Thanksgiving or Christ the King Sunday? (Luke 23:33-43)
When Pastor Jenny Lee asked me to preach November 20, I happily agreed. “Great, a Thanksgiving sermon! Is the scripture about “healing leprosy and only one said “Thank you”? (Luke 17: 11-19). The image of one grateful person running after Jesus is dramatic and a good reminder.
However, Christian lectionary is global, thus it doesn’t coincide with national holidays, like Thanksgiving. So, this is the final Sunday of Year A. Christ the King or Christ’s reign concludes our readings in Luke. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent and the Gospel of Matthew will prayerfully prepare for Christmas.
It may seem like a whiplash of emotions. Christ Crucified one week and preparing for Jesus’ birth next week. Death and Life in one short week. Yet, life is seldom neatly organized. Sometimes birth and death are close companions.
We’ve had several deaths of spouses and adult children in my circle of friends and neighbors. Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are difficult for those who are mourning the loss of a loved one. Jesus blessed those who mourn for they will be comforted. Let’s consider the blessing of today’s gospel.
Luke 23 gives us a glimpse of Jesus the Christ’s compassion even as he suffers from excruciating pain on the cross. I suppose it is no surprise that Jesus is surrounded by others who are in need: criminals, mourners and maybe the soldiers.
The Gospel of Luke consistently recorded Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized. He blessed those who were poor, diseased, lost and forgotten. It’s no surprise that at the end of his life, Jesus is still ministering to the “least of these”. Even with this insight, I wondered about the Thanksgiving message and considered alternative scriptures, such as those listed in your bulletin.
But I was waiting for inspiration, the AHA moment. Let me tell you about an “AHA” moment. About 40 years ago, a supervising minister gave me wise counsel to live with the lectionary scripture. Be patient and prayerful. God will gift you with a surprise and you will say, Aha! So, I reread our Gospel lesson and held it lightly in my heart. Asking, “How will this relate to Thanksgiving?”
Until someone asked, “What is your favorite hymn?” “When you go to heaven what song of praise will you be singing with the angels?” Let me stop there and ask you, “What is your favorite hymn?”
Many songs came to mind. Too many because my first vocation was piano and voice teacher. There was always a song playing in my head. I decided “How Great Thou Art” would be my heavenly song. Why? Because I love my daily walk through the woods. And it’s Swedish tune. How many times has a stunning sunset stopped you? The shortest prayers that come from inside are the best. “Thank You God!” How Great Thou Art! Right. Of course, we sing that praise when you consider the beauty of God’s creation, “the woods and forest glades” and “hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees”, Mountain grandeur and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze”. These images touch evoke inner thankfulness. As I remembered this pastoral scene, I was moved to tears by verse 3. The jarring scene shifts from living, beautiful creation to the crucifixion, suffering scene of Christ, I was stunned.
“I scarce could take it in. That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin.” How Great Thou Art”. This was the Aha moment for me.
Give Thanks with Grace-filled Heart
We gather for thanksgiving meals and give thanks for family, friends, food and other pleasures. But do we remember in our table grace that God’s grace is forgiveness?
Forgive us our sins as we forgive others? Is this the push we need to reconcile with that weird cousin or politically opposed sibling? What is the flash insight on Golgotha, that How Great Thou Art, teaches? Bridge the gap. Open up to the needs of others. There maybe someone who is missing from your table, a death in the family or a disagreement. Thank God for their life.
Even in death we have a reason to sing praises and thanksgiving, “How Great thou Art” On the cross, Jesus prayed (Luke 23:34-35, The Message) forgiving his persecutors “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing”. And he opened the gates to Paradise to the least likely person, a man crucified next to him. We don’t know his offense. It could have been sedition or protest again the empire, the Romans. When the others mocked and cursed Jesus, “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself ! Save us!” The one criminal who believed reprimands those who mocked saying, “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him-he did nothing to deserve this”. And, then, my favorite prayer, quote and a hymn, “ Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”
The gates of heaven opened up for this criminal in his last hour prayer, Jesus replied, “Today you will join me in paradise!” Thanks be to God!
I tell you this would be enough of a thanksgiving sermon for me except I urge you to make this a practical sermon. It’s easy to talk about grace and thanksgiving. It’s another to put it into practice. So think about ways be graceful and grateful during Thanksgiving Day and every day. Grace- or Charis means many things, all actions to bless, help accept, assist..too cheer and yes, forgive. Thanksgiving gatherings maybe tense for some with different political, philosophical, or religious beliefs. Do your best to listen with your grace-filled heart. Be open to differences, listen and appreciate. Look for the good.
I try to copy my mother-in-law who asked all the newcomers to bring their favorite Thanksgiving dish and share something about their family traditions. She welcomed diversity and applauded our culinary efforts and tastes. Whether I brought lefse or sardines, it mattered not. We each tasted and “relished” our differences. What grace-filled actions or words will you use next time there’s tension between people? Keep a thankful and grace-filled heart.
The song “Thankful” sung by Josh Groban has a line, “Even with our differences, there is a place we’re all connected. Each of us can find each other’s light”.
What a delightful segway to Advent, right? If we truly believe that everyone has a light within, you will be able to see it shine. God bless us with grace-filled hearts. Give thanks with grateful hearts. Amen