Shout to Jehovah, all the earth. Serve ye Jehovah with gladness: before him come with singing-mirth. Know that Jehovah he God is.
Its he that made us, not we; his folk, and sheep of his feeding. O with confession enter ye his gates, his courtyards with praising:
Confess to him, bless ye his name. Because Jehovah he good is: his mercy ever is the same; and his faith, unto all ages.
(Psalm 100, 1612 Ainsworth translation)
For the first 17 years of my life, Thanksgiving was thoroughly and wonderfully predictable. We went to Granny and Gramps’ house, my maternal grandparents, just a few miles away. We all knew the menu by heart because it hadn’t changed since before we were born. There were the staples—green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with roasted marshmallows, and my favorite vegetable throughout my childhood, cream style corn. It’s an unruly dish of course, spreading out like hot lava across your plate touching every food in its path. We had cranberry sauce straight from the can. Do you remember how it came out whole in the shape of the can? We had ambrosia with fruit that had yet to fully ripen swimming around in orange juice with an abundance of coconut. A highlight was Granny’s homemade rolls. Of course, we had the roasted turkey that my grandmother cooked in a brown paper bag so it would remain moist. This was before buttons popped up on our Butterball turkeys. Of course there was gravy in an old gravy boat and cornbread dressing cooked in its own dish. There was no stuffing unless you count the pounds of food we stuffed into our mouths. It was an all-out celebration of my favorite of the seven deadly sins—gluttony. But the gluttony did not stop there, Granny would make a special dessert for each family member. It’s good we had a small family! She always made coconut cake for my dad, cherry pie for me, and on it went. Before sitting down, she poured Coke for the kids, sweet tea for the rest except for my Uncle Van, who preferred his iced tea unsweetened, which was against the law in the South at the time.
Finally, my grandmother poured hot coffee for herself. She took her seat and immediately started critiquing her own cooking—was the turkey too dry, was the dressing too moist, did the marshmallows on the sweet potatoes burn a bit, were the rolls cooked long enough? We all assured her that everything was perfect because it was. My grandmother’s love language was food and she provided it in abundance.
Looking back, I wonder, did I thank my grandmother for the feast? I hope so. I was a polite kid so I probably did. If I forgot, my parents would have reminded me to say thank you to Granny, provider of cream style corn and cherry pie just for me, year in and year out.
Not everyone remembers to say thank you, but sometimes the least likely person remembers. There is a story in the New Testament Book of Luke that starts with ten lepers, presumed highly contagious, and therefore outcasts both socially and legally. According to the law, lepers had to stay a minimum of twelve feet away from everybody else. Whenever someone came within earshot of them, the lepers had to shout the humiliating words, “Unclean, unclean.” Lepers lived separated from their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, spouses, children and friends.
In this story, the news of Jesus healing a leper was in the air. Three days earlier Jesus made quite a splash by healing a man with leprosy. And now three days later, Jesus walked by a small leper colony when he heard desperate voices crying out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us, have mercy on us. Dear Jesus, please help us.” And he did. Jesus saw them and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” The priests would perform a purification rite and allow them to return to their families and the rest of society. The text says, “As they went, they were healed.”
Astonished at what seemed too good to be true, the ten former lepers ran down the road as fast as their legs could carry them to find the priest. Suddenly one and only one of the ten froze in his tracks then turned and ran back to Jesus to say thank you. The scripture tells us that the thankful man was a Samaritan of all people.
Why the Samaritan? The Samaritan knew what it meant to be an outcast long before he contracted leprosy. Rev. John Thomas observes that, since the man was a Samaritan, “…he was twice scorned, twice rejected, twice removed from the community. As a leper, he was…isolated, an object, no doubt, of revulsion and fear on the part of his neighbors. And as a Samaritan he would have been seen as an outsider, and a despised one at that, to the more orthodox Jews of Galilee. Perhaps this Samaritan leper suffered more and thus his healing evoked a more profound gratitude.”[i]
Maybe this was true of the Pilgrims as well. They had endured so many hardships and heartbreaks. In England these early Congregationalists survived persecution. Many died on their stormy Atlantic voyage and during that first grueling winter.
If the Pilgrims had experienced smooth sailing from England to America and if they had been satisfied with abundant food from the beginning, would we be celebrating this holiday called Thanksgiving? When we’re living on easy street and pleasantly coasting along through life, we can get complacent and take life’s blessings for granted. But when the storms of life beat us down, the amount of time we spend praying often goes up.
The Samaritan lived his whole life as an outcast. Perhaps this sensitized him to the plight of other disenfranchised people. The other nine though, were not Samaritans. How could they know what it was like to live as an invisible person, as a despised nobody. When the leprosy hit, they became outcasts overnight. Yet when the healing came, the other nine forgot all about the One who made the miracle possible. But the lifelong outcast, the Samaritan, remembered the One who made him whole and ran back to give thanks.
Which brings me back to my grandmother’s Thanksgiving table. As has been oft repeated, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it is gone.” That was certainly true for me two days before Thanksgiving in 1982 when my beloved grandfather died of a heart attack. He was 72. Granny made sure that the Thanksgiving feast two days later was the same wonderful meal it had always been. She didn’t miss a beat. But of course, everything was not the same nor would it ever be. Granny asked me to sit in Gramps’ chair opposite her at the end of the table. I did, though I felt unworthy of the honor. Missing was the laughter and the storytelling that made the gathering so much fun. Our Thanksgiving dinner was subdued that year. We didn’t know what we had until it was gone. Sitting around the table a year later we weren’t jovial but at least we were not still down in the dumps. By the third Thanksgiving without Gramps, the mood was lighter and we were ready to talk about our favorite memories of Gramps.
Looking back on those days now, I can see the big picture. I can see levels of meaning that I was oblivious to at the time. I can see that there was and is something profoundly holy about sitting around the Thanksgiving table surrounded by the people you love most in the world. There was something holy in the affection and the connections that we shared as a family. There was something holy in retelling the old stories, in shared memories, and the laughter that filled our hearts with happiness. And there was something holy in the love that Granny shared through the turkey, the fresh baked rolls, the sweet potatoes, the cream style corn, and both the pumpkin and cherry pies. I wish for each of you a joyous, tasty, gluttonous, and holy Thanksgiving. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
November 24, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York UCC
Hear now this Native American Thanksgiving Prayer from the Iroquois people:
We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us. We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water. We return thanks to the herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases. We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and squash, which give us life. We return thanks to the bushes and trees, which provide us with fruit. …We return thanks to the moon and the stars, which have given us their light when the sun was gone. We return thanks to our grandfather He-no…who has given to us his rain. We return thanks to the sun, that he has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye. Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness. AMEN.
Adapted from: http://www.prayer-and-prayers.info/thanksgiving-prayers/an-iroquois-prayer-for-thanksgiving.htm