Since 2016, this blog has published more than 360 essays by dozens of Millennial scholars, preachers, teachers, and lay leaders from across the Church and across the world. If I may take such a moment of personal privilege, it has been a delight and an honor to work on this project in these past years. As with everything in life, however, new seasons bring new changes. Although the blog will remain published (at least for now), this essay will be the blog’s last. I, along with many of our authors, am entering a different season of ministry, where new priorities are requiring my focus and energy. But enough about me…
About fifteen years ago, I was home from my first year of seminary, and the Episcopal church in my hometown was hosting a brief morning Eucharist to observe Thanksgiving Day (in The Episcopal Church, Thanksgiving Day is considered a “major feast”). My brother, who was also home from college, and I decided to attend. I must admit, it was the first time I had ever even thought about going to church on Thanksgiving. I’m glad I went!
Thanksgiving is not unlike other Federal Holidays (ahem…Columbus Day), in that it is accompanied by a certain saccharine nostalgia that works as a thin veil over blatant colonialism, racism, and oppression. But for Christians, there is an opportunity for a bit of rehabilitation and reconciliation for Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the one day of the year where life stops for the sole purpose of gratitude. The banks are closed, school is out, businesses are closed, and all attention is turned to the dining room table (and, to a lesser extent, the football field and the parade route in NYC). An essential part of the character of Christians is rooted in gratitude–for one’s family, for one’s friends, for one’s vocation, but ultimately, gratitude for the gift of God’s grace, mercy, and love made known in the face of Jesus Christ.
The truth is that there are those who are worried about what they will eat, or where they will sleep, and the idea that “God will provide” might seem like fickle comfort. But here is where the preacher can do some important work. Gratitude, at least from a Christian perspective, is always tied to action. “I’m grateful for X, therefore, I’m motivated to do Y.” “I’m grateful for the gift of Jesus Christ, therefore, I’m motivated to live a life of faithful obedience.” Therefore, part of our practice of gratitude–of thanksgiving–is to ensure that those in our communities who are worried about where they’ll eat or sleep are provided for.
How might the preacher utilize this moment of thanksgiving to spur the people of God into faithful action?
This is a story about giving thanks! So, let’s use it on Thanksgiving! The lectionary folks really were just looking for key words on this one (sorry to be catty, it’s been a long year). Giving thanks is a big moment in this story, but I don’t read this as a story about thanks. I read it as a story about healing. It is also one of those ones best taken step-by-step, so here we go!
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
Jesus was walking the line. From the perspective of a traditionalist at the time, one might say that he is not just walking geographic border, but he’s walking a bigger metaphorical line. People on one side were God’s people who did things the right way. People on the other side were not because they didn’t pray the right way, weren’t the right skin color, didn’t have the right last names, had a heretical religion, didn’t have the right customs, and eat the right foods. And the bad people were the…Samaritans. Jesus was walking this line by going through this region between these two places. We tend to think of Jesus as on either the good or the bad side of things, not spending a lot of time in the gray area between.
As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
Whether a Galilean, a Samaritan, or a Roman citizen, if you were a leper, no one wanted you around. They were equally bad, threatening, and scary for folks. It is important to recall that many folks might have even felt that the lepers brought their illness upon themselves due to their sinful ways that displeased God (any person nowadays with an STI, HIV, trauma-induced addiction, etc…) While Jesus was in a land that no one liked, ten people that no one wanted came up to him.
Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Keeping their distance. Maybe because they were sick and didn’t want to get Jesus sick, but that doesn’t seem like a right reading to me since they are asking for the rabbi’s mercy. More to me it seems like maybe they have been harassed by others and were afraid to get close to anyone, not the least a community leader or a religious figure. A lot of people presently stay away from Jesus because they’ve been hurt by the communities that gather in his name.
When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
This seems like a terrifying prospect. Nearly everyone they know would change their minds about them if the priest ruled that they were “clean” again. However independent from our leaders we may perceive ourselves, as it turns out, most people follow the example, word, or ruling of the leaders they respect the most, whether a minister, a jurist, or a president (please stay off of Twitter). The lepers were made clean as they left and did as Jesus commanded. It is interesting that this is one of those healings where Jesus doesn’t touch anyone. He just wills something, and it is done.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.
