Sermon, February 21, 2016

Seeing the Goodness of God in the Land of the Living    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
February 21, 2016   Second Sunday in Lent
Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Jesus said, “You will not see me until…you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Paul wrote, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” and Paul invited people to “observe” the example of those who lived like citizens of God’s realm.

The 27th Psalm said, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.”

These passages are about looking, observing and seeing a whole different realm of reality within and around us. More than that, they are about our making that reality our own, being citizens and participants and models of it for others.

But practically, how can we see the goodness of God in the land of the living, and how can we be the goodness of God—we as individuals and we as a people?

Jesus said that in order to see his goodness we need to say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God.” He talked about how his culture attacked and even killed those God sent as agents of change. Some did that actively, but most just let it happen.

To go along with a violent, materialistic society and accept things as they are is to reject the change God is trying to bring about through those who see a way to transform society into something more like the realm of God. We cannot recognize who Jesus or any prophet is until we change our hearts and minds to be receptive to what God wants to do, and bless those who are working as instruments of God’s peace, justice and love.

If we truly see Jesus, we will be changed by him. We will allow him to be the mother hen that he longs to be, bringing us together under his wings as one brood and teaching us how to live together as members of God’s family. We will both see and be the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Paul asked the people of the church in Philippi to observe those who were living as citizens of God’s realm and to imitate them. He asked the church members to change the direction of their minds from focusing on their desire for material things to focusing on the spiritual realm. Paul said that if we keep opening to Christ, if we let him gather us under his wings, he will transform us until we conform to his glory. We will both see and be the goodness of God in the land of the living.

The Psalm begins by saying that God is our light and salvation, and it ends saying, “Wait for God!” God is the agent of our transformation. God will change our way of being, but once again, it is dependent on our shifting our focus and way of seeing. The Psalm says, “One thing I asked of you, that will I seek after: to live in your house all the days of my life, to behold your beauty, and to inquire in your temple.”

One thing. That is a remarkable statement. Only one thing the Psalmist asks, and that is to be able to change residency and live not in the realm of a society that is full of violence, but to live from now on every day and every moment in God’s house, seeking and beholding its beauty. The Psalmist believes that making this shift of allegiance, changing the citizenship of our heart and mind to God’s realm, will enable us to see the goodness of God in the land of the living. We will find a way to see through the violence around us and transform it into the peace and lovingkindness of the realm of God.

Today’s Silent Meditation has quotes from two great men who exemplified seeing and being the goodness of God in the land of the living. The first was President Abraham Lincoln. He said in his second inaugural speech, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.”

Malice toward none and charity for all was not just political rhetoric. Lincoln spoke again and again during the Civil War about the need to forgive the south and seek reconciliation. He did not want to punish them, he did not want lingering hatred, he wanted people to move past their conflict and establish a just and lasting peace.

After giving one such speech an angry woman challenged Lincoln, as many did. How could they forgive the south for two hundred years of slavery, how could they forgive them for a war that cost hundreds of thousands of young men their lives? The south should be required to pay for the losses of the north. They should be utterly destroyed. To this, Lincoln replied, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Lincoln was passionately committed to seeing the goodness of God in the land of the living. He saw slavery as the most violent way in which his society opposed the realm of God on earth. He felt that any citizen of heaven must fight to abolish slavery and create freedom and equality for all. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free, but as a lawyer he knew that more was needed. He undertook the fight to convince Congress to pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution outlawing slavery. It was a huge political risk, but he felt an urgency to do it and he exerted tremendous pressure on his cabinet and congressional leaders to make a miracle happen.

He knew the 13th Amendment was the right thing to do for slaves, but he also saw that it was essential to end the war and form a just and lasting peace. It needed to happen in order for the two sides to be able to live together as one.

Almost nobody shared his vision. Others had their own interests to pursue. The recent movie Lincoln dramatizes this in a scene on the eve of the vote when the President is sitting at a table with several of the key leaders who are working for passage of the amendment. They are still two votes short of what they need. The leaders all want the abolition of slavery, but they are bickering about how to get there. Lincoln slams the table and makes an impassioned speech.

“We have stepped out on the world stage now with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood has been spilled to afford us this moment, now, now, now! And you grousel and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters! See what is before you, see the here and now. That is the hardest thing, the only thing that accounts. Abolishing slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate for all coming time, not only for millions now in bondage, but for unborn millions to come. Two votes stand in its way. These votes must be procured!”

The next day the miracle happened. Slavery was outlawed in the United States forever, just three months before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated as the war was ending. The world was able to see the goodness of God in the land of the living because Lincoln enabled the United States to be the goodness of God, and that happened because Lincoln first was able to see the goodness of God when no one else could.

One person seeing the goodness of God in the land of the living has tremendous power to do good. Martin Luther King Jr. was another such person with a vision very similar to Abraham Lincoln’s. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that King galvanized the nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech envisioning all God’s children living as one. He saw the goodness of God in the land of the living and used the name Beloved Community to describe it.

Today’s Silent Meditation says, “Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.”

Not everyone shared King’s vision. The Civil Rights Movement’s nonviolence was extremely difficult to maintain in the face of southern white violence and hundreds of years of oppression. Black people naturally wanted to strike back, they wanted revenge, they did not want a spirit of friendship and goodwill, but King could see the goodness of God in the land of the living. He enabled an entire people to change their way of engaging in conflict until the whole world could see the goodness of God in what King and the Civil Rights Movement and the United States had done.

There are nations and movements in the world today that are emulating what Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. brought into being. There are people who, because of those two individuals, are daring to see the goodness of God in the land of the living and to bring it into being through their lives.

There are also churches, like ours, that are seeking to build a Beloved Community. That phrase in our Communication Guidelines connects us in a direct line to King and Lincoln and Paul and Jesus and the Psalmist. We are part of their same movement to establish the realm of God on earth, to create right here, within these walls, an outpost of the goodness of God in the land of the living.

We have the chance in our day to release the same power of Lincoln and King, and of Jesus Christ, the power of seeing and being that goodness.

We are taking a major step in that direction by training ourselves in the Healthy Communication and Beloved Community workshops. We will be learning to go about conflict in a way that leads to “reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.” Just by hosting these workshops we are saying to the world that we see the goodness of God as a possibility that we can attain here and now. If we go farther, if everyone in this congregation learns the skills and practices them, if we actually become the beloved community that we envision, then we will have done what Lincoln and King were able to do, we will have brought this corner of God’s creation a long step closer to being God’s realm on earth.

God is the agent of transformation. Abe Lincoln knew it was God who guided his vision and his work. King knew that he could do nothing without the Spirit of Christ empowering him. We need the same gifts of grace in order to see and be the goodness of God in this church. Let us pray for it together now in silence…