Sermon, June 11, 2017

How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
June 11, 2017
First Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday
Psalm 84; Philippians 2:1-11; Luke 10:25-37

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of desolation
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
Happy is everyone who trusts in you, O Lord hosts!
            compiled from Psalm 84

Psalm 84 can evoke a strong emotional reaction if we open our heart to it.  We long to feel as much at home as the writer did in that lovely dwelling place of God.  If we have ever felt unconditional welcome, refuge and love we remember how our heart sang for joy to be there—maybe our childhood home, or a grandparent’s, or a friend’s, or the home we made with our spouse.  Happy are those who experience such a dwelling place.

We long for churches to be lovely like that, but today many congregations struggle with conflict as they face the effects of a rapidly changing social context, including diminishing attendance and respect.  Outside the church society is increasingly divided by politics and race and a widening gap between rich and poor.  Earth itself feels like a less welcoming home as we come back from walks through Vermont’s beautiful woods and fields covered in ticks, and the weather grows stranger and more extreme.

All this increases our longing for God’s lovely dwelling place, and decreases our hope that we will find it.

But the Psalm was written by a people who had suffered exile for generations and learned how to find hope where there appeared to be no hope.  The Psalm speaks to those of us who are far from having a lovely dwelling place, who are strangers in a strange land, who feel the world is nothing like God’s realm and is hostile to it.  The Psalm holds out comfort and hope to the hopeless when it says, “Happy are those whose strength is in God, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”

Zion represents the ideal home, the most beloved of beloved communities.  The Psalm is saying, happy are those in physical exile from Zion who gain inner strength by turning to God, and who find a way to God’s lovely dwelling place in their heart no matter what is going on around them.

We can learn to find the way to God in any circumstances, and if we do that, we can hope to change those circumstances, transforming them into something more like God’s realm.  The Psalm says, “As they go through the valley of desolation they make it a place of springs.”

Survivors of Nazi death camps described prisoners who were able to maintain their connection to God and human decency even in the most un-Godly, inhumane dwelling places.  Viktor Frankl wrote that their presence encouraged those around them to be kinder and not to give in to despair.  He talked about such people pointing out a sunset or singing a hymn to lift fellow inmates into God’s lovely dwelling place if only for a moment, or giving their entire day’s food to a weaker person.  Corrie ten Boom told about her sister creating a beloved community around her in a death camp, teaching and praying in the flea infested barracks after a day of exhausting manual labor and beatings and executions.

Happy is everyone who finds the highway to Zion in their heart, because it enables them to pass through places of desolation building a lovely dwelling place around them.

There is tremendous power in a single living model of this, whether a person or a church.  “They go from strength to strength.”

The Apostle Paul passed through prisons and floggings and shipwrecks and found the highway to Zion in his heart.  He inspired people in towns around the Mediterranean to create lovely dwelling places of Christ, beloved communities in the midst of decadence, hostility or persecution.  The strength of those churches in turn inspired others.

Paul gives a formula for beloved community in his letter to the Philippian church.  He urges us to be of one mind: the mind of Christ.  It does not mean we always agree, but it means that we always have the humility to respect the other person, and the love to want the other person to have her or his needs and interests addressed.  Jesus could have lorded it over people, but instead he humbled himself and made himself a servant to the lowliest of the low.  He laid his ego down, he laid his self-interest down, he laid his competitive ambition down, he laid his very life down for others.

The beloved community is a place where we all are of that mind of Christ, where we all humbly watch out for one another’s needs.  Nobody needs to worry or assert their self-interest when they know that everyone else has their interest in mind.

Listen to your communication guidelines in this context.  “We seek to create and sustain a congregational life of inclusiveness, honesty and safety. We [recognize that we] are precious to one another and seek to build a beloved community in which our faith can grow.”  We will “listen intently to understand, though not necessarily to agree with, another person’s point of view.”  We will “welcome inquiry into our point of view and are willing to inquire respectfully into another person’s point of view.”  We will “carefully consider the impact of our words.”

We do this “out of love for our community.” The result is that we create a community that is more and more lovable, a congregation of lovingkindness where we feel unconditionally affirmed as part of the circle.

