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Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2.8-15
Do you have an attitude of gratitude? If not, how can we cultivate one? If you do, how can we work to make it richer and deeper?
Jesus has healed ten lepers, yet only one has the good grace, the simple manners and the sense of deep gratitude to come and say thank you. And he was a Samaritan.
Cleansing from leprosy is a sign of messianic salvation; those who were unclean are restored (as are we) and, we note, it is unconditional. There is no suggestion of Jesus reversing the miracle of healing upon the nine who fail to acknowledge what has happened.
Not for the first time, the gospel-writers draw attention to the people of Samaria.
Samaritans, you will know, were despised by the Jews of Jesus´ day. They had inter-married. They were impure, corrupted people who no longer followed the law of Moses. They were the untouchables.
As we know, Jesus has few problems with Samaritans. He attaches no labels, no odium upon people simply because of who they are. He mixes happily with anyone and in doing so stirs up the sensibilities of the religious thought-police who keep a watching brief on his heresies.
And here, the writer of Luke singles out the one beyond the pale for special mention. And why?
Jesus’ point is simple. It is not who we are that matters, Jew, gentile, male, female, priest or Levite. At the heart of it is our attitude, the state of mind and heart.
Gratitude is at the centre of our Christian life. In his epistles, Paul encourages us constantly to give thanks and in all circumstances – we shall come back to that later.
At the climax of our Eucharist, we have the Great Thanksgiving where we set the scene in the following words –
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
The Samaritan leper knew how to give thanks and praise, and he understood how they go together.
The word ‘eucharist’ comes from the Greek word eucharistia, thanksgiving, because Jesus gave thanks and we do the same in the central act of Christian worship.
In our funeral liturgies, at the darkest time of loss and grief, there are prayers of thanksgiving, for the life that has ended and for God’s victory over death.
So how thankful are we? How well do we do? Ingratitude is perhaps one of humankind’s greatest failings, remember Shakespeare’s words – ‘blow, blow, thou winter winds, thou art not so unkind and man’s ingratitude’.
Some might say, with apparent justification, that the state of the world is not cause for gratitude but for weeping and lament – the injustice and atrocities, the failure to share with justice the resources of creation, our attitude to the whole created order, the state of the church.
It should cause us to consider where we invest our resources of time and energy, especially what we might call our spiritual energy, the source of life.
We are probably all guilty of it to some degree – worrying ourselves over whether we have the best mix in our superannuation, or if we have the optimal phone plan. How are we, then, to nourish deep gratitude? I suggest by investing where our energies might bear fruit rather than where they will cause us to grow even more miserable in self-centred rumination.
Jeremiah instructs the desperate people of God, lost in exile in Babylon, wondering how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Get on with it, he says in his poetic, prophetic way. Build homes, grow crops, multiply. Seek the welfare of the place in which you find yourselves – for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.
It is a cogent message. Invest in the well-being of your surroundings, even if they are not what you choose, not where you prefer to be, and you will prosper with them.
And to you, I say, there is uncertainty in times of change here within your own faith community. It is unsettling, but be thankful for what has been in this place, be thankful for the invigorating opportunity of change, be thankful for the strength of the community you have as you work to sustain its ministry.
I am not talking here about singular acts of thankfulness. Rather, it is the development of a deep and pervasive culture of gratitude within ourselves, between ourselves, a culture through which we live in a state of grateful praise.
There is a connection here with the evolution of the positive psychology movement, especially in the context of young people and the emergence of what we call positive education. I applaud the work of people like Martin Seligman who have given fresh energy to this way of thinking.
A couple of years ago I attended the world’s first conference in Adelaide on positive education in the work of faith-based schooling. It addressed the points of intersection between theology and psychology. I was invited to present a small paper, which I had named ‘Old Wine in New Bottles’; because I don’t think it is something new. It has been with us for ages – well-being, emotional health and communal prosperity.
The precepts and practice of positive psychology are alive and well in our Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Its theme runs through many of the Psalms, like the one set down for today exhorting us to shout for joy, as it goes on to illustrate the reasons why. We know that God has plans for us to prosper and flourish, not to fail, in our individual lives, but collectively, too.
And sometimes the church does not carry that message very clearly. We have, perhaps, sometimes presented a grim face to the world.
My grandfather was a Methodist minister in the north of England and one Sunday he went to the station to meet the visiting local preacher. He had no photograph and approached the most likely fellow getting off the train.
‘Are you the local preacher for the Methodist church?’ he asked. The man swung round on him and replied ‘Certainly not! I just have indigestion!’
And sometimes we are guilty of over-simplifying the depth of God’s love for us, his creatures. ‘Smile, God loves you’ on a bumper sticker might tell part of the story but it is far from complete. And it doesn’t satisfy any of us at those times in our human experience when things really come unstuck.
To know God’s love demands of us a deep investment in the mysterious ways of God at work in the world at times of joy and ecstasy but also in the dark night of the soul. It is practised work, learned and exercised in prayerful reading of the scriptures, full engagement in the praise of common worship and in prayer, not least the silence that opens us to the presence and power of God’s Spirit.
And it demands, too, an investment in relationship, in the purposes of community, being with and for each other.
It resides in a choice between what fetters us, imprisons us and what liberates us.
Then we find ourselves like Paul, whose imprisonment chained him in great hardship, but who remains certain that the word of God is unfettered.
In all that chains us, shackles us in this earthly life, let us be constant in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God and that, come what may, his healing will be ours, if not in this world, then in the next. And be ye thankful.
The Samaritan leper knew where to give praise. His thanks he gave at Jesus’ feet and God is the object of his praise: the source of all good and the bringer of healing.
Let us praise God from whom all blessings flow and let us this morning immerse ourselves in thanksgiving as we remember that, even on the night he was betrayed, Jesus gave thanks as he broke the bread.