Sermon – Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012
St. John’s Catholic Church, Grafton, ND
Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service
The 102 passengers on the small ship, the Mayflower, were on a journey. So were the ten lepers in the story in Luke’s gospel, and so was Jesus. They were all on a journey to a particular place for a particular purpose. They were on a mission and no one and nothing was going to stand in their way. And like any journey there were risks involved.
The pilgrims, as they are known now, left everything behind and crossed treacherous seas. The ship could have sunk at any time. One hundred and two people confined on a small ship was a recipe for disaster. Sickness and death were a real possibility. And when they arrived, many throughout the first winter contracted diseases. Over half of them died before the spring. Yet they felt it was worth the risk in order to live a life of freedom. Freedom to prosper and freedom to practice their faith. They were filled with hope.
The ten lepers in Luke’s gospel were on a treacherous path as well, filled with sickness and the inevitability of death. They wanted to live a life of freedom too, but that wasn’t even a possibility for them. They were outcast, shunned by society, foreigners in their own culture….religious outcasts. They too, like the pilgrims, left everything behind, but not voluntarily. They were people without hope.
Until Jesus came along. Jesus was on a journey too, a journey to Jerusalem, a journey toward death. He wasn’t trying to avoid it. He wasn’t trying to figure out a way around it. Jesus was on a collision course to suffering, persecution, and crucifixion. Jesus was on a direct path toward death. Jesus was a man who had no hope and the Son of God who was the hope for all. He was the answer to everyone’s prayers only they didn’t know it. And so the lepers kept their distance.
Instead they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They didn’t want to get too close. They were after all, “unclean.” No one could get near them for fear of contracting whatever they had and becoming unclean themselves. Yet even though they were afraid to go to Jesus, Jesus met them where they were. He saw them and spoke to them out of love and compassion and said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests. “ He gave them a new journey, a journey toward hope. So they listened to Jesus and set out in a new direction and while they were on that journey they were made clean.
In those days, the priests had to examine the lepers to declare they were indeed cured and could re-enter society. They needed that acceptance back into their culture because being an outcast meant no way to live. They needed someone with authority to reintroduce them back into society. Yet, they were so focused on their new mission of seeking out the priests, that I wonder if they even recognized they were cured. They were concentrating on the new goal and didn’t stop to see what had just taken place.
Don’t we often do the same thing? We have a goal to accomplish, a particular place we have to be, a time we have to be there, and we’re so concentrated on the outcome that we forget to enjoy the journey. We don’t see the blessings that are happening along the way. Our mind is either in the past or the future, but the gift of the present moment remains hidden to us. We can’t see that Jesus is present and when we encounter Jesus nothing is the same. We are changed, but do we stop to see this transformation?
One person did. In the brief story in Luke’s gospel one out of the ten lepers who were cured paused long enough to see he was healed. He took the time to go back and thank Jesus for this gift of salvation. Yes, it was more than just a cleansing; this former leper was saved. He was saved from a life of death and transformed into newness of life. And he was a Samaritan.
A Samaritan was the enemy of the Jews. They were people to be avoided at all costs – outsiders. And as an outsider this Samaritan would not have to go and show himself to the priests. He could have kept right on walking – or probably running or jumping at his new found healing – but he didn’t. He stopped to give thanks. Because of that faith, that trust, Jesus said he was made well. Faith is more than just something we have; it is also something we do. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, faith turns us toward God. Faith is living in a new direction and giving thanks is a way we express that faith.
Giving thanks to God for all we have been blessed with is something most of us do before each meal. We take a moment to express our gratitude for the food, for those who prepared it, hopefully aware that there are many who have no food at all. Which leads to the question, “When do we give thanks?” is it only when we have an abundance or do we thank God even in the midst of our lack, or sickness, suffering, or danger? In her book, Left to Tell, Immaculee Ilibagiza, survivor of the Rwandan holocaust, was in fear of her life. She was being hunted to be killed when a pastor took her in and hid her in a tiny bathroom with seven other women. The first thing she said she did was thank God for the tiny room to hide and protect them. She didn’t say Why God, Why Me? She didn’t curse God. She thanked God even though her life was still in danger. That is faith. Faith is an awareness of the presence of God. Thanksgiving is an expression of that faith. It renews us and turns our focus toward God and away for our situation.
The pilgrims gave thanks for their arrival in New England despite sickness, weakness, and death. They were outcast from their own country and outsiders to this one, but the Native Americans welcomed them even though it would eventually lead to their own destruction. That is what faith does. It reaches out in love regardless of the circumstances. It takes risks. It reaches out to the outcasts, the poor, the hungry, and the weak. It gives thanks in all circumstances. Faith enables us to be the answer to others prayers.
We are all on a journey. A journey of faith that leads to transformation. A journey of faith that leads us to embrace all people, to love all people, and to live lives of Thanksgiving. Amen.