Thanksgiving may be a teachable moment, when we can connect the dots that form a picture of family life and family identity.
Families seem busier now than when I was a child. It's easy to understand, particularly with more two-career households, more activities for children and youth, and significant shifts in cultural values. When something has to give, family meals may fall by the wayside. And yet, family meals are not only a time for strengthening family ties and keeping track of your children's lives, they can actually lead to better physical and mental health for your children and for the entire family.
Studies in recent years have concluded that family meals are a central feature in better nutrition, mental health, academic achievement, vocabulary, parenting, and family life in general. Many of us can recall how we learned the story of our family and came to an understanding of our place in that family while sitting at the table with our families.
Have you noticed that as the trend away from family dining has increased, worship patterns on Sundays have also changed? I suspect the same factors that make it more difficult to gather the family around the dinner table also make it more difficult for Christians to gather around the Lord's Table. I invite you to consider that the health and well-being of the Church is impacted by regular worship in ways that are similar to ways our families are impacted by regular family meals. When God calls us together to recall the family story and share in the family meal, we are nourished and formed as Christians. We remember who and whose we are.
Maybe the adage, "The Family That Prays Together Stays Together," is not so trite after all. I do understand that many people do not have good memories of family and home. Many have not found the church family all that wonderful either. However, there is universal hunger for a sense of belonging and identity that we might call "family feeling." Those who have found surrogate families will tell you how much it means. Those who have returned to their church families or found new ones will tell you how it has impacted their spiritual journey.
Now is a good time to pause and reflect on the busyness of our lives and consider what valuable times with our families and our church family have been crowded out. And, it is a good time to recall and give thanks for the good things that have not been crowded out. It is easy to focus on what we lack. Occasions of thanksgiving help us focus on the abundance of our lives.
If we are too busy to gather around the table - at home or at church - maybe we are just too busy for our own good and the good of those whose lives are closely linked with ours. At home and at church, we need that time together!
Here's a prayer and a selection of music to share with those whom you care about this Thanksgiving:
• The Collect for Thanksgiving Day from the Book of Common Prayer
Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
• The hymn Now Thank We All Our God, performed by The Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by John Rutter.
We are coming to the Last Sunday After Pentecost. Many liturgical churches also celebrate this as The Feast of Christ the King. In our continuing efforts to make our language more gender inclusive, the term Reign of Christ is gaining acceptance as the designtion for this Sunday. I really prefer Reign of Christ because the emphasis is on what Christ is doing throughout the cosmos and throughout eternity – reigning!
Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 25:31-46, is often referred to as The Parable of the Last Judgment. It speaks of the accountability of all people when the reigning Christ sits upon his throne.
I recall an encounter I had with a radically evangelical fundamentalist during my college years. He and I were about the same age. He was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ and had chosen me as the target of his mission. We talked about our differing theological views and never found much common ground. It turned out to be a debate, not a conversation. At the end of our debate, he referred to this passage of scripture and said as he parted, “I hope you’ll see the light and end up in heaven with me after the great judgment.”
He wanted the Reign of Christ to be all about the Last Judgment. Ever since then, I've been very curious about how and when we are accountable to Christ. So, naturally, when this text pops us, that's where my thoughts go.
If you’ll read the passage carefully, you’ll see that the basis of our accountability is not on having the right doctrine. When we stand before Christ it is always about how we express the faith we profess - how we are ministering to Christ through our service to the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, the prisoners, the marginalized and vulnerable people we encounter in our journey of faith. Faith in Christ is a challenge to expand our comfort zones and reach out beyond them to such as these in ways that our faith and our good works are in alignment.
A hungry man was walking down the street in a village of medieval Turkey. He had only a piece of bread in his hand. He came to a restaurant where some meatballs were being grilled. The cooking meat was so near and the smell so delicious the man held his piece of bread over the meat to capture some of the smell. As he started to eat the bread, the angry restaurant owner seized him and took him away to see a judge.
