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Thanksgiving on Palm Sunday

 

Yesterday a funeral took place in Cambridge, England – the funeral of a great man, a man who was bound to almost complete immobility in a wheelchair and completely reliant on a voice synthesiser to communicate with the world. Yet, this man’s mind and spirit soared to the infinite reaches of the universe and filled our lives with wonder. You know I’m speaking of Stephen Hawking. His ashes will be buried in Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, two other men who transformed our vision of reality and the universe. Hawking’s ashes will be interred at Westminster Abbey later this year in a thanksgiving service.

A “thanksgiving service” – not a memorial, but a thanksgiving service. There is no greater memorial to a man or woman than to give thanks to God for his or her life. Perhaps we need to add thanksgiving to our own funeral and memorial services! Thanksgiving was also what was in the hearts and minds of the thousands of people who lined the streets outside the church in Cambridge and who broke into spontaneous applause when his coffin arrived and was carried into the church.

Applause, gratitude, thanksgiving. Essential qualities of life. It was the way Jesus was greeted when he entered Jerusalem seated on a donkey. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Stephen Hawking did not come in the name of the Lord – not in so many words, anyway. Yet, I believe he perhaps did more to make the Lord real in many people’s lives than most evangelists ever will. He certainly had that impact on me. Anyone who expands the horizons of our minds, who stretches our imagination and creativity is certainly someone who comes in the name of the Lord – regardless of whether he or she believes in Christ. That may sound controversial to some ears, but I can vouch from my own years in scientific research before studying theology. Anyone who takes us out of our petty, limited view of life is someone who comes in the name of the Lord.

Listen to Paul in today’s Epistle reading:

Brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… [make your every] prayer and supplication known to God with thanksgiving. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, sisters and brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Thanksgiving should be part of our every prayer. Thanksgiving is the key to peace with God and with each other. It is at the heart of the Christian life. It eliminates conflict, pettiness, and all the little things that keep us apart. I know some people in our community whose every thought and every action is filled with thanksgiving. It should be true of all of us. Sincere, genuine thanksgiving, gratitude to God for everything and in everything, even in suffering. Are you confused sometimes? Are you depressed, prone to discouragement or unbelief? Pause to give thanks. Pause to give thanks for anything that comes into your mind. Give thanks for your parents. Give thanks for growing up during the depression or the second world war. Give thanks for your first TV set. Give thanks for your cat. Give thanks that you can still drive. If you are young, give thanks for your cell phone or your Facebook account, or for the new CD by the Japanese heavy-metal group Matenrou Opera!

Don’t try to give thanks for what you think God wants to hear. Don’t think too much. Just give thanks for anything that comes to your mind. Be spontaneous. This kind of thanksgiving is the most genuine. God already knows what you enjoy most about your life. But God wants to know, are you grateful for those things?

Finally, sisters and brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Ingratitude is one of the greatest sins and it blinds us to the goodness that is around us and in us. Even the “failing” New York Times had a wonderful editorial about gratitude on Friday – which was Good Friday for most Christians. Here is what the author wrote at one point: My guess is that if you think about people you know whose lives are characterised by gratitude, you’ll find them to be outward- rather than inward-looking, quick to be kind. They approach the world with delight, a certain enchantment and a light touch. They are not blind or indifferent to the hardships and pain surrounding them, but they are still able to find joy in the journey.

Can you find joy in the journey? Can you be grateful for whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, for anything that is excellent? Then you are on your way to living the life that God intends for you. You have found the key to happiness and the surest protection against bitterness and small-mindedness.

Blessed is he/she who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed are YOU who come in the name of the Lord today!


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Simple words that make life possible

 

The lesson of our Gospel reading this morning is very simple: Say “thank you”!

The lesson is simple, but the consequences are profound. Our failure in this simple but essential act is at the root of so much of our woes. Consider only the news of the past week or so.

  • Fact: 2014 was the hottest year on record!
  • Fact: whole species of life are becoming extinct every day because of human activities.
  • Fact: terrorist attacks are now an everyday reality in most parts of the world.

And I can go on and on. But let these suffice from the headlines of the past week as a taste of our reality today.

Why are we destroying the planet? Why? Because we do not give thanks. Because we are not grateful for this marvelous gift that God has given us: Life on this amazing planet. We are not grateful, we take things for granted, we believe that we have the right to destroy whatever we want. And we destroy our interpersonal relationships because we take each other for granted. We are not grateful for each other. And that’s a sin. All failures to give thanks are SIN.

Have you noticed? Science fiction films are increasingly dystopian – the opposite of utopian, analogous to dysfunctional. The prefix dys– in Greek serves to destroy the good sense of a word or increase its bad sense. outopos as opposed to dystopos, etc.

Metropolis perhaps was the original film representation of a dystopian, bleak future. But think of most popular sci-fi or futuristic films.

  • Time Machine
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Terminator films
  • Matrix trilogy
  • The Hunger Games trilogy
  • Avatar
  • Oblivion
  • Ender’s Game
  • World War Z
  • Interstellar
  • And TV shows: The Walking Dead, for starters

All paint bleak pictures of the future. What is their message? Pessimism.

And yet, Christianity has a different view, though depending who you talk to and how you interpret certain passages of the Bible. There are Christians who believe the world is going to be destroyed, so it doesn’t matter to them whether we kill all life and whether we pollute or destroy the atmosphere. But many other Christians – including the Orthodox – believe something else.

“The whole earth is full of his glory,” Isaiah tells us. Jesus will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, Paul tells us in his letter to Philippians. He is the first-born of all creation and the head of a new humanity, Paul again tells us in his letter to Colossians. Even that most violent book, the Book of Revelation, so full of destruction and threats, reaches its climax not with a violent image but a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem descending to the transfigured, renewed earth, and with it God makes his eternal home among human beings on earth!! As the great Rumanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae said it, “The world is the work of God’s love and is destined to be deified.”

When Orthodox speak of deification/theosis, we don’t just mean an achievement of individuals. We mean more than that; we mean cosmic deification. Human beings cannot be separated from nature, from the cosmos. Saint Paul again, in Romans 8, tells us that all creation – all of nature, the cosmos – waits with anticipation for the liberation of the human children of God and will share the same glory as we!

Dear friends, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. What do we bring to the table? Faith, hope and love, those three great virtues that Paul names in 1 Corinthians. And the greatest of these is love, he tells us. But what is it that enables us to live by faith, hope and love? The ability to give thanks. How can you have faith, if you can’t say thanks to God for the gift of life and salvation? How can you have hope, if you can’t give thanks for the present? And how can you have love, if you can’t appreciate the importance of people in your life?

Martin-Luther-King-Day-Love-Quotes-1Words are important. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. I love the graphic of his image that is put together from words that he spoke or wrote. It’s brilliant, and it illustrates how important words are. Our words form the image that others have of us. Let words of thanks compose the image we present to the world.

Learn from the tenth leper and give thanks. It’s very simple, yet so profound and it affects everything. Imagine if 6 or 7 billion people in the world every day practiced the art of giving thanks! Who would kill? Who would abuse or take advantage of others? Who would be pessimistic about the future of humankind and the planet? Jesus lamented, why did only one return to give thanks? Where were the other nine? Let us pray that those words are not spoken about us too.