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Embracing the World

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 11th September, 2016

One of the world’s greatest cellists was the Russian, Mstislava Rostropovich. By the time he died in a Moscow clinic in 2007, aged 80, he had not only captivated the world’s concert halls but also he had touched the world’s conscience.

Back in the days when Europe and the world were divided between East and West and an iron curtain and the Berlin wall cut through so many hearts, some in Russia dissented and spoke up for freedoms and human dignity.

On was the Nobel prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was taken off to forced labour in Siberia. When that happened, Rostropovich wrote a public letter to the Moscow newspapers in 1970 speaking out for human rights. In return he and his wife were stripped of their citizenship and headed off into self-imposed exile in the West.

Imagine the power, then, of the sight of this lone old man sitting on a chair and playing Bach on his cello in front of the Berlin Wall as it was torn down in 1989. That’s a picture of goodness overcoming evil. That’s a picture of hope wining out over despair. The mighty empire fell. The cellist played on. But there’s something more about Rostropovich that is captivating. It’s the story of his concert performance one evening in Chicago.

As so often, when he played, as the last note of his cello faded into the air, the audience sat silent.  It was as if a spell had fallen over everyone present. And after the beautiful came the unexpected. He stood up and kissed his cello. Then he hugged and kissed the conductor. Then he hugged and kissed the whole cello section of the orchestra. Then he hugged and kissed the violin section. On he went, until most of the orchestra had been hugged and kissed.

This was gratitude. This was gratitude so deep, so overwhelming, so wonderfully all-embracing, that it flowed into embrace after embrace, after embrace. Rostropovich was simply grateful, and everyone around him was blessed. This is what we can be like, and what others can be like with us. We all can probably think of a time when we’ve known huge gratitude welling up inside us. We can probably think of a situation when others havewantedto offer lus something far greater than the words “Thank you” can ever manage to say.

I’m sure we’ve experienced such times –tasted such times and we have been touched by them. I hope and pray that this has been so. We need to hold on to those memories as we turn to the Bible. For gratitude is the essence of what scripture wants to say to us today.

In our Psalm, we hear the cadence of gratitude; the flow of thankfulness. Let all people, in every place, bless the name of the Lord. The psalmist puts into our mouths the words of a worshipping community caught up in the pattern of praise. Here is heart and mind turning towards God out of the depths of gratitude. Here is life offered as a glad response to God.

Then we head from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Ahead of today’s passage Paul has already offered many words of gratitude. He’s spoken again of his own journey of conversion from the scoffer and sceptic to the faithful follower of Jesus Christ. He’s given thanks for the ways in which God has caught him in a net of love and forgiveness and set him on the way, rejoicing. Now he turns to explore worship. And we read about prayer. At this point there could be so very many things to say.

Prayer is such a central part to faith. It’s the focus of countless bits of advice. Preachers can run almost endless sermon series extolling the importance of prayer and exploring some of its many forms. But, for all this noise and heart, perhaps prayer is one of the most difficult parts of faith too. Indeed, maybe that’s why there is so much heat and noises. Perhaps we don’t always find prayer easy. Perhaps it seems to be sporadic.

Perhaps it goes too often unanswered and leaves a bitter taste. Perhaps prayer is one of the dimensions of faith that can most easily induce a profound sense of guilt amongst us. If any of this is so for us, we should take heart today! Paul doesn’t delve into a vast array of instructions for prayer. He doesn’t belittle Timothy in his prayer life. He keeps things staggeringly simple. Pray for everyone. Pray for everyone because everyone is the focus of God’s compassion and concern. Christ Jesus has given himself as a ransom for all people. So pray for all people. Be grateful, and pray! Where can such prayer come from? What draws it from us? What motivates our hearts in praying and what gives words to our lips when we do? The parable we head Jesus tell in today’s Gospel reading offers all sorts of insights into motivation.

The rich man is motivated both by anger at the allegation that his manager is squandering his riches and by grudging regret.  For the manager’s readiness to create his own safety net by fiddling his master’s books tot the benefit of himself and his master’s debtors. The manager is motivated by self-preservation in the face of impending ruin. It’s a parable about scheming and deception, greed and selfishness. And it draws from Jesus the punch line we need to always hear; “You cannot serve God and wealth,” which takes us back towards Paul’s words to Timothy on praying. Forget about calculations. Forget about doing deals with God. Forget about being motivated by guilt. Forget about learning a particular set of prayers as if some secret scheme will guarantee a better prayer life. Forget all of that. And, instead, simply dwell upon gratitude.

Be grateful for what God has already done. Let gratitude be the root of faithfulness. We can be so busy trying to do so many things for God. We can crowd our church agendas with endless tasks. We can be rooted in rotas and central upon spread sheets. There’s an endless list of things that should alarm us about our churches and our contexts, our communities and our consciences. But, into all of this, let gratitude come.

In creation, God has made us. In Christ, God has saved us. In the Spirit, God is at work within us and amongst us and around us. Isn’t that enough to make us grateful? Isn’t that enough to root our lives and thus our praying? Our scripture readings today invite us to dwell deeply upon the essence of who we are; to ponder long and hard the truth we hold at the core of our being.

God’s word today wants to seek out our souls. And the lesson is an invitation to gratitude. That isn’t always an easy lesson. Church and context, community and conscience, can truly alarm us.  We know what it is to be broken and to live alongside those who are broken. Hopes get dashed and healing is elusive. But what if we still begin each day with gratitude? What if we turn to prayer out of gratitude? What if we encounter our neighbours with a spirit of gratitude? What if we build up this congregation’s life with gratitude as our essence? What if God is, simply, good? And what if our purpose is to be, simply, grateful?

Then, like an ageing Russian cellist, we might embrace the world.

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