Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanks--the Best Word

"No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years ago he was told he had six months to live at the rate he was going. 
And he was going nowhere but down. So he changed his ways somehow. 
He quit drinking! And the rest? 
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about, well, some things that were breaking down and building up inside his head. 'Don't weep for me,' he said to his friends. 'I'm a lucky man. I've had ten years longer than I or anyone expected. Pure gravy. And don't forget it."  --Raymond Carver, Gravy.

It is reported that toward the end of his career, Mark Twain was paid a dollar a word when he wrote magazine articles. A cynic, hearing that report, sent him a dollar with a note saying: "Dear Mr. Twain: Please send me a word." Mark Twain took a single sheet of paper and scrawled one word in large letters across the page: "Thanks" and sent it back to the man.

 This one word is at the heart of our faith: Thanks. We call it Doxology. From earliest days the people of God met to praise their Lord. It was a remembering they did of the greatness of their God. They remembered many things. Slavery, Egypt, the Red Sea and crossing on dry land. They remembered a wilderness and water that sprang from a rock on thirsty days. They remembered manna that came from somewhere in the heavens on hungry days. They remembered giants in the land and how God led them even in their days of insurrection. They remembered young Moses their great leader. They remembered that twisting, winding journey of forty years. And they remembered the goodbyes of old, wrinkled Moses at Moab and the crossing of a ribbon of a river and a land flowing with milk and honey. And out of their remembering one word would fill their worship until it ran out all over the place: “Praise to God the Almighty the King of Creation”. In the Old Testament they often called their doxologies blessing. And so the blessings were received at the end of hymns, at the end of a single Benediction of a longer prayer. Even after every mention of the name of God there would be a Doxology of one sort or the other. In the New Testament Doxologies and Thanksgivings are everywhere. The focus was on Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

After the Offering we usually sing a Doxology. It was part of a hymn written by Thomas Ken in England in 1673. The present form that we sing was written in 1709. It is said that this Doxology has done more to teach the doctrine of the Trinity than all the theological books ever written.

The last book in the Bible is filled with Doxology. There are at least ten doxologies found in the book of Revelation. (4.11; 5.13; 7.10,12; 11.15,17; 12.10; 15.3-4; 19.1-2, 5, 6-7). And on this Thanksgiving Sunday I choose the first Doxology from the book of Revelation as our text. It is as good a reason I know to praise God.

Listen to the first Doxology in Revelation: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen."(1.5b-6)

A New Status

They praised God because they had discovered in him a new status.” To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood." So on our Thanksgiving list let’s first put down two words: love and freedom. These were the reasons they praised God. He loves us and he has freed us. The tense of the word love is interesting. God loves us--present tense. But it should read: he keeps on loving us. This love of God goes on forever.

 Of all the words that we give out in church love is the greatest of these. Unconditional love. When the great Central Church in Honolulu was under construction, the architect came to the Pastor and said, "There is to be an inscription on the pulpit stand. It must have eighteen letters and spaces. We want you to select that inscription." The Pastor thought about what would be appropriate. What would carry a message for all those that would come there? It would have to speak to the hungry pilgrims who made their way to Holy Communion. It would have to be strong enough for the times when they would slowly roll caskets into the church and on those golden days when there would be weddings. What would be an appropriate message for cold days and summertime when the sun would shine brightly? Finally after much prayer and meditation, the Pastor came up with the inscription. Can you guess what it was? Big enough to follow us all the days of our lives? Eighteen letters and spaces: "Love Never Faileth." Put down that love that never lets us go and you will find a sufficiency for whatever it is you face. You are loved. You will always be loved. That is one reason they thanked God.

 If the tense of this love is present and continuing—the next word of thanks is in the past tense. "He has freed us from our sins by his blood." The tense is past. Williams' translation says He has released us. But I like the American Standard Version better. He has loosed us from our sins. We are now free.

 I do not know a word that we need more this Thanksgiving than an understanding that God really has loosed our burdens and set us free. The power of sins has been broken though some of us have not yet heard this good, good news. He came to set us free.

