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Harvest Thanksgiving - And He Was a Samaritan

I am not preaching this Sunday, but am posting a sermon based on the reading from the gospel which I preached I preached on Thanksgiving in 2002.

Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

"Take care," Moses says to the people of Israel, "that you do not forget the Lord your God. When you have eaten your fill, when you have fine houses to live in, when you have riches and wealth." The Israelites have lived a nomadic existence for generations. They are about to enter the Promised Land. They are being warned to be careful not to take things for granted.

It is an especially important message for North Americans who get caught up in materialism. We grow in numbers, wealth and power, but forget God. We consider ourselves to be self-sufficient. We think that accumulating more and more things will make us happy. How would we live without DVD players, cable TV and Air Conditioning?

But hold on a moment! We are grateful for what we have. We know how to say thank you. That is something that we were taught when we were little children. We say grace before a meal. We go to church and share in worship. We give to the church. What more could God want from us?

The truth that Deuteronomy communicates is that God wants us to remember that it is not by our power and our strength that we exist as servants of God. It is by God's grace. We in turn are called to extend that grace to those in need.

That becomes abundantly clear when we look at the message of the Gospel. On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the border country between Galilee and Samaria. It is a wilderness place inhabited by outcasts and misfits. There he is approached by a band of lepers who call out to him for help. They call out for mercy. And mercy is what they are given.

"Go and show yourselves to the priests," Jesus tells them. They do as they are told. They know the rules. They have lived their lives by the rules. They don't live in this wilderness place by choice. They are outcasts of society. By Jewish law they wear rags and keep their distance. Here it is their leprosy that defines them. Jew and Samaritan they live by the same rules. They know that only the priests can lift this ban from them.

Yes! They do as Jesus tells them. And the abundant grace of God is poured out on them There is no question from Jesus about who is deserving and who is not, about who follows the rules and who does not, about why they got sick in the first place or about whether they have faith. They are made clean, each one of them. They are given what they need.

But one of the lepers, a Samaritan, is different, startlingly different. When he sees that he is healed he turns back to the healer. He prostrates himself before Jesus and thanks him. He doesn't do what he has been told to do. He doesn't go with the others to show himself to the priest. He does what his heart tells him to do.

It is far more, isn't it, than that simple admonition that our mother would give to us as we headed out the door to a party. "Remember to say thank you." Much as ten lepers are healed, this one who breaks all the rules receives so much more. By returning and praising God, the leper gives voice to the faith that heals him. He comes into a new relationship with God and the kingdom of grace. The wholeness that he receives is far more than the physical healing of the nine. He receives salvation.

That is the message to us as we celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving? How do we give voice to the faith that heals us? Clearly the message of the tenth leper goes far beyond that simple message of gratitude. His response to Jesus implies that following God's laws is not enough. It is simply not enough to meet the requirements of our faith. I can pour over Scripture as much as I wish. I can follow the commandments of God to the letter of the law. I can give generously to meet the needs of the poor. I can do all that and more and still miss out on the blessings that God has for me. It is not enough to do as we are told. We need to come before God with our whole heart.

What brings us like the tenth leper to a sense of salvation, to real wholeness? Do we come to God with a genuine sense of gratitude at the great gift that God has given us? Most of us seem to think that what we give is out of the goodness of our hearts. The fact is that whatever we give to God already belongs to God. We can never give enough.

Who is the Samaritan in your eyes? How many times have we heard since 9-11, 'You know what Moslems are like?' What misconceptions do we have of people based on our biases? Hopefully we all know people like the tenth leper, people for whom the faith is a living entity, the saints of our times. I suspect they are the least likely people, those on the fringes of society who seem on the surface to have little respect for the rules. They are often people who have gone through much on the road to salvation.

Take for example my friend Bill. He works in street ministry in downtown Toronto. Fifteen years ago he lived on the streets. His family has totally rejected him and he knows that he has only himself to blame. He made their lives a living hell through his drinking and gambling. Now he is an advocate for the poor and homeless. He will be the first to tell you that it is God who changed his life. It is a life marked, not merely by healing but by real wholeness. He is the tenth leper.

Most of us are the nine. And that isn't a bad thing to be. We are healed. We are graced by God. We do our best to follow the rules and live our lives according to God's commandments. We ask for and receive God's mercy. We open ourselves to God in prayer and in the rites of the church. We know what to do and do it to the best of our ability. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are ones who have kept the church going through the ages. We are ones who make certain that the Church continues.

But we are not the tenth leper. For that we would have to follow our heart, not the instructions. We would have to accept our life as a gift and then give it back. Our thanksgiving would have to come from so deep inside of ourselves that it would totally change our lives and the lives of those around us. We might have to break from tradition and stop simply following the crowd. And we are so much better at following the letter of the law and at making certain that everyone else does.

This thanksgiving let us open ourselves, heart, mind and soul, to God who graces the outsider, the outcast, the sinner. Let us worship God with abandon. Let us be truly reconciled to God and open our lives to God's healing grace.
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