Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 13 October 2013
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Readings: 2 Kings 5.1-3, 7-15c; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19
Luke 17.19 Jesus said, rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.
Christians dare to be different. Not better, but different. Today’s Gospel is about an outsider, the Samaritan, the foreigner, the one in ten, the one who didn’t fit in the group, who became a disciple. The story isn’t really about lepers and leprosy, it isn’t really about healing, it is about how you and I meet God. Religion, the faith known by that cured leper, is expressed in gratitude. He fell at Jesus’ feet, giving thanks. This was his offering of himself as a disciple. This is how we shall meet God, by giving thanks.
None of us will admit this, but a lot of life, from youth to old age, maybe particularly as we get older, is spent wondering how we’re doing, how life went, what went wrong and what went right, the lucky break, the courageous move, and then the resentment over what really hurt, the blow that knocked us for six, the missed opportunity, the compulsions that nearly ruined everything, the accident, the loss, the death, the breaking of a bond. And although most of us are remarkably fortunate, in human terms, strangely enough it is the resentments and irreversible errors and sometimes an anger which seems to come from nowhere, which do not go away. They’ll say to you, time heals, but time doesn’t usually heal, why should it? Time can’t change what has happened. Yet human beings are resilient, and over the years we can reach an uneasy truce with ourselves, I suppose you could call it getting it together, accepting ourselves as we are; this is, perhaps, a healing of a sort, a kind of cleansing the Bible might call it, and when we’re asked how we are, we’d say, I’m all right, I’m fine. Christians move on from there. Self-acceptance isn’t an end for us, it’s aways a beginning. For a Christian disciple, self-acceptance, accepting who I am, leads towards a transformation, when I meet the living God who has accepted me. Ten lepers showed themselves to the priests and were declared cleansed, but only one turned back, praising God and giving thanks.
What is this “giving thanks” which is so indispensable in the life of the Christian disciple? Why don’t we do it? Well, it’s very hard sometimes. How can we say thank you to God for those terrible things that happened, or for the good things that were supposed to happen but didn’t, in a human life? Where was your God then, in the emptiness, the despair, the sense of total loss? There are those who say that God is teaching us patience, humility, forbearance, and so on; I don’t buy that. That God doesn’t sound very nice to me. Let’s be brave and tackle this, and go outside, far away from here. On 22nd September, at the Anglican Church of All Saints, Peshawar, Pakistan, 85 people, including 37 children, were killed by suicide bombers as they came out of church. Where was your God then? Looking at the carnage in Syria, and all the other atrocities and heartbreak from which we cannot and must not distance ourselves, are we supposed to sit here thanking God, who is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year? The Christian insight, on the evidence of the Gospel, is that we do not even begin to work out what God is up to, because such speculation removes us from what is actually going on. What we can do, and today’s Gospel proclaims it, is meet God, face to face. We meet God in the children who died, for he was as much in their hearts as in our own. We meet God in the joy and the agony of the world, in the silence, in those who are channels of God’s peace, in those who pray, in the attempts to heal, in the suffering and the loss, in the rebuilding of a church and in the terror of its destruction, in the sorrow of those who mourn, and even in the split moment of a deluded bomber’s death, God is present. In the darkest moments of your life, and in its supreme happiness, and in the long haul in between, God is present, and to be met with, not argued about. Christianity is practical living, not testing a theory.
So Christian gratitude is not necessarily joyful all the time, nor is it sorrowful. Christian gratitude is a deeply held belief, a faith, a trust, that God is there, that my God is there, whatever happens. It’s not greater faith you need, but a simple faith in a greater God. We meet this God, we turn back to him like the healed Samaritan, praising God and giving thanks. We meet this God head on in the turns and twists of our lives, in the lives of others, and, above all, we meet Him today at this altar. Eucharist is giving thanks. We are not giving thanks that a man was cruelly crucified. We give thanks that God was and is present, although Jesus believed himself forsaken, as do we in our trials and defeats; God is present, the divine life was there at the moment of suffering and of death itself, and we give thanks that death does not destroy this divine life. God is in the broken body. This is My Body, given for you. He is as present to us there, as he is in our broken lives, and in the lives of those we see broken around us. I said that self-acceptance, the acceptance of the brokeness of ourselves, leads, for the Christian, to transformation. Here is the transformation, our transformation, at this altar, formalised into ritual words and movements. The single grape becomes the wine. The single ear of wheat becomes the bread. Aloneness becomes union, and with union comes forgiveness and love. That is our work today, accepting, receiving the transformation of our lives, our resurrection. It takes a lifetime. And God knows we can’t live at fever pitch, a spiritual high, all the time. Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? But the way is always open, to everybody, however broken, to return and give thanks, in deep gratitude for God’s healing presence, and, when we take that way of thanskgiving, our lives will be transformed, and we’ll see the world transformed too. It’s “a movement from resentment to gratitude, from cursing to blessing, from bitterness to graciousness” [Ronald Rolheiser, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, 2013]. This is the most extraordinary discovery awaiting us, that all that God has is ours, he gave up his life for us, that we might be transformed, and live with his life.
This week the Church of England celebrated Thomas Traherne, the great spiritual writer of the 17th century. He wrote: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right till every morning you awake in heaven “[Centuries of Meditation]. No one will believe us, but that doesn’t matter. As I said, Christians dare to be different.