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The Importance of Thanksgiving

November 22, 2009

Sermon:  The Importance of Thanksgiving

Text:  Luke 17:11-19

Did your mother do what my mother did?  When somebody did something kind for me, my mother prompted, “Kirk, what do you say?”  She wanted me to say, “Thank you.”  I knew that was the correct response.  I knew I was supposed to say, “Thank you.”

Learning to express thankfulness is more than just learning to say the words.  A real attitude of thankfulness must come from the heart.  Learning how to express gratitude is a life-long process. 

Luke 17 provides this message today though Jesus’ encounter with ten men who have leprosy, only one of whom says, “Thank you.”  Look at this encounter a little more closely.  A person who had leprosy in the first century was somewhat like a person who has HIV-Aids in our day and time.  Nobody wanted to associate with lepers.  Nobody wanted to be near them.  People were afraid of these outcasts of society. 

Lepers were legally required to keep their distance from others who were not afflicted with this disease.  William Barkley says lepers were required to stay at least fifty yards away from others.  If the wind were blowing from behind the lepers toward other people, the lepers were required to keep an even greater distance.  They had the responsibility to keep that distance.  If others unknowingly approached a person with leprosy, sometimes the lepers would ring a bell of warning or simply shout “Unclean!”  Can you imagine having to identify yourself in that manner when anyone came close to you? 

Lepers lived apart from others here on the border between Galilee and Samaria in a kind of no-man’s land.  The area there seems to have been a common dumping ground, a rubbish heap.  I suppose we could think of it as sort of a first-century landfill.  These people, regarded as human rubbish, congregated around that dump where they got most of their food.  People thought that lepers were afflicted with leprosy because they had committed a great sin.  They regarded lepers as being unclean physically, as well as unclean spiritually and considered them to be the lowest of the low.  They viewed lepers as the living dead.

These ten men, there on the rubbish heap, saw Jesus and cried out to him for pity, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”  I do not know their connection to Jesus; but clearly, they knew that he was a teacher, a man of mercy.  We learn that these ten are not all from the same ethnic group.  At least one Samarian and presumably some Jews are bound together in common affliction.  You often see people who suffer the same plight bound by that suffering.  It rises above every line of division.  It crosses racial lines, ethnic lines, and religious lines.  You see it in places like the Hospice House.  You see it in intensive care units and cancer units at a hospital.  That common suffering draws people into a bond that transcends all of their differences.

I remember seeing a movie called The Defiant Ones.  Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis – a black man and a white man who loathed each other – were chained together by handcuffs.  After escaping from prison, they are forced to cooperate with each other in order to survive.  When they are finally able to break the shackles, they make the decision to stay together.  Though they have many differences, they share in common their plight as fugitives from justice.

These lepers in Luke 17 had a kind of community, a sad community, a community of suffering.  Together, they cried out as with one voice, “Have pity on us!”  It is a prayer of desperation directed to Jesus.  As they cried out for help, they wondered, Will there be a response?  Have you ever prayed in desperation, maybe sobbing in the night?  Perhaps you have prayed, “Lord, please help.  Jesus, please have mercy.”  This prayer is common to most people. 

The response of Jesus to these lepers is surprising.  He did not say, “Let us pray together.”  He did not answer, “Let’s look at the Scriptures together.”  He did not reply, “Go dip yourself seven times in the Jordan,” as an Old Testament story advised. 

Jesus’ response, “Go show yourselves to the priest” must have puzzled these men.  They knew, of course, about Leviticus 14, which offered regulations that must be followed by those who had infectious skin diseases.  They knew that once lepers had been healed, they would report to the priest, who would give them official notice that they were indeed cleansed.  Only then could lepers once again worship in the temple and return to society.  Jesus seems to be getting the cart before the horse when he told them to see the priest even before he had cleansed them of leprosy.  Surely the men must have been puzzled. 

