Sermon, February 5, 2017

They Rise in the Darkness as a Light
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
February 5, 2017   Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 112; Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

This congregation has many gifts. The first thing that meets the eye is the impressive building and beautiful sanctuary. Second is your equally impressive group of lay leaders. My heart is full of gratitude and admiration and love, having seen how hard and selflessly you work and what amazing things you are able to do with the limited resources of a small congregation.

A third gift is the richness of the words that this church has inspired, including the Covenant that we read earlier and the poem entitled “The Lighted Window” by Thelma Belair that is printed on the insert of the bulletin. These words would mean nothing, though, if you did not match them with countless gifts of action.

The poem boasts,

From out my church there shines a light
That even on the darkest night
Proclaims to all who, passing by,
But chance to raise a doubting eye
That here within a country town
a love divine is shining down.
And as the hours grow more dark
still brighter glows that bold, brave spark,
Saying to all who will but see,
“Through love rise up and follow me.”

The power of those words comes from the fact that you have heard Christ say, “Through love rise up and follow me,” and you have loved and loved and loved—you have loved one another, you have surrounded with love those who have come here for the first time, and you have followed Christ out to do acts of love in the community and the world.

One of my few pet peeves about this church is that the electric light that shines out our lighted window is too dim to show the beauty of it, and that the lighting of the clock tower shows the tower really well, but not so much the clock. Recently the light on the front of the tower tipped down so instead of us shining out the window, we are shining our light back into it, and leaving the times in the dark!

I can take this lightly (so to speak) and laugh about it because the physical lighting is just a symbol for the love that you shine out so brilliantly, and actions are far more important than symbols.

And yet symbols play a role in action—they inspire us and remind us of our direction when we get distracted or lost. Who knows how many people it would help to see the church shining brightly when they drove past after a hard day at work or a struggle in a town meeting or upsetting news on the radio. Who knows how many people would arrive home with their heart a little lighter because of the love we shined for them in the symbol of a beautifully lit church.

The words of covenants are symbols, too—they shine abstract ideals that inspire our concrete actions.

This congregation’s covenant is a mutual agreement that we make with God and one another. We promise as individuals and as a church “to seek and respond to the Word and will of God.” The Word can mean Jesus, or it can mean scripture, or it can mean God’s word in our heart or in the voice of any person or creature that speaks God’s truth or calls for compassion and help.

We promise that we will “depend on the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us.” So where is the Spirit leading today as we seek to hear the Word and will of God? What is the word saying to us? How will we respond?

We have heard some recurring themes in the lectionary texts. The Psalm calls us to rise in the darkness as a light to the upright. Isaiah exhorts us to let our light spring forth like the dawn. Jesus says that we are the light of the world.

Boldness also resounds. The Psalm tells us not to be afraid of evil tidings, but to keep our hearts firm and secure in the Lord so that we may act freely. Isaiah says, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” Jesus urges us to put our lamp on a stand so that we give light to all in the house.

Shine your light boldly. That is one thing we hear the Word and will of God saying. Our covenant says, “We intend to walk together in the ways of the Lord, made known and to be made known to us.” That is how we shine our light boldly, by walking together bravely in the ways of the Lord.

The way is made known to us when the Psalm says be gracious, merciful and righteous. Share generously. Promote justice. Distribute freely to the poor.

The way is made known when Isaiah says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” Jesus calls us to fulfill the vision of prophets like Isaiah. Boldly walking the way of Christ-like love is the light we have to shine.

Our covenant says, “We hold it to be the mission of the Church to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshipping God and striving for truth, justice and peace.” Ideally everything we do here goes toward fulfilling that promise.

The early 20th Century hymn we will sing in a few minutes focuses on one justice and peace issue in particular that has become important to this congregation. It begins, “God of the nations”—meaning God not just of one nation, but God who holds dear all the earth and all the nations. It says, “God of the nations who from the dawn of days hast led thy people,” which affirms our covenant that seeks the guidance of the Holy Spirit and Word and will of God.

The hymn goes on, “through whose deep purpose stranger thousands stand here in the borders of our promised land”—God is the God of the stranger, meaning the immigrant and refugee. God’s purpose for us is to make our nation the Promised Land for freedom-loving people of all nations. The hymn says,

Thy hand has led across the hungry sea
The eager peoples flocking to be free,
And from the breeds of earth thy silent sway
Fashions the nation of the broadening day.

Our covenant envisions the hymn’s “broadening day” with this beautiful promise and assertion: “We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and we look with faith toward the triumph of righteousness and eternal life.”

We need to understand those terms. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within and among us. He calls us to live as citizens of it here and now. Eternal life is life lived in the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” As Jesus said, he came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Righteousness means simply faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)

So the coming of the Kingdom of God and the triumph of righteousness and eternal life happen not just as pie in the sky in the great by and by, but here, now, when we strive for truth, justice and peace, when we shine our light into the darkness of the world, when we “live in a way that shouts Jesus” as Richard Rohr puts it, bearing witness to the love and compassion of Christ. (from Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation, page 19)

The Kingdom of God comes every Sunday when we create beloved community here by extending our care and support to one another, especially to the stranger and the person who is struggling and the person who has felt unaffirmed or excluded in other parts of society. Righteousness and eternal life triumph here in the moment that we become a Book Angel for our children, or help put together a Church World Service kit and advocate for refugees, or help out at the community dinner. The Kingdom of God comes right here in Bradford when we share our building with people in the community as an act of loving service.

Truly, you rise in darkness as a light through your acts of love. You are the light of the world.

Isaiah promises that when our light breaks forth like the dawn, our healing shall spring up. Our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. The more love we shine, the more light we will have to share.

So let us open our hearts to the Word and will of God. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to help us respond with the bold love that God is asking of us now as individuals and as a church. What is God calling us to do for refugees now? How is God calling us to respond to the question of becoming an Open and Affirming congregation? Let us pray in silence…