Sermon 9 October 2016
2 Kings 5.1-15, Luke17.11-19
In the summer I was sitting in the shade in front of the Oracle one day when a man came into sight wheeling his bike. He looked very hot and sweaty, and, leaning the bike against a tree, flopped down beside me. We got talking and I discovered that he had been a soldier, but was invalided out after a spell in Afghanistan. He had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and found himself in a psychiatric hospital. There nothing that seemed to help him. He was going round and round in a circle in his head and there was no escape. However, one of the staff was particularly good at listening to him and one day when his wife was there she asked them if he had ever done cycling. He had as a boy and he remembered enjoying it. She suggested to them both that he borrow a hospital bike and cycle round the grounds for half an hour every day. She explained how exercise can help reduce anxiety and stress. Once he had established this regular half hour cycling every day she suggested that in addition to this he could try going out on the bike at one of those times when he felt particularly anxious or stressed. So he did. He discovered that he felt better and that gradually he stopped being stuck in those vicious circles. ‘You know she saved my life,’ he said. ‘I was a gonner. I might still have been in that hospital, or worse. I can’t thank her enough. She didn’t need to take no notice of me, but she did. Even today – 3 members of my family were going on at me to do something for each of them and I couldn’t decide; I was getting more and more stressed. Then I remembered the bike, and here I am.’
I was very struck by his thankfulness. It was as though giving an account of what had happened (which I’m sure he had done before) heightened his awareness of it and gave him even more cause for gratitude. I was reminded of this soldier when I read the scripture passages for today, – both about men being healed and about their gratitude. There is some surprise expressed about this because both are foreigners – the leper from Samaria and Namaan from Syria; – so neither sharing the Jewish faith. Neither was an Israelite. For the OT writer this is a sign that God is not only the God of the Israelites, but of other nations too. For Luke it’s one of many examples showing that the Gentiles are often more ready to receive the gospel than the Jews – a theme he continues in Acts. Perhaps there is a bit of a warning here to those of us who are so familiar with what we know and believe that we fail to see when God is doing something new. In a sense we already know it all, we think. I’m afraid we are rather like the Pharisees who, immediately after Jesus has healed the 10 lepers, ask him (v20) when the kingdom of God will come.
However, what really intrigues me about the gospel encounter is what Jesus says to the leper who turns back. ‘Your faith has made you well’ (or ‘has saved you’ – it means more than simply being physically healed). Jesus uses exactly the same words when he heals the woman with the issue of blood (Lk 8.48), when responding to the woman who anoints him with perfume (Lk 7.50) and when restoring sight to blind Bartimaeus (Lk 18.42). In each case what happens is either public or made public and there is gratitude, often of a noisy even embarrassing nature (the leper, Bartimaeus and the woman with the perfume). Is Jesus saying that gratitude is a way of expressing faith, or perhaps demonstrating faith? I think it’s both. When the soldier was talking to me his voice grew louder as he reached the climax of the story – someone had helped him, he was better. People sitting on the bench near us would probably have been able to hear him. He looked and sounded animated and happy. He looked well. This wasn’t something he had done for himself. It was a gift. He was proof of the gift. Something remarkable had happened. It was the same for the leper. He and the other 9 had been healed. Hang on; they’d been healed! And they hadn’t done anything. Nothing had been asked of them. It was a gift. It was something quite extraordinary. It must have come from God himself. So he’s not only healed like the others, but he’s also saved ie fully connected to God once more. He’s a human being fully alive.
One of the ways of kindling our faith is by practising gratitude. This is one of the spiritual disciplines. It’s not simply about saying thank you to people, though obviously that’s important, but more about developing an awareness that what’s around us, and every aspect of our lives is a gift to be received with gratitude. A simple way of doing this is to ask God at the end of each day to remind you of some of the gifts he has given you during the day. As we do this our sense of our own importance fades, leaving more space for God in our lives. As Christians, too, we have the biggest gift – that God loves us enough to die for us. How amazing is that?!
We were walking down Winchester High St yesterday in the pouring rain and could hear a beautifully clear voice singing that Welsh revival hymn, ‘Here is love vast as the ocean’. Following the voice we found a group of 3 Baptists with a keyboard and joined in. It was very public, and also very wet! But how wonderful to sing about what God has done for us and to realize that for us these aren’t just words. They’re true. It’s happened. He really has sent us Jesus Christ. We really can be made well, whole, fully human. In the words of the General Thanksgiving, ‘We thank thee above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. For the means of grace and for the hope of glory.’ What a gift.