when we understand that giving thanks is an embrace of community, then we also know that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and the needs of others will not leave us untouched.
When we teach our children to say thank-you, we teach them more than a formality, or good manners, or improve their future career opportunities. We teach them that they are in relationship with others and that the world is a community, even when our delineation of that community may vary. Some of us will draw the circle wider than others, but giving thanks means to say yes to community. That I suppose, is one reason we do not want to eat our Thanksgiving dinner by ourselves.
One returns. The interaction between him and Jesus is not transactional, as in “you healed me, I owe you thanks.” His return is not a formality because he who returns offers not only his thanks but his devotion.
Jesus says to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The man was not only cured but his life is given a new direction. He belongs with Jesus, which is why Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you well.” What I see here is a new disciple whom Jesus commissions.
Giving thanks is something we learn and practise. Giving thanks is not easy in a world that teaches us that we are entitled, that the world belongs to us, and is ours to conquer. The practise of giving thanks rejects entitlement and says ‘yes’ to community and belonging.
We have contradictory longings in us. We have two hearts beating in our chest, one to be independent, and the other to belong. Yet the longing to belong is how God made us, expression of our essence, it is deeply rooted in our soul. It is also a source of meaning. As long as we are in relationship with others life is worth living.
Giving thanks is an essential part of Christian worship. The Great Thanksgiving begins the Eucharist. The word Eucharist is Greek and means thanksgiving. When with the disciples on the road to Emmaus Jesus takes bread, breaks it, and gives thanks, they recognize him. There is a canticle we sometimes sing after communion Praise to You, O God of Mercy, Thanks Be to You Forever. Our hymn book is full of hymns that sing God’s praises with thanksgiving, and there is no instruction in prayer without the element of Thanksgiving.1
The Psalms call us to give thanks from beginning to end.
If saying thank you is something we learn and practise, so that we would learn that the giver and the relationship is more important than the gift, and if in the process we learn that we belong to a community, that we are not alone, that we are not self-sufficient, and that others are a gift, then the giving of thanks to God draws our circle wide. We belong to each other and all of us belong to God, even those who do not know it, for God loves all people. Giving thanks to God is an orientation toward God, it is an entering into a relationship with God who is the giver of every good gift, and it is an entering into a relationship with the world God loves. People who give thanks do not live unto themselves.
The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart is to have said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be sufficient.”2
This can only be right because it means a change in orientation from self toward God, from self-sufficiency to community. Giving thanks then is not a cultural ritual, an etiquette, or something we owe, but the orienting of our lives toward God and the community of all God loves. It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul can call on us to give thanks in all circumstances. (1 Thessalonians 5) And such giving thanks and orienting of our lives toward the God who loves us itself is a gift.
2 In Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality – A Life With God in 12 Simple Words, New York, NY: 2012 HarperOne, page 49