St Mary’s Nantwich – 17th after Trinity – 13/10/19 8am & 9.30am
(2 Ki 5.1-15) 2 Tim 2.8-15 Lk 17.11-19
Meister Eckhart was a 13th century German monk who wrote many profound and impenetrable words, and got into trouble for it. It’s said that he also wrote the following straightforward piece of wisdom: ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is “thank you”, it will be enough.’
It’s easy for any teaching on prayer to make us feel inadequate, so this is encouraging. It tells us that prayer is essentially simple. And that’s not a cop out or an excuse, because after a little thought we realise that saying ‘thank you’ is a lifetime’s work. It is a task we can all do without being failures, and yet we can all learn how to do it better.
Our act of worship today has many names, one of which, from around the end of the first century, has been the Eucharist, or the saying ‘thank you’. It’s the same word used of the one former leper who returned, threw himself at the feet of Jesus, and said ‘thank you’. If that were the one prayer he ever prayed and went on praying, it was enough.
You may have noticed that I referred to the man as a leper. We recoil at such a term today, just as we would if we spoke of ‘the disabled’. But that is how the Gospels generally refer to people with leprosy, without modern sensitivity to defining people’s identity by a disease. Because the point is that lepers were defined by their disease. The law commanded that they should live separately from the rest of the community. And if ‘normal’ people were approaching, the lepers had to shout to warn them to keep away.
Here the lepers are, as expected, keeping their distance from Jesus, but they are not shouting a warning. They are shouting for help. ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’
That shows remarkable perception. Only the disciples address Jesus as ‘Master’ in this gospel. And the lepers call for ‘mercy’, which the nation of Israel identified with the visitation of God, the arrival of the kingdom, the fulfilment of the promise to their forefathers.
Luke is showing that these outcasts had more insight than the insiders. Earlier, the disciples had been anxious about their level of faith. Here the lepers are just getting on with the job of exercising faith.
Jesus doesn’t even give a formal declaration that they are healed. He tells them ‘Go, show yourselves to the priest’. And they have to set off while still being lepers. It’s on the way that they are made clean. Such was their faith.
Furthermore, at least one of them, the one who returns, was not just a leper, he was a Samaritan. A foreigner, as Jesus calls him. Jesus remarks on the fact that no-one except this foreigner returned and praised God. The Samaritan says ‘thank you’, and now, to him alone, Jesus does make a declaration: ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’.
Your faith has made you whole. The act of saying ‘thank you’ has brought a healing which is fuller and deeper even than the cleansing of the leprosy.
This is a story about the importance of that elementary prayer of thanks and of the surprising people and circumstances where it can be found. It’s a warning that the religious, the professional pray-ers, even the disciples who are living daily in the company of the greatest teacher, can lack basic good manners before God. It’s a reminder that we ourselves can be so prone to a sense of entitlement – [like Naaman, who had to learn to become humble and empty-handed in order to find life and health].
One of the privileges of parish ministry is to spend time with people near the end of their lives. I have often been impressed by those who have a deep sense of gratitude, and that doesn’t correlate with having had an easy life, or a long or privileged or successful life. And it doesn’t correlate with having been especially religious in the normal sense. It seems to be a gift to be able to see life as a gift, even in those circumstances, though there are choices we can make in life which make it more or less likely that we will find ourselves to be so thankful.
Some of you may remember Dag Hammarskjöld, a highly regarded Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations. He died aged 56 in a plane crash in 1961 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously the same year. His diaries entitled Markings were published later and included this line, where he’s looking back on his life:
Night is drawing nigh —
For all that has been — Thanks!
To all that shall be — Yes!
It’s a quotation which has since been found inspirational by many. Not as an expression of complacent satisfaction when everything in life seems in order and going well. But as a deep recognition that God is the source of life, that he has been trustworthy, and that he will be trustworthy.
Martin Rinkart was a German Lutheran pastor in the 17th century through the period of the 30 years war which was so devastating that the population dropped by a third. He served in Eilenburg which became a refuge because of its walls, but for the same reason it was vulnerable to disease and suffered a severe plague in 1637 – the Great Pestilence. At the beginning of the year Rinkart was one of four clergymen, but one fled and he buried the other two. He conducted funeral services for up to 50 people per day, over 4000 in the year. And in that context he wrote a very famous and very lovely hymn:
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
There are Christian churches today in places of dire persecution and suffering who are singing Alleluia, who are saying thank you.
They and the Martin Rinkarts of this world are a great testimony to the reality of our faith, the reality of Christ.
But not everyone is in that place and if we’re honest we are not always there. Think of the nine who didn’t return. We’ve no idea of their circumstances or future. I don’t believe their leprosy returned because they were unthankful. God’s gifts are just that – gifts. Perhaps they did have some sense of gratitude but not enough to return.
There’s not a neat division between those who say thank you and those who don’t. We all have room to grow and thankfulness can be found in all kinds of places. There are many people with no professed faith who still can experience a sense of gratitude for life. That’s a seed which can be nurtured. Jesus here is challenging and questioning, but not judgemental.
Mark Oakley wrote this about his time as one of the clergy of St Paul’s Cathedral: ‘Many mornings of the week, as Morning Prayer is being said in hushed and reverent tones in one of the cathedral chapels, a woman comes in carrying all she owns in a few large bags. She stands nearby and lights a candle before the icon of Jesus and then she lets him have it! She stands there shouting, berating him for whatever feels justified that day… She is in many ways one of the priests of the cathedral – offering a truth to the unseen God of what it is to be a living human being with a hurt heart.’
I’m glad that St Paul’s is a hospitable place for that woman, and I trust St Mary’s is too. Just as Jesus was there for the nine and not just the thankful one. As a church we are a community of learners. At different times we carry or are carried by each other’s thankfulness. But like the woman, and like the nine, and like the thankful one, we here come to Jesus, honestly and openly, and by God’s grace we’ll keep returning, and we’ll learn to sing and praise and say ‘thank you’.