Sermon, January 17, 2016

The Spirit of God Is Upon Me    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
January 17, 2016   Second Sunday after Epiphany,
Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday
Isaiah 49; I Corinthians 12; Luke 4:14-21

Last Sunday we celebrated the baptism of Christ when God called Jesus beloved and sent the Holy Spirit down in the form of a dove. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for forty days where he was tempted, tried and transformed into the purest expression of God’s love that anyone had ever seen.

Today’s passage took place just after Jesus emerged from the wilderness “filled with the power of the Spirit.” He went back to his home synagogue and chose to read Isaiah where it says, “The Spirit of God is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” The story goes on after today’s passage to say that all his neighbors were amazed by his gracious words.

The Holy Spirit had sent Jesus into a difficult place in the wilderness, but that was nothing compared to what it did next.

It moved him to tell the people that they were not necessarily the chosen ones for salvation just because they came to worship. God had other criteria like caring for the poor and oppressed, and they were in danger of being disqualified. His neighbors were so offended by this that they dragged Jesus out to throw him off a cliff.

Look at what the Holy Spirit did. It came upon Jesus among the people gathered around John at the River Jordan and it drove him apart into the deadly wilderness for forty days, a place you would have to be crazy to enter with no food or water. It then led him back, full of power and gifts to serve those people. Look how the Holy Spirit took Jesus from his socially acceptable place as a carpenter and put him forward as a spiritual teacher, and led him to do dangerous and unconventional things, and kept giving him power and gifts to share.

Jesus promised us in the Gospel of John that the same Holy Spirit would guide and empower us. He said that we would do the same things he did and even greater, meaning just as dangerous and unconventional, and just as full of power and gifts. And yet as one English bishop is reported to have lamented, “Everywhere Jesus went there was revolution; everywhere I go they serve tea.”

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “This hour of history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists… We as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists.” He went on to explain what he thought it meant when Jesus said he came “not to bring peace but a sword.” “Jesus was saying in substance: whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new. Whenever I come, tension sets in between justice and injustice.”

Every one of us has the Holy Spirit within us.   We are born with it. We are baptized into it. We have the light of God within, we have the Spirit God breathed into our dust in the Garden of Eden. We have received the same gift that lifted Jesus out of an obscure carpenter’s shop and made him the light of the world. Christ calls us to take even greater risks and do even greater things than he did with the gifts we have been given. God calls us to shine our light to the nations. But what exactly are we to do?

Rabbi Zusya was a Hasidic master who lived in the 1700’s.  Shortly before his death, he said to his disciples, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

It is easy to apply that story to our own situation. When this life is over they will not ask us why we were not Martin Luther King Jr., but why we were not ourselves, why we did not use as fully as we could the gifts we were given, why we did not shine as brilliantly as we could through this lighted window?

Those are fair questions, but my view of the world to come is a little different. I heard a story once about someone at a dinner party who was asked by the husband of the hosting couple, “Why is your church always fighting?” Before the person could answer, the wife of the hosting couple said, “John, they are working on it!”

If there is one thing God must understand by now, it is human nature. God knows how hard it is to overcome the obstacles that hold us back from living the fullest, boldest, most courageous lives of loving service that we can. We get wounded in fights or we wound ourselves with self-destructive behavior or we bear wounds from our childhood that leave us disabled or insecure or ashamed. We make choices along the journey of our lives that lead us into trouble, and then it takes all our effort to get out of trouble, so we live a stunted life. We suffer hardships that hold us back like poverty or sickness. We are afraid to take the risks being nonconformists requires. If anyone in the other world asks us why we were not more or better than we were, I believe Jesus will speak up and say, “Hey, they were working on it.” And he will add, “Maybe they were not perfect, but look at all that they did!”

I have counseled many everyday saints of the church who came to me feeling that their lives were failures because they never found a calling they felt passionate about, or they never lived on a wider stage than their home and home church and home town. Yet like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, everyone else could see that they had contributed in ways that made their corner of the world far richer in acts of compassion and lovingkindness.

Martin Luther King Jr. was indispensible to the Civil Rights Movement, it is true, but equally indispensible were hundreds of lesser known national, state and local leaders, and equally indispensible were the tens of thousands who risked their livelihoods and their lives by doing their small part. One of the many heroes was Ella Baker. She worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and observed, “Martin didn’t make the movement; the movement made Martin.”

Today we celebrate a truly great man, and we also celebrate all the people who marched behind him singing “This Little Light of Mine.” They may or may not have been living up to their full potential, but they sure were working on it. The Spirit of God was upon them as clearly and dramatically as on Martin Luther King Jr. or on Jesus.

Is the Spirit of God is upon us? Is it upon you? Last week Associate Conference Minister Pam Lucas challenged us to reflect on questions that echo King’s call to be nonconformists: What do we experience within our church that makes it different from everywhere else? What do we do differently as members of the church that shows we are followers of Christ?  If the church is the Body of Christ, then what would people know about Christ if all they had to go on was observing our congregation?

Is the Spirit of God upon us? I’ll say this: we sure are working on it! I wrote in my weekly email on Friday, “Who would think that a Budget meeting could be exciting?  But when you are talking about funding a church that is doing exciting things, then even Budget meetings can put a big smile on your face. That was our experience on Thursday when we got to the budget for Christian Education.  Great things have been happening downstairs for our children, and many more are planned for 2016. Check out the evolving children’s space in the vestry.”

Children love to snuggle into the new pillows and carpet in their bright corner and read a book. One of the plans for the coming year that has many of us excited is building up our children’s library. Pam Lucas was impressed with how alive the church is with children and with people doing good things for them.

She also praised our work to become what Martin Luther King Jr. would call the Beloved Community, one that achieves peace by practicing the kind of unconditional love we see in Christ. Conflicts are inevitable, but according to King, in the Beloved Community conflicts end “with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.”

Our “Communications Guidelines to Strengthen Our Community” say, “We seek to create and sustain a congregational life of inclusiveness, honesty and safety…. We are precious to one another and seek to build a beloved community in which our faith can grow.” We promise to support one another “with gentleness and reverence.” When controversy or conflict arise, we promise to “listen intently to understand, though not necessarily to agree with, another person’s point of view, knowing that diversity enriches our community of faith.”

A person walking into a church where members treat one another with that kind of love and reverence can tell that the Spirit of God is upon these people. A person walking into a church that creates a warm, bright nest for its children knows that the Spirit of God is upon these people. A person walking into a community dinner and breathing in the smell of good homemade food and seeing the welcoming smiles of the servers knows that the Spirit of God is upon these people. A person picking up food a church has donated to the food shelf knows that the Spirit of God is upon these people.

We are not yet the individuals or the church we could be, but we are working on it, and we have ahead of us the joy of seeing just how far we can go to love and serve like Christ and like King.

Let us pray in silence, thanking God for the chance we have to shine the light of our love again today…