When I was a kid, thank you notes were a big deal. At holidays, my parents would have each of us make a list of who gave us what, then furnish us with the necessary cards, stamps, and addresses. When our grandparents gave my parents a check to disburse to the three of us as Christmas money, those funds were effectively held hostage until the appropriate thank you note was in the outgoing mail.
Now, I’ll give my parents the benefit of the doubt and say that the practice of writing thank you notes wasn’t just a social convention but a spiritual practice. The Bible is full of examples of and commandments about giving thanks. Thanksgiving was part of the practices in the Jewish temple; the book of Psalms is full of songs of thanks; Jesus gives thanks before feeding the 5,000; and here, a leper responds to Jesus’ healing him by falling at Jesus’ feet and thanking him.
Tomorrow, we mark the national holiday called Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving often makes us think of pilgrims in funny hats and Native Americans in their feathered headdresses bringing corn and pumpkin pie and turkey to a big, happy colonial potluck supper.
However romantic that might sound, it is historically inaccurate. And anyway, the first official Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today did not happen until Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863.
Let’s see. 1863…what was going on in our national history in 1863?
Oh, that’s right. We were in the middle of the Civil War.
When I started working on tonight’s service, I figured it would be a light week. One sweet, happy focus song, an uplifting message about gratitude, something to make us feel all warm and fuzzy before stuffing ourselves with turkey tomorrow. An easy Wednesday for a holiday week.
And then, on Monday, a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Right beside the Ferguson police department, there is a giant “Seasons Greetings” sign that stretches over one of the streets. This sign has been a bittersweet backdrop in many of the images from the protests the last few days. In one picture, riot police gather under the sign; in another, a car burns in the foreground with the sign behind; in a third, protestors run toward the sign, fleeing tear gas.
The tension in those images is what I want to talk about tonight. I want us to inhabit that tension, to ask what it means to give thanks in the midst of brokenness.
It may not seem to make sense. We give thanks for the good things in life—those thank you notes I wrote as a kid were for toys and clothes and money. But 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
I am reminded of a time in college when I was teaching music at a kids’ summer camp at my church in Durham. In addition to teaching them songs, I tried to encourage the kids to think about the words they were singing and ask how they related to their own lives.
One song we learned was the praise tune “Blessed Be Your Name.” The words go like this: “Blessed be your name when the sun’s shining down on me / When the world’s all as it should be, blessed be your name / Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering / Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name.” I asked the kids to share about times in their lives when things were good and it was easy to praise God, then to name a time when things were bad and it was hard to praise God.
I got some pretty typical answers on both sides—I can praise God when I get a good grade or have a fun birthday party; and it’s harder, but I can still praise God when I have a bad day or get hurt at recess.
As the conversation went on, I was keenly aware that there were a few children present whose father had recently been deported for being in the country illegally. I was a little nervous about how the discussion might make them feel, so I tried to wrap it up quickly and move on to the music. But one of the young girls from this family spoke up. She told us that it was really sad that their dad had been taken away, and they were scared and didn’t know what was going to happen; but even during that, she was grateful to be at camp and could still praise God.
I was blown away. And the more I thought about that memory, the more I read and prayed in preparation for tonight, the more I saw that a sermon about gratitude was not inappropriate to a conversation about Ferguson. In fact, giving thanks and praise in the midst of brokenness is precisely what the leper in Luke 17 was doing; it is what the first official Thanksgiving was about; it is how our focus song for tonight was written; and it is what Jesus did on the night of the Last Supper.
Our Scripture for tonight tells the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. All are cleansed of their disease and sent on their way, but only one returns to give Jesus thanks. What happens then is a little odd. After the man falls on his feet in thanksgiving, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”
Now, he can’t mean that the man’s faith cured him of his leprosy. He’s already been cured. The others didn’t come back to thank Jesus, but still they are made well.
Perhaps what Jesus’ words signal is a deeper healing for this man. In that time, lepers were outcasts, rejected by their families and shunned by society. Being cured of that disease meant that it would be possible for them to be reintegrated into their communities. This man’s gratitude brought him into a deeper relationship with Jesus, signaling the profound relational and community healing he needed to move on.
Kimberly Bracken Long says that giving thanks is a part of healing. That means that gratitude can happen regardless of circumstances. Certainly this man had something to be thankful for—being cured of a dread disease—but his healing was not yet finished. He still had difficulties to face. Being rid of his leprosy was only one step on a long journey to wholeness, but gratitude came along the way, not only at the end.
Although there had been other precedents for a Thanksgiving holiday in the past, both national and religious, it was Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation that made it an annual federal holiday. Lincoln acknowledged that this proclamation came “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.” And yet, not all order had been destroyed; international peace had been maintained; much agriculture and commerce had continued despite the conflict.
And so, Lincoln asked the nation to set aside a day to give thanks to God. This thanks was not to the exclusion of acknowledging the brokenness all around; in fact, Lincoln admonished the country to confess their disobedience and to pray for and reach out to the orphan, the widow, and all suffering as a result of the Civil War. Thanksgiving was as much about prayers for healing as it was about gratitude.
Our focus song tonight is “What a Wonderful World.” Honestly, this is what stressed me out most when I realized there was no way I could in good conscience avoid talking about Ferguson tonight. How in the world could I address the complexity of racial tensions, law enforcement, violence, and more when that was our focus song?
