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Bible readings:



Proper 33 Year B (November 15, 2015)                         St James', Peace River

We are just two Sundays away from the turn of another cycle of the liturgical calendar. Advent is coming at the end of the month, and before that the festival of the Reign of Christ which wraps everything up, the whole story of salvation which we have rehearsed once again over the last twelve months. Today, then is the last “ordinary” Sunday of the church year – which is a kind of paradox, since it feels like that is a special occasion in itself! But it also goes some way towards explaining the wide range of Scripture readings we just heard.

First there was Hannah, with a hint of peeping ahead into December – in the story of longing for God's promise, which comes in the form of an unexpected but prayed-for baby boy. Hannah even gives us a song, so much like Mary's song the Magnificat, to proclaim how God's victory is achieved when a child is born. The new beginning is also an ending and a fulfilment. Then there was the letter to the Hebrews, coming to its climax in declaring how Christ's work of sacrifice and self-offering is complete, has fulfilled God's purpose, and opened up for us a new and living way into God's presence. It ends with a reflection for us on how to live in this in-between time, when the end and the beginning are both nearly upon us – telling us to hold on to hope, assurance, and encouragement, and focus our lives on “love and good deeds”.

And then finally Jesus, also teaching his disciples to beware of false endings, and to distinguish what human beings might think of as an ending from what God thinks of as a beginning. The difference seems to be one of attitude – seeing the normal crises of the world not as a threat and a disaster to be feared, but as a possibility for the old wrong ways to be destroyed and God's new right way to be born.

For me, it's that “attitude” element which is the common thread. As we grow into faith, we understand that we don't have a lot of say over what happens to us. As I always tell couples in marriage prep, that line about “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health” doesn't have an “or” in it – you don't get to choose! Most of us, married or not, end up with some experience of all the alternatives, and if we don't, it's not because we did something to deserve our better (or worse) fate. But the eyes of faith learn to see something different in the chaotic patterns of life. God's promise to us isn't about giving us better circumstances than the person next to us – it's about sticking with us, through thick and thin, in good times and bad, in endings and in beginnings.

So the attitude of faith isn't about being happy when you think God is treating you well and grumpy when he's not. It's a consistent attitude that comes through no matter your outward circumstances, based on the conviction that God is there with you, walking with you through it all, experiencing, enjoying, and suffering it all along with you. That's the kind of faith Hannah had, both in all the years that her prayers went unanswered, and then just as much when Samuel was finally born. And it's the kind of faith Jesus was preparing his disciples to have, including us, knowing that we have to face the world both when it looks like God's plan is working out and when it all seems to come crashing down around us.

If there's one word that I think would summarize that attitude of faith in all circumstances, it would be gratitude, or thankfulness. Because at its heart it's about recognizing that God's fundamental gift is always being given to us, no matter what else is happening. When a newborn child is placed in your arms, that is God's promise coming true; but equally God's promise is coming true in that moment when you can no longer keep up the fight to breathe, and you let go. God is there, either way. God can give us no greater gift than to be with us in every moment of our lives, and having made that gift visible to us in Jesus, and accessible to us in every moment through the Holy Spirit who abides in us – we can always have that to thank God for.

If that's really true, then being thankful means something very different than what we usually think it means. In fact, we need to be really clear about that. There are a whole lot of things which that kind of gratitude IS NOT, and a bunch of unexpected things that it IS, so let's spell them out. Gratitude is not, for example, about paying people back in case you end up owing them something. That's still such a part of our mindset that it's hard to shake, even though we say all the right things about “paying it forward” instead. God's generosity is unrepayable. So find another way to show your thanks.

This kind of gratitude is also not about entitlement – the kind of thanks we offer people when they do what they're just supposed to do for us. It seems absurd to apply that to God, but our actions often speak louder than our words on this point. There is so much that we just assume God does and will keep doing for us. We can make it part of our routine thanks, in our graces or daily prayers, but until we are saying thank you for every single breath, for God's choice to keep the world in existence as every single instant passes into the next, I don't think we've got the fullness of what it means to thank God for being with us.

We're also not talking about the polite kind of thanks that always fakes a smile and finds something to be nice about. God doesn't need that from us – God doesn't need anything from us, but wants our honesty more than anything else. I can think of friends who have said some pretty awful things to me that needed to be said, and I've done the same – and we've got mad at each other or embarrassed or whatever it might be, but the deepest feeling in that kind of situation is the type of gratitude I'm talking about. Knowing that you are on this earth with people who share enough love and trust to risk exploding at each other like that, means something – in fact, it is another sign of God's promise to love you that much and more, to persist with you in the face of everything. You can get mad at God at what God has done or allowed to happen, or for the way God looks at you when you know what you've done – and still be thankful that there is someone there who looks at you that way.

So, if our thankfulness to God isn't any of those things which we usually associate with that word – what is it? First of all, it's a passion. To be what it really can be, and to make us more than we are – that thankfulness needs to take over our lives. It has to be, or at least to feel to us, extravagant. When Hannah finally received what she wanted, the gift of a child, what did she do? She turned around and gave her baby Samuel up – she sent him to the temple to live with the priest and to learn to serve God. There's a whole lot of background to that decision which we can't comprehend, but one thing we can see is how extravagant it was. The cost of Hannah's gratitude is giving up the gift itself – which seems like a paradox, until you see how it actually expressed that fundamental thanks to God for being there, for being on her side, unshakeably. Every year she would have renewed that faith and that thanks as she went back to the temple, and saw her son Samuel again – and he in turn grew up in that environment knowing and understanding God's goodness, and learning to live his thanks from the heart of his being.

So if our gratitude to God is going to be the controlling passion of our lives, then we know it also means action: not words or a feeling, but action. The things we do, the choices we make, will show that we are carried away by the reality of God's involvement and commitment in every moment and every aspect of life. When we just do what everyone does, or what we think is expected of us, or what makes sense, we end up missing so much opportunity to express the depth of relationship that God wants to have with us and that we want to have with God. This is a love affair, after all! Whether we are enjoying the fullness of life with God, or plumbing the depths of crisis with God, it calls for something more than ordinary, rational, common sense decision making.

Ultimately then, the thankful life we are talking about is really a question. And the question is: what can I do? Knowing that God has been with me at the worst moments and the best moments and every moment in between; knowing that God remains with me when I am disappointed in him and when he is disappointed in me, as well as all the times when we are happier with each other; knowing that God is committed to living my life and yours with us and in us and alongside of us – what can I do, what can you do, to express what that means to us?  We can think about that, we can talk about it, we can symbolically and extravagantly offer our own selves to God as we do in this communion service. But in the end what matters is that we go and live our thanks; because as we do, the reign of Christ begins in the most personal way, in us.