November 22, 2015 – The Rev. James Richardson

As you know, this coming week we will observe our annual national celebration of Thanksgiving, which also happens to be one of two secular holidays that are on the Episcopal Church’s calendar of sacred feast days.

The other secular holiday on our church feast days is the Fourth of July, when not only was our nation founded, so was our church.

You may think you know the origins of Thanksgiving Day as an annual national holiday – but you might be wrong.

Although it is true that the pilgrims took a day of thanks for their survival, that really is not the beginning of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

The pilgrims observed this only once.

Nor did it really begin with George Washington, who, it is true, declared a day of prayer and thanks for the nation having won its independence.

President Washington’s declaration for Thanksgiving was observed only once, and only in some states and townships but not everywhere.

Thanksgiving as we know it began in 1863, during the worst calamity this nation has ever endured.

It was President Abraham Lincoln who declared that there should be a permanent national day of thanks observed ever-after on a Thursday near the end of November.

What is significant is that President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving not at a time of national celebration, but in the midst of the horrific carnage of the Civil War ­– a war that claimed more American lives than all of our other wars combined.

At this grimmest moment in our history, it seemed there was no reason to give thanks.

Lincoln was inspired by Sarah Hale, who was a widow and penniless, and the mother of five children. Outwardly, she seemed to have no reason to give thanks.

But Sarah Hale somehow got in to see President Lincoln, and she urged him to declare a day of Thanksgiving hoping it might bring the nation a moment of healing.

Lincoln was moved by her extraordinary story and plea, and hence we have Thanksgiving Day.

By the way, Sarah Hale went on to become a renowned champion for the education of girls, and a noted writer. You know her best as the author of “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

I think Lincoln knew exactly what he was doing when he declared a day of thanks.

It is in those times when it looks bleakest that we are most called to stop, to give thanks, and to count our blessings.

When we do, we might find our courage renewed, our spirit lifted, and we might find God walking next to us, embracing us, blessing us, and lighting our path.

Our world is in one of those bleak moments before the dawn. The challenges abroad, and here at home are daunting.

And yet, whatever your politics, whatever your opinion on this issue or that, all us are called to pause, pray and give thanks.

We live in a place of enormous abundance and bounty, a place of possibilities and hope, a beacon of to the world of courage and freedom.

And yet I am also aware of how much pain and poverty surrounds us, and how we still fall short in bringing equal justice for all.

Our challenges are daunting indeed.

As Abraham Lincoln departed Illinois for Washington DC and the presidency, he spoke of how only faith could sustain him.

“Without the assistance of the Divine Being,” he said, “I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.”

Lincoln’s trust in this “Divine Being,” brings us directly to today’s observance our church calendar: “Christ the King Sunday,” when we proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, the King of Kings, the ruler of all Creation.

I must admit to you, though, that this is the one day on the Christian calendar that gives me the most pause.

I have a hard time reconciling Jesus, a Jewish peasant who died at the hands of an executioner, with being an omniscient monarch.

Yet Christian music and art down through the centuries is filled with depictions of Christ the King, wearing long flowing white robes, sitting on his throne, scepter in one hand, sword on the other, surrounded by seraphims and cherubims.

If you don’t know what those are, they are wing-y, angel-y things.

The imagery of Jesus, the monarch, rings through our prayer book.

One of our Eucharistic prayers implores God to “put all things in subjection under your Christ.”

I am far more comfortable with Jesus the good shepherd than Jesus the warrior descending from the clouds.

I’d rather hear about the Good Samaritan rescuing the injured beside the road than about the Lord of Lords smashing his enemies.

And I know I am not alone in this.

Many churches have taken to calling this “Reign of God Sunday,” which is perhaps a little better, but still has overtones of the omniscient ruler.

Into this cascade of imagery comes one more image of Christ the King, from John’s gospel today, where he seems to hover above us as an ethereal king in the clouds quite disconnected from us.

“My kingdom is not from this world,” he declares as Pontius Pilate shrugs his shoulders and sends him straight to the Cross.

If Jesus is the triumphant king of kings, ruler of rulers, what is he doing on the Cross? What kind of King is this?

This king has nothing to do with our conventional human ideas of rulers and kings, politics and power, prestige and status.

This king turns all of those values upside down.

I would suggest to you: The Cross defines his kingship.

Christ Jesus defines his divinity by sharing not just in the joys of life, but by sharing in the sorrows. Elsewhere in John’s gospel, we hear how “Jesus weeps.”

This is our king, the one who weeps with us.

By so doing, he challenges us to live into the values of a very different kind of kingdom.

We are being asked to shift from a kingdom that values conflict, to a kingdom that values kindness.

We are being asked to shift from a kingdom that values self-interest, to a kingdom that see everyone as children of God.

We are being asked to shift from a kingdom that values vengeance, to a kingdom that values forgiveness.

We are being asked to shift from a kingdom that treats people callously, to a kingdom that cares for the sick, the poor, the outcasts, the needy, the refugees.

We are being asked to live in a kingdom where we are the peacemakers, and we are pastors to each other and everyone around us.

This way of living will surely stretch us beyond what we think we are capable of.

That was as true for his first followers as it is true for us now.

Jesus was not a lofty monarch, nor did he walk around with clean white robes and long flowing blond hair.

He lived wherever people took him in, and sometimes no one took him in – he lived in the desert and on the street.

Jesus did not drop out of the world, but took the harder path of immersing himself deeply in the world.

Feed the hungry, heal the sick, turn the other cheek, share your possessions with the poor and needy.

And know that God is with us, and with God all things are possible.

Let us count our blessings, and then come to this table to share in the sacred bread and wine of our Holy Eucharist, our “Great Thanksgiving.”

And then let us go forth again into the world to share our bounty abundantly, and make real the Lord’s Prayer “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” AMEN