“All in the Family”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Abigail G. Henderson at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC.
Jer 23:2-6; Colossians 1:11-20
I have a friend here in Minneapolis who is flying home to St. Louis on Thanksgiving day. I offered to give her an early-morning ride to the airport. “I have to get up anyway to start the turkey,” I said. She was surprised—“You’re doing the turkey? Abby, I think you’re a real grown-up now!” I responded that we should wait until after the meal to draw that conclusion. If, by the end of the day, I’m not huddled in a corner, crying and clutching a scorched bird, then yes, I am a real grown-up!
Thanksgiving can be a fraught holiday! As a first-time hostess, I’ve turned to the Internet for help and advice. Not surprisingly, there is a wealth of resources out there for surviving this day of feasting and celebration. A phrase I keep seeing is this: “How to cope with blank on Thanksgiving.” For example: how to cope with grief on Thanksgiving. With depression. With overeating. With IBS. With an eating disorder. Or, how to cope with divorced parents at Thanksgiving. With having a college student at home. With having too many guests. With having too few. With being alone. And so it went on, link after link.
I love Thanksgiving—I always have—but I often find it to be the most ironic of holidays. It’s this day when we’re supposed to gather and express gratitude for the gift of family and friends. But this means actually having to deal with our family and friends—not even under normal circumstances, but in a pressure cooker of small spaces, high expectations, and elaborate meal preparation. For any family, this is tough—let alone families under strain from change, dysfunction, or sorrow.
Then there’s the cultural and political ironies of Thanksgiving. We all know the popular narrative—the pilgrims and the “Indians” joined together for a bountiful feast, reflecting the kind of hard work and cooperative spirit our country was built on. You don’t need me to tell all the tragic realities beneath this myth. Jane discussed some of this history in her blog post this past week. She wrote about how American colonists “brought with them the ideology of ‘manifest destiny.’ They truly believed that God had ordained them to rule over this entire continent: to cut down the forests and plow the prairies, to subdue the indigenous people with guns and alcohol and diseases, and convert them, not only to Christianity, but to European cultural ways.” Jane described how manifest destiny—this idea that God somehow chose America to be exceptional, to be a distinctive leader among nations—persists to this day. We see evidence of it in our elections and our national discourse. We see it in our foreign policy, which so frequently purses war over peace and imposes so-called “American” values of capitalism and aggression on other cultures.
Proud displays of American imperialism makes me uncomfortable—almost as much as arrogant displays of Christian triumphalism. I don’t know about you, but I can’t listen to our second reading from Colossians without getting a bit shifty. The lectionary gives themes to various Sundays, and in addition to being Thanksgiving, this week is dedicated to “The Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King.” Oh, boy. My knee jerk reaction is this: no thanks. The Christ I follow isn’t an all-powerful, patriarchal king-guy. He’s a poor man. A humble carpenter. Not a ruler but a rabbi. All that stuff about “God the Father” and “dominions and powers” and “the blood of the cross”—no way. That’s not my Christianity.
Except it is. It is. Whether I like it or not.
Reading Colossians, for me, is a little like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with a distant member of my family—someone whom I find difficult and occasionally offensive. Yet this person is related to me; he is part of my context, my identity, and I feel obligated to see him through some strange bond of family.
Let me put it another way: those words from Colossians and the ways they’ve been interpreted through the generations—all of it is my context. My inescapable history. By associating myself with the church—with any church—I must grapple with the legacy of theologies, institutions, and actions that do not reflect my values. And of course, the tough stuff isn’t all in the distant past. As I minister, I frequently encounter people who have been so deeply hurt by the Church: they’ve been abused by its leaders, alienated by its authority, rejected by its people, or shamed by its holy text. Some of you here may identify with what I’m saying.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” That’s Jeremiah speaking on behalf of God. His words were addressed to the leaders, the kings who failed to do the work entrusted by them to God. What is that work? Protecting the flock; nurturing it; keeping it together. I can’t help but think of those words now. From a God’s eye perspective, the Christian churches—even the megachurches, even the Vatican—must seem like so many scattered sheep. We wander around, divided, concerned with our own survival.
Yet never fear, says The Lord.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord….The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Jeremiah reminds us what a kingdom led by a Good Shepherd is supposed to look like. Many Christians think that Paul’s words in Colossians are a fulfillment of this ancient prophesy.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.
But it goes without saying that the Church, in its many manifestations, often falls short of peace and reconciliation. Just like the United States of America is still a land of racial injustice and poverty. Here we are, confronted with the enormous gap between what is promised and what just… is.
There it is again—that irony. A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects. If Thanksgiving is among the most ironic of holidays, perhaps Christianity could claim the same among religions. So maybe it’s fitting they fall on the same Sunday this year.
Perhaps all these ironies teach us about how, and why we give thanks. We don’t thank God because things are perfect and whole. (If we did, there wouldn’t be much to say!) No, we give thanks for the ways in which grace touches our lives, despite the brokenness around us. We give thanks for our blessings, even the dubious ones. We give thanks for the ever-present possibility of change—change that has healed and helped us in the past, and change yet to come in the future.
And change is coming. Advent begins next week. If you, like me, struggle with the image of Christ the King, then I encourage you to make a little space in your heart for Jesus the baby. Give that baby room, not because he is Christ but because he is brand new and he represents the coming of a whole new world. Allow him to change you, influence you, confound you. He doesn’t belong just to you—he belongs to a whole huge family of churches and causes and agendas, and you won’t always like what you see. But give thanks for him, because maybe, just maybe, he will bring you hope, and joy, and new causes for thanksgiving.
So let him be born, and watch him grow.