In All Things Give Thanks

Metropolitan Community Church of Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:1-16 Colossians 1:11-20

I’m not sure how this keeps happening. It seems that Andy keeps scheduling me to preach on important liturgical days. As a recovering Southern Baptist I am an admitted liturgical illiterate. One of the last times I preached was on Transfiguration Sunday and I had to do my homework to figure out what that was all about. Today is Christ the King Sunday – a day when we look ahead to when the kingdom of God will be established. It’s also the last Sunday in the liturgical year, and I forgot to bring the champagne!

But, now that I think about it, the Baptists did have a name for this important day – they called it “Sunday.” As far as we knew it was just another Sunday in a month of Sundays. But, I think my Baptist tradition is poorer for not acknowledging this important liturgical day because it contains an important lesson that modern mainstream Christians really need to learn right about now.

Our country has just been through one of the most divisive elections in anyone’s memory. The rise of those on the religious right has been years in coming, and in this last election they flexed their muscles like never before. In all 11 states where gay marriage was on the ballot the measures ensuring discrimination against us passed resoundingly. By a thin margin, most of our fellow countrymen and women voted to support an administration that is seeking to build a global empire through its military might and is using the religious vocabulary of Christianity to do it. In doing so, they have hijacked Jesus’ message of peace, justice and mercy. Christianity has become synonymous with right wing, extreme fundamentalist beliefs.

In the process, the country has become sharply divided. The conversations have become shrill. And on a day when we are set to discuss the “kingdom of God” it seems hard to celebrate something called a “kingdom” when we live in a country where the government acts as though it has been crowned king.

Jeremiah’s words, spoken so long ago are still relevant today. Jeremiah speaks words of woe to kings who were playing power politics in his day. They too had divided the people – they had scattered the flock of the faithful. The kings of Jeremiah’s day were pursuing policies that focused on military ambitions instead of justice and peace for the people. Does that sound familiar?

But, Jeremiah words, spoken so long ago, still offer us hope today. He says God will raise up new shepherds who will gather up the forgotten remnant of the flock. When those new shepherds come the remnant will no longer fear or be dismayed. Speaking as a member of the remnant, those words are a balm to my soul, because when I look at Jesus’ life I know that what the religious leaders of our day celebrate is not the kingdom of God, but a very human kingdom dominated by a will to have power over others instead of cooperative power with others. I assure you today, no matter what our right wing brothers and sisters may say – this is not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of God, my brothers and sisters, is not about empire but about cooperation. The kingdom of God is not about power over, but power with. The kingdom of God is not about greed but about enough for all. The kingdom of God is not about wrath but about mercy. The kingdom of God is not about rigid morals but about grace. The kingdom of God is not about legalism but justice. The kingdom of God is not about judgment but about forgiveness. The kingdom of God is not about exclusion but about inclusion. The kingdom of God is not about division but unity. The kingdom of God is not about scattering but about gathering. The kingdom of God is not about war, but about peace. Christ renounced bloodshed and violence as a means to bring about the kingdom of God. Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, known as the father of the social gospel, writes that Jesus “would not set up God’s kingdom by using the devil’s means of hatred and blood. With the glorious idealism of faith and love Jesus threw away the sword and advanced on the entrenchments of wrong with hand outstretched and heart exposed.”

This today, is our calling – to renounce hatred and blood and instead move forward in the world with our hand outstretched and our heart exposed. That’s a tall order in a world that has overwhelmingly voted to deny us a basic civil right. We’re right to be angry. We’re right to be hurt. We’re right to consider moving out of the country to a place that seems more welcoming. But hear the good news, my brothers and sisters – God has promised that in our dark times, new shepherds will be raised up – new leaders will come who will bring God’s kingdom to us right here and now. We don’t have to wait until we’re no longer alive to enjoy the kingdom. We must work for it right here and right now. Jeremiah assures us that we will realize it – that a king is already here for us – Christ who executes justice and righteousness and rescues us from the power of darkness. This is the king we work for and our work is laid before us – but we must advance with our hand outstretched and our heart exposed, ready to reconcile the world to Christ’s vision of true kingdom.

By now you may be thinking, “that’s lovely preacher, but have you seen the world today? Have you noticed that we’re losing? Have you noticed that the backlash against us is huge?” Rest assured that I know the task before us is – at the risk of understatement – difficult. I know that many of us are in despair over our situation. I know that many of us have lost direction and are wondering how we will make it through these times.

The answer, I think, is found in our reading from Colossians. Hear these words:

“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Creator.”

How we make it through these dark times, my dear friends, is by “joyfully giving thanks to the Creator.” The Apostle Paul, writing to the Thessalonians advises them, “In all things, give thanks.” Please, hear this – in ALL things, give thanks. Don’t give thanks just in the good times – but in the bad times, too. Always come into the world with a joyful heart, full of thanks and praise.

