Year C, Last Sunday after Pentecost
One of the most inspiring people I ever known was a woman named Roxie. There were a couple of things I loved about Roxie. The first was that she came to every funeral. Whether she knew the person or not, she was there. Whenever I mentioned it, she would act like it was no big deal. I mean, why wouldn’t she go to every funeral? She was a tiny woman but feisty. She had been a teacher for decades and I don’t think people often crossed her. But what I admired most about Roxie was her ability to be grateful for almost anything and everything. Every time I visited her, she talked about how thankful she was about everything in her life. I can still feel her gripping my hand telling me, “I’m just so thankful, thankful, thankful, thankful.”
It is no surprise that I would think about Roxie so close to Thanksgiving. But it was not Thanksgiving that reminded me of her, it was the reading from Colossians. Paul, another rather feisty individual, started most of his letters with a prayer of thanksgiving, either for the community or the person to whom he was writing. The New Testament mentions some form of thanksgiving approximately 62 times and Paul accounts for ¾ of those references. Colossians is no exception. In verse 11 he wrote, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
A lot of times Christians are criticized for our emphasis on the afterlife. Critics claim that it’s a lot easier to talk about life after death and the joys that will come in paradise, rather than dealing with the difficulties of the present life. It probably sounds like that is what Paul was talking about when he referred to “the inheritance of the saints in light.” Inheritance clearly means heaven and saints are the good Christians who have died and attained a place in heaven. Everyone knows that.
Well, most people probably think that. You don’t have to die to become a saint. When Paul used the word saint, he was almost always referring to those who were alive. According to Paul, all of us who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are called to be saints and worthy to not only be children of God, but saints of God. Not only are saints alive, but they are not necessarily perfect or sinless. It’s not just for the upper echelon of Christians. So if we can be saints now, then we can also share in the inheritance now. The inheritance doesn’t take the form of a trust fund. The inheritance is redemption and forgiveness. It is unlimited potential and hope. This is not some future glory that Paul is giving thanks for; this is the here and now.
I find this to be both comforting and a little terrifying. If I am already a saint and am already sharing in this glorious inheritance, then there is not a lot of room for excuses. While Paul starts his letter to the Colossians with a pep talk worthy of a Joel Osteen sermon, he ends with, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.” It was common for people to use scribes to write letters during this time period. However Paul was probably in prison at the time, so he had to write with his own hand. My theory was that this statement was a bit of a challenge/guilt trip. He was saying: If I can spread the Gospel and do my part while in prison, surely you all can do likewise as people who are free.
Paul was never afraid of providing a challenge, even to people who probably did not feel like saints. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like a saint most of the time, even Paul’s definition of it. There are times when I would rather not call on Jesus Christ because while Jesus loves all people, he also has high expectations of the saints of light because we have been given so much. Jesus gave every part of himself not only in his death and resurrection, but in the way he lived. He freed us from the power of darkness. While that can be a profoundly liberating experience, I think sometimes it is easier to hide in the darkness and pretend that we are not strong enough, wise enough, good enough to be saints of God. It is a lot less risky to stay in the dark.
Paul knew that we would have those fears because he had experienced them himself. That is why his prayer for the Colossians and for all of us was “to be made strong with the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power.” We don’t have to depend on our own strength because Jesus provides us with an unlimited bounty of strength, wisdom and goodness. The question for all of us then is what do we do with that unlimited bounty?
For starters, we acknowledge it and give thanks for it. We don’t have to be specific about it because we might not always feel like we have an abundance. We might not even know what we are giving thanks for. What I loved about Roxie was that most of the time when she was saying how thankful she was, she was not connecting it to anything specific. She was just thankful. I think maybe that is why she came to all the funerals because she was so very thankful for life, for the very basics. How often do we thank God for just giving us life? Not often enough.
I hope it is not a surprise to you all that today is Stewardship Sunday…also called Pledge Sunday or Celebration Sunday. It is a day when we focus not on what we need but what we have. We focus not on the scarcity that demands so much of our attention, but the many gifts that we so frequently overlook. We give out of thanks, not out of fear. We give not because we love St. John’s, but because God’s love for us is so abundant that we have to share it in some way, some form. We all share in the same inheritance. In our giving, we are acknowledging that inheritance. We are thanking God for letting us be saints of light. It’s time to claim our freedom from the darkness.