In their great desire to reject anything that smacked of Roman Catholicism and its remaining effects in the Church of England, the Puritans of the 17th c. rejected all Christian holy days – including Christmas and Easter – and replaced them with days of thanksgiving and days of fasting. For instance, the defeat of the “Catholic” Spanish Armada called for a thanksgiving day while a series of droughts and outbreaks of the plague called for days of fasting and repentance. What Americans celebrate on this day can be traced to the holy-day-hating Puritans who, at some point in the 1620s, celebrated a Day of Thanksgiving: thanksgiving for their survival and thanksgiving for their modestly productive harvest. What was never mentioned in the pilgrim stories of my childhood was the relative ease with which these Christian colonialists viewed their Algonquin Indian neighbors as an inferior group of people, purchased African slaves from the West Indies, and then sold them for a considerable mark up in price to their fellow colonialists.
It was a form of ethnic and religious prejudice with which Jesus was quite familiar. Note that in today’s gospel reading Luke narrates the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem “through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Again, the word Samaria appears when Luke identifies one of the ten lepers as a Samaritan, the only one who returned to thank Jesus. At first glance, you and I might think, “this healed leper’s from Samaria; so what?” That is, until we recognize that all Israelites considered the people of Samaria an inferior ethnic group who followed what they considered a false form of Judaism --- in much the same way that many contemporary Christians consider Mormonism an interesting but deeply flawed religion. Believe me: no self-respecting Galilean or Judean would ever allow his son or daughter to marry the offspring of a Samaritan. Were such to happen, that son or daughter would be cut off completely from their family of origin.
Thus, the Surprise in this story of lepers crying out for mercy is less about thanksgiving and more about Jesus’ immediate response to their need --- a response with no questions asked. He doesn’t initiate an enquiry into whether or not they have sufficient funds to pay for his healing power, a practice common among almost all other healers in the ancient Mediterranean. He doesn’t refuse to heal them because they have a pre-existing condition. He doesn’t ask if they have sinned and thus are deserving of their disease, a view that was pervasive throughout the Mediterranean – you know: you do bad things and the gods punish you – for, indeed, he rejects the very notion that disease or any natural disaster is a calamity sent by God. He doesn’t heal his nine fellow Israelites while ignoring the outsider Samaritan.
It would seem – wouldn’t it? – that he embodied in his actions the very grace and expansive mercy he preached.
And so I want to suggest that it would be tempting to imagine this story, selected for Thanksgiving Day, as nothing more than moral exhortation to you and to me: “be thankful for all the blessings you have received.” But such a view, it seems, misses the Surprise waiting in the story: that Jesus welcomes and heals outsiders as well as insiders and thus brings them together in his healing power: the Israelite unexpectedly joined with the Samaritan in a love, a mercy, greater than they could have imagined – a story that stands in sharp contrast to the politics of separation practiced by the Puritan colonialists who viewed the Algonquin Indians as if they were inferior Samaritans; a politics of separation so easily supported and even sanctified by religious people; a politics of separation that is undercut and subverted by Jesus who invites you and me to live into his expansive love for those we might too easily consider unwanted outsiders.
Truth be told, the first Christian service of thanksgiving in North America was celebrated in 1560, 70 years earlier than the Puritans, in the newly-established Spanish settlement of St. Augustine on the Florida coast; celebrated as a Mass of Thanksgiving on the feast day of St. Augustine: the early Christian bishop who steadfastly encouraged his congregation to rescue persons from slavery and other forms of human trafficking. It should not surprise us, then, that the people and priests of St. Augustine encouraged African slaves in the English plantations of Georgia, South, and North Carolina to escape their masters and make their way to the city of St. Augustine where they would encounter the healing power of freedom and respect for their God-given dignity.
The ancient form of Jewish prayer known and practiced by Jesus and subsequent generations of Christians involves two movements, always two movements, never one: blessing God, giving thanks to God for what God provides: for another day of life, for the beauty and diversity of creation, for food and drink, for health, for children, for the life of Jesus, for his life poured out in healing love for anyone and everyone.
But such thanksgiving, in Jesus’ form of prayer, always – Always – leads to supplication, to the request that God let this blessing flow into the world; yes, flow into the world through you and through me, flow into daily life, into our homes and our work. Thus, there is to be no thanksgiving without the request that any and every good gift, every blessing, be shared rather than kept for oneself, given away rather than hoarded, offered to the one whose needy hand is open and waiting, waiting for that merciful impulse in you and in me to become, perhaps, the unexpected blessing that will prompt the stranger, the homeless mother, the hungry child, the last minute guest at the table to give thanks to God for the generous impulse within You.