We have the joy and privilege today of celebrating one of our saints among us, Mr. Edgar Dawson. On Tuesday, Edgar will turn 100 years old. And he has graciously agreed for us to make much of him today, which we will do after the service. We’re also singing three of his favorite hymns in our worship today – you can try to guess which ones they are, and check with him later to see if you were right. (Note that we don’t do this for just anybody, schedule their favorite hymns for their birthday. Only if you turn 100.)
And we also are bringing forward our gifts to the altar, our pledge cards for 2020 – green cards that commit us to supporting this church in a tangible way over the coming year. We all come up with our cards and lay them here on the altar and then we pray over them – so if you’ve forgotten your card, or you’ve already sent yours in, come on up anyway and put something here, because we all participate in this one. If you’re brand new, you’re welcome too! This is a place where everyone belongs – that is the theme of the pledge drive this year. And we belong as members of a body that gives and receives, shares and shares alike. St Michael’s Church is made up of nothing else but you. Without your willingness to step forward, there will be nothing for you to take away. It’s that simple. And you get a lot more than you give, as Jesus taught – ‘a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, …put into your lap.’ We are called to be generous, not just with money but with everything we are given. And when we are generous, when we live out of abundance and not scarcity, there is more than enough for everyone.
The black theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman wrote a prayer years ago that often circulates anew around this time of year. It’s called a Litany of Thanksgiving, and it begins,
Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!
So what are you thankful for? Over the years our family has fallen into a rhythm as we pray our bedtime prayers together. We always begin with thanksgiving – whether the day was a good or bad one, we can always find one thing to be thankful for. Sometimes on the worst days, all we might come up with is that the sun rose and we had food to eat that day. Thurman begins that way too, with the basics, the fact that we are alive, the gift of everything we usually take for granted. What abundance we have, even if we only count our breaths, our heartbeats.
I was reminded of that abundance in a concert Jim and heard this last week, part of the wonderful White Light Festival put on every year at Lincoln Center. This concert was a performance of the Abyssinian Mass, an absolutely glorious piece by Wynton Marsalis that was originally composed for Abyssinian Baptist Church. The performance was at Jazz at Lincoln Center, yet because it was a mass, it included a sermon, Rev. Calvin Butts from Abyssinian stepping in to preach to all of us. Man, he used his time well, talking to that mostly secular group of New Yorkers who were really there mainly to listen to music. “We’re all gonna have church tonight,” he said, and then he made us turn to one another and introduce ourselves, reminding us of the common humanity we share. He got huge applause when he told us that we need to come together again in this country – everyone, I think, is aching for that. He told us that to remedy things, we needed to go out of there and see other people, listen to them, be the beloved people of God.
And isn’t it so great that we already do all of that, right here? We talk to one another, looking each other in the eye and smiling like Maryann taught us, knowing one another and making community. We reach beyond the usual barriers to make that happen, looking to embrace our common status as children of God. We’re sent out at the end of our worship with words reminding us to go and serve God, to make haste to be kind to others, as the blessing Mother Julie often says tells us. We’ve got a head start on this whole task of being the beloved community. We actually are church, in abundance.
Do you realize how precious this is? I also spent time last week in the DMV, something I’d been putting off for weeks. There we all were, rich and poor, old and young, of every color and background, and we all had to be there, to do something to get IDs and keep driving our cars. And none of us was in control of the situation, other people were; so we all had to just sit and be together. Just think of all the stories there in that place. And yet no one really said a word to each other, because it was the DMV and everyone just wanted to get done and get out. Until I looked up and suddenly saw Andre Schub, Carla Hunter’s husband, a friend from this church community, and we jumped up and hugged each other and smiled and chatted away. Just think if we’d done that with everyone else in that office on Friday. We could have changed that whole day for everyone. But instead, my number came up and I said goodbye to Andre, and went to my window and did my task, and then I left. No beloved community there that day – no one was looking for it, and no one was making it.
We’ve got something precious here, this place. So we shouldn’t waste what we have. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how wonderful our community is over the last several months, and of course that’s all right – we are wonderful. But we can be more. We can do more to really live out being God’s people in the world, because we aren’t there yet.
Besides being Edgar’s birthday celebration and our pledge ingathering, this Sunday is also Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, the celebration of Jesus as a different kind of king. So our readings for today all point to the difference in being Jesus people versus being aligned with the world. The leaders of the world are bad shepherds who destroy people with fear and division, says Jeremiah – God intends instead for people to be gathered in unity, and to not be afraid. The world has us dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, says the song of Zechariah – God intends instead for us to live in the light, to walk in the way of peace, and without fear. God rescues us from the power of darkness in this world, says the letter to the Colossians, and redeems and forgives us, making us whole. And Luke’s crucifixion scene shows the inability of this world to understand the self-giving love of God poured out for us, the amazing gift of God that changes everything. This way is different, this way of Jesus – we hear that over and over again. We are meant to be different. More generous. More courageous. More part of the healing of this world.
When we place our pledges on the altar today, that is what we are pledging to. Not to this church as the perfect sign of God’s work fulfilled on earth; no, not at all. Not to a place where other people do all the hard things we ourselves are meant to do. And not to a place where we pretend things are one way on Sunday while we live a completely different way on Monday. This is a place where we are all called to more. Where we acknowledge our own weaknesses and failings, the logs in our own eyes, before we call out the specks in others. Where we hold ourselves and our community accountable to be more in line with God’s desires and intentions for our lives. And where we practice living differently so that when we leave this place, we go from here and bring the changed and redeemed selves we are forming here and go to change and redeem the world. If you come here and feel at home and comforted, a respite from the world, give thanks. If you come here and feel bothered, restless for something to be different, give thanks for that too. And if you come here and find the Spirit is stirring you up so that you actually can’t go back home to how you were before, give thanks for that especially. Because that’s what being church is for. This is abundance on the move.
Howard Thurman’s Thanksgiving prayer continues on, giving thanks for the legacy of those gone before that led to what he is and the possibilities he enjoys in his life. And then he winds up with these words:
…I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment to which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared with my loves, my desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence that I have never done my best, I have never reached for the highest;
The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea…
We have so much to be thankful for here, my sisters and brothers. And so much work to do. May we celebrate, and keep on the way. Amen.