May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
We've heard a lot over the last few weeks and months about the people of Iraq . Politicians of all persuasions and on both sides of the Atlantic have been trying to persuade us that they have the best interests of the Iraqi people at heart.
They tell us that the Iraqi people wanted freedom from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and that they can now bathe in the warm glow of democracy - well they would if it weren't for the fact that the country is lawless and therefore far too dangerous a place to hold elections just now.
I'm sure that many Iraqi's are grateful to see the back of Saddam but I'm also sure that quite a number will be equally grateful to see the back of anyone wandering around outside their homes with guns and grenades. I'm sure that what most Iraqi's want is peace and quiet and the ability for their children to be well fed, well educated and safe.
I'm currently reading a book called the Bookseller of Kabul - I don't know if any of you have read it? It is about an ordinary middle class family living in the suburbs of Kabul in the aftermath of the expulsion of the Taliban.
The head of the family; Sultan is a bookseller - a prosperous man with a good business. He lives with his extended family; his mother, brothers, wife and children. If he had a bookshop in Chester , he may well live in Bunbury and come to this church. He is a man that middle class people like ourselves should be able to identify with.
Some of the other things about his life make that a little more difficult for us. Firstly, the wife that he lives with is actually his second wife, 30 years his junior. His first wife maintains his other home across the border in Pakistan - a bolt hole that he moved the entire family to during the time of the Taliban and now maintained for safety's sake in an uncertain country. At some stage, he may give up the house in Pakistan and move his two wives back in together but you suspect that he'd rather avoid the inevitable hassle that would ensue.
Secondly, he is a Muslim - practising a faith that we Christians often find hard to comprehend. Finally, and this is the part that we probably find toughest to identify with is the style in which this man, high in the social order in his country, lives.
His home is in an apartment block in the suburbs. During the American invasion it was at the heart of the fighting and remains shell damaged and riddled with bullet holes. The third floor is left vacant, because the roof remains so badly damaged that it can no longer keep out the elements.
When it rains, a fair amount finds its way to Sultan's apartment. Paint and wallpaper are a complete waste of time so the walls remain bare and the décor is minimalist. The floors are cold stone, covered with large rugs. The walls are cracked and many of the doors are so lopsided they won't close. There are 4 rooms in the flat for the whole family of 12 plus a kitchen.
The kitchen is a bit low on trappings from Ikea or MFI. There is a sink, a gas primus and a hot plate on the floor. There are no cupboards just a few shelves with a curtain to try and keep the food clean but even then, everything tends to get coated with a fine layer of grease and the inevitable dust that gets everywhere in Kabul.
The bathroom is a cubicle in the kitchen, divided off by a wall. It's basically a hole in the floor and a tap on the wall. Some nights they have water, some nights they don't - it's cold water of course, if you want it hot, then you need to boil it.
This is the life of a prosperous middle class family in Afghanistan today. How do we react to it? Well if we're honest, we probably say, "Thank God it's not us". That's what we might say, but is it what we really mean? Do we thank God for what we have, or do we just take it all for granted? Our peaceful lives, apart from the horrors of war. Our running water and reliable electricity supplies. Our central heating. Our National Health Service and education for all. Our ability to travel wherever we want, whenever we want.
How grateful are we that we have all this and not the lives of the people of Afghanistan , or Calcutta or Somalia or Iraq ?
Rick has, as you know, undergone surgery this week for cancer. How grateful are we for our health and well being. Is our reaction when we learn of someone's illness to say, "Thank God it's not me" without, again, understanding what it is we're really saying. Have you thought how you would react to the news that Rick has had to cope with over the last few weeks - that you are seriously ill? What would you're reaction be then?
You can no longer think, "Thank God it's not me" because now it is you. There is a saying that there aren't many Atheists in foxholes and the same, I suspect, goes for places where newly diagnosed cancer patients learn of their illness. In times of danger, our instincts override whatever beliefs and theologies we may or may not hold. We hurl a plea for mercy towards heaven.
When disease threatens, we pray for healing but we really want a cure. Sometimes we get a cure, sometimes we don't - no matter how fervent our prayers. The true believer, however, always receives healing. Even if disease wins and death comes earlier than we'd like, turning one's case over to God means we do not die alone, our humanity crushed. Whether we are cured and live on in God's care, or die in God's embrace, we have healing and wholeness.
One of the inspiring things for me in watching how Rick has dealt with his illness is his response to God's loving embrace. We have all prayed for Rick and he has offered up his own prayers and he has, undoubtedly received healing.
