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Only One Came Back

Luke 17:11-19

As I thought about what to say to you on this Thanksgiving Day, one of the things that I did was to dig back into my old history books to remind myself of the story of the first Thanksgiving. The story began well over a year before the actual event. In the summer of 1620, a sizeable group of adventuresome citizens set out in two ships from Southampton, England, with the full intention of establishing a colony in the Virginia territory of this new world called America.

As they sailed around the southern tip of the British Isles, however, one of the ships called the “Speedwell” had problems which made it unseaworthy. They were forced to stop and some of the people just gave up at that point. Those who still wanted to make the journey crowded onto the ship called the “Mayflower”. They set out to sea once more. The trip took much longer than they had anticipated—66 days, actually, and since their instruments for navigation were quite primitive, unbeknownst to them, they were blown hundreds of miles off course. When they finally sighted land, it was not Virginia at all, but what we call New England.

They hoped to arrive in time to build shelters before the winter set in, but by now it was almost December. They sent scouting parties ashore. They were able, with great difficulty, to construct shelters of a sort, but they were really quite inadequate against the brutal weather of that region. Food was in short supply. Some days they had only five kernels of com for the day. Exposure led to disease of all kinds and before the spring finally came, exactly half of the 102 people who had made the trip had died and were buried in unmarked graves because they did not want the Native Americans to know how decimated their ranks had become.

There was not a family in the community who did not lose at least one of its own during that first terrible winter. When the spring did come, what was left of the crew of the “Mayflower” prepared to return to England because the “Mayflower” was a rented ship. This led to a serious discussion about whether the whole project should just be abandoned and the surviving pilgrims should all get back on the “Mayflower” and return to England with the rest of the crew.

However, in a gesture of real courage and hope, they decided to stay on. With the help then of some friendly Native Americans they planted about thirty acres of grain. They were able also to build more substantial shelters for themselves and when the fall came, the harvest was incredible—more abundant than anything they had ever known in the old country. As the time for the first anniversary of their landing in this new world approached, a discussion arose as to how they should commemorate the occasion. There were two schools of thought. Some felt strongly that they should make it a day of mourning—after all, the losses during that first year had been staggering, and a day to remember all who had died seemed to be in order. However, others felt strongly that it should be a day of thanksgiving. Even though they had lost a great deal, it was also clear that they had so much to be grateful for. After all, they had survived. Their future seemed now to be reasonably secure. The Native Americans had been surprisingly kind and helpful. The land had proved to be fertile beyond their wildest imagination. Why not focus on thanksgiving rather than mourning? The debate went on and on as to which of the two alternatives should be chosen. Should it be a day of mourning or a day of thanksgiving? Of course, we know from subsequent history that a day of thanksgiving won out.

There is a wonderful tradition which says that beginning that year—1621—on the first Thanksgiving, and continuing each year from then on, when Thanksgiving came around, the pilgrims put five kernels of com on each plate to remind them of their blessings. The tradition says that as they began their Thanksgiving meal, they would point to each of the five kernels of com on the plate and they would say:

Let us remember:
The first kernel reminds us of the autumn beauty.
The second kernel reminds us of our love for each other.
The third kernel reminds us of God’s love for us.
The fourth kernel reminds us of our friends…especially our Indian brothers.
The fifth kernel reminds us we are a free people.”

Perhaps that’s a tradition you ought to continue in your own home. Put five kernels of com on each plate each Thanksgiving and before you dive into the feast, remember what each kernel of com represents.

When those pilgrims chose to have a day of thanksgiving, they set the tone and the spirit for what would become the freest nation on the face of this earth. They thanked God profoundly for all that God had done for them even in the midst of the hard and difficult challenges of life in the new world—and by so doing, they set a pattern which we follow to this very day.

In the Scripture lesson for today, Jesus shows us that it is so crucial to choose the way of gratitude, that it is so important to stop and say thanks. Remember the story with me. Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem. As He approached the area on the border between Galilee and Samaria, He entered a village. There He heard ten lepers screaming at Him, begging Him for help. They had to scream out, you see, because by law, lepers were required to stay at least fifty yards away from all other human beings—half a football field away. And so they screamed out trying to get Jesus’ attention. Jesus gave them His attention, and then some. He told them to go show themselves to the priests. He did that for good reason. You see, it was the rule and custom in those days that the only way a leper could re-enter normal society was to carry an official certification from the priest indicating that that leper’s leprosy had in fact been cleansed. And so Jesus told these ten lepers to go show themselves to the priests. And as they turned and headed off toward the priests, suddenly they realized that they were cleansed. They were made well. They were delivered from this despicable, debilitating disease and they were liberated from that horrible, isolated, outcast existence. They were all so thrilled, so excited, so moved, so grateful, that they all immediately turned around and thanked Jesus for what He had done for Him. No. No, we might wish that that was what happened, but that is not what happened. Only one of them did that. And it happened to be the Samaritan in the group. Remember, Samaritans were looked down upon by the Jewish people, and so here was a Samaritan leper, the outcast among the outcasts. And yet he was the only one who came back to say thanks. The nine others simply went their merry way. I know what you’re thinking about now. You’re thinking—shame on those ungrateful nine. If I’d been there, if I’d been one of those cleansed lepers, I certainly would have turned back and thanked Jesus. I have to ask: are you sure that you would have done that? Why don’t you do it now? After all, has He not cleansed you, saved you, delivered you? Have you really thanked Him for that? You see, we’re so often like those nine lepers who forgot to say thanks. We’re so busy, spread so thin, so stretched, so stressed, so frazzled, with all the things we have to do and need to do and want to do that, well, we just can’t really take the time to stop and say thanks to our Lord for what He has done for us. We’ve got all kinds of excuses, just as I’m sure those other nine lepers had all kinds of excuses. I’m sure that they said things like: “I’m glad to be healed, but why did I have to have leprosy in the first place?” Or, “Maybe Jesus didn’t have anything to do with the healing after all. It could be that the healing just came on its own.” Or, “Perhaps I should go back, but I may not be able to find Him, and besides that, I’m not wasting any more time on this illness. It’s already taken enough time out of my life.” All kinds of excuses. The nine lepers raised those excuses and we do the same. All kinds of reasons not to go back and say thanks to Jesus Christ for what He’s done for us.

I think it’s important to note that when Jesus said to the one who came back: “Your faith has made you well”, at least part of what He meant was “your gratitude has made you well.” I like the way this reads in the King James version. Jesus says to the grateful leper, “Your faith has made you whole.” Ten were made well, but only this one became whole. You see, being able to celebrate life and say thanks to God is a tremendous indicator of our spiritual wholeness.
In just a few minutes we’re going to sing a magnificent hymn. Please don’t sing the hymn lightly. Why? Because Martin Rinkart wrote the words to this hymn. Understand, please, that Martin Rinkart was the only pastor in a little German town which was almost wiped out by plagues and famine during the thirty years’ war. In one nightmarish year, Martin Rinkart buried 4,000 people, and in that same terrible year he wrote these enduring words:

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices
Who wondrous things hath done
In whom His world rejoices
Who from our mother’s arms
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

Now thank we all our God. I call us today, here and now, to do what that one leper did so long ago—to think of what God in Jesus Christ has given to you and what He has done for you in your life, and then, like that one leper, praise God with a loud voice. Fall down on your knees at the feet of Jesus Christ and give Him thanks. Make this truly a day of thanksgiving.

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