We’re in the midst of harvest season at the moment. We’re surrounded by the harvest produce this morning, with another harvest service to come this afternoon. We’ve also welcomed the local school into church and celebrated harvest with them.
And for the children I’ve had a bag in which I tell them there is something amazing inside. I’ve had a whole variety of answers, including the right one once, which was a bit of a surprise!
They’re usually a bit underwhelmed when the answer is a bottle of water. And I go on to explain how amazing water is, all the different things that we need water for, and how it’s so easy to take it for granted. Particularly in this country where, like this weekend, a bit less water would probably be favourite.
But, it’s a reminder of all the things that we take for granted. It’s a reminder that we need water to keep us alive, to grow the food that we’re saying thank you for, to wash and cook and clean. It’s a reminder not to take things for granted. Which of course is what harvest is all about; thanking God for the good things he has given us.
And gratitude is at the heart of the passages that we’ve heard this morning. They’re both about thanking God, about how we thank God and when. Now, there’s lots of reasons that I’m sure you can think of not to be thankful to God. The world is in a mess, there are wars and killings. We carry with us the pain of loss, we or others we care for are ill.
The Bible doesn’t deny this. The psalms aren’t afraid to tell God in some detail exactly what is wrong. The passage from Luke starts with lepers wanting to be healed.
Last week a few of us went to the Diocesan Day with Archbishop John Sentamu. He was very good and talked about the characteristics of a healthy church. We’ll be exploring some of those over the coming weeks, about using our talents, working together, being disciples and so on. And one of those was joy. And of course he’s quite right. Joy is one of the fruit of the Spirit, joy is attractive and draws other people to encounter God as well.
And joy and gratitude often come together. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians writes: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” So he links being joyful, rejoicing, with gratitude, giving thanks.
But if you think of joy being exactly the same as happiness then that’s not always going to make a lot of sense. Because you can’t be happy all the time. Unfortunately life isn’t that good. That’s particularly true in our society where mental ill health affects a significant number of us. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. 1 in 4. That’s a shocking statistic and is a symptom of the mess we’ve made of our society, which damages so many people. It’s also a call for us to seek to understand and support people with mental ill health and for us to seek to change lives, change society so that it becomes less of a problem.
So, we’re not happy all the time. But joy is a bit different. Only a bit, but an important bit. The crime writer Agatha Christie wrote: “I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, wracked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”
Just to be alive is a grand thing. Given how many murders Agatha Christie thought about over her career I guess she knew what she was talking about. The joy of being alive flows from the gratitude of having been given a life. Of course even that can be too much if you are mentally ill.
But, to massively over simplify, one part of overcoming mental illness is about growing that sense of gratitude, of thankfulness of what we have got, which then leads to a sense of joy. Not that it’s that easy or can often be done without professional help, but cultivating a positive attitude, of thinking of the good things, having a sense of gratitude, is part of it. And that’s the sort of thing that’s encouraged even if you don’t think you have God to be thankful to.
And another important part of joy is relationships. Decent relationships give us support, confidence, emotional security. That’s what our relationship with God can give us, and what our relationships with each other as a church should be giving. Of course, they don’t all the time, because we’re all damaged and sinful, but part of our calling as the body of Christ is to seek to have those sort of relationships, and to ask for forgiveness when we fall short of that.
Our calling as part of the body of Christ includes coming to church, growing together in small groups, inviting people to be part of our life, praying for and visiting people when they’re in need, working, eating and doing things together. Which is what Psalm 111 reminds us of, talking about praising God in the assembly, reminding each other of the faithfulness of God, of the things that we can be thankful for.
All of which brings us back to the encounter of Jesus and the 10 lepers. These 10 people have an incurable skin disease of some sort or other which means that they’ve been declared ritually unclean, which means that they are cut off from the rest of society. They can’t go near other people because to do so would make them ritually unclean as well. So they can’t see their family, they can’t live in their village, they can’t work.
So when they hear that a miracle worker is around they rush to get within shouting distance of him. No nearer notice. But they’re there. And Jesus tells them “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Which is a bit odd, because nothing has happened yet. If they had been healed then that was the next thing that they would have needed to do. They could only be declared clean and restored to society by the priests. Then after they had given the proper sacrifices they could return home restored to the community. All of which, by the way, is part of the reason that I’m not sure that vicars being called priests is a very good idea.
Anyway, if the lepers had been healed they would need to go to the priests before they did anything else. Not that that always happened with the lepers that Jesus healed, but here Jesus is emphasising what should happen. So Jesus says “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And, we’re told “as they went, they were cleansed.”
So, the 10 lepers split into two groups. We’re told that Jesus was on the border of Galilee and Samaria. And the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim, while the Jews of course worshipped God on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. So, the Samaritans headed one way and the Jews another, all heading to their priests. And the lepers are heading to the priests before they are healed, they are heading there in faith. And they are healed by their faith in the healing power of God.
And as they travel they notice, sooner or later, that they have been healed. And most of them presumably rejoice and hurry on to see the priests, to go back to their old lives, as restored members of their communities. But one is so grateful to the person who has brought God’s healing onto him that he hurries back to praise God and thank him.
And Jesus tells him to “Rise and go”. Rise to new life. Rise and go to a new life, brought back into God’s people. Rise and go, having praised God. That tells us that another thing that flows from gratitude and is part of joy is about what we do in response to the gratitude that we have. How do we respond to God? That is the challenge of the Samaritan ex-leper. Do we show our gratitude to what we have been given? Does this cause us to think about how we use our time and money and skills? Does our gratitude draw us further into God’s people so that we together can rejoice for what we have been given? That’s the challenge of both of these passages.