Thanksgiving Day 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 24, 2011 (Thanksgiving Day, Year A)

It’s nice to see you all on this day before Black Friday. I guess technically it’s still called Thanksgiving Day but part of me thinks the liturgy should include a prayer for shoppers. “O Lord, guard your people as they prepare for the frenzy that is to come and protect them from sure and certain trampling at Wal-Mart.” While Thanksgiving is still a day to think about pilgrims, watch some football, and hang out with family members who may or may not drive you nuts, for some it’s all a precursor to what really matters: getting crazy deals on big screen TVs and iPads and whatever fits into your cart at fill-in-the-blank big box store.” 

Now, I realize I’m preaching to the choir (even if we don’t actually have one this morning). Taking time to pause and give thanks through worship on the fourth Thursday of November is increasingly counter-cultural. Sure, some patriarchs or matriarchs will mumble their way through their annual saying of grace before the big feast but many wouldn’t think about giving thanks to God on Thanksgiving Day. It simply wouldn’t occur to them.

As you may know, the word Eucharist itself means “thanksgiving” in Greek. And appropriately enough we refer to the entire communion rite as “The Great Thanksgiving.” When we talk about this Great Thanksgiving, we’re not referring to a really big crowd coming over to eat turkey. We’re talking about the ultimate way of giving thanks to God – by participating in the redeeming act of receiving communion. Because when we share the Eucharist at this altar, it’s not a one-sided affair. Yes, we are receiving Jesus into our hearts and minds and souls but in the act itself we are offering ourselves in thanksgiving for the abundant blessings of this life. A life we live but did not create; a life in which we participate but did not design; a life to which we are called but did not invent. 

In some ways it’s silly that we even mark a national day of thanksgiving when we come to this altar not annually but each and every week to offer our thanks and praise. As Christians, the heart of what we do is Eucharistic. We don’t just celebrate Thanksgiving, we are a people of thanksgiving.

Which is perhaps why this gospel story can feel so disheartening. Jesus heals ten lepers and yet only one of them returns in gratitude. The other nine ungrateful former lepers dance off into the sunset. They were thrilled to be cured, sure. They had a new lease on life, their isolation was banished, they were ready to leave their misery behind and start anew. Yet how quickly they forget. How quickly they forget that they themselves weren’t the source of healing and wholeness. God alone provides the impetus for their thankfulness yet they don’t even look back, they don’t pause, they move forward in their ignorance even amid their newfound freedom.

But before we mount our high horses to condemn them, we have to look inward and recognize just how often we have done the exact same thing. It’s not about the leprosy but it is about not taking the time to pause and give thanks. When things are going well it’s so easy to take life for granted. We attribute good fortune to all sorts of things – Lady Luck, being in the right place at the right time, our own gifts and talents, our Protestant work ethic. But when we do so, we delude ourselves just as much as those nine lepers.

After returning to Jesus, the one who did return, a Samaritan, prostrates himself and gives thanks. This outsider, this social outcast does what the others fail to do. Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” He had already been healed so on the exterior he had already been “made well.” His leprosy was gone. But by giving thanks his soul now matched his skin. His faith made him well both inside and out. And perhaps this is something that happens each time we approach this altar; each time we receive the body and blood of our Lord we are made whole. Each time we offer our thanks to God we are made whole.

You could argue that the whole notion of giving thanks has been overly domesticated. True thanksgiving is not about writing a socially expected thank you note after a dinner party. It’s more than this, of course. And that’s where the word Eucharist is helpful. It denotes the thankfulness of the soul. As Paul says with unbounded enthusiasm in his letter to the Corinthians, “Thanks be to God for this incredible gift!” That’s precisely the Eucharistic attitude we can carry forth to our dinner tables this afternoon. May it infuse your yams and your stuffing and your turkey. And may you be ever emboldened to thank God with gusto both at this Eucharistic table and at your own Thanksgiving dinner table.

“Thanks be to God for this incredible gift!”

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011


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