Luke 7:36 – 50
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
As we gather on this Thanksgiving Eve,
gratitude might be the last feeling or practice
in which we find ourselves ready to indulge.
In the wake of a contested election
and our awareness of the gaping divide in our country,
in this year of the COVID pandemic
– with all its trials, troubles and tribulations
and as a second wave of the virus appears to be upon us,
as the holidays are a time when we more acutely experience
either the social or physical distance or the absence from those whom we love,
we might be struggling to give thanks.
Interestingly though, 2020 has been a year
not far-removed from our 1620 Pilgrim ancestors.
400 years ago, this month, the Mayflower Pilgrims
made landfall at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
They stated in their Mayflower Compact
they established the Plymouth Colony
“for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith.”
Their famous and demanding voyage from England
was exceeded only by the harsh and bitter winter
the Pilgrims underwent after landing at Plymouth Rock.
As their rations gradually fell to five kernels of corn per day,
of the 102 pilgrims who arrived ashore, only 47 survived until the spring.
At one point, only a half dozen were healthy enough to care for the rest.
Nonetheless, the remaining colonists
instituted their first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621.
Back then, to the casual observer,
it certainly appeared that there was nothing to celebrate.
Almost half of their company were dead.
There was scarcely a person that had not buried
at least one close family member.
They had little food (corn, cod, sea bass, and fowl)
and many were still sick.
And yet after a time of heart-wrenching loss,
our careworn and fatigued ancestors in the faith,
still took the time, set apart not just a day but a week-long celebration,
to give thanks to God. Why?
By way of answering this question, we are going to listen to another story
– a story from the Gospels, from Luke, chapter 7, verses 36 – 50.
In the midst of a dinner party Jesus was attending at the house of a Pharisee
Luke focuses on our attention on an unnamed woman – a woman apparently of some reputation in her community – well-known for her sinful life.
This woman having heard that Jesus was in town
crashes this dinner party in order to pay Jesus a visit.
When she arrives, she speaks not a word to Jesus
– not a word of thanks, not a prayer or an offering of praise.
She says nothing at all verbally, but she speaks volumes through what she does.
This woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair
and then anoints them with some perfume she brought along.
Her every action, her every tear, her every gesture was a thanksgiving
– a thanksgiving that flowed not from something she had yet to receive
but simply from her awareness of
the presence of the One who was sitting before her,
her faith in Jesus – who she believed was with and for her
in the midst of her circumstances, despite her reputation with others.
The host of this dinner party, a Pharisee named Simon,
the one who invited Jesus into his home,
didn’t much appreciate this woman’s act of thanksgiving.
Nor did he think very highly of Jesus for letting her do this to Him.
In Simon’s estimation, Jesus went down a peg for not knowing any better.
Of course, Simon never said any of this out loud.
He thought it all to himself. But Jesus knew his heart.
Jesus always knows our heart – oftentimes even better than we do.
Jesus could see that despite the fake smile on his face,
Simon’s heart wasn’t full of compassion or gratitude.
Simon’s heart was hardened by judgment and self-presumption.
In response, Jesus proceeds to tell a little story
to pierce Simon’s heart of stone
– to alter his perspective on the situation.
We all heard it – a story of two debts
– one debt far greater than the other
but both debts being unable to be paid back
and yet both debts are forgiven.
Simon is asked to consider which of the two will be more grateful.
He answers as we all would, “The one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
Having answered correctly,
Jesus applies the story for Simon to what has just transpired.
Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?”
It is likely as much an indictment as it is a question
because, of course, Simon saw this woman
but he had yet to actually acknowledge her.
In the answer to this rhetorical question,
the tables suddenly get turned on Simon
as his lack of appreciation for this woman is
paralleled by his lack of appreciation for Jesus.
Jesus reflects back how he came into Simon’s house as his guest
and yet Simon didn’t even offer Jesus the common hospitality
of a foot-washing or a bit of cheap oil for His head,
much less greet Jesus with the customary kiss of friendship.
Simon took Jesus being present – being with and for him – for granted.
But this woman took Jesus being present
– being with and for her – as a cause for thanksgiving.
As Jesus turns to this woman and says,
“Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,”
Jesus isn’t awarding or meriting this woman for what she’s done.
The Gospel isn’t quid pro quo
– give the Lord His due, pay God the honor and respect God deserves
and the Lord will forgive you, save you.
No, the scandal, the incomprehension of the Gospel is
that God forgives us, saves us, and provides for us, while we are yet still sinners.
Jesus isn’t conferring something upon this woman as much as
Jesus is affirming what this woman has not taken for granted
but has embraced by faith – the grace of God which is given to all of us.
Hence Jesus specifically declares,
this woman’s “great love has shown that her many sins have been given.”
In other words, this woman’s expression of her gratitude
reflects not an expectation of receiving something
but rather her awareness of all that she already been given
– that she is seen and known by God,
that she is accepted, that she is loved and forgiven by God.
In contrast, Jesus turns to Simon with a grave warning:
“But whoever has forgiven little loves little.”
To be clear, it’s not that Simon actually had little that needed forgiving.
It’s not that you or I or anyone actually has little that needs forgiving,
that is, compared to all those “really wicked” people “out there.”
The difference between Simon and this woman isn’t
in how much forgiveness each one needed from Jesus.
