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Thanksgiving Eve Vespers 11.22.17

Thanksgiving.17 “The Eternal Return” Luke 17:11-19

So, why did he come back? The leper in our Gospel, that is. Why did he return? To what end? And you’re like, “Well, duh, Pastor, just what it says: “to give thanks” which, being a Thanksgiving service, is the obvious point of the text, right?” And well, there are texts and there are pretexts as one of my wise mentors used to say. That is, there are services and Sundays and feast days of the church that are shaped by what the Scriptures say. And there are services shaped by our sayings, for our own desired ends—where we find Scripture texts that we twist to say what we want them to say—pretexts. “Thanksgiving services” would be one of those pretexts. Sermon series, which are so popular these days, would be another example of pretexting: you pick a theme like parenting and bend some bible text to say what you want it to say…

You know this is a secular holiday, right? The day was established by Washington and revived by Lincoln for political ends. It never appeared on Lutheran church calendars until very recent times, 19th century or later. Ordered by the government to have services, pastors went scurrying around to find some bible text that demands our gratitude. And voila! The one grateful leper returning to give thanks for all that had been done for him by a grateful nation, uh, er… God. Thanksgiving services were born.

I’m always conflicted about whether we should even have Thanksgiving services. If the government tells me I have to go to church, my default setting is to tell them I’ll worship when, where, and how I please, thank you very much! Of course, these days the real background of Thanksgiving has been pretty much forgotten and the government would really prefer that like our President and most of Congress, none of us go to church, or not to real Christian churches. Because Thanksgiving Day is now about Black Friday sales and commerce; and church can distract from that in ways that hurt the bottom line, so…

So, it’s easy to forget the originally coercive governmental reasons for establishing this day and to embrace the counter-cultural act of church attendance anytime and anywhere. The real way these days to annoy the powers-that-be is to worship often, even at unexpected times! But I have a hard time forgetting stuff like the original reason for the season. It stays with me. But this is oddly germane to the point of this text. Because, in fact, the leper did not return for “thanksgiving”. Nope. Not at all. He returned—as the text says twice in verses 15 and 18—to give glory to God. The falling on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks is really a participle of attendant circumstances, not a purpose clause. So often, the point is in the grammar! Thanksgiving is not the point of this text chosen for Thanksgiving services. The text itself subverts the reason for the season, gives us another reason entirely to return to Jesus…

He returned δοuναι δοξαν in Greek, literally “to give weight or heaviness to God”. δοξα is a weird word in Greek. Literally it means weight, heaviness, but you use it all the time in the English word “orthodoxy”. Ortho meaning “right” and doxa in this case being a synonym for “worship”. We sometimes think “orthodoxy” is right doctrine or right teaching, but it’s really right weight, right glory and those who see it’s really right worship before it is right teaching have got the right end of the stick, grammatically. δοξα translates the Hebrew word kabod which means the weight of God’s presence. This is what filled the tabernacle so that no one could enter. This is the darkness that engulfed Mt. Sinai. This is what Isaiah saw in chpt 6 of his book and could not endure as a sinful man. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. As the old hippies would say “Heavy man! Real heavy…”(!)

To give δοξα to God is first to recognize we are beggars, poor sick souls. The lepers knew this of themselves. That’s why they begged Jesus for help. They saw heft in the Man from Nazareth—as if all fullness of the deity dwelt bodily in Him! And when they saw they were cleansed, the nine figured “problem solved, let’s party!” But the one Samaritan of the bunch saw that leprosy was only the tip of the iceberg. His real problem of sin and death was deeper and more dire. So this is why he returned—to get more from Jesus, more of Jesus, more of that divine weight and heaviness that drives you to your knees, makes you fall on your face in eucharist. “Giving thanks” is a terrible way to translate the Greek word “eucharist”. Literally, it’s good grace. Good gracing God was what the leper was doing. And that is a very similar move to orthodoxy, to right glory. Seeing that grace and mercy come from Jesus alone, from divine weight He bears is good grace.

Will you go back for seconds and thirds tomorrow at the Thanksgiving spread in your house? I will. Will you do it to say “thanks” to your gracious hostess for her wonderful cooking? That would be nice. But the real reason you’re going back is because the food is good and you are hungry. The gratitude is all gratuitous, extra, unnecessary. But it does show appreciation for a wonderful cook; it’s good grace to clean your plate when the food is wonderful…

But the thanking is not the point. The eating and drinking of good food is the point! Our Thanksgiving dinners aren’t really, truly filling. We’re soon hungry again. They don’t give us real weight to endure. But the Food Jesus is, and gives, His very Body and Blood, His Eucharist—that’s what brings the leper back for seconds, thirds, to find—in the Body of Jesus—the forgiveness of all his sin and flightiness, to take on something of the weight of heaven, to live in Christ!

When you give glory to Jesus, you confess that He has the power, He has the glory, He has the weight, He has life and peace and joy to give. And you—as a poor beggar(!)—a lousy sinner, are unworthy of this and receive it as a handout, like a beggar. But the glory of God in the cross of Jesus gives you some heft and substance too. It gives a point and purpose to your life. It gives a divine direction to the otherwise aimless days…

It really doesn’t matter on what pretext we’ve come into God’s house, into the presence of Jesus. It doesn’t really matter what was in the leper’s mind or heart that made him return that day to Jesus. All that matters is that we do return, eternally. When we see that only Jesus has forgiveness, life, and salvation (and we do not!) that’s a great reason to return. It will keep you returning, eternally! But even if you’re just here for the Bud Light—(dilly, dilly!)—maybe here just out of habit, it doesn’t matter. Because the weight and heft of the Word made Flesh will leave a mark on you, will give your life a divine glory it otherwise will ever sorely lack…

Woody Allen once remarked in a film that if Nietzsche was right about all things eternally returning, then he’d have to sit through the Ice Capades again. And again. And that filled Woody with horror. Sin is an eternally recurring sequence too! But when we are caught up in eternally returning to Jesus, to the One who has δοξα, real weight and glory and life—the Word starts bouncing back and forth between us, like a great game, a great dance, which is worship, holy orthodoxy. And falling on our face, lost in wonder, love, praise, Peace, surpassing understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.


21 October 2018

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

8:30 Matins

11:00 Divine Service with Communion

9:45 Sunday School

Adult Bible Class with Pastor

Reformation Sunday – October 28 

Festival service at 8:30 & 11:00 DS w/Communion


Our Savior Lutheran Church is a confessional Lutheran church in Raleigh, North Carolina, belonging to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

We are located at: 1500 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC 27608.

For directions, use 742 Nash Street, Raleigh.