Phil delivered this sermon with sore feet having set out 7 days before to walk
with Bethan from Rhyl to Pontypridd, visiting hospitals along the route, to say
Thank You !
God Bless the NHS ………
Readings: Psalm 138; Luke 17:11-19
It was last May that we first began thinking about what we might do to celebrate 70 years of the NHS. Suggesting a near 200 mile trek across Wales seemed a good idea at the time and now here we are about to start the walk proper. Where has the time gone?
Personally speaking, I think this year has gone by faster than any other I’ve lived through…and one of the reasons for that might be that I’ve had a pretty full 6 months. After Christmas and the first steps into the new year, there were church anniversaries and leadership courses, meetings about pulpit exchanges and student ministry, then we were into Lent, a busy but beautiful holy week, Easter and the following day, some of us were heading to the airport. I had an incredible time out in Palestine and Israel as you know and after the busyness of the first 4 months and the intensity of leading a group of 30 adults in a foreign and divided land, I was very pleased to have a few days of relaxation immediately following the trip.
I spent a day sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv before joining a group of other travellers from across the globe on a 3 day whistle stop trip to Jordan. And it was on this trip that I was reminded about the most magical, powerful word in the world.
You see, the border between Israel and Jordan is, quite understandably given the region’s history, an incredibly tense area. Vehicles cannot pass from one side to the other; bags are checked and rechecked and checked again; and travellers have to join queues, pay money and show passports on numerous occasions. I was about an hour into this process when I crossed into Jordanian territory and remembered the weapon I had in my arsenal. As big, burly men…even bigger than me, I know, it’s hard to imagine…as these men stared me down with their submachine guns at the ready and handed me back my passport with a snarl, I dropped the magic word – shukran. Suddenly, smiles erupted, guns were lowered and the impersonal security guards who were clearly intimidated by my macho bravado transformed into human beings, brothers even, who welcomed conversation and asked me about my trip.
By now, you may have worked out what the game-changing, human-making, smile-invoking word was – thank you. That’s it. Thank you. Just hearing that short word made all the difference to that potentially volatile situation. And I’d guess that we all have examples in our lives when someone bothering to say thanks to us made an absolute world of difference. I actually think some people even have a ministry of thanks – writing notes or expressing gratitude in quiet, ordinary ways which can make a quite extraordinary difference to others.
And it would seem that giving thanks was fundamental to Jesus too. Throughout the gospels, we see him stopping to thank his heavenly Father for the many blessings given; on the night before he is killed he models to his disciples how to live and centres this teaching around the meal called Eucharist, which literally means ‘thanksgiving’; and in today’s reading we see him reacting to the one leper who returned to offer him thanks following the healing of a group of ten.
There is so much going on in this rich but brief passage. We could talk about the healing in itself and what it says about Jesus’ nature, compassion and divinity; we could discuss the difficulty and abuse of the that final line – ‘you faith has made you well’ by the Church over the years; we could unpack the fact that it was a foreign leper from a different religious tradition that demonstrated true faith and what that might say about our welcome of foreigners and learning from those of different religions today. Well, seeing as there’s some football and tennis thing going on this aftertnoon, we’ll come back to those another day and will focus instead on the thankfulness of the returning Samaritan but before we do, we’re going to reflect on what it is to give thanks by putting it into practice ourselves.
This next hymn is something of a miracle in itself and a powerful example of someone who found themselves in the most tragic of circumstances yet still believed that were things for which to be thankful. In 1639 amid the darkness of the Thirty Years’ War, German minister, Martin Rinkard, is said to have buried five thousand of his parishioners in one year, an average of fifteen a day. His parish was ravaged by war, death, and economic disaster. In the heart of that darkness, he still saw a flame of God’s love in his life, however flickering and so he sat down and wrote this table grace for his children: “Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done. In whom this world rejoices. Who, from our mother’s arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.”
An extraordinary hymn there. Now where were we? Oh yes…the thankful Samaritan. Just imagine the scene. This nameless Samaritan is living with at least nine other lepers on the outskirts of a village in the north country. Following the demands of the law and expectations of society, they are kept at arm’s length from the rest of the community and are, I would expect, a tight group, scraping by together by begging for scraps and sympathy from the locals and any passing travellers.
One of these travellers, a preacher from Nazareth, they’ve heard rumours about. Some say he’s a religious teacher; others a lefty revolutionary; others still that he’s been involved in some amazing acts of God. Perhaps they believed in this Nazarene, perhaps they were just rolling their dice.
