AUNTIE GWEN'S NICE PRESENT
a sermon preached at ST.LUKE'S QUEEN'S PARK, BRIGHTON on 13th October 2019. Text: Luke 17. 11-19
Today - this very morning - perhaps even as we speak - Cardinal John Henry Newman is being canonised (made a saint) in Rome.
He started as an Anglo-Catholic, a member of the Oxford movement, in the 19th century and later became a Roman catholic. I (and many others) have visited his room or cell in the Birmingham oratory which has been preserved as a shrine, including his books, his furniture, his pipe, his zuchetto (little red skull cap) and even his slippers. Very elegant slippers, rather like Duke Ellington’s.
He was a forward thinking Christian and would have been a great supporter of Pope Francis if he had been alive today against those died in the wool conservative Cardinals who are doing their destructive best to block Francis's reforms of the church. Newman once memorably said to live is to change and to change often is to become more perfect.
How true that is for us all here on our Christian journeys and we should be eternally grateful to Cardinal Newman for his crucial advice.
Grateful, yes. Unlike 9 of the 10 lepers in this morning's gospel. If I'd been Christ, after what He'd done for them, I’d have been tempted to shout after them “A thank you wouldn’t cost you anything. A thank you wouldn’t hurt”.
But the sad fact is it just DIDN’T OCCUR to them. They took their healing for granted. As for Jesus, out of sight, out of mind. It sounds outrageous, doesn’t it! I mean, to be cured of that most cruel and hideous disease in a flash must be the most wonderful thing.
But their behaviour is not untypical of us, you know. We’re all very good at praying for God’s HELP or RESCUE when the chips are down.
I remember my father telling me about his time in the Navy in the second World War when he saw bullies and thugs who scoffed at the idea of being seen inside a church or calling themselves religious falling down on their knees and calling out to God in fear. Reciting the bits of the Lord's prayer they could drag up from what they were taught in their distant childhood.
And these lepers, all TEN of them, were perfectly willing to PRAY that Jesus would heal them. But when their prayers were answered 9 of them just got up oblivious and got on with their lives. They didn’t need God anymore - and least until the next time they were in a jam.
Reminds me of the joke about the car driver nearing the end of his journey to a place with very few parking spaces. "O God" he prayed "Grant me a precious parking space and I promise I'll go to church every Sunday, put twice as much in the collection and even do the tea and coffee every week".
A little later, he turns into his home street and says "Oh, it's OK, Don't worry - I've found one."
How often have we prayed “Please God, don’t let this or that horrible thing happen and then when it didn’t, we were so relieved that we quite forgot to acknowledge the fact that our prayer had been answered?
But who is the loser when we don’t show gratitude? Not God.
I mean I reckon he is hurt and disappointed by our attitude. But Jesus didn’t call after the 9 lepers - “OI, A THANK YOU WOULDN’T HAVE COME AMISS YOU KNOW”.
He graciously let them go on their way. He still loved them. He didn’t cancel the miracle and bring their leprosy back to teach them a lesson.
Yet THEY were the losers because, even though they’d been physically cured, they’d MISSED OUT, if they did but know it, on something very much more special. What is that?
It's what Jesus said to the 10th leper, who came back to thank him. Jesus didn’t just say, “WELL IT’S NICE TO BE APPRECIATED, I MUST SAY.”
He said, “GET UP AND GO ON YOUR WAY. YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL.
By coming back to give thanks, this leper received SPIRITUAL SALVATION on top of physical healing. He was the only one who fully understood what had really happened. His coming back to Jesus was his CONVERSION. The beginning of the rest of his life. So you see what a difference a THANK YOU can make!
But it has to be the right SORT of thank you. Not that mechanical ritual we were tortured through in our selfish childhood!
- Well? What do you say to Auntie Gwen?
Say it properly then.
Thank you-Auntie Gwen-for-my-nice-present-Can-I-go-now?
It is easy to grow up expecting presents and easy to sulk when we don’t get them.
Then, as we get older, we may develop a chip on the shoulder - a sort of spiritual leprosy - we think the world owes us a living and we see what happens to us in terms of luck - mostly bad luck of course - and we feel sorry for ourselves.
And if, one day, a mysterious stranger should come along and give us a miracle cure for whatever is ailing us we might be pleasantly surprised, count it as a bit of good luck for a change which - now we come to think of it - we’ve had coming to us for a long time, and off we go again on our way. Perhaps even starting to complain that it won’t be long before things take their usual turn for the worse.
But it doesn’t HAVE to be like that.
Instead of self-pity - which stops us even noticing any of the good things that happen to us - we could cultivate a deliberate, conscious ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE. (That’s a nice catchy phrase which should be easy to remember)
There’s a very moving book by Georges Bernanos (and superb film made of it by Robert Bresson) called ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’ about a young French curate who has a disastrous first job in a small country parish where he is despised and ridiculed by the villagers and then he collapses in pain and dies weeks later of a hereditary stomach cancer.
He is in mental and physical pain for most of his short career but his dying words are TOUT EST GRACE. All is Grace. Even life itself is God’s free gift which we have no right to. So he was thankful even after what had happened to him.
We can’t pretend to know why any of us, one of us rather than another, is called to suffer, although we can be sure from what happened to Jesus Christ that God suffers with us when we do.
But God’s love is not only shown in his sharing of our bad experiences. It is also shown in his providence when he showers us with his blessings.
Of course, we are not always immediately AWARE that we have been blessed - and there’s such a thing as is known as a blessing IN DISGUISE but JUST OCCASIONALLY it pleases almighty God in his infinite mercy, wisdom and love to be able to answer our prayers in precisely the way we hoped he would.
Has that ever happened to you? Well, if it hasn’t, it will some day. And if it has, it may happen again. And when it does, that will be the moment for your attitude of gratitude to bear fruit.
Instead of being complacent and taking it for granted, be humbled and overwhelmed. Fall on your knees like the 10th leper and say LORD, I THANK YOU FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE FOR ME
and God will respond to your gratitude with another, even richer blessing. He will say GET UP AND GO ON YOUR WAY. YOUR FAITH HAS MADE YOU WELL
and you might just find that your life will never be the same again.