The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville


I remember some very intense conversations at university with a friend who was contemplating her own faith. We had talked through so many intellectual and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God; we had looked at the Scriptures together; we had talked about personal experiences of faith. For many months, she was really unsure. And then one day, she found herself full of belief. She explained that it was because of something very simple that another friend had said: which was that when she woke up and saw a wonderful day ahead of her, or when she went to sleep with the knowledge of a wonderful day behind her, who else was there to thank but God?

When he was exploring his own new-found sense of faith, C S Lewis began to notice how much emphasis there was in the Bible, and particularly in the Psalms, on praising and thanking God. And, more than that, he noticed that their gratitude seemed to be linked with people’s general wellbeing: “I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most: while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”

What a wonderful story of thankfulness is Luke’s account of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus. Only Luke remembers it, perhaps because being included and being touched are such important themes for him.

And so he gives us lots of clues that this story is about more than leprosy. It takes place in the region between Samaria and Galilee, a place where observant Jews would never have gone. The Samaritans were a despised group, and seen as inferior in so many ways, including their faith and the way they worshipped. Disliking the Samaritans had become such a normal thing for Jewish people to do. Now that may sound awful, but it doesn’t take much to think of examples from our own time: Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Israelis and Palestinians, Sunnis and Shias within Islam, even progressives and conservatives within our own Church. The bitterness which we find close to home gives us no cause to be smug as we hear of Jewish-Samaritan hostility in a different age.

On their way to Jerusalem, near Samaria, Jesus and his disciples come across ten men with leprosy. I can’t begin to describe the way that leprosy was perceived. What’s now a treatable disease was seen then as completely contagious, and led to painful skin blemishes. People with leprosy lived in isolation, banished from their families and homes, and widely feared. Sometimes they lived together in communities, with only their misery in common.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They call to him, and Jesus does. There’s no description of what their physical healing looked like, but Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, who were the ones able to certify that the leprosy had gone. On the way there, they are made clean. Nine keep on walking, but one, a Samaritan, stops in his tracks, runs back to find Jesus, falls on his face at Jesus’ feet, and thanks him.

There’s no quizzing from Jesus about the man’s religion or culture. He doesn’t seem bothered where he’s from, whether he goes to worship often enough, whether he follows the Jewish practices in his daily life; he doesn’t care whether he uses the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship, or what he thinks about women’s ordination, or any of the big debates of the day which divide us now as a church. Jesus simply tells the man that he is healed because he is thankful. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus says.

By Jesus’s definition, faith and gratitude are very closely related: faith without gratitude is not faith at all, and there’s something life giving about gratitude. The man’s wellness is about more than being rid of his disease, and is about a kind of wholeness which is totally bound up with salvation. Being grateful and saying thank you are absolutely at the heart of God’s hope for the human race, and God’s intent for each of us.

I can see how much you have to be thankful about here. The redecoration and other work in the church have made a big difference and have made this church a wonderful space for worship and all kinds of other church and community activities. And then there’s the success of your shop, which isn’t just about the money which it has made, but is much more about building community and giving people the opportunity to see the church  in action and be caught up in your wide-open fellowship.

What C S Lewis noticed about thankfulness is at the heart of Luke’s story of the ten lepers. Being grateful makes us whole: it reduces our stress, it makes us feel well, encourages us to be more hopeful. And, more than that, there’s something deeply radical about gratitude.

Thankfulness means knowing where good things come from. It means security in God. It means an ability to be glad for other people without jealousy, because they are knowing God’s blessings too. It means an openness to people who are different from us, an end to fear of those we exclude from our comfortable lives. For if everything comes from God, then we share our blessings with all God’s people.

I pray for you that, as you grow in thankfulness for all the good things you have at St George’s, you will be able to open your doors still wider. I pray that you will realise that what you have here isn’t yours, it doesn’t belong to a certain kind of tradition, it isn’t only for a certain kind of people. What God has given you here is for the least and the last and the lost of your community.

The writer Anne Lamont says her two favourite prayers are, in the morning, “Help me. Help me. Help me”, and at bedtime, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” And, as the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold expressed it, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes .” With thanksgiving for the past, we can be more confident in approaching the future. We can be secure in the gift of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, and full of the hope of the fullness of life which is yet to come.

[Luke 17.11-19.]

Christmas Edition 2013

Church Refurbishment Celebration Service

On Sunday 13th October a service was held to celebrate the refurbishment and redecoration of St George’s Church. Below is the transcript of the sermon delivered at this service by The Archdeacon of Portsdown, The Venerable Dr Joanne Grenfell.