Either way, they ask for pity from this man who then instructs them, almost without blinking, to go show themselves to the priests. It was the priests, of course, who had the training to declare when a skin disease had been healed – two whole chapters in the book of Leviticus deal exactly with this – and if a healing had occurred, the former outcasts would be permitted to rejoin society, no longer ignored on the margins but allowed employment, community, family even. So when the wandering radical utters just six words to them, they actually demonstrate wild hope when, still diseased, they begin their journey to the priests. Their hope is realized when they are miraculously healed along their way and so they do as the healer instructed, travelling onward to seek confirmation from the priests.
Well, nine of them did. For the other ran back to the one through whom he was healed, giving him thanks. This thanks-giver was so overwhelmed with what had happened to him in that moment – the grace offered, the body revived, the new horizons opened – that he felt compelled to rush back and give thanks. It was in response to this action that Jesus, I imagine with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes, said ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’. Remember, the man had already been healed so Jesus’ words suggest that the very act of thanksgiving brought the man some kind of wellness, brought him shalom, peace.
Every Sunday…every day…each of us are invited to a similarly life-changing encounter. For we are invited to share our desperate cries with the One who hears us and loves us; we are encouraged to soak in the healing waters of forgiveness, grace, peace; we are called to sing our thanks to the God who made us, the Master who heals us, the Spirit who strengthens us. And perhaps it’s in this exchange – the cry, the meeting with God and the giving of thanks – that we move from fear and despair to hope and joy; that we are restored, revived and renewed.
It’s no coincidence that the verb ‘to thank’ comes from the same Latin root as the verb ‘to think’ for thanking someone means thinking about another; it means admitting that we rely on each other; it means saying “you are important and I will remember what you have done”. Giving thanks to God, then, means remembering that we are the beloved recipients of divine grace, blessing and extravagant love; giving thanks to each other means remembering that we need one another; that we are stronger together; that we are all part of the weird and wonderful, broken yet beautiful brood of sisters and brothers we call humankind. No wonder giving thanks can be so powerful. No wonder that the most joyful people often are also the most thankful. And if the giving of thanks can transform the individual who offers it, perhaps it can transform a nation too.
In 1952, four years after he spearheaded the founding of the National Health Service, the force that was Aneurin Bevan, offered his vision for a transformed nation, suggesting that “Society becomes more wholesome, more serene, and spiritually healthier, if it knows that its citizens have at the back of their consciousness the knowledge that not only themselves, but all their fellows, have access, when ill, to the best that medical skill can provide.” I hope you’ll allow this Englishman to offer the addition – “and gives thanks for the everyday superheroes who provide this care”.
Just as the leper was made well by his faithful thanksgiving to the one through whom God healed him, so our society might be made well through our thanksgiving to those through whom God cares and heals us today. Perhaps the one way we might be healed of the disease of entitlement, inequality and individualism is through an understanding that the Samaritan and the South Walean, the Muslim and the Methodist, the rich and the refugee are all God’s children; that none of us is untouchable or irredeemable; that we all have inherent worth and are thus deserving of compassion, care, community. Perhaps the one way our nation might flourish is for every doctor, dentist, nurse, midwife, pharmacist, cleaner, porter…every single NHS worker to be thanked for their dedication, for their strength, for their general magnificence! This doesn’t mean, of course, that we overlook the creaks and cracks in the system, nor that we pretend that serious challenges don’t lie ahead. The thankful leper would have had a few hurdles to jump post-healing and we’ve a few challenges of our own to overcome.
But for now – this month, this year – let’s pause for a moment and give thanks for Beveridge, Bevan and the other men and women who lived through a time of division and violence and imagined, instead, a world of togetherness and benevolence. Let’s give thanks that in 2018, infant mortality is decreasing, life expectancy increasing and infections like polio and diphtheria have all but disappeared in these isles. Let’s give thanks for the babies delivered, the dying cared for, hips replaced, pain relief offered, prescriptions written, ambulances driven, and care given to the 1.4 million of us who use the NHS each day. Let’s give our thanks for the women and men who give of themselves day after day as they care for our health and well-being as we also give our thanks and praise to our gracious God, the source of all healing, life and love. So let’s shout out with joy that most powerful word – shukran, diolch, thanks – and let our thanksgiving be not just on our lips but in our living. God bless us and may God bless the NHS. Amen.