Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
It is kind of funny to me that we as Episcopalians celebrate Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving as we know it, with Puritans celebrating their first harvest with Native Americans after a plague of disease and a rough winter, was primarily a religious response to the reality of suffering of the Plymouth colonizers. The British Puritans were a religious movement that sought to purify The Church of England of any perceived Roman Catholic influence. They wanted the Protestant Reformation that had swept continental Europe to take hold in England in a more dramatic way, and throughout the English Reformation, the longest of any European Reformation, they had various levels of success. The Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower believed that they should be separate from the established Church of England, the church that we are born from and maintain communion with.
But Thanksgiving has even deeper liturgical origins. As part of their goal to purify the Church of England, the Puritans banned the celebrations of Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter and replaced them with days of Thanksgiving, where they would feast, and days of humiliation, where they would fast. Thanksgiving as a mark on our calendar is a remnant of a political and theological movement that otherwise didn’t last.
I say all of this because our celebration of Puritans celebrating their first harvest with Native Americans makes no sense. It is almost funny, to me, how ironic it is. The Puritans would probably be astounded that we maintain such a close communion with the Church of England, that our celebration of their feast includes women at the altar, even that there is an altar at all. They would likely be disappointed that rather than becoming more Protestant, we have more deeply engaged our Catholicity, we don’t wear Puritan clothes, and for the most part, their movement had very little impact on our practice today. So why do we do it? What is so special about this day that it is on our church calendar?
Maybe, just for today, we can appreciate the Puritan’s sentiment. Because an encounter with the work of God among us is worth giving thanks for. And I am grateful that out of all the practices of the Puritans that could have ended up as vestigial practices in our church 402 years later, this is the one that somehow stuck around.
In fact, every Sunday in our church today is a celebration of thanksgiving. That is what the word “eucharist” literally translates to. If you told your neighbor that you were going to St. Paul’s or Old St. Luke’s for Holy Thanksgiving on any given weekend you wouldn’t be wrong, but they may look at you a bit funny. This is why when Erin says the mass in just a few minutes, it is prefaced with a recounting of thanks.
The mass begins with the Priest asking of the gathered, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” And the response, “It is right to give God thanks and praise,” and finally, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you..” And in some sense, because the practice of our faith puts the celebration of the eucharist in the center, we center our spiritual lives around thankfulness. Thankfulness is the natural response to our God, who despite all of our failings, our mistakes, our tragedies, offers himself to us.
And it is in this spirit that in our Gospel we encounter 10 men who all had an encounter with Christ, and yet only one of them on their journey had an awareness that caused him to turn back. Prostrating on the ground and singing praises to God he approached Jesus with thanksgiving. There was nothing more appropriate or more pressing than coming back to the person that made him well. In response to the former leaper’s thankfulness, Jesus said the words, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
This phrase, “has made you well,” has multiple meanings in the original language of the text. It can mean to be made physically healthy, a fact that is made clear in that all the lepers were in fact healed of their leprosy – a disease which would’ve made this group of ten outcasts in 1st Century Judean social life and separated them from their families, religious tradition, and any other form of socialization.
It is also a word more often translated to mean save - some translations do in fact take this route, saying, “your faith has saved you.” I’m personally fond of the King James Version, in this case, which tries to encompass both meanings and simply says, “thy faith hath made thee whole.” This phrase is only heard three other times in the New Testament. Each time Jesus said this, it was to a person who had something different about them that would’ve made them ritually impure or socially outcast – in this case, both ritually impure and socially outcast. This was a phrase that Jesus offered in explicit defiance of his culture and, likely, the people who surrounded him in ministry. Even more interesting, every single time this phrase is used, the next chapter is an illustration of the Kingdom of God - as if to preface any talk of the Kingdom of God with these interactions between Jesus and outcasted people.
Perhaps, it was because he knew that as a Samaritan, he wouldn’t be welcome at the Temple anyway, perhaps it was because as a Samaritan he would simply go from one outcast community to another, but something made him realize that he was healed in more than one way – and all he knew to do was to prostrate himself in front of his savior in thankfulness.
And the Good News is, that Christ still works through and for our sake today and declares us well. He still reaches out with a healing touch. He still peers into the depths of our hearts and declares that we are made whole in Him. He will still one day stand on our behalf when we are judged and declare that we are made well through his saving labor, through his commitment to and love for each one of us. He still will stand in our place and say, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
The realization of this, the embrace and even a fraction of understanding of the fullness of the saving power of Christ, God’s sacrifice for us, and the work that God does among us today can only lead us to an awe-inspired thankfulness and a celebration of Holy Thanksgiving that will continue for the ages. There is no more appropriate response to God’s saving work among us than to come before the altar, to turn around on our way to do something else, to embrace the loving power of Jesus in thankfulness for his great mercies – to celebrate with love and thanksgiving.
And so, we meet here for a Holy Thanksgiving. Not just because 402 years ago English Puritans who rejected the faith we live out today survived a winter of plague to make harvest, but because we have come to know the work of Christ among us; because just as the Samaritan was declared well, we are too.
So, on this Thanksgiving in the Year of our Lord 2023, I encourage you to turn towards Christ in a spirit of thankfulness. Not just for the provisions of this life, not just for the Turkey and the harvest, but for the spiritual food we are given, for the saving power of Christ, and in a deeper understanding of the radical and indescribable change that happens when we encounter Christ. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." Happy Thanksgiving. Amen.