Sermon, July 24, 2016

For Everyone Who Knocks, the Door Will Be Opened  
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
July 24, 2016   Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalms 138; Luke 11:1-13

The 138th Psalm has a surprising verse. The Psalmist has walked in the midst of trouble and is surrounded by enemies. Imagine what you would ask God to do for you under those circumstances, in a time of trouble or conflict. The Psalm says, “On the day I called, you answered me,” and we expect it to say that God gave the Psalmist what we would want, like help fixing things, or triumph or escape, but instead it says, “You increased my strength of soul.”

Maybe that is the answer to every prayer. Maybe that is why we pray. God responds to our prayer by increasing our strength of soul, and when others know we are praying for them, it increases their strength of soul.

The increase of the strength of one soul in the world has a positive effect that ripples out farther than we can see. The first and perhaps most important thing every one of us can do to help this world is to call out to God in prayer and let God increase the strength of our soul. Nothing could help us more in a time of trouble or conflict.

There is a similar surprise in today’s gospel passage.

The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. He gives them the Lord’s Prayer, including the line I talked to the children about, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Jesus tells a story about being persistent when we pray, knock, knock, knocking on God’s door until God answers. It is a story about asking for bread. Then at the end of today’s passage, he says that if we know to give good things to eat to our children when they are hungry, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

That conclusion is a surprise because Jesus has been talking about God giving us our daily bread. It is as if Jesus pulls off the veil and reveals that what he meant all along by daily bread is the Holy Spirit. Just as every prayer is asking that God increase our strength of soul, so every prayer is also asking God to give us this day our daily Spirit. Give us this day the wisdom and guidance we need, give us this day the power and strength we need to serve God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace, so that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus is giving us not a product, but a process, like the old adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Jesus is teaching us to fish when he says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” That process of asking and knocking leads us to the Holy Spirit, which in turn leads us to all other things. It feeds us for a lifetime.

Bob Dylan wrote his song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. A deputy sheriff has been shot and is dying in his wife’s arms. It is particularly poignant in light of the shootings in Dallas and all the recent deaths of young blacks at the hands of the police. Knocking on heaven’s door means dying in the song, but in the context of today’s passage it takes on the additional meaning of knocking in prayer. Our hearts are begging God to open a door out of the terrible hatred and violence of all kinds in our nation.

Jesus reassures us that if we keep knocking, if we persist in praying, if we keep seeking an answer, the door will open because the Holy Spirit will guide and empower us in ways we cannot imagine or even believe possible right now. An answer will come. Have faith, keep praying and working, and do not be afraid, Jesus says.

Today we are knocking on another big question. “Shall the Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, Bradford, Vermont engage in a series of education and discussion sessions about issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity in the context of the Bible, the church, our society and our circles of family and friends as the first step in a process that could result in the congregation declaring itself Open and Affirming?”

We are knocking on the door of another area of hateful violence, from the shooting in Orlando to the boy I know who was regularly thrown against the lockers of a high school near here long before he was openly gay. That boy was a beloved youth group member and Junior Deacon of his church, and yet he did not feel safe telling anyone in church how he was being beaten and verbally abused. His church was extremely welcoming and open, but he knew that many churches that say “All Welcome” have an invisible heterosexual line. The boy did not know he was safe until he found an Open and Affirming congregation as a young man.

I know many faithful lay leaders and pastors who had similar painful experiences growing up in the church. My personal stand on this issue has evolved over time because of them.

My stand on the question of whether this congregation should vote yes or no today is something else again. It is up to you to ask, search and knock to find out whether the Holy Spirit is calling you to undertake a series of education and discussion sessions on this issue. I am not ever going to advise you as a congregation to become Open and Affirming or not. I am remaining neutral on that question so that I may play other roles in the process.

My first role is to serve as pastor to you all, no matter how you feel about the issue. I want to be available to any who struggle with it along the way. My other role is to do all I can to help you have a process that is consistent with the teachings and model of Jesus Christ, and that is open to and guided by the Holy Spirit.

I feel compassion for all who are ready to vote right now on the question of becoming Open and Affirming. The Diaconate has come up with a process that will feel frustratingly slow to those who are in a hurry. I believe that the Deacons are wise to be deliberate and give the church time to ask questions and learn. We need to take the time to discern what the Holy Spirit is calling this congregation to do.

I have heard people say that we do not need to have this process because the church voted years ago to become Open and Affirming. I have looked into that and in fact, the church intentionally decided not to become Open and Affirming, but called itself open and welcoming, instead. To anyone outside of this congregation, including a prospective pastor, “open and welcoming” has no meaning. The only way for a United Church of Christ congregation to send a message that all people are indeed welcome and affirmed as they are is to become officially Open and Affirming and be registered by the national UCC.

This church decided not to do that when it last considered this issue many years ago. The reason to reopen the question now is because times have changed. Among other changes, many prospective younger parishioners and pastors want to know where a church stands. Some are looking for churches that are Open and Affirming and some for churches that are decidedly not. Either way, it is an important indication whether it is their kind of church.

The recent Pastoral Search Committee survey showed that 75% of this congregation is interested in exploring becoming Open and Affirming. That is why the Search Committee asked the Diaconate to consider launching a process. And yet the vote we are having today is not about becoming Open and Affirming, but about studying the background issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in a church and social context. Today members will vote only whether the congregation will learn more about things like how we can interpret relevant Bible verses or what it is like to grow up in a church when you are not heterosexual. Today’s vote makes no commitment to go on to consider becoming Open and Affirming.

An education and discussion series is an opportunity to ask, search and knock and give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to speak through our deliberations together, but you never know, it may be that the Holy Spirit will move swiftly and clearly today in the opposite direction and the congregation will decide that this is not an issue it feels called to address.

Whatever decision we make will be the right one if we follow a good process to the best of our ability. Jesus tells us that prayer needs to be central to that process, persistently seeking an answer.

Our Communication Guidelines and our training in healthy communication are designed to help us do exactly what Jesus calls us to do—to pray and listen. Our guidelines say:

  • “[I will] pray for guidance, patience and understanding before all interactions, communication, or meetings.
  • “[I will] listen intently to understand, though not necessarily to agree with, another person’s point of view, knowing that diversity enriches our community of faith.”

We can knock on this door today and rejoice. No matter what path we find through the door, it will draw us closer to God and to one another if we follow the way of Christ’s love and ask the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us. A day when we call out to God is a day not for anxiety but for joy, because God will increase our strength of soul. For everyone who knocks, the door will be opened, including us today. Let us stretch out our hand toward that door now in silent prayer, calling on God, and listening in faith for the Spirit’s word….