There was a pop machine out behind my dad’s laboratory in the barns on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign. It was one of those old machines that locked around the long neck of a glass bottle. You put money in and pulled the bottle out. One day, my friend Tommy Oliver and I discovered the lock was broken. We could pull out as much soda as we wanted. We were almost giddy with thanksgiving–but it didn’t last. We tried all the flavors. We drank until we were full. We even poured pop out on the ground. What was once precious, by its sheer abundance, became expendable, waste-able, and trivial.
That old pop machine taught me a lesson. Somehow it will always be easier for us to appreciate what we don’t have. Why does counting our blessings when we already have so much feels like a chore—especially if our pile seems small compared to anybody else? Scarcity and want crowd in and gratitude becomes fleeting and elusive when thanksgiving is only about how much or how many.
We’re going to need something else in order to be truly grateful. If thanksgiving is going to be a place for us to dwell all the days of our lives, then it will have to be built upon a different foundation.
For many people, health is something to truly give thanks for. I don’t deny it. Whatever happens to me, I will be grateful for this mortal body every day it does not bring me chronic pain, or betray my will for legs that move, arms that wave, hands that grip, and for a mind that functions. But what happens when it doesn’t? Can we be grateful then? Or will scarcity move in for good –and invite all of its friends— like bitterness, envy, resentment, loneliness, and fear to come live with us too?
Last week we heard Jesus scold the disciples. He told them not to expect thanks for all the good things they do in the name of Christ. They are worthless servants who do only what is asked (Luke 17:10). Today, we hear the rest of the story. Don’t wait to receive thanks, Jesus says, but always remember to give it.
Thanksgiving isn’t about being polite, it is a means of grace that redeems and sanctifies. Gratitude grows when it is shared. Thanksgiving becomes water to quench our thirsty souls. Giving thanks is healing and humanizing. Gratitude fills us with a spirit of abundance precisely because it comes from the abundant love and life of God that will always be with us.
I brought communion to our brother George Plensener this week. Some of you will remember George. He loved to sing in the choir. Life hasn’t been fair to George. As a young man he was injured at work when he fell out of a moving delivery truck. He lives at Wesley Place nursing home today. To look at him you would think there’s a man who doesn’t have many blessings to count, but you would be wrong. Ten lepers were healed, I told him, but only one returned to give thanks. Often it’s difficult for me to hear what George is saying, but not, last Thursday. He startled me with the depth and strength of his thanksgiving for God’s grace. When we were finished George offered the benediction—and as I left truly I knew I was the one upon whom was bestowed the greater blessing.
While we dwell in the body of Christ, gratitude is no longer about counting all our blessings as if we could pile them up for ourselves and squirrel them all away. It becomes too easy then for our life to become small. Instead, we are part of a living sanctuary of hope and grace forever.
The Good Samaritan is a Christ-like figure. Here, this Samaritan leper is a church-like figure, who embodies the essential elements of Christian worship. He is exemplary of the sort of devotion God expects, but does not always receive, from God’s people. Jesus wants us to ‘give thanks’, or literally, to make eucharist every where we go. We are to carry this spirit of thanksgiving by which we have been healed into the broken places of society so others too can be made well.
We need faithful people like George and the Samaritan to show us there is a wellspring of gratitude in each of us that has nothing to do with what we have or what we lack. It’s not surprising therefore, that the turning point for wealthy young 13th century man named Francis living in the beautiful Italian town of Assisi came from an encounter with a leper. Just as in bible times lepers were ejected from society and made to live outside of town regardless of their background or wealth or however many their dependents. If you were unfortunate enough to contract leprosy, the local priest would meet you in the cemetery where you were pronounced dead to the world.
For the rest of their lives they wore a distinctive gray cloak and sounded a wooden clapper to warn other travelers to keep their distance. They could not enter Assisi or visit fairs, markets and mills; they could not beg for food except wearing gloves; they could not drink from springs, rivers or wells but only from their flasks; they could only talk with the healthy if they stood downwind of them.
Francis had a fear of these leper-beggars from childhood. A friend recounted “Besides being incapable of looking at them, he would not even approach the places where they lived…and if he gave them alms he would do it through someone else, turning his face away and holding his nose…” (Adrian House, Francis of Assisi, A Revolutionary Life, p. 57-58)
But the spirit of compassion for the poor grew in him until one day he met a leper while riding near Assisi, and despite his overpowering horror he dismounted, gave the man a coin and kissed his hand. The leper gave him the kiss of peace in return. It was a watershed moment.
St. Francis later said, after kissing the leper, “I left the world.” He gave up on the usual payoffs, constraints, and rewards of business-as-usual and chose to live in the largest Kingdom of all. To pray and actually mean “thy Kingdom come,” we must also be able to say, “my kingdoms go.” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 10/7/16)
Gratitude is the fruit and consequence of the free abundant gift of grace by which God renews, claims, heals, calls, invites, and sends us. Come, lay your burdens down so that bitterness may be replaced with laughing; despair may be exchanged for rejoicing; grief may become an occasion for new love; Anger is channeled into the inspiration to build something better; Shame is replaced with dignity; and blaming become a hunger for humility. We don’t count our thanks, but always remember to give it, for in doing so you and I are made clean and well. May we always be so bold and fearless as to say “thanks.”