In the midst of plague and a broken society and world, we join with others of the same situation and give thanks to God on this day.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Day of Thanksgiving, year A
Texts: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Luke 17:11-19
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Remember to give thanks to God when you prosper, Moses says.
As the Israelites prepare to enter the land promised to them by God, where they will flourish, they are warned not to exalt themselves when they thrive there. They mustn’t forget that the God of their ancestors took them out of slavery and led them through the “terrible” wilderness to this good place.
When Jesus heals ten people afflicted with leprosy, perhaps they did what Moses warns against. Nine, in their joy, or eagerness to be with family again, or for any reason, forgot to thank the One who just miraculously cured them.
In prosperity and abundance, in relief at healing, in hope for the future, in security and peace, it’s possible to forget to thank God. These readings urge us: don’t forget to be thankful when all is well and good.
They don’t seem to fit this year.
How would today’s Gospel sound if Jesus weren’t there to heal?
If the ten lepers simply had a normal day of sitting by the roadside, shouting “unclean,” hoping someone might toss them a coin, would anyone ask, “Why didn’t all of these give thanks?”
For us, over a quarter of a million people have died to pandemic in this country, a contagion at least as serious as leprosy was. There are many more empty places at thousands of tables this Thanksgiving Day than usual. And additional empty places where loved ones separated from us for safety would usually sit. Some haven’t seen loved ones for eight months. So many, even just in our congregation, are isolated and alone. Shall we be chastised for struggling to be thankful?
How would Deuteronomy sound if the people were told that once more at the gate of the Promised Land they would be punished again with another 40 years in the wilderness? Would they then need warning about getting so fat and comfortable they might forget to thank God?
For us, far from feeling prosperous and secure in our nation, we’re in the midst of a presidential transition the Founders never envisioned. What if the one who loses refuses to step aside? And will the administration do any governing now until Inauguration Day, do anything to stem the tide of COVID? The great social issues that challenge our society boil over every day, different ones at different times, all demanding our attention. Do we need warning of being too self-confident, proud of our secure, safe, nation, as if we made it so?
Demanding thankfulness in the midst of suffering or disease or civil unrest feels abusive, lacking compassion and sensitivity.
And it doesn’t work. No one becomes thankful – to God or to others – because someone chided them, or guilted them. True thankfulness rises up in the heart on its own when someone feels gratitude, becomes aware of blessings, recognizes graces that have been received.
So there are no lectures to you to be thankful this Thanksgiving. Not if you, like so many, are struggling to find a thankful heart, reasons to be grateful.
But today is Thanksgiving Day nonetheless. Perhaps, rather than a lecture, we could witness someone who knew as well as we do that life is not always disease-free and lived in the abundant milk and honey and peace of the Promised Land.
In 1637, Europe was in the middle of a war that raged for 30 years.
Fought between Christian nobility over the issues of the Reformation, the peasants, the ordinary folk, paid dearly for it in blood. Christian war brought massive suffering and death. In the midst of this war, recurrences of the plague spread throughout Europe.
In Eilenburg, Saxony, Pastor Martin Rinkhart had served since the war’s beginning. Many refugees fled to this walled city, bringing with them overcrowding, starvation, and disease. Armies overran the city. The Rinkharts, not wealthy, housed many refugees over the years. And in 1637, the plague came to Eilenburg.
The contagion spread fear and panic, and eight thousand died in the city in two years. In 1637, Rinkhart was the only surviving pastor in the city, and held more than 4,500 funerals that year, including his wife’s.
Pandemic, death, and fear of disease. Civil strife and fighting between Christians. The feared collapse of societal institutions. That sounds familiar.
And in the middle of those times, Martin Rinkhart wrote a hymn.
He doesn’t stand in privilege and unconcern and rebuke us for our struggle to find gratitude in these days. No, he invites us to join him, and the survivors of Eilenburg, to sing in the midst of disease and social strife: “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices; Who, from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
Might we recognize a kindred spirit here, and join this song? Remaining open-eyed to civil crisis and the uncertainty of our times, to a global pandemic that burns hotly, could we join this brother, and the millions who have sung this with him these past four hundred years?
It’s actually easy to forget to give thanks in both good times and bad.
Perhaps, singing this, we might find gratitude in our times, too. Gratitude for the beautiful creation, and a sunny, frosty November morning. Gratitude for the gift of people who love you – even if you must be at home alone, or you can’t see them, they still love you and pray for you and hold you in God’s care. Gratitude for the joy in the midst of grief that those who have died are in the arms of God in life that does not end. Gratitude for food and drink abundant enough to share. Gratitude for signs of hope that healing of our society and nation might be coming. Even gratitude for signs that a lessening and finally an ending of this plague might be ahead, even if it’s still months.
You may perhaps, if you sing with Martin, find many more things to give thanks for welling up in your heart and your voice. But most of all, you’ll remember that nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Not this life, not death. You are beloved and precious. As are all.
“Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices; Who, from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen