Sermon - 9th October 2016
Scripture - Luke 17:11-19
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The gospel reading today puts the human tendency towards ingratitude into focus.
Ten people with a chronic skin affliction are healed of their condition, but 9 of them accept the gift of healing without a second thought, while one of them seeks out the healer and expresses his thanks for the gift of a new life. In this story we hear the voice of gratitude for healing, but also gratitude for a new life free from pain and from stigma.
And the story carries extra meaning when we recall that the man who returned to give thanks to Jesus was an outsider. He was a Samaritan, someone excluded from Jewish society even when he was not declared unclean – doubly excluded when he was. This was the only one of the ten who felt driven to go back and express his gratitude to the Jewish rabbi who did not exclude him from the gift of healing.
The deep-rooted instinct to offer thanks, to express gratitude, to acknowledge a giving or sharing relationship with another person, seems to be very much an in-built part of our human nature. Our parents teach us to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as the practice of good manners, but something deeper takes place when we discern the genuine hand of friendship from another person. As social animals, we inevitably connect with the lives of other people; and part of that connection involves an instinctive giving of mutual help and support.
We respond to those times of help and support by showing gratitude in some meaningful way. If we don’t acknowledge the kindness and love of other people, our relationships soon crumble; but when we do express gratitude to others, relationships seem to deepen and to grow in trust and mutual affection.
Expressing our thanks to someone is one of the most powerful building blocks that we have in our human relationships. It is up there with forgiveness as one of the factors which heals, and builds, and promotes health in how we interact with others.
One of the interpretations often given to the encounter between Jesus and the man who came back to offer thanks is that the man received a second, much deeper healing from that conversation. We ask why would Jesus say, 'Go, your faith has healed you' when the man was already healed - unless something much more significant and personal had passed between them. Perhaps, while all 10 were cured of their skin disease, the man who made the effort to turn around and give thanks to Jesus was made whole in a much more profound way.
I wonder if we sometimes miss the point of showing our gratitude for who we are and how we are. I wonder if we sometimes misunderstand who it benefits.
When we talk to people about worship, it sometimes surprises them when we say that worship is not something which God needs to receive from us for God's sake: it's something we need to offer to God for our sake.
We quote the saying of Augustine that our souls are restless for God, and we suggest that our worshipping response to God is programmed into our spiritual DNA as part of our relationship with the One who made us, redeemed us, and sustains us. The purpose of worship is not to nourish God; its purpose is to nourish us.
When we think about how we pray, there is a widely-held view that one of the most significant effects of prayer is less to do with the changes we make to God’s mind and much more to do with the changes we bring about within ourselves.
I think much the same can be said about expressing our thanks to someone - or demonstrating what an American writer has called 'an attitude of gratitude'. The power of expressing gratitude works much more in the life of the one who shows it than it does in the life of the one who receives it.
It is always rewarding to receive thanks from someone, and it helps in the development of our relationship with that person: but the real growth and healing happens in the life of the person who offers their thanks as a natural response to their relationships with others.
Giving thanks, accepting and acknowledging help, recognising that we depend on others, forming communities based on love and respect, are all Christian models of responding to God in other people. Experiencing and expressing our thanks for all those aspects of our life is part of the very bloodstream of the church as the Body of Christ. And the more we can reflect those models in our relationships, the more we will grow towards health and wholeness.
In my mind, I am aware of how grateful I am that many other people connect with my life. In my memories I can recall their acts of kindness, their expressions of support, their natural affection. In practice, I suspect I have failed in many cases - not necessarily to say thank you to them, but to show a simple and sincere gratitude to them - for being part of who I am and where I am. I realise now that I probably failed to notice the depth of new life that they gave to me at the time, and since.
Perhaps the challenge to those who follow Jesus is to aim for the more profound wholeness which comes from those deep expressions of gratitude which nourish and strengthen our relationships. It seems to be a core part of our nature, if only we will nurture it and give it a priority in our dealings with others.
Sometimes perhaps, like the Samaritan who experienced the healing of Jesus, we do need to come to a halt, turn around, retrace our steps, approach the one who held out a hand of friendship and healing for us, and be the one to express our gratitude for the love shown to us.
And whether that happens in our relationship with a friend in our closest circle, or with an acquaintance on our outer margins, or with our brother Jesus in prayer and worship, we know we follow the example of the excluded stranger who found not just health, but wholeness, and new life.