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