Gratitude and Apocalypse
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On October 30, I preached at River Road Church in Richmond, VA. It was a celebration of the church’s 75th anniversary one year late!
The text — 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 — was from that week’s lectionary. It gave me a chance to reflect on gratefulness and apocalypse — and how retranslating the Greek passage and understanding recent history actually reveals how giving thanks enables us to face our fears. Rightly directed gratitude shifts the balance of the universe toward the Kingdom of God.
Although preached last week, it also speaks to All Saints Day, the holy day many churches celebrate in worship on the first Sunday of November (today). The sermon also alludes to election day this coming Tuesday. We live in a time of apocalypse — and gratitude is one of the few paths of spiritual resistance and resilience we have. It is our moral responsibility to give thanks.
The biblical text, the video sermon, and a few of my sermon notes are below.
Happy All Saints Sunday!
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
From my sketchy sermon notes (not an essay or transcription) — on “retranslating” the text, the central section of the sermon.
The epistle hangs on verse 3. My RE-TRANSLATION:
WE are obligated – we have an ethical responsibility – to give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right (worthy), because your trust is increasing beyond measure, and the goodwill and sacred love you bear for all people superabounds.
KEY THEOLOGICAL POINT of the passage is this verse: The church is a community of thanks, offering gratitude to God, as it shifts its balance toward the Kingdom with persistence trust and flourishing love.
This meaning emerges in understanding four words.
OBLIGATION: opheiló, (of-i'-lo): “I owe”
Sounds onerous, nobody likes a debt of gratitude.
But the ancient Roman world was a world of debts and obligations – everybody owed someone (above them) a debt of gratitude, except Caesar. Ultimately, everybody owed Caesar thanks.
When Paul says “WE are obligated – we have an ethical responsibility – to give thanks to God,” it is a radical re-ordering of social priorities – YOU OWE NOTHING TO CAESAR. But to God.
RIGHT/WORTHY: axios, as in axis: “To weigh in”
“Worthy” is a term of weights and measures, a scale. Meaning to balance or to weigh in. Axis.
To give thanks to God is to weigh in on the side of the Kingdom; We don’t offer thanks because of a debt obligation (like the sort Rome makes us do to Caesar) but because we have chosen to weigh in – move along the axis – away from Rome toward God’s reign. We’ve picked a side. And it is against the Roman Empire.
This choice, of course, is the source of their suffering – and the cause of the coming apocalyptic conflict between Rome and the reign of God.
FAITH/TRUST – disposition of the heart, not opinions about doctrine.
Faith means to trust the right thing. (the Thessalonians trust the right thing — the Kingdom, not Caesar)
LOVE/AGAPE – feminine noun for love, meaning divine love, sacred love. Goodwill, benevolence toward all.
Rightly directed gratitude – the moral choice of God’s Kingdom – shifts the direction of our communities and our hearts toward trust and genuine love. And, as we continue to weigh in with humble devotion and goodwill toward all, that Kingdom becomes increasingly known to us – and to the world – through good works and unending thanks.
Did someone say that there would be an end,
An end, Oh, an end, to love and mourning?
Such voices speak when sleep and waking blend,
The cold bleak voices of the early morning
When all the birds are dumb in dark November—
Remember and forget, forget, remember.
After the false night, warm true voices, wake!
Voice of the dead that touches the cold living,
Through the pale sunlight once more gravely speak.
Tell me again, while the last leaves are falling:
“Dear child, what has been once so interwoven
Cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven.”
Now the dead move through all of us still glowing,
Mother and child, lover and lover mated,
Are wound and bound together and enflowing.
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited—
Only the strands grow richer with each loss
And memory makes kings and queens of us.
Dark into light, light into darkness, spin.
When all the birds have flown to some real haven,
We who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us and blend
Our complex love, our mourning without end.
— May Sarton, “All Souls”
In the struggles we choose for ourselves,
in the ways we move forward in our lives
and bring our world forward with us,
It is right to remember the names of those
who gave us strength in this choice of living.
It is right to name the power of hard lives well-lived.
We share a history with those lives.
We belong to the same motion.
They too were strengthened by what had gone before.
They too were drawn on by the vision of what might come to be.
Those who lived before us,
who struggled for justice and suffered injustice before us,
have not melted into the dust,
and have not disappeared.
They are with us still.
The lives they lived hold us steady.
Their words remind us and call us back to ourselves.
Their courage and love evoke our own.
We, the living, carry them with us:
we are their voices, their hands and their hearts.
We take them with us,
and with them choose the deeper path of living.
— Kathleen McTigue, “They Are with Us Still”
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
— John O’Donohue
TUESDAY NOVEMBER 8 is Election Day in the United States. Please vote — for compassion, justice, and democracy. Vote. Take a friend. Nag your children and grandchildren. Whatever it takes. Get to the polls. Do your part.
For our friends in this community outside of the United States, please pray for us. Thank you.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
— President Franklin D. Roosevelt
A GRATEFUL NOVEMBER
The paid Cottage community had a great first week exploring GRATITUDE in our November daily series. You can still join in! The first week posts are all available to paid subscribers in the Cottage Archive — and it would be easy to catch up.
The four-week gratitude journey includes reflections from my book Grateful, gratitude prompts, practices, videos, Zoom conversations, and poetry. There’s also a book giveaway — two copies of Grateful each week!
The November gratitude series is sent to all paid subscribers — a subscription is $5 a month or $50 a year.
You can create a subscription or upgrade from your current plan by clicking the button below.
If you’d like to be part of the series and cannot afford a subscription, please email us by replying to this post. No one is ever turned away for lack of funds.
SOUTHERN LIGHTS 2023 is back! Y’all come!
This coming January on MLK weekend, Brian McLaren and I are hosting extraordinary guests including Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, theologian Reggie Williams, and Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio in a festival of reimagining faith in words, for the world, and in context of the cosmos — poetry, theology, and science!
We’re also going to do live, on-stage podcasts with guest podcasters Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Tripp Fuller — and great music from the wonderful Ken Medema.
Please join us in Georgia at beautiful St. Simons Island or virtually online. CLICK HERE for info and registration!