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Taking Thanksgiving with us

This post was originally the script of an episode of my short-lived podcast called
Not Your Ordinary Joe.
This one was based on an old sermon.

Black Friday

Many years ago, when my children were… well, children, I crawled out of bed the day after Thanksgiving to be at the local Kmart when the doors opened. The Black Friday sales circular we’d received with the newspaper, back in the days when we received newspapers, advertised a couple of items on my kids’ wish lists, at crazy-low prices. I’m an early riser anyway, so it certainly seemed worth missing a couple of hours of sleep to get a deal.

So, somewhere around 5am, I got into a very cold car with a list. An hour or so later, I returned home…  empty-handed. None of the advertised items were in stock at my local store, and they were not providing rain checks to get those prices later. Clearly, I should have stayed in bed.

One of the things that day emphasized for me was just how quick I am—how quick we are—to move on from Thanksgiving. I didn’t even wait until after my first coffee on the day after Thanksgiving to shift my focus from gratitude to wish lists, wants, what we didn’t have.

While I think we need to temper the seasonal craziness in our lives, this year, I’m going to miss the shopping, the decorations and music in the stores, seeing Santa at the mall, and all the other trappings. Not everything is out-of-bounds. I had a Peppermint Mocha at Starbucks the other day.

But I think we miss out on something vital when we brush by the spiritual discipline of giving thanks and rush off to the next thing.

I have always enjoyed how the season works—we have a day to give thanks for all we have, before we put together our wish lists for all the cool, new stuff we don’t yet have. Thanksgiving is gloriously present-free. Our focus, for the most part, is on intangibles—relationships, health, the ties that bind, family, friends (and food and football).

And this year, all of that has a bit more meaning. We are reminded of how good it is to be together when we can’t be together.

Jesus and Lepers

There’s this story in the Bible that always gets me (Luke 17:11-18). Ten lepers, people with skin diseases, come before Jesus asking to be healed. He says, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Which they run off to do. Along the way, healing occurs!

One of them, when he notices the disease has left his skin, turns around and heads back toward Jesus. Luke reports that he, “praised God with a loud voice,” fell at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him. Seems the least he could do, right?

But he’s the only one who does.

Jesus asks, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” (Luke 17:17). The question is rhetorical, but we know the answer. They are off to celebrate. Like a Dad getting in the car at 5 am on a cold, November morning in New Jersey, in a hurry to run off and start celebrating Christmas.

Nine out of 10 just keep running. They do not take the time to say thank you.

I want to be in the 10% that does.

So, my question is about that one. What made him turn around? Why did he, and he alone, turn back to praise God and say thank you to Jesus for his healing?


According to the old sermon I’m using for the outline of this episode, I read Malala, the autobiography of then 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai in 2013 after seeing a clip of her appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Malala is a native of the Swat Valley in Pakistan who tells the story of how everything changed when the Taliban began to exert control.

She is a brilliant young woman, as evidenced by these two sentences written about a difficult time:

I tried to distract myself by reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which answered big questions such as how the universe began and whether time could run backward. I was only eleven years old and already I wished it could. (Yousafzai, end of chapter 12)

Yes, didn’t we all read Stephen Hawking to relax in 6th grade?!! I remember reading Horatio Hornblower novels for my 6th grade book reports.

Malala describes her hometown as a little slice of heaven, with lush hillsides and peaceful small towns. It sounds like it was a wonderful place to grow up. But when the Taliban came to Swat and imposed sharia law—which Yousafzai describes as a distortion of Islam and the Quran—schools were no longer opened to girls.

To a girl reading Stephen Hawking at 11, this was devastating. She and her family who owned the school which she attended, and her friends were thrown into disarray.

Malala soon became an outspoken advocate for girls’ education, writing a diary that was published in an English newspaper, and speaking wherever and whenever she could.

Eventually, the Taliban targeted this then 14-year-old girl for assassination. She was shot in the face coming home from school, on the equivalent of a school bus, and miraculously survived.

You probably know that Malala Yousafzai continues to speak out for education, especially for girls, believing education is the true avenue to peace. This remarkable young woman became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, at the age of 17.

Snatched from our hands

In an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show—it was that long ago—Steward asked her where her love of education comes from. She begins her answer with these words,

It is part of our human nature that we don’t learn the importance of anything until it’s snatched from our hands. In Pakistan, when we were stopped from going to school, at that time I realized that education is very important, and education is power for women.

You really should watch it. It’s the very beginning of the video. I’ll put a link in the show notes at

It is true isn’t it? We don’t learn the importance of anything until it’s snatched from our hands.

That clip is from October 2013, but in some ways, it feels so 2020! Doesn’t it?

So much has been ‘snatched from our hands’ in the past 8 months. And well, it sucks! And if our hearts our open to it, we just might be learning the importance of family, holidays, school, work, and recreation time. Healthcare workers, scientists who figure our vaccines, and so much more.

Maybe that’s why so many of us are feeling so thankful this year.

We’ve learned just how many things we have taken for granted for so long. Things we never expected to lose—like a simple trip to the store, a classroom, or a holiday trip to see family.

Which brings me back to that one leper. He reacted differently than the others. Why did he turn around? What made him grateful? There are a couple of subtle details in Luke’s telling of the story which may point to the source of his gratitude.

Time for a little nerding out, Bible style.

