Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity – 9 October 2016
Parish Eucharist sermon by Lay Preacher, John Clements
The Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Botley in North Hinxey parish. Text – Psalm 111 and the Gospel Luke 17:11-19
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. So begins the psalm we have just heard and it reminds us that whatever else we do, we should always be thanking and praising the Lord. We don’t have to read densely packed theology books to know that we owe so much to God that we should praise him all the time. And why should we do so? I will always remember how Bishop John often used to start his talks by saying ‘God is good’. What a great opening phrase that is – even if in the next one he’s telling you about the latest increase in the parish share. So today I won’t be banging on about climate change or refugees or urging you to give away your money to the poor, important though all of these things are; instead I’d like us to think about the big picture, about why we believe that God is good and therefore why we should always be giving him thanks and praise. Where does one start? Well, the psalm is one obvious place we could look. It speaks about all the things the Lord has done and about how he has shown these to his people in different ways.
One could sum all of these up as representing the universe that he has created; the world in which we now live; the world in which our ancestors lived right back to the very act of creation, whenever and whatever that was, and the world in which our descendants will live, if they haven’t managed to destroy it. Last Sunday we celebrated harvest festival when we thanked God for the wonder and diversity of the world he has created for us to live in and enjoy. Whilst it’s great to have a special time to do that, creation is here and all around us all of the time and we can and should thank God for all its wonders every day. After all, we cannot take it for granted. We know that human activity over the centuries has reduced the variety of life of all kinds, in this country as well as across the world, and we also know that the rapid development of industrial scale farming, mining and fossil fuel extraction without mitigation of environmental impacts threatens to do so even more. Somehow, humans seem to have developed a belief that we can control creation; use technology to tame it to the sole benefit of ourselves and that we are more important than anything else. How selfish and deluded that is.
If you read the creation narrative in Genesis carefully, you will see that at the end of each day, God looked at what he created and saw that each new part of the world was good in equal measure. Humans were created right at the end of the story and God entrusted all that he had previously created to us. He did not give it to us to do as we wish; he invited us to share his joy in that creation. That does not give us the right to get rid of those aspects of creation that we happen not to like. Far from it. We are no more important in the intricate mesh of biodiversity than the slugs that eat our lettuces and we sometimes need to be reminded of that, so that we can value and love creation in the same way that God does.
So creation is one big thingfor which we can express our thanks to God. One important part of that is of course his creation of ourselves and the gifts which he has given us through the workings of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes us aware of the three great virtues: faith, hope and love. Without these we cannot live in any meaningful way and I think it is important that we see all three as mutually sustaining; in other words, you can’t live by just faith or just hope or just love alone. They are in a way like the three elements of the Trinity itself, each necessary to the flourishing of the others. Now nearly everybody has some capacity to love and has hope and faith in some way; they are an essential part of human life and they are distinctive because they are essentially outward looking, but they are also so often clouded by fear, despair and self-centredness. What the Holy Spirit brings to us is the renewal of what it means to be human. It allows us to see that these virtues come from God and that it is towards God that they should now be focussed. We live not by some vaguely defined trust in reality but by faith in the living God. We do not just hope for the best in a random sort of way but we place our hope in God. We love because he first loved us, and by loving God, we learn to love all that God loves.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that, of faith, hope and love, love is the greatest of the three. Perhaps this is because it is love that forms the bond between God and ourselves. We may believe that God has hopes for us or has faith in us, but the Bible does not tell us that. What it does tell us – and very, very often – is that God loves us. Yes, God loves us and we should return God’s love. But this is not just a closed circle between each of us and God. It is not a private relationship. It expands beyond ourselves as we learn to love what God loves. We come to value other people in something of the way that God does; we come to value the rest of creation in something of the way that God does. And as we learn to love more, we realise that we are not loving just because we are told to do it, we are loving because we are sharing in the expression of God’s love that encompasses the whole of creation and returns to him in reciprocal love. God’s love for creation makes our own love, and our ability to love, more real.
Paul also tells us that ‘love hopes all things’ and how true this is. When we love, hope is a natural outspring of that love. We love our children and hope the best for them. We love the natural world and hope that it survives intact. When we love a person for themselves, we hope that only good things will happen to them.
And ‘love believes all things’.Loving God leads us to have faith in God and in his promises of love, redemption and eternal life.
So love lies at the very centre of our Christian lives but how difficult it is for us to express that openly. I have commented before on the poverty of the English language in having only that one word to express a wide range of emotions and attachments, so that we often avoid the use of the word love to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings. Yet the translators of the Bible were not afraid to use that word so perhaps we should be bolder ourselves to claim it back and use it and act upon it as the foundation of our relationship with God, with his creation and with each other. And yes, we do need to be clear what we are saying. We are trying, in our own small way, to emulate that all-encompassing love that God holds for each of us, and there are I think two aspects that make it distinctive from commonly understood human love which is focussed on one person, which are that it is unconditional and it is universal, in other words we love things and people who do not neccesarily show love to us, and that love stretches beyond one person to embrace the whole of creation. This is not easy and cuts across the grain of so much of our inherited culture, but surely that is the point. Anything worth having is worth working for.
Yet not everyone seems to be able to recognise God’s love when it is shown to them most dramatically. Our short gospel reading today tells us that Jesus healed ten lepers and then only one of them praised God and thanked Jesus – and he was a Samaritan, a foreigner as Jesus calls him. If you remember, a couple of months ago I explained (in relation to the parable of the Good Samaritan) that Samaritans were the descendants of the Jews who did not go into exile in Babylon and that there was a great deal of animosity between the Samaritans who claimed to be observing an older and purer religious practice, and the Jews who had returned from exile whose practices had developed and were different. This really points up the contrast between the Samaritan who recognises God’s goodness and the Jews who don’t, and apparently can’t even be bothered to say thank you. Again, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, it shows us that love can come from some unexpected places, and also that some of those who you might expect to show love, don’t.
And of course it is not only the nine ex-lepers who fail to be grateful. It is all of us who fail to thank God ‘always and for everything’ as Paul puts it. Perhaps we should all pray every day with the words of the collect for the second Sunday after Trinity which sums up much of what I have just said:
Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.