Eve of the National Day of Thanksgiving
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
That must have been some sweet-tasting dirt. The man had thrown himself down on the ground before the Master, giving thanks for what had just happened. From his perspective there with his face to the ground, as low as he could make himself before this man who had mercy on him and his fellow lepers, he could only see the rocks and dirt beneath the feet of the one who had made him clean. And he could not care less.
The leper hadn’t had it easy. He wasn’t permitted to have a normal life and live in a village, where people were uninfected – clean. He couldn’t even have contact with them, for fear that he might contaminate them. As someone who was perpetually unclean, a leper wasn’t allowed to go to the temple, God’s Holy Place, for worship. Even so, this man made do as best he could. He had found others like him, even if they weren’t from his nation. As a group, they had cobbled together a culture that accommodates their uncleanness. But it wasn’t the same. They all longed for the community that they lacked. They all wanted to be healthy and whole. And then they saw Jesus.
We don’t know what all the lepers had heard about Jesus, but it certainly seems like they’d been told that he was someone who could give them the healing that they most needed. They called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And that’s exactly what Jesus did.
The man heard Jesus’ command to go with his fellow lepers to show themselves to the priests, something they might only do after they’d been healed from their disease. Thrilled at the promise of Jesus’ words, they all hurried off to do just that. But this man looked around as they were going. He saw his hands, his arms, his feet, all made whole and healthy. His disease was gone. He was clean. This meant that he didn’t have to live away from the village any more. He didn’t have to settle for the makeshift community that he and the other lepers had established to give themselves some degree of what they’d been lacking. He could go home. But as the reality of his newfound cleanness dawned on him, he realized where he really needed to be before going anywhere else.
Running back while shouting praise to God, the former leper saw Jesus and fell on his face before him. There, in a posture of abject appreciation, the man gave thanks to Jesus – the only place in the entire New Testament where the word used here, from which we get “Eucharist,” refers to the giving of thanks to Jesus. The Samaritans and the Jewish people had long disagreed on the right place to worship God, but this Samaritan saw that he didn’t have to go anywhere else to be in God’s presence: he was kneeling at His feet then and there. But that’s not the end of the man’s story.
Jesus spoke to him, telling him to stand. It was the man’s faith that saved him; faith which acknowledged that Jesus was the Master who had power to make him clean. Did he answer Jesus’ instruction to “journey” by joining him and his disciples as they headed to Jerusalem? We don’t know. I don’t doubt, though, this man told many about Jesus, who restored him and brought him back into the community of God’s people. And his story still speaks to us today.
You and I have been unclean, cut off from community as it was meant to be. The problem isn’t leprosy for us; it’s a far more deadly disease that keeps us from connecting with those around us and with God. It’s sin, the uncleanness that comes from distancing ourselves from God through our thoughts, our words, and our actions. And like the lepers, we have cobbled together a culture that accommodates our uncleanness.
At this time of the year, just look and listen – both inside and out – and notice what our world props up as substitutes for the healed, restored relationship with God that every person needs. And in the din of all that noise, in the longing for things that are lacking, we give up the gift of contentment and fail to appreciate and give thanks for what we do have. But as you’re going, like the leper, look around you and see what Jesus has done to change your life forever.
Once Jesus has spoken his word of promise to you, you get to experience the reality of life in which community with God has been restored. You are no longer an outcast. You needn’t chase after the world’s substitutes for what had been missing in the human experience because it’s not missing anymore. You and I don’t have to long for what’s most lacking because we no longer lack. Through Jesus, we have the community with God which our disease had taken from us. Unlike the priests of Jesus’ day, the Master himself both deals with our disease and declares us clean. God hasn’t just made our return to community possible, He welcomes us back in. And made clean, we can come into contact with others; we can be in Jesus’ presence.
In the days ahead as our nation marks a Day of Thanksgiving, let us follow the Samaritan’s example and fall on our faces before Jesus in abject appreciation. Laying before the foot of the cross, let us joyfully worship before the Master who there delivered the cure for our disease. Let us acknowledge who he is in our thoughts, our words, and our actions, giving thanks to God for the gift of His Son into our lives, our families, and our communities. For people made cleaned and brought into restored community in Christ, every day may rightly be a day of Thanksgiving. The faith that he has given has saved us. But thanksgiving wasn’t the end of that one man’s story; it’s not the end of ours, either.
Jesus also calls you and me to get up and journey. Acknowledging and appreciating the gift he has given, we now arise to live in it. Following Jesus, where will we go? The journey to Jerusalem led to the cross, then the empty tomb. So it is for Jesus’ disciples. We go forward. No longer longing for what’s lacking in the fleeting promises of hope the world around us has offered, we join Jesus on his mission to make the world healthy and whole and bring what is truly needed: restored community with God. And journeying with Jesus, we will never go alone.