Sermon – 17th after Trinity 2019 – Civic Service

St Mary’s Nantwich – 17th after Trinity – 13/10/19

10.45am Civic Service

2 Tim 2.8-15  Lk 17.11-19

Mark Hart

Ten men are healed and one returns to say ‘thank you’. How does that ratio compare with what you experience as a councillor? How many words of appreciation or thanks do you get compared with the number of complaints or problems you have to deal with? On social media, for those of you in public service, how do the number of positive and negative comments compare? And for all of us, how do the scales balance between our gratitude and our grumbling?

You say, well there’s plenty reason to be fed up with the world at present. Fair enough, there are big challenges globally and nationally, and Nantwich isn’t without its trials. But broadly speaking, let’s be honest, we live in a peaceful town, enjoying greater prosperity than most of the world has ever known and we’re blessed with a wealth of groups and organisations which work in a hopeful and constructive way for the betterment of our community life.

Being thankful doesn’t always come easy though, and how grateful we individually feel is a complicated matter. So we should nurture those moments when we have a deeper sense of thankfulness. By that I don’t just mean when we appreciate what other people do for us and say thank you. I mean something more profound. A thankfulness for life itself, and for the love, beauty and goodness you have known. A thankfulness that you have life at all, and that there is a world. That can be the beginning of faith. Because, if you begin to see life as a gift you may then ask, ‘Who is the giver?’

The ten men are sent away by Jesus and it’s as they go on their way that they find they have been healed of their leprosy. Just one returns, and we read that he was a Samaritan. Jesus remarks that no-one except this foreigner returned and praised God. The Samaritan says ‘thank you’, and then, to him alone, Jesus says: ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you whole’.

The act of saying ‘thank you’ has brought a healing, a wholeness, which is even fuller than the cleansing of the leprosy.

This is a story about the importance of that elementary prayer of thanks and it’s a story about the surprising people and circumstances where it can be found. It’s a warning that the religious, the professional people of prayer, 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 prone to a sense of entitlement.

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 in their final days are overwhelmingly grateful, 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. I’m sure there are choices we can make in life which make it more or less likely that we will find ourselves to be so thankful. But it seems to be a gift to be able, even in those circumstances, to see life as a gift.

Some of you may remember Dag Hammarskjöld (hamar-ho-eld), 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 which we will sing at the end of our service:

Now thank we all our God

With hearts and hands and voices;

Who wondrous things hath done,

In whom this world rejoices.

Today, there are Christian churches 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 faith in 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 was one of the clergy of St Paul’s Cathedral until a few years back, and he wrote this about his time there: ‘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 and Nantwich can be hospitable to hurting people too. Just as Jesus was there for the nine and not just the thankful one. The church is a community of disciples, people who are learning. At different times we carry or are carried by each other’s thankfulness. May we here be able to offer all the gratitude we can find in ourselves. And may we be a community which bears the burdens of those who today find themselves without hope and without joy.