The healing spirit of God is with him and has helped him through these last few weeks. He described how he has experienced an inner peace and a resignation that he didn't expect. That is God's true healing power at work. I pray that a cure will also come but I thank God that Rick's healing is already evident.
We heard the story of Jesus and the ten lepers today. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and passing through the region between Samaria and Galillee. As he entered a village ten lepers approached. This was undoubtedly on the outskirts of the village since lepers would not have been allowed within the village itself. They kept their distance as lepers were supposed to do, to avoid inflicting their disease on someone else.
Jesus sees them and tells them to go show themselves to the priests. He doesn't say, "you are cured". He doesn't lay his hands on them - he simply says, "go show yourselves to the priests". If a leper were cured of his illness, then the first thing he would need to do would be to show himself to the priests. Only they could pronounce him healed and thereby allow him to be admitted back into society. The implication of Jesus' words was, thus that the lepers were cured.
The ten lepers set out on their journey into Jerusalem to see the priests and it is only then that they begin to realise that they are cured. There is no doubt that they would have all realised what had happened but only one of them truly understands the significance of what has occurred. Only one recognises what Jesus has done for him.
Maybe the others, who clearly see their cure occurring manage to justify it to themselves in other ways. Perhaps one thinks he was getting better anyway. Maybe another thought any rabbi could have done it. Another, that it might not last. Whatever their reasons, 9 of the 10 carried on to Jerusalem without giving Jesus a backward glance.
The 10 th came running back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan, a foreigner and Jesus says, "Were not 10 made clean? Where are the other nine? Was none of them found to return and give praise except this foreigner?"
Now lest we should be confused, we should not jump to the conclusion that the Samaritan was a Gentile and therefore would have felt no need to go to the priests. The Samaritans were Jews from the North but they did not follow traditional Judaism. Their centre of worship was not Jerusalem but was at Mount Gerasim in Samaria . It could be, therefore, that the Samaritan leper would have headed off in a separate direction to see his priest than the other 9 heading for Jerusalem but, either way, he was still the only one to turn on his heel and give thanks to Jesus.
So, our ten desperate lepers all begged Jesus for mercy. All received a cure but, as far as we know, only one found healing. Not only his disintegrating skin changed but his heart filled with thanks and he couldn't help but return to express his praise and gratitude as directly as he had once launched his cries for help.
Do we really understand this difference between a cure and healing. How often do we pray to God with our requests rather than our thanks? Dear God, keep me healthy. Dear God, cure my ills and aches. Dear God, make people think well of me. Dear God, make my debts disappear. These are foxhole prayers. I can't do it myself Lord, so it's time you stepped in and sorted it out for me.
The real power of prayer is in the prayer of thanksgiving. The realisation that what we have today, however inadequate, comes from God. The realisation of all that is good in our lives, not all that is missing. Do we think to thank God for a good night's sleep, for a bright blue sky, for a pleasant dinner with friends, for the laughter of our children? God provides healing to us every single day and we, like the nine lepers who failed to turn around take it for granted.
Viktor Frankl, was an eminent Austrian psychologist who was imprisoned by the Nazis during the last war as a Jew. His father, mother, brother and wife all dies in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens. Apart from his sister, his whole family perished in the Holocaust. How could this man; every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger cold and brutality and expecting his life to end at any time. How could he find thankfulness in his heart. Here is what he himself said of the experience:
"One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country, past flowering meadows for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks' jubilation and the freedom of space.
I stopped, looked around and up to the sky - and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world. I had but one sentence in my mind - always the same; "I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space." How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence, memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed until I again became a human being".
Frankl had received God's healing that day and thereafter committed his life to God. I spoke last week of John Newton, the writer of Amazing Grace who came to his foxhole moment when he was in danger of losing his life in a storm at sea. This godless man cried out to be saved and was but he was also healed and realised that God was now at work in his life. Like the grateful leper, he recognised the difference between the cure that he begged for and the healing he received and dedicated his life to God.
And so, back to us. Are we grateful for these lives of ours so blessed by God. Or are we saving up our thankfulness until God does us a really big favour. Are we like the nine lepers who walked away from Jesus - full of good reasons as to why our good fortune isn't really due to God but rather to our own hard work, or our upbringing or our skills. Or are we like the Samaritan leper who turned to Christ, recognising that he has received so much more than a cure.
Let's not wait until we really need God's help. Let's offer our thanks today. I'm sure you can come up with a healthy list of things for which you are grateful. Recognise why you have them and feel the true healing power of Jesus Christ in your life.