Last Sunday’s Thanksgiving message

November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! I preached this sermon, entitled “Gratitude,” last Sunday, November 21. The scripture is Luke 17:11-19

Do any of you know any celebrities or famous people? The closest I’ve come to knowing a celebrity is that when I was a kid, we had a family friend named Rick Rhoden who was a two-time All-Star pitcher in the Major Leagues. In the mid-’70s he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Back then, you may recall, for some weird reason, the Braves were in the National League West division with the Dodgers, so they played the Dodgers a lot. When the Dodgers would come to town, Rick would leave tickets for us at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium will-call booth.

One time, we were meeting him for dinner after a game, and we waited for him to come up from the locker room. As he walked toward us, a crowd of teenagers shouted at him, “Mr. Rhoden, Mr. Rhoden, please give us an autograph. Please, Mr. Rhoden! Please, we’re your biggest fans. Please, Mr. Rhoden!” We’re trying to have a conversation with our friend, and they’re shouting at him. It was a little rude, you know? I thought to myself, “That’s so humiliating. I would never embarrass myself like that for an autograph. Show some class!” But their willingness to sacrifice their dignity demonstrated how badly these kids wanted this thing from him.

Like these teenagers, the lepers in today’s scripture couldn’t afford to have dignity. Not if they wanted to eat. These men were forced to live on the outskirts of town, apart from civil society. In fact, when an unsuspecting person approached them, they were required to shout, “Tame’! Tame’!”—Hebrew for “unclean”—or “Tsara’ath,” which meant leprosy, so that healthy people would know to steer clear. So they were ostracized, isolated, rejected, looked-down-upon. Having no means to support themselves, they lived off the charity of those who took pity on them.

They had heard about Jesus, and how he had the power to physically heal people. So they shouted, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And what does Luke tell us? “When he saw them…” I suspect most people in that town didn’t see these lepers anymore. They ignored them. They looked away. These lepers were invisible to most people. But Jesus saw them, and because he saw them—he saw them for who they truly were; not as outcasts and sinners, but as God’s beloved children who were suffering and in need.

I visited someone in the hospital recently who had some terrible complications from surgery and was really suffering. Every breath he took was labored, and I could see that he was in great pain—physically and emotionally. He could barely talk he was so distracted by his pain and discomfort. He was also homesick and lonely, worried about his family; worried about missing work. I prayed with him. Then I placed my hand on his hand and held it there for a while. I looked him in the eyes and said, “I can see that you’re really struggling.” And he said, “I am,” and tears welled up in his eyes. It was like the dam burst. More than anything, I think he wanted someone to see him; to see what he was going through; to give voice to what he was suffering. And I believe in that moment that Jesus was working through me; that this man could look past me as his pastor and see that Jesus was with him, and Jesus, who bore all of our suffering on the cross, understood what he was going through.

All of you, as Christian ministers, can be like Jesus to someone in need. And I know that so many of you, in your own ministries through this church, are doing that. We brought deodorant this morning in part to benefit our church’s homeless ministry. Some of you—children, youth, and adults—have taken part in that ministry. And if you have, I’m sure you look at the homeless in a new way. You’ve talked to them. You’ve cried with them. You’ve prayed with them. You’ve heard their stories. You’ve shared a part of yourselves with them. That experience has changed them, but it’s also changed you. You can see them now, in a way that you couldn’t before. Most of us wish the homeless were out of sight and out of mind. And for many of us they are invisible. But not for you. You’re learning to see them as Jesus sees them.

When we think about the homeless—and so many other people suffering or in need—maybe we have a hard time with Thanksgiving. Maybe we feel guilty and think, “I’ve been blessed enough! I have a hard time counting my blessings because it seems like every blessing I have is a blessing someone else doesn’t have!” If we feel that way, then maybe God is trying to tell us something. God’s blessings on our lives are not meant to simply end with us. We are made to share them. As Renée Sassaman said in that video a few months ago when describing what she’s learned through working with the homeless, “I’m blessed to be a blessing.” We receive God’s love in order to share God’s love. We receive God’s blessings in order to share them with others.

And we’re able to share our blessings because we understand that they’re not ours to begin with! It doesn’t put me out to share a blessing with others because I know that there are more blessings where that came from. There always has been. God has proven himself trustworthy. We pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, and we say these words: “Give us this day our daily bread.” At 40 years of age I’ve lived 14,886 days as of today. And for each of those days, God hasn’t disappointed me even one time! I just keep on getting blessed with my daily bread. Even when I forget to ask for it, God just keeps giving it to me. And I get blessed with everything I need to live, and I’m alive today only because of the God who blesses me with every heartbeat and every breath that I take. How can I not be grateful? How can I not trust God to take care of me? All he’s ever done is take care of me! It’s all a gift! It’s all a gift! Amen?