The contrast between the two of them is in
how much forgiveness each one sought from Jesus.
Or to put this another way,
the difference between the two of them is in
how much each of them were living out of
the grace God was giving them.
One of them recognized, in the presence of Jesus, grace
and responded with overwhelming gratitude.
The other person, presumed to be the host rather than the guest,
the provider rather than the recipient when it came to Jesus
–and therefore, demonstrated no interest in receiving grace.
Rather than expressing thanksgiving like this woman,
Simon chose to sit in judgment and thus remained ungrateful.
The starting point of true thankfulness does not begin
how we perceive or feel about where we are in life.
Real gratitude does not emerge from our possessions
– our sense of satisfaction or level of material comfort in any given moment.
Thanksgiving comes not from looking at what we don’t have
but to the One who securely and lovingly has us
– the God who in Christ is with us and for us.
The key to giving thanks is not looking at our circumstances;
it is looking to God – our Creator who gives us life
– maybe not the life we want but definitely more than the life we deserve
and always a life in which we receive exactly what we need for each day.
Thanksgiving requires a level of humility.
If we think we have earned all we have,
if we aren’t acknowledging the fact
that we received from another’s hand,
we won’t be in a mindset to give thanks.
It is a humbling thing to acknowledge
that all that we have and are has come
from the God to whom it all belongs.
Thanksgiving then, also requires a measure of reality.
It is having the clarity of vision to realize
while our wisdom and work are sometimes involved in what we receive,
from start to finish, every scrap of food, each loved one we hold dear,
the roof over our heads we don’t even notice unless it leaks,
that warm bed we assume we get to sleep in,
all the clean water we drink without every worrying about becoming ill,
all the health and prosperity we enjoy in the midst of the other physical challenges we face and relatively minor inconveniences we suffer,
all those blessings that if truly counted them
would take some effort and some time.
these are all gifts from the hands of a kind and benevolent God.
And that’s all before we even talk about
our forgiveness borne of the Cross of Christ,
our assured victory over death thanks to the Resurrection,
and the promise because of Pentecost
that together we can become the best version of ourselves.
Biblically, gratitude isn’t less than giving thanks for what we have and receive,
but it is more than this.
It is fundamentally about not taking things for granted
– or more pointedly, not taking God for granted.
As followers of Jesus, we ought to celebrate Thanksgiving Day
with more purpose and joy than anyone else
– being grateful not because we are gratified
but because we are beloved of God.
We give thanks because we are loved by God
and we express our thanks through our love reflected back towards God.
Thanksgiving suddenly has a different meaning
once we appreciate that there are others
who were wiser and worked much harder than we
and yet who do not have as much as we have.
The perspective that gratitude provides us – but by the grace of God
– should soften and enlarge our hearts,
quiet all our self-preoccupation and grumbling,
and massage our clenched fists into hands
that become more open and far reaching.
In other words, our thanksgiving can never be passive.
True thanksgiving is a responsive action. It is expressed. Real gratitude has legs.
It moves from being an emotion or a feeling
to becoming a demonstration, through our words or actions.
People who give thanks aren’t silent and they often aren’t still.
Thankful people offer smiles and deliver hugs.
Thankful people take a moment to write and send a card, an email, or a text.
Thankful people look for opportunities to share their gratitude by being generous toward others. They tip not out of obligation but out of pure joy.
They cook and they bake not because somebody’s gotta make dinner
but because preparing a meal is a way for them
to express their thanksgiving to others.
The reciprocal nature of thanksgiving is not about karma
– doing good so that we might receive some good in return.
The reciprocal nature of thanksgiving again is an endless loop that is only possible, that is alone sustained by the grace of God.
Because God is good, we give thanks.
Because God is good to us, we give thanks by doing good for each other.
This is a crucial word for us in the midst of a global pandemic,
a struggling economy, and a contested election.
Fear, fatigue, and frustration can lead us
to self-protectively circle the wagons and only tend to our own.
And while there is nothing inherently wrong
with caring for our family and friends,
we ought to be thankful enough for the ability to do so
that we recognize that it is not we who have and will provide
for our loved ones—it is the Lord who has and will provide for them and for us.
And out of His gracious provision, our Heavenly Father assures us
there is enough to be shared with others
—beyond our circle—especially those in need.
In short, true thanksgiving reminds us that we are all in this together
— that our achievements are never fully our own
but contingent upon a network of relationships that uphold and shape us.
No matter what divides us,
the grace of God is greater and promises
to both bring and hold us together, if we abide in that grace
by together giving thanks.
As we gather around tables tomorrow,
let us join with our ancestors both in the history of this great nation
and our forefathers and mothers in the faith,
in expressing our gratitude to God for who He is, for all He has done,
and for everything He continues to do through Jesus Christ.
May we reach up gratefully toward heaven
by reaching out in love and compassion towards each other,
abiding in the Spirit’s power to align the vertical and horizontal dimensions
of our lives so that we together would reflect the truth of the Cross.
For it is through the work of the Cross
and the God who gives Himself for us all,
that grace is revealed as the motivation
and the means for our thanksgiving.
And in it is in our walking together in the way of the Cross,
following Jesus by expressing our gratitude to God
through our graciousness toward each other,
that God continues to rescue, redeem,
and transform the world for the better.
Happy Thanksgiving! Amen.