Thanksgiving in Thin Places

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Jesus Healing the Leper, 1864 (oil on canvas) by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze.

Thanksgiving / Pentecost 21 October 9, 2016 Luke 17:11-17

This gospel story is the first choice of many preachers for Thanksgiving Sunday in any year. It’s still a challenging text. We have to try to preach about gratitude without turning the sermon into a guilt trip. We also have to re-tell the story in a way that doesn’t make it about nine bad Jews versus one good Gentile. The 10th man is a Samaritan, of course. We must resist the temptation to retread our exegesis from recent sermons on the most popular parable, from Luke 10.

Nine of the men don’t come back to thank Jesus. That doesn’t make them villains. It seems they’re all Judeans. They do what Jesus tells them to do! They’re healed, but not pardoned. The rightful authorities must rule on their healing and lift the sentence of banishment.

I like to imagine the 10th man falls in behind his former partners in misery. Singing hymns. Same God, if different churches. They’ve been travelling together for a while. Then he remembers his hometown is in the opposite direction.

The 10th man turns around, toward his new life. Jesus is still there. Jesus still stands in noone’s-land. Jesus spends a lot of time walking borders, doing clean-up in DMZs, meeting outsiders in no-one’s-land.

Yes, Jesus is frustrated. He gave them all so much! Nine of them, his own people, should have known enough to pay him a little respect. Just one, this foreigner, seems to understand what has happened.

Or does he? Maybe he’s just overwhelmed. Jesus seems to have that effect on people.

Imagine the two of them: Jesus and the man from Samaria. They’re in liminal space, a place of vulnerability to one another and to God. It’s true the nine couldn’t wait to get out of there. This one wouldn’t have walked back into it if he could have avoided it. But here they are.

No-one’s-land. The In Between. What St. Columba called a “thin place.” Is it earth? Is it heaven? Could it be both? Like Columba, the 10th man
discovered the place of exile is also the place of healing and rebirth. And God is close.

Gratitude, deep gratitude, takes us to a thin place. We find ourselves suspended between abundance and emptiness. We know we are richly blessed. We also know we can never earn or own the wealth we enjoy. It’s real. But it comes from somewhere beyond ourselves.

The Thanksgiving feast on the table can’t take us there. The people who gather around the table to share the feast can. The decorations and special music in the Thanksgiving service can’t take us there. The people who enjoy them with us, and the memories the songs and symbols evoke take us to the thin place called gratitude. We have everything because we are loved. We have nothing of any value, except love. Everything we are, we are because we are loved.

In a thin place we can feel both safe and afraid. We’re aware of an abiding, enveloping Presence. Even though we know it’s constant, we fear we’ll lose it somehow. We’re frozen, maybe on our knees, afraid the next thing we do will mess it up. But we can’t linger in a thin place.

What will the 10th man do when he goes home? Jesus has to move on, too. He’s on a mission. The 10th man has a whole new life ahead of him. On the ground, he lays the life he’s been given at Jesus’ feet. That’s an image of discipleship.

When we experience gratitude, deep gratitude, we’re changed. When we step out of that thin place, the direction we choose determines whether or not the change lasts. Jesus’ call to us is always forward. Where will gratitude send us this Thanksgiving?

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About Laurence DeWolfe

Rev. Dr. Laurence DeWolfe is minister at Glenview, Toronto.