The owner protested, “This man was stealing the smell of my meat without asking permission. I want you to make him pay me for it.” The judge thought for a moment, then held up his purse in front of the owner and shook it. “What are you doing that for?” asked the restaurant owner? The judge replied, “I am paying you. The sound of money is fair payment for the smell of food.”
The challenge when we dealing with the kind of people described by Jesus in this passage is to make sure that what we are sharing with them is real. We must make sure that our care is expressed in ways that are tangible and life changing.
Each Sunday, we say we believe “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” One might say that Matthew 25:31-46 is a scriptural basis for that belief. It seems clear to me that the Judgment is not about arguing our case or preparing to be judged. Neither the sheep nor the goats had much of an argument or seemed prepared. It is about how we live day by day and it is about being accountable for our discipleship all along the way and not just at the end. The reigning Christ is already on the throne. We are judged not by the precision of our dogma or our membership in a particular church but by what we do for others. We are judged not by what we know but what we have shared.
What I wish I’d had the experience and presence of mind to say to my fundamentalist friend at the end of our conversation long ago is this: Both the sheep and goats will be judged not by their creeds but by their deeds.
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the Sunday readings focus more and more on the events of the end of all time, "The Day of the Lord."
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the conception of the Day of the Lord is very common. In this view, all time was divided into two ages. There was the present age, which is fraught with problems, and the age to come, which would be the golden age of God’s reign. In between, there was The Day of the Lord, which would be a terrible day in which one world was shattered and another was born. Its main characteristics were (1) it would come suddenly and unexpectedly, (2) it would involve a cosmic upheaval in which the universe was shaken to its very foundations, (3) it would be a time of judgment and accountability.
Naturally, the New Testament writers identified the Day of the Lord with the Second Coming of Christ. We can view them as “stock pictures” that are not to be taken literally. They are pictorial visions of what will happen when God breaks into time.
The big question of the day for those first Christians was one of preparedness; When God breaks into life, will I be prepared? I was visiting with a man the other day and we were talking about this matter. He said, “I’m not ready.” I had to confess that I feel that way much of the time myself. But to both of us, there is an important message in what St. Paul had to say to the Thessalonians about the arrival of The Day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) and Jesus' Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
How we prepare for the appearance of God in our lives really concerns the investments we are making as we journey toward The Day of the Lord. To say that we have an investment in something is to say that we have made a personal commitment and hope for some sort of return or reward for our efforts. It is not twisting the gospel too much to say, “Where your investments are, there will your heart be also.” Human life would not be worth much if we were without the capacity to make investments.
The key to successful investments is to invest wisely. In today’s economic climate, wisdom often seems to be in short supply. Nevertheless, sometimes the wisest course means taking risks. At other times, it may mean moving with caution. What we invest our money, our time, our emotional and spiritual energy in will determine in large measure the quality of our life and, in some cases, the quantity of our life.
Are we investing the treasures God has entrusted to us in ways that reflect light or darkness? Are we so afraid of failure that we are not investing at all? Are our investments preparing us for the moment or moments when we become aware of God’s appearance in our life?
The Day of the Lord is every day. That, for me, is the greatest wisdom of all as I attempt to manage my investments.
A minister in Chicago tells the story of something that happened in his church many years ago. When the church was built, several wealthy members made very large contributions and one man gave a beautiful pipe organ as his contribution. In business reversals, that man lost his wealth and came to humble circumstances.
His friends wanted to help him so they went to him and said, “We would like to pool our resources and give you back the money you contributed for the organ.” The man replied, “I know your intent and I appreciate this gesture, but I cannot accept. If I took the money and spent it, I would be poor indeed. But, as long as I have that organ that speaks of God every Sunday, I am a wealthy man.”
He had made an investment in what he valued most and the very idea of withdrawing his investment was offensive to him because it would mean he had lied about his faith. He could live with his material poverty and perhaps regain some of his wealth. But he never could take back what he had invested in the service of his Creator.
That story reminds me of a proverb, “What I spent, I had. What I saved, I lost. What I gave, I have.” Stewardship is about managing our investments with hopefulness, faithfulness, and confidence in anticipation of the Lord’s appearance – in the last day, today, and every day.
