Sermon, December 6, 2015

Refuge: By the Tender Mercy of Our God   
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
December 6, 2015
Second Sunday of Advent, Sunday of Peace
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:68-79

Peace requires certain conditions
in order for us to experience it.
We long to feel peace inwardly,
we long to live in peace outwardly,
and when the conditions are not right
and we cannot find peace,
we suffer. When we suffer long enough
and deeply enough, we will feel moved
to go searching for those conditions
that will make for peace,
and we will do whatever it takes to find them.

A place that has the conditions
that make for peace is called a refuge.
A person who is searching for that place
is called a refugee.
Refuge and refugees are at the heart
of all three Abrahamic religions.

Abraham and Sarah were refugees,
as was Abraham’s son, Ishmael, with his mother, Hagar.
The children of Israel were refugees
when they went down to Egypt to escape famine,
and again when they fled Egypt to escape slavery.
Mary and Joseph were refugees
when they spent the night in that Bethlehem stable,
and again when they fled to Egypt
to escape the soldiers of Herod.

Refuge is a condition of being safely sheltered
from pursuit, danger or trouble.
The Psalms tell us not to trust in human refuge.
They say, “God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46)
“Happy are those who take refuge in God.” (Psalm 34)
Refuge is so central to our religion
that the word for our worship space,
sanctuary, has come to mean
a place of refuge or safety.
Medieval law protected fugitives from arrest
when they were taking refuge in a church.
It did not matter what the person had done
or who the person was, refuge was sacred.
God still calls the church to help refugees.

Our Board of Mission and Social Action
feels called to address the Syrian refugee crisis.
Consider Ahmad Majid, a tall, thirty year old man,
with short dark hair and usually
a wide, warm smile on his face,
although right now he has a look of deep concern.
He is leaning against a pine tree, dressed neatly
in a clean t-shirt, blue jeans and running shoes,
a backpack at his feet. He is studying his iphone,
seeking information he desperately needs.
Behind him twenty people rest
in the shade of the tree. Their lives depend
on Ahmad’s strength, wisdom and leadership.
The ground around them is littered with signs
that many have been stopped here before,
Syrian refugees waiting anxiously at a European border
on their long journey toward an uncertain destination.
Back home, Ahmad and his brother
owned a clothing factory.
They were prosperous and respected.
Both sides in the civil war looted their factory.
They were threatened by every competing faction.
Ahmad’s brother was kidnapped. They had to sell
much of what they owned in order to free him.
They loved Syria, they loved their life there,
but they were in increasing danger.
Ahmad and his brother went into debt
in order to take their families
in search of a refuge where they could live in peace.
(For the full New York Times story with photographs, click here.)

The church exists to help such people.
It is not clear what we will be able to do,
but it is important that we be open
to whatever opportunity may arise.

Meanwhile, we do not have to look
half way around the world for refugees.
We have people who are seeking a condition
of being safe and sheltered from the pursuit
of danger or trouble right here in Bradford.
We have refugees from the ravages of war at the Vet Center,
people who would otherwise be vulnerable
to the kinds of dangers and troubles
that many homeless people and many veterans suffer.
We have refugees from the ravages of addiction
at Valley Vista, people fleeing
the terrible, relentless pursuit, danger and trouble
of alcohol or chemical dependency.
We have refugees from the ravages of poverty
who turn to the food shelf as a refuge from hunger.
We have refugees from the ravages of loneliness
or incapacitation at the Bradford Oasis.
We need to ask if there is more of a role that we can play
as a congregation or as individual members of the church
in helping these local refugees, as well as the global ones.
We cannot answer every need.
Our time, energy and resources are limited,
but we need to do what we can as the Spirit moves us.

During the candle lighting we heard the Taoist saying,
No peace in the world without peace in the nation,
no peace in the nation without peace in the town,
no peace in the town without peace in the home,
no peace in the home without peace in the heart.
If we want our congregation
to be a refuge and a help to refugees,
we need to start preparing the way in our hearts.
We need to face our heart’s truth that we are all refugees,
we are all in need of shelter
from the dangers and troubles that pursue us.
We need to make this congregation a refuge
where we fulfill the goals
in our Identity and Aspiration Statement:
a safe, comfortable place for worship
and spiritual growth, increasingly welcoming,
helpful and loving. There can be
no peace in the sanctuary without peace in the heart.

The good news is that we know the way to inner peace.
The Psalms say it over and over: God is our refuge.
The Gospel says, “By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The light-filled way of Christ is our refuge.
Inner peace is that simple—but of course it is not easy.
We have been trained all our lives to seek other refuge,
refuge in financial security,
refuge in pleasing people and winning their approval,
and refuge in comfort foods, in entertainment,
in keeping busy, in judging others,
in avoidance and denial.
We take refuge in reliving the past
or worrying about the future.
All these get in the way of the one refuge
that can provide what no others can,
a peace that surpasses understanding
that can come to us even in the midst
of suffering and struggle and death.
We can have that peace right now.
We can enter that refuge in any moment.

The humble monk, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection,
described it in the Silent Meditation today,
saying that when he fell out of God’s refuge,
he got right back up and entered it again
by letting go of all else
and turning his simple attentiveness
and loving gaze back toward God.
He called it the practice of the presence of God.

Advent tells us that by the tender mercy of our God
the light of Christ was born into this world.
Advent promises that the light will come again
to this poor earth that is wandering
like a refugee through all its troubles.
Advent assures us that the light and peace of Christ
can come also to our hearts in any and every moment.
Advent says, wait, watch, pray,
prepare yourself to receive it,
and you will find this refuge dawning within you,
and all your restlessness will find rest.
So I invite you to enter now
into a little Advent peace, letting go all other
forms of refuge, and turning to this one,
opening your heart wide to the presence of God,
filling your heart with the hope
of the coming light of Christ.
Let us do this not just for ourselves,
but for all those we can help find refuge
if we ourselves have found it first.

Let us pray in silence…