Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving (Trinity XV) – 17 September 2023 – Tessa Lang

Welcome to Harvest Thanksgiving 2023 this Sunday, Trinity XV, where
every portion of the order of service points to the power of giving
thanks.

For example, the liturgy for The Blessing of the Harvest Gifts rejoices
that: ‘springtime and harvest shall not cease’…and neither should our
thanks, as ‘All things come from thee, O Lord’. His generous provision
for his people activates the wonder and gratitude that is the wellspring
of creative human expression…such as voiced in a near-delirious
prayer of thanksgiving by poet e e cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

A wonderful attribute of Christianity is its materiality, where the physical
is portal to the metaphysical, and the shared experiences of being
alive–senses and emotions, food and drink, waking and sleeping,
disease and healing, birth and death, sowing and harvest–structure our
understanding and practice of faith. In this way, we arrive together at
the appointed time for the annual “Thank you” segment of Sunday Live
at St Marks…to hear a remarkable story…remember the love and
bounty of God…and rededicate ourselves to his purpose. This priority
looms increasingly acute as the actions of humanity encroach upon and
degrade the systems supporting our planet, and statistics report a
falling away from Christian identity and belief in our nation.

Today’s New Testament Lesson speaks to an existential situation in the
Church Paul founded in Corinth. In the second epistle the evangelist
needs to answer growing protests about his ministry and methods,
warn against false teachings, and calm internal power struggles. Tothis
daunting set of pastoral tasks he must add preparation of the
ground for collection of aid for the church in Jerusalem, suffering
hardship and privation of famine and facing an equally dangerous if
different sort of threat. His message is direct and personal:
“Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not
grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” Sowing
bountifully to reap bountifully is the pathway for connecting to God’s
unstinting grace, and success is certain. Much later at another flash
point in church history, Luther warns that losing touch with ‘Christ the
Saviour and Comforter’ impoverishes our very souls; worse, it is a
failure of faith that obstructs God’s plan of bounty for all.

For the love of God outshines human-dictated regime and law, as
demonstrated in the remarkable story we hear today, when only the
Samaritan returned to give thanks to Jesus after nine fellow lepers who
were also cleansed did not. Luke reports the words of the Lord: “They
are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And
he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole”.
No matter the affliction, however hidden or serious, we sinners can
connect to the power of thanksgiving by acknowledging the presence
and mercy of God in our lives. We are then saved to go on our way in
newness of life, restored to our birthright as children of God, sowing the
good news and actively sharing our faith. This is the energetic
ecosystem spoken into being at the beginning, connecting creator and
his creation with the hearts and hands of his people.

I think we can agree what is before us today is a bumper crop of
blessings – the gift of resources and time to provide for our physical
needs year after year, abundance in all things meant for us through
God’s grace, the transformation to spiritual health through faith in Jesus
Christ. All are freely given, if wildly undeserved, like the miracle
cleansing of 10 lepers that took place along the rancorous border
between Galilee and Samaria. A long-standing and irreconcilable
schism between the tribes had created antagonism associated with this
region that lay between Galilee and Judea. Although a direct and open
route to Jerusalem traversed Samaria and was much used by Gentiles
conducting trade, the historian Josephus reports that 1st century Jews
were at risk of trouble if they used it. At the very least, they considered
themselves exposed to unclean people in an apostate land.

Nevertheless, his is where we find Jesus and his apostles in Luke
Chapter 17, as they take their final journeys throughout the north before
travelling to Jerusalem together for the final time. There is intention
behind every word and act of Jesus, and we can be sure there is good
reason for this stop in questionable territory, notwithstanding a mission
to sow the seeds of faith amongst the Gentiles: Gadarenes, Samarians,
Romans, Syrians, Cyrenians, Greeks and Cypriots, Princes from the
East. This Messiah is global, delivering upon the Father’s promise to
save the world through his chosen people. Starting, it seems, in
Samaria.

During the three previous years, Jesus has conducted a one man, rock
star tour of healing and restoration of health, senses, even life itself. He
could travel nowhere alone, save on a mountaintop to pray with the
Father. As John informs us, the disciples saw innumerably more
miracles than are written down for a specific purpose in unfolding God’s
plan for salvation to those coming after his time on earth. Matthew
relates that a mere touch of the hem of his garment was sufficient to be
made perfectly well. News travels, and the later days of his ministry on
earth must have been mayhem. Taking the road less travelled could
have its benefit.

What happened here is reported by Luke, the saint of eyewitnesses and
fact checking himself, although it reads like a parable. The embodiment
of human misery and misfortune presents itself as a group of 10 lepers.
This cruel disease had manifestations so hideous and contagious that it
was deemed divine punishment for sin. Any sufferer was immediately
cast out, quarantined for the duration of a miserable lifetime, excluded
from family and community, work and worship. Their only companions
could be others punished with the same fate. The disease was such a
dire threat that chapters of Leviticus are devoted to how to identify and
isolate those infected. The arbiters of public health were the priests,
who diagnosed the condition, enforced its management, and exercised
an elaborate sacerdotal procedure to ritually cleanse and restore to the
community anyone fortunate enough to be healed. Sacrifices,
pilgrimage and anointings all paid their part. The trouble was, there are
no accounts of natural or spontaneous healing of leprosy anywhere in
the Old Testament. Only supernatural intervention, as in the case of
Moses’ sister and Naaman the Syrian warrior, was effective. Little
wonder that leprosy cures feature in the New Testament, during the
time Jesus the Christ is incarnate on earth.

As part and parcel of the physical degradation wrought by the leprosy
bacterium to skin and limb, causing damage to the nervous system and
severe disfigurement from infection and tissue loss, the voice is
weakened and distorted. Not only does a sufferer not look like his or
herself, but they also no longer sound like themselves. No matter: the
only word they need to speak is “unclean”, to announce the danger
they represent. No one in their right mind would reach out to them,
although Luke in Chapter 5 tells us that Jesus healed a leper with his
touch.

Somehow, this band of 10 lepers must have heard about Jesus and
most likely, could not believe their luck now that their hope for healing
had arrived in the neighbourhood. Standing a way off, they marshalled
their voices to beg him, as Master, for mercy…the prayer of those who
have no power of their own, nothing with which to bargain. The prayer
of all who sin.

On this occasion Jesus does not go to them or touch them. Instead, he
instructs them to “Go shew yourselves unto the priests”, as we now
know, to have their cleansing certified and the procedure to return them
to full life undertaken. As they move off in obedience to Jesus’
instruction and no doubt, with exhilarating hope, they are cleansed and
restored to physical health. The priests, the temple and the rest of their
interrupted life awaits; there can be no looking back.

The Samaritan leper is the odd man out. He is unlikely to be welcome in
a Jewish temple, even though physically cleansed. He had just
experienced total transformation at the word of the man called Jesus,
whom many claimed was the Messiah, the Christ of God. In a moment
of spiritual insight, the former leper understands that only here is his
high Priest and his God, and he is going back to glorify him in his newly
strong voice, and to bow down and worship. No other path unfolds
before him. Jesus being who he is, I do not doubt that he came this
way to save this leper.

And that is the power of thanksgiving. It ignites faith, it restores
connection to God, it sends forth in newness of life, it increases his
blessings exponentially, in ways we may hope for but cannot imagine.
For this we give thanks to God for what he does for us, for the harvest
of all good things, from our daily bread to eternal life.

In the eucharist we ask for mercy, we repent our sins in the hope of
being acceptable to God, we approach the Lord’s table as we have
been instructed, with thanks; we partake of divinity, with thanks; and we
return again and again, with thanks. This too is the precise structure for
the salvation of an afflicted stranger we meet through Jesus on the road
to Calvary. Sound like anyone else you may know?

Then Paul’s message deals with the connecting part of the circuit, and
that is to be thankful for what we can give to the activity of God. When
the two connect, giving to God and thanking God for his gifts, we abide
in his new creation, nothing less than the Kingdom of God. We are the
10% who give more than gratitude to God – they give themselves, like
the healed Samaritan.

At St Mark’s, are especially fortunate that our harvest sacrifice of thanks
and praise features gifts for body and soul – glorious music, precious
liturgy, cheerful giving, apple cider to wash down Little Bread Pedlar
pastries and West Country cheese.

Which brings to mind a recent Guardian report of a seed-scattering
event to re-stock native species of wildflowers and grasses across
habitat-depleted acres, starting in Cornwall. There was joy at the doing
of it – cider probably featured there, along with country fiddling and
dancing. There will be more joy next spring and summer, as the first
species emerge and the landscape becomes more beautiful, varied,
and alive. There will be healing in time, after seasons of returning to the
image in which they were created. Here is a living example of how
giving with thanks brings God’s harvest home. Amen.

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