Sermon, February 12, 2017

Stretch Out Your Hand for Whichever You Choose
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
February 12, 2017   Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Sirach 15:15-20;
I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-24

The scriptures make our choice sound so clear. Deuteronomy says, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

The book of Sirach adds to Deuteronomy that, “To act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”

The Apostle Paul says we can choose between being unspiritual and spiritual people. As long as we are jealous and quarrel, he says, we are choosing to be unspiritual, yet God created us to be loving members of a beloved community. All we have to do is choose.

Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that it is not enough for spiritual people just to obey the commandment not to murder. We need to go beyond that negative to something positive. We need to choose to create the beloved community of God’s realm. Jesus is saying that we need to be reconciled through direct, healthy communication whenever we have conflicts or divisions.

It seems so simple. Choose life, not death. Choose love, not hate. Choose community, not division. As the book of Sirach says, “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.”

And yet of course it is not as simple as it seems. This congregation is considering the choice to become officially Open and Affirming or not. Here is the draft of the covenant that you are invited to discuss after worship today.

We, the members of the Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, Bradford, Vermont, regard all people as beloved children of God.  We give thanks for the many and diverse gifts of God among us.

Jesus calls us to love God and “love your neighbor as yourself,” and to welcome all into God’s covenantal community. The First Letter of John says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

We declare ourselves to be an Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming and accepting into full membership and participation people of every age, gender, race, national origin, faith background, marital status and family structure, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, addiction, economic and social status, and educational background.

We acknowledge that the Christian church has often withheld its affirmation of people based on these criteria.  We believe such discrimination to be incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We honor the worth and dignity of all people.  We affirm all relationships founded on the principles of God’s love and justice. We pledge to work to end oppression and discrimination whenever we encounter them, and, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to help create the beloved community of God’s realm.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

That draft may be revised in response to the feedback you give [it now has been], but looking at it as it is, we see what a challenge it can be to choose to be as loving as God.

The draft covenant says that we “regard all people as beloved children of God.” We may believe that hypothetically, but what about the white supremacist who walks into a church and guns down a black pastor and Bible Study group? What about the fundamentalist Muslim who beheads a Christian in Syria? It is hard to choose to regard all people as beloved children of God. It is hard to choose to love as God loves.

The covenant goes on, “We give thanks for the many and diverse gifts of God among us.” We can easily choose to be grateful for others’ gifts as long as we approve and feel we are benefiting from them, but what about when one of the gifts of a fellow parishioner is to think of creative church innovations that rock our traditions? Can we still choose to recognize the other person’s taste and initiative as beloved gifts of God? Or what about when someone’s gift is to speak on behalf of beloved church traditions when we are eager for change? It can be hard to feel grateful for the discomfort that diversity sometimes gives us.   And yet, as the Rev. William Sloane Coffin used to say with a twinkle in his eye, “God must love diversity because why else would she make us all so different?”

The covenant includes a long list of people who have experienced discrimination. We promise to welcome them into “full membership and participation.” Let’s be honest. It can be hard to choose to welcome people we were brought up to be prejudiced against, or people whose different way of being bothers or scares us.

The First Letter of John that the covenant quotes says, “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” First John also says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

The draft Open and Affirming covenant says, “We pledge to work to end oppression and discrimination whenever we encounter them, and, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to help create the beloved community of God’s realm.”

It is a hard thing to say we choose to end discrimination in our own hearts as well as in distant corners of the world. It is an even harder thing to love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Covenants are meant to challenge us to live up to our highest ideals, and to remind us to get up and try again every time we fall. Covenants require courage and humility—we would not need a covenant if the promises were easy to fulfill. Every communion Sunday we confess ways we have not lived up to our general covenant. If this congregation passes something like this draft Open and Affirming covenant, we can be sure that we will have to confess times when we do not live up to it, either.

The children of Israel failed again and again to choose life, as God commanded through Moses. They stretched out their hand thinking to choose life and grasped the golden calf instead. It is like the popular refrigerator magnet that says, “I hate it when I think I’m buying organic vegetables and I get home to discover they’re just regular doughnuts!”

Choosing life, choosing God, choosing to be spiritual people, choosing high ideals—these are hard and tricky things.

Remember the story about the monk who was keeping a strict Lenten fast that allowed no meat. For weeks he had been unable to get out of his mind the thought of the lamb stew at the village inn. Finally he gave into the temptation and snuck out of the monastery in mid-Lent. He had not gone far before he realized he had forgotten his rosary, so he went back and got it so he could pray as he walked.

He was close enough to smell the stew when suddenly he heard a warning cry behind him and turned around to see a runaway cart. He dove out of the way but too late. It broke his leg. He lay on the ground in agony saying, this is what I get for choosing to give in to temptation. An angel appeared beside him and said, “No, you do not understand. You have been blessed. That cart would have killed you if you had not chosen to go back and get your rosary and pray.”

The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote a poem about our choices between fire and water, choices like those the monk made. Rumi wrote:

God’s presence is there in front of me, a fire on the left,
a lovely stream on the right.
One group walks toward the fire, into the fire,
another toward the sweet flowing water.
No one knows which are blessed and which not.
Whoever walks into the fire appears suddenly in the stream.
A head goes under on the water surface, that head pokes out of the fire.

Most people guard against going into the fire,
and so end up in it.
Those who love the water of pleasure and make it their devotion
are cheated with this reversal.
The trickery goes further.
The voice of the fire tells the truth saying, I am not fire.
I am fountainhead. Come into me and don’t mind the sparks.
If you are a friend of God, fire is your water.
                                            (from Coleman Barks translation)

The monk thought he was walking into a lovely, sacred stream when he decided to keep the traditional Lenten fast, but it turned out to be the fire of temptation. He thought he was walking into the fire when he snuck out of the monastery, but because he prayed the whole way, he emerged through his burns into the sacred water of mercy and forgiveness.

Stretch out your hand for whichever you choose, the fire or the water, and if you do it for the love of God, if you do it to help create the beloved community of God’s realm on earth, you can be sure that your choice will lead to both fire and water, and you will be blessed by both. The fire will refine you and fill you with God’s light. The water will renew you and be a spring of living Spirit flowing through you.

The important thing is to have the courage and the faith to choose and keep choosing over and over to hold fast to God, even as you fail or fall, even as you burn or drown. Keep choosing God and God will not let you go, God will bless you and bless your church with life.

Let us pray in silence…

Let us sing together O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go