Sermon, June 26, 2016

Freedom of the Spirit 
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
June 26, 2016   Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 16; I Kings 19:15-21; Galatians 5:1-14, 6:15; Luke 9:51-62

Yesterday I met with the New Members Class. One of the things I talk about with New Members is Stewardship, which is the act of taking care of something, and keeping it moving forward (remember Jesus’ Parable of the Talents: maintaining without progressing is not good stewardship).

We practice stewardship here when we make pledges to our annual budget or repair the steeple or serve on a committee or board. If you see a bulletin lying on the floor and put it in the recycling bin, or help a little child carry a cup of juice to the Sunday School table downstairs, that is stewardship.

We serve as stewards of the church in these little and large ways, and yet there is a whole other dimension to stewardship beyond them, and when I talk about it with New Members I sometimes see a look of surprise.

The church is more than the building, and more than the loving community here, as essential as they are. Every congregation is part of something much bigger. We are part of a revolutionary social movement that is out to change the world. Jesus Christ founded it by teaching that the realm of God is at hand, and showing how we can live as citizens of God’s realm here and now and work to make our society more like God’s realm. Jesus wanted to liberate people like us who are enslaved or imprisoned in ways that keep us from freely living in God’s realm.

That means that our stewardship will not be done until we all are free to love and serve with all the gifts and skills God has given us. We will not be done until all the hungry have food, all the sick have medical care, all the lonely have company, all outcasts and refugees and wrongdoers have the opportunity for restorative justice, and all wars and forms of violence cease to the ends of the earth.

We are part of a movement that has been engaged in this struggle for almost 2000 years so far and is not likely to meet its goals in our lifetime. So we cannot blame the church for its historic tendency to shrink its goals down within reasonable human limits, as Israel did over the ages.

And yet the scriptures are full of voices that are trying to shake us and wake us up to the big agenda that God has for us: Elijah and Elisha speak truth to the power of Ahab and Jezebel; Isaiah and Jeremiah warn Israel that it has strayed so far from anything like God’s realm on earth that it is doomed for destruction.

The voices of Jesus and Paul that we heard today are prophetic and meant to shake us up, but in a different way. In today’s gospel passage the disciples are the ones who are like the old Hebrew prophets. A town turns its back on Jesus, and James and John ask him if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume it. Jesus rebukes them. That is not his way.

The rest of that passage in Luke is a challenge to understand, and that is what Jesus wanted—to lead us beyond heady thoughts to listen with our heart or gut intuition.

Jesus is trying to free our minds to see differently in order to free our lives to live differently. Someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” If you want to follow the way of Christ you need to be prepared to live in a whole different realm on earth. You need to be detached from material nests or treasures or comforts and choose spiritual ones instead. Jesus did that and never lacked homes eager to host him. He lost life to gain the life that really is life.

Jesus said, “Follow me,” to someone who replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the realm of God.” Is Jesus saying to be heartless and not grieve and honor our beloveds who die? Of course not. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus is saying that those who follow him are no longer citizens of the realm of death but of the realm of God, which is the realm of eternal life.

The realm of death sees life beginning when we are born and ending when we die, but in the realm of God it is not that way. In the realm of God our neighbor is our self, there is one life we all share, we are on this earth for our time to serve and manifest our small part of the love and light of God that is reborn generation after generation and never dies. Jesus said that the realm of God is within us. It is not we who live but God who lives in us each and all. To live in God’s realm is a breathtakingly different way of looking at the self and at the world.

Another person said to Jesus what Elisha said to Elijah, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the realm of God.” Jesus is saying we cannot have dual citizenship in the material realm and the spiritual realm. We have to declare our allegiance. We have to choose.

Jesus is trying to wrench us free from our attachment to the realm of the flesh’s ambitions, desires and limitations so we can enter a much greater, much truer realm. It is a matter of life and death to Jesus that we see that the realm of God is at hand, and all we have to do is let go and step over the threshold that is open to us in every situation in every moment. We can step into the Spirit and be transformed. It is a movement from illusion to truth, from our mistaken identity as an individual who dies to the true self of Christ living within us.

The Apostle Paul completely grasped this amazing revelation. He based the rules of his churches on it. He taught people that all they needed was to step through this door of Christ, having so much faith in it that they let everything else go. They didn’t need to follow the Jewish law and traditions. They didn’t need anything extra to qualify. They were free to live by the Spirit in the realm of God right now, because that was truly who and where they were.

So it drove him up the wall when people came into those churches after he was gone and said, no, you need to follow the Jewish rules and traditions in order to be a follower of Christ. The Galatian churches became divided and were in danger of falling completely apart. Paul heard about it and wrote this impassioned letter. He yells, he sputters incoherently, he argues, he hits below the belt with dirty gibes at the expense of those who are leading the people astray.

Yet what he is saying is beautiful. He says that in God’s realm, we do not have to earn our worthiness. It comes to us by grace. We are free just as we are to live as citizens of God’s realm, where we use our freedom to love and serve one another as the Holy Ghost guides and empowers us.

Paul says, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” A new creation is everything.

So how can we live as a new creation in practical terms? What does it look like to live in the realm of God on earth?

Five dangerous convicts escaped from prison in Tennessee. One got separated from the others and showed up at the door of an African-American couple, Nathan and Louise Degrafinried. Nathan answered the door to find a shotgun pointing at his chest. Louise was on the phone with a neighbor and told her to call the police.

The convict forced his way into the house, but Louise came right up to him and said, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t believe in violence. Put down that gun and you sit down. I don’t allow no violence here.”

She then proceeded to give him dry socks and feed him breakfast, holding his hand and praying with him and telling him that she loved him and God loved him.

When the police came, she told the young convict to keep eating, and she went out and said, “Y’all put those guns away. I don’t allow no violence here.” She told them the young man would come out when he had finished his breakfast. He came out with his hands on his head, leaving the shotgun behind on the sofa.

Louise and Nathan refused to press charges. She and the young man wrote letters back and forth. She worked for his release. He called her on her birthday and every Christmas for the rest of her life.

A church that is part of the movement to establish God’s realm on earth lives by its own rules, just as Louise did. They are not the rules of tradition or law or social convention, they are the rules of love and compassion, social justice and peace. They are the rules of the Holy Spirit. For freedom Christ has set us free so we can be guided by the Spirit to love as he loved.

A church that chooses to live as an outpost of God’s realm says with the Psalm, “You are my God. I have no good apart from you…. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Jesus and Paul show us the two realms, the flesh and the Spirit. We will die to the Spirit if we choose the realm of the flesh. We will live painfully divided if we try to live in both realms. But if we choose the spiritual realm of God and put all our effort into living as its citizens, a miracle happens. We gain the material realm, too. We discover that we have life on this beloved earth in joyous abundance, no matter how hard it gets or how little we have.

We are free to choose. Let us pray in silence, making our choice clear to God…