As a child we did not celebrate Thanksgiving. Instead, we had harvest festivals, times where we would share from the bounty we had, gathering food to give away. I loved getting the old shoe box each year and covering it with brown paper, decorating the box, one year ever writing a little poem on that brown paper, a tricky task as I had already covered the box and was writing at a strange angle! The then careful choosing apples from our trees that looked least likely to contain a maggot or two, digging up potatoes from my grandfathers patch and brushing the dirt from them, and setting everything with great care in the shoebox. I would get a green sprig from the bush, heavy with red berries, and use it as decoration. The tricky part was carrying it on the bus to church, trying to keep everything safe, and then each child would parade up the aisle carrying their offering, all the shoe boxes creating a great display of abundance! As a child, I never knew what happened to these baskets, but when I was a teen I was invited to help deliver them, and we set off to the homebound members of the congregation, tea and biscuits served at each stop as we delivered a little piece of love. While there were no gathering or meals involved, it felt like a fine way to give thanks for what we had grown, and I remember the gratitude I felt as I hand picked those apples and polished them with a cloth before placing them in the basket, that was felt even more abundantly when I visited those people who I did not know, bringing them joy and love. It was an easy, generous gratitude that flowed forward.
This story of the ten lepers is one that is familiar to us, and reminds us how easy it can be to miss this feeling of generous gratitude! . As I read it this time, I noticed things that I had not before. First, the lepers called out from a distance and yelled at Jesus to heal them. They asked for his help. They knew who he was. They believed he could help them. And so, keeping their distance, they called out to Jesus to heal them. As their belief led them to ask, it was perhaps this same belief that kept them from expressing gratitude. They knew Jesus had the capacity to heal them, so it can’t have been a big deal to him, right? it can’t have really taken any effort on his part. So why turn around in surprise that he did what they asked and thank him. The one person who did offer thanks was the Samaritan, the outsider, the probable non believer in the group. His surprise and awe at the healing he saw and felt happening in him was so great that he fell at Jesus’ feet to thank him. A full bodied expression of gratitude…. A body now free from the excruciating pain that leprosy brings with it, a body now free to express fully the relief. While the nine others who had been healed used this freedom from pain to get the next thing done… the priestly blessing that would declare them members of society again…., the outsider used it to bless the one who had healed him, the source of the miracle he was experiencing.
This leads me to ponder about showing gratitude, or giving thanks. Do I only give gratitude for those things that are unexpected? Or do I swing the other way and give gratitude for only the expected things? And how can I become more generous with my gratitude like that young girl polishing the maggot free apples to give away?
A friend of mine was the church organist at a church in Texas before she retired. She became friends with the maintenance man there, and describes him as one of those all around great people… and a man of generous gratitude…. Roger not only kept the church clean, but fixed things before others knew they needed fixing. He would set up the sound system and take care of the church and congregation in many ways that others did not see. And he was always smiling, generous, kindhearted. Bev, my friend, also offered private piano lessons to children, and every six months or so, she would hold a piano recital at the church for her students to perform. Roger would set up for the recital, make sure the sound was good, and even asked if he could record the recital, making cd’s for all her students in his own time and at his own cost. Yet Roger’s life wasn’t an easy one. He has a wife with a degenerative illness who is close to being confined to a wheelchair, a son with cerebral palsy, and two other young teenagers, one of who is on the autism spectrum. But he always appeared to be happy and kind, that smile never far from his eyes.
Roger and his family were struck by CoVid recently, and he was soon hospitalized. He was on a ventilator, and seemed to be doing a little better. But then, like Covid often does, he took a turn for the worse, and his life last week. All through this, the church and other friends have been reaching out to offer help…. Meals, gifts for the kids at Christmas, even offers of cash to help them out. And his wife, also recovering from CoVid, has been blown away by the offers. But this week she made a statement. Roger was a veteran, and his family knew how hard it is for families to be apart during the holidays, so she asked for people to donate to a local charity that gets gifts for the families of someone serving in the military. She wrote, “thank you all for your kind words and generous spirits. At this time we have all we need, we know God is blessing us and walking with us through our pain. I know that this is where Roger’s heart would be… to take care of those families and children separated from their loved ones who are serving our country. We have one another, and we know God is with us… but some of these families don’t and are really struggling. So thank you for helping them know God’s love for them through your gifts.”
