November 24, 2019 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Scripture:  Colossians 1:11-20; Reign of Christ        


     Christ is king.  Christ reigns.  Why would we say that?  What an outmoded, passé concept—a monarch ruling over all.  Maybe in Great Britain that sort of imagery would work, though even there skepticism about the monarchy is commonplace.  But here in this country, that sort of royal imagery sounds oddly out of place.  Royal images in a republic?  A monarch in a democracy?  What an odd celebration we enter today.  For some of us, it may just bore us to death or rub us the wrong way. 


     I suspect, though, that these images still have something to offer us as people of faith.  To declare that Christ is sovereign is to declare that no one else is.  In the world of the ancient church, to say that Christ ruled meant that Caesar didn’t.  And the same is true for us.  Christ rules, not Donald Trump.  Christ rules, not Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell.  To say that Christ rules is to say that it’s Christ who is our North Star.  It’s Christ, not politicians, to whom we look for guidance and direction and nourishment.


     So to say that Christ reigns is at least partly a political declaration.  It’s also an allegiance with cultural significance.  Christ reigns—and this is where the real mutiny will happen—not the Cleveland Browns.  Christ reigns, not the Cleveland Clinic or Key Bank or the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Christ reigns, not our child’s athletic or drama schedule.  Christ reigns, not fanatical work schedules that take us away from rest and family and neighborhood connections.  Christ reigns, not all the seductive forces that pull us in other directions—not video games or alcohol or porn.  And in a largely interior way, Christ reigns, not our petty resentments, not our wounded egos, not our fanatical attempts to justify ourselves and make ourselves look good.  It’s Christ who reigns.


     The Reign of Christ may sound, at first glance, like an outmoded concept, one that no longer speaks to our age or our sensibilities.  When we look more closely, though, we see how easy it is to lose our sense of what’s most important in life.  Idols crop up all over the place, idols that scream at us or whisper to us, “Worship me.  Give me your time, your energy, your loyalty.  And I will reward you”—so they claim—“with what you most want.”


     And to all those misdirected voices the letter to the Colossians issues a colossal rebuke.  ‘No,’ it says, ‘none of you idols are right—you’re not the one to worship.’  The writer quotes a hymn of the day, with soaring words of praise: “Christ is exactly like God” (1:15, CEV), says the hymn.  “For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible . . .—everything got started in [Christ] and finds its purpose in [Christ]” (1:16, The Message).  This is radiant rhetoric, and it points to Christ as the center of creation.


     It also declares that Christ alone is the One who properly belongs at the center of our lives.  In a book called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It, David Zahl notes that “The religions we adhere to are no longer the conventional Sunday morning varietals.  They’re religions grounded in our stances on politics, food, parenting, and leisure” (Jason Micheli review, Christian Century, Nov. 20, 2019, p. 34).  People, he says, have migrated to secular activities “to provide the justifying story of our life.”  They turn to a variety of pursuits—exercise, politics, a particular way of eating—to derive a sense of their ultimate value, to be assured that they’re okay, that they’re enough.


     So in this culture, some very good pursuits are elevated beyond what they can actually bear and accomplish—it’s like a spiritual Peter principle.  These alternative endeavors are given a kind of holy status, and the expectation is that other people, too, should adhere to those dictates.  For example, some people put their stock in eating and cooking right.  Locally sourced, free-range, organic, vegetarian, non-GMO, sugar-free, fat-free, and antibiotic-free all have huge gifts to offer.  They contribute to healthy living and a sustainable planet.  All these gastronomic guidelines have great value.  At the same time, though, if they become a new expectation, a new law, a rigid standard that everybody must follow, then they have conveyed a new kind of works-righteousness—a contemporary version of “Have you been born again?  You have to do this to be saved.”  In some quarters, some really beneficial food qualities and eating habits, says David Zahl, have been moved out of the realm of healthy guidelines, and have taken on a kind of religious zeal: you must practice this way, or you have somehow let the food gods down.


     It’s not just food fervor, either.  Parenting styles, exercise regimens, brand loyalty, athletic fandom—in any of these, zeal can take over, and what was once simply good, what was once simply a distinctive benefit, has moved into a new realm and become a standard that others dare not violate.  And so it moves from gift to requirement, from blessing to oppressive rule.  A number of inherently good habits have become religions, and worst of all, they’ve become bad religions.


