This sermon was preached by Helene Milena in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island on Sunday, 13 October 2013. The readings were Psalm 66:1-11, 2 Timothy 2:8-15 and Luke 17:11-19.
Teaching children to say thank you is one of the early tasks of parents, even from the age when the little ones can say ‘Ta’ at the most. Gratitude is important in building relationships between people. It was equally important for one of the ten lepers in the Gospel reading as it helped him to build a relationship with Jesus. Cultivating and attitude of gratitude towards God helps us to develop our relationship with him.
I remember reading that it’s good to create traditions in a family as that helps to make the children feel secure; the predictability of something forms a fixed point in a changing world. When our children were young I always read stories to them. As they became older I read a chapter a night from a longer book. When we went on holiday camping in the summer we created a tradition of supper time comprising drinking hot chocolate, eating bread and chocolate spread and listening to the latest chapter of whatever book we were on at the time. On occasion we found ourselves joined by children from other families whom our own children had befriended. This tradition has become fixed in our children’s memories. So much so, that when we spent last week in France as a family, the request from our grown-up children was to have a book read to them over the week as they drank hot chocolate in the late evening!
Traditions often revolve around special occasions such as holidays, birthdays, Christmas. I remember a not so happy tradition from Christmastime when I was young. On Christmas Eve my present sack was filled with gifts by Santa Claus, ready for me to find on Christmas morning. So far, so good you may say. I used to take the sack downstairs in the morning, sit in front of the fire and unwrap the presents. Wonderful! Lots of excitement. My mother was very organised (and still is amazingly so though now in her late 90s). As each present was unwrapped, I had to give the label to my mother, on which was written the name of the giver. My mother wrote on the label what I had received. Here things become not so good. Usually by the time the next day was over, I had to have written a thank you letter to each person for each gift I had received. I hated that task, I could never think what to write and by the end my hand ached. This was very much a duty on my part, although of course I enjoyed the presents I received. My mother was right to insist that I said thank you, but I certainly wished that she would let me miss out on doing this.
In contrast to my rather dutiful gratitude at Christmas is the genuine gratitude from the heart. I experienced that today at my offline church. There was a baptism in the service which I helped with as I was liturgical deacon. After the service had finished, I was tidying up and the family was having photos taken. The father caught my eye and said ‘Thank you’. I had happily helped in the service. It’s really enjoyable to be part of such a special event for a family. I hadn’t expected to be thanked but it was lovely to have it happen. The father didn’t have to thank me. Baptising babies is part of what our church does. It’s a service freely given to those who ask for it. However, the father obviously wanted to find a way to say what the day meant to him and he did it with a simple word of thanks.
I believe it’s gratitude which helps us to find the key to today’s Gospel passage. Jesus was in a border region between Samaria and Galilee. A group of lepers kept the required distance from Jesus and those with him. Lepers were excluded from society for fear that they would spread the disease. They could not be with their family and friends or have a job usually. They were effectively reduced to the status of beggars, whatever status they had had before. This group of lepers called across the space between them, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ They didn’t seem to have to spell out what they needed. It was obvious.
Jesus responded by inviting them to demonstrate the faith they appeared to have in him. He wanted them to take his word for it that they were healed. To prove that, they needed to cease calling and set off to see the priests who could certify that their skin was clear of leprosy. Only as they obeyed and actually set off on this mission did they notice that they were free of the leprosy. That took a lot of faith, to turn away from Jesus whom they believed could heal them, and set off to find the priests before they had any evidence that anything had changed in their condition.
Once they noticed they were healed there must have been great excitement. It’s easy to imagine the wonder and happiness they felt. However, in the midst of the celebration one of the ten tore himself away from the group and headed back to Jesus. All the way back he praised God with a loud voice. When he finally caught up with Jesus again, he threw himself down at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Jesus said a very strange thing to this Samaritan man: ‘Your faith has made you well.’ Where is the difference between this man’s faith and that of the other nine? All asked Jesus to have mercy on them. Presumably all believed he could help. All turned and headed to find the priests when told to do so. All showed remarkable faith in Jesus. All found themselves clear of leprosy as they set off. Yet the Samaritan was singled out as having faith that made him well.
The difference it seems is that the Samaritan man forged a relationship with Jesus by returning to say thank you. He didn’t need to say anything. God is gracious and gives without any expectation of being thanked. However, not out of a sense of duty but out of a heart full of gratitude, this man returned and acknowledged where his healing had come from. In doing so, I think he gained a deeper kind of healing. It was not just his skin that was clean but his whole life. He could return to his family and his previous life as a different person because of his encounter with Jesus. The other nine lepers only met Jesus at a distance as they called to him. They would return to their previous way of life with only their skin touched (not that that is a small matter of course). This Samaritan man came up close, said his thanks, and heard Jesus’ words spoken to him as an individual. Perhaps he was one of the many who joined the early church as a result of this healing.
Heartfelt gratitude deepens relationships it seems to me, whereas saying thank you out of duty is far more likely to build resentment. Not saying thanks at all almost consigns the giver to the status of a nobody.
What has God done for each of us? Each of us will have received something different according to our needs. Every evening the liturgy for Evening Prayer encourages us to give thanks for the day, which is a good discipline even if we don’t pray that office. Acknowledging what we have received deepens our relationship with God. It is also likely to help us be more loving and generous to others as a response. That seems like a good way to live.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor