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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

A spirit of gratitude.

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 10, 2023 at Holy Communion

Galatians 5:16–24, Luke 17:11–19


"Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me” (Psalm 50:23). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.


I was once part of a church community which periodically invited local academics and other public figures to speak at Choral Evensong on the question, “What is wrong with the world?” It’s a loaded question: it asks you assume that there is something wrong with the world. But, of course, that there is something wrong with the world is not exactly controversial.


But it is controversial what that essential problem is. The speakers took almost entirely different approaches to the question. Some said the problem is bad social policies, and the solution was political reform. Some said our problems are cultural and technological, and the solution was social progress. Some said that the problem was personal evil in the human heart, and the solution was forgiveness.


It’s easy to assume that the Bible is on the side of this last view , that the problem is sin and the solution is forgiveness. That’s not wrong, of course, but it is too quick an assumption. The Bible can still surprise us. Here’s how St Paul answered that question. What is wrong with the world? “Although human beings knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful” (Romans 1:22). For Paul, all of the classic sins—and we get a good list in our Epistle reading—spring from the root of ingratitude.


For Paul, the meaning of thankfulness is to acknowledge that God is God and everything we have comes from him. Gratitude gives birth to worship, and our relationship to God is, in the final account, a relationship of worship. Week by week, day by day, to be a Christian is to gather around the heavenly altar to offer the “sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving” in the company of the angels. And, in our ordinary activities, our time worship gives birth to holiness, since we have offered “our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to God.


But what makes the difference between a grateful and ungrateful person? Two people can receive the same blessings, and one will act entitled and sour and the other will overflow with thankful joy. Whether or not we have gratitude is very close to the heart of our spiritual disposition. Whether we are grateful is perhaps the best barometer of whether we are open to God or closed to God: those who think that their life is their own are closed, but those who know that their life is a gift are open, and in their openness they discover that God’s generosity can be their greatest and continual joy.


This fundamental disposition, whether we are open or closed to the work of God, is what St Paul describes in our Epistle. He lists several virtues—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22–23)—but the list is by no means exhaustive. His point in the whole reading is that, whether we do good or do evil, we do it because these acts spring out of either a good heart or a bad heart. He asks us to live and walk “in the Spirit,” with openness to God’s work of renewing our hearts and bringing forth the fruit of holiness.


Alongside this Epistle, we also read two stories, one from the Old Testament and one from the Gospel of Luke, which show how thankfulness is a fruit of the Spirit and a sign of a heart that is open toward God. In both, a foreigner who has leprosy seeks healing from a Hebrew prophet. Both are healed, and both return to give thanks. Their gratitude is anything but formal and conventional. They demonstrate have received a new spirit, and a new relationship to the God of Israel. In the Gospel, the Samaritan leper “falls down on his face” before Jesus in worship (Luke 17:15–16). In the Lesson, the Syrian leper refuses ever after to worship any god but the God of Israel, even taking two carts full of earth back to his native country so that he can always worship God on Israelite soil (2 Kings 5:17).


But our hearts do not always overflow with spontaneous gratitude. Our Gospel reading even says it: nine out of ten people will miss what “a joyful and pleasant thing it is to be thankful” (Psalm 147:1). Why? Because life is hard. Needs and stressors press us in on every side. We are surrounded with every temptation to despair.


But this way of thinking is exactly what our Gospel reading challenges. All ten lepers experienced the same disease, and all experienced the same healing. What makes the difference for the Samaritan leper is that he was able to recognize a gift. Whether or not we receive God’s Spirit and let it bring forth gratitude in us is not a matter how stressful our lives are, as if the person with the most stressful life would “win” and have the most right to his own miserable ingratitude.


“To the pure all things are pure,“ says St Paul, “but to those who are unbelieving nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15). Our bitterness or gratitude does not come from our circumstances: it comes from our hearts. If we find ourselves habitually unable to see life as a gift, it is a sign that our heart is not right with God, and that we need to seek renewal for the fundamental patterns of our heart.


That healing is on offer this morning. The Spirit in which St Paul tells us to walk, the Spirit which brings forth whatever fruits of holiness we have, is the Spirit which will descend upon us and upon the loaf and cup. That same Spirit lifts us up into the highest places to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Throw your leprous self onto the knees of the Lord of heaven, thanking him for every blessing and asking for a mind renewed with the Spirit of gratitude.

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