How many times for do we say thanks in a day, and how many times do we really think about those words, and their meaning? Thank you. Most of the time the words “thank you” are an automatic response, like putting on a seatbelt in a car: we do it because we know we should, and we have learned to do it, through repetitive action. A door is opened for us, and we say thank you. A compliment is extended, we say thank you. A purchase is processed for us, and we say thank you. Saying thank you is one of those manners that keep society steady. On Thanksgiving, we offer the same ritual as commended by the day: to express gratitude for what we have.
The leper in the gospel, as we hear, goes beyond this. One imagines that after Jesus gave them directions to be healed, many thanks were murmured, and the ten set off. Only one returns, after he has actually been healed, officially thanking Jesus for making him well. Jesus asks after the missing nine, and sees they have not returned. He tells the one, the Samaritan: Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.
Is it a coincidence that it’s the Samaritan, someone living on the fringes of the majority, who returns? We know it’s not. We know even in our own society, that it is often the outliers whose reaction surprises us most. In our first lesson, we hear a related warning, directed to the Israelites as they arrive in a land of bounty after their exodus from Egypt. It’s a place of beauty, with clean water, fertile soil, and abundant food. The people of Israel, after suffering so much, are to enjoy the wealth the land has to offer. “But take care,” they are warned, “that you do no forget the Lord. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 1and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God.”
In Canada today, where we have so much while many in the rest of the world go hungry, or are ravaged by disease, we know how easily this happens, how easily our thank you becomes a shallow ritual not a call to action. But that is how it is cast in both our first lesson and our gospel: that gratitude should alter the path we walk. To not forget God isn’t a call to come to church every Sunday and mouth the words of traditional prayers – although that certainly helps us get there. It is a challenge to remember the lesson to love one another, to be kind to strangers, to share what we have when our own cups overflow, and when like as in the case of the tenth leper our suffering is eased.
But the Bible attaches yet another condition to our posture of thankfulness. We are to give thanks – to share of our lives – cheerfully, not reluctantly. Now we might say, what difference does it make, how we feel about it inside, so long as we do the right thing. And perhaps, if we are only measuring the deed it does not matter. Does it make a difference if we give money to help fight Ebola in Africa because we are afraid that the virus is on its way here, or because we are heart-stricken by the condition facing families in countries such as Liberia? If the leper returned to thank Jesus just because his mother had taught him to do so, and not because his heart was filled by what Jesus had done? It does, indeed matter. As we well know, when acts become automatic, they lose their power. When they are self-serving, it narrows the circle in which we might give again. (And the limited amount of donations going to help fight Ebola in West Africa might attest to that.)
The giving of thanks, truly meant, naturally leads to a more generous spirit. Let’s not reduce it to a mannerly expression. The people I have met along the way who have been the most generous, have also be the most quick to give thanks. They recognize the bounty in their midst, they try to savour each day, they laugh – a lot. For that they touched a lot of people – and in the end, they themselves had much to be thankful for.
Let’s be honest, if we forget to be thankful when times are good, it can be very hard to feel any measure of gratitude when life is lousy. Marriages break down, people get sick, you get fired at work, and you can be forgiven for wanting to scream when someone urges you to be thankful for what you have. But we know too, deep down, that this is the best way to keep going, rather than stew in our losses. I have had the honour of walking with people through their darkest hours, and let me tell you, the ones who fared the best found space to be thankful. They didn’t ignored whatever troubles they were facing, and it may not have cured them or brought a loved one back, but they managed each day to see something positive.
Give thanks on this day because you have been reminded to do so. Practice, after all, makes perfect. But the cheerful giver of thanks – the one who can do so spontaneously, either in the face of diversity or during the best of times, will sow the largest bounty, and be able to share it widely with others.