That in the midst of her grief, in the midst of her new life, Debbie was able to turn around to thank Jesus for his presence and ask for his love to be made visible to the world, is a miracle and a testament to Roger. It’s also a testament to the generous gratitude Roger practiced in every day life, and a value that his family continues to live out in the world, even after he is no longer in it, and even with all the struggles they continue to live with on top of their grief.
I think this is a question pertinent to us all…. How do we practice generous gratitude in these times that are not what we thought they would be. In the weeks ahead when the family we maybe thought we were going to spend holidays with are not sitting at our table, when ones we love are sick, when our favorite restaurants have shut their dining rooms, when even this church building is shut. In these days when the number off folks we know personally who have CoVid are rising, when we are wisely reluctant to enter stores to do our Christmas shopping, when masks cover smiles and singing in public is frowned upon. In the midst of this, how can we be like Debbie and practice generous gratitude?
I think the answer to this is to become more and more aware of the Divine showing up in our lives. To notice the small things that show God’s presence in the midst of our days…. Even when that day is a struggle. To be like David, the Psalmist, who wrote, in the midst of struggling with the injustices of the world,
I will thank God with all my heart
In the meeting of the just and their assembly
Great are the works of God
To be pondered by all who love them.
Majestic and glorious God’s works
God’s justice stands firm forever
God makes us remember the wonders
And is full of compassion and love.
Indeed, God stands firm forever. In these times that are shaky, when our foundations seem to quiver beneath us, when the things we have taken for granted, like gathering with family or friends for holidays, or that church doors will be open on a Sunday morning, are no longer givens… we need to remember that God’s justice stands firm forever. That God is full of compassion and love, even when things look different. That wonders are all around us when we open our hearts to ponder them.
One of the things that Christ left for us to experience these words, this reality in the midst of the reality we are surrounded by, is this feast. For at the time he most needed to remember God’s compassion and love, at the time when he and his disciples were gathered together celebrating the Seder meal, a large meal with elaborate preparation and a long liturgy to remember how the people had been freed from slavery, in the midst of a gathering that was tinged with forbearing of what was about to take place, Jesus knew that he had to be generous with his gratitude. To be generous with this gift that he could leave behind. Be generous with the most simple of the things on the table, the ones people would have easy assess to, the things that would most likely be something that would stand firm as a symbol of God’s great works through the ages. And so, in the midst of a table covered with elaborate dishes that symbolized tears and sweat and sweetness and bitterness…. In the midst of the table where people were together with him for the last time, in the midst of all the feelings that were swirling around… his own included, Jesus took the most simple, basic, everyday elements and gave thanks. For for the bread, and then for the cup. With all there was on that table to choose from, he chose the two most common. A loaf of bread. A cup of wine.
He was making the statement that these simple things are generous. These everyday things are how we can share gratitude. These things we take for example are the foundation of sharing love and hope and gratitude and thanksgiving with the world. It doesn’t take much. It takes the least. It takes the simple. It takes what’s available. And it turns it into a great feast of thanksgiving, filled with generous inclusive expansive welcome, filled with deep, heart centered love, filled with thanksgiving that surpasses our understanding.
So, if you find yourself struggling to be thankful, struggling to feel gratitude, struggling to find hope, turn back to God, rest in God’s presence, seek out God’s wonders and the majestic and glorious works of God… both in creation, in the small things you notice, in ways of healing and connection that may surprise you. Try to be generous with your gratitude, looking beyond just your needs and seeing how you can bless others with simple, everyday things. And know that we are in this together, even if we cannot be physically together with one another. That God’s love continues to bind us and connect us.
And, as we prepare to be apart for a season, we connect with God and one another through this feast, this this simple meal where we remember God in our midst and give thanks from the depths of our hearts!