The Song of Mary: Proclaiming Faith in Things Unseen

And Mary sang: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

Today we pick up where we ended last week, looking at the four songs – four of the earliest hymns of the Christian church – which make up the story of Christmas as we read in the Gospel according to St. Luke.

Last week we looked at the Song of Zechariah, the old man with his wife Elizabeth who, by God’s grace, were given a child in their old age; a child who would be John the Baptist, the great prophet preparing the way for the Lord.

In that song, that first act of this great musical, we saw how this birth was connected to so many other “impossible” births before it, as so many of the crucial turning points in God’s plan to save his people depend on God providing a child in an impossible situation.

We also saw that this theme of childless couples proves a point – that God’s mighty intervention doesn’t come for those who “sort of” depend on God, but is for those who realize that they’re out of options, that there is nothing that they can do in their human strength, to change their situation.  It’s in those situations that we see God keeping his word to defend the powerless.

A Hymn of Praise

Today we hear another great hymn of the Church, this time on the lips of a more familiar character in this Advent drama: Mary, the mother of Jesus.

If we look at that text, the text we recited on page 86 of the BAS, we see that this triumphant song of praise has three parts.

It begins as all good hymns should begin – by praising God.  “Deep in my soul – with all that I am – I proclaim the greatness of the Lord”, why? “Because, as he promised through the prophets and has displayed throughout the Old Testament, he has favour on his lowly servant.”

Then, from that opening full of praise, we hear that this, indeed, is part of God’s plan unfolding.  Just as generations before had known God as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, just as the entire nation of Israel knew God as the one who spoke through Moses, as the one who established the throne of David, so, “from this day,” says Mary, “all generations…” will know that our God, the One True God, is the one who brought forth his Son Jesus Christ from the Blessed Virgin Mary, something that we proclaim every time we gather.

“The Strength of His Arm'”

Then the song takes a different direction. 

“He has mercy on those who fear him; he has shown the strength of his arm; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones; he has filled the hungry with good things.”

…but wait now.  Here we have Mary singing this great song about God’s power and might… but who is she?  She’s a pregnant teenager from an unimportant, practically unknown village, engaged to be married to a common tradesman.

And she’s singing these words as a person whose government has been overthrown, and who is now subject to a vast military empire, and empire in which the mighty sit quite happily on their thrones, and the poor are taxed heavily even on what little they have.

By any objective worldly measure, “the hopes and fears of all the years”, the hopes and dreams of freedom from oppression and justice for the lowly aren’t all delivered as Mary sings her song; not even close, as St. Matthew tells us it won’t be long until her own little family, Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, flee to Egypt to escape a proud, conceited ruler on his throne.

And, certainly as Christians gathered to sing this song in the generations that followed, their experience wasn’t better, but even worse than when Mary first sang these words.  These earliest Christians were ridiculed, dragged before the rulers of their synagogues, beaten and at times even stoned to death by the powerful rulers; yet, gathering in homes, or hiding in caves, or meeting in fields outside of town they sing that God has shown the strength of his arm, that he has scattered the proud and cast down the mighty.

What’s going on here?  How is it that this becomes one of the popular, universal hymns of the Early Church when it clearly doesn’t reflect the persecution and real pain experienced by these early Christians?

Well, the thing that persecuted Christians remember while we who enjoy our freedom so easily forget is that we, all of us who are part of the body of Christ, hold dual citizenship.  Persecuted Christians remember, and we so quickly forget, that our Lord’s Kingdom is not of this world.

Yes, we have a God-given duty to work for justice; to remove oppression, to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to put hats and mitts on those cold heads and hands whose parents – for whatever reason – cannot care for their children.  But, even if we created a perfect country, even if we somehow got our act together and managed to live in harmony as so many popular Christmas songs say over and over, still, crowns and thrones will perish, and the kingdoms of this world rise and wane.  Though it’s our duty to do what is right, no amount of good deeds or happy thoughts can correct a world that is fundamentally bent towards pride.

The Paradox

And that’s why this song, and the whole Christmas story, the birth of the promised saviour, appears to be so great a paradox:  the greatest king of all kings is laid in a manger, and God himself is nailed to a tree that he created.

It’s such a great paradox that it’s a stumbling block to all who think they’ve got the world figured out.  But, either Jesus is God incarnate or he isn’t, and there is no in-between that makes any sense. 

If he’s God, then this lowly birth is proof that his mission, his purpose, is not to patch up this broken world with its rulers and empires, but to re-make it, to make all things new.  If he isn’t God, then this is simply a poor, unknown family giving birth to their poor son; a son who will be unknown for most of his life, and then after three years of teaching, be crucified for political crimes.

But, if he’s God, if we trust these words, then what we have here is proof that God’s plan is to get right to the root of the problem.  If it’s the humble – those who know that God is God – who inherit the kingdom, then the greatest glory, the place of greatest power, is found in the greatest lowliness.  Exaltation and true strength are found in complete obedience and humble service.

The Grand Solution to the Fundamental Problem

So we look at this ancient hymn, these great words about God’s display of strength not as a battle song for an earthly ruler, but as the national anthem about the Kingdom of Heaven, these words first sung as God joins himself to our humanity so that we may join Him in the place He is preparing for us, just as He promised.

And to do that, to make us fit to dwell with him, takes a complete overhaul of that humanity.

The solution for our sin of disobedience is not for God to give up and start over – after all, God delights in his relationship with people, and we were created to be the crowning jewel of creation, made in God’s own Image and declared “very good”.

It was a disobedient man and woman who caused humanity’s problem, corrupting the world itself, and in the process, making it impossible for us choose humility over power, and right over wrong.

But the glory of this hymn – and the entire story of our salvation – is that, with God, all things are possible.

If no mere mortal can overcome this bending of our wills toward selfishness, if there is no other good enough to pay the price of sin, then the truth is that God loves us so much that God himself would take on human flesh and be born as a lowly baby to show us the way to God, blazing the path and trampling down the gates of death so that we can follow where he leads.

And, for our humanity to be set on that path, it took the humility of a lowly teenage girl.

Where Eve in the Garden chose disobedience and gave birth to fallen humanity that lost its access to God, now Mary offers complete humble obedience; in the face of a birth sounds impossible, where many earlier players in this grand drama would laugh, Mary responds simply “I am the Lord’s servant; so be it”.

And it’s in this act of obedience that God is reunited to us – that Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes here, as Christ himself becomes the new Adam, the first-born of the new creation, and the head of the body to which we may be joined in the ultimate show to strength as death itself is defeated, as the offspring of woman finally crushes the head of the serpent as the strongest worldly powers are confronted with the thing that they fear most – the truth that, in spite of all their wealth, strength, and glory; in spite of the victories they appear to have won through conniving and ridicule and oppression; in spite of all of that, they will pass away.

Just as God promised.

