Sermon for November 24, 2019: Return to the King (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5

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It’s almost Thanksgiving and here at Grace, we will be hosting our Second Annual Thanksgiving Dinner. All are welcome to come and celebrate and give thanks for all of our blessings.


It’s been interesting preparing for the dinner this year, because more people in the broader Martinez community seem to have taken an interest in it. After I posted about it on Nextdoor online, the office received several calls from folks who wanted to come “feed the homeless.” We had to explain to these nice folks that ours was not a dinner where the “givers” stood behind a table and handed out food to “the needy.” Rather, it is a dinner in which people from all socioeconomic backgrounds get together, give thanks, and share a meal. As I told one mom who was interested in teaching her teenagers to appreciate how much they have, “We all work and eat together.”


This kind of thinking is relatively new in church circles, which have a long history of encouraging those who have much to give to those who have little. For many years, the church model was to raise money by holding events that were fun for the “haves” in order to write checks for “the have nots.” Of course, this is not wrong. It is always good to attempt to provide for folks in need and many nonprofit organizations are in desperate need of donations. Research done in the latter half of the 20th century shows, however, that the best way to help those in need is to work with them instead of for them. According to studies, the reason we fail when we attempt to “help” others is because we don’t ask them what they need, and show them how to get it. Imposing our idea of what is right for them is simply practicing “toxic charity.”


This has really been brought home to me in these weeks leading up to Thanksgiving as I have been reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an Indian history of the American West.” Although the indigenous people of this continent welcomed their first European visitors with courtesy and generosity, the Europeans, believing that they had a mandate from God to take the land and convert its peoples, responded with greed and violence, ultimately decimating the native population. This is the true tragic ending to the story we tell every year at Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims celebrating their first year of survival in the New World, especially considering that the white people would not have survived without the help of first tribe members.


Our country’s history is not, of course, unique. It seems to me that this is what always happens when one group decides that it has the right to exercise power over another – to take for itself rather than share with others. The leaders who use these kinds of justifications are the people to whom the prophet Jeremiah is speaking in today’s Hebrew scripture. In Jeremiah’s time, the term “shepherd” was equivalent to “king” – and Jeremiah was no fan of kings. “Again and again Jeremiah admonishes …kings for failing to execute justice. Their greed for power and prosperity leads them away from the justice they are called to provide for the people.”[1]


Today we celebrate the “king” who is all about justice. The Feast of Christ the King is celebrated on the last Sunday of Pentecost and, since we have been hearing about Jesus’s life and teachings for many months since Pentecost, the shapers of our liturgical calendar hope that we have obtained at least a limited grasp of who Jesus was – and who Jesus wasn’t. Jesus was a true shepherd- a model of loving God and neighbor, of demonstrating “the value God has bestowed on every human being [and the necessity of working] toward justice and God’s restoration for all people.”[2]


The universality of Jesus’s example is emphasized by Paul in his letter to the Colossians when he reminds his people that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” – present at the beginning of life and predecessor of all races and cultures. Jesus was and is first – and his desire is that we practice peace and reconciliation. No human tribe, nation, or group can claim ascendance over any other. We are all in this together.


When my children were small, we used to watch Sesame Street together. They were particularly fond of Elmo, a furry red Muppet who is three and one-half years old and has his own Street segment called “Elmo’s World.” Elmo taught me one of the most profound lessons of my life – without words and in about three minutes. Picture a split screen: on one side a small child is brushing her teeth and on the other a fish is swimming in a bowl. The child leaves the tap open while brushing her teeth. As we watch the water run down the sink drain, we concurrently see water draining out of the fish bowl. When the child is done brushing her teeth, she turns off the water – and we switch to the second screen, where the fish is without any water, gasping for air – dying. It is a powerful, precise demonstration of the way in which all of God’s creation is interdependent. What one takes, the other loses. When one gives, all benefit. It’s simple: some must give out of their abundance so that others may have enough.


I think we all get this – and endorse it- but putting it into practice is hard. Ironically, this seems to be especially true for those of us who have much. I think this is because when we feel safe, we want to preserve that feeling. This is not just true about money and possessions. One of the reasons change is so difficult is because we want to hang on to things that we see as making us happy – from certain versions of our prayers to our mother’s china. This is completely understandable, but it is, unfortunately, not what Jesus has asked of us. As Christians, we believe that everything we are and everything we have comes from God. That means when we contribute, we are not giving. We are giving back.


This isn’t only about “things.” God has given us our very lives -and Jesus has given us salvation. We are kidding ourselves if we think that having authority and wealth in this world will make us truly safe or happy. As the psalmist tells us, “God [and God alone] is our refuge and strength. And St. Augustine argued, “There is no refuge in the self, or in the world.”[3] There is only Jesus Christ, our strength and our redeemer, our king and our God.


The God we worship is a countercultural king. “In this world, [we think that] one has to be successful. In this world, the slogan is ‘Help yourself!’ and with this slogan you may survive… [but in God’s world] the ruler…does not help himself… He helps others.”[4] He helps us – and so we are to help in the same way.


And so, as we approach this year’s designated day of Thanksgiving, let us give thanks not for our savings, but for our salvation. Instead of being grateful for what we have, let’s thank God that we have enough to give to others. Let us show our gratitude to our God not for everything we have but for everything God is. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God all creatures here below. Praise God above, ye heavenly hosts. Praise the Father/Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost. AMEN.


[1]Mary Eleanor Johns, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 316.


[2]Ibid, 318.