The Depth of Thanks
“Were not ten made whole? Why has only one come back to give thanks?” This weekend, in some grand or small way, we will all mark Thanksgiving. A small historical sidebar here. A truly Canadian Thanksgiving. It needs to be said that the indigenous people in North America have a long history of holding communal feasts in celebration of the fall harvest ensuring a good harvest with dance and rituals. The most prominent historic thanksgiving, event according to American popular culture, was held in 1621 at the Plymouth Plantation. You have all seen the pictures. The fact is that the first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America was held by a Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew in 1578 in what is now Nunavut, right here in Canada. They celebrated their safe arrival by feasting on salt beef, biscuits and mushy peas. Don’t tell Trump. We’ll get a tweet about fake news. Irrelevant to todays’ sermon but it gives us roots.
Unlike Sir Martin, most of us will feast on turkey, squash, mashed potatoes; some might even have some mushy peas. But let us never forget that luscious, steaming bowl of dressing the whole destiny for a turkey. There will be, of course, various versions of this theme; ham instead of turkey, some will gather with families, some will eat alone, some feasting around the dining room table, some eating out to avoid the mess and dishes. We will all celebrate Thanksgiving in our own ways and, hopefully, at least whisper a prayer of thanks.
In light of our scripture, you know I have to go there and ask each of you: how deep is your thanksgiving? We have all worked hard in our lives. We have been sensible and restrained in our living. We have paid for our homes, sent our kids to school, invested in our pensions. We deserve what we have. No one has given us anything. We‘ve worked for it.
If this is our sense of who we are, as it was once mine, then what is the depth of our thanksgiving?
Allow me a moment of personal reflection. My father was an immigrant to this country. He and his family worked hard, a Scot Presbyterian work hard ethic, and they did well for themselves, as we say; they did well for themselves. I admire my father, not just for his success and what it took to get there, but more so for never having forgotten that it was this country which gave him his opportunity. You see, back in Scotland, my grandfather had been born into poverty. My great grandfather died when grandpa was young, in a time before social assistance. So, all the kids got farmed out to find work. My grandfather worked hard polishing boots and silverware in the big house. Think Downton Abbey. He did well for himself raising himself to the position of plant manager of the local brickworks.
At that time, however, Scotland had a very strict social system and my grandfather, having been born poor, had risen as far as he was going to go. Didn’t matter how smart or hard working you were, you were born of lower social class and you could not pass to another. But in Canada, there was no such barrier. It was an opportunity my father was always grateful for. In Canada, there was a publicly funded school system. In Canada, there were roads and hospitals and emergency services. In Canada, you could go to university no matter who you were. Yes, you needed to be able to provide the tuition, but the government built universities and paid, as they do today, 67% of the cost of educating a student. In other words, my father recognized that it was the neighbours to the right and left of him, his neighbours across the street, the people who sat in the pews at his church, who were providing for him the opportunity of advancing himself through education.
My father often said, “This country has been good to us.” and he meant that. He also believed that it was his obligation to give back by offering a helping hand to someone else. What if there had been no schools, no hospitals, no roads, no clean water, not enough food, no opportunity as there is still not for many of our indigenous communities?
How do you make something of yourself when there are no resources to do so?
I always like Hugh Graham’s story and I apologize if I am repeating it to some of you. There once was a brilliant scientist who had created life. He taunted God, “See, now I am as great as you!” Our ever-patient God gently said, “Why don’t we see, I’ll go first.” So God, in good biblical fashion, scooped up some soil, spat into it making mud, fashioned a human form and then breathed life into it.” “Okay,” God said, “it’s your turn.” So the scientist began to scoop up some soil and God interrupted, “Oh no you don’t. Go find your own soil.”
Sometimes I wonder if we are not a little like that scientist, so impressed we are with our own creations, our self-made lives, that we take for granted the one who gave us the gifts of the earth, the water which sustains us, the soil, the plants that cleanse the air, the creatures who sustain us and upon who we will feast this day, our breath, our hearts, our minds, our very souls without which there would be no life within us. Gifts, every single one of them. Yet, at this time of year, we utter an obligatory prayer of thanks, enough to recognize our privilege but not enough to betray our pride over what we have made of ourselves.
Ten lepers asked Jesus for healing. He asked them to go show themselves to the priest. As they took that walk, they began to be cleansed. Of this group of ten, 9 where Jews and one was a rival Samaritan, an enemy of the state. Think ISIS. As they walked, as they were being cleansed, I wonder what ran through their minds. One may have wanted to wait to see if the cure was real. One may have waited to see if it would last. One may have thought he would see Jesus later. One may have decided that he never really had leprosy all along. One may have thought he would have gotten better anyway. One was going to give the glory to the priests. One might have said, “Well, Jesus really didn’t do anything.” One might have said, “Any old rabbi could have sent us to the priests.” One might have thought “Oh well, I was already much improved.”
These men were Jews. Do you sense their deep seeded sense of entitlement? They were the chosen people of God. They were of God’s blessed nation. They mattered. Of course they should be healed. They had earned it at the temple with their devotion and sacrifices. Then there was the Samaritan. He could make no such claim. He was entitled to nothing. In the present company, he was resented, not welcomed.
Only their shared illness brought him into community with them because no one else wanted them around. He knew he was not deserving. So he recognized that what Jesus had done for one of his enemies, a foreigner, a non-believer, a marginalized outsider, could have been nothing else but an empathic, compassionate, pure gift. A pure gift with no strings attached, asking nothing in return. His heart was so full there was nothing else he could do but come back praising Jesus for this undeserved gift and do a face plant at his feet in submission to Jesus’ love.
There is no question that hard work and diligence should be rewarded. But let us always be mindful of the fact that there are truly no self-made people in this world. All we have, all good things around truly
have come from God. Gifts so bountiful they are beyond our counting, gifts so essential to us that none of us could quite literally ever live without them. And we don’t deserve any of this.
How deep is our thanksgiving? Deep enough to go beyond a cursory prayer, to running back to Jesus with praise on our lips and doing a face plant at his feet, the God of all gods, the King of all kings, Lord of all lords, who lifts our faces from the dirt, looks us in the eye and calls us his friends? Undeserved and purely a gift.