I had been planning a sermon for months about what it looked like to welcome in the unwelcomable (I made that word up) and what it looked like to care for those who were unloved. And then Paris happened last Friday, and suddenly, everyone was talking about refugees and hospitality and security and …
Let’s back up for a moment to November 1620. Does anyone know what is significant about that date?
It’s the date of the first Thanksgiving that almost wasn’t worthy of any thanks-giving at all. 102 brave men, women, and children landed on the shores of what is now Massachusetts, unloading from the Mayflower – a ship meant to transport cargo, not people. These refugees seeking a new start, having fled religious persecution, arrived and immediately … started dying. They weren’t ready for the climate, or the lack of food (from their perspective). But thanks to some brave, foolish, naive, kindhearted Americans who were Native to the region, most of us are here today.
Suddenly, Thanksgiving – which generally involves overeating, throwing a football around, watching football, overeating some more – has a different shine to it.
In America, we tend to have a “Protestant work ethic,” where we are encouraged to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Or, as the subject of today’s sermon – “God Only Helps Those Who Helps Themselves.”
If you Google that phrase (which I did, of course), you’ll find that it has its origins in Greek theater and people actually think it’s in the Bible.
Like “when praises go up, blessings come down”
0r “God will never give you more than you can bear”
or “this too shall pass”
or “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
Let me stress that: it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that God helps those who help themselves.
I really dislike this phrase. It deludes us into two kinds of thinking. Some people hear that phrase – falsely attributing it to God – and think that if they just work hard enough, that everything they want or need will magically appear. (The corollary is that if they don’t work hard enough, then God won’t actually be there for them.) This makes God’s grace, mercy, and compassion equivalent or at least reliant on our efforts. Um, no. God’s grace doesn’t work that way.
But the grace is sometimes apparent because of our doing…
There are verses in the Bible that make it clear that God responds to the cries of those who cry out to him like this gem from Psalms: “The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.” Or Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
There is clearly a reminder that God answers the cries of those who call to him. But we could see that those are still people who are helping themselves — they are asking God for help!
The second thing that “God helps those who help themselves” propagates is a sense that the people of God don’t need to help people who don’t work hard.
That if a person seems to lazy to work, then they don’t deserve help.
That if a person has made terrible life decisions, then they don’t deserve help.
That if they would just do what they should do, then they wouldn’t need help.
But in our Scripture today from Luke 17:11-19, Jesus doesn’t make working hard, praising God, or getting your life straight prerequisites to receiving help.
Traveling on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled on the border between Samaria and Galilee. He traveled between the customary and social line of safety and security (Galilee) and danger and lawlessness (Samaria). And then he encountered the last situation in the world that most people would want to experience: a group of lepers close enough to see, hear, and even touch.
Leprosy is understood to be a condition beginning in the skin, making it thick, glossy, scaly and discolored. As it advances, the pain that the sufferer experiences turns to numbness, sores develop around the eyes and ears, and bunches up around the face. The disease attacks the larynx, causing the person’s voice to become hoarse and grating. Extremities often weaken and break off.
Lepers were ostracized – they were considered “unclean” and unable to interact in pleasant society because they were sick, but it spread to be considered that their uncleanness was sin, too. They could only hang out with other lepers because all of them were on the outside looking in; they couldn’t get closer than six feet from another person (or 150 feet if the wind was blowing, because of the smell of their body’s decay).
Now, the way Jesus encounters them is strange – it says that he met ten lepers but that they stood at a distance and called out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” Remember, with all of that throat distortion, they couldn’t have been that far away from Jesus – who as a good Jew shouldn’t have been that close to him.
These lepers have obviously heard of Jesus but it’s not clear whether or not they’re being facetious, or if they think he can really cure them. But Jesus tells them to go see the priests – their ticket back into normal society, into safety, community,… and the grace of God.
