Christ the King
From our reading from the letter to the Christians at Colossae: 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 Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
In our family we are in the thick of what we call birthday season, a two-month stretch when several of us celebrate our birthdays. So it also the season for writing thank yous. How many of you were raised by a mom that insisted on you writing thank you notes for your birthday gifts? Many of us were – and I’ve perpetuated that with my own kids. For our kids, it’s just about the one time they write anything by hand, put it in an envelope, and mail it from the mailbox. It’s a ritual that I insist on because I think it helps bring home the point that they don’t just get things because they’re entitled to them. (Everything in a clergy household has a moral, you realize.) I want them to know that they get things because someone thought of them and did the extra work of selecting and getting that gift to them. Even if they might forget that most of the time – they don’t tend to write us thank you notes, of course – writing some thank yous might help them to remember sometimes. I try to follow the practice too, to write thank yous at home and at church, though I don’t as often as I’d like to. It feels important, and not just because it’s polite.
Gratitude, of course, is not just etiquette – it’s a spiritual practice too. This year some of our lay leaders here at St Michael’s are taking part in a small group program called Revive, meant to nourish the people who take on everything at church. The first module of the program focuses on prayer, on learning and practicing different prayer techniques and building a discipline of prayer into every day. One of the lessons teaches how to pray in public: when someone asks you to open the meeting in prayer, or say grace at the meal, or pray with them before they go into surgery, or any number of times we might be pressed into praying service. Not always something Episcopalians are good at, or ready to do. Revive teaches a simple formula for this, with the acronym STAF: Salutation (greeting), Thanksgiving, Ask, and Finish. This is the secret formula behind all those prayers that go something like Dear God, thank you for gathering us here today, please help us to listen to this sermon and get something out of it, we pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen. So there, now you too all know the secret formula, and so when I ask one of you to pray out loud at a meeting, you’ll be able to do it, no problem.
What’s especially important about this formula is where it goes first, after the salutation. We don’t jump straight into the ask, knocking on God’s door for what we want, pushing the buttons on the ATM to get our needs met. We start first with expressing our thanks – which serves to remind us of what God has done and is doing for us. When we start with thanking God, it’s like writing those thank you notes. We pause to remember that everything we have is not just a given – and neither is our life. What we have and what we are can’t be taken for granted. Even when we’re at our worst, or the situation around us is completely dire, we begin our prayers with thanks because there is always something to be thankful for – even if it is just that God is with us in the suffering.
Today is the feast of Christ the King, the feast day that always comes at the very end of the church year, just before we turn over into a new year with Advent. So of course it always lands somewhere around Thanksgiving as well. And I think the two are related: when we give thanks, we recognize who and whose we are. Christ the King, as our scriptures today tell us, is the good shepherd who gathers us together and heals our divisions from one another, the one who frees us from our fear. God is our refuge and strength, as the psalmist says, who makes us strong and able to endure anything. We are God’s, and so as God’s, we are never alone. That’s the faith we cling to.
That’s laid out especially in today’s gospel, a short revisiting of the Passion story of Holy Week. Jesus hangs on the cross, two criminals crucified nearby. The suffering is intense for all three of them, physical pain, betrayal, humiliation. One of those crucified says, if you’re the Messiah, you’ll fix this. Save yourself and us. Change it all, take away this terrible suffering, and then we really will believe in you, and celebrate, and be grateful. But the other criminal chides him for this, saying, Our actions led to this consequence, God isn’t just going to magically make it go away. Our suffering isn’t just going to be erased like it never happened. But the Messiah, Emmanuel, is right here with us. And will be with us on into paradise. And for that we are thankful. Because we are never alone. And one of Jesus’ last words on the cross is to say, truly, you understand this. You are with me, and will be with me, always.
The act of giving thanks is not just a good thing to do. It is a deep reminder of who we are, and who God is. It reminds us that all that we are and all that we have comes from God. And it reminds us that even when things are hard, the God who supplies our very breath is there with us. It’s the foundation to keep going through it all.
Today we’ll be blessing our pledges to St Michael’s, gathering in our gifts for the coming year, the gifts that will enable this community to continue serving and worshiping and loving God’s people. Giving to St Michael’s is itself an act of thankfulness and faith. It’s in thankfulness for all that we have received in this place – welcoming love, nourishment for our souls, laugher and joy, meaning and purpose. And it’s done in faith that God is at work here and will continue to be on into the future, whatever the future holds. And, I’ll add, it’s giving to our trust in one another, that here this group of people are bound by a shared love, trying to do the right thing. At a time in our culture when it is hard to trust others, hard to trust leaders or even our neighbors to do the right thing, this is a radical act of faith, to commit to community. All of that is worth giving thanks for.
But ultimately we give because we know that everything we have is a gift anyway. Giving is like saying thank you: recognizing the gifts we have been given, and letting them flow on into others. Whatever happens – whatever the stock market or the inflation rate or the employment statistics say, whatever the doctor tells us or our loved one shares with us, whatever the teacher says or the news media offers up – we know that God is there in it, with us, suffering and rejoicing alongside us, surrounding us in the deep love that we were made for.
So pause today, here in worship, to say thank you. Stop this week as we celebrate Thanksgiving, to recognize our blessings. Give generously out of that gratitude as we go forward together into a new year. Remember that God made you, that God loves you, that God is always with you. That is the substance of our faith. That is our inheritance from the saints in light. Thanks be to God.