Text: Luke 17:11-19 (a grateful leper)
Today is Thanksgiving, a day on which we count our blessings; and this year I find it easier to do this because of my upcoming wedding to Kim Boyes. A year ago on Thanksgiving Sunday, Kim and I flew to Toronto so that she could meet my mother and help my family celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. A month later, we got engaged. Next month we will be married. And what could be better than that?
But for others of us, giving thanks may not be so simple. Some of us are in pain, some are sick, some are mourning the loss of a loved one. Giving thanks when we are afraid, angry, or grieving might seem like a bridge too far.
Because communities of faith always contain a wide range of feelings and experiences, preparing Thanksgiving sermons has not been easy for me.
I first wrote a Thanksgiving sermon in 2009 when I was a student minister in Didsbury. It focused on the harvest and on the challenges faced by young people who have vastly more career choices now than in the days when most people lived on farms.
The next one was in 2011 after I had spent three months in my first post in ordained ministry in rural Saskatchewan. That one focused on the death that week of Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO of Apple Computer, and his published thoughts on mortality and enlightenment.
My 2012 Thanksgiving sermon was written in anticipation of the United Church of Canada’s Banff Men’s Conference, which I will attend again next weekend. That year, the speaker was an environmentalist and so I wrote about the challenge of giving thanks in the face of environmental problems.
For Thanksgiving 2013, I wrote a sermon just after I had announced to the three churches I served in Saskatchewan that I had accepted a call here to Mill Woods United in Edmonton. That one focused on my gratitude for the years I had been in ministry with them.
In 2014 and 2015, I wrote sermons about the paradox of being grateful in lives that tend to strip us of the things we love.
And now Thanksgiving 2016 is here and our Gospel reading is about sickness and healing. Ten lepers beg Jesus for mercy. He tells them to show themselves to the priests; and merely by obeying this command, they are healed of their sickness. Finally, one of the ten returns to Jesus to offer thanks.
This simple parable sketches the whole of the life of faith. Trust God, be healed, and give thanks: perhaps this is really all we supposed to do in life.
But what about sickness that is not healed? Trusting in God does not mean that we or loved ones won’t get sick. Why, then, should we give thanks?
It all depends, I believe, on what we mean by healing. The lepers wanted their skin disease to be healed. But the healing we experience with faith is not usually about physical disease. God’s healing is spiritual, and it is often found in confronting disease and mortality.
By travelling to Jerusalem with his friends in the sure knowledge that this will mean death, Jesus models for us a life free from anxiety.
He reminds us that in dying we gain new life. In following Jesus, sometimes we stumble into his same courage to face reality. Sometimes with Grace, we too die to our fears and rise to a moment of new life filled with hope. We remember, if only for a moment, that our egos with all their anxieties and desires are temporary. We remember that our future in God is secure and eternal.
Giving thanks flows from accepting the moment even as it also helps us get to that acceptance.
At other times, we are not able to accept our situation, which is understandable and quite OK, I am sure. Glimpses of eternal life are often fleeting. But as fleeting as they can be, they remind us that Love is our source and our sure destiny.
Being grateful for these truths doesn’t mean we will get what we want. It won’t always heal sickness, mend broken relationships, or fix the world’s problems.
I am glad that it now seems unlikely Donald Trump will be elected President of the United States on November 8, and not just because of the pall his election would cast on our wedding four days later!
But even if Trump is defeated, the social problems that allowed his movement to grow — economic disruption caused by globalization; corruption of the political system; huge numbers of refugees fleeing war and repression in Central America and the Middle East; an epidemic of loneliness in a society that has lost its moorings in old traditions — these problems will remain.
I don’t see easy solutions to any of them. But neither do I feel a need to despair. As a person who tries to follow Jesus, I sometimes remember that all of our attachments are temporary. Being awake to this reality helps free us to love family, friends, and community and to struggle for justice without illusions that this will heal all sickness, fix social problems, or prevent our own deaths.
Our emotions show us what we value. When we glory in a marriage, this shows how we value love. When we mourn the loss of a relationship, this equally shows the esteem that we give to love.
When I spoke to Rhonda and Karl Kropf in the hospital on Monday as Rhonda recovered from initial treatments for an illness that has yet to be diagnosed, I perceived that their love had gone into overdrive. The painful feelings they were expressing revealed how they valued their relationship with one another, their daughters, and the community just as much as their positive feelings did during times of health and prosperity. Sickness can show how crucial a loving relationship has been in the past, how this love continues today in changed circumstances, and how it will remain in the future, come what may.
Love is our central value. When sickness threatens it, we often feel fear, grief, and anger. These feelings challenge us, but they don’t obliterate our commitment to love. Instead, I think they can illuminate it the strongest possible way.
Sometimes in moments of crisis or loss, our love for life, family and community goes into overdrive. It sheds a bright light that can illuminate our path to Thanksgiving during even the darkest night.
And so on this October, in this community, and with a full range of feelings present — from pain to joy, and from grief to hope — I am grateful that God’s Grace gives us the strength to say again, “Thanks be to God.”