For he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forefathers, the promise from the beginning, that we would be his people and he would be our God, that he would reconcile us to himself, that when this world has passed away, when the mighty have fallen from their thrones and the wealth of the rich is worthless, those who fear the Lord, who walk humbly with their God, are lifted up, filled with good things, and dwell in that kingdom where the lion and lamb lie together, where there is no pain or fear.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

These words – this conviction of faith in things that we do not yet see – have been true for Christians in every age.

Will they be true for you?

Four Songs of Christmas: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel"

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:68-79, ICEL translation.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always enjoyed a good musical.  Growing up, I have great memories of watching the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, back when Disney movies used to come on TV on Sunday nights.

I’m of the generation that was raised on The Lion King and Pocahontas, with hit songs that made it off the screen and onto the radio, and I can remember riding the school bus, screaming along as Elton John belted out “The Circle of Life”.

I’ve always had a soft spot for musicals.

Part of it, I’m sure, is the musician in me, appreciating some well-written tunes.  But part of it, I think, is that music, as an art form, communicates meaning in such a special way.  A good song can summarize a thousand words of complex feelings in just a few memorable lines.  …and memory is part of it, too: one of the realities facing any preacher is that you can come to church every Sunday and hear sermons your entire life, but you will probably never remember even one sentence of a sermon word-for-word.  But, each and every one of us, even the youngest children who cannot read, have memorized the words to our favourite hymns.

Music, too, across cultures, has a way of communicating those things that are too deep for words.  Think back to a Remembrance Day ceremony: the speakers can read poems and deliver speeches about the meaning of remembrance and sacrifice; but nothing makes it sink in like those first blazing notes of that solo trumpet playing the Last Post; it’s a sound that gives goosebumps and calls us to focus in a way that words never could.

This Advent, as we prepare ourselves not only to celebrate Christmas, but to make ourselves ready for Christ’s coming, his advent into our hearts and lives both every day and at the last day when he comes in glory, we’re going to focus on a wonderful but often-overlooked musical.

That musical is the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus.

A Grand Production: More than a Christmas pageant

If you sit down and read the start of Luke – something I encourage you to do when you go home today, it’ll only take 5 minutes – you’ll see that this account of Christ’s birth is no dry news article or history book. 

St. Luke, as the apostles were entering old age after long lives of preaching and teaching by word of mouth, was called by God to record, to write down, their teachings so that they could be carried to the ends of the earth.  And as you read about the birth of Jesus, you’ll see that he included the oldest Christian hymns that we have; hymns sung by the earliest Christians, summarizing exactly what the birth of Christ means, and, like all great songs, saying in the most efficient and memorable way possible how it is that this unlikely birth — an unwed teenage mother giving birth to a helpless baby in a shed in a forgotten farming town — is, amazingly, exactly how God intended to keep his promise to restore and redeem a broken world.

So today, we zoom in on the first song from that musical: the Benedictus, on page 88 of your BAS. 

The Setting

Luke starts us off in his wonderful account of Christ’s birth, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.

It isn’t Mary and Joseph on the stage, but the story begins with an old priest and his old wife.  In art this priest, Zechariah, is shown as a kind, old man: a long beard, a warm smile on wrinkled cheeks, with a once-strong body now slightly hunched over by the weight of time.  By his side, centre stage in the Gospel, is his wife, Elizabeth, her rosy, wrinkled cheeks framed by her gray hair.

They were faithful believers in God’s promises, and Zechariah was a faithful priest, serving in the temple in Jerusalem. 

But, in spite of their faithfulness, in spite of their faith in God, they were childless.

And that’s an important point – and, if we think back to the Old Testament, it’s a familiar point.

In the days before Old Age Pensions and RRSPs, without welfare or income support, your children were your retirement; your children were your insurance policy for when your body became too weak to work.

Children are a blessing from God, not least because it’s their God-given duty to honour their father and mother, to care for them and provide for them in that great role-reversal of each generation, as the one who once cared for, fed, and changed a helpless baby is now the one being cared for by that child.

Elisabeth is barren; this faithful couple, entering old age, has accepted that they are entirely dependent on God and the good will of others for their survival.

And that should sound familiar, if we look at God’s plan of salvation.

Abraham and Sarah were childless.  They were practically ancient, and God says “your descendants will be like the sand of the sea”, something so ridiculous that Sarah laughs in the face of the angel.

God gives them Isaac, who marries Rebecca.  Clearly, it’s up to Isaac and Rebecca to produce these great descendants, but guess what, Rebecca is barren too. 

God gives them Jacob and Esau; Jacob is to inherit the promise of God, and God changes his name to Israel and says he will make a mighty nation through whom the knowledge and saving truth of God will reach the whole world… except, guess what, Rachel can’t have children either, until God intervenes and she becomes the mother of the tribes of Joseph and Benjamin.

Hannah, too, is unable to conceive until God intervenes and she gives birth to Samuel, the prophet who is responsible for anointing David as King of the Jews, as we know God’s ultimate plan was that that earthly throne would be united with God’s throne in Jesus, who reigns as both Son of Man and Son of God.

The Message

And that’s the first important point that this song teaches us about the message of Christmas: God’s mighty intervention isn’t for those who are “sort of” dependent on God.  God’s outstretched hand and mighty arm doesn’t flex his muscle for those who are faithful but who are “getting along just fine, thank you very much”.

No, God’s promise to lift up the humble and meek, is, throughout history, for those who reach the realization that there is nothing they can do to ‘fix’ their situation. 

God doesn’t want a chosen people who can look back and say, “wow, look how great we are”.  He doesn’t choose mighty heroes, models of human strength.  No, he chooses to raise up a people out of those who are barren. 

That’s the point: God does the impossible for those who love him and have a holy fear, the fear, the awe that comes when you recognize that you are powerless but he is powerful; he does the impossible not when we’re “trying their best” or when we think we’ve “got this under control”, but he does the impossible when those who love him admit that they’re in an impossible situation.  When we admit that He is God and we are not.

This is the story that Luke is proclaiming as he opens the Gospel with this great song: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free.  He has raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” – a house built, not on might, but on unlikely people lifted out of impossible situations by an almighty God.

…Just as He promised.

And that’s the second point being made as Luke opens with this great musical number, this great hymn of the Church.  This – what we’re about to see – “is the oath God swore to our forefather Abraham”. 

The message of Christmas, the message of the Gospels, is that God keeps his word. 

Now, it might not be as we expect – and that’s part of the point.  In our Bibles we just need to flip a few pages to see where God’s promises were fulfilled.  But, for the people of Israel, for Zechariah and Elizabeth standing here on centre stage, it’s been 700 years since the prophets said the Messiah would come.  700 years.  That’s like someone making a promise to your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in the 1300s; it would take a lot of faith for you today to wait for that promise to be delivered; but that’s where we have to remember that God’s timescale isn’t ours; as we sing, a thousand years for Him are like an evening, as the ever-rolling stream of time carries its’ sons away.

