Sermon, February 14, 2016

“In Every Change, He Faithful Will Remain”
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
February 14, 2016 First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91; Deuteronomy 26:1-9; Luke 4:1-14

The passage we heard in Deuteronomy took place before the children of Israel reached the Promised Land. Many times in the wilderness they forgot to be thankful for how God rescued them from slavery or provided food or water or guided them. God wanted them to emerge from the wilderness a changed people, more faithful and more grateful. The whole purpose of the wilderness journey was to transform them and prepare them to live more like children of God.

The passage we heard from Luke shows us the transformation of Jesus through trials and temptations. He was reduced to being as weak as a human can be through forty days and nights of fasting and exposure to the harsh elements of the wilderness. He was as tempted as a human can be by pleasure and comfort, wealth and control. He followed the only path that can lead safely through such a trackless and treacherous wilderness—he turned to God over and over, and emerged a changed man, full of the Spirit’s power, with authority in his voice and healing in his touch.

The hymn “Be Still, My Soul” expresses the anguish of a wilderness or dark night of soul experience, as well as the faith that leads us through to a new birth and a new dawn:

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Those thorny ways pass through whatever struggle we have, whatever conflict or change we face. A hidden path leads through them all by which God brings us to a joyful end, a Promised Land, a resurrection, because “in every change, he faithful will remain.”

God leads us out, and yet the scriptures show that sometimes the Holy Spirit drives us into that wilderness of painful change.

Today’s Silent Meditation in the bulletin was written by Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr observes, “Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with your shadow. I wish someone had told me that when I was young. It is in facing your conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that you grow up. You actually need to have some problems, enemies, and faults! You will remain largely unconscious as a human being until issues come into your life that you cannot fix or control and something challenges you at your present level of development, forcing you to expand and deepen. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of consciousness. I doubt whether there is any other way.”

This is the wisdom we see in today’s scriptures. Our struggles in the wilderness are opportunities for transformation, if we turn to God over and over and give God our will’s control. The wilderness changes us, it deepens us, it prepares us for a life of loving, healing and caring.

This is important to remember when we are struggling. The children of Israel were being prepared by their struggles to serve as a model of God’s realm on earth, to show the world what a society of mercy, justice and peace would look like. Jesus was being prepared to be the incarnation of God’s way of compassion and healing as a model for us to follow. Our struggles can prepare us to be models and to serve as well.

We all have a selfish part of us lurking in our shadows. It creates an inner crisis when we confront that truth. It demands that we choose either to stay stuck in our old ways or to be changed and reborn as a self truer to what God created us to be, more available to the Spirit to work through us with acts of love.

It is a hard choice. The Declaration of Independence recognized that the colonies faced the same hard choice as they confronted British oppression. It said, “All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Lent is designed to lead us to throw off our old habits and addictions and ways of being and take on a new way of living that is more closely aligned with the way of Christ. Lent asks, what is it that you need to change? What is blocking you from being your best, truest, most loving, creative and kind self? What keeps you from being full of the Spirit’s power? Lent encourages you to challenge yourself over the next forty days to confront that part of you that needs to change, and in every confrontation, to turn to God again asking for help.

Churches have their own habits and ways of being that need to change, and they are as reluctant to change as individuals are. Maybe even more so. We do not like change. Churches are “more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right” themselves. And yet, as the Declaration of Independence says, “It is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

This congregation has suffered from old ways of dealing with change and conflict that have governed it and threatened its security. Change often provokes conflict as some people embrace the change and others oppose it, or some people feel we should change in one way and others in another. Conflict or disagreement is a natural and necessary part of ever-changing reality. We cannot avoid it if we are going to live together.

The problem is, many families and churches and other institutions are not very good at conflict. This church has gone through conflict in hurtful and divisive ways. Many have left the church because of it. Everyone who remains in a church after a hurtful conflict carries traumatic wounds from it for decades. Even bystanders suffer trauma from watching people they love hurt one another. If you have been in this church longer than two years, you have been wounded by the way this congregation has gone through conflict.

The questionnaire and small groups that we held when I first arrived showed how painful this was for the church. Here is what the summary report said: “It is clear that the biggest dislike, source of wounds and priority for change are about the way people treat one another, especially when there are conflicts over change.” The report showed that the greatest dream of this church was that it grow and become revitalized as a positive, welcoming, caring and supportive community actively engaged in mission and social action to meet the needs of the world around it—a place experiencing peace within its walls and working for peace outside its walls.

Richard Rohr said, “It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of consciousness.”

We have been struggling in the wilderness of the aftermath of many wounding conflicts, and the extremely exciting, extremely good news is that we have the opportunity now to break into a higher level of consciousness. The series of workshops on Healthy Communication and Beloved Community we will be holding over the course of this year gives us the opportunity to learn how to live into our Communication Guidelines and fulfill our Identity and Aspiration Statement. We have the opportunity to change our culture and change the way we go through conflict and change.

We do not have to invent this ourselves. New wisdom and skills have evolved in the past twenty years to help people go through conflict in such a way that instead of becoming more deeply divided, angry and hurt and the family or organization becoming weaker, they grow closer and become a stronger, more loving and beloved community.

I have seen this happen. I have seen a congregation change a long-established pattern of fights and divisions and people leaving. That church made a conscious decision to do things differently as it undertook the most controversial change it had ever considered. They were very careful how they communicated and treated one another during the months of debate. After the vote people on the prevailing side surrounded those who disagreed with so much love that not one person left the church.

We can change the culture of our congregation. It is within our reach. In order to do it, we need everyone who is part of this church to learn these new skills and become wise in the ways of healthy communication and beloved community. We need walking together through disagreement as a loving community to be as basic knowledge as voting at annual meeting or taking communion.

Having these skills will change not only our church, but our lives. It will improve every community or organization or family that we are a part of and make us better friends and better citizens, better parents and better partners.

Teaching these skills to our children will change their lives, too. They are growing up in a divided and violent world. Think how transformative it could be if they learn here how to negotiate disagreements in class and how to be peacemakers in schoolyards and families. Think of a lifetime ahead of them preserving friendships they might have lost, strengthening their marriages when they might have fallen apart, contributing this wisdom to every community they enter. To give them this gift we have only to master it ourselves.

The world needs models of diverse people finding a way to go through challenges, changes and conflicts as a united community. There is a reason why the Board of Mission and Social Action is co-sponsoring our upcoming workshops along with the Diaconate.

Peace in the world depends on peace in congregations and homes. Even more than peace, though, the result of gaining these skills will be power, just as Jesus emerged from his wilderness full of the Spirit’s power. Think what we can do as a congregation if we know how to face controversy and conflict and stay together. Think of the acts of loving, healing and caring, think of the acts of mission and social action we will be freed to do! We will never again have to be afraid of whatever the Holy Spirit asks. We can boldly follow Christ, knowing that in every change, he faithful will remain, knowing that in every conflict, God will help us grow in love, knowing that every wilderness and dark night and cross is leading to the greater light of Easter dawn.

Let us pray in silence…