The Seven Thousand Who Turned Back
A sermon preached by the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury.
Sunday 09 October 2022, The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity.
2 Timothy 2: 8-15
Luke 17: 11-19
“The word of God is not chained”
Last week I spent an hour reading through the books of condolence that were signed in the Cathedral during the period of national mourning following the late Queen’s death. An hour didn’t allow me to read very far. Nearly 7,000 messages were recorded in our books. They were recorded in twelve different languages by people who came from five of the world’s continents.
So my reading was not exhaustive and my approach to it was not desperately analytical. But my instant response was that what I was reading was not condolence as we have normally understood it. The English verb ‘to condole’ has Latin roots. It means, literally ‘to grieve with’. Condolences are normally offered to those who have suffered a loss. The one offering them is grieving with those who have lost someone.
But in our books of condolence very few of the messages were directed at the King, assuring him of our sympathy at a time of loss. And very few of the messages were obituary statements, written as assertions of fact, with an eye to their preservation for posterity.
No: the messages were nearly all for the late Queen herself. Entry after entry thanked her for her lifetime of service; entry after entry expressed the hope that she might rest in peace; entry after entry spoke of her being reunited with Price Philip. Children drew rainbows; military veterans expressed their pride in serving her; many noted that she was the only monarch they had known.
Schoolchildren are told too frequently that the story of the ten lepers is a story about the importance of remembering to say “thank you”. It is, of course, but it’s a more profound story than that. It’s told to remind its hearers that accidents of birth and ethnic identity are of no ultimate significance to God. And it’s told to remind them that – the well-formed theological minds present will articulate this properly but this is the best I can do – that there is more than one way to have faith.
You see, all ten lepers cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So all ten acknowledge the authority of Jesus; all ten voice confidence in his power to help them – and, for all ten, this is sufficient. All ten are healed. But the nine who are Jews go on their way while only one turns back. “And” writes Saint Luke “he was a Samaritan”. At the story’s end it is to the Samaritan that Jesus addresses the words: “…your faith has made you well”. The word is here translated “made well”, but it is elsewhere translated “saved”. The Samaritan has turned back; he has praised God; he has worshipped Jesus; and he has given thanks. The faith of the ten has made their healing possible; the faith of the one has made his salvation possible. There is more than one way to have faith.
Now think again of those 7,000 entries in our books of condolence. Those 7,000 wanted to condole – to grieve with – one another, and they wanted to do so under the arches and vaults of the Cathedral, not in the secular space of the Guildhall. They wanted to send messages of love to the late Queen, not messages of sympathy to her family: “rest in peace; thank you; you have done your duty”. They wanted to give voice to their hope that in death she was reunited with those she had loved in life.
Those 7,000 wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves and their families. They knew that this place was where they wanted to do it. And while few were couched in explicitly religious terms – I’m absolutely not claiming this as a Christian revival movement – in what they wrote they used language and ideas that derive unmistakeably from religious tradition: those of peace and rest at life’s close, of an end to separation and absence beyond the grave.
Small wonder then, that in the weeks since the late Queen’s funeral public opinion has reacted so sharply to the proposed fiscal policy of her last Prime Minister, and against the assumptions that inform it, assumptions about how human beings understand their place in the world. If the 7,000 are to be trusted then our age values solidarity – it has a sense of our belonging together, and it looks for ways to reinforce it. If the 7,000 are to be trusted, then our age values selfless service and recognizes it and is grateful for it in others. If the 7,000 are to be trusted, then our age suspects that material acquisition is not an ultimate good and that loyalty and love will outlast physical death.
Here’s the thing: I am encouraged by the 7,000; I am encouraged by the queue that snaked along the South Bank to Westminster Hall; I am encouraged by what was so evident last month.
I hope that our Church might be encouraged, too. And I would like her to learn from this experience. Nationally our congregational numbers are falling, locally our finances are crumbling, and across the board our influence is diminishing. We cannot afford to behave like the nine, who have enough faith to be healed, and then go on their way, confident in their birth right and their inherited privilege. Last month thousands, thousands, “turned back” from their daily routines. They did not belong to a congregation; they could not recite the Nicene Creed or the Beatitudes; they probably couldn’t tell a canticle from a chasuble, or a churchwarden from a chamber choir; they may have never sung a hymn or knelt in prayer – but they queued all night, they brought flowers, cards and flags to lay and they lit candles, wanting to be with others, wanting to say thank you, wanting to believe that our living does not end with our dying. They wanted to belong to something, and they wanted to believe in something, even if they weren’t quite sure what that something is.
“The word of God is not chained” writes St Paul. It is not locked up in the Gospel Book, even if we sometimes behave as though it is. And the Spirit of God is certainly not chained. We don’t own her. The Church of England has adopted as its strategic aim becoming a Church that is simpler, humbler, and bolder. Well, here’s a place to start. I wonder if we have the nerve to believe that the wisdom of God and the love of God and the power of God are present in the 7,000 just as they are in this gathering and in all the gatherings like it that are happening this morning? I wonder if we have the nerve to learn from them – and be changed by them? I wonder…