 This Thanksgiving wouldn't it be something if we could somehow capture this word of thanks: freedom in a personal sense. Paul Scherer tells that when the slaves in Jamaica heard that on a certain day they would be set free word spread quickly throughout all the villages. And the night before that great day they all spent the whole night getting ready. And from the houses and huts and villages there moved through the darkness twos and threes --men and women and children--out into the lanes, where they were joined by other woman and men and children and together they moved through the forest and the plain, climbing the highest hill through the darkness. They crowded together—women, men and children on top of the mountain. They waited for the sunrise that would change their lives forever. And just as the first faint streaks of dawn became to show itself on the horizon, a ripple of laughter spread through the crowd like the murmur of waves. Then a shout went up, and they began to sing in their own peculiar Jamaican rhythm, everybody with their arms around somebody else, paying no attention to the tears that ran down their cheeks. Some fell to their knees as the sun came over the hill, and lifting their hands to heaven one and all, they said their Doxology: "Free! Free! Free!"[i]  I wish that somehow we could all hear this grace note of the gospel. We are loosed, washed, loved and set free. This is our status.

A New Identity

 But we are also given a new identity. "He has made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father..." So on our thanksgiving list let’s put two more words: kingdom and priest. First, there is a new Kingdom. In the old Kingdom--our old identity we were told that we did not count. We were told we were not important. We were told we did not matter. They would sometimes whisper: "Just who do you think you are?" My friend in California who has written over twenty books and is distinguished Professor at a major University was told in the seventh grade that he might be a construction worker if he was lucky but he would never make it through college. How could a little old orphan boy do anything important? This is the old Kingdom. But in Revelation the tables are turned. There is a new Kingdom. And in the eleventh grade, thank God, another teacher called my friend aside one day and said: "I believe you ought to go to college and I am going to see you get a scholarship." He was been interviewed on NPR. He has written for everything—including The Wall Street Journal. He has recently written and directed a movie that has won all sorts of awards, which dealt with growing up in an orphanage. This Doxology says there is a new Kingdom.

And now for the second word he uses here: priests. In the Old Kingdom only the duly ordained Priests had access to the holy place. When a Jew entered the temple he or she came into the Court of the Gentiles and moved into the Court of the Women and if you were male you could even move closer into the Court of the Israelites. But there you stopped. Only the priests could go into the Holy of Holies where God's presence was supposed to be. But this Doxology says that this has all been changed. It means that we are all priests. The unordained. Women. Children. Halt and the lame. The less-than- perfect. The mentally and physically challenged. Gender or sexual preference does not matter. We are all priests. We can bow our heads in our own holy of holies and talk to God. There is no second-class citizenship in this Kingdom. We are all somebody.

A New Song

We have a new status. A new identity. We are also given a new song. "To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen." Lenski, the scholar, says that the Greek here takes its greatest term for time--the eon--pluralizes it--then multiplies it by its own plurality. Thine will be the glory and dominion forever and forever. The closest thing I can think of is the end of the magnificent Hallelujah Chorus, which says: Forever. Forever. Forever Forever. Messiah is the king of kings and Lord of Lords. Forever. Forever. So let’s put down on our Thanksgiving list the word praise.

This is the new song that we are to sing not only at Thanksgiving but everyday. Revelation was written in a time of terrible persecution. They thought it was the end of the world. Rome with its mad emperor required them to renounce their faith and say: Caesar is Lord. And Christians all over the Roman Empire not only lost jobs and homes but many, many of them died because they would not say Caesar is Lord. And John's response? He taught them to sing a new song. Glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

 Sitting in the Doctor’s office the other day an African American nurse was giving me a flu shot. Not wanting to look at the needle, my eyes wandered to a table that held a cloth bag that obviously belonged to the nurse. There was an inscription on the bag that read: Every day is Thanksgiving Day! I survived the shot and asked the nurse, “Is that your bag?” She nodded. I said, “How can you believe this?  Your people have had a long journey. Surely you have had a hard time along the way, especially growing up black in Birmingham, Alabama. And she said, “That’s true.” And then she pointed to the words written on her bag and said, “But that’s truer.” Every day is Thanksgiving Day!

 This is Thanksgiving week-end. On Thursday we will sit down all across this land at tables laden with the blessings God has poured out. Many of us will be surrounded by those we love. As we bow our heads to say a prayer of thanksgiving, remember the words of John in this first chapter of Revelation.

We have been given a new status: “To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” We have been given a new identity: “He has made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and father…” He has given us a new song: “To him be glory and dominions forever and ever. Amen.”  No wonder every day is to be Thanksgiving Day.  And no wonder Raymond Carver called it gravy.      

[i].Paul Scherer, The Word God Sent (New York: Harper, 1965) p. 203

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