But God swore an oath.  Have you ever sworn an oath?  Have you ever made the declaration that your very life and freedom depend on what you’re about to say?  Now, imagine, God, the very Creator of life, has such a plan for our Redemption that He, the Eternal One, swears an oath – swears on His Life – that his people, the holy and righteous, will be free.  Free from the hands of our enemies; free to worship him without fear, all the days of our life.

As we begin the Christmas story, as the first characters walk onto the stage, we sing “God will do the impossible”, and why?  Because this, this birth in a manger, as unlikely as it seems, is God keeping his promises – just wait and see.

And then the song closes with a surprising twist: Zechariah says “you, my child” speaking of John the Baptist, the baby that God sent to this old man and his barren wife, “You will be the prophet of the Most High”. 

That’s the twist: in each of these situations where God has intervened, where God has done the impossible, the end is the same.  Your life is not your own.  When you admit you’re powerless; when you accept God’s promises, you become part of God’s plan.

This child from this barren womb would be the last of the Old Testament prophets, born to prepare the way for the Lord, to preach salvation by the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist is no hero: he’s a strange man living in the desert wearing camel skin and eating locusts; he’s not what you want your child to be when they grow up.  But, by the grace of God, he’s an essential part: it’s through Him that God reveals Jesus as his beloved Son when he is baptized in the River Jordan.

Do you ever wonder about your purpose? 

I’m not talking about work or ‘success’ – after all, by all accounts, John was a madman in the desert. 

But, as we prepare for Christmas, as we prepare for Christ to enter our lives in our own day, once we accept that we are powerless and depend on God for the impossible; when we finally come to believe that God will keep his promises, then the clear message of Christmas is that our lives are not our own; that each of us has a purpose, each of us, as we acknowledge God as Lord, has a part to play in God’s plan, a part in this great musical, this great drama playing out from the foundation of the world.

That’s why a wrinkled old man and his wife will hold the baby that baptizes Jesus. 

That’s why a teenaged mom lays the Saviour of the world in a bed of hay

That’s why you and me have been called to bring the Good News of healing, and forgiveness, and freedom from the past and fear of the future to a world …and neighbours… who don’t know that God will do the impossible; who don’t know that God keeps his promises; who don’t know that they, if they’re willing, have a part in this story too.

This is the first song of Christmas, and it’s no “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”, but it’s more than a classic – these are words to live by, words to teach our children, words to bring to the ends of the earth, as we prepare, one day, to see our Saviour face to face, when, like the shepherds and the angels above, we fall on our knees and veil our faces as we come and adore Him, as we worship Christ, our Risen King.

Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:5-24a
Hymns: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”
and “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” (Easily sung to the tune Regent Square (“Angels from the Realms of Glory”) if the traditional tune is unknown).

The general idea for this series — but not the content — is borrowed from Alistair Begg’s book The Christmas Playlist

Remembrance: A Call to Duty

925 years ago, the Church, entangled with kingdoms and governments, called for crusaders, saying it was a Christian man’s duty to fight for the name of God in the Middle East.  About 2 million died.

401 years ago, the Thirty Years’ War erupted in Europe, a war between Catholics and Protestants.  Each church and country declaring that it was a man’s duty to fight for their understanding of God.  About 5 million died from fighting and famine.

105 years ago, clergy in pulpits across this country proclaimed that it was a person’s Christian duty to defend the global empire that secured our prosperity, as the “war to end all wars” erupted, and some 24 million combatants and civilians lost their lives, and 214,000 Canadians – then over 2.5% of our population – were killed or wounded.

80 years ago, once again, the Church declared that it was a person’s duty to take up arms, not in the name of God or Empire, but for the cause of “Freedom”, as a full 10% of Canadians entered the armed forces, as upwards of 100 million people worldwide lost their lives directly or indirectly in that war.

Then, as we entered the Cold War, opinions changed.  The Church, and society at large, was unsure of its position, until, around 1985, when the churches of North America generally agreed a Christian’s duty was, as we recited last week in our Baptismal Vows, a duty to “strive for justice and peace among all people”, while “persevering in resisting evil”.  Tens of thousands of Canadians still answered their country’s call to serve in Korea, then the Gulf, then Yugoslavia and Somalia, returning home broken and bruised, but now without the heroes’ welcome or widespread support that helped their parents’ generation return from World War II.

And, the story continues, as our country and her allies deployed again to the Middle East, and even today, our Armed Forces list 33 ongoing peacekeeping and other operations at home, in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

There’s no question.  War is a difficult and complex matter.  And there’s also no question, as we look back, that whenever the church forgets its purpose and identity and simply becomes a shadow or echo of the state, our fallen humanity, our temptations to pride and greed lead us, over and over again, down the dangerous path of thinking that God is on our side, as though we were the ones with the eternal plan.  We forget so quickly that the good news is the opposite: that God calls and invites us to be on His side.

Why we Remember

On this Remembrance Sunday, the Church calls us to gather with several intentions. 

First, as the People of God have done since Issac told Jacob about God’s Covenant with Abraham, we gather to recite the story of how we got here; a story that includes both great blessings at God’s hand, as well as great atrocities in the name of ‘empire’ as certain regiments were deemed less valuable based on their heritage, and sent to their doom. 

As the prophets of old recounted both the good and the bad to call God’s people to obedience, it’s our duty to remember the good and the bad, as we look back and see that there is no “war to end all wars”, and until Christ returns, no amount of deterrence or rational debate can save a distraught people from following the rantings and calls to war of a crazed leader.  We gather to remember our story.

Second, we remember not just our history, but the great sacrifices of those who gave so much.  And perhaps we serve their memories best if we don’t romanticize it too much.  They were brave, they were courageous, they fought for the cause of freedom against oppression and evil.  But they were also curious, in search of adventure, excited to leave their small quiet town and see the world; young men and women – even boys lying about their age – who, serving their country, traded youth for the horrors of war, as many never came home, and all came home changed, wounded by the physical and psychological scars of warring humanity.

And, having remembered our story and having recalled the sacrifice of those who died, thirdly, this is a day of prayer.  This is a day of longing, as we pray that these sacrifices will not be repeated.

Church and State:
‘Already’ and ‘Not Yet’

War, it seems, is an inevitable fact of life in our fallen world.  And it is good and right for us to honour those who serve, protect, and defend us from threats foreign and domestic.  As we are taught by the scriptures, the worldly authorities are a part of the God-given order – even though crowns and thrones may perish and kingdoms rise and wane.

And if there’s a lesson a Christian today can learn from the long, sad history of the church and state as strange bedfellows in support of war, it’s that the Christian position, the Gospel position, our position, doesn’t fit well in any worldly camp.  In no way can the Body of Christ justify marching out in the name of worldly empires: after all, we must remember that our conflict is not against flesh and blood – our fellow humanity; no, our conflict is against evil and the spiritual forces of wickedness.