Before you roll your eyes and say that’s an impossible task in days like these, remember who wrote these words. In Paul’s life he was flogged, he spent a lot of time in prison, he was shipwrecked three times – clinging to debris for days before being rescued, he was stoned once and often went without food and water as he traveled from place to place proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. This is a man who knows our struggles, brothers and sisters. This is a man who can identify with our defeats. This is a man who can sympathize with our pain and oppression. Yet, he tells us, “in all things, give thanks.”

I know it seems impossible, but perhaps we need to look closer at how we express our thankfulness. When we receive gifts or things go our way, we’re naturally thankful. When things are going bad and the world seems to be against us, it’s harder to find things to be thankful for, but it’s possible if we look a little deeper.

Motivational speaker and writer Wayne Dyer tells a story about his dad. His father abandoned the family when Dyer was very young, leaving them in poverty. Dyer was upset with his lot in life and blamed his father. He grew up hating his father and this hatred consumed him. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he realized he must give up this hatred or it would destroy him. He searched for his father and discovered that he had died and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Louisiana. He went to his father’s grave and forgave him. Dyer says the act of forgiveness was so freeing that he was able to immediately sit down and write his first book in only a matter of weeks. Now, he is thankful for his father.

Dyer believes that we all come to earth with a mission and he imagines a discussion between his dad and God before his father was born. God asks Dyer’s dad what he wants to accomplish with his life. His dad answers, “I want to be the biggest jerk in the world so I can teach my son about forgiveness.”

I believe the situation we are in now is not an accident – but a moment where we can either learn to give thanks or be consumed by our despair. The choice is ours. Who better to teach us about love, compassion, unity and hope than a government who is openly hostile to these ideas? Who better to teach us how to be thankful in all circumstances that a world that seems to offer nothing to be thankful about?

After the anti-gay marriage measure passed in Michigan, an attorney named Jane Barrett wrote an open letter to the Catholic Church, admonishing them for supporting the measure. Her letter though is one of thanksgiving. She writes:

You have galvanized the gay community and the people who care about us in a way that I have NEVER in my adult life ever experienced. People who have never worked for a cause have devoted hours to helping defeat the Proposal. People who have not donated money in the past have dug deep in their pockets to help fight this hateful measure. These people will not be slinking away to their relegated status as second class citizens. You have provided an opportunity for many to emerge as leaders in the gay community. (New shepherds?) You have provided a forum within which the community can fight prejudice and educate the public about our families. Greater understanding will lead to greater respect and eventually to the legal protections that every person in our country should be able to enjoy equally.

You have also provided many of us with opportunities to heal old rifts with friends and extended family members, to educate our neighbors and co-workers, to ask for and receive the help of our faith communities – allowing each of them to emerge as allies with us as we face down discrimination. You have given us an opportunity to defend ourselves and be visible, something many of us would not have chosen to do unless forced. We have been jousted out of our routine buy-a-house, make-a-living, have-a-family, American lives and pushed into the center of controversy. You have forced us to respond.

So, thank you. Thank you for creating an opportunity to work toward real and positive change for future generations. Thank you for providing a framework within which I can reaffirm who I am and what is important to me. Thanks for opening the discussion. We will keep talking.

Even though things may look bleak for those of us who believe in Christ’s kingdom of love, peace and mercy, we must give thanks, because as violence and bloodshed increase, our world will soon be craving these things. We must keep them safe in our heart until that day comes when new shepherds arise to lead us into God’s kingdom of reconciliation.

An old legend tells how a man once stumbled upon a great red barn after wandering for days in a dark overgrown forest, seeking refuge from the howling winds of a storm that seemed to rage perpetually in the forest, he let his eyes grow accustomed to the dark and then, to his astonishment, he discovered that this was the barn where Satan kept his storehouse of seeds to be sown into human hearts. More curious than fearful, he lit a match and began to explore the piles and bins of seeds around him. He couldn’t help but notice that the containers labeled “seeds of discouragement” far outnumbered any other type of seed.

Just as the man had drawn this conclusion, one of Satan’s foremost demons arrived to pick up a fresh supply of seed. The man ask him why the great abundance of discouragement seeds. The demon laughed, “Because they are so effective and they take root so quickly!” The man then asked, “Do they grow everywhere?” At this the demon became sullen. He glared at the man and admitted in disgust, “No, they never seem to thrive in the heart of a grateful person.”

Today, brothers and sisters I implore you to dig deep and give thanks, no matter how much despair you may be feeling. The seeds of discouragement have been sown in our community and they are taking root everywhere. But, they never thrive in the heart of a grateful person. In all things, give thanks – Jeremiah promises our despair will not be forever – new shepherds are being raised up, new leaders are coming to gather the remnant, so give thanks! God has heard our cry. The kingdom of God includes even us and our task is to be thankful and work hard for the day when God’s distributive justice, peace and mercy rule over division, hatred, blood and violence. Our day is coming, my brothers and sisters and until it does keep these words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. written on your hearts:

“I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and non-violent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land ‘and the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome.”