Forward with a Vision
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
25 November 2007
"O sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things."
In 1994 something new was born in South Africa. The many decades of apartheid had come to an end and Nelson Mandela, long a political prisoner of the state, was now being sworn in as the first president of a truly democratic South Africa.
In that inaugural speech, Mandela talked about possibility and vision and future. It was a celebration of newness. And his words on the occasion were powerful:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone.
And as we let our light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, we come once again to the end of the church year. And we end with a vision of the kingdom come, God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. This is the Sunday when we come face to face with our eschatological hope for justice, peace, and plenty.
It is fitting that Reign of Christ and Thanksgiving come so closely together. Thanksgiving is not a church holiday. It is, in point of fact, a secular holiday, made official by Abraham Lincoln. But it celebrates an event that is part of the Christian story, in fact part of our UCC story as our Pilgrim ancestors and our Native American ancestors joined together to give thanks for the harvest.
Thanksgiving is a core part of the spiritual life. We are grateful to God for the many blessings in our lives and grateful to the people around us for how they contribute to us. This year I spent Thanksgiving morning writing thank you cards. Every couple of months I send out some personal thank you cards, and it was time to do that again. But it also seemed quite fitting, so I think I'll make that an annual spiritual practice – writing thank you notes on Thanksgiving Day.
The blessings we are thankful for are little signposts of the coming reign of Christ. We teach that the reign of God has come, is coming, and will come. So with the conjunction of these two holidays we are reminded of what has happened, what is happening, and what our vision is for the future. Thankful for what parts of God's reign we now enjoy, while with longing and expectation we await the coming of Christ in fullness. And so the year turns and thanksgiving turns to advent. Celebration of fullness and longing expectation forever connected in a yearly cycle of yin and yang.
Christ the King Sunday reminds us that our faith must be placed in God. The reign of justice, peace, and plenty will come about in this world through the work of God. It cannot be achieved by the normal human endeavors of politics, economics, religion, or art. In fact, societies that think they are ushering in the millennium are usually societies that end up creating great evils.
So, it is God's work, not human work. But it is also true that God works in and through us. Therefore, God's reign cannot come unless we are living faithfully as disciples of Jesus crucified and risen. We must become God's instruments, as St. Francis of Assisi so eloquently put it in his famous prayer
Make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy. O divine master, grant that I many not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Now we understand the force of Nelson Mandela's words. God's reign is not ours to make happen, but God's reign will only come if God is working through us. We must become the instruments of God. Mandela thinks that people are frightened to become God's instruments. It is easier for people to go along to get along. Some people think it is easier not to have faith and hope. Easier not to show compassion. Easier not to work courageously for justice and peace.
But these people would be wrong. Because the universe bends toward justice. God's reign is coming on earth as it is in heaven. It is who we are as children of the light, children of God. We only become fully ourselves, truly free, blessed, when we live according to the will of God, because this is who we really are. This is who the universe really is.
Part of the task, then, of Christian discipleship and spiritual formation is to unlock our true selves. To open ourselves to God. To make manifest the glory of God. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!
Near the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Albus Dumbledore is finally trying to explain Harry's destiny to him. From the beginning of the Harry Potter series, Harry has been weighed down by the burden of his history and his fate. He is the only person to have survived the death curse from the evil Lord Voldemort. He survived because the love of his mother, who gave her life to protect Harry's, shielded Harry from the curse. Love is more powerful than hatred.
Because Harry has survived, he seems to have a unique fate. Maybe he will continue to be a champion, or could he turn to the dark side himself. These questions linger through the earliest books, but finally get set aside as Harry has proven again and again that he is a hero for the cause of good. It becomes clear as you read along, that eventually Harry and Lord Voldemort must face each other in a battle to the death. It is about this that Harry and Dumbledore are talking in the passage that I'm interested in tonight.
