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Thanksgiving Sunday; Deuteronomy 8:7–18; 2 Corinthians 9:6–15; Luke 17:11–19

That year in the west of England was well beyond averagely bad; it started raining in mid-April, and continued daily all Spring, throughout Summer, into early Fall. The crops never had a chance. In late September Lilian Garner was looking out of her little house not far from Dartmoor prison, where her husband worked as a guard, at yet another rainy day. “This is going to be a disastrous harvest,” she thought.1

She was interrupted by the farmer who delivered milk. “Morning, Mrs. Garner,” he said, “another nasty day, but never mind – it’ll clear up soon.” That was simply unjustified optimism. The day looked like it would never stop raining, just like the more than 100 previous days. While the farmer was pouring milk, he asked, “I was wondering if you would come to our Harvest Thanksgiving service on Sunday.” “Well, I don’t know. …” “O, do come!” “Yes, maybe I think I would like to go.”

On Sunday, when Lilian walked to church, it was still raining, and her mind was pondering the plain question, “What do these farming folk have to be thankful for; this has been a disastrous year?” and she was thankful her husband was a prison-officer and not dependent on the soil and weather for a living.

But Lilian Garner learned a lesson in thankfulness that was unforgettable . When she arrived – still musing about the ruined harvest – there, before the altar in the middle of poor sheaves of grain, and small and already rotting vegetables, – there, in the place of honour was God’s greatest gift, the gift that makes all life possible, a jug of water!

Good harvest or poor harvest, sunshine or rain, these farmers knew the essence of thankfulness and gratitude. They knew that these are not individual acts of the will done in response to individual gifts given. Thankfulness and gratitude are attitudes that permeate all of life.

It is Thanksgiving Sunday, a day on which we remember God’s goodness towards us, and the many benefits we have received. But that story illustrates that thanksgiving is not just something we are to do in good times, when life has been good to us, but at all times. That is easy to forget in times of loss, personal or corporate, or in times of illness or financial disaster. All of our readings this morning remind us thankfulness is not only a response to whatever good things happen to us; it is an an attitude of life, an attitude of gratitude!

The Old Testament reading is from the sermon by Moses to the people of Israel before entering the land promised to Abraham. In order to be properly thankful, one must have a good memory and notforget God’s gifts and acts, in good times or in bad. Counting one’s blessings is not just a pious phrase, it is part of the proper worship of God. And so Moses urges his audience to always remember the blessings bestowed on them, and to remember that it is not their efforts that produced them. And further, Moses reminds them that these gifts from God were already promised to their ancestors, and that their entire history from Abraham to this moment of entering the promised land has been God’s work to fulfil God’s promise. Thus, a part of thanksgiving is the remembrance of those who have come before us, and who have made our blessings possible. Thanksgiving, the attitude of gratitude, is to permeate all of the life of all of us.

The reading from Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians is an exhortation for the Corinthians to take their share of a financial appeal for the impoverished Church in Jerusalem. This relief fund was one of Paul’s important projects, not only to help the poor of Jerusalem, but also to express solidarity between the new Gentile churches around the Aegean with the largely Jewish church in Palestine. The Corinthians have dragged their feet for unknown reasons. This reluctance prompts Paul into the longest discussion on giving for the needs of the Church in the Christian Scriptures.
There are four principles in this text, all of them of significance on this Thanksgiving Sunday. The first is a principle of return; as one gives, so one receives. Give sparingly, and one receives sparingly, give freely, and one receives freely.

Let me immediately say that I am NOT promoting the so-called prosperity gospel of late night Sunday religious televison; give to God and God will give you lots more back. But, it is simple mathematics and elementary economics that the more generous with wealth all of us are, the more there is for everyone. Just one example; it is fact that this earth produces enough food each year, overall, to feed every man, woman, and child alive an adequate diet. Scarcity and hunger are a product of systems that make it simpler, easier, or more profitable to hoard or waste excess food, generally in the Global North, than distribute it to where it is needed. Famine is not a consequence of the earth’s capacity to feed humanity, it is the result of many self-interested decisions by many self-interested actors.

That leads to a second principle, God has been generous. There is a close relationship between our generosity and our faith. We may hold onto our goods and money because we are concerned about our well-being and self-preservation. But that implies that we believe that our preservation is in our own hands. To hold our wealth somewhat easier, to let at least some of it go lightly, becomes an expression of faith because it symbolizes a commitment of ourselves and our future to God. To selfishly cling to our possessions symbolizes our doubt in God’s ability to provide!

Thirdly, this text emphasizes that generosity ought to be voluntary rather than forced. God loves a cheerful giver! Undoubtedly, whether giving from guilt, or compulsion because we are pressured, or generosity, does not matter in one sense; giving can be used to do good regardless of motivation. But Paul is more interested in the motivation behind giving, since it is this that reveals one’s attitude toward God. There is a challenge in this text for us to rethink our attitude towards giving to various works of charity. If we give from guilt or fear of consequences, or even hopes of return, on this Thanksgiving Sunday Paul offers another vision for our giving!

And finally, a fourth principle to be drawn from St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians is that generosity produces thanksgiving. Any act of giving produces gratitude in the one who receives. But in addition God is honoured, acts of generosity produce thanksgiving not only towards the giver, but also towards God. It matters to Paul that acts of generosity results in thanks being given to God. It is not that God needs our thanks, but such thanks express the right kind of faith – faith in God as Creator and Sustainer. Giving thanks to God always is the true mark of faith, for it recognizes that all we are and all we have comes from God.

There is much in this lesson to read and hear at Thanksgiving. There is much here about God’s generosity and God’s ability to provide for us in abundance. There is also a call for generosity of heart. This text says “No” to the tightly zipped pocket; it says “No” to looking out for number one first. It calls us to sow generously, in order to reap with abundance. But above all, this text shows us that thanksgiving and generosity, the attitude of gratitude, are expressions of our faith in our God!

Finally, the Gospel story is a familiar one, very much one with the theme of thanksgiving this Sunday. But note, as often happens in Gospel stories, it is an outsider, a Samaritan, who has the proper attitude of gratitude. This story of the healing of the ten lepers joins together faith, obedience, and thankfulness into one.

Ten lepers beg Jesus to heal them; they have faith that Jesus can do so. Jesus sends them to the priests, who alone can pronounce them clean, and, as they obey and go, they are healed. But only one, a Samaritan heretic, returns to give thanks. Jesus wonders about the other nine; “What happened to them, that they did not return to give praise to God?” Their ingratitude did not take away the physical healing, but the Samaritan, the outsider, receives more. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus says to him. That “made you well”, in Hebrew and Aramaic means “has saved you”. The additional blessing received by the Samaritan is salvation!

We cannot suppose that Luke tells this story simply to make a foreigner look better than nine Jews. There is something to be learned by the Church. Suppose the message of this story is that we cannot take the blessings of being Christians for granted? Gratitude as a way of life is an essential part of our faith; it is necessary to salvation.

If we take all our Scripture lessons this morning and try to distill from them one idea to take away with us for Thanksgiving Sunday, it is that faith without thanksgiving is an illusion, and that thanksgiving without generosity is hollow. If we live in a attitude of cheerful, generous gratitude in all our lives, then our total lives express Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving every day, not only on this one weekend of the year.

Let me leave the last word to the 13th c. German mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is “Thank You”, it will be enough.”

     1   Adapted from Stories and Prayers at Five to Ten: A Selection of the Daily Broadcasts, Richard Tatlock, A.R. Mowbray & Co. London, 1959

Copyright ©2023 by Gerry Mueller