At the same time, we neglect our Gospel call to be a city on a hill, a light to enlighten the nations, and to be the messengers of peace if we bury our heads in the sand; and our task to bring the Good News of peace in Christ to the ends of the earth means that we, like those first apostles, must find ourselves on the dangerous frontlines between justice and injustice, between peace and the evils of war.

And there’s an important theological idea that explains this difficult position in which we find ourselves.  It’s summarized in three simple words: already… not yet.

As we proclaimed last week, Christ has already defeated death and the grave… but we are not yet able to see that defeat on this side of the veil between time and eternity.

God has already built that kingdom where swords and weapons of war are beaten into plows to provide for the needy, that land where lion and lamb, men and women, slave and free, of all races and languages and nations live peaceably side by side, where wars and rumours of wars are no more… but we are not yet there to experience it.

We, here today, are by baptism already made full members of the Kingdom of God, that one true kingdom that endures while all the others, like every nation in history, rises and falls, as one day, even our own great nation will pass away.  But, we are not yet present in that Kingdom, and as such are called to live as resident aliens in this land, subject to its laws, and active in its society.

And that Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, of which you and I are already citizens, has a crucial difference.

In this world, the call comes to serve our country, for patriotism: to serve our fatherland, to serve and protect the crown, the structures, the institutions, and the government.

But the Kingdom of God doesn’t ask for patriotism.  Patriotism is for the kingdoms of this world.

…In junior high English class, we read the classic poem “Dulce et Decorum Est pro patria mori” – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country; what the poet and World War I veteran William Owen described as “the old lie”, preached from pulpits as young men shipped off to war.

But the message of the Lamb of God, our Lord, is this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  But, my friends, it doesn’t stop there, for this is no airy-fairy love; this isn’t about positive thinking or happy thoughts.  For he continues, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”.[1]

This is no catch phrase.

No, the very Kingdom of God – the new Jerusalem, the new Heaven and the new Earth, that country where the lion and the lamb lie side by side – is built around, founded upon, the man who laid down his life for his friends – even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our eternal hope, our very faith, is founded on the one who willingly, without compulsion, entered a battle that was not his own – but which would never be won without him – so that those who were oppressed by the forces of evil could know the freedom of justice and peace.

And, if we are to be included ourselves, then “friends” isn’t just those with whom we like to spend time; the word there is companions, associates, those who choose to be on the same side.

Greater love has no one than this.

Our Duty

So, even in 2019, with church and society having learned so much about the horrors of war, we as Christians are called to duty.

Not to fight for the name of the God of Peace, as though that’s what God desires. 
Not to fight for the prideful divisions that keep the church divided in ministry and witnesses.
Not to fight for empire, or even for the political ideals of freedom or democracy, as every empire one day passes away.

Our duty, as those already citizens of the Kingdom of God, is to love this hurting world so much that we are willing to lay down our life, in imitation of our Lord.

Our duty, as those blessed with God’s provision, is not to hoard what we have been given, but to sow from our freedom and bounty so that others, even those under oppression in foreign lands, may reap what we’ve sown.  That, as we read in the Gospel, when that great harvest comes, we may all rejoice together in what the Lord has done.[2]

So, this day, let us commit ourselves to remember: to remember the great story, the honourable and the horrific, that has brought us to this day, and let us pledge never to forget God’s goodness to us through it all.

Let us commit to remember those men and women, from every walk of life, who sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy; those freedoms that, if we’re not careful, we and those who come after us can so easily take for granted.

And, as those citizens of the Kingdom of God, living – for now – as foreigners in this world and, by God’s grace, as citizens of this great land of Canada, let us long for our promised peace, yearning for an end to our divisions, and living as those who, when called, would take up our cross and bear it to the end for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

Will you persevere in resisting evil…?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people…?

To which we responded: I will, with God’s help.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget.

[1] John 15:12-13

[2] John 4:31-38

The Cheering Crowd of Saints

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Hebrews 12:1-2

Once each year, Christians around the world observe the Feast of All Saints, an opportunity for us to stop and think about what it is that we believe when we recite our faith in “the communion of saints” in the Creed.

All Saints, or in the older English, All Hallows, which comes each year on the first of November, is a Christian celebration going back to the late 300s, when Christians would remember the great heroes of the faith, the God-given examples of men and women who were not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, who were not ashamed to serve the weak and the poor, and who were not afraid to be rejected by those who are powerful in the eyes of the world.

The Church, from an early age, celebrated these heroes as inspiration for our own Christian pilgrimage – ordinary, imperfect men and women from all walks of life, who followed in the footsteps of our Lord, and in whose footsteps we ourselves now walk along that narrow path of discipleship.

For centuries, All Saints, or All Hallows, was a major high-point in the year.  In fact, the celebration lasted over three days, and even now, if you visit France, Spain, Portugal, or pretty much anywhere in South America, you’d encounter a public holiday with parades and special family meals. 

For many Christians around the world, there are two parts to this celebration: first, we remember those heroes who are examples that we can follow as we also strive to imitate Christ; then, as we did last night, we remember before God those who have died, praying for the repose of our loved ones, as we entrust them to the mercy of God in the hope of the resurrection. 

Sadly, in this country, that deeply meaningful custom is largely forgotten. 

For centuries, in England, Portugal, and parts of Northern Europe, on the eve of All Saints or All Hallows – that is, Hallow’s Eve or Halloween – children would go door to door, singing hymns or even praying litanies, knocking on doors to pray for the departed relatives and loved ones of each family, and in exchange, receive little sweet treats, “soul cakes” they were called.  In some places in England, groups would even dress in costume and perform a short play about death and resurrection, where those representing the saints of God would defeat an actor playing the Devil, reminding the audience of Christ’s triumph over death and the grave.

That, of course, was the root of Halloween, which has lost it’s Christian mooring altogether – if a child knocked on your door asking to pray for your family and your departed loved ones, I doubt many of us would even know how to respond!

On this day, as we remember and celebrate the Saints of God, I think there are two questions for us to answer.  First, who are the saints?  And secondly, why does it matter?

Simply put, the saints are those who are “set apart” for Christ.

The saints are the holy people of God, and the whole idea of “sacredness” means someone or something that is dedicated and set apart for the work and service of God.

Of course, there are those saints known to all Christians around the world – Peter, Andrew, James, Thomas, Paul and the other apostles, those first messengers who founded and were the first bishops of first churches in Rome, Greece, Jerusalem, India, and the cities around the Mediterranean.  The evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Those biblical examples of faith: St. Mary, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany.

But it’s also important not to limit the definition of “saint” too much – after all, the great news of the Gospel is not that God calls perfect people, but that God calls and equips everyday people, the only requirement being that they’re willing to follow: if Peter, who sank in the sea and publicly denied Christ not once, but three times could be a Saint; if Paul, who persecuted the Church and held the coats of those who stoned Stephen the Deacon for his faith in Jesus could become a Saint, then there’s hope for all of us if we’re willing to follow.

God raises up saints in every age – not that any of them are perfect in their own right, but that they are examples of what it means to live a life that is sacred, that is “set apart” to the service of God.

