Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sometimes, the lectionary makes interesting choices for the readings for non-liturgical holidays, like Thanksgiving Day. In fact, you have to do a fair amount of digging to figure out what the readings are supposed to be, because Thanksgiving, as a civil holiday, is not included in the church’s calendar. When I was at the seminary, I remember that many of my classmates and professors were surprised that this reading about Jesus healing the ten lepers from Luke 17 was chosen as the Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving, and I have to agree. I’d have probably chosen a different passage— maybe one centered around a meal, perhaps focusing on the image of Jesus breaking bread and giving thanks to God prior to feeding the five thousand, or when he shows up on the road to Emmaus and breaks the bread and gives thanks there. Or maybe the institution of the Lord’s Supper. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” after all. In each of those cases, Jesus is partaking in a meal, and giving thanks.
Because that’s what we think about when we think “Thanksgiving,” isn’t it? Food is at the center, as it is for most American civic holidays. Memorial Day? Dust off the grill. Fourth of July? Throw some more brats on it. Labor Day? Let’s go to the pool and then eat. Super Bowl Sunday? Time for nachos and guac. Thanksgiving is the same. Our popular conception of Thanksgiving is something like Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “Freedom from Want.” After spending the morning watching an extended Macy’s advertisement on television followed up by several televised football games, the festival culminates with the family—from the babies to the grandparents—all crowded around the dinner table set with multiple plates of stuffing and potatoes and yams and cranberries and a boat of gravy, with Mother bringing in a great big, miraculously moist, golden-brown turkey and Dad preparing to carve it up for the hungry people seated ‘round the table. And we eat and we eat and we eat, and we enjoy one another’s company, and then the blood rushes from our heads down to our stomachs and we all crash for the evening. That’s often what we think about when we think of Thanksgiving. And even if we remember those Plymouth Puritans, celebrating their survival after a horrendous winter and inviting their native neighbors over to join in the festivities in 1621, or, if you, like me, tend to hold that the first Thanksgiving actually happened at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia in 1619, those celebrations really don’t seem to have much in common with the account of Jesus healing a bunch of lepers and only one coming back to say thank you. So why make this our gospel focus?
Let’s think about what happens in the Gospel text: Jesus is passing along the border of Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem when he is met by these ten lepers sitting at the gate of a town. Leprosy, as per the law in Leviticus, made one “unclean” or “defiled” and separate from the rest of the community. Leviticus 13:45-46 says, “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp” (NIV). Lepers were pariahs; sure, they banded together into their own groups, so they had community among themselves, but they were cut off from their families and friends forever, even from the ability to worship God in the synagogue and Temple. So these lepers whom Jesus met were living as outcasts, cut off from everyone they loved on account of their illness, and I imagine that when they saw Jesus, they figured that this might be it— Jesus would be able to save them from their fate and bring them back into the society from which they had been excluded. So they called out to him for healing: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
And when Jesus heard them, he told them to show themselves to the priests. This was what the law commanded. The priests were the ones given the responsibility under the law to determine whether or not someone was ritually clean and thus able to be a full part of Jewish society once more. So the lepers went as he directed them. And as they went, Luke tells us, they were cleansed of their leprosy.
We can assume they all believed and trusted Jesus when he told them what they should do, but one of the cleansed lepers could not do what Jesus had asked of him. This was the Samaritan. As a Samaritan, this now ex-leper was still “unclean” in this little village because he was an outsider, an outcast. The priests would not have cared to see him because Samaritans were considered religious and ethnic aberrations. They had a different Torah and worshiped God on a different mountain with their own Temple. They were ethnic mutts— their ancestors had been shipped in from elsewhere by the Assyrians and they’d brought their foreign practices and religious sensibilities with them. To good Jews, they were heretics and not to be trusted. So this Samaritan, made clean from his leprosy by Jesus, still was “unclean” by the standards of the society around him, and he couldn’t gain their approval for his now being “clean.” So what can he do? To whom can he show himself?
Well, there’s always Jesus. This Samaritan can thank the man of God who cleansed him. So the Samaritan goes back to him, glorifying God and thanking Jesus for what he’s done. But does he really know what Jesus has done for him? Does he really understand who this Jesus is? He thanks God, and he thanks Jesus— he has faith that Jesus has done it for him, that God has done it for him through Jesus. Even if his understanding of who Jesus is is imperfect, it is good enough— his faith has made him well. And now a man who was once estranged and isolated from others has found a new community and family as a child of God, cleansed of his disease, and cleansed of his sin, his faith in Jesus Christ makes him well.
We are part of that community, too. We were once outcasts, estranged from God and one another on account of our sins, but Christ took away that barrier through his death on the cross and resurrection, and he brought us fully into the fold at our baptism. Our faith in him has made us well; our trust in him is like a “thank you” in response to what he has done for us. And so whenever we come together as Christians, we give thanks for that great gift of healing faith that he has given us, like the Samaritan ex-leper. We give thanks for the grace he gives us in his body and blood— that real Thanksgiving meal—and we receive it eagerly. And we praise him for the community we have with him and with one another through him. All of us, regardless of who we are or where we’ve come from, have been given a place where we belong; a seat at the table with the rest of Christ’s family.
Jesus gave that Samaritan ex-leper a community and a family that he had never had before. A community free from distinctions— a community where there was neither Jew nor Samaritan, neither Greek nor Roman, neither slave nor free, neither clean nor leprous, even neither dead nor alive, because we are connected by our faith to all who have come before us and all who come after— all are one in Christ Jesus. And that is why the Samaritan thanks him. That is why we should thank him. All of us who were once held far off because of our sins are now part of the family of Christ, a family that gives thanks together and knows from whom all its blessings flow.
This year, Thanksgiving is going to be different for many of us. Because of the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, many of us won’t be joined by our families this year, many of us won’t be able to go to visit them. I won’t be able to enjoy Thanksgiving with my loved ones. Some of us will have family visit, but we won’t be able to celebrate this secular feast in the way we are accustomed. But however we observe Thanksgiving tomorrow–with our families, without, video-chatting with our parents, siblings, and children–let’s give thanks for our food and for the good things we have, but more importantly, let us give thanks for the community and family we have with one another in Jesus Christ our Lord, who brings us together in faith at his table and gives us a true Thanksgiving feast every time we eat it, here, at his altar. Amen.