Thanksgiving Day Eucharist – November 27, 2014
St. Augustine’s Church – Wilmette, Illinois
I wonder how the family of Michael Brown will observe Thanksgiving today. And I wonder the same about Darren Wilson, and his family and friends. And I wonder about all those who have gone to Ferguson in protest and lament, and about those who live there already, and those whose lives or businesses have been damaged or threatened, and those who see themselves as removed, just trying to get on with their lives. I wonder about them all on this Thanksgiving Day, today.
These are difficult, disparate pieces to hold together with all that has happened in these past days and months. And the thing is, we’re not in Ferguson, Missouri. We’re here. And Ferguson feels a long, long ways away from Wilmette, Illinois, right now.
Instead, in thinking of the two: whatever that confrontation was between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson that resulted in Michael Brown’s death (not mine to sort, but surely ours to mourn)…and the abundance of the gatherings so many of us will likely share today – the tension of them makes me want to force them even further apart, to make today a day of gracious plenty, of politeness and kindness and comfort. And to return to those difficult pieces tomorrow. And maybe, it’s uncomfortable to say, but maybe to disregard the fact that I have the privilege of doing that.
Just for a moment, just for a day, I’d like very much for things to be clear, unambiguous: good or evil, right or wrong, innocent or guilty.
But that preference is neither the fact nor the history of this day. And it’s neither fact nor history of our faith. The things that are most unambiguous in God’s economy as revealed in the Gospel are in fact the most difficult: loving people who don’t seem all that lovable; forgiving the same; crossing boundaries of privilege; doing mercy; practicing faithful gratitude, even in the face of uncertainty.
Jesus’ command to the lepers in today’s gospel story is clear, unambiguous. They call for mercy, and he tells them to go present themselves to the Temple priests. (It’s clear, but probably makes zero sense to them.) There is no convincing reason for people with leprosy to do this: temple priests are not known for keeping office hours during which they receive lepers. But they hear him, and they go. And as they go, they are made clean.
One of those 10 lepers, a Samaritan, realizes what has happened. He turns back from the group because he can’t keep going until he has given thanks. He can’t keep going until he has turned around and given thanks.
The history of this day, Thanksgiving, is a complicated one. Originally borne of an ambiguous relationship between the native people of this land and those who would claim it, Thanksgiving became a fixed day under President Abraham Lincoln…right in the midst of the Civil War. His proclamation says this:
“To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible…No mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”
President Lincoln ends by commending to God’s care all those who suffer, words that find their epilogue in that last paragraph of the President’s second inaugural speech, which he will deliver two years later at the end of that war: “Let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”
The President does not wait until the war’s end, does not hold off for some unambiguous moment (which would not be found in his lifetime), when the world as it is and the world as it should be find their happy alignment with one another, before proclaiming this day of Thanksgiving that we celebrate. Instead, the war persists even as he makes this declaration, and will for months ahead. Still, he calls for gratitude. Still he calls the people with one voice and heart to give thanks for the “gracious gifts of the most high God.”
That Samaritan, that leper, can’t know as he turns to go toward the Temple that his skin will heal and clear, that the sores will disappear. He can’t know what lies ahead for him once he returns to life inside the gates. But he knows he is changed. He knows he can’t keep going until he names that blessing and gives thanks, whatever comes of it.
He falls at Jesus’ feet, praising God, thanking him. “Get up,” Jesus says, “Go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” Some versions translate this as Jesus saying: “Your faith has made you whole.”
I don’t know how the family of Michael Brown will observe Thanksgiving today, or that of Darren Wilson, or those who live in Ferguson, or those who have gone to Ferguson. This is no unambiguous moment in the life we share as a people. And the words of a President in the midst of a war within a people echo forward: Let us “commend to (God’s) tender care all those who have become…mourners or sufferers in (this) lamentable civil strife… (asking God) to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it…” To restore us.
However ambiguous this moment, I pray that our own hearts will be softened. I pray that we will seek peace, and build it, binding up those things that have been broken in our midst. I pray that we will act in love and mercy and forgiveness and care.
I pray that we will not be able to keep going until we turn, as that Samaritan did, and give thanks.
And I pray that, like that Samaritan, our faith will make us whole.