As they left Jesus to see the priest, they realized that they had been cured of this dreaded disease.  The affected areas, the lesions, were gone.  One of the men, the Samaritan, turned and ran back to Jesus.  Surely all of them were glad to be healed of the disease, but only one did what I bet his mother had taught him to do – to say “Thank you.”  He turned around and “came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him…” (Verse 15-16).  Only one out of ten percent returned. 

Their response is not far from the way most people react to a blessing.  Maybe about ten percent really know how to be grateful.  So many people believe that the blessings that come to them are just the luck of the draw, sort of like winning the lottery.  They believe that they deserve the blessings that come to them.  They believe that the blessings are a matter of happenstance.  One man – one out of ten – knew the source of his blessing.  He returned to Jesus and said, “Thank you.”

Jesus’ reaction surprises us.  Jesus sounded a bit indignant here when he asked, “Weren’t ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?”  You have to wonder if Jesus was annoyed because the other nine men did not thank him.  Does this response suggest Jesus’ need to be thanked?  I doubt Jesus needed that at all.  Was Jesus possibly teaching a lesson to his disciples, reminding them to do what our mothers prompted us to do – to say “Thank you”?  No, Jesus was not using this encounter as an object lesson for the disciples.    

Something deeper is here.  Jesus said to this man, “Your faith has made you well.”  That is the “ah-ha” moment in this encounter.  The expression of gratitude was not for Jesus’ benefit.  This man’s gratitude was important to his own spiritual condition. 

The importance of thanksgiving is knowing that learning to give a genuine expression of appreciation is a matter of growing deeper spiritually.  To be thankful is to have faith.  Here the two are so closely connected as to be almost inseparable.  “Your faith has made you well.”  “Your thanksgiving has made you well.”  We look at this connection and think, Weren’t all of the ten men cured?  Yes, they were all cured.  The word used for “cure” is different from the word Jesus actually used here.  He was saying, “This man has been made whole.”  The leper had been cured of something more than the lesions.  His very spirit had been restored because of his gratitude. This story underlines the importance of thanksgiving in our lives. 

Thanksgiving brings wholeness to our lives in at least four ways. 

First, when we are thankful, we acknowledge our dependence on others.  We simply say, “Whatever blessings I have received are not my own doing.  I did not pull myself up by my own bootstraps.  I am dependent on the kindness of other people.  I am dependent on what others have done.”  It is a matter of stripping away our pride, stripping away the notion that we deserve the blessing, that we brought it about ourselves.  Thanksgiving is having an attitude of humility and saying, “I have received this blessing because of what others have done for me.” 

Some of the people who are least thanked are parents.  I sometimes think about all that my parents did for me, all that my dad still does for me.  I am so grateful.  Shakespeare’s King Lear makes the poignant statement, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is to have a thankless child!”  When your child that does not know how to say “Thank you,” it is painful to you.  Parents do not do what they do because they expect to receive thanks, because they expect gratitude.  It does hurt, however, when the children refuse to say “Thank you.” 

I would suggest that this Thanksgiving, perhaps during your devotion time, you take the time to make a list of people for whom you are thankful.  I have been thinking a lot about my teachers, people who taught me at every level.  I am so grateful for them.  I think often about people who have come into my life and been sterling examples for me, people who have been mentors.  I think about friends who just care and respond and do acts of kindness.  We meet so many ordinary people from day to day:  the person who picks up the garbage, the person who brings the newspaper, the person who delivers the mail, the person who tags groceries, the person who waits on us at a restaurant.  Learning to express thankfulness is so important.  We must also express our gratitude, our thankfulness to God.  Psalm 103:1-2: puts it so well:  “Praise the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me.  Bless his holy name.  Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forgot not all of his benefits…”  The benefits of God are many. 

Second, Thanksgiving brings wholeness to our lives in that gratitude reduces stress.  Dr. Hans Selye is credited with conducting the definitive studies on stress, especially after the war in Vietnam.  He says that an attitude of gratitude is the greatest stress reducer and that people who are grateful suffer fewer effects of stress. 

