A Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Year C, Proper 23 – October 13, 2013
David H. Knight, Priest Associate
Send your Spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your word, and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus Name. Amen.
One of the ten lepers whom Jesus healed, when he saw that he was healed, turned back praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The other nine who also had been healed, simply went on down the road. But this one man came back to Jesus to express his gratitude. Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”
What were your thoughts this morning, if any, when you heard these words, “Your faith has made you well?” It’s been my experience that these words have brought comfort to many while at the same time, have brought confusion, even distress to many others. If we are not careful, we can take from these words the notion that if only our faith is strong enough, we will be healed. The question arises, does that mean then, that if one is not healed, that one’s faith was not strong enough, or even, perhaps, that not enough prayers were offered? Why are some healed and why are others not.
I have a vivid memory of a man in a parish in which I was serving who suddenly became ill and was taken to the local hospital. Within two days his condition rapidly worsened. Diagnosed with a virulent blood infection, he was transferred to a major medical center where he was soon put on life support. For nearly a month he was in a coma and he hovered close to death. Early on, one Saturday morning I gathered with people from the congregation in the church. We held a service of Holy Communion and offered prayers for Brian’s healing. The church was nearly packed for that service. In the weeks to follow, prayers in one form or another would continue for over a month. Then one day, he began to turn a corner. It appeared that he might even recover. There were signs of hope, but then it was discovered that he would need bypass surgery on his heart if he were to live. Miraculously, he regained strength enough to face that surgery. He came through his heart surgery but would then face a hip replacement. Prayers continued and he came through it all and has fully recovered. Today he is the picture of health. His heart is strong, his hip is totally free of pain and he is most grateful to God for the gift of life. Like the man in today’s gospel, to this day he praises God for the gift of his life once again. His recovery really was and continues to be miraculous.
There is another vivid memory etched in my brain as well, however. Some years ago there was a very popular young high school teacher in the city where I was serving as rector of the local parish. On a routine visit to his doctor it was revealed that he had a small melanoma. Within weeks the cancer had spread. Prayers were offered all over the city and at his bedside. His fiancé was a member of the parish and we prayed fervently with her and for him. Within a few short months, however, he lost his struggle against his cancer and he died. Sadly, there were those among a religious sect in town who suggested that had his faith been strong enough, the outcome would have been different. Others as well wondered why their prayers had not been answered. The difficulty with this passage is that when we hear the words “Your faith has made you well”, the question arises when one does not get well, “Is one’s faith not strong enough, or were not all those prayers answered?
There are those who have given joyful thanks to God for a recovery, yet just as many do not recover even though they may have prayed just as fervently. Life sometimes deals some mightily harsh blows that can change things for us. There can come those chapters in our lives when things can happen that we had least expected would happen either to us or to our loved ones. Our lives are turned upside down. Our faith is tested. In the passage we heard this morning from the Second Book of Kings, it is God’s compassion that creates a level playing field between the powerful and the powerless. In the gospel there is a parallel. It is God’s compassion that creates a level playing field between those who are physically healed and those who are not. It is God’s compassion that creates a level playing field between those have not been hit by life’s heavy obstacles in their path, and those who have been hit by life’s misfortunes. God is nevertheless present in the midst of all.
Once again, in this Sunday’s gospel reading Jesus is telling us that it is not the quantity of faith that is at the heart of the matter. It is not about whether we have enough faith to make our prayers work. Rather it is that Jesus is teaching us about the very nature of faith itself. As Eleanor spoke in her sermon last Sunday about the exchange Jesus had with his disciples about the mustard seed, faith is about relationships. It is about the relationship that God wants with us. To have faith is to live in faith that God is with us and to live in such faith is to give thanks even if our gratitude begins in giving thanks for the smallest things in the midst of all that is happening. It is when we live a life of gratitude that we live a life of faith. The man in the gospel story who returned to give thanks is a man whose faith had made him truly and deeply well.