In each generation, the Church looks to those who have gone before, who have finished their race, and sees that God has given us examples of what it means to be a disciple in our own age, of what it looks like to love your neighbour as yourself, to offer yourself in the service of others, to repent of sin, and to take up your cross and follow Christ.

The saints are not perfect – only God is perfect.  But the saints are important examples to encourage us to persevere in following Christ.

Holiness is contageous

There’s another important idea, from the Old Testament, about who the saints are.  Going back to the book of Genesis, there is the idea that sacredness is spread by coming into contact with something that’s holy.  The People of the Old Covenant built altars – sacred sites – on the mountains where God revealed himself. 

In a way, the holiness of the presence of God is contagious – in Exodus God tells Moses that the altar in the place of worship must be set apart for no everyday use, and that anything that touches the altar becomes holy in the eyes of God.[1]  The same goes for the sacred vessels used in the worship that God directs,[2] and in Ezekiel, God directs that the priests should have special garments reserved for their ministry at the altar, which become holy by their use in the holy place.[3]

It’s this idea that St. Paul has in mind when he refers to all the baptized – to you and to me – as “saints”.  By the grace of God, we’re made members of Christ’s body; through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re invited to approach the throne of God boldly, as we receive the holy food and drink of Christ’s body and blood – and as we all know, you are what you eat.

Who are the saints?    The saints are those who have answered the call to follow Christ, and in doing so, are examples to us in our journey. 

Now, to be fair, there are some who are uncomfortable giving much attention to the saints; and certainly, there are entire denominations that at times have gone overboard.  But, if the way is narrow, and Christ is the one name by which we are saved, then to follow in the footsteps of those who follow Jesus is to walk in Christ’s own footsteps as well.  And it’s by the grace of God that our faith isn’t some distant memory in a far-off culture; but God gives examples and heroes of faith to every generation and every language and culture, that we may follow where he leads.

The Role of the Saints in our own Pilgrimage

So, if we know who the saints are, we might still ask, why does it matter?

Well, first, I’d say that an understanding of the communion of the saints is essential because it proves and even requires that “my faith” cannot be about ‘me and Jesus’.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s important that each of us decides to follow Jesus, that each of us has a relationship with God.

But the Christian faith is anything but personal in the sense of being individualistic. 

There are those who believe that we have to search for Jesus, to “find him”, as though he’s been hiding.  There are those who teach that we are to read the scriptures and come to our own conclusions, as though there isn’t 2000 years of continuous, unbroken teaching and preaching that has come before us.

When we decide to follow Jesus, it’s not as though we’re walking through a food court picking what we might have for lunch.  When we follow Jesus, we join a family, as we receive the inheritance of those who have gone before us, and are entrusted with the great responsibility of handing that inheritance down to those who come after.

The whole idea is not that me and Jesus are now best buddies, but that I am joined to the whole family of those who, across space and time, have joined themselves to God’s covenant community. 

Or, think about it this way: baptism isn’t just about you being washed from your sins.

Baptism is about us, together, being led through the Red Sea, from death and slavery to the land of life and freedom, though the one offering of Christ for the life of the world.

In our baptism, we join ourselves to Christ, and as we allow ourselves to come into contact with the Holy One and to follow where he leads, that holiness is contagious, and we ourselves become holy.

The other side of it is this: as we proclaim on All Souls Day and really every time we gather, death is not the end.  Our eyes don’t close when we die. It’s the exact opposite: when we die, the veil is lifted and, for the first time, we see God as he truly is, and we are fully known.

The Book of Hebrews describes the saints as this “great cloud of witnesses” – but I don’t think that’s the best translation of the Greek.  The word translated there as “witnesses” also means a crowd of spectators in the arena, watching a sporting event.

Now think about it: as we heard last week, St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy describes the faith as a race that we run, a race where we are to keep our eyes on the prize that is Jesus, as we run with endurance the course that lies ahead. 

This “great cloud of witnesses” – the saints – are those who have finished the race ahead of us, and now, with Christ, stand at the end of the course, cheering us on.  In the book of Revelation we read that these witnesses cry out around the altar of God, saying “how long”, praying for us to finish the race.

In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal covenant.  All Saints Day is the opportunity for us to remember our own baptismal covenant, and to recommit ourselves to live as the holy ones of God, and to reunite ourselves with the Body of Christ, that great and wonderful family that extends across all nations, across all times, in which we are all brothers and sisters, and those who go before cheer on those who follow after, just as we, running the race today, pick up those who stumble, carry the burdens of those who mourn, freely give even the shirt off our back to the one who needs it, and pass the torch to these little ones.

The Lord is glorious in his saints.  Let us live as those who are part of this family, let us live as those who are being made holy, even as we this morning are invited to recommit ourselves, to approach the altar, and to receive the body and blood of Christ.

To God be the Glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Exodus 29:37

[2] Exodus 30:29

[3] Ezekiel 44:19

The Thin Veil that Clouds our Vision

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today the Church invites us to offer our bounden duty and service of prayer and praise to Almighty God, but with particular attention to those whom we love but see no longer.

Every one of us here has been touched by the death of a loved one, and while on the one hand the Church tells us that we are to rejoice in the knowledge that Christ overcame death and the grave, this day reminds us that grief – that sadness and even that deep longing that we feel in the pit of our stomach because of separation from those whom we love is not just legitimate, but is part and parcel of life in this fallen world, marred by sin and corruption.

That longing, that desire to remember those who have died, as painful as it sometimes might be, is actually a gift.  It’s a gift that points us through the pain to the deep reality that every one of us is created for immortality; that while our bodies perish and memories fade, life continues in the nearer presence of the merciful, righteous, and loving God, who alone is the source of life.

Life and Death

We live in a time that is more confused about life and death than ever before.  Confused by conflicting teachings mixed with shreds of science and fear of our own mortality, it seems many of us come to understand life and bodily death as infinitely separate, as categorically different manners of being.

In the eyes of the world around us we’ve come to believe that, once that last breath is drawn, existence itself is somehow cut off.  This plays out most clearly, and is most sad, in the language of our fellow Christians: perhaps we can speak plainly about the life of faith in Christ Jesus, and perhaps we can even speak plainly about the eternal life that comes after future judgment, but the Church has largely fallen subject to the wider culture, in being unable and unwilling to speak with confidence the truths that we proclaim at Easter: that Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, and winning victory over the grave. 

And, if that’s the case, if death is defeated, then our longings to be reunited with those we love are not wrong at all; instead, they’re a foretaste of the eternity that God is calling us to share.

You see, life and bodily death are not categorically different; they are not separated by some chasm of our imagination or even by eternity itself.

Rather, it’s quite the opposite.  Death and life are imminently close.  The veil between our mortality and eternity is infinitely thin, separated at all times, and for all people, by nothing more than a single breath.  There hereafter is not far off, but imminently close.

