Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: May 10, 2020 – Colossians 1: 3-14

We are now in our eighth week of providing Worship through virtual means rather than in-person. While I wouldn’t say there’s a good time for a pandemic to be declared, it was interesting from a preaching standpoint to see how the time of year – the end of the season of Lent, followed by Holy Week and Easter, when we go through very shadowy times before emerging into the light once more– helped us examine how God is present to us in the most difficult and chaotic of times, and how the power of love persists and ultimately prevails.

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But in week eight, we are in a different space.  As Sim stated at the lighting of the Christ Candle, this is the season of the Church year when the first disciples experienced the risen Christ walking with them, side by side. In terms of our social distancing, we are at least on the cusp of a different space than we had been, with Government regulations allowing various sectors to ultra-cautiously test out first steps toward more familiar ways of being.   While we are not particularly close to the day when we can once again tuck into the little white Church on Main Street, so long as two metre spacing is needed and public singing discouraged– there is a sense that we can breathe a little easier, and anticipate better days to come.

The scripture reading I’ve chosen for today, is from the first chapter of Colossians.  Although there have been wonderings for at least two centuries as to whether this was written by the Apostle Paul or by one of his followers, the classic understanding is that this was a letter to the Church at Colossae, written by Paul while he was in prison.  Hmm: a message written in confinement, sent to those you cannot meet up with in person. Where might this strike a chord?

The message, I hope, is also one we can identify with: a message of thanksgiving.  Paul – or whoever was writing in his name – was thankful for the people of Colossae, and their resilience in the chaotic social context of early Christian gatherings.   And he was thankful, that they had such good reason to persevere – for they and he shared the encouragement of Christ Jesus, their Lord and his.  In spite of his own less-than desirable circumstances, in spite of the challenges the Colossians were facing, they kept on keeping on in the name of Jesus Christ, the very embodiment of God’s love for all people, all creatures, all the world. In challenging times,   he was lifted out of his present circumstances by the power of gratitude.

I asked Lynn to read two different translations, of this lesson.  The first one, from the New Revised Standard version, you’ve already heard, and now we’ll hear from “The Message” by Eugene Peterson.   Eugene’s translation reads like a conversation or a letter between friends, and as such captures the joy that was being expressed.

[Colossians 1: 3-14, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Colossians%201%3A3-14&version=MSG]

While these words may seem over-the-top thankful, these are not simplistic platitudes. This was the first generation of Christians, so we can imagine that a few of them may have heard Jesus in person, and very likely would have met one of the Apostles.  They would have had a very personal sense that while Jesus of Nazareth was gone from them, Jesus the Christ was very much present to them, every day. Their task now was to take that deep-seated hopefulness and allow it to be of benefit within and beyond their faith community.  Paul uses the image of workers in an orchard to speak of this fruitfulness.

So, where does thankfulness or gratitude fit for us, at this moment?  A Hospital Chaplain in Texas named Alan Wright, describes his search for gratitude in times of pandemic, in this way:

“I see those incredible frontline doctors and nurses you read about. However, I also get to see pharmacists, employees of purchasing departments, food servers, lab scientists and my favorite heroes of the day, the ones who carefully and thoughtfully sanitize this place. Each person is essential in making sure this hospital is safe and functions smoothly. As you might imagine, my heart has multiple daily opportunities to overflow with thanks.”

As a Hospital Chaplain, Alan Wright sees these things – but he also hears from so many people who cannot imagine how gratitude could be found in such unsettling times.  Whether you’re out there on the front lines, and hear of people quite carelessly ignoring the good advice of public health orders, or safely at home but just itching to get out and at it, gratitude may not be immediately evident until you seek it out.  And again, we turn to Alan’s words, as he offers some very practical suggestions on how to find a sense of gratitude in these days, suggestions that start close to home and then reach outward:

1.Find something small that makes you happy

“Is it the red-breasted robins that bounce around on your lawn or the smell of fresh coffee in the morning? In your mind, say a word of thanks”.

2.Choose kindness over judgement

Be patient with others, take a deep breath, imagine the space that they are in.

3.Turn your thoughts into words or actions

“Write a note, make a sign, or draw some inspirational chalk art to brighten someone’s day with a word of gratitude….Start a journal to document all the things you are thankful for [and] when the crisis starts to get to you, flip through the journal to remind yourself of all the good in your life. Share your lists with your loved ones.”

4.Tune in to tune out

“Tune in to what helps put your own mind at ease. When I’m home, I tune in to all the free concerts available online.  If you want guidance in correctly executing some at-home exercises, the internet is full of people offering free fitness classes. The same goes for cooking classes and many other hobbies and interests.”