Like all of us, there are those who for me have had an influence on my journey. One of those has been Bishop John Baden who, before he became suffragan bishop of Virginia, was my beloved predecessor at Christ Church,Winchester. A man of deep wisdom, he could relate to just about anyone on any level. Some of the best sermons I ever had occasion to hear were not from any pulpit but ones I heard from his armchair during those visits I had with him at their home in Bunker Hill, West Virginia after he had retired. We would sit there as he puffed on his pipe. He smoked Amphora Tobacco in that pipe and I can still remember that aroma as he imparted gems of wisdom. The tobacco smelled awful. In Bishop Baden’s retirement he raised sheep which was appropriate as he was a shepherd by nature. My visits with him were always uplifting for me. He was a joyful man. After a full life of serving others and as he looked forward to retirement, however, circumstances dealt him a tough blow. He was diagnosed with cancer. He endured much over the next three years, yet he became a beacon of faith to us all. I remember one cold, snowy afternoon in particular. I remember saying something to the effect that in the midst of all that he was facing, he was such an inspiration to us all. He looked at me with those piercing eyes of his, eyes that always had a twinkle, and he said to me, “Boy, (he always called me ‘Boy’) let me tell ya, I’m always thankful for each new day God has given me.” As he pointed to the calendar he said, “Those doctors—you know they told me I’d be dead by last November, but it’s January and I’m still here. To hell with ‘em!” Then he said, “Don’t ever forget that the two most important words in the English language are the words, ‘thank you’, you understand what I mean?” As I drove back to Winchester from his home in West Virginia in what was then a blinding snowstorm, what I remember most was how his gratitude, given all that he was facing, put into perspective for me what really matters most in life. It was his gratitude that carried him through each day even to his last moments at Goodwin House where he died. By his gratitude, while yet his physical illness would end his life, he was deeply and truly healed. His faith empowered him to meet adversity without surrender and he became a beacon of light to others.
Just the other day I was in conversation with a man who has, in a matter of sorts in recent years, become my mentor, my counselor, and spiritual coach. We were talking about the presence of God in our midst when we are faced with adversity. As we talked, he spoke of something he had once read in a sermon by the noted Methodist preacher, J. Wallace Hamilton who said, “This God who loves us would not play false with the hungers of our heart.” These words bear repeating in light of our gospel reading today. “This God who loves us would not play false with the hungers of our heart.” We recited the words of the psalmist this morning,
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart. . .
. . . the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
Let us never forget, and especially during times when we are facing adversity let us not forget, that God is in our very midst. Our prayers of thanksgiving for that presence in the midst of all become our soul’s healing. Our circumstances become subject to the healing presence of God. Thankfulness is available to all of us in every circumstance. You and I can give thanks for a wonderful outcome or a wonderful experience, yet we can also thank God for giving us the strength to bear up during a very difficult time. Like that tiny mustard seed, we can, in the midst of difficult times, begin to give thanks for even the smallest blessings that we uncover in the midst of all the debris around our present circumstances.
The gratitude of the leper who was healed was a gift of God. It was God’s grace that made it possible for him to give thanks to Jesus for his healing. Our gratitude comes to each of us as a gift from God. It is that capacity to give thanks that restores and sustains our faith. I can only tell you this: After we lost our son Jamie, it was finally—finally—when I was able to begin to give thanks even for the smallest things—things even as small as a mustard seed—that my faith began to be restored once again. That process continues to this day more than 16 years later. It is among other things gratitude for precious memories and for the many kindnesses I’ve experienced even as recently as this weekend. It is gratitude for the faith that in the communion of saints, as my dear friend and colleague reminds when I need to be reminded, that Jamie’s spirit is present and near even when it is beyond my capacity to feel his presence. It is gratitude for a life beautifully lived. You know, somewhere along the path, by God’s grace, I came to realize that without gratitude I would, in time, simply have become toast. It is gratitude that ultimately sustains you and me through all that life brings.
Where today, for you, is there a hunger in your heart for healing? Where might be the hunger in your heart for guidance when your care for a loved one takes on new dimensions as life’s situations change? God is in your midst today, here and now. You can be assured that this God who loves you will never play false with the hungers of your heart.
(9:00) May each of us, with all that we may be facing, live each day in thankfulness for the Lord who is gracious and full of compassion. Amen.
(11:00) Today, as we welcome Owen Martin into the congregation of Christ’ flock through the sacrament of Baptism, we have prayed that the Lord will keep him in the faith and communion of his holy church. That means that like each of us, as Owen is marked as Christ’s own forever, God will be with him in all things and through all things. May he in time, and may each of us, with all that we may face, live each day in thankfulness for the Lord who is gracious and full of compassion. Amen.