Thanksgiving Day on November 25, 2015

Sermon by Vicar Julius Buelow on Thanksgiving Day at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Greenville, WI; based on Luke 17:1-11.

Janice Kaplan, author of “The Gratitude Diaries,” had a problem. She wasn’t grateful for anything, and it was ruining her life.  So Janice made a promise on New Year’s Eve, 2013, to spend a whole year being grateful and looking on the bright side no matter what happens. A year later, she was so happy with the results that she wrote her book about how gratitude can transform every aspect of life: marriage and friendship, money and ambition, and health and fitness. She’s gained quite a following, and is now lovingly referred to as “The High Priestess of the Gratitude Cult.” Being thankful changed her life for the better—who doesn’t want that?

So how did she start? What’s the secret? It’s not like you just wake up one day feeling really thankful and walk around going “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

For Janice that basically was her secret. Force herself to be grateful through simple things like keeping a gratitude diary every day, and forcing herself to do things like saying thank you for her umbrella when she was angry that it was raining outside. She used lots of methods to get herself to be grateful, but the problem with her gratitude is that it almost never had an object. Just be grateful—to whom? Doesn’t matter, just be grateful so you can live a better life. The style of gratitude being pushed today is a lot like people telling you to have faith—in what? Oh, that doesn’t matter, just have faith. But faith without an object is useless. And sending out thank you letters in the mail without an address and without a stamp doesn’t really show much gratitude at all.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus shows us the secret to being thankful. And this secret changes your life in a way that Janice’s Gratitude Diaries never could. Are you ready? The secret to being thankful is to…”Remember the giver.” Remember the giver—the one who has given all these gifts, because his undeserved gifts to everyone, show his unreserved love for you.

At the start of our reading, Jesus is walking and teaching his disciples, but then he is interrupted. A little ways outside a village, Jesus hears yelling.

The source of the yelling is clear: A group of people with leprosy—ten in all. According to the law, they had to stay outside of their village, away from their homes, their families, their possessions, and from everyone else. They had to stay dirty and unshowered, and they weren’t allowed to comb their hair—had to have a state of permanent bedhead—in other words, they were gross. And whenever someone approached that’s basically what they were supposed to yell: “Unclean, we’re unclean.”

But that wasn’t what they were yelling. This group of stinky outcasts was yelling, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.”

“Have mercy on us!” Pretty close to yelling “Unclean”, but different in one important way. “Have mercy”,—with those words they acknowledged, “We are completely unclean and helpless, look at us.” But they also showed that they believed Jesus had the power and the desire to help them anyway.

And he did! Jesus said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And while they were going, they were healed.

Imagine two hungry cats come to your door: The first one, a cute little kitten with snuggly fluffy fur and big eyes; The second one, a muddy, scraggly grown-up cat with drool coming out of its mouth. Which would you rather take into your home? Which would you rather have mercy on? Those lepers were all a lot more like that gross second cat, and Jesus still cared for them. And, to tell you the truth, we’re a lot more like the second cat too.

We acknowledge that almost every Sunday when we pray the same words the lepers did, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We could stand at a distance and yell “Unclean” when our friends and family arrive for thanksgiving dinner (don’t, you’ll freak them out). Not because we have leprosy, or because we have a cold we don’t want to pass on, but because we are sinners. We’re born gross, unclean from a sick and selfish heart that shows itself with selfish thoughts and actions.

We can take a moment to confess that, today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving. People need a how-to on being thankful like the book “The Gratitude Diaries” and not a how-to on being selfish and unthankful—and it’s because our sick heart is naturally unthankful. We have a much easier time asking for things to be thankful for, than saying thank you to the one who has given us all the blessings that we do have—there’s a reason Thanksgiving now lasts less than a day and Black Friday gets a day and a half.

And yet—God still does have mercy on us.

Jesus gives undeserved gifts to everyone: life, health, home, family, friends, experiences, possessions. He especially gives forgiveness and the hope of an eternal future—He gives us all so many blessings that if we tried to say thank you for them all right now the service would push Thanksgiving dinner back into Black Friday. Jesus gives all these blessings, not because you deserve them, but so that you can have the secret of being thankful: These blessings help you remember the giver, whose undeserved gifts to everyone, show his unreserved love for you.

We didn’t have a children’s message earlier, so I’m gonna sneak one in in the sermon here. On the desk in my office is this little Playmobil Martin Luther. And if you saw it there you might not think it is very unique—and you’d be right. Thousands and thousands have been sold around the world. So why I am so thankful for it? Because I got this when I was visiting some friends in Germany, and it reminds me of them, and the good times we had together and the love they have for me. Does it make a difference that thousands of people have the very same Mini-Martin? No. Does it make a difference that they have a whole box of these in their basement to give to other guests who come visit J? No. I’m grateful to them because when I see this gift, it reminds me of them.

 It’s the same with Jesus’ gifts to you. Your blessings are a reminder of Jesus and his love for you. Because even though he gives wonderful gifts to everyone, every single gift he gives to you is out of special love for you. And that leads us to be thankful to him.

That’s why the one leper came back to say thank you. Listen to those verses again, “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.”

When Jesus gave this leper the gift of healing, he couldn’t help but turn around, because he knew what it meant: that Jesus loved him, even him. Sure, all ten of them were healed, but do you remember where this guy was from? The Bible tells us: He was a Samaritan.

He was clearly a foreigner, the one that didn’t belong, and if the other 9 were like those cute and cuddly kittens at the door, this guy was obviously the dripping wet and gross one trying to sneak in with them. There’s no way Jesus healed this guy by accident. And the moment he was healed along with the other lepers, the Holy Spirit allowed the Samaritan to realize in his heart the same thing you realized when he gave you faith: “Jesus has shown love to everyone, which means he has shown love to me.

The rest of the 9 who were healed maybe fell into a trap we can fall into sometimes, especially if we’ve been Christians for a while. We’ve always been in the group, we’ve always had these blessings, everyone around us has had these blessings, we’ve heard Jesus died for the sins of the world and we hear it every Sunday—and because of that we can start to take it for granted. We can be tempted to forget how special those gifts are—“Jesus loves me?” “Oh, I bet you say that to everyone.”

Yes, Jesus gives gifts to everyone, but don’t ever forget what this Samaritan knew by faith—that Jesus hasn’t given you anything by accident. When Jesus died for the sins of the world, he wrote your name in the book of life. And every single blessing that Jesus has given you is hand-signed, specially chosen, carefully wrapped, just, for, you.

At the end of the movie Seven Pounds, Emily Rosa slips her head under water and listens to the beating of her heart. Dum-dum. Dum-dum. Just a few days before, Emily had accepted she was going to die in the hospital. Her heart was failing, and the list of people willing to donate their heart so she could live was unsurprisingly empty. But then the call came in. Ben Thomas, a man with the same blood type, had heard her story and gotten to know her and to love her. He had allowed himself to die, and designated that his heart be given to her. She lived. And every day, the beating of the heart he had given to her reminded her of Ben’s love for her.

That’s the secret to being thankful: Hearing the beat of Jesus’ loving heart behind every blessing that you have. Today, or tomorrow when you’re gathered around the table listing what your thankful for, let every blessing—your life, your home, your possessions, your family and friends—remind you of the amazing giver behind it all. And let the beating of your believing heart always keep you sure of his merciful, saving love, just for you. Thank you, Jesus.  Amen.