5.Count your blessings and give thanks to others

“Perhaps each time you put on a mask or wash your hands, say a word of thanks for the people working to make our world a healthier and safer place to live”.

Then he reaches into his everyday experience, for this poignant reminder. “Gratefulness is indeed possible during difficult times. I know, because the patients I visit in the cancer center tell me so. I’ve been a chaplain for over 20 years and I’m still amazed at how gratitude and resilience go hand-in-hand.”

I have been so pleased, from the first day that global pandemic was declared, at how often I have heard a tone of gratitude. We were all worried, and confounded by rules that seemed to change by the day, and while some dealt with those feelings of insecurity by buying up all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rice, pasta, flour and yeast they could find, that stood out because it was so contrary to this great wave of gratitude and appreciation and kindness toward others.  Early in the game, poets (see Lynn Ungar, below) and hymn-writers (see Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, below) and social media commentators shifted the understanding of social distancing, from something inherently negative, to a gift; if we were out of our workplaces, we weren’t stuck at home, we were safe at home.  There has been an outpouring of appreciation for those working in essential services, who have been providing the health care and nourishment to keep us well, people putting themselves in harm’s way and in turn, needing the rest of us to not play fast-and-loose with rules designed to keep us from getting infected.  And there has been broad-based concern expressed for the needs of our neighbours, within Churches and local organizations and restaurants, and in brand new Facebook groups like Stone Soup Canmore, with its 2500 members making themselves available for whatever is needed by whomever.  In these extremely strange days, there has been nothing short of an outpouring of gratitude combined with a broadening of viewpoint.   Later in today’s service, the thoughtful words of Christine Valters Paintner, will express that broad, varied gratitude – along with our concerns – in prayer.

What strikes me, on this Sunday, is how important it is to take that gratitude, in all its varieties, and let it be more than just a deep sigh of relief that things are OK for me, where I am.   Jesus constantly pushed his followers to go one step further than they would usually go, to have a circle of care that was one step wider than they would normally choose, to allow themselves to be given over to the power of love that none could be seen as enemy or outsider.  Cynthia Bourgeault, commenting on Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39) states, “we almost always hear that wrong: ‘Love your neighbor as much as yourself….’ If you listen closely to Jesus however, there is no ‘as much as’ in his admonition. It’s just ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’—as a continuation of your very own being. It’s a complete seeing, that your neighbor is you. There are not two individuals out there, one seeking to better herself at the price of the other, or to extend charity to the other; there are simply two cells of the one great Life. Each of them is equally precious and necessary”. That understanding of what “community” really means, is what Paul tried to engender in the early Church, and it’s the challenge before us in our time and place as well.

There is no question, that while COVID has impacted life for all people, the shape of its impact has been very different for those of comfortable means than for those unsure of where they’re going to sleep tonight, and very different in much of Canada than in nations of limited resources and no personal space.  And we are being challenged to give deeper thought to what kinds of jobs and services are truly “essential” when the chips are down…  the clerks and shelf-stockers and delivery drivers and the folks who keep things properly disinfected, among others…and if any of those positions are stranded at minimum wage, there are questions for us to answer as a society.  As those who experience the light of Christ in others, in ourselves, in the space between us, the power of gratitude can cause us to look at these bigger questions of social justice in a newly-inspired way.  As we seek the good in our own lives, so we seek the greatest common good for all – that’s just how it works when Christ is in the room.  Paul knew that, and so do we.

In these strange days, when gratitude is as evident as worry, may we find appreciation for the gifts or our lives, and from that base reach out – with our hearts, our words, our compassion and, I would add, our analysis and our activism and our willingness to sacrifice some of our familiar comforts for a “new normal” world that can be more fair, more loving, more attuned to the needs of others.  We raise our thankfulness, we name our hopefulness, we open ourselves to the reshaping power of love.  May this be so this day and always, this place and everywhere.  Amen.

References cited:

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 31-32.  Accessed via the 17 January 2019 daily email of www.centerforactionandcontemplation.com

Ungar, Lynn. “Pandemic.” https://www.uuworld.org/articles/poem-pandemic

Valters Paintner, Christine. “Praise Song for the Pandemic” – shared by the Abbey of the Arts and The Work of the People. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCYoikGaI6U

Winfrey Gillette, Carolyn.  https://www.carolynshymns.com/when_we_face_an_unknown_future.html

Wright, Alan. https://scrubbing.in/finding-gratitude-in-the-middle-of-a-pandemic/

© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church