Sermon – 8 October 2017
Deuteronomy. 8: 7-18; Corinthians. 9: 6-end; Matthew 21: 33-end
I was sad to read a couple of weeks ago that J. Salmon Ltd of Sevenoaks, Britain’s oldest postcard and calendar publisher, is closing at the end of December after 140 years.
And the reason is because people nowadays are not buying postcards but sending ‘selfies’ on their phones when on holiday.
I am sad because there is something warm and personal about choosing a postcard view and writing a few words to the people you love who are not with you.
Sadder still though in my opinion is the demise of the thank you letter!
Ruth and I are lucky that our grandchildren are still encouraged to say thank you in writing although the email and social media postings are rapidly supplanting the letter or picture card.
I still remember fairly vividly having to buckle down to writing my thank you letters after Christmas and birthday each year to the generous members of the family who had sent me gifts.
In those days I was expected to say more than just thank you and give some news of my life and its recent events.
I cannot say that I enjoyed this exercise and I did it with a heavy heart and considerably more grumpiness than grace!
My remembrance, too, is that it was more to do with showing good manners than an outpouring of my heartfelt gratitude.
Nevertheless, manners, civility and actually saying some words of appreciation make the world a pleasanter place and oil the wheels of civilisation and human relationships.
At harvest time we are encouraged as Christians to say thank you to God for the fruits of the earth which sustain our living throughout the year.
It may be that our thanksgiving it is a bit more like the tortured duty and discipline of my childhood thank you letters than the spontaneous joy of a grateful people dependent on the success of the harvest.
We live in a land where the shops and our homes are full of food.
We take plenty for granted to the extent that the most recent figures show that we waste over £17 billion of food a year – 60% of which could have been avoided.
Yes, the average UK household puts over £500 of food in the bin when it could have been eaten.
At the same time our world is ravaged by hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires and drought as well as wars and daily destruction.
What can we do to live more justly, more peacefully and more thankfully?
On your service book by the Sermon you will see an exclamation mark. Why is it there?
Is it there as a warning that a sermon from me needs a warning …might its contents be dangerous?
In fact I asked for it to be printed here and I did that because what we know nowadays as an exclamation has an interesting history related to our understanding of the world and ourselves.
No one really knows the history of the punctuation mark. Certainly it is used to indicate strong emotion or urgency.
The current standard theory is that it comes from Latin where the exclamation of joy, io, would be written as the ‘i’ above the ‘o’ – and since all the letters were written as capitals, and an I with an O below it looks just like the exclamation mark we know.
However, it hasn’t always had that name.
In the late 14th century it was called ‘the point of admiration’ and by the 17th it had even become the ‘wonderer’.
This punctuation mark indicated welcoming, admiring, thanking and appreciating and it is only with the European Enlightenment when the world began to become human-centred, anthropocentric, rather than God-centred, theocentric, that these two little marks shifted from admiration to exclamation.
That is a significant change: admiration and wonder are about something outside of ourselves; exclamation is all about us.
And strangely it wasn’t until 1970 that the exclamation mark had its own key on the keyboard (except for the remarkable exception of the 1950’s Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter!).
Yes, there is a sign that we are more and more preoccupied by our own self-importance.
By contrast, the Bible records the wonder, love and praise that humankind is called to give to God and so find joy and peace and justice.
As we gather as Christians to give thanks this year for the harvest, our scripture readings remind us that we are not the centre and meaning of the universe or creation.
In our first reading from Deuteronomy the children of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land – a land without scarcity where they will lack nothing.
Here the people are reminded – and so therefore are we – take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.
This will be evident by the way in which God’s people live by God’s law so that in all the comfort and security of riches and plenty they will not forget God and his love which brought them from slavery and the wandering wilderness life to the Promised Land.
Do not say to yourself. ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…
St Paul in our second reading then clearly reminds us that God wants us to give and share the good things we have with those who have little or nothing.
Those who sow bountifully will reap bountifully.
We are all poor but for the grace of God – and as we remember that God is our beginning and our end so we need to learn the ways of heaven in our discipline of sharing and our generosity of giving.
Another aspect of this is seen in how easy it is to forget to say thank you to God for the gift of life and the daily miracles of our human sustenance and journey.
In the Gospel reading from St Luke nine of the ten lepers cured by Jesus forgot the source of their healing and freedom; it was only the outsider, the Samaritan, who turned and prostrated himself before Jesus in gratitude.
Just like the exclamation mark, we quickly shift from entreaty and wonder to self-possessed joy and forgetful confidence.
Those nine lepers rushed off to sign off with the Temple priests but failed to write a thank you postcard to the Lord of healing to whom they had cried out for help.
Our world is rapidly changing and many are confused and uncertain about the future.
The life of faith faces life with a different centre of gravity and a different understanding of meaning and purpose.
We are not here to thrive merely as individuals or interested groups but to flourish as one human family given life and purpose by God.
And the hallmark of being Jesus’ people is to live thankfully day by day and not to forget his presence in the faces of our neighbours, in the story of his love and in the breaking of the bread.
Abundant living is not about acquiring more and more but learning to give and share all that we are and all that we have with God and one another.
Harvest time underlines this and the Eucharist invites and enables us to receive and give by sharing in its transforming miracle.
So please remember the wonder, joy and admiration of the exclamation mark and add it to your words and actions each day.
Plenty and comfort are dangerous so don’t forget God and don’t forget to say thank you.
Rev Canon Neil Thompson, Rector of Limpsfield & Titsey, 1996-2008