With Thanks for the Glue
by Louise Westfall
…and they lived happily ever after.
I love fairy tales. But I don’t believe them. Reality is much more complicated. There are great, glad moments of joy and scenarios that break your heart. There are seasons of struggle when nothing flows easily, sudden roadblocks that pop up with no warning, and times when you’re doing no better than treading water. And there are many, many days so filled up by routine we hardly have time to wonder about any grand purpose or meaning. A favorite New Yorker cartoon is titled “Kafka as a young boy,” and shows him standing in his bedroom fuming, “make the bed, sleep in the bed, make the bed, sleep in it…my life is completely absurd!”
Today’s text is the biblical version of “happily ever after” and a blessing to help us get there. It focuses on the identity and work of Christ. Remember that Christ is not Jesus’ surname, but is a special designation connecting Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who lived and died a little over 2000 years ago, to the Eternal Word of God, conveying creative, redemptive, and universal power. Today, on the very last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the reign of Christ, one that embraces everyone and links past, present, and future. In soaring language (some biblical scholars think it may even have been sung), Christ is affirmed as present at creation and at the end, the divine constant. A reading from the letter to the Colossian churches, in the first chapter, at the eleventh verse. Listen for God’s Word to saints and sinners (which is to say all of us) who despite our doubts, seek a happy ending. [Colossians 1:11-20]
When I told a friend I was going to the Monet exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, he kind of rolled his eyes and said “Water lilies. So over that.” I hope he reconsiders; the exhibit spans Monet’s artistic life as he moved away from the bustle of Parisian café life into the countryside. His wheat fields, depictions of sea and sky, landscapes stilled by ice and snow (and yes, a few waterlilies) are stunning. I want to grasp the intangible, Monet wrote, and to do that pushed him to new techniques and practices. The exhibit tells how he immersed himself in the elements (painting in rain and snow and with a portable easel set up in a boat) in order to capture the truth of nature.
…something you really can’t do from the safe confines of a studio.
…or from a distant heaven. Our ancestors envisioned the truth of reality as Christ the King, ruling over all. But the word “king” doesn’t appear in this text, and I wonder if that’s on purpose, so as not to reduce the universal Christ to a particular type of ruler, and one characterized by humans who fulfill that role by wielding power, ordering people, commanding vast armies, and carrying out their personal mandate. Christ’s rule is different: instead of domination, there is servanthood; instead of triumphant self-congratulation, there is a loser on the cross; instead of cruelty or indifference, there is kindness and mercy.
So the author of Colossians chose a different image to convey this rule–not as the Almighty One carrying out his will from on high, but as the glue that holds everything together. The God who is immersed in human life, part of its essence, and the thing that gives it integrity and purpose. Our lives are not absurd. From the dawn of creation they have been infused with all the fullness of God. We are not given over to futility, but touched with Divine power and purpose. In a way, the happy ending’s been written: we share in the inheritance of the “saints in the light,” those blessed souls in God’s nearer presence.
The love of Christ comes not from something outside ourselves, but from something deep within. All are infused with the fullness of God, joined together at the deepest, most essential level.
But here’s the thing that makes this good news. The happy ending is not dependent upon what we do or don’t do. It’s baked into the very essence of creation. The happy ending actually reaches back and shapes the way we live now. The routine of our days is backlit by the One who’s been there since the beginning. God doesn’t visit tragedies upon God’s people, but is there in the center of it, lifting these tragedies out of the pit of nothingness and causing light to shine in the darkness. Because Christ died, death no longer need be the vicious enemy that always beats out life. We have the promise of the “firstborn from the dead,” that it will never have the last word. Our graves are transformed into birthing centers, ushering our beloved ones into new life.
But this is no mere “pie in the sky by and bye.” The glue holds together this life and the next; earth and heaven; things visible and invisible. Thomas Berry, theologian and environmentalist puts it in an especially compelling way: The universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects. The love of Christ comes not from something outside ourselves, but from something deep within. All are infused with the fullness of God, joined together at the deepest, most essential level. The arc of history leads toward reconciliation and peacemaking, repairing and putting back together that which has become broken and separated.
And this reality reveals that God is calling human beings to do something, to join in this redemptive work. That’s why the church invests time, talent and money in a mission as broad and wide as creation itself. To care for the most vulnerable. To serve one another lovingly, beyond our own self-interest. To witness to the glue that holds the universe, and our own precious lives, together in breathtaking, logic-defying unity.
How could we not give thanks? In fact, as one Christian mystic put it, If our only prayer were “thank you, God,” it would be enough.
The hymn we will sing following a moment of silence captures the heart of this text. Written by our friend Kent Groff, it is honest in its acknowledgement of human hostility, estrangement, and even evil intent and actions. But it comes out as a song of praise to God’s “undefeated love” that will triumph, forgive and reconcile. The very best happy ending. So we sing; so we say; and so we live: Thank you, thank you, thank you.