Because gratitude—the heart of thanksgiving—is learning to see the countless ways that we are blessed by God. I’ll admit it’s a struggle sometimes to see things this way. We’re conditioned to see reality through the lens of the secular media. We turn on the news, after all, and we hear discussions and arguments about the economy, and what the President is or isn’t doing about jobs, and what the new Congress will or won’t do about taxes, and how China fits into all of it. There’s no discussion of where God fits into it. No one from the media ever interviews, for example, Bishop Michael Watson, who would remind us, I hope, that God is in control, and we shouldn’t be anxious about tomorrow—what we’ll eat, what we’ll drink, what we’ll wear; that our heavenly Father provides for us; that we should seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness—and all these things other things we often worry about will be given to us as well.

It’s crazy to imagine that kind of message on the news, but why should it be? Who is it that ultimately takes care of us? Who is it that ultimately provides for us? Where does true security come from? Not from politicians or corporations or banks or armies. Not from TSA body-scanners in airports. Not even from ourselves. No one is self-made. God gives us our life and our bodies and our minds and our talents. God gives us parents and families and responsible adults who love and care for us. God gives us this amazing planet with its rich resources to support our lives so well. God puts people in our lives like teachers who inspire us. God gives us mentors and role models who influence and shape us. We stand on the shoulders of people who’ve gone before us, just as they stood on the shoulders of people who went before them—and it’s all because of God!

How can we take it for granted? How can we not be overflowing with gratitude?

I don’t know, but it happens!

It happened in today’s scripture. Ten lepers are healed of their leprosy. But Luke tells us that only “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” It wasn’t simply that this one leper saw with his eyes that he was physically healed. The other nine saw that as well. No, he perceived the deeper meaning in this healing: that God, through Jesus Christ had done this great and miraculous thing in his life—for someone who was an outcast, a reject, a pariah, a sinner. And because he was a Samaritan, he was even an enemy of Israel. God did this for him! What love! Can you imagine how he felt?

When I filmed people talking for our Thankful Sunday video, I told them, “You can’t say that you’re thankful for God or Jesus.” That category is too broad. I want something smaller, more specific. But you know what? More than anything, I am thankful for Jesus. Are you? When the leper returns to thank Jesus and praise God, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” What he literally says is, “Your faith has saved you.” Unlike the other nine, this person experienced a kind of healing that goes way beyond physical healing. After all, this leper, though he was healed of this particular illness, would later die of something else—as we all will. The physical healing wasn’t permanent. But this other kind of healing—spiritual healing, the saving grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, the gift of eternal life, becoming a part of God’s family—that’s a gift that will outlast death and can never be taken away.

There was a period in my life when I worried about whether God could truly love me. When I worried about whether God could truly forgive me. When I worried about whether God could truly save me. When I worried about whether God could ever accept me for who I am. I don’t worry about these things anymore. In fact, I haven’t worried about them in such a long time that I forget that I ever worried about them in the first place. I’m a beloved child of God who will spend eternity with God because of what Jesus Christ has done for me and for you. How can I take that for granted? But I know I do. I take for granted how dramatically this gift has changed my life for the better.

When I was a kid, I played with my friends in a creek that ran through the woods near our houses. We imagined we were soldiers during World War II—with our toy rifles and pinecone hand-grenades and tree-limb bazookas. I’ll have you know we fought and won many battles around that creek! We loved the creek. But there was one thing I didn’t like about it. Occasionally, there were large fallen trees or logs suspended over the creek from one high bank to the other. In other words, if you were crossing the creek and you fell off the log, you would fall several feet down into the water. But it made for a convenient crossing. My friends Matt and Geoff could zip across those logs from one side of the creek to the other without the slightest fear. But I never could. I was too afraid to take that first step. If that same log were on the ground I could walk across it all day long, but when it’s up in the air—and with the water down below… I was too afraid. Do you know what I mean?

I was afraid of falling.

If I could put into words what this often-taken-for-granted gift of salvation and eternal life means to me, I might say this: I’m not afraid of falling anymore. I know that there is Someone who loves me enough to catch me when I do fall. And that makes all the difference!

The psalmist writes, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where is my help to come. My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

As we look toward Thanksgiving, I’m especially thankful for that. What are you thankful for?

Psalm 121:1-2

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