And, on this side of the veil, we see things dimly.

The Church, as a bride prepared to be united on that long-awaited day, looks to Christ, our loved ones, and our eternal home with vision obscured by the gauzy veil of time.

And, when that last breath, that last beat of temporality is ended, it’s not as though we close our eyes.  No, it’s quite the opposite.  With that last breath, the veil is lifted and it is then that we see fully what we have longed for, it’s then that we ourselves are fully known, and as partakes in the death and resurrection of Christ, it’s then that we are born to eternal life.

What of those who weren’t model Christians?

Of course, there remain hard questions, for the veil – though thin – is real.

We proclaim in our Creed the truth of resurrection and of judgment, and the hope of everlasting life.  But what of those fellow pilgrims through this fallen world for whom, for whatever reason, we don’t feel as though we can boldly claim the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  Those – perhaps even those we love dearly – who had real struggles and real failings; perhaps even hurting those around them.

In times like these, it is of the utmost importance that we remember that none of us earn God’s mercy through good deeds; none of us can earn eternal life.  All who are saved are saved by grace, by Christ who loved us first.

Of course, it’s God’s will that we would grow in the likeness of Christ in this life, that we would follow in the steps of Christ leading us to the new heaven and the new earth, to the very throne of God in the new Jerusalem.  But, lest we prove our own unworthiness, we must remember that, when that veil is lifted, we stand as equals inasmuch as we stand only by the grace of God.

And, of course, as Christ himself tells us, we are called to be faithful, but it’s the master – not us – who will weigh the faithfulness of the servants.  Some are entrusted with only a little with which to be faithful, while some are entrusted with much; whether we lived in faith from birth, or turned to Christ as adults, or whether a wretched soul reached for that extended hand of mercy as the darkness of death itself was falling over their eyes, the reward is not ours, but Christ’s, offered freely as we accept his invitation to share in the victory over death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the very Son of God.

Prayers for those we love but see no longer.

So, tonight, we remember the dead; but not just recalling the happy memories.  Tonight we remember them before God in our prayers and in our worship. 

We pray for them because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.[1]

True, when those we love pass through the veil, we see them no more; but that’s when the people of God, throughout history, have confidence that those who have gone before will be caught up with Christ, even those whose faith was unknown to us, or who received the gift of faith at the final hour like the criminal on the cross, who, even that day, was with Christ in paradise.[2]

And, by the mercy of God, we believe that the process of sanctification, the process of being healed and conformed to the image of God, does not end with the wearing out of this frail flesh.  Indeed, how sad would it be if, once the scars and weight of this sinful world are healed, and our vision is unclouded, and we can finally know things as they truly are, how sad would it be if we did not then have the opportunity to go from strength to strength as those redeemed by Christ, growing in grace and love to become more like Christ our Saviour.

Tonight we pray for ourselves, acknowledging our grief and pain, just as we trust that those saints who have gone before are interceding even now for all of us those who are still in their pilgrimage.  And, our prayers for the faithful departed are nothing short of us proclaiming our faith, and our assurance that Christ has destroyed the power of the grave, and has made us partakers through our baptism in that death and resurrection; that we, like them, are united with the whole people of God, so that we, too, may come to that unspeakable joy in that place where nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So let us proclaim that faith with true hope and full assurance for all who die in Christ, not in sadness, but as those who know that our merciful God has won the victory.

            May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.
            And may light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.

[1] The Catechism of the 1979 BCP.

[2] For a fuller exploration, see N.T. Wright, For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed (Morehouse, 2004).

Humble, not Humiliated

Luke 18:9-14

“Humility” is not a very popular concept.

On the one hand, those writing the history books of the future might look back at the past 100 years and declare that this was the century of “equality”, as it became the lens through which we view each modern controversy: from women’s suffrage in 1916, to civil rights movements leading to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as we’ve attempted to deal with issues from land claims and self-government to the decisions to redefine marriage and definitions of the family in Canadian law, with each movement claiming “equality” as its goal.

But, for all the talk of equality, we continue to create new and different ways to distinguish ourselves from our neighbour.  We all do it – and it is so ingrained that it’s almost sub-conscious.  You know, those quick, fleeting thoughts that flash across our minds when we encounter someone who, for whatever reason, we’ve categorized as “other”: it might be that warm flash of pride when we see our shiny new car parked between two old jalopies; it might be that silent “good heavens” when we see someone still in their pyjamas with a couple of unruly kids hanging off their shopping cart at the store; it might be that splash of dopamine, that moment of pleasure that we’ve learned to crave as we check our Facebook again and again to see how many likes that post had – or, depending on our mood, perhaps even clicking to see who has liked it, and who hasn’t.

As a society, we’ve made great strides in the name of “equality”.

But, in a world bent towards corruption by the effects of sin, we simply cannot help ourselves from creating division.

From the start, the chief effects of sin are division and separation.  Separation from the God-given blessings of the land, divisions between parents and children and peoples and nations,
and separation from life in the presence of a holy God, as we choose darkness over light and death over life.

We’ve come a long way from our great-grandparents, whose society built dividing lines based on race or gender; but where one dividing line falls, it seems a new one is built.

Humility is not a very popular concept.

It was Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 1900s who wrote that, above all else, ‘pride is the chief sin of the religious person’.[1] 

Now, if we’re living our lives as disciples, as apprentices, students of Christ, and our call is to follow where he leads, we’ll find ourselves moving from strength to strength as grow in the imitation of Christ, as we increase in charity and love for each other, as we become able to speak the truth in love, following that narrow path of obedience.

But the problem with this narrow path carved through the mountains alongside the valley of death is that, if you stop to look around, to see where you are compared to the others, if you lose track of the footprints of the one leading the way, you risk losing your footing, and then you fall.

Yes, pride is the chief sin for a religious person, precisely because it only springs up after we’ve avoided the more public, the more visible sins.

No good Christian would boast that you have lied, or committed murder, or dishonoured your parents.  You wouldn’t boast that you sat down and carved a false God, or lost your house and livelihood to addiction. But how easy is it for any one of us to see those sins in another, and suddenly feel that warm rush of sinful pride as we thank – not God, but ourselves – that we aren’t like those people.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

In the Gospel today, we hear the Pharisee saying his prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”.

Now, I hope we all recognize that there’s a problem with this prayer – standing up and telling God how great you are.  But that’s not the lesson for us.

The reality, you see, is that the Pharisee is right

Everything he’s saying is true.  The Pharisee’s concern above all else was keeping the laws of the Old Covenant as strictly and carefully as possible.  By the objective religious standard, he is a better Jew, a more observant God-fearer than thieves, evildoers, adulterers, or tax collectors.  The law required a fast once per year on the Day of Atonement, but he offered God a fast twice each week; the law required that you offer back to God a tenth of your living expenses and farm profits, but he offered back a tenth of every thing he received.

According to the law, according to the cultural and religious expectations of his day, the Pharisee is right.

