Choral Eucharist - Harvest Festival
The Very Revd Andrew Nunn - Dean of Southwark
Lections: 2 Kings 5.1-3,7-15c; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19
Most people seem to know that I’m a huge fan of musicals, the big songs, the big numbers, the touch of romance and the tear jerker – I love all of it. But I actually have quite catholic tastes in music and what may come as some surprise to some of you is that in my youth I really liked Ska and 2-Tone music – and I still find it deeply evocative whenever I hear it.
Ska, as you may well know, has its roots in reggae and came out of Jamaica; 2-Tone was a development of that and came out of the communities in the midlands, mainly Birmingham and Coventry in the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, a time of real political and social turmoil. You may have heard of the great exponents of this music – groups like The Specials and Madness – but I also loved UB40, and one of their songs still hits me as a powerful moment in history
The song was called ‘One in ten’. UB40 were named after the official card that you were given when you registered as unemployed and that song ‘One in ten’ was about the proportion of the population who were at that time unemployed, 10%, 1 in 10. So it was a kind of protest song, or a lament, when it was released in 1981
I am the one in ten
A number on a list
I am the one in ten
Even though I don't exist
Nobody knows me
But I'm always there
A statistical reminder
Of a world that doesn't care.
And when I read the gospel for today that song always comes back to mind. There were ten lepers and only one came back. Those suffering from leprosy at that time were completely excluded from society. What they suffered from made others fearful of them and so they had to find a place to live, often just to exist, beyond the city wall, in a wilderness place, with other people already infected, so that the rest of the society would not suffer as they did. It was a model of disease control that you can understand, but it was brutal.
But the consequence of all of that was that these were people who were denied everything, scratching around for food to eat and clothes to wear, depending on the charity, the love of others who’d pass by on the other side and occasionally dare to come closer.
The novel ‘Ben Hur’ by Lew Wallace, subtitled ‘A tale of the Christ’ was published in 1880 and was hugely influential in the nineteenth century and was, of course, given a whole new lease of life when Charlton Heston played the eponymous hero in the epic film version.
At the end, however, Ben Hur discovers his mother and sister in a leper colony and becomes one with them. He’d already encountered the kindness of Jesus and they are there in the colony as the the Palm Sunday procession passes by. As they hear the hosannas, they come from their cave to stand on the edge of the crowd, at the distance that was required to keep them excluded - but Jesus sees them. In the book, in the rather exotic, pseudo-scriptural style employed by the author, it says
“O Master, Master! Thou seest our need; thou canst make us clean. Have mercy upon us—mercy!”
“Believest thou I am able to do this?” he asked.
“Thou art he of whom the prophets spake—thou art the Messiah!” [the mother] replied.
His eyes grew radiant, his manner confident.
“Woman,” he said, “great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
And they are cleansed, like Naaman before them, their flesh is restored and they’re able to re-enter society. The goodness of God touches even those on the edge of society, just as Jesus reached out to the ten, even though only one would return to give thanks.
The Gospel is made even more poignant in that the one who does return is a Samaritan, doubly excluded from Jewish society, a despised neighbour and a leper, the least of the least – and it was perhaps because of this reality that out of his exclusion the man, the one in ten, was able to respond. He knew the blessings he’d received in a way perhaps that the others didn’t.
We live in turbulent times – politically, economically, nationally, globally. The chaos around us feels sometimes as though it might overwhelm us. The already marginalised and excluded can feel themselves to be even more on the edge. There are many one in tens, ‘a statistical reminder of a world that doesn't care’ as the song so powerfully put it. The statistic doesn’t need to be one in ten for the reality to be the same – there are many, too many one in tens.
And in the midst of so much need, of people feeling overwhelmed by the cost of living, the fragile hold they may now have on their over-mortgaged home, the choice between food or fuel, heat or eat, that in the weeks ahead many of our sisters and brothers will have to make; the all too evident effects of climate change; frightening prospects from a war in Ukraine; the horror on the streets of Iran where girls seek liberation and men kill them – and in all of this we keep this Harvest Festival.
Namaan, those cured by Jesus, even the nine who walked or ran off to enjoy their new found freedom, Paul writing to Timothy, all know the salvation, the goodness, the generosity of God, to all, and we too know that generosity, know that love, that peace which passes all understanding. We know that even when life is tough, and especially when life is tough, we need to stop and give thanks – yes for the harvest today, but every day, giving thanks for the God who is unfailingly generous.
What we’re doing now we call the Eucharist. It’s a Greek word that simply means ‘thanksgiving’ and it perfectly describes why we gather. Yes, this is the place where both the Word of God and the bread of God are broken and shared, this is the place where we faithfully say our prayers on behalf of others, this is the place from where we’re inspired to go out to love and serve the Lord, but above all this is the place in which we say thank you, in which we turn back in the busyness of life and simply, like the one in ten leper, say thank you – and he was a Samaritan – the doubly despised, the doubly excluded, the othered of that community.
What ever might define you as other, whatever might be used to marginalise you, place you in a minority – your gender, your ethnicity, your age, your sexuality, your ability, your status – God goes to the edge for you and brings you front and centre into the kingdom. You’re not a statistic, you’re not a number, you, I, we’re the beloved of God who knows us by name and calls us their own.
From the edge we come with open hands to receive bread – the daily harvest of love – bread for living, bread for life, for the many not the few. This, my friends, is the real harvest thanksgiving of divine embrace, the God who is on the edge with us, outside the city wall and draws us, draws you, to the heart of the kingdom.