Now, Jesus healed ten leprous men. Ten men with families, the guilt carried of believing their sin had caused their leprosy, with a sense that they were untouchable, unlovable, unredeemable, unworthy of human contact.
These men go to the priest, and they see that they are healed. They can do whatever they want now! (Seriously, what would you do if they announced that after years of living on the outside, that you were back in?)
ONE of them – a mere tithe of the original ten – when he was healed, came back shouting about how awesome God was. Remember, Jesus was traveling the line between Jews and Samaritans, believers and heathens, socially acceptable and absolutely volatile.
And the one leper who came back and threw himself at Jesus’ feet … was the outsider times two, the non-believer, the enemy. The one who no one would have predicted would be the one who got it.
The leper who came back, who was grateful, who didn’t even know how to help himself, who was forgiven of his sins physically and spiritually – showed faith in what he did versus what he was expected to know.
In the Epistle of James 2:14-17 it states, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
The leper ‘got’ the deed of thankfulness before he knew the kind of faith he needed. His gratefulness for the mercy, grace, and love he received was his display of faith. He didn’t have the clothes or food to supply, so he gave his thanks – even as James tells those of us with food, or clothes, or money that those are our signs of faith.
And somehow, Jesus knew his heart before the former leper knew his heart himself.
That makes me wonder: what if this Thanksgiving, we turned our hearts to gratefulness? What if we don’t feel like we have the faith for big steps like forgiveness, or generosity, or bold evangelism? What if we merely started with gratefulness?
What if, while ninety percent of the world is going back to what they’ve known before and always expected, if we were part of the ten percent that stopped and gave thanks?
I don’t believe the former leper’s story ended here. I think he kept praising God – and kept telling his story. I think he shared the good news with those he met and loved those others considered unlovable. I think his ‘ten percent’ tithe began with gratefulness.
But wow, gratefulness is hard.
This week, I sat down with the boys to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (airing at November 24 on ABC at 8 p.m.) Peppermint Patty puts Charlie in a bad spot when she bludgeons her way into his Thanksgiving plans. Even though he’s headed to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner at 4:30 p.m., he reluctantly agrees to welcoming in Patty… and several other friends she invited. But Charlie doesn’t cook.
Thankfully, he has Snoopy and Linus to help him prepare the food. They assemble a lunch with buttered toast, stovetop popcorn, and jellybeans, setting the table outside in the yard.
But when Patty shows up, she blasts Charlie, telling him that he hasn’t made her a Thanksgiving dinner, because it’s not what she expected or wanted. Thankfully (pun intended), everything gets resolved. Cooler heads like Marcie and Linus bring everyone together. Finally, everyone is thankful for what they have – whether they’re welcoming in those without a place or celebrating with food that doesn’t even taste great.
As Linus says, reminding Charlie of the prayer the first refugees prayed, “We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety in a new land. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for freedom and justice.”
Maybe that’s your Thanksgiving dinner prayer this year. Maybe you start a renewed life in Christ by practicing thankfulness, and remembering that we were once strangers without a place or a purpose, until God’s grace brought us home.
Maybe you’re called to share what you’ve got – whether it’s jellybeans or an extra plate of turkey for an elderly neighbor, or it’s buying coats for kids or increasing your tithe, or visiting a family member who has been isolated lately or playing catch with a neighborhood kid over Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s changing your attitude about immigration or Muslims, or your finances or your spouse’s views on politics, or patience or compassion.
In that first Thanksgiving, a group of people were seeking a safe place to raise their children and worship as they chose; they were saved by the graciousness of the people who were already there.
In the thanksgiving of the leper, a group of people were seeking a safe place to return to their families; they were saved by the graciousness of the Savior of the world who has welcomed us in from the wilderness of sin and isolation as well.
In this Thanksgiving? We are a group of people seeking a place to worship, and to raise our families; what will happen remains to be written, doesn’t it?
May we thank God for the opportunity in front of us – to create a new land of freedom and justice. Amen.