November 27, 2002 -- Thanksgiving

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Psalm 126

The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. (Psalm 126:3)

II Corinthians 9:6-15

Luke 17:11-19


          The ten lepers in today’s Gospel lesson were trapped in a prison.  They had been outcast, set aside from society.  The skin on their bodies was rotting away.  According to the law, no one could get close to them or they would become unclean.  When Jesus passed by, they called to him from a distance.  They did not want to get close enough to offend Him or make Him unclean, but they knew He could change their lives.  So they called for His mercy.  He sent them off to show themselves to the priests as the law demands and as they left they were healed.  When one of the men realized that the leprosy was gone he returned to thank Jesus and praise God.  He knew he had been set free from the bondage of his dis-ease.  We really don’t know what happened with the other lepers – what was the reaction to their healing, what did they do once they returned to society?  We only know that they did exactly what Jesus told them to do, what they knew they should do according to the Law.  We do know that the one who praised God was not only healed of his leprosy, but he was also made well – forgiven and made whole in a relationship with Jesus Christ.  He was released from a prison that the other nine did not even know was binding them.

          Twenty or so years ago my cousin Jimmy was a young man on a path of destruction.  He ran with a bad crowd, abused drugs and alcohol and probably did a number of other illegal things to support his habits.  His mind was messed up and he did stupid things.  One night he and his buddy decided it would be fun to burn down an abandoned house in their neighborhood.  No one had lived there for years and it was falling apart.  They even justified their actions by claiming it would remove a dangerous eyesore from the street.  What they did not know was that a homeless man was sleeping in the house, the only warm place he could find.  The man died, Jimmy and his friend were arrested and Jimmy went to prison for arson and murder. 

          Jimmy grew up in a Christian home, but he had become self focused and he was destroying everything – his body and his relationships with his family, friends and the Lord.  He lost touch with the reality of life in Christ and he stopped living in thankfulness.  It took some time, but in prison Jimmy renewed his relationship with Jesus Christ and became thankful that he was caught and imprisoned.  He realized that if he had stayed on the streets, living the life he was living, he would have died long ago.  He wrote several months ago to tell us that he was being released on parole.  He was going to spend some time in a halfway house, a place of transition between prison and freedom. Jimmy has been sent to a state run program, and though they often do well to help the ex-convicts reestablish themselves in society, there is still a very high recidivism rate. If Jimmy does not remember with thanksgiving that he is alive by the grace of God and that he has been given a new beginning, then he could end up back in prison or dead. 

          Tonight at our pie fest, some of the funds collected will be given to a program in Little Rock that helps women who have been given a chance at such a new beginning.  The mission of Second Genesis is “to provide a transitional home and life skills program in order to prepare women leaving prison to establish healthy relationships with their children and to reenter society as productive citizens.”  Second Genesis is not just a halfway house, it does much more than a state run program.  They share the love of Christ, the salvation and healing that comes from a relationship with Jesus. 

          Most of these women enter prison because they are caught doing the only thing they know how to do – live a life that supports their drug habits.  Just like Jimmy, they had become self-focused and were on a road to destruction.  When they are released, these women have nowhere to go but home to the place where they learned to live that lifestyle, and no matter how thankful they are to be free, it is nearly impossible to get a brand new start.  The program helps these women look beyond themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ who brings a greater freedom and it helps them to live lives of thankfulness.

          Second Genesis is not a give-away program.  The women go through a rather intense process to be accepted, and once living in the house they are expected to help themselves.  They must get a job, take life skills classes, join in Bible study and pay rent.  It is not a drug rehabilitation program, but the hope for every woman in the program is that they will be free from every prison that binds their lives.  Many of the women make it through the three month program – they find homes and jobs, are reconciled with their children and they never return to prison.  A few are lost, even in the early days of living in the home.  But, a few succeed well beyond everyone’s expectations.  They not only make the best of their lives, but they give back into the program that has helped them overcome all the prisons by which they were bound.  These women realize that wonderful things can happen when they look beyond themselves, when they live in thankfulness.

          And, it takes much more than just a “thank you” to live a life of thankfulness. 

          In today’s Old Testament lesson, the Israelites had spent many generations in bondage in Egypt.  God delivered them out of pharaoh’s hand and they were about to enter into the Promised Land.  God spoke through Moses to give them His commandments, the guidelines for their life as a nation.  He promised them everything they would need to survive – protection, provision and loving kindness.  In Deuteronomy 8, God warned His people what would happen if they failed to live lives of thankfulness.  He told them that when their bellies were full and their bodies satisfied, they would forget the Lord their God and all He did for them, then they would become arrogant and think that all they had was by their own hand.  

          We aren’t much different than the lepers, Jimmy, the women at Second Genesis or the Israelites.  We were once prisoners, bound to sin and death, set free by the love and mercy of God our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.  In that freedom we are called to live lives of thankfulness – not to care only for ourselves, but to share our blessings with others.  Jimmy got lost on the road to destruction by caring only for himself and his needs. In the process he killed a man and hurt those who love him. The lepers got lost in their own healing, bound by the law and they forgot to thank God for His gift. The women at Second Genesis were lost, but they have been given a chance at a new beginning.  God warned the Israelites to remember Him and to live according to His Word or else they would become proud and forget all they had was from Him.  As it is written, “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day.”

          The scriptures, particularly those for this special day, speak about such a life.  When I was growing up I belonged to an organization where many of the speakers used the phrase “you only get out of this what you put into it.”  This encouraged us to put ourselves into everything we did, so that we would grow and share our blessings with others.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians that whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will reap generously.  It is very easy for us to turn this attitude upside down – to consider our blessings to be the reward for our own good works.  That is why God warned the Israelites to remember Him.  This is why we are called to live lives of thankfulness.  Not because we will be rewarded for our efforts, though God does bless the obedient and servant life, but because God will be glorified and praised in our actions.  Paul says, “You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.” 

          In a little while we are going to have fun, bidding and outbidding each other to get our favorite pie for Thanksgiving dinner.  As we are doing so, will we just think about the yummy pie we get to take home, or will our minds and hearts see the women we are helping at Second Genesis?  Will our focus be on what we will get out of our money, or will we give joyfully in response to the blessings God has already given us?

          Tomorrow is the one day of the year when Americans gather together to praise God for His many blessings to our country, our families and ourselves.  As we gather around our dinner tables with those we love, we will remember that God has given us a bountiful harvest – our life, breath, health, home, family, friends and material possessions.  But, what about Friday?  Will we still remember that God has given us everything we have?  Will we joyfully share our blessings with others with willing hearts so that they will know the love and mercy of Christ?  Will we be living the life of thankfulness in the way we think, speak and work?  We have been blessed to be a blessing – freed from the bondage of sin and death so that we can live a life of obedience and thankfulness to God.  Unfortunately, even with the warning from God, the Israelites turned from Him and lived as if their blessings were rewards for their good works.  We risk the same attitude when we forget that God is the source of all our blessings.  Jimmy and the women at Second Genesis each walked down self-centered paths of destruction. We often do the same.  But, thanks to the love and mercy of God, and the work of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, we all have a chance for a new beginning every day – a chance to live in thankfulness, to remember the Lord our God and all He has given, to share our blessings with others so that God will be glorified.  Then others will begin to live lives of thankfulness.  It is a wonderful circle of blessings as more and more people come to know the Lord and live in His love.  “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”


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