Monday, November 21, 2011

Rejoice & Give Thanks

11/20/11 (Christ the King Sunday Year A)
Warning this sermon maybe too liberal for some Christians. It speaks of an all-inclusive God. . .

Perhaps the last real - paper & pen - letter you wrote was a thank you card. It takes a strong emotion like gratitude for me to search out a card & envelope (and use a PEN instead of a keyboard) to sit down to write.

This letter of scripture, written psuedographically in Paul’s name, is more than a thank you note, but it starts with gratitude for a whole congregation of people. The Author says,
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” Then he goes on to write of his desire for the congregation’s growth in the journey of faith. - that God will grant them wisdom and enlightenment so they will hang onto hope - no matter what happens. Wouldn’t you enjoy getting a thank you card like that?

Next, the author gives a brief theological treatise on Christ’s mission and place in God’s realm. This entire letter plays a key role in Christian theology. We won’t deal with it all today, but it is always important to remember there is more than the few verses we pull out to examine at any one time.

I was pleased to see today's verses highlighted on our bulletin because ‘giving thanks’ is what we do this time of year.

We even ask each other what we’re thankful for, and take joy in the answers. Well, ...some of the answers... One of our teachers was relaying a story of asking 5-year-olds what they were thankful for. The budding theologian in her class answered, “I am thankful that Jesus died for my sins." ...from a 5 year old...
You may have heard my gut reaction to this shorthand statement before, in my mind it should never stand alone. (death needs resurrection) But from a 5-year-old it falls short of true thanksgiving because he doesn’t understand what it means.

Unlike the depth we could find later in this letter, the 5-year-old's simple words of thanks do not begin to explain God's saving work in Jesus.
Even if we understand the deeper theological theories, such shorthand ‘pat’ phrases can lead us into the trap of surface-only Christianity. You know - - that lip-service, restrictive ruled, exclusive brand of religion that passes for Christianity in all too many places.

You may know it better by the name, “Prosperity Christianity.” And it is more dangerous this week than any other because this week we do spend time counting our blessings & giving thanks.

Don’t misunderstand - There’s nothing wrong with counting our blessings.
We heard our thanksgiving expressed earlier, we are a blessed people. I Do not make light of it. And it is very good to take time to celebrate and give thanks.
I certainly give thanks for YOU, this congregation! You are a blessing for which I often say, ‘thank you God!”

Prosperity Christianity isn’t about giving thanks, it’s about hedging your bets by giving your money - usually to a high profile minister’s fund and then being promised a fine reward. It often begins with a personal prayer promised by that high-profile individual. Sermons usually promise that if you just pray hard enough and live good enough (and maybe give often enough) your life will be GOOD, really GOOD. You will prosper in all you do. The borders of your ‘territory’ will enlarge and you will never have to worry about money & security again.

The prosperity gospel is not the true ‘good news’ that the word, ‘gospel’ means. (and I’m sure it is not how you would define your faith.) The prosperity Gospel is not the good news that Jesus proclaimed in the beatitudes when he spoke about WHO is blessed.

And blessing - brings us back to this letter and the author’s words of blessing to the congregation.

The prosperity Ephesians promises is this,
that- “you may know what is the hope to which [Christ] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

That’s just the beginning of the promise. Listen for the universal-inclusiveness of the rest,
“God put this power to work in Christ when he RAISED him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

“And God has put all things under his [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Can we hear these 'all-inclusive' words in a way that gives us the exuberance of the 5-year old who gave thanks that ‘Jesus died 4 my sins?’

Take a deep breath and plunge into a little theology with me- I'm sure we will discover plenty for which to give thanks. A deeper look at what we are promised quickly fills our cup with gratitude for our real blessings, not just the things we have.

Our thanksgiving occurs today partly because it is the last day of the year- -- the church year. On this day we proclaim Christ’s reign over all the cosmos. We take a quick look at the BIG PICTURE before we once again celebrate Jesus’ birth as a tiny human boy.

As Christians we accept that God offers salvation to ALL humanity thru Christ. And yet, “How do we proclaim or even hear such an exclusive claim” of inclusive salvation, in today’s multi-cultural, pluralist society?
Can we CHOOSE Christ as the way, the truth, and the life that is lived for everyone?
"is there a way we can understand this claim of Christ’s reign that is central to Christian faith without devaluing the practitioners of other ways?"

We have to ask, ‘Are we giving thanks today for a personal God, who has saved. ME, or US alone, or
Are we truly blessed by the ‘Master of the universe’ as is declared at the beginning of every Jewish prayer? Baruch atah adoni elohenu malech h’olam’ - blessed are you, Master of the Universe.
Here in Arl- in NoVa, we know we are blessed with a rich diversity that we often take for granted. We are surrounded by people of all kinds & nationalities.

3 of us returned from the Progressive Brethren Conference, held in Elgin last weekend, where God-given diversity was celebrated and thanksgiving was offered. It was a blessing to be there. It was also a safe place to talk about the struggle to open the eyes of the larger church to this NT message of Christ’s inclusion of ALL people.
What I have come to realize is -diversity, for some of our brethren churches- is simply discovering that’s there’s a presbyterian in the congregation. (If you grew up in one of those rural churches, you know exactly what I mean.)

Our experience here in Arlington, is just vastly different than anything many of our sisters and brothers have ever known. We live in a world of different kinds of people that allows us a fuller understanding of the word ‘ALL.’ What we need is to rediscover a bit of ancient theology that connects God's blessing that is for ALL & the way Jesus lived his life on earth, blessing others with his presence.

Theologians have struggled with the definition of ‘ALL’ for centuries. While many of the ancient church fathers gave thanks that “Jesus died for their sins”, “Ireneaus, the 2nd-century bishop of Lyons, emphasized the saving, reconciling, work of the incarnation itself. He stressed the life and obedience of the human Jesus, the Christ. For Ireneaus, Christ is head or Lord [of ALL] because he is the TRUE human, whose life restored humanity to its original intentions.” (almost sounds Brethren, doesn’t it?)

"the life of CHRIST showed us what the REIGN of Christ would be like. And now WE are to live it - just like he did- thru radical acts of solidarity with other human beings.”

We truly are blessed, just as Jesus said in Matthew, when we ‘continue his saving work’ of solidarity with the poor, the mourning, the meek and the merciful.
In order to really be part of the inclusive reign of Christ, we need to do more than open our doors to everyone, we must live a life that blesses everyone else. - the ALL - because Christ lived his life for us ALL.

When we CHOOSE to follow Christ by being baptized into his ‘body’ we choose to include EVERYONE in our circle of blessing. Christianity is meant to be INCLUSIVE, not exclusive - with the prosperity of rich blessing and community offered to ALL. Everyone is invited to participate in life the way God created us to live; helping each other, saving each other, blessing each other, even dying for each other. . . .And when we do. . when we live like Jesus did. .we are blessed to find we are already living in the Kingdom of God.

We really do have much for which to give thanks when we count these blessings. We can THANK GOD,
that WE are included in God's ALL,
that everyone around us is included in God's all,
that we follow One who stands in solidarity, not just with the 99% but with ALL humans - all kinds, all nationalities, in all places, all genders, all sexual orientations, all colors, all beliefs. - NOTHING can separate us from God’s love.

ALL really is the biggest blessing of ALL.
Thank God.

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