In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I admit, I have mixed feelings about these lepers. But I also have mixed feelings about you and me. And about Thanksgiving Day. And about having a service today at all. Not because I don’t want to have church on a Thursday, but because it’s a little strange: for what other national holiday do we have a church service? Although, perhaps when President Lincoln in 1863 set the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, he knew that even Christians needed to be reminded of their duty to thank God, even in the midst of hardship and suffering, as in the Civil War. But to what god are people in the United States giving thanks today? To the god of this great and wealthy nation? To the god of prosperity, whom much of the world has never met? To the god of commercials, economic progress, and getting back in the black with sales? Maybe the god of family and friends; the god of food and gluttony? What about us? We know, of course, that we shouldn’t give thanks to God only one day out of the year. God doesn’t set aside a single day to give us clothing, shoes, house, home, wife, husband, and children, and all that we need to support this body and life; He doesn’t choose only one day to defend us against danger and guard and protect us against evil. But it’s too easy to rail against the commercial idolatry of the United States, especially since we’re no doubt about to see a rash of youtube videos showing frantic adults pushing each other and stampeding toward Really Great Deals at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. At the same time, it’s also too easy to smile platitudes about thankfulness and blessings and how much God has given us—and, don’t forget: the greatest of which is Jesus. Both, in their own ways, have become cliches, and they don’t really get us any further.
As we hear this Gospel reading, it’s probably not all that helpful, either, to start taking stock of which leper we are. Are we the one leper, because we’re here this morning? Or are we the nine because we so often take the gifts of God for granted? As we hear Luke 17, there are probably two immediate thoughts in our brains: one is the desire to pat ourselves on our oh-so-thankful backs; the other is to take the single leper who returns for our model and example. The first is sin; the second is command. Among the people of God, there can be no back-patting. As Jesus says, “In this way you also, when you have done all the things commanded of you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves’” (Luke 17:10). And, for the people of God, there must be thankfulness for all the gifts of God: “For all of this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him” (Small Catechism, Explanation of the First Article). Jesus tells the ten to show themselves to the priests, and the law instructed them to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for the healing. Going to the priest is not so that they will be cleansed; it is to prove the cleansing. All are cleansed, but one realizes from where the cleansing came. He turns back, away from the temple sacrifice of thanksgiving, and offers his sacrifice of thanksgiving at the feet of Jesus. One man, a Samaritan; the one who, in the eyes of the Jews, deserved the mercy of God the least, returns to the One man who heals him.
So turn your eyes, for a moment, from the lepers to the face of Jesus. What is this account of the ten lepers but a physical and concrete illustration of the mercy of our God? What always strikes me about this story is that the nine lepers who do not return are still cleansed of their leprosy. Jesus mercies them all, and He doesn’t take back their healing when they don’t come back to thank Him. “The Most High” Jesus says, “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). What is the glut of Thanksgiving turkeys with sides and desserts but an unmerited gift of God? What is the healing of body and soul but a gracious blessing that has no basis in you whatsoever? Who is the master Jesus but the God through whom all things were created, now present and walking around in that very same creation?
And that singular fact—that the God who became Man lived, died, rose again, ascended to the Father’s glory, and will return in that same glory—that fact is far more than all the First Article gifts of the things we need for this body and life. Because if our thanksgiving today is only focused on food and clothing, house and family, and the times when we can see and feel the protection of our Father, then our thanksgiving, like our faith, will be founded on the shifting fault-lines of our own experience. Our faith will not actually be in Jesus, but in our apprehension of Him; our thankfulness will not actually be in Him, but in the things and people we have received from Him. And then, when we suffer; when we are sick or injured or hospitalized; when we mourn that our holidays don’t look like the fakery of ad agencies, filled with happy families and full tables; when we are filled to vomiting with ads like the cell phone company’s that proclaims this “Thanks-getting”; when we can’t make ourselves feel what every commercial tells us we should feel; even then—especially then—we need something more than temporal appearances and emotions. We need a God who turns our eyes away from the healing to the Healer; from the fickle feelings of our hearts to the nail-pierced feet of the God-Man; and to our merciful master Jesus, away from our emotional seismographs, which fluctuate moment to moment between thanksgiving and ingratitude. If you are proud of yourselves for your thankfulness, for being here when the other 9, or 99, or 999 are not: repent. You also, like them, have received everything for nothing. And if you have looked into your heart and find your thanksgiving tainted with selfishness, desire, and greed: repent. But repentance is not standing far off and crying ‘Unclean!’ No. Come near to the merciful Lord who cleanses you body and soul, and rejoice that you have been granted faith that receives His cleansing word. It is all from His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you. We are all Samaritans. The Son has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, by His own precious blood and suffering and death. He has made us, each and all, His own forever. And since we can never quite believe it—either from some sense of entitlement, or from a bitter sense of how far short we have fallen—the Holy Spirit comes along calling, gathering, enlightening, and making holy all the putrid, stinking, unholy lepers He can find. He daily and richly gives us all things. He daily and richly forgives all our sins. He will, without any doubt, raise us all on the last day and give eternal life to us and all believers in Christ. All of this—every breath, every heartbeat, every crumb and every drop, every blessing and every time we don’t get all we deserve, the Holy Eucharist that we eat and drink with thanksgiving—it is all from the merciful hand of our God in the flesh. It is to you He speaks; it is you He heals. It is to Him we return in eternal thanksgiving. This is most certainly true.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/24/15