The problem – and the lesson for us – is that, for as right as he certainly is, the second his “rightness” became a badge of honour that he could show to the world, it loses its value.

Sure, he’s no less right.  But, you know what the scriptures say: if you announce your good works, sure, they’re still good works, but “truly, I tell you, you have received your reward”.[2] 

After resisting the temptations to disobey the law, the Pharisee falls victim to that more sinister, chief sin of pride, which makes all of his obedience and religious progress worthless.  All the effort of following that narrow path becomes worthless if, in your looking around at others in their journey, you lose your footing at fall.

What is Humility?

There’s a lot to think about there.  Pride and humility are big ideas.

Unfortunately, we aren’t helped by what “humility” has come to mean in the way we speak.

We think, before anything else, of “humiliation”, when you’re made to feel ashamed or foolish by an attack on your dignity: that’s not humility, and as sons and daughters of God and members of Christ’s Body, humiliation is the furthest thing from what God wants for us.  After all, we’re made in His image, and he loves us so much, we’re worth so much, that before the foundation of the world He would offer his own son to redeem us.

Humiliation – an attack on your dignity by someone else – is not humility.

Humiliation – feeling humiliated – is an emotion, and a highly negative one at that, the feeling of responding to a public attack by another.

Humility, on the other hand, is not an emotion, but an attitude. 

Where humiliation is reactive, responding to what someone else has done, humility is a direction, a course that we set for ourselves.

Humility – having the quality of humbleness – means that we have become intentionally aware of our status, of our strengths and weaknesses, and our relationships to others.

Too often, we’ve allowed everyday speech – the same speech that, just under the surface, is building walls to divide “us” from “them” – to define “humble” as a polite way of saying “poor”, or as a kind way of saying that someone is weak or passive. 

But that’s not the point.  A person who is humble is aware of their status before God.  The word itself comes from a Latin word meaning “of the earth”, as our faith itself tells us that our entire existence depends on God, and as the dirt will one day be sprinkled on the earthly remains of every one of us, we are called to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Confidence in Christ

The Pharisee, proclaiming how much better he is than the others, is certainly not humble.

But, let’s take a moment to hear again the words of St. Paul, the blessed Apostle to the Gentiles, and see if we hear the difference in his speech:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me…”[3]

Is this a humble speech?  Yes.

St. Paul knows his worth in the eyes of God as a sinner forgiven by grace, even as he awaits his trial in a Roman prison.

Like the Pharisee, St. Paul knows he has done what is required of him, and when he has messed up, he’s asked for forgiveness and started again.  Again, St. Paul, like the Pharisee, has full confidence in the reward that accompanies a life of faith.

The difference, though, is the attitude, the direction of their gaze.

St. Paul, a student and follower of Jesus, followed the narrow path; and now, nearing the end of what he describes as his earthly race, what does he do?  Does he stop and turn around to see how big of a lead he has?  No.  He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on Christ, knowing that, whatever he may face, his worth, his identity is secure as a child of God.

The Pharisee is also running the race of obedience, but instead of keeping his eyes on the prize, he’s focused instead on the others that he thinks he has left in the dust; but no one wins a race by focusing on how much better you are than the others; and the surest way to lose a race is to assume that you’ve already won.

And what about that tax collector?

Well, there’s no question: this man was a sinner.  Tax collectors were those who cooperated with the Roman oppressors, and were authorized to charge as much as they liked and to collect the debt by any means, even violence.  There’s no question, he robbed those in his own community to line his own pockets, and was probably personally responsible for widows losing their homes.

He was certainly universally hated; he had hurt everyone around him.  He came to the temple, but wouldn’t dare even enter, but stood out in the porch with his head down so people wouldn’t recognize him.  And while everyone else was performing the daily rituals of prayer, he bent down and said “God, have mercy on me a sinner”.

…And here’s the scary bit: that criminal – he’s the one who went home in a right relationship with God.

Is Jesus telling us to follow the example of the tax collector?  By no means; Jesus doesn’t condone the sin; and whenever Jesus encounters people in the Gospels he tells them to go and sin no more, making right what they have done wrong.

But it’s a matter of attitude: the tax collector knows where he stands; he knows he needs God’s mercy, and he makes no excuses.  He doesn’t stand there and say, “well at least I didn’t murder someone, or at least I’m not a homeless drunk”.  He needs mercy.  He asked for mercy. And he received mercy.  The Pharisee, as right as he was, didn’t receive anything, for he had already received his reward.

How, then shall we live?

Humility is not a popular concept.  But, it was St. Cyril of Alexandria who said “no true soldier who has seen battle brags that they came out alive while others fell”.[4]

We’re all on this journey.  The temptations may look different, but “there, but by the grace of God, go I”, and the moment we take our eyes off the prize to see how much farther ahead we are than those who are struggling is the moment we fall. 

But, from a place of humility; with the knowledge that we are all God’s children, and with our course set as followers of Christ, everything changes.  When you know who you are, as a forgiven Child of God, the dividing walls are no longer necessary.  When you know where your value lies, puffing ourselves up with pride no longer gains us anything.  When we are honest with ourselves about our own struggles, then we realize the mercy we’ve received, and can extend that grace to a world that is desperately hurting.

For, truly I tell you, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.  To God be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] Volume IV.1, 60.2 of Church Dogmatics.  Barth begins by saying the chief sin is “unbelief”, which he explains as the pride of man in believing that we can be god, being our own law-giver, judge, and saviour.

[2] Matthew 6:2

[3] 2 Timothy 4:6-8a

[4] Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, Homily 120, para.

Featured Image: “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, Acrylic on Canvas by Rebecca Brogan.

Thanksgiving: Check your privilege

It’s probably no surprise that, on this long weekend when many of us will be joining friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving, we find that our lessons this morning share the theme of thankfulness.

After all, thankfulness – gratitude – is important if we’re going to share our lives with those around us.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that for most of us, one of our first lessons in using our manners was to say “please” and “thank you” when we asked and received what we needed.  Even this week, I had a great conversation with someone about the simple act of sending a thank-you note, and how, in this age where communication is quicker and easier than ever before, we rarely take the time anymore to thank someone for what they’ve done for us, other than a quick “thanks” on the way out the door.

There’s no question: gratitude is important.

Yet, as many Canadians sit around the thanksgiving table for a feast this weekend, I wonder if our gratitude has become somewhat shallow.

Thankful for What?

If we were to hold up a mirror and really unpack what we think and say on this weekend meant to give thanks for food, shelter, clothing, freedom, and family, I wonder how often that gratitude goes beyond “me”.  After all, it takes hard work to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and toys in our kids’ hands, and those freedoms that have been won by those who have gone before us are now our absolute rights to which we are entitled.

It’s a tough question, but one worth asking: if we scratch below the “good manners” that we’ve been taught, how much of our thankfulness stops at “I’m thankful for me”, or “I’m thankful for what I’ve done”.