     All these lesser loyalties are ways of finding meaning horizontally instead of vertically.  Where once people looked to something transcendent to discern their place and their significance, now they much more often look to CrossFit or fruit smoothies or being what’s sometimes called a “lawnmower parent” who shortsightedly just mows down any challenge in their child’s path in a misguided attempt both to ensure their child’s success and to establish their own worth as parents. 


     Jason Micheli, in a review of Zahl’s book Seculosity, says, “Whereas our predecessors could say, ‘I’m baptized,’ we say, ‘I’m so busy,’ and hope that the state of busyness is enough to justify our lives.  Whereas ancient Christians apprenticed themselves to the saints, we count our exercise steps and Facebook likes to validate ourselves.  We don’t pray to icons that serve as windows onto the divine, but we carefully stage and edit images for Instagram that will be windows for others to gaze upon a more perfect version of ourselves.”  As Micheli says, in returning to the food image, the hope of so many people in our age is that “if you eat organic and sustainably sourced food, then you will be enough.  In the language of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther, the oughts and shoulds of seculosities pledge the very same promise that is at the heart of any religion based only on law.  The promise is predicated entirely on our performance” (p. 35).


     Or, to frame it in terms of Reign of Christ Sunday and our scripture focus for the day, people are still and always looking for a monarch who will give them the comfort and peace and sense of rightness that they most crave, who will convey to them that they are enough.  And while the contemporary American church is evidently not adequately expressing the richness of the reign of Christ, it also needs to be said that these other ill-advised secular religions are themselves falling woefully short.  These other thinly-conceived attempts at religion simply cannot carry the weight they’re expected to carry.  These other, largely beneficial, habits and behaviors are meant to be guidelines not rulers, gifts not laws, virtues not gods.  If we’re to be grounded and whole, if we’re really, deeply, to discover that we are enough, some other object of faith is needed, something that reminds us, not of laws and expectations, but of acceptance and love, something that assures us that our worth is dependent not on our doing everything right, but only—only—on the free gift of the God who treasures us just as we are. 


     At bottom, we are all aching for grace.  Or, as the letter to the Colossians puts it, we are aching to be in thrall to the only God who can reveal to us the hoped-for wonder of life.  It’s not successfully meeting every standard and passing every test that grounds our lives.  It’s the incredible gift of a God who will not let us go.


     So it’s not report cards that are at the root of our lives.  What’s central is blessing that is bestowed irrespective of our performance.  What’s crucial is an embrace that is conferred without any regard to success or failure.  You and I are loved simply as we are.  And the only thing left for us to do is to receive that love and to express our gratitude.


     When Christ rules, the heart of faith is gratitude.  It’s thankfulness.  Every day, we have the opportunity, the privilege, to say thank you for the incredible array of blessings showered upon us.  And a truly rich Thanksgiving for us is more than just gratitude for things.  It’s a bottomless gratefulness for the richness of life that has come to us by the grace of God.  Gratefulness to God for the sheer magnificence of life and for the eternal embrace that holds us close—this is what is at the heart of life as disciples of a reigning Christ.


     Brother David Steindl-Rast, whom I quoted a few weeks ago in another context, is a Benedictine monk whose deepest belief is that gratefulness is the heart of prayer [see his book by that title].  And he implores us to live in that gratitude.  We’re going to see a video now of Brother David talking about that habit of gratitude. [SHOW VIDEO,]


     Live every day as though it’s your first day of life and your very last day—with wonder and wide-eyed gratitude for the incredible beauty of the gifts that are ours every day.  Remember that you and I are embraced by a beautiful, relentless love.  To spend the day that way is to live it as richly and well as it can possibly be lived.


     And then, as we open our hearts to all these many blessings, may they flow through us to bless others, so that everyone we encounter will be blessed by our very presence.  May we remember that if life is such a gift—and it is—we are invited to convey its beauty and wonder to the sisters and brothers with whom we share this earth.  On Thanksgiving, we receive gratefully, and we give generously.  Which is why, with our Ingathering today, we bring abundant food for some who have little, and we carry it forth to be a gift of love where it is needed.  In the words of the song we will sing in a few moments:

(10:00), “Until all are fed we cry out!  Until all on earth have bread.  Like the One who loves us each and every one we serve until all are fed” (“Until All Are Fed,” refrain).


(RISE), “Go make a difference, we can make a difference.  Go make a difference in the world” (“Go Make a Difference,” refrain).


     May we go forth to live gratefully and to serve generously.