I find myself repeatedly returning to Philippians 4, one of my favorite chapters in the Bible.  That book provides us with another case study.  Let me remind you that the Apostle Paul wrote this book while he was in a Roman prison facing a death sentence.  In fact, you could say that Paul was on death row.  Verse 4:  “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  Does that sound like someone on death row?  Isn’t that surprising?  Paul knows that this statement would create surprise, so he repeated himself.  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!”  Then he continued by explaining how our attitude needs to be adjusted in this spirit of joy.  A key to Paul’s joy is in Verse 6:  “Do not be anxious about anything.”  Some translations say, “Don’t worry about anything.”  If you were on death row, could you put aside your worry and anxiety?  Paul tells us how to rejoice in a difficult circumstance: “…but, in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”  His statement is not to minimize the difficulty.  It is to say that neither joy nor thanksgiving depends on external circumstances.  

Even in the most difficult circumstances, we can be thankful.  It is why Paul wrote in I Thessalonians 5:18, “In every thing, give thanks.”  He did not say, “Give thanks for everything.”  He said that in every circumstance, there is a reason to be thankful.  He demonstrated it here in his own life; then he gave a promise in Philippians 4, Verse 7:  “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Having the peace of God in your heart and in your mind is a remedy for stress.  That peace comes through an attitude of thanksgiving.

Third, thanksgiving moves us from bitterness and despair into an attitude of hope in which we are able to count our blessings.  We should not dwell on the negative; we should emphasize the positive.  Greg Anderson wrote in his book Living Life on Purpose the story about a man who was quite despondent.  This man had lost his job, his wife, and his children because of his own addictions. 

One rainy morning, the man went into a restaurant for breakfast and immediately noticed that the atmosphere there was gloomy.  Everybody was sitting with their head down in their little private world, not talking with anyone. 

A mother was seated at a table with her little girl.  When the waitress brought the food to these two customers, the girl said, “Mama, we need to say the blessing.” 

The waitress overheard the child and agreed, “Yes, we do!  We need to say the blessing!”  This waitress, who must have been a piece of work, said, “Everybody, bow your heard.”

Everyone in the room bowed their head and listened as the little girl prayed, “God is great.  God is good.  Let us thank Him for our food.  Amen.” 

When the blessing was over, people lifted their head.  They were all smiling, and they started talking with each other.  That simple act of thanksgiving changed the attitude of a room full of people. 

Fourth, gratitude increases our faith.  This point was illustrated in Jesus’ encounter with the leper.  “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus said. 

Look back at Philippians 4.  You see a second example of appreciation increasing faith in the life of the Apostle Paul.  Writing to the members of the Philippian church, Paul expressed his appreciation for what they had done for him.  In Verses 11-13, Paul stated, “…I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me the strength.”  Verse 19:  “And my God will meet all of your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”  Being thankful encourages us to live by faith, just as it did for the Apostle Paul.

Thanksgiving in this country has often been linked to times of hardship.  You remember that the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, came after a terrible winter of hardship.  George Washington presented a proclamation in 1789, during the first year of his presidency when a fledgling nation was struggling to survive.  He called for a national day of thanksgiving, a day to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God…” 

Consider the events surrounding the Civil War of the 1860’s when the country was at odds.  This great division resulted in so many deaths of young people from both the North and South.  It was then that Abraham Lincoln called for a permanent national day of thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in every November.  Out of these difficulties, our celebration of Thanksgiving as a nation emerged.  The truth is that our deepest expressions of gratitude come when life is hard.  I know that some of you are going through very difficult circumstances.  Keep in mind that when life is hard, our deepest expressions of gratitude emerge.  

Let me briefly mention again that last Sunday was the anniversary of the death of our son Erik, who died nine years ago when he was twenty-seven years old.  After his death, people said, “I am sorry your holidays are going to be ruined.”  That was not the case.  We were grieving deeply, but we had one of the most meaningful Thanksgivings we have ever had.  Because we had so much to be thankful for, the celebration did not revolve around turkey and football.  Thanksgiving had everything to do with things that are far more important than that.

