Over the next few days we’ll have an opportunity to consider the blessings that have been poured out upon us by God. It really doesn’t matter where we gather. The important thing is to stop and offer words of praise to God, “from whom all blessings flow.” We’ll have at least two community opportunities to share in words of Thanksgiving before Thursday. Tonight the Troy-area Interfaith Group is hosting a service at the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit in Rochester Hills. Then on Tuesday evening the Troy Clergy Group is sponsoring a service at Northminster Presbyterian. We also have the opportunity this morning to offer up symbols of gratitude to God through signs of our commitment to the life and ministry of this congregation.
These celebrations occur under the shadow of the recent terrorist attacks in Mali, Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, that have raised our anxiety levels. Fear seems to be taking hold of many in our midst, and there are people and groups who are making use of this fear for political ends. Even as people flee the violence in the Middle East, political leaders from across the country, including close at home, are shutting the door of welcome to those fleeing this violence. The good news is that other voices are being raised within the faith community reminding us of our calling by God to welcome the stranger. Disciples and United Church of Christ leaders have issued a statement calling on the nation to live up to its better nature and welcome those who flee violence. Week of Compassion and Church World Service are providing support for refugees that reflect the vision cast in the closing words of this statement by our leaders:
We are called to be a merciful and caring community; to seek justice and to honor every person; and to stand up and shout out when such a vision is challenged or violated. We urge caution and caring in our discourse and in our actions, so that we all may hold ourselves to a higher standard and ideal.
We’re hearing similar statements from across the religious spectrum – conservative, liberal and in between. The president of the National Association of Evangelicals made this statement: “We are horrified and heartbroken by the terrorist atrocities in Paris, but we must not forget that there are thousands more victims of these same terrorists who are fleeing Syria with their families and desperately need some place to go.”
We live with both a “Blues Moan” and a “Gospel Shout.” These two realities make up what Otis Moss III, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, calls a “Blues Sensibility.” This vision allows us “to recognize pain but not fall into despair” [Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, pp. 45-46.] In other words, we can continue giving thinks even when our world seems to be running out of control. This isn’t false optimism or naivete. It’s a recognition that God is in our midst.
That is the word I hear coming from the reading from Revelation 1. John the Prophet writes a series of letters to churches experiencing despair. Their political context is oppressive. There is fear in the air. Many have been moaning about their prospects for the future. Into this mix John writes a word of encouragement on behalf of the one “who is and who was and who is to come.”
He brings a word of hope and grace from the Seven Spirits. These are the angels, whom God has commissioned to watch over the seven churches of Asia. He also brings a word on behalf of Jesus, the faithful witness and first born of the dead. The people may feel lost and alone. Fear might be taking hold. But John assures them that God is with them. Indeed, he tells them to keep watching the clouds, because Jesus will return in the clouds. Everyone will see him, even those who put him to death. This is the word of the one who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Since there’s a lot going on today, with both Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent our minds, it is easy to forget that this is Christ the King Sunday. We know that Advent celebrates the beginning of God’s work, but on this Sunday we proclaim that the promise of God will reach fulfillment in Christ.
The vision that is present in Revelation is an apocalyptic one. God is in heaven and it’s from there that God will send to the earth one who will be both redeemer and judge. This is the message of the ascension. Even as Jesus was taken up in the clouds, he will return in the clouds (Acts 1:9-11).
This image of Jesus’s glorious return in the clouds is a powerful one. It has deep roots in our tradition. It’s a vertical picture that speaks of God’s transcendence. It serves to remind us that God is God and we are not. There is much to appreciate in this vision, but this vision tends to make God rather distant. God is up there, looking down on us. So perhaps it’s time to rethink our vision of God’s presence. Maybe it’s time to think of heaven and earth joining together. One of the images that we find in Revelation is that of the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth. The vision of Jesus returning in the clouds is part of that vision. So this vision of Jesus’ return reminds us that God is present in our midst, changing our reality.
One way of thinking about God and the world is to think in terms of a cosmic horizon. Diana Butler Bass brings up this image in her book Grounded. We’ve been thinking of God being up there, high above us, but perhaps we should look on the horizon, where sky and earth meet. The thing about the horizon is that whenever we seem to close, it shifts. Diana pictures God as hovering over the horizon. There is intimacy, but there is also mystery. We can see the horizon, but not what lies beyond [Grounded, pp. 120-121].
If you remember the movie Field of Dreams, near the end of the movie the character Terrence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, is invited to go with Shoeless Joe into the cornfield from which Shoeless Joe and the other baseball players from earlier generations continue to emerge so they can play games on the field that Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, has built. Ray wants to join Terrence, but it’s not his time. Mann is invited to enter the mystery, and see what lies beyond the horizon. But Ray still has work to be done – including playing catch with his long dead father, from whom he had been estranged. In this his pain finds healing.
We can experience some of the mystery that is God now, and in this experience we find freedom from despair. But we have to wait to see beyond the horizon. Therefore, we must continue telling the story that begins with Advent and concludes with Christ the King Sunday. In this in-between time there will be both “Blues Moan” and “Gospel Shout.” There may be pain, but no need for despair, for we have received a word of grace and peace from the “one who is, who was, and who is to come,” and as we experience this grace we become members of Christ’s kingdom, and priests before God whose glory and dominion stand forever.
This morning we bring this cycle to a conclusion, looking forward to that time when God will be all in all, for God is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Let us therefore enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise, “for the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:4-5).