Monday, November 21, 2016

Our Crowns at His Feet

“He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.”  Colossians 1:18

I went to see a friend recently who has come to a certain age, and is in the process of moving from her grand old house into a retirement community.  She’s made the decision with proper deliberation, and she knows it’s the right choice.  A smaller space means freedom for her, the ability to age with more dignity and grace.  But it’s a challenging and sometimes sorrowful task to sort through all these things that fill her old house, and to make those inevitable decisions about what can be taken and what must be left to others.

She wanted me to see the house in all its glory, before the packers descended, stirring up the dust and setting things ajar.  She led me from room to room, and told me the stories behind the furniture and the pictures on the wall.  This piece was her grandmother’s and that one she spotted at a sale in the rain and bought it for a song.  The friend who painted that picture has been gone for years, but this artist went on to become a smashing success.  The things we gather together over a lifetime do clutter our houses and accumulate ever so much dust.  But they are the tangible signs of our memories.  They express our relationships.

My friend seemed most excited about the things in the house she was preparing to send on to others.   A local museum in her grandfather’s home town had agreed to take a few items that couldn’t really fit in anyone’s drawing room.  Her son had said he would like to have a cherished collection.  She was surprised by that.  He’d never shown so much interest when she’d tried to explain all the parts to him before.  But she smiled when she thought about how he had already decided where it would fit in his own home.  She would make him notes about where each piece had come from, why it was significant.  He would never be able to remember all of it, she guessed.  But it reminded him of her, of course.  He knew how much she loved the collection, and that matters.

My friend is sorting through her legacy.  She’s pondering how to entrust the material signs of her life’s accomplishments to those who will value them, and continue on what was important to her.  We sometimes say that material things don’t really have any meaning, that if we were really spiritual people we would rise above them.  But that’s dishonest.  We all have a physical legacy, and though it does not in any way determine our dignity or our worth in the eyes of God, it does mark out what has been important to us, it is a kind of shorthand for the meaning of our lives.  And we have a responsibility to treat it with care—entrust is an excellent word for that, isn’t it?

Today’s Epistle lesson is one of the great purple passages of the Bible, when Saint Paul mounts one acclamation upon another, as he tries to describe our Lord’s glory, the significance of His work for us, His all-surpassing power.  He points to the beginning of time, when all things were created through Him. He is God’s eternal plan, the Word which speaks all things into being, gives them order and meaning, and holds them together.  He is the One who has freed us from sin and death, rescuing us from the power of darkness and giving us a place in His own kingdom. 

He is the head of the Church, Saint Paul says.  He is head because He is first, rising from the dead at Easter so we all might rise in glory.  He is head because He is the source of life and direction for all God’s people.  We are guided by His wisdom and act in His strength.  And He is head because we have given ourselves over to Him, as servants of one Master, who wait on His bidding and strive to do His will.

Today’s feast acclaims Christ as King of the Universe, the source and pattern of all human authority, the One in whom earth’s divided nations will discover their final peace.  We announce today a kingdom that will be revealed in full only when He returns in glory, judges the quick and dead, and makes all things new. 

But even now, while we await His return, we proclaim Him our master and dedicate ourselves to doing His will.  We are calling this day Consecration Sunday at Saint Francis this year.  As the letter that many of you received earlier this month explained, consecration is the act of setting something apart for a holy purpose.  A consecrated person or a consecrated thing is given over to God, set apart to be used in His service.  The letter we sent included a section of a beautiful prayer of self-dedication written by Saint Ignatius Loyola.  It asks, “O my God, teach me to be generous, to serve you as you deserve to be served, to give without counting the cost, to spend myself without expecting any reward but the knowledge that I am doing your holy will.[1]

It’s the prayer of a person who has entrusted Himself to God, who understands that he or she lives only by the grace and wisdom that comes from the head, from Christ who “has the first place in everything.”  It’s the prayer of a person who has given what is most important and meaningful into Christ’s hands to be used for His purposes.

The prayer reminds me of a scene from the New Testament that is recalled in some of the hymns we sing at this feast.  It comes from St. John’s great vision in the Book of Revelation, when Christ is seated on His glorious throne, surrounded by twenty-four elders, leaders of great significance.[2]  The elders sing Christ’s praise, acclaiming Him as holy above all.  And then they fall on their knees and take off their crowns and lay them at Jesus’s feet.

The crowns point to the authority the elders have borne, the tasks that have given purpose to their lives, the success they have seen.  There is nothing more precious than a crown.  But when they come before Christ the King, He who is first in everything, they must acknowledge that all they have has come only through His help.  As one ancient commentator wrote, “By casting their crowns before the throne, they are ascribing to God whatever they possess of virtue and dignity.  For whatever good we seek and acquire by right is attributed to him from whom [we] receive assistance.[3] 

But this is also about entrusting their lives’ projects to Him, tending their legacies.  Laying the crowns before Jesus says, “All my labors are fulfilled in you.  I am returning what is most precious to me, because I know you deserve nothing less than this.

When we invite you to bring forward your financial pledges at the close of today’s Eucharist, we’re asking that you do something that’s really quite a bit like those elders placing their crowns at Jesus’ feet.  The Altar is the throne of Christ, the place where He appears among His adoring people, under the forms of bread and wine.  We aim to give Christ our highest aspirations and our noblest thoughts, of course.  But we also bring the tangible sign of this in our financial commitment to His work in this congregation. 

Our money is an important part of our physical legacy. It is a sign of the talents and opportunities God has given us and the good use we have made of them, through His grace.  We use money wisely when its use reflects our deepest priorities and most important commitments.

Most all of you are here today because you have already made a commitment to Christ and this congregation.  Your presence here shows that you have made the worship of God a priority in your life.  This is an exciting day because we celebrate the work of this sanctuary renovation, the beauty created by many hands.  We also rejoice together in the bright future that lies ahead of us as a congregation.  We are poised to do many new things together, making new disciples, working to transform this community we serve, growing in our practice of the spiritual life and our love for each other. 

The monies you pledge to Saint Francis today enable that work at this exciting time in our common life.  You are entrusting them to us for the sake of Christ and His kingdom, and your vestry and I commit to using them wisely and carefully.  Let us approach our king in faith and gratitude, acknowledging our true head, the source of all our blessings.  We bring our crowns and lay them, with thanks, at His feet.

[1] “Prayer for Generosity,” Prayers for All Christians.  1988.
[2] Rev. 4:1-11.
[3] Primasius, Commentary on the Apocalypse 4.10, qtd. in Revelation.  Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.  Ed. William Weinrich.  Downers Grove: IVP, 2005.  New Testament XXII. 68.

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