And then I remembered something. “What a Wonderful World” showed up in the movie Good Morning Vietnam. In it, a DJ played by the late Robin Williams puts this song on the radio. As it plays, scenes from the Vietnam War roll across the screen: American troops preparing for deployment; helicopters skimming the jungle; Vietnamese towns being firebombed; children running screaming through war-torn streets. What a wonderful world.
The effect is disturbing yet profound. And although it may seem an inappropriate or out-of-context use of the song, it’s actually right on point with when and why it was written. “What a Wonderful World” was first recorded in 1967. Much like Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation about Thanksgiving, this song of wonder, optimism, and gratitude was plopped down in the middle of tumultuous time in American history.
In 1967, we were in the midst of the Vietnam War. Racial violence was rampant in Detroit. The year before, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were arrested in Selma, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the Watts Riots in Los Angeles lasted 6 days and killed 34 people. The year before that, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, and China detonated their first atomic bomb. At home and abroad, the world seemed to be falling apart.
And so I was not out of line last night when I scrolled through photos from the protests and riots in Ferguson while listening to “What a Wonderful World.” The mixed feelings of hope and despair, confusion and clarity, comfort and righteous indignation, anger and the desire for peace—all of these things can be bound up in an honest gratitude that does not shy away from the beauty and terror of the world in which we live.
In a few minutes, we will celebrate Holy Communion together. This is when we remember the night that Jesus gave himself up for us.
Many of you know that my dad is also a pastor. On Monday, he sent out an email meditation that had been written and scheduled months in advance but ended up being exactly what we need this week. In it, he says this:
“Here is something remarkable that we’ve heard many times but probably haven’t thought much about. On the night before his crucifixion, at a somber dinner, at his darkest moment, his betrayer at hand, his closest friends confounded, and soldiers gathering up their arms to apprehend him—at such a moment, Jesus gives thanks.”
One of the many terms for Holy Communion is “eucharist.” It comes from the Greek eucharisteo, which means “thanksgiving.” When we celebrate the eucharist, we remember that when Jesus took bread, he gave thanks.
We will do the same when we celebrate this sacrament. In our liturgy, we hear, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
Always and everywhere to give thanks. My dad went on to say, “God is active—everywhere, all the time. In the Lord’s supper we believe there is something of God’s sacramental presence in the bread and wine. Could it be that if we can see the Lord there, if we can taste God’s presence in those simple material things, then we might learn to see the Lord out in all the world where we live day to day. And not just on the lovely days, but in the storm, in the blackest night.”
Jesus gave thanks in the dark times, and so can we. We can give thanks for the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night.
Now, here’s what I’m not talking about. Yesterday on CNN, a white reporter was interviewing several black people from Missouri, and more than once he said to these people, all of whom were upset and angry and hurting, “You just need to count your blessings.”
I’m sure he had the best of intentions, but if I had been there, I might have slapped him. Giving thanks in dark times is not about counting our blessings so that even when the world is falling apart, we can say that we have these 18 nice things we can be thankful for. Giving thanks in dark times is about taking one more step on the long road of healing.
Rowan Williams says this about communion: “We take Holy Communion not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Not because we have arrived, but because we are still travelling. Not because we are right, but because we are confused. Not because we are full, but because we are hungry.”
We participate in eucharisteo because we need something. And that something is in the root word, charis, meaning grace.
We need God’s grace now—in our nation, in Missouri, in North Carolina, in our city and neighborhood and church and friends and families and in our own hearts. We need the grace to listen, to hear the voices of mothers who know their black sons are 21 times more likely as their white peers to be killed by police; to hear the frustrations of our law enforcement officials who are not bad people but are part of a system that is more and more militarized and aggressive every day; to hear the stories that prove that although we have come a long way since 1863, Thanksgiving is still held in a society fractured by racial, cultural, and class tensions.
We need to preach and live the gospel of peace while acknowledging that when an oppressed community resorts to violence it is because they have no other way to make their voices heard. I see no easy answers for Ferguson because this is not an easy problem. We have gotten ourselves into this tangled mess of race and policing and prisons and drugs and violence that is so deeply embedded in our hearts and in our minds that we can see no other way.
But Advent is coming soon, and Advent is when we can imagine another way. And we don’t have to entirely use our imaginations, either—we just need to be paying attention to what’s happening around us.
The other day, my dad heard from a friend of his who is a pastor in Missouri. This man said, you would be so proud of the wonderful things our clergy are doing here. The news is full of images of destruction and violence and tension, but on the ground, in the midst of that apocalypse, there is faithfulness being lived out. There is interracial cooperation happening to work for a greater peace. It’s not as flashy as burning cars and tear gas, so the media won’t cover it, but it is happening, quietly, persistently, in the dark.
Author and artist Jan Richardson wrote a reflection for Advent that dwells on the tension of a blessing being spoken into immense pain and suffering. Her words are perfect for this time:
Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
it has gone
it has ended
with the gun
it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the hospital room.
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
this blessing means
to be anything
It has not come
to cause despair.
It is simply here
because there is nothing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.
It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
as the world begins
Anne Lamott said that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Maybe the best way to show our gratitude, to take that step on the long road of healing, is to say both of them at once. Maybe “What a Wonderful World” is both a celebration of the beauty in this world as well as a prayer for the redemption it so desperately needs.
“It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” We are doing badly; we are still travelling; we are confused; and we are hungry. Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell