Sermon for the Eve of Thanksgiving
Colossians 2:6-15 + Luke 7:36-50
Just like every other time we gather together here around Word and Sacrament, we’re here for Thanksgiving. Now, there are many ways to give thanks to God. You can say a prayer of thanks by yourself, of course. You can say a prayer or sing a song of praise with your family or here in your church, or you can confess the one true God, as you just did in the Nicene Creed. You can make a list of all the things you’re thankful for, all the things you recognize, with gratitude, as coming from your Father’s bountiful goodness: food, clothing, shelter, family, friends, and on and on and on.
Deeds of love for your neighbor can be an act of thanksgiving to God. True obedience to God’s commandments is always an act of thankfulness. Your whole life, in fact, can be one great giving of thanks, in all you do, in all you say, in every godly vocation that you hold.
But the starting point of all true thankfulness is love for God. It all begins with love. And love begins with faith. And faith rests upon God’s promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ. Thanksgiving flows, ultimately, from sins forgiven, which is why only Christians can truly celebrate Thanksgiving Day.
That’s what the apostle Paul emphasized in the Epistle from Colossians: As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.
Even more directly, that’s what Jesus teaches in this evening’s Gospel. An unnamed sinful woman—that is, a woman well-known for her sins, probably a prostitute—heard that Jesus was dining at a Pharisee’s house, so she went to see Him. The Western Church has traditionally identified her with Mary Magdalene, who has also been identified in Western tradition with Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. Whether or not they’re all the same woman, the lesson remains the same.
She spoke not a word of thanks to Jesus in our Gospel—no prayers, no praises. In fact, she said nothing at all. Instead, she brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil.
The woman said nothing. But her every action, her every tear, was a thanksgiving—a thanksgiving that flowed from love that flowed from faith that rested upon the forgiveness of sins—the Gospel that she had already heard and believed.
The Pharisee who invited Jesus—Simon was his name—didn’t appreciate her act of thanksgiving. Nor did he think very highly of Jesus for letting her do this to Him. He thought to himself, This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.
Now those are the thoughts of a truly thankless man, and Jesus tells him a little story to illustrate his thanklessness. Two debtors owed money to the same man. One owed 500 denarii, the other owed just 50. The creditor forgave both debts. Which of them will love him more? I suppose the one whom he forgave more. And He said to him, You have judged rightly.
Then Jesus explains the story to Simon. You see this woman? I came to your house and you did nothing for Me. You didn’t even offer me the common hospitality of a foot-washing or a bit of cheap oil for my head, much less greet me with the customary kiss of friendship. But this woman has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair and kissed them and anointed them with costly perfume. And she did it, not to make up for her sin and not to purchase My favor, but she did it out of her great love for Me, because she knows her sins are great, but she also believes that I am great, and that I have come to forgive sinners their great and terrible debts of sin. She loved much because she has been forgiven much. Your sins are forgiven, Jesus told the woman. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.
But you, Simon, you should take her actions as a grave warning. Because your lack of love for Me, your lack of thanksgiving to Me, is a sure and certain sign of a deadly disease: To whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.
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, compared to all those “really wicked” people out there. The difference between Simon and the sinful woman wasn’t in how much forgiveness each one needed from Jesus. It was in how much forgiveness each one sought from Jesus, how much forgiveness each one admitted that he or she needed from Jesus. That’s why the woman was so grateful and Simon so ungrateful. She was penitent; he was impenitent. She was honest about herself; he was delusional about himself. She was astounded by the grace and mercy of Jesus, while Simon was bored with it.
So it is that thanksgiving can only flow from love, and love can only flow from faith, and faith is only true faith when it rests upon God’s promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ alone. This is where thanksgiving begins and ends.
And so tonight, we go back to this source of thanksgiving, this Christian faith, this recognition of how badly we need the blood of Jesus to pay our debts, and how great Jesus truly is for willingly shedding His blood, just so that He could say to each of us on the day of our Baptism, Now your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Baptism has saved you. I have saved you. Go in peace.
That brings us here to the Lord’s Supper itself, the “Eucharist,” the great Thanksgiving in which we poor sinners, penitent, baptized and forgiven, come to offer this “sacrifice” to Jesus. Not a sacrifice to pay for sins anymore, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving—our grateful acknowledgement that Jesus is the friend of sinners and has given His body and blood for us, and now to us, as a seal of the forgiveness He won for us by His death on the cross. The Eucharist is our as-often-as-you-drink-it opportunity to come into the presence of Jesus, to express our love for Jesus, even as the sinful woman did in the Gospel, and at the same time it’s our opportunity to receive from Jesus much more love than we ourselves can give, just as the sinful woman herself received absolution from Jesus again that day.
From here, let your love for Christ be nourished and grow into an every-day, every-hour, every-minute kind of thanksgiving. After all, it is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to our merciful God, with words of praise, with prayers of thanksgiving for all that He has given, with lives of obedience to His commandments, with lives of service to your neighbor.
There are many reasons to give thanks to God, but they all begin with the forgiveness of sins. There are many ways to give thanks to God, but they all begin with love—love for the God who made us alive together with Christ, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us. Any Thanksgiving that does not begin and end with that is empty and useless. But, as we’ve seen in the Gospel, every Thanksgiving that flows from love that flows from faith that rests upon the forgiveness of sins is pleasing and acceptable in the sight of Christ. A blessed Thanksgiving to you. Amen.