One of them didn’t follow Jesus’s instructions. Anyway, one of them comes back and his himself a little thing folks in my evangelical friends call a “praise break.” Now, not thinking about the story itself, but thinking about the reception, it seems reasonable to me that folks at this point are really on this ex-leper’s side. He’s showing gratitude for being healed. Piety, joy, love, and a witness to a miracle. What a hero. I wish I was that grateful for most of the mercies in my life, but honestly, I usually just take them for granted.
And he was a Samaritan.
Aaaaand there it is. This is when the gospel lets the other shoe drop. It gets us all on this person’s side and then tells us that he is one of them. This is where one is tempted to take refuge in the idea that the Samaritan who was healed didn’t actually follow Jesus’s instructions. There’s hope yet for us, friends, that the Samaritan may get a good chiding from Jesus for not following a divine command. Just like a Samaritan to get God’s instructions wrong.
Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
And, if we’ve really been following the themes of this story, then we’re not happy here. Jesus praises the person with the heretic religion, the stupid culture, the dumb habits, and the gall not to follow Jesus’s instructions like the others did. At this point, we should be the ones begging Jesus to have mercy on us and declare the degenerate unclean again. Alas, we suffer still. And that’s all he’s got to say to us about it.
Now, the reflections above are precisely why having this as the reading for Thanksgiving Day is really only moderately relevant (read: sloppy). Giving thanks is an important function in an overall story about Jesus pulling a switch on us by transcending our prejudices. That borderland between Galilee and Samaria is a powerful metaphor for the reader if we take the time to look deeply and contextually. It is the border between the people we like and the people we fear. That border is everywhere in this world. It is everywhere because is exists primarily in human hearts, and just plays itself out in ways that diminish, hurt, ruin, and even end human lives. I’ll bet you more money than I’ve got that each and every one of us has that border in our own hearts too.
This is a story we need at the moment. As I write this, the 2020 elections haven’t yet been held. I’m no prophet, but I imagine that things won’t be much better afterwards. This is not an invitation to make peace with injustice and it isn’t a “bothsidesism.” It is a plea not to forget the humanity of the people you hate, dislike, or fear. Robbing someone of their humanity is easier than you think. Often, it isn’t a drastic step, but rather a series of little moves that takes us down a truly cruel path. In this story we get an invitation to break the dehumanizing cycle we trap one another in. May we be wise enough to accept it.
 Some commentaries suggest he did. You can die on that hill if you want to, but I just don’t see it, honey.
 You can fill in the blank here on what “them” is in your life; a flaky liberal, a conservative bumpkin, someone who wears white after Labor Day, etc…
The Rev. Caleb Tabor is the chaplain for Episcopal Campus and Young Adult Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from Efland, North Carolina, he has settled down close to home, where he lives with his husband.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is ALL about eating. You don’t have to buy presents, you don’t have to put on a costume, you don’t have to decorate the house, you don’t have to buy fireworks, you don’t have to worry about if you have a date to take out—you just have to cook and eat with people you love.
For many years now, it has been my tradition to celebrate Thanksgiving with good friends in Rhode Island. We get up early, walk the dogs, preheat the oven, then I go to church. After the Eucharist, we gather in the kitchen to cook, laugh, and revel in the joy of being together. We eat around 2, take a nap, then repeat.
Our lesson from John appointed for Thanksgiving certainly mirrors this joy of eating in community. Those who preach regularly will remember that last year (Year B) we had five Sundays in a row going through the Bread of Life discourse that makes up Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. All of this, including our lesson appointed for today, stems from the Feeding of the 5,000–an image that many Thanksgiving chefs might have in their heads already!
The people who just have partaken of the feast of loaves and fishes are so amazed by that experience that they follow Jesus across a body of water seeking more. “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves,” Jesus says to the crowd (Jn 6:26). Jesus recognizes that the miraculous meal got the people’s attention. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the meal comes in the context of Jesus healing people (Jn 6:2). One sign leads to another: Jesus heals the sick, and the people are amazed. They follow Jesus to witness more of these healings, and suddenly there is a large crowd that needs to eat. Jesus not only points the way to the Kingdom of Heaven in restoring health to the sick (healing signs), but he points the way through attending to the physical needs of those gathered (sign of the loaves and fishes).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ signs always have two purposes: they address the immediate needs of those gathered, and they point toward the Kingdom of God which Jesus comes to initiate. In the case of the Feeding of the 5,000, the people are hungry. They need sustenance. Jesus feeds them. The sign also points the way to the Kingdom of God wherein God transforms even the smallest gift into abundance.