“On the way…”

The first comes right at the opening of the story. Luke writes, “On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11). Whenever you come across a seemingly extraneous detail like this in the Bible, it’s a good practice to ask why. Why would Luke choose to include the geographic location of this healing when he doesn’t always do that? To explore this we need a little background.

Luke, like all the gospel writers, is a gifted storyteller who is structuring his writing in ways that help us, his readers, understand who Jesus is and what he is doing. One of the ways Luke does that is by sharing the story in three phases.

Chapters 1 through 9 are phase 1: Jesus’ early ministry—we read about his birth, growing up, calling of his disciples, and his preaching, teaching, and healing that occurred in Galilee.

Then at the end of chapter 9, Luke transitions from “the early years” to a new section with these words, “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). With those words, the narrative shifts, and for chapters 9 to 19 we read of Jesus’ “Journey to Jerusalem,” which culminates with him entering the city riding on a colt on what we call Palm Sunday.

The final section of Luke’s gospel—chapters 19-24—then tells of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem, including his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection.

This story about the lepers is from Luke 17, part of the “Journey to Jerusalem” section, which Luke is careful to remind us as he begins this story. “On the way to Jerusalem,” he begins. (hmm…). Then comes that interesting detail about location. “On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.”

On one hand this makes geographic sense when you look at their journey on a map. Jesus and his disciples are traveling from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south and the border runs from northeast to the southwest, so they are traveling in the general direction one would expect.

But also, as you may remember, Jewish people were so adamant about avoiding Samaria that they would go more than a day’s journey out of their way to travel around the Samaritan region. So traveling the border might make sense in that way too.

But why would Luke include this detail unless something else is going on? And as you might imagine, I think there is.

When we go back to chapter 9 and look closely at the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, we read these words, “Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, 53 but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:52b-53).

Jesus in a bit of a metaphorical no-man’s land—rejected by the Jewish authorities because he isn’t playing by their rules and rejected by the Samaritans because he is mistrusted as a Jewish man heading to Jerusalem. Literally and symbolically, Jesus is traveling in the margins, on the edges, on the border between two people who reject him. It’s there where Jesus encounters ten lepers.

We’re back!

In those days, lepers were forced to live on the edges of society.

In addition to having a debilitating disease, lepers were routinely rejected by society, forced to live in colonies, literally out on the edges of town and the margins of life. Separated from family and friends, they were also told they were separated from God and not allowed to participate in the Temple practices because they were unclean, unholy.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for them to be healed?

In a very small sense, you and I may know what that feels like a little better than we ever have before. We just came through Thanksgiving 2020, a day when we normally travel to be with family and friends to enjoy a meal together and catch up after months apart. But this year we were separate. My family ended up having a Zoom call with three generations in three time zones spending about an hour together.

In recent weeks, we’ve been hearing about the coming vaccines, the first doses are scheduled to be given in a matter of days. It might be months before it is available to all of us, but there’s hope. We’re seeing a time on the horizon when this separation will be over. Surely Thanksgiving 2021 we not be like Thanksgiving 2020. We’ll be able to travel to spend time in the same room again.

Again, in some small part, that’s what’s going on with these lepers. One of the reasons Jesus sends them to the priests is so they can be declared clean and welcomed back into the Temple and allowed to re-enter society. They will soon be able once again to fall into the arms of their families and friends. Nine take off running in their excitement to get the party started. One turns around praising God in a loud voice and falling at Jesus’ feet to thank him. What makes him different?

One gives thanks

Luke give us subtle detail number two: “He was a Samaritan” (17:16), a fact emphasized in our reading when Jesus says, “No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” Interesting. The one who turns around is not just another one of the ten, he is different. He is not Jewish; he is a foreigner, a Samaritan.

Simply by virtue of his birth and no fault of his own, this man would have been considered unclean with or without his leprosy. As a Samaritan, he is deemed an ‘outsider’ by those who understand themselves to be ‘insiders.’ He is believed to have a lesser relationship with God because of his family tree.

I wonder if this outsider status, is what makes him grateful. He’s unable to take his healing for granted.

The nine healed lepers seem to see it differently. When they are healed, they may be thinking God is just doing what God ought to do with people as deserving as they. They are so absorbed by what this means for them, by what they are gaining that they had lost, that they forget to notice what a gift they’d just received.

One man, the outsider, is humble enough to know how undeserving he is. He is the only one who turns around and gives thanks.

Being the one

Malala talked about that. When taking her education for granted, as something she deserved, she didn’t pause to give thanks. But when the Taliban took it away, she realized what a gift education is, and began to give thanks and share it with others.

When I ran out on that Black Friday so long ago, hoping to provide a magical Christmas for my loved ones, I was so angry at Kmart for not having what I was looking for, what I deserved for my efforts of crawling out of bed at 5 am.

Because of Thanksgiving 2020, I have a new appreciation for Thanksgivings in the past and the ones yet to come. For opportunities to gather around a table and be with those you love and who love you.

I guess it is just human nature. When we lose something, we realize how grateful we are for it. But we can also do that before it’s gone.

Scripture reminds us that everything we have is ultimately a gift from God, and we are humbled and give thanks. May we not be so prideful that we miss seeing all the gifts with which God has so richly blessed us.

So, as they say at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as Santa appears to close the festivities, on with the beginning of the Christmas celebration season. But let’s not run off quite so fast that we leave thanksgiving (with a lower-case t) behind. Let’s not forget to turn around from time to time and offer a word of Thanks.

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