Posted on November 26th, 2009
Text: St. Luke 17:11-19
When St. Paul describes why God is full of wrath toward mankind, he gives this reason: “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1.21). The failure of mankind to give thanks to the Creator is no mere breach of etiquette, no mere failure to send a cosmic thank-you note. At the heart of man’s ingratitude is hubris, the attempt to seize the things of God’s creation as though they belonged to us by right.
When our first father grasped what was not given to him, God evicted him from his home in Eden. Man became a wanderer, a sojourner. He became homeless, and the whole human race has been homeless ever since – a band of pilgrims.
A different kind of pilgrim is associated with Thanksgiving in the minds of many Americans. The 1621 harvest feast in Plymouth Colony was held by a group of English Christians known as Separatists; they had broken away from the Church of England, coming to America in search of a new home free from the authority of the Anglican church government.
But we Christians, we pilgrims, ought to identify more with the Ten Lepers in our Gospel reading than with the settlers in Massachusetts. Those lepers weren’t on their way to a new home; they had no home. Their disease excluded them from every community except among their own loathsome kind. There was no harvest festival for them. There seemed to be nothing at all to be thankful for.
A church near my home has this chastisement on their sign: COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS, NOT YOUR PROBLEMS. About a mile and a half later, I pass another church with this sign: WE’RE TOO BLESSED TO BE DEPRESSED. Can you imagine if the Ten Lepers were wandering by and saw either of these signs? “Count your blessings, not your problems”? Sometimes the problems are so numerous that there seem to be no blessings to be found. Depression abounds. Could you fault the lepers if they said they were depressed? They’re dying. They’re alone. They’re afraid. They’re in pain.
To them, “Grin and bear it” is not good advice. “Whistle while you work” won’t cut it. They don’t need a change of attitude. They need salvation. They need the healing of their bodies. And they need the healing of their souls.
So, there’s only one thing to do: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus, being God in the flesh, does what God does. He is merciful. “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” At last, they can go with the pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem, where God had made His residence on earth.
Pilgrimage to God’s home, the Temple, formed the structure of the Jewish year. The three great feasts of the Jews – Firstfruits, Pentecost, and Booths – were called “pilgrim feasts.” That’s why the Psalms say, “Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, Whose heart is set on pilgrimage” (Ps. 84.5). To have your heart set on pilgrimage is to have your heart set on the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of man; the city of God, not the city of man.
The Psalms teach us to think of our homes as temporary shelters, a lodging place on our journey to the kingdom of God. Ps. 119 puts it this way: “Your statutes [O Lord] have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” (v54). Our homes are pilgrim homes.
The most significant image of a pilgrim in the Bible is Abraham. Abraham and his wife Sarah were called to leave their native land, a place of idolatry, and journey to a new home – a place that they could only see by faith. Their pilgrimage is a picture of how we are to view our own lives, as the writer to the Hebrews describes:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11.13-16)
That heavenly country, that city, has God for her Maker and Architect. What’s the point? We should give thanks for clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land and animals, and everything we possess. They are all gifts from God, good gifts of His creation.
But we must rejoice in and give thanks for these things as pilgrims, not as permanent citizens. Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, we have something far greater to give thanks for – the mercy of JESUS, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of the resurrection of the body.
That’s why one of the lepers turns around on his way to the Temple, God’s home. The one leper returns to Jesus because that is where home is. Where Jesus is, there is the true Temple, the place where God dwells in an earthly habitation. A pilgrim has not reached his home until he has come to Jesus.
In Jesus is the Thank Offering, which the Greek-speaking Jews called Eucharist. That same word – “Eucharist,” thank-offering – has been handed down to us as a term for our Lord’s Supper. Here, eating God’s sacrifice, we give our thanks for the one Gift that surpasses all others: the gift of God Himself.
Perhaps this year your blessings have surpassed all your hopes and expectations. Give glory to God! But perhaps your problems have outnumbered your blessings. Perhaps you’ve been so depressed that you cannot see how you’ve been blessed. That’s okay. Really, it is. Only cling to this, and never let it go: God loves you more than you can comprehend, and has demonstrated His love for you in that, while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you. That is what we pilgrims are thankful for tonight, as we press on to the heavenly city whose Maker and Builder is God. +INJ+