Coming back to today’s lesson, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27). He further clarifies that he, himself, is that food that endures: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). Jesus, here, is not knocking the actual meal. People were hungry. People were fed. That’s good. He goes a step further, however, in reminding the crowds that the good meal is a means to an end, not the end itself.
When I think about my favorite Thanksgiving gatherings with my chosen family in Rhode Island, we ate amazing meals. We drank delicious wines. We played games and laughed. The great joy of those gatherings, however, were not the turkey, the Pinot Noir, nor the Scrabble board. The joy came from the love for one another expressed in fellowship.
The love we feel and experience at Thanksgiving is heightened because of the occasion. The holiday festivities point toward the greater love found through fellowship. Just as the many signs in John’s Gospel point the way to the Kingdom of God, our Thanksgiving observations point the way to the joy of community in thanksgiving for the many blessings of this life. What is more kingdom-y than that?
Because the Gospel of John has no dedicated lectionary year, preachers might take this opportunity to highlight the nature of the Johannine sign. What signs does God show us in our Thanksgiving traditions that point the way toward the Kingdom of God? How might we incorporate these signs and revelations into our everyday lives? Where can we use these signs to point others toward God’s Kingdom?
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen serves as Associate Rector at Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware, working alongside English and Spanish-speaking congregations. Prior to ordained ministry, Charles spent over a decade working in the professional theatre world as a director, actor, and puppeteer. His love of story informs his passion around biblical studies and sharing the Gospel of Christ.
Modern theologians and philosophers The Rolling Stones melodiously gifted their wisdom when they proclaimed, “You can’t always get what you want; but you get what you need.” Consumer culture—especially during the months of November and December—would benefit greatly from setting that song on repeat. We love to spend money on crap we don’t need just to satisfy a desire to impress our neighbors, our peers, and sadly, ourselves. The way we know God loves us is by counting the amount of material possessions we have, right?
In fact, prosperity preachers—while intending to proclaim a positive message (I hope)—do more harm than good to those less fortunate than themselves; AND to those just as fortunate. The message of “If you pray like me, then you shall have a nice house, three cars, and a boat,” tends to lead to despondency rather than hope; feelings of inadequacy instead of acceptance. What does it say to the single mother of three who works two jobs just to keep her children housed, fed, and safe? “Sorry, you must not be praying hard enough; keep trying. Meanwhile, I’m going to continue being God’s favorite; I mean, look at all my stuff!” There seems to be a general sense of self-importance brought about by tying our self-worth to our obtained earthly desires. I am guilty of this more than I like to admit, just as I imagine you might be, too. But the question I have is this: When is enough, enough?
Humanity is driven by desire; desire to be loved, accepted, appreciated and safe. We want—at our base level—to feel a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, we express that desire in flawed human ways, sometimes forgetting that God has more for us than we could ever need if we would only turn around and accept it. C.S. Lewis explains this in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” where he preached,
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.1
Our desires have been co-opted in the name of consumerism, the neo-God of the twenty-first century who only takes and never gives back. What would it look like if we simply reigned in our crazy and accepted the fact that, regardless of income and possession, God loves us equally, regardless of our achievements? Psalm 51 says, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise,” but I think that we’re more satisfied with praying, “Fill my wallet, O Lord, and I’ll ask you for a raise.” With these desires running rampant and unfulfilled, when do we have time to say ‘thank you’ to God? When do we stop and rest, knowing that we have already received the greatest gift we can be given—the gift of redemption by way of Jesus’ death on the cross? We haven’t expressed our gratitude to God nearly enough, nor could we ever, for that boon.
But at least we could try.
