Saturday, 9 October 2010

19th Sunday after Trinity : Real Gratitude


2 Timothy 2:8-15
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Luke 17:11-19
Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’


Last week at harvest thanksgiving I preached more or less about saying thank you. I explained that it was a good and gracious thing to thank each other for the work that we do, but such gratitude should not be a part of an arm twisting exercise to get people to commit themselves to helping out in church.

More importantly, I described Jesus’s view that working in the service of God was simply what Christians were supposed to do because we are God’s servants, and therefore when we serve we are doing exactly what we ought to do and that we shouldn’t be doing it in order to receive gratitude. This week we’re going to think a little more about gratitude and we’re going to see it in its proper place.

I was lying in bed on Tuesday night mulling this over and found myself with a question. Why exactly do we say thank you to someone? I’ve already shown that it’s not an honourable way of getting someone to do something because then it becomes a form of bribery. What then is its proper place and reason? I think it’s this.

When we say thank you to someone we are acknowledging that they have done something for us, and quite possibly something we couldn’t have done. That ‘thank you’ takes on a special significance when they have done something for us that put them out or that required some effort from them, which is perhaps why we feel disgruntled if we work hard and no one acknowledges our contribution.

But when someone does something very special for us, it has the capability of melting our heart, and we may find ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Or maybe not. You see in the story of the ten lepers who are healed, only one comes back in gratitude to thank Jesus, and it is only to him that Jesus says, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

So now let me really freak you out. The Greek word we translate as, ‘has made you well’, or, ‘has healed you,’ also means, ‘has saved you.’ It’s one of those lovely Greek both/and words like pneuma meaning wind and spirit. So the question I think this passage asks us is, What is the connection between praise and our salvation?

Now we have to be careful here because we must not get caught up in a heresy and start suggesting that our salvation depends on us giving thanks. We cannot save ourselves. It doesn’t matter how good our praise is, it is not our praise which saves us. And yet there is a very real sense in this story that our praise is nevertheless integral to our salvation.

Let me see if I can explain this by looking at the section we have in the second letter of Paul to Timothy. In the middle of this letter is what we think is probably an early Christian hymn which says this:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

It’s one of those kind of hymns that you imagine might have been written by a John Bell equivalent because of the depth of theology and the twist at the end to make us think, and give praise.

The first line about dying and living is reflected at our baptism. When we are baptised we go down into the waters of death and then come out cleansed and renewed in the resurrection. If we are Christians, we live in Christ, and so we have a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. If we have died with him, we will live with him.

The second line is a little stronger because it goes beyond the point of conversion to the nitty-gritty day-to-day life of being a Christian which was in a particular focus at the time of writing because of the persecution they were enduring. As a Christian it is expected that we will endure when the going gets rough, whatever that means for us.

Then comes the negative phrase. If we deny Jesus before people, he will deny us before God. I take this to not just be a literal, ‘No I’m not really a Christian’, if someone puts you on the spot. It may also be about how we live in terms of the care of others. You may remember the parable where people who think they are believers discover themselves to be goats rather than sheep and the Lord tells them he never knew them, and all because they didn’t look out for the needs of others.

But then we get the twist that leads us to praise. Given the line before, when we hear the phrase, ‘If we are faithless...’ we would expect something like, ‘He will be faithless to us’, but instead we hear that glorious truth that regardless of what we do, God will remain faithful. It’s rather like that passage from Romans 8 where Paul declares that there is nothing in all creation that can come between us and the love of God.

We may not reciprocate it. We may not respond. But God will go on loving us. He remains faithful because that is his nature, to go on searching for us, always trying to draw us to himself, even when we turn our back.

That line should surely cause us to praise, to be grateful to God that he is so good. That’s the point of the hymn. But the question it has raised in me is, just how good are we at praising God? From time to time we experience worship in a different church tradition from our own. Some of you may have been to services, perhaps with a band rather than a choir, where the music takes a large part of the service and people raise their hands in worship.

Inevitably I know that some of us will be thinking, ‘Oh yes, the happy-clappies’. But think for a moment. What is going on in those services? The people are simply praising God.

It may not be our tradition, and we might come up with all sorts of reasons to think of it has a dumbed-down form of worship, but the truth is that in those services you find people responding in praise from their guts, from the depth of their being? Do we do that? And don’t for a minute think that kind of praise only comes in modern exuberant worship.

As I think I’ve shared before, in my own private prayers I tend to draw on various different traditions, trying out new forms of prayer, and for the last few months I’ve been using the Franciscan order for morning prayer before I get up, and the thing that has overwhelmed me is that, despite being a hugely traditional prayer book - remember these are monks - every day is filled with praise. Every prayer gives thanks to God.

Listen to this opener from Wednesday. Blessed are you, Sovereign God, creator of all; To you be praise and glory forever! You founded the earth in the beginning and the heavens are the work of your hands. As we rejoice in the gift of the Word made flesh, let the light of your love always shine in our hearts and your praises ever be on our lips, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Blessed be God forever!

That’s not anything that even the most traditional amongst us could call happy-clappy. It is pure praise of God for who he is and what he’s done for us. And there is page after page of it. There are several copies on the windowsill by the prayer space if you wish to borrow one and try it out. I find it has made a huge impact on me to use this form of prayer because it shifts the focus away from me to the one who made me and is saving me.

And that, I think, is the point in the story from Luke’s Gospel. Praising God comes from awareness and observation. We need to look at what he has accomplished in our lives and the lives of those around us. We need to look at the universe in which we live and move, and we have to recognise the power and the majesty of God there. And then we need to look at our own journeys towards salvation and remember, daily, that those journeys are only made because it is God who saves us through the death and resurrection of his Son.

And then we need to ask ourselves, shouldn’t we be wanting to respond to this? Nine lepers received their healing, but only the tenth went back to say thank you.

So I think the message is simply this: Faith without gratitude to God is incomplete, and our lives, if they remain focussed on ourselves, will be hollow things. We need to encounter God in prayer because then we will respond in praise, and only then will our faith be complete. Amen.

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