Last weekend, our daughter, Betsy, came home to be here for this anniversary of Erik’s death and also for my dad’s eighty-ninth birthday.  Sunday night, she left our house after lunch to drive back to Nashville, Tennessee.  Because of the rock slide in the mountains on I-40, she took I-85 South.  Right at the Anderson County line, she had an accident at a place where the road was being resurfaced.  She had moved into the left lane to allow traffic to merge.  She saw a sign that said “Bump,” signaling that the asphalt had been cut away and the pavement scored.  Betsy said that being in that lane was like riding on a scrub board, as the car was shaking badly.  When she tried to pull back into the right lane over that asphalt lip, the car swerved to the left, hit the concrete abutment in the middle of the highway, and spun completely around, facing four lanes of on-coming traffic.  She tried to correct for that, and the car rolled over the guard rail into a ditch, landing on the passenger’s side.  Betsy had a sprained wrist and a few cuts on the palm of her hand; her passenger, Tasha, was unharmed. 

Betsy told me, “Daddy, I wasn’t speeding.  I wasn’t texting.  I wasn’t talking on the cell phone.  I was just talking to Tasha.  When the car landed, I don’t remember everything that happened, but I do remember seeing the angel that Kris had painted for me over the visor in my car.” 

When the car stopped, Tasha and Betsy were suspended in the air because they were wearing their seatbelts.  Tasha undid her seatbelt and fell on top of Betsy. 

Then a hand came in the window and said, “Give me your hand.”  This person pulled Tasha out of the car and returned, saying, “Betsy, give me your hand.” 

Betsy reached out her bloody hand, but the person said, “No, the other hand.” 

Betsy said to me, “Daddy, I don’t know who that person was.  I never saw him again, but he pulled us both out of the car.”  

The next day, I saw her wrecked car, crushed beyond belief.  I cannot believe Betsy and Tasha survived that wreck. 

Betsy’s accident occurred nine years to the day that Erik died.  Erik was twenty-seven.  Betsy is twenty-seven.  The similarities are just a little too close for comfort. 

What kind of thanksgiving do you think we are going to have?  I can promise you that we are going to have a good Thanksgiving.

Years ago, a pastor in North Carolina told me a story about his son who was killed in an automobile accident.  His son, an organ donor, was taken to the hospital and put on a ventilator.  Though his body was still alive, he was brain-dead.  This pastor and his wife agreed to the organ donation.  Their son was disconnected from life support, and his organs were given to waiting recipients.  North Carolina law stated that the families of organ donors and those who received organs could meet each other if both parties agreed.  The pastor and his wife wanted to know the recipients, and three agreed to meet with these parents who had lost their son.

Nine months later, the pastor and his wife invited these three to their home for a meal on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  The pastor told me, “As we gathered around the table for the blessing, the woman who stood between my wife and me placed my fingers on her wrist.  She then put my wife’s fingers on her other wrist.  We could feel the pulse of this woman and knew that the heart beating in her body had come from our son.  I looked across the table at a woman’s clear blue eyes that I knew so well.  She had received the corneas from our son’s blue eyes.  She was able to see because our son had been an organ donor.  The man there with us asked if he might say the blessing.  As I listened to those words from his lips, I realized that his breath came from the lungs that had been in our son’s body.  Don’t get me wrong.  We were still grieving the loss of our son, but it was the best Thanksgiving we have ever had.”

We all need thanksgiving.  We need thanksgiving because it eliminates the bitterness and despair.  It moves us into hope, to an attitude of gratitude that we have so many blessings.  Thanksgiving makes us understand that whatever we have received is not our doing.  These are gifts of grace.  We are dependent on other people and most of all on God.  Thanksgiving brings to us a keen awareness that our lives – all that we are, all that we have – are in the hands of God.  It certainly does not mean that everything is always going to work out just like we hope.  It does mean that in every circumstance, there is reason for joy and gratitude.

My hope and prayer for each of you is that joy and gratitude will be your special blessing this Thanksgiving.

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior?  Have you accepted him, acknowledged him, invited him to come into your life?  That is where this journey of faith begins.  I invite you to accept Christ Jesus as the Lord of your life.

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2009

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