Luke 17: 11-19
I did something a little unusual with the scripture readings this morning. As most of you know, we often follow the Revised Common Lectionary’s 3-year cycle of readings for Sundays. But today we had a choice of readings. (Look on the back of your bulletins… at the two sets of readings…) Today I could have chosen the readings for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, or I could have chosen the special readings for Thanksgiving Sunday.
But instead of choosing one set or the other, I mixed them up a little. I chose Philippians 4 from the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, and matched it up with two of the readings for Thanksgiving – Deuteronomy 8 about being sure not to forget God when things are good, and Luke 17 about the ten lepers getting healed and the one who goes back to say thank you to Jesus.
The Deuteronomy reading makes a lot of sense for Thanksgiving Sunday. The message is: “When everything is wonderful in your life, when you’ve got everything you need, when you sit down to a wonderful meal of turkey and potatoes and vegetables and pie, surrounded by good friends and dear family, don’t forget about God…
“When the harvest is plentiful, when you move into a nice new home, when you get a promotion with a big raise, when your children get straight A’s, when you win an important award, when everything is going well in your life, don’t forget about God.”
I suppose that’s what the other nine former lepers were doing – forgetting about God. They were forgetting about Jesus – the one who had healed them and given them back their lives.
It didn’t take them long to forget, either. Just minutes before, they had been calling out to him for help in the street: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” But once they were healed, most of them just kept going. They were anxious to get on with their lives, and they forgot about God. They forgot about Jesus who had healed them and given them back their lives.
The Thanksgiving Sunday scripture texts lead us towards a simple, but important activity for today and this weekend. We are invited to pause and consider the good things in our lives, and to give thanks and praise to God. Like the one healed man who turned back, we are encouraged to praise God this morning with a loud voice, and to come before Jesus and thank him.
But the Thanksgiving texts also seem to take it for granted that we have plenty of good things in our lives for which to be thankful. The author of Deuteronomy writes: “WHEN you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and WHEN your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, THEN do not exact yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…” The text seems to assume that our lives will be filled with blessings and abundance, and our one shortcoming will be that we neglect to give the glory to God by saying thank-you.
And although I wish that were the case, I happen to know that things are not so simple or straight-forward in most of our lives. Some of us won’t go home tonight to a thanksgiving table that is overflowing with food – either because money is tight, or because we don’t have a family with which to gather, or because we have to be at work, even on Thanksgiving Sunday.
Some of us won’t feel particularly thankful this weekend because of a loved one who is ill, or someone dear to us who has died. Some of us won’t join in the celebrations because we’re suffering from illness or pain ourselves. And some of us will be distracted by the troubles and stresses of our lives – by the job we just lost, by the relationship that is in need of repair, by the debts that are piling up, by the heavy demands of being a caregiver, or by the fact that we are worrying about a family member or friend who is struggling.
Yes, it’s Thanksgiving Sunday. The harvest in Saskatchewan has been great, and the weather is warm and beautiful, and we should be thankful on this special day!
But this week I felt very drawn towards the text from Philippians 4 – the text for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost – the text that is not for a special celebration, but for ordinary time. What I really appreciated about this text was the fact that Paul is encouraging his readers to be thankful, but not necessarily because everything in their lives is going great.
And Paul knew what he was talking about. After all, Paul was in prison, facing a capital charge, when he wrote this letter. And that was not his only problem, for his responsibility for the churches was a constant concern. Even from prison he was trying to guide them, and help them, and to sort out their problems.
Moreover, the people to whom Paul was writing were unlikely to be living comfortable lives. Most of them were poor, many were slaves, and few of them would have known the meaning of security.
And to add to all the stresses and strains that would have come with being a Christian in first century Philippi, these Christians were also struggling with internal conflict. The apostle makes it clear that the disagreements between the Christian leaders – like the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche – must get worked out, and that the way to do that is for everyone to be of the same mind – the mind of Christ.
Now, we don’t know what these two Christian women were fighting about, but we can probably assume that like most conflicts, it would take a lot of patience, dedication, and time to work it out. In fact, Paul asked another person – someone that he referred to as his “loyal companion” to help them to work it out.
Very much like the conflicts that we may have experienced within church communities, this was a disagreement between two well-meaning and dedicated co-workers in the task of spreading the gospel. Paul urged these women to “be of the same mind” so that their good work could continue unhindered.
And then, from his jail cell, while he awaited potential execution, Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
On this Thanksgiving Sunday, and on every Sunday, and on every day of the year, Paul invites us to rejoice. Don’t rejoice because you have a nice car, or because you’re looking forward to a great dinner tonight, or because you are smart, or talented, or fortunate. Paul says, “Rejoice IN THE LORD.” Rejoice because the LORD IS NEAR.
Now, the commentators do speculate about what he meant by “The Lord is near.” Some of them think he was talking about the second coming – the idea that Christ would soon return to earth and make everything new and right and good. The Lord is near in a temporal sense because Jesus will soon be back to sort out the problems of our world once and for all. And that’s certainly a wonderful thought when things in our lives here on earth are not going as smoothly or as well as we might hope.
But I think when Paul said, “The Lord is near,” he also might have been talking about the fact that God is spacially near to us. Even when life is hard and difficult, God has not abandoned us, but God is with us through the challenges. Like Psalm 145:8 says, “The Lord is near to all who call upon him.”
Paul did not want his Christian friends at Philippi to be overwhelmed by fears and worries – about him, about the church, or about their own lives. And so he said, “Do not worry about anything.” Of course, he didn’t mean that they should just ignore their problems or stop caring about the concerns of the church or the community around them. Paul said, “Do not worry,” but I sometimes think of it more like, “WHEN you worry” here’s what you need to do.
It’s probably a bit unrealistic for Paul or for a preacher today to simply say, “Do not worry.” But we can say, “WHEN you worry, here’s what you can do. Talk to God about it. Bring your troubles to the God who is near. Pray, and ask for what you need, and remember to give thanks as well. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And then Paul gives some final instructions. He encourages his Christian friends, in the midst of all the challenges of their lives, to THINK GOOD THOUGHTS. He says, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
It sounds like a strategy that people use all the time to cope with the difficulties of life. Maybe your husband has died, but you’re thinking about your beautiful grandchildren. Maybe you’ve lost your job, so you’re concentrating on the many talents and skills you have as you put together your resume. Maybe you’re not as successful as you once hoped you would be, or maybe your life hasn’t turned out quite the way you dreamed it would. But you’re thinking about the good things – about the things for which you are truly thankful.
One commentary I was reading pointed out that there is nothing particularly Christian about the qualities that Paul is encouraging us to think about. They are qualities that would be admired by anyone. And the writer wondered whether Paul might have borrowed the list from popular moral philosophy, and whether he might be making a deliberate attempt to show that Christianity is not incompatible with pagan or secular culture at its best. Perhaps.
But what we can be sure of is that Paul is claiming that anything and everything that is “excellent or praiseworthy” is divine in origin.
And so today, whether our lives are filled with celebration and gladness, or whether we are coping with hardship and challenge, we are nonetheless invited to think about these things – to think about the things that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. And we are to give thanks and praise to God who is the source of all that is good.
Remembering that the Lord is near to hear us and to help us in all things, “Let us keep on doing the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen in [Paul, in other Christian leaders, and in Christ himself,] and the God of peace will be with us. Thanks be to God.