Text: Matthew 26:20-30 (The Last Supper)
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” These words of Paul from his letter to the church in Philippi seem like a good opening to a Thanksgiving sermon. Every Sunday we give thanks. But on Thanksgiving, we are supposed to give thanks with extra enthusiasm. On Thanksgiving, we are called to rejoice in life’s gifts even more than we normally do.
But can we always rejoice in God and in life’s many gifts? What about times when we are sick; when we are mourning; or when worries about the world threaten to overwhelm us? Can we still rejoice and give thanks then?
Examining the communion prayers, which are often called The Great Thanksgiving, might help with this question. They begin with thanks for the healing power of God’s Love and go on to refer to the life and ministry of Jesus. In the story of Jesus’ Last Supper — which we just heard and which we repeat every time we come to the Table — Jesus give thanks as he breaks bread and pours wine.
The Communion Table symbolizes all the family meals that nurture us, for which we are grateful. Finally, in communion, we give thanks for the path of death and resurrection shown to us by Jesus
The sticking point might be death. The Last Supper is the end of Jesus’ journey with his friends. Immediately following supper, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, arrested by the religious authorities, and handed over to the Romans for execution. So, why should we give thanks for this tale of suffering and death?
There is no consensus in the church on this. Many churches teach that by dying on the cross, Jesus cleanses us of our sins. All we need do is believe in this idea to be saved; and I can understand why this theory came to be popular and how some biblical texts lend it weight.
In contrast to it, I emphasize Jesus’ statement that we must take up our own cross (Mark 8:34). In this focus, Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t do the work of healing for us. It merely shows us the way.
I am drawn to this perspective because it fits with my experience. Life, despite all that we love about it, contains many moments of crisis, pain, and grief. Happily, such moments can become ones of Grace in which old ways die, and in which a new life closer to Love arises; and at the end of earthly life, our attachments dissolve as we return to the Source of Love from which we have come.
For me, this is the path. Jesus doesn’t do the work for us. Nor can we avoid death and resurrection even if want to avoid them. Grace, healing and love are here for us even when we aren’t looking for them.
It is true that we often miss the grace available to us. But sometimes, we wake up on the other side of grief to find ourselves in a resurrected moment of eternity. Such joyous moments show us that the path of death and resurrection, for all its pain, is worthy of endless thanks and praise.
I glimpsed some moments like this at a Conference last week at the Providence Renewal Centre. Called “An Awkward Conversation in the Church,” it focused on racism in church and society. Many of the leaders of our denomination participated, including the Moderator, the Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell, several staff from General Council, and others from across the country.
One theme running through the Conference was the decline of the church. The keynote speaker was a black theologian from England, Anthony Reddie. Born in England in 1964 to Jamaican immigrants, Reddie has seen his denomination, the Methodist Church of Britain, wither away to almost nothing.
Reddie warned us not to use the current restructuring of the United Church, which is designed to help us cope with more than 50 years of decline, as an attempt to resuscitate the church. Instead, he urged us to welcome resurrection. Resuscitation restores a dying body to continued life. Resurrection only occurs after death. Resuscitation is about more of the same while resurrection is about something new and unexpected.
Because both the Methodists in Britain and the United Church of Canada are so weak compared to where we were 50 years ago, Reddie said that we now have a chance at death and resurrection.
To my delight, his theme was taken up by our Moderator, Jordan Cantwell, when she spoke on Thursday evening. Much of her presentation was about the challenge she has experienced as Moderator the past two years, particularly on issues of First Nations, refugees, and racism. She spoke personally and emotionally, which I appreciated.
She then picked up on Reddie’s thoughts about resurrection versus resuscitation. Cantwell talked about re-founding the church on values of equity and mutual respect, values that were not present when the United Church was created in 1925, just as they were not present at Canadian Confederation in 1867.
She hoped that our death and resurrection as a church would allow us to turn our backs on the white supremacy that was central to the founding of both the Canadian state and to the United Church. She prayed that a resurrected church would be humbler, better able to listen to outsiders, and be fully committed to anti-racism.
When Cantwell was elected in 2015, I was critical of the pride she expressed in the church and her inability to accept its decline. This week, more than two years later, she sounded quite different.
And why not? Ministry is a tough job, and the role of Moderator is the toughest one in our church. If the inevitable missteps and mistakes that come with the job don’t transform one, then nothing will. So, I was happy to hear Cantwell say she is being transformed by the role. She spoke of confronting white privilege and white supremacy not just as issues of social justice but as matters of her own personal salvation. For these words and for her courage in speaking of death and resurrection, I am grateful.
In his remarks, Reddie referred to the words of Paul that God’s strength lies in our weakness. I am grateful that the United Church’s leaders might finally be coming to grips with our weakness.
Like many other congregations, Mill Woods United is also confronted by weakness. Last Sunday, we said goodbye to Bev Thompson, our Child, Youth and Family worker, and I was pleased to be here for that heartfelt send-off.
But given our lack of children and youth, Council might decide not to fill Bev’s position, at least not until our finances and our numbers change. So, I wonder if this will be an identity crisis for us.
Can we embrace our reality as a small congregation of seniors with a smattering of people below the age of 50? I hope so. Our lack of children, youth and young adults is a weakness. But perhaps we can see God’s strength in it.
Of course, we have strengths as well as weaknesses. Though few of us are under 50, we still love gathering to mourn and celebrate and to reflect on our sacred values. We still love learning together, reaching out to the neighbourhood in love, and standing for justice in a divided world.
Other strengths include the choir, outreach projects like the food and clothing bank and The Bread Run, our commitment to reconciliation with Canada’s first peoples, and our partnership with a Methodist congregation of Zimbabwean immigrants.
So, with love for the energy that flows from our strengths and with confidence that the blessings of the Spirit can also be found in our fragility, I hope we will feel the paradox of God’s strength and our weakness as we come the Table today. In the defeat of Jesus that we remember at Table, may we feel gratitude because we know that beyond defeat lies a new life of love.
Mill Woods United may not be the same in five years as it was 20 years ago. The United Church of Canada may not be the same in 10 years as it was 60 years ago. Neither may even exist. But we could accept this because we know that out of death new life flows.
To end, I offer Paul’s closing words from Philippians. Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! . . . Don’t be anxious about anything, but in every situation, with prayer and thanksgiving, present your requests to God. For the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”