Read St. Luke 17:11-19
So is Thanksgiving a national holiday that the Church has borrowed; or is Thanksgiving a Church holiday that the nation has borrowed?
The evidence would appear to all be one sided: this day of Thanksgiving that we celebrate on the 4th Thursday of November has been determined based on the arrival of the Pilgrims; and their survival through that first brutal winter. Therefore, it would appear that we are not gathered here this evening because the Church calendar dictates it, but because the national calendar dictates it.
And true to form, when we look for readings for this evening, there are plenty of examples of people giving thanks for individual successes or momentous occasions in their lives, or even some one time national celebrations in response to a military victory or some other achievement; but there is no decree to set aside a single day each year for the people of God to give thanks for the First Article gifts that He has so graciously bestowed upon them.
And so one would think that our very gathering here this evening; the very existence of a day of national Thanksgiving; is due entirely to the state. And that the creation of this day of national Thanksgiving is the state’s gift to the Church; and that the Church would have never come up with this idea of a day of giving thanks, were it not for the state.\
But before we start an exercise praising America for being some form of a Christian nation, let us look at our Gospel text.
The cleansing of the lepers is the standard Thanksgiving Gospel text. In it Jesus goes to great lengths to commend this one Samaritan who has returned to give thanks for his miraculous healing, as opposed to the 9 Jewish lepers who went and showed themselves to the high priest, as Jesus had instructed them to do.
Why did the one return?
Did he return because he realized that it was the fourth Thursday in November and that he should give thanks for the cleansing that he had received?
No; the text clearly says that he simply realized that he was healed and returned to Jesus.
Did he return because the Law said that if you were healed, you had to give thanks first to the person who healed you, whether it be a medical doctor or a witch doctor or the Son of God; and then go and give thanks to God at the temple?
No; the Law clearly said that you were to show yourself to the priest and then give thanks to God for your healing by making the appropriate sacrifice, nothing else.
Did he return to show how holy and righteous he was, as opposed to the other nine?
No; and even if he did, he was a Samaritan, so no one would have believed him anyway.
Or does he return because that is the polite thing to do; and by doing so, his healing was blessed above and beyond the healing that the others received?
Again, while Jesus does commend this one Samaritan, he does not revoke the healing or condemn the souls of the other nine.
Let’s ask another question: why did the Pilgrims stop and give thanks?
And let us be clear; it was the Pilgrims idea to give thanks and celebrate in such a way; the Indians may have also been thankful, but they were not Christian and would not have thought to stop and do such a thing.
There was no law that told them they had to give thanks; no government decree that this day should be a day of Thanksgiving; nor was there an established tradition to speak of in Europe to do such a thing either.
What about you? Why have you stopped to give thanks?
You do not have to; the stores are open, you can go out and do whatever you like. The government is not going to come into your home and force you to give thanks for anything. And we have already determined that the Church did not come up with this day anyway; so God cannot yell at you no matter what you do.
What is it that moved first this leper, and then the Pilgrims, and now you, to pause and give thanks for the First Article gifts that you enjoy in your regular everyday life?
Because that is what you are giving thanks for; that is what this is all about: the leper gave thanks for the gift of a healthy body; the Pilgrims gave thanks for the gift of clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all they had. You now give thanks for all that God so richly and daily provides you with to support this body and life.
The answer is both as complex and as simple as the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit moved within the heart of that healed Samaritan leper; and led him to stop in his tracks and turn around and go back and give thanks to Jesus; even when there was an established method already in place for him to give thanks to God. The Holy Spirit told him that the one who had sent him was the very source of his healing; and that it was this Jesus who he now must turn back and give thanks to.
The Holy Spirit moved inside of the Pilgrims some 400 years ago that the reason they survived that winter; the reason their crops were fruitful; the reason the Indians came to their assistance was not because of their savvy expertise or their cunning brain power; but because God had out of His goodness and mercy provided all that they needed to survive in this strange new world.
The Holy Spirit has moved inside of you, that not just tomorrow on the fourth Thursday of November, but every time you confess the Apostle’s Creed, every time you give thanks before eating, every time you gather here to pray, praise and give thanks, you are acknowledging that God is the author and provider of all that you need to support this body and life.
The Holy Spirit alone has led you to give thanks for all of the First Article gifts that you have received; not the Law of God or the law of man; not tradition; not guilt; not even a lack of anything else to do.
And when you acknowledge the author and provider of those First Article gifts; then you are prepared to receive the Second Article gift of Jesus Christ who has come into the world to redeem you, a lost and condemned sinner.
And for that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are most certainly thankful; not just one day a year, but every time you make the sign of the cross in remembrance of your baptism; every time you hear that your sins are forgiven; every time you receive the body and blood of Christ.
As it turns out, Thanksgiving is a Church holiday, because it is only through the working of the Holy Spirit that you truly realize the scope and sum of the blessings you have received; and only through the Holy Spirit that you are truly thankful for those blessing.