Thanksgiving, 2011

Giving thanks in difficult times.

The Lectionary for Thanksgiving, Year A

We have a noon Eucharist at Grace on Wednesdays. Typically we follow the calendar of commemorations in Holy Women, Holy Men although I am rather free in my adaptation of the calendar. I begin by looking at the commemoration of the day, and then if that doesn’t strike my fancy, I look further afield. In part, I look for a figure about whom I can say something with a minimum of research, so that means I’m more likely to draw on traditional figures than on some of the new (and trial) figures.

November 23 is Clement of Rome and for a few minutes I pondered whether I might go there. Then my mind turned to Thanksgiving. The richness of the texts beckoned to me. I went back through my files, looking for sermons I preached on Thanksgiving, or on its eve, and came across the one I gave in 2008. Reading even the first paragraph was shocking:

Our national mood is very different this November than it has been in the previous few years. The global financial crisis in which we find ourselves has created tremendous anxiety, even fear. No one knows how bad things are going to get and no one knows how long it will last.

We are anxious and fearful, but as a nation many of us are also wondering whether our best years are behind us. In addition to the financial crisis, there is the meltdown in the auto industry and the shock this summer and fall when gas prices topped $4.00 a gallon. We wonder whether we will ever again enjoy the lavish and profligate lifestyles most of us led only a few months ago. There is belt-tightening all around. We are in a somber mood.

As I read that, I was surprised both by the negative tone with which I began, and by the fact, that three years later, our national mood is, if anything, even more somber.

How can we give thanks in such a context? The lessons for Thanksgiving in year A don’t ask that question directly, but when their contexts are considered, that question may be at the heart of the lections. In the first place, Deuteronomy: first written centuries after the events it recounts, it is a call to faithfulness, a reminder of the covenant with God, of God’s promises to God’s chosen people, and of the response to those promises that God demanded. They were given a rich and fruitful land but their possession of it was dependent on their faithfulness to God.

Deuteronomy reached something of the form we have it today in the Exiliic period, when the descendants of the Israelites were living in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem and the defeat of Judah. They no longer possessed the land and they were having to rethink their faith in God. It would have been easy to abandon Yahweh in that context, but instead they developed a theology that explained their plight and offered hope for a different future.

In the gospel, we hear the story of the cleansing of the ten lepers. It’s a wonderful story, full of drama and puzzling detail. The miracle itself takes place off-stage. Jesus does nothing except tell the ten to present themselves to a priest, in keeping with Mosaic law. As they go, they discover that they are cleansed. One turns back and thanks Jesus. It turns out, he’s a Samaritan. The wonderful bit of this story is that while we are led to believe he turns back out of faith and gratitude, a moment’s reflection reminds us that he had no place to go. As a Samaritan, it didn’t matter if he was cleansed of leprosy, and no priest would certify him so. As a Samaritan, whether or not he was a leper, he was profoundly unclean in the eyes of Jews.

We have a great deal for which to give thanks and these lessons remind us, that whatever our circumstances, it is appropriate, even necessary, to be thankful to God. In these difficult times, we need to remember that God has given us so very much, that it is because of God’s love that the universe was created and us in it, because of God’s love that his Son’s love has restored us to right relationship with one another and with God, that all we have comes from God, and that in the end, all we can do, is be thankful.


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