I love Thanksgiving Sunday. I love the music, I love the decorations, I love this time of year with its colours and crisp temperatures. I do however have a problem with Thanksgiving Sunday. And it is this: having a Thanksgiving Sunday can make the practice of thanksgiving seem like an add-on, like something we do once a year. And that would be a huge mistake. Because thanksgiving is not an add-on. It’s not a “nice to have”. Thanksgiving is profound practice which is absolutely central to our faith, something we need to incorporate into our lives not just once a year, not just on Sundays, but every single day.
A couple of years ago, during one of the pandemic lockdowns when we were all at home, I decided to take an online course offered by Yale University. It’s called The Science of Well-Being. They say it’s the most popular course ever given at the university, and it looks at what scientific research has to say about human well-being. Not surprisingly, one of the course sessions focuses on gratitude. Because the research is clear. The practice of gratitude, of giving thanks, is one of the best things you can do for your health and well-being. The list of health benefits established by the research is amazing: practice gratitude and you will live longer, be less prone to depression and anxiety, boost your immune system and achieve a higher overall level of well-being.
So far so good. That was the lecture part of the course. But the course also invites us to do some practical exercises after each session. And the gratitude exercise was this: think about someone in your life who has had a positive impact on you, and write them a letter expressing your thanks. Then find out where that person is now, and go to them and read the letter to them. As she was giving us this exercise, the professor explained that many of the students who had done this in past years had reported that this was one of the most valuable parts of the course, in fact that sharing their letter of gratitude with the people who had helped make them who they are today had actually been one of the best experiences of their lives.
And you know what? I didn’t do it. Oh, I thought about it. But I was busy, it seemed like a lot of emotional effort, and I felt vaguely uneasy, maybe vulnerable about it, and wasn’t sure how it would be received if I did do it, maybe it would embarrass the recipient. You know, the usual excuses.
When is the last time that you went out of your way to thank someone, in a vulnerable, demonstrative, all-in sort of way?
Because that’s what the Samaritan does in today’s gospel. He’s all-in. And because of it, Jesus holds him up as an example for all of us. The practice of thanksgiving isn’t just a “nice to have,” it’s not just a courtesy or a matter of being polite. Giving thanks, expressing gratitude, can be a profoundly transformative practice and it’s a key moment, a deepening moment, in the dynamic of our faith.
You know, the nine who don’t turn back can’t really be faulted. They recognize Jesus, they revere him as Master, they believe that he can heal them, and when he tells them what to do, they do it. As some of the teachers said in our Wednesday Bible Study, a solid B+, maybe even an 8 out of 10. The last time we see these nine, they are on the road to go and show themselves to the priests who acted as a public health authority, who would certify that the men had been healed of their leprosy and allow them to return to their homes and communities. If those priests were indeed in Jerusalem, at the Temple, we’re talking about a journey of over a hundred kilometers, no small undertaking.
As they went, they were made clean. We don’t know how far they’ve already gone when they realize that they’ve been made clean, but it appears to be some distance, at least far enough to be out of sight. But despite the distance, the one man, the Samaritan, he turns back, praising God with a loud voice. He returns, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and he thanks him. And Jesus says to him “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus praises this Samaritan, for his faith. For returning and giving praise and thanks to God.
What is faith? How does it work? St. Ignatius suggests that the dynamic of faith works like this:
First, God loves you. Faith begins with God’s initiative
Second, You experience that love.
Third, You are filled with gratitude for the gift of God’s love, and you express it in praise and thanksgiving
Fourth, You find yourself wanting to be generous. Generosity is how you walk the talk of thanksgiving.
This is the dynamic of faith. This is what the life of faith looks like. And thanksgiving is a deep and transformative practice which is a central moment in this dynamic. Because without thanksgiving, you’ve missed the gift. Thanksgiving is the unmistakeable sign of understanding and experiencing that a gift has been given. Gratitude is our response to grace.
And when the giver of the gift is God, our thanksgiving takes the form of praise.
This is exactly the dynamic we see being played out in the gospel this morning. It starts with God, the God who is fully present in Jesus. Jesus loves the ten men, a love that takes the concrete form of healing. One man, the Samaritan, experiences that love, somehow, for whatever reason, he experiences God’s love in a very deep and profound way. He is filled with gratitude for the gift, and he goes out of his way to express it, turning back, praising God with a loud voice, falling at Jesus’ feet and thanking him. And in that act of praise and thanksgiving, he is transformed. “Get up” Jesus says, using resurrection language. “Your faith has made you well.” He’s not talking about the leprosy here. The Samaritan is not just cured, not just healed. He is made well, in every sense of the word.
Giving thanks deepens our experience of God’s love and transforms us in the process. This is what we mean by the life of faith. Thanksgiving is central to the life of faith, and our faith will make us well.
Do you remember the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who helps his neighbour in need? Jesus told that story to illustrate the second commandment, that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. In today’s gospel it’s another Samaritan that Jesus commends, this time to illustrate the first commandment: that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. The Thankful Samaritan in today’s reading shows us what it looks like to live out this first commandment. He goes out of his way to return and to express his praise and thanksgiving to God, his love for God, with everything he’s got. He’s all-in, heart, soul, mind and strength.
In both instances, Jesus emphasizes that these two people who are being held up as models for us are outsiders. There was a historical animosity between Samaritans and Jews that forms the backdrop to today’s gospel. And yet, Jesus is reminding us that God’s grace will never be constrained by human disagreements and animosities. God’s grace extends to those we might consider to be outsiders, like the Samaritan in today’s gospel. The grace of God and the dynamic of faith that leads to salvation is for all people, not just for those that we might deem worthy.
So remember how the life of faith, how this dynamic of grace works:
God loves you.
You experience that love.
You are filled with gratitude for the gift and you express it.
You find yourself wanting to be generous.
Thanksgiving is a deeply transformative practice that is central to the dynamic of our faith. And, it’s good for us. Giving thanks will make us well.
Homily: Thanksgiving, October 9 2022, Trinity
Readings: Deuteronomy 8.7-18; Ps 65; 2 Corinthians 9.6-15; Luke 17.11-19
Image by Karolina Grabowska