Sermon St Mary’s Upavon & St Matthew’s Rushall, 6th October 2019
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Lamentations 1.1-6, 2 Timothy 1.1-14 & Luke 17.5-10
Saying ‘please’, ‘thank-you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ is probably what most people learn from a very young age. It is showing respect to one another to acknowledge that someone has done something for you, or when you’ve made a mistake. However, when and how often we say these things, is partly cultural.
I grew up in the Netherlands, where we definitely say these things less often than here. If, for example, you would say ‘thank-you’ to a bus driver on leaving the bus, chances are that you have terribly offended him or her. After all, driving you safely to your destination is surely just their job? So on a very basic level, I can emphasise with Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading today, when he tells us not to expect any gratitude after completing what we ought to have done in the first place.
However, underneath this lies a more profound question. It is the question why we do what we do; what is it that motivates us to do what we ought to do? I would like to suggest that it is not any reward, neither in this life or the next, but rather a response to God’s generous gifts in the first place.
There are different ways of understanding God and our relationship with Him, and theologians throughout the centuries have continued to disagree where our emphasis should lie. Is our focus to be the fact that we have been made in the image of God, or should we rather stress the point that none of us live up to the ideal, to the example we see only perfected in Jesus himself?
The Book of Common Prayer, in the spirit of its time, seems to focus a lot on our imperfections. Famous phrases include ‘We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness’ in our Confession, and a little later just before receiving Communion ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table’. This theology can be a good reminder to us that none of us is perfect. It may help us not to focus too much on the shortcomings of others, but also look at ourselves and realise that we too have made our mistakes: some small, some more significant.
So too in the Gospel reading Jesus is reminding us that we could see ourselves as worthless slaves, nothing more, but also nothing less. There is a risk in this type of thought that we start undermining ourselves too much, and forget that no matter what we do, we continue to be human beings, known and loved by God.
Going back to our Gospel reading, of course, in the 21st century we know that slavery is and was an unjust structure in society, but we need to remember that in Jesus’ time this was much more accepted. Hence, when Jesus speaks about the role of slaves, I would like to suggest, he is talking about an accepted order in society. He is making a point about finding our proper place, rather than the lowest place.
Our proper place as human beings is not one of guilt, but one of thankfulness. Our duty is not so that God may love us more, but done in a response to God’s generous gifts to us in the first place. Also this we find reflected in some of the language of our Communion service, particularly towards the end, when we pray to God to accept our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is through God’s grace that we were created, and through His grace that we are redeemed.
This transforms our relationship with God too. It is no longer one that makes us feel guilty, but one in which we want to give thanks. That, for me, is the most important reason that I believe: because there is so much to say thank-you for, that there must be someone to say thank-you to. That, of course, does not take away the reality of evil and suffering in the world. I fully appreciate that it will be easier for me to be thankful than for someone who has no place to live, no family or friends to love, or no health to enjoy.
However, being thankful is a response that changes us too. It is there where we often have a choice: will I look at this day, at this week, and bring to mind all the things that went wrong? Those things that happened to me and through me? It will leave me probably feeling hopeless and miserable, especially if I would also anticipate what is yet to come.
Alternatively, if we look at the same day or week, thinking about all the things – small and great – for which to give thanks, we will be left with an entirely different feeling. And also that feeling, a sense of hope and promise, we can take into the future. It is precisely that, I would like to suggest, that is what we ought to do: to give thanks and to trust.
That is not always easy, and it has never been. That’s probably why the Bible is so full of stories in which pain and hope are closely intertwined. The book of Lamentations is full of poetry describing how people feel that God has deserted them, and there is nowhere to go. And also in Paul’s letter to Timothy we hear how suffering is so much part of not just the Christian, but the human life.
I’d like to finish with those last words from Paul’s letter to Timothy that we heard “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” We all have been given so many gifts, and the greatest of those is the treasure, the life that we embody. With Paul, our prayer this morning is that with God’s grace and the help of the Holy Spirit we may guard, though not hide, that treasure.
In the words of the Collect for this Sunday, let us pray: grant that we may both perceive and know what things we ought to do, and also may have the grace and power to faithfully fulfil them.