Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
…to the Canadians in Chapel today who celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, it being the second Monday in October. Today might be a little late for a Thanksgiving recipe for you, but any Americans in Chapel may not have finalised their menu yet for your thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. Keep listening.
It was odd this week to spring from the bench to deliver this sermon when the invited preacher had to withdraw. I kept the readings but changed the sermon title. But I couldn’t help but be influenced by her title, “Being Thankful in All Seasons”. I imagined the golds and reds of autumn leaves; the cosiness (the hygge, as Danes would say) of a warm room in winter, the fire lit and crackling; the smell of hope on a morning walk in spring; Pimm’s on the lawn in summer. Or I thought of being thankful in all circumstances – easily in times of joy, harder when sorrow comes, or even in the many bog-standard days life brings. I recalled the classic words of gratitude from a Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarsjkold:
For all that has been, Thanks.
To all that shall be, Yes.
But what really intrigued me on reading the story of Jesus healing ten people with leprosy, a word used then for a variety of medical conditions, was how unfair it seems. The moral lesson seems to be how ungrateful nine of the people were, because only one turned back to thank Jesus for being healed. But what did the others do wrong? In v. 14, Jesus had said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And it was in following Jesus’ instructions, and heading to Jerusalem, they were healed. He gave no recommendation that they return to give thanks. Yet Jesus said to the one, “the other nine, where are they?” It doesn’t seem fair.
So what are we meant to hear in Jesus’ words to the one who came back? I think there are three aspects to it, three ingredients perhaps in our thanksgiving recipe.
First, we hear something about spontaneity. When one of them saw that he was healed, he turned back, the implication is immediately. And then he praised God with a loud voice. This is clearly such a sudden access of joy, relief and hope in the man, that without thinking, in a completely unpremeditated way, he breaks ranks with the others, to turn back. The painting on the order of service expresses this sense of spontaneity, in the moment of joy all around.
There are hints elsewhere in the Gospels that being spontaneous is part of our faith. Jesus encourages us to enter the kingdom like a child. And the essence of being a child in this context is to be uncalculating, to trust, accept and love simply, quickly, without doing the maths. The stories of Jesus calling his disciples, of women perfuming his head and feet, are stories of spontaneity. Of course faith today includes prayers of thanksgiving made by regular habits, discipline and routine – Morning Prayers, Evensong, Compline, communion. But there is plenty of room in life for the impetuous sense of gratitude – at a rainbow, blossom, a snatch of music, a kiss, the smell of coconut, lemongrass and coriander, on my walk home each evening, coming from Be Thai on Market Street.
I heard of another story on this theme. A teenager had just received his provisional driving licence one summer – perhaps a St Andrews student. He offered to drive his parents to church. After a wild ride, they finally reached their destination. The driver’s mother got out of the car and said, “Thank you.” “Anytime,” her son replied. As the woman slammed her door, she said, “I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to God.”
A second element in thanksgiving is that it can come from a surprising place. The one person who turned back was a Samaritan. Samaritans were related to the Jews, but they had sharp disagreements, and barely talked to each other. In the Gospels, when Samaritans appear, they are always good, which is the point. To a Jewish audience, it took a particular act of imagination to see that God or indeed we could find goodness among such people. It is a sign of how marginalised these sick people were that they hung out with at least one Samaritan. For us in comfortable, cosmopolitan St Andrews we might substitute different marginalised communities – working-class Dundee, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Fashion Show Committee – oops, an easy target I know. But it was in this surprising place – a community of the sick, the outcast – that the grace of God was experienced, known and made a difference.
Indeed, we’re all pretty surprising really. All of us, rationally, might believe that God should by-pass us. We are all mixed-up, mistake-making, insecure, regretful, sceptical people who, from time to time, believe we are an imposter, to be found out as incompetent, to be found out by God as unworthy of divine love. We are all Samaritans. Yet God’s healing touch, restoring, peace-making, guiding, is available for all. In her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel writes of the surprising coming of grace:
I had come to my own understanding of grace, the seeping channel between persons and God… Every sense is graceful, an agent of grace: touch, smell, taste… You can pray for grace, but it is a thing that creeps in unexpectedly, like a draught. It is a thing you can’t plan for. By not asking for it, you get it.
And a final element that I think we are meant to hear in Jesus’ words to the one who came back: something about the source of the healing. This one person recognised the source of his new wholeness as God, and prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet, believing that through Jesus he had experienced the power of God. What is the source of all that is good in our lives? Well, every life is different, but many here are St Andrews students so there may be common ground. What is the source of this blessed existence in St Andrews? You may well say the hard work that led you to excel in Highers, A Levels, SATs and ACTs. But perhaps another source is people at the school, from teachers to governors who ensured you could learn so well. And let’s not forget parents and others who encouraged your study, fed, clothed and housed you, and drove you to countless music lessons for the all-important personal statement. Have we overlooked your background, community or culture which promoted education? The taxes that paid for it? And what about that genetic inheritance that predisposed you to enjoy deferring gratification? Surely all these matter, and are worth being thankful for. But I would argue further that all these contributions depend on the mercy of God – creating, giving, loving and inspiring – underpinning every blessing which is ours in life. As my father used to pray before dinner every Sunday night, “For these and all thy mercies, O Lord, may we be truly thankful. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.”
Indeed, this insight led Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a National Holiday in the United States in 1863, with these words:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God who made us.
Less Let’s make America great again; but rather Let’s recognise that any greatness in America is by the grace of God.
So what is my Thanksgiving Recipe?
I’d always add lemon and thyme to the turkey to enhance the flavour. And perhaps a dash of freshly-squeezed orange juice in the cranberry sauce.
But more deeply, to allow ourselves to be spontaneous in our response to God’s world; to be surprised by the grace which creeps in, beautifully, to every life; and to be alive to the true source of our blessings, inspiring others and ourselves to live well. These ingredients if mixed well, and simmered in the unpredictable waters of life, will lead without fail to thanksgiving.
And so it wasn’t unfair of Jesus to praise the one who was healed who returned. For there is much to learn from his turning back. What it reveals above all is that it takes an unconventional spirit to be grateful. Let us be unconventional. Let us all be Canadians tomorrow. And let us give thanks.