Every now and again in a moment of day dreaming (and there have been plenty of those moments in the last week at General Synod I must confess) I imagine what it would be like if a television presenter tapped me on the shoulder and said those words.
“David Battrick: this is your life,” and I imagine being propelled, startled, from whatever I was doing into a television studio somewhere, where one by one my family and friends and colleagues come in and say hello and tell funny stories about me. You know, I hope, how the programme goes. It is not likely to happen of course, but that little vision has been with me for a long time. Mrs Hurwood my primary school teacher who led me through the first faltering steps of reading and writing, when I was five and six years old, used to tell my mother regularly that she expected to be called up to appear on the programme for me, and so the day dream has stuck.
But with or without the television programme, taking stock of our own lives, sitting back and reflecting on what we have done, and the people who have influenced us over many years, should lead us to a point of deep gratitude, for those whose paths have become entwined with our own.
When I look back at what I can remember of the last 28 years, it is people like Mrs Hurswood, that primary school teacher, who I would like to have the opportunity to thank; and then there is Martin Spears, the man who gave me mouth to mouth resuscitation at the side of the road after I went through the windscreen of a car in a road accident; and my school chaplain, Fr John, who nurtured in me a vocation to the priesthood; and Canon Michael, who visited us here one Sunday earlier in the year, and who has been for many years a friend, and colleague and spiritual guide. The list goes on…
Luisa and I and the boys are travelling to England this evening to take our annual leave. And one of the things that I am looking forward to about being back in the Mother-land, is the chance to meet up once again with some of these special people. Being with them, staying in touch with them, is one way of expressing my thanks to them, for all that they have done for me. My list (I imagine) will mirror your list of the people who have encouraged you to develop new ideas, and new possibilities, and those who have cared for you, and those who have loved you along the path of life. At the heart of our Gospel reading this morning we find this same idea of giving thanks.
A group of society’s outcasts meet Jesus as he journeys from place to place proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. We are not quite sure what was wrong with them, the term leprosy in the Bible does not mean leprosy as we know it today, it is a nickname, a way of referring to people with many different diseases. In one sense the story is an image of all of our lives. It describes that moment as we walk along the road of life, when we encounter Jesus, and are transformed utterly, into something new. Yet it is also a story about real people. Ten people, who through no fault of their own, have been shunned by the rest of society and who walk at a distance from others, calling out to warn them to stay away.
Jesus meets them, and in response to their appeals for mercy he sends them off to see the priest in Jerusalem. Those who were unclean because of disease were prohibited from worshipping in the Temple, and from mixing with others, in case of infection. If you were declared to be a leper it was a life sentence, there was no hope of being saved from a future of separation and discrimination. Before you could be re-admitted to society, you had to undergo an inspection by a priest, and it was his decision whether the label which damned you would remain, or be withdrawn. So these ten people cry to Jesus for help, and instead of helping them he sends them directly to the priest for inspection. The Gospel writers remember that it was as they left Jesus, as they went on their way to do as he had commanded, that they noticed that their bodies were beginning to change. Whatever it was that was wrong with them was being removed. They had met Christ the healer, and their very bodies were being transformed. And one of them, a Samaritan, (and we have spent some time over the last months thinking about Samaritans, those people who were seen as second class Jews because they did not worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather in their own Temple), responds to the wonderful thing that is happening to him, by returning to Jesus to give thanks. It is never too late for us to turn around as that healed man did, and return to God in thanksgiving.
The man came to him and prostrated himself, he laid himself (on the ground) before Jesus, and Jesus blessed him and sent him on his way. The Gospel writers, I think, are being particularly ironic by telling us that it was the lowest of those who were low, who returned to Jesus with thanks.
It is no accident, of course, that I am speaking today about thankfulness. I am here to thank each and every one of you, the body of Christ, here in Midland, for sharing your lives with me over the last eight months. The Bishop asked a big favour of you, when I came here to be your minister, fresh from my training, new to the country and the Diocese, and only at the very beginning of my ministry as a Deacon in the Church, and you have responded graciously to me being here. Thank you for ministering to me: thank you for welcoming me here, thank you for supporting me, thank you for being my teachers and my companions in my first faltering steps in ordained ministry. Thank you for celebrating with us at Malachi’s birth, thank you for caring for us when he was taken into hospital, for walking with me through my ordination to the priesthood and for being open with me to the possibility of change in the way that we worship and in the way that we order and carry out the ministry which finds its source in our communal life.
It is no secret to you, that I feel a great sense of loss at leaving you. And yet my feelings of loss, are wonderfully out-weighed by your joy in welcoming Fr John Hewitson, whose priestly ministry began here yesterday, and who will be with you next Sunday, and Fr Graham Boyle, who has already begun his work in the Parish.
Being with Fr Jonathan Holland and Fr David Thornton-Wakeford, at General Synod last week, brought home to me the growing company of us clergy who have been ministered to by this congregation over the years. It is therefore with a great debt of gratitude that Luisa and I leave Midland today with thanks from our hearts to you all.
And it is with thanksgiving to God, that Melinda and Robert bring their daughter Tabitha for baptism here this morning. In a few moments time we will gather together at the font and will welcome Tabitha into the Body of Christ; thanking God for all the blessings that her new life has brought to her family, and praying for her life as a Christian in God’s world.
In the Hebrew tradition praise and thanksgiving are one and the same word — “yadaw” — they are interchangeable and have the same meaning. Sometimes our own religious language makes that idea more difficult for us to understand. We describe in religious language what we have come to church to do, as if we have come here to do something other than to give thanks to God. Yet right at the centre of our weekly worship is the celebration of the Mass, the Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) at which we remember and give thanks for the life and ministry of Jesus, his death on the cross, and his resurrection, bringing the hope of everlasting life to us all.
I have never lived down the fact that I took my laptop computer on my honeymoon, and more than that, I arranged some work for the last few days of our time in Africa. On one of those days I represented one of the mission agencies at a celebration of the oldest theological college in Kenya.
A theologian from Scotland was also flown out to give the address, and he used as the centre point for his sermon the image of the can opener. It was completely lost on his large African audience. Hundreds of people looked in bewilderment at him, and at the translator who did not know the Ki’Swahili word for tin opener, and who had never seen one. The image didn’t work there, but I think that it’s a good one.
Just imagine for a moment one of those tins of sardines which has a metal pull on the top, which you pull back, you prise back, to open the lid to get to the food inside. What I want to say to you today is that praise is very much like that act of prising. We praise open our lives to God, just as we might prise open a tin of food. It is in our praising, in our thanking, that we become most open God, and God’s will for our lives. It is in that act of opening ourselves to God through praise and thanksgiving; that we also set the pattern for our whole lives, for thanking those who God has put around us.
I want to thank you this morning, for allowing me to share the last eight months with you;
and Melinda and Robert, together with the godparents of Tabitha, are here to thank God for her life, and all the joy which that has brought to them; and we are all here to thank God this morning for the abundance of gifts with which we have been blessed. And as we thank God, we should be mindful too, to thank each other, and all those people who have journeyed with us through our lives.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever else do as a community of faith we must keep at our centre the praise and worship of God, which comes from our gratitude for all that God has done for us, just like that cured man so many years ago. Let us “praise-open” our lives once again, afresh, to the God who has led us over the last year, and over the last many years. For the God who has brought us this far, has a much greater plan for our future, still yet to be fully revealed. May God bless you all.