This sermon draws on the readings for Thanksgiving Day, Lectionary year A
It draws especially on Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 17:11-19
The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church
November 24, 2012
Thanksgiving Day 2012
Many of you already know that this past summer I was privileged to travel to a place with no running water, where homes are constructed of scrap wood, old plastic tarps, odd pieces of rusted and corrugated metal, all tied to simple wooden frames with whatever scraps of string or rope their owners can find. A place where the only water is what you can collect in a cistern as the rain runs off of your rusted and patched metal roof. A place where subsistence farmers struggle to grow enough food to feed their families and where whatever you need that can’t be grown in your own soil has to be carried up the mountain on rutted and dangerous roads, often tied to the handlebars or the rack of a motorcycle. A place where the only electricity comes from a community generator which runs just a few hours a week because the diesel fuel that powers it is carried up the mountain on those roads in gallon jugs dangling from the handlebars of those motorcycles.
The people of Jeannette, Haiti live without. They live without the amenities that we take for granted and upon which we depend. And yet live they do! There is a strength in them, a sense of hope that belies the conditions of their home. It was remarkable that the whole week that I was there, driving through the ruin and wreckage in Port au Prince, seeing the crowds of people in Miragoane and Les Cayes, living with the people in Jeannette and witnessing the poverty that they endure, I never once felt like crying for the things that they do without. I never felt like crying for the things that they don’t have. But when I arrived home, having gotten on a plane in Port au Prince early in the morning, having flown through Miami into Chicago, ridden the bus into Madison, driven from the Park and Ride home and walked into my kitchen… that was the moment that I wanted to cry.
My family knew I was coming, I had texted them at every stop along the way, so when I walked into my house at 11:50 at night, every light in the house was on. The air conditioning had the house at a cool sixty-eight degrees. As I walked in I could see the small flat panel TV in the kitchen and the large one in the Great Room. I could see five guitars and three laptop computers. I was surrounded by the sings and symbols of affluence. I never once wanted to cry for the things that the people of Jeannette don’t have. I did want to cry for the things that I do have. And I think in that moment Moses was speaking to me.
For forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness looking for the land that God had promised them. It took a while, but in those forty years they had come to understand that their very lives flowed from the grace of the God who sustained them with manna from heaven and water from the rock. They had come to know that all that they had, all that they were, and all that they might yet become was a gift from God. It had been a difficult journey both physically and spiritually but they were finally, finally about to find themselves in the Promised Land and Moses knew that they were in great danger.
Moses tells the people of Israel that they are about to enter a land of plenty: water, honey, figs, olives, wheat, barley, pomegranates… they will have more than enough to be satisfied. And therein lies the danger. Moses is warning them not to forget whose they are and who they are, not to forget that it is in God that they live and move and have their being, that all that they have is a gift from the God who loves them. I think that as I walked into my kitchen that night back in early July Moses was also talking to me.
I was surprised to find myself in tears that night because I was being confronted with a truth that I had lost track of; all that I have, all that I am, and all that I might yet become is a gift from God. This morning as we gather at this table Moses is speaking to all of us. Walking down the aisles of Whole Foods, picking up imported bottled water, extra virgin olive oil, low fat Fig Newtons and PomWonderful juice it is easy to begin to believe that we deserve the things that we have, that we have earned them, that “the power and might of my own hands have gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17). When we have all of the “things” that we need we can begin to neglect the relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being,
Turn now to the Gospel reading. Jesus is approached by ten lepers who cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13). Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests and on the way there the lepers “were made clean.” Now “clean” is an important word in this passage. Lepers were “unclean.” They had to live outside the city. They were not allowed to come into contact with others. They were cut off, alienated from their families, their communities, their people. It gets even worse. The assumption in that day was that if you contracted a disease like leprosy it was because you, your parents, your grandparents, or maybe even your great grandparents had broken the law and offended God. So they were not only alienated from their people, they were alienated from God. You don’t have to live like that very long before you start to become alienated from yourself. The loathing and disgust, the judgment all build up and eventually you start to believe it. The ten lepers who approached Jesus that day had lost everything because they were “unclean.” When the ten lepers “were made clean” they were reconciled, restored to their community, in their relationship with God, and finally, with themselves.
One of those lepers turned around and went back to give thanks. Now the Gospel doesn’t tell us that the other nine suffered a relapse, that their leprosy returned. The Gospel doesn’t say anything to diminish the “quality” of their cleansing. But Jesus does say that something new has happened to the one who came to give thanks. Jesus says that his faith has made him “well.”
“Clean” even if we hear that word as “reconciled” sounds and feels external. Something has happened “to” you. “Well” sounds and feel internal. Something has happened “in” you. The nine who didn’t come back to give thanks were reconciled to their communities, the people in the community would have believed that they were reconciled to God, but these last words of Jesus, spoken only to the one leper who returned to give thanks, help us to see that there was something missing in their reconciliation. They were “clean” but they were not “well.” Perhaps the reconciliation with God and with themselves that might have happened in this moment was incomplete.
There is an insidious danger in failing to give thanks. When we begin to believe that we have earned, that we deserve the things that we have, that by firmly grabbing our own bootstraps and pulling upward we can acquire all that we need, that we can make ourselves clean, whole, and well we end up denying ourselves the thing that we really need most of all. What we want, need, long for, whether we recognize it or not is Grace. And Grace can only come from outside of ourselves and it only comes as a gift, unearned, freely given. The moment that we begin to believe that we can earn grace, that it somehow depends upon us and what we do, it crumbles in our hands and slips from our grasp.
We gather at this table today to give thanks, just like we do every Sunday and the importance and fruits of gratitude are impressed upon our hearts, our minds and our souls. We gather at this table today and we bear witness to the community around us and to the world that as they gather at their own tables this day, they might just have more to be thankful for than they can ever imagine.