What Dumbledore makes clear is that yes it is Harry's fate to fight Lord Voldemort. But this is something Harry can freely choose to do. The reason the fight must occur is because Voldemort will never stop hunting Harry. Even if Harry did not pursue Voldemort, the force of evil would come after him. The reason Harry is such a threat is because Harry is filled with love and a pure heart. If Harry were seriously tempted to evil, if his suffering made him a coward, then he would not be a threat. Harry's is a noble soul.
Harry is destined to face Voldemort not because he's bent on some revenge fantasy, but because of the kind of person that Harry is – a good person. Here's what J. K. Rowling writes when it finally dawns on Harry what Dumbledore is saying
But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world.
We become the instruments of God by becoming certain types of people. People who are compassionate, just, grateful, peaceful, humble, adventurous, and good. We have the courage to become those people if we have the optimism of hope and the conviction of faith.
And here's where the difference matters. We don't become these people because there are rules that make us that way. We don't become these people because of coercion. We become good people because we are excited by the possibilities, because we freely choose to become disciples of Christ.
This week I came across a prayer that expresses this idea. It is by one Brigid Rees
O God, you claim me as your partner, respecting me,
tussling with me.
as I dare to be vulnerable with you,
encourage me as I dare to take risks with you,
and together we can transform our world.
Three years ago you all set as your mission, the transformation of the world. It was an ambitious mission statement –
To empower all people to experience the presence of God, to grow toward wholeness, and to act in love.
And you were going to do that as a
People who serve in the manner of Jesus – with compassion, inclusion, liberation, and hope.
All of us who have come alongside you since that point have shared in this mission and vision. We became members of this church because we were passionate about being this sort of church, because we wanted to become this type of people. Because we wanted to be God's instruments.
Here's some of what I'm thankful for this year.
I'm thankful for karaoke parties. Not because these have some deep theological meaning. Not because these are places for spiritual growth to occur. But simply because they are fun.
I'm thankful for comfort. Sometimes we are challenged enough in life already and simply need to find a place where we can be comfortable.
I'm thankful for Ken Curl. Last spring when Mykael Mekaska died, and we put together his memorial service, I called on Ken for help and he was there. We are present for each other – at the hospital, on the phone, in thank you notes, in the courthouse, when a child is born, or a pet dies.
I'm thankful for Bill Wade. Last year he noticed that two visitors were sitting alone at our Christmas banquet, so he went and sat with them. Those visitors were Jason Hammonds and Steve Kuder. I'm grateful that "welcome" is one of Bill's spiritual gifts.
I'm thankful for Mary Frances. She writes the prayers used in our prayer ministry. Her words inspire us. They aid our spiritual formation.
And I'm thankful for the choir. They come early every Sunday and spend time preparing for our worship services. Worship is the most important thing we do together as a people. It doesn't happen accidentally. For us to come in here each week and be touched or find meaning, hours of preparation and training have been involved.
So this fun, comfort, presence, welcome, formation, and worship are just some of the things I'm thankful for this year. These are blessings. Signposts of the reign of God. Sources of hope and faith.
They call us to become our true selves, fulfilling our destiny. They prove that we are not inadequate. The truth is, with God working through us, we are powerful beyond measure.
Tonight, we as a church move forward with our vision. We will shine even brighter. We will be the folk that God will use to liberate even more people. Tonight we ask everyone to commit together to this vision. And tonight we ask our members and regular attendees to pledge their financial stewardship of this vision, by turning in their pledge cards during our offering. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, may our vision for the future fill us with faith, hope, and courage as we make a joyful noise to the Lord.
Let us pray:
O God, inspire our church, the Cathedral of Hope, Oklahoma City, to reflect the glory of your message.
Give us the compassion of your Son, Jesus, toward all people.
Let us be stewards of your world.
Combine all our talents into one that we may do your work.
Make us one in hope and one in despair.
Build us outwards and let us grow upwards reaching to you.
May we always be there for each other.
Blend your Spirit with ours that we may be spiritual people.
Deliver us from what takes us away from you.
Let us always love each other as you do, just the way we are.
Bring us forward to achieve our goals.
With you we shall be a beacon of freedom for all people!
In the Name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.