You have done an amazing job of living into those guidelines.  It has been deeply moving to witness it.  How lovely you have made this dwelling place—truly beloved community!

I am thinking of times when there were misunderstandings and hard feelings, or there was a disagreement of how to move forward on a committee, or hurtful things had been spoken.  These could have led to people quitting the committee or church, or taking sides and creating divisions, but instead we came together and went around the circle and each had our turn to say our piece and be listened to and respected.  We kept going around until everything had been said.  We reached new understandings.  We shared feelings of lovingkindness, respect and oneness even with our different perspectives.  The power of this moved us to tears sometimes, and moved us to joy every time.

Maybe the most amazing thing is that today other congregations are becoming more beloved communities because we have done it here.  Fifteen congregations participated in our workshops where we learned the skills of healthy communication.  An unknown number of other congregations have heard about our work at denominational meetings and seen copies of our guidelines and healthy communication manual.

One congregation that attended our workshops has used the circle process to resolve a conflict over a controversial mission project.  It was a daring trip designed to build connections between black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural people, and some in the congregation felt anxious about it.  By listening respectfully and thoroughly to one another they came to a place where they had the courage to move forward.

A congregation far from here heard about our manual at a denominational gathering.  They have had a problem with one unhappy person who has repeatedly sidetracked committee meetings and thrown the church into negativity and division, and yet he still has felt ignored.  The congregation is going to use our circle process to make sure he knows he has been heard and respected, and to make sure he has the opportunity to listen to what everyone else has to say with the same respect.

One of the fears people often have about using the tools of healthy communication is not having the skill to do it perfectly, but the formula Paul and Jesus gave us is endlessly forgiving.  Having the humble mind of Christ means recognizing that we are human, we make mistakes.

Not long ago we had a church meeting where I blew it.  Someone was upset about an issue and instead of asking that we pause and take a deep breath and then go around the circle and listen carefully to our different perspectives, I jumped in and tried to reassure the person that there was no need to be upset, that everything was all right.  Well, for that person, everything was not all right, and being told not to be upset only increased their unhappiness.

Thanks to all we have done to learn new healthy communication skills, we were able to recognize this mistake at our recent leadership retreat and envision how we could continue the conversation in a healthier way.  I have been able to apologize to the person for what happened and express the hope that we could try again.

A beloved community is resilient.  Place it in the story of the Good Samaritan, and if it makes the mistake of walking past someone in a ditch the way the priest and Levite did, a beloved community will double back as soon as it realizes what it has done and try to do right.  But a skilled, practiced congregation will be much more likely to get it right the first time, and stop in the middle of a meeting the way the Good Samaritan stopped in his tracks to care for the person in the ditch.

Imagine how it felt for that beaten and robbed man to wake up and find himself in the Jericho inn, his wounds bathed and bandaged, his room and board completely paid for, no strings attached, by a stranger who was an enemy.  We can imagine that a person would be changed forever by that experience.  We can imagine that he will want to pass that blessing on and create beloved community wherever he goes the rest of his life, because of how lovely that dwelling was, how incredibly good it felt to be unconditionally cared for and loved.  We can imagine how he will serve and sing for joy to the living God who is the creator of every beloved community.

I think I shocked some of you last year when I said that I looked forward to our having some conflicts and misunderstandings.  I am disappointed we have had so few, because every time we have worked through a challenging situation with our healthy communication skills and shown love and respect for one another we have grown closer and stronger and increased the joy of our beloved community.

I hope you recognize that the secret to your growing and thriving as a congregation is to see every interaction as an opportunity to practice humbly listening and loving and serving the other person.  Every committee meeting, every email you send, every conversation in the church or in town—every single encounter, however small, is a building block of beloved community.  Have the humble mind of Christ, be the servant of everyone else and let them be the servant of you, offer consistent lovingkindness, and the church and the world around you will become increasingly like the realm of God on earth, and your heart will sing for joy.

Let us ask God’s help to do this.  Let us pray in silence…

18557347_10213287890050397_5447659919575335816_n (1)