We live at a time when we are constantly being reminded in the media and in public discourse to “check our privilege”.  Maybe you’ve heard the phrase.  In younger circles, it’s becoming a phrase to live by when engaging in the discussion of politics or religion or beliefs about society.  The idea is simple, but for those who have adopted the phrase, it’s meant to cut deep: before you say something, or before you enter a discussion with someone with a different viewpoint, before you argue for what is “rightfully yours”, you “check your privilege” – you step back and consider if what you believe, if what you bring to the conversation, is universal, or if it only appears to be universally true based on your own experience; you step back and ask if your position and your actions would be true if the “privileges” you enjoy were removed – privileges that reflect the uneven playing field on which we are born: a world bent and tilted towards pride and selfishness, with race, money, status, level of family support, and opportunities either as privileges that give us a leg up, or as pitfalls which hold us back.

This idea of “privilege” is popular in public speech today, but it’s really an ancient idea found in philosophy: if God is eternal and unchanging as we believe him to be, if the One True God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then for anything to be really and truly Good, True, or Beautiful in God’s eyes must be equally Good, True, or Beautiful in every time and place, and for every culture or situation.

Of course, every culture and society needs rules and customs and systems to operate, but for something to be ultimately Good, and Good in God’s eternal eyes, then it has to be as true for the wandering nomad in the desert as it is for us; for something to be really True or Beautiful, it has to be as true and beautiful for the 7-year-old slave girl working in a clothing factory in Pakistan as it is for me.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s check our privilege.

The truth is that every one of us here has had struggles, requiring real work for us to get to where we are.  The food on our table hasn’t been manna appearing overnight, but has taken effort to put there.  All of us, at some point, have had worries and anxieties about work or our homes, often requiring hard and costly decisions, even uprooting our families and leaving loved ones to make our living.  Many of us, at some point, have had to make hard personal decisions, reaching a decision point when we reached the end of the rope and had to decide if we would keep going the way we were going, out of control, or if we would turn our lives around and get on the right path.

Perhaps you, like me, have a lot to be thankful for.

But if we check our privilege, if we take the opportunities that we were given through no effort of our own out of the equation, we find that “I’m thankful for what I’ve done” doesn’t hold true.

All of us have free will and are responsible for the moves we make, but none of us chose where we started out.  The privilege of a supportive family; the privilege of skin colour or an accent that doesn’t stand out; the privilege of that connection to get a foot in the door for a good job; even the privilege of access to education, of access to loans and funding, even the privilege of having someone to teach you how to speak kindly-yet-assertively to people and to make yourself look presentable so that you earn someone’s trust. 

When we take these into consideration, “I’m thankful for what I’ve done” is a most privileged statement, only true from the vantage point of those who have been given much.

Looking Back: An Older Model

So where do we go from here?

In Deuteronomy 26, God’s chosen people under the Old Covenant are given instructions for what we might call the first Thanksgiving. 

“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess … you shall take some of the first of all your harvest, and bring it to the house of God.  You shall go to the priest who is in office and make this declaration: “Today I declare to the Lord that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us”.[1]

Then, the people were instructed to make an account of the blessings their ancestors had received, which brought them to that point: that God saved Israel out of Egypt, provided for them in their time of need, and brought them into this pleasant and fruitful land.

In the Biblical narrative, Thanksgiving isn’t about our effort and what we’ve each achieved.  It’s the exact opposite.  Thanksgiving is about acknowledging our inheritance.  It’s about acknowledging all of those God-given things outside of ourselves that have brought us here.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s no question, these people worked hard for their food.  They tilled the land, they woke up early and worked late; this was the work of human hands.  But, the were called to acknowledge that it was by the grace of God that they were in their position.  It was by the grace of God that they had strength, and health to work and freedom to enjoy their leisure.  It was only by the grace of God that they, at harvest time, found themselves in a position to celebrate.  After all, not one of us can add even one breath to the span of our lives.

And celebrate they did – but God had instructions about that too.

You’re to celebrate with all the bounty that God has given you – a true feast with all of God’s good gifts of wine and meat and maybe even a second plate of dessert.  But, verse 11, you’re to celebrate with the alien who is in your land.    You’re to celebrate with the person who isn’t privileged; the person who has no family, the person who doesn’t have the same opportunities and connections to get a decent job, the person who doesn’t have the support structure they need to turn their life around and build bridges to get back to where they belong.

Acknowledging what we have

Thanksgiving calls us not to look at the things around us and be thankful, but to think upon and appreciate those things that paved the way for us, and to thank God. 

We thank God for that which is really Good, True, and Beautiful.  As we heard from Philippians, we’re to rejoice always, with prayer and thanksgiving, thinking on whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just and pure and pleasing and commendable.  This Thanksgiving, think on these things.

And, we think back to the manna from heaven.[2]  God’s inexplicable provision, that came with the caveat that whenever you tried to store it up so that you wouldn’t have to trust  God for tomorrow, it spoiled and grew maggots.

And maybe that’s the point: when we check our privilege, when we’re honest about what is really the fruit of our labour, and what is really just the skewing of the playing field through sin, anything that we think we’ve stored up is actually rotten.

It’s by grace that we’re here.  Not one of us, no matter how anxiously we worry, can add a moment to our lives or an inch to our stature: it’s the Lord who provides.

So, this Thanksgiving, I want all of us to remember that first Thanksgiving in scripture.

Today or tomorrow, take a moment, and consider all that you have.  But, take a moment and consider all those who God has put along your path to help you get here: those friends and loved ones who went before you, who shared what they had, who helped you get to where you are. 

Think on, rejoice in, those things that are Good, True, and Beautiful.  And declare – truly declare – that “these are gifts from God”.

And then, whether it’s today or tomorrow, or whether it’s one day this week, follow through: share your celebration with someone in need.  Whether it’s an invitation to dinner, a visit to someone who is lonely, supporting someone who is going without, or coming alongside someone who is at the end of their rope and needs a hand to turn their life around, a true celebration, a real Thanksgiving, is one that takes what God has given you and offers it freely to one in need.

For you never know what mighty tree God might have in mind for that small seed of kindness that you sow for your brother or sister, and Christ says, whatever you do for the least of those in need, you’ve done for him.

To God be the Glory forever and ever.  Amen.

This sermon was paired with the hymn “My Worth is Not in What I Own” by Graham Kendrick and Keith & Kristyn Getty

Note: “Privilege” as a framework has its limits, as does any attempt to subjectively categorize the complexities of human interactions in which each individual perceives different advantages and disadvantages from their individual vantage point. This is behind my shout-out to “the Trancendentals” — universal Goodness, Truth, and Beauty — which are used in Western Christian theology as truly universal descriptors of God’s Being, and as interchangeable or intertwined (that which is Good must also be Beautiful and True, etc.).

My use of “privilege” is intended to expand the horizons of this discussion at a holiday during which when family, traditions, and worldly gains are increasingly front and center.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:1-11

[2] Exodus 16:1-36