Praise and thanks are the keys to rebooting that desire, as well as the means to understanding our true needs—to ensure that we love creation in good order, and allow the rest to come after. St. Augustine reminds us how to do this, as he writes,
But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.2
Doesn’t this sound like implicit gratitude and praise? By stopping and weighing that which we love, we are also noticing its worth. “Thank you, Lord, for my neighbor, I will love her.” “Thank you, God, for your grace. I will share it with others.” If we can reorder ourselves to notice HOW we love things, then I imagine that the things we love will inevitably change, becoming those which we ought to have sought in the first place.
Preaching thanks and praise can be difficult. I can almost see the eye-rolls and hear the groans of people in my congregation, “Yes, Sean, we KNOW that we’re supposed to say thank you.” But perhaps taking a glance at how we desire will provide a hearing-aid to those who can’t discern the intention behind living a thankful lifestyle. Matthew’s gospel wants us to reorder our yearnings and to lay down our worries; worries that we’re not good enough and that we always have to seek more. The reading also tacitly reminds us to be thankful for that which we already have, and to know that God will always provide what we need. Reminding our folks that they’re starting from a place of that absolute love and care—and asking them to take a look at what they really want—could mitigate some of their anxieties surrounding the upcoming holiday season. And, it might just be the little nudge they need to accept themselves as they are, the Imago Dei, rather than as the world wants them to be.
The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.
As a child, whenever I received a gift, I was not allowed to play with it until a thank you note was written, signed, addressed, and mailed. My parents wanted to instill in my siblings and me the practice of expressing gratitude to those who offered something to us, and it has served me well throughout my adult life and ministry. I am grateful for this practice that my parents instilled.
That was not always true, though. Around the second grade, I was not yet reading, so my parents had me tested by an educational psychologist and discovered that I am dyslexic. There are degrees of dyslexia which gauge the severity of one’s learning disability, and on the scale used at the time, I was a 6 of a possible 7 on the scale. The psychologist told my parents I would be functionally illiterate unless they intervened immediately. Even with intensive intervention and a plethora of supplemental resources and instruction time, I spent most of my primary and secondary education trying to “catch up” to my grade level in reading and writing skills.
On Christmas or after a birthday party, as I opened gifts, with every rip into the wrapping paper, I dreaded the thank you notes that must follow. My family’s tradition back then was to open all the gifts together, and then immediately retire to a table or comfortable chair with a hard-bound book in our laps to write out all the necessary thank you notes.
Sometimes it would take me 20 minutes to get through one note because I had to keep stopping to ask my family how to spell words like “grateful” or “lovely” or “sincerely.”
My family always tried to be cheerful in helping me. But it got on their nerves, I am sure—especially my older siblings. I found out just a few years ago that they were threatened within an inch of their lives by our parents if there were ever caught teasing me about my dyslexia, or refusing to help when I asked. Despite their coerced but helpful attitudes, it was a struggle and embarrassment nonetheless. I wanted not to need so much help. I wanted to be “normal.”
That brings us to the gospel appointed for Thanksgiving. St. Luke’s gospel tells the story of ten lepers who begged for mercy and were made clean of their ailment, but only one returns to show gratitude to Jesus after realizing the miracle of his healing.
Often we hear this text preached as a call to gratitude and praise for the gifts of our lives. Those include the the primary gifts for sustaining life: food, shelter, clothing; along with other material gifts: cars, homes, and boats; and even the sentimental gifts: family, friends, and loved ones. In sermons like these, we are usually led to consider some active application of the text like how to “live thanksgiving every day” or “embrace gratitude as a new spiritual praxis,” or maybe something even more saccharine or cliché.
As I attempted the read the text with fresh eyes, I began to wonder about those other nine who didn’t return, more than I had before. Why didn’t they return? Were they ungrateful, or did they just not know a return to say “thanks” was an expectation? Were they careless, or were they carried away in a mad fury to show their newly healed skin to those they were separated from by that dreadful bacteria? Were they distracted by the celebration with one another? Were they ungrateful, or were they swept up in the possibility of their new lives given in healing, and maybe even forgetful?