To the saints of God, greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I called you “saints.” Does that surprise you? If it does, perhaps it’s because we’ve done such a good job of substituting other words to identify those who have been joined to the Risen Christ. Let’s see how many I can name: members, communicants, parishioners, disciples, Christians, congregants, and, my least favorite, volunteers. There is more to being a saint than any of these words can possibly convey because, you see, only God can make a saint.
In our church, we're going to help make some saints on Sunday morning when we baptize some children. By water and the Holy Spirit, they are going to be sanctified through Baptism. They are going to become “holy ones of the Most High” who “shall receive the kingdom.” And I promise you, neither of them has volunteered to have this water poured over them any more than they have volunteered to be born with their particular skin color, born into U.S. citizenship, born to their respective parents, or born into these families. Neither will they volunteer to have their vaccinations, learn to wear clothes, take baths, or brush their teeth. They won’t volunteer to stay with the babysitter, go to school, come home before curfew, or fall in love. Without their knowledge or consent, we are going to pour some water over them, rub some oil on their heads, and declare that they are saints – baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Those present are going to vow to do whatever it takes to help them grow to claim the new identity given to them through the Sacrament, to be formed as we have been as saints of God.
Whatever else they may be called during the course of their lives, in God’s eyes they are saints – blessed, sanctified, made holy, not by their own will but by the will of God. And, by virtue of the fact that someone baptized us, so are we. We are saints of God by grace and adoption. Above every other reason, when we return to the church week by week to worship with other saints, we return to be reminded who we are and to give thanks, to offer Eucharist, for the divine gift of and vocation to sainthood. For we were created by God to bear a divine image, to be shaped and formed by the will of our Creator, to be filled with the fullness that only God can give.
Have you noticed how often God's people are referred to as saints in both the Old and New Testament? The saints are those whom God has chosen and anointed to live in unity with God, one another, and those who have gone before us. We are supposed to represent God and bear God's message wherever we may be. We sometimes speak of the Church’s message, but if you read carefully, you will see that it is the other way around. It’s not so much that the Church has a Message as that the Message has a Church. The saints, who are the Church, are the delivery system for the Message. That is our inheritance and our vocation.
And consider the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes describe the blessed, the saints, those who have been made holy not by volunteering, which is an assertion of human volition, human will, but by the Divine Will. Our life in Christ takes us beyond being a volunteer. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes speaks directly to us, not to “them.” Blessed are You – Blessed John, Blessed Barbara, Blessed Phil, Holy Dominic, Holy Michael, Holy Lauren, Saint Kathy, Saint Amanda, Saint Clay. Here, the heart of the Gospel that enlivens and blesses all the saints of God is found. These “exclamations” are not a set of self-help sayings. Neither are they philosophical reflections on ways to govern life. They are not therapeutic ways of correcting dysfunctional lives. They are not information about what would make life better. They are not even a prescription for godly living. They are above all the way the Gospel looks when it appears in the person of Jesus Christ from whose lips they come and who lives within us today, filling us with a divine presence. In this sense they are truly “in-forming,” a filling full of the emptiness of this life and re-forming the way we understand and live life. It is what his presence in us causes us to become when he claims our hearts. Blessed. Holy. Saints.
This fullness is not our own doing. Hopefully, we have exercised our unique vocation as human beings and exercised faithful stewardship over that fullness. But it is not our own doing. The fullness is from God and belongs to God who in our creation gave us breath of life.
A colleague of mine enjoys telling of a time when a little boy was visiting his grandmother, whose church had beautiful stained glass windows like ours. The little boy asked his grandmother who the people in the windows were. His grandmother told him, “Those are saints.” And the boy exclaimed, “Oh, I get it! Saints are people that the light shines through.”
Saints of God, you and I, are people through whom God’s light shines. Throughout our lives, as our wills are transformed and we grow more receptive to God’s grace at work in us, the light of Christ shines more brilliantly through us. Theologians call that process "Sanctification." It is how God perfects the saints.
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