Those questions led me to a more graceful reading of this story than I’ve heard or even proclaimed previously. Jesus’ response to the lone returner, a Samaritan “foreigner” at that, may lead the preacher to highlight how we can forget to express gratitude, even though we experience it. The power of it is not the private emotion, but the offering. We uplift the Kingdom of God and therefore the world, not in feeling grateful but by BEING grateful—expressing it!
As we enter a season filled giving and receiving, let us commit ourselves to the graceful proclamation of the power of gratitude as an expressed element. Let us avoid drawing a false dichotomy of the grateful one, versus an ungrateful nine, but instead preach the power of expressive and bold gratitude offered to one another.
The Rev. Ben Day is Rector of Christ Church Episcopal, Kennesaw, Georgia.
Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday when I was a kid. Thanksgiving Day meant Christmas was a bit closer and much cooler weather was soon on the way. Thanksgiving also meant spending the day with family and playing with my cousins in my grandmother’s backyard. But most importantly, Thanksgiving meant food! I can still remember the smells of my grandmother’s turkey and ham, the crunch of my aunt’s sweet potato casserole, and the delicious weirdness of my father’s oyster stuffing. What I remember most, however, are my grandmother’s angel biscuits.
My grandmother’s angel biscuits came from an old Appalachian recipe in our church cookbook. Angel biscuits are difficult to explain: they have the texture of a traditional southern biscuit but the taste of a yeast roll, deliciously perfect for soaking up gravy and bits of turkey.
Grandma always made her angel biscuits the day before Thanksgiving. She would place them in her refrigerator overnight on a large cookie sheet. I remember arriving early to her house and watching her cut the uncooked biscuits with precision and ease, something she had done many times. The smell of the rolls would fill the house, the yeast almost overpowering the smell of the fatback in the green beans on the stove.
When I think of Thanksgiving, I remember those angel biscuits. Grandma doesn’t cook much these days, and I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to make them myself three or four times. Perhaps it’s best they remain a memory.
The gospel appointed for Thanksgiving Day is an interesting choice. When our minds are most focused on food, what we might soon be cooking, or which dish we most look forward to, John’s words strike us: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal… Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’”
It should be obvious to most that our civic and religious Thanksgiving holiday is not about food. Even the non-religious among us admit that Thanksgiving is at the very least a day in which we acknowledge what we have and what is important in our lives. For Christians, Thanksgiving Day is about giving thanks to God, the creator of all. The fact is, however, that when we give thanks to God for all we have, we are most often thankful for the “food that perishes,” as Jesus puts it. We might be thankful for our new car, for our home, for food, for clothing, for our job, and for money to pay our bills, things that are important, but things that perish.
There is certainly nothing wrong with giving thanks for the perishables in our lives, but that’s not the question Jesus is prompting. Jesus is asking where we place our faith. The gospel lesson doesn’t ask us to list the things for which we are thankful, the gospel lesson asks us to reflect on our faith and to receive the true bread, which gives life to world.
We can certainly be thankful for our material wealth, for our homes, for our jobs, and for the food on our tables this Thanksgiving, but let us not mistake thankfulness for faith. Thankfulness for turkey and biscuits won’t feed the hungry. Thankfulness for a closet full of clothing won’t clothe the naked. Thankfulness for a good home and a good job won’t house the homeless or right the economic injustice in our society. Only our faith in Jesus and our participation in God’s mission will do that.
The preacher should consider the implications of appointing a lesson from John’s bread imagery on Thanksgiving Day. The preacher should also consider how receiving the bread of life conflicts with or harmonizes with our religious and civic understanding of the Thanksgiving holiday and its traditions. Most importantly, the preacher will need to consider Jesus’s use of thirst and hunger imagery in the context of perishable bread. How might the preacher prompt her congregation to consider what it means to be thankful for the non-perishables? What does thankfulness for God’s mission and God’s kingdom look like? How might thankfulness move from acknowledgment and faith to action and participation?
As we break bread this Thanksgiving around our tables, may we who follow in the way of Jesus be moved beyond thankfulness for turkey and gravy; may we be moved to receive and share the bread of heaven, which gives life to the world.
The Rev. Jacob E. Pierce is an Episcopal priest and the curate of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jacob has served churches in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. before receiving a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 2015. Jacob enjoys reading, collecting Marian folk art, and playing with his very energetic dog, Hamlet.