Sermon, June 4, 2017

Renewing the Face of the Ground
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
June 4, 2017   Day of Pentecost
Psalm 104; Genesis 1:1-5, 2:7; Acts 2:1-17

The 104th Psalm says to God,

The earth is full of your creatures.
They all look to you to give them their food
in due season….
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit,
they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

Sometimes I walk on a woods road that goes past ten acres of steep land that was clear-cut.  The skidders scarred the bare earth which eroded into gullies.  Gradually green has returned in the form of dense blackberries and a few pioneer trees.  They are stopping the erosion and beginning to rebuild the soil.

Whoever or whatever we envision God to be, surely this is the Holy Spirit at work renewing the face of the ground.  Jesus calls us to be instruments of this Holy Spirit and let its force of love and life and light work through us.

It does not matter what our condition or situation in life, our task is the same: to be in a place to receive and be moved by the Holy Spirt as the disciples were, opening our hearts in faith.  The Spirit needs us to stretch, to risk, to overcome obstacles, to be prepared to find that we can speak in languages we do not know or use skills we never knew we had to serve in an ever-changing set of circumstances that demand our Christ-like response.

A woman named Dorothy was dismayed to find herself in a nursing home at age 96, almost completely deaf and blind, feeling utterly alone.  She told me that she longed to die and join her beloved husband in heaven, and did not understand why God would not take her.  But one day Dorothy asked me, yelling to be sure I heard, “Do you know the most important word in the English language?  Compassion!”

She told me she felt compassion for the staff of the nursing home.  Every time one of them came into her room Dorothy did all she could to help, if only by cooperating with their requests and speaking kindly to them.

I witnessed this over twenty years ago.  You don’t forget it when someone rises up out of dark dismay to shine a beautiful light.

Alice was another example.  She was younger than Dorothy, only in her late 80s, but she was far gone into Alzheimer’s.  People in the congregation loved Alice and made sure she was able to get to church.  They kept close watch and sat with her near the piano because she had been a church musician and still loved music.

One Sunday the organist left the sanctuary during the sermon and did not return in time.  I announced “Be Still My Soul” but said we would have to wait to sing it, and there was an awkward pause.  All of a sudden Alice launched herself out of the pew before her friends could stop her, and marched over to the piano bench.  The congregation gasped.  Everyone knew how lost Alice had been.  But without any music in front of her she started to play the tune Finlandia.  We did our best to sing along—not that she played it badly—she played it perfectly, but we were so moved and choked up we could hardly sing.

We remember stories like that.  We remember times when God sends forth the Holy Spirit and renews the face of ground that we thought was gone forever.  Maybe that is why we still tell the story of Pentecost.

Remember, those disciples had been hiding for fear of the authorities.  Remember, John the Baptist had been executed as a revolutionary for saying, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus took up John’s slogan, and three years later he was executed.  The disciples who had gathered on the day of Pentecost knew they were in danger of the same fate.  And that was when and where God sent forth the Holy Spirit and created the church.

God renewed the face of all the earth, God changed the course of human history through that ragtag, lost, revolutionary band.  He made healers of them and teachers and community organizers and preachers and prophets, and we are here today because of what they overcame and what they did.

And now I want to tell you another story that people will remember and tell for years to come.  It is about a congregation, told in its own words, first from their church profile to find an Interim Minister in 2014.  It said,

Over the past three or so years, there have been attempts to implement updates or changes. However, while some members had a great deal of enthusiasm and energy invested in changes, other members felt threatened, insulted, or that things of great personal importance and comfort were being uprooted. Some conversations have been far from civil, and already tense situations were unnecessarily escalated. These conflicts may have caused some to leave the church, and quite probably, new potential members to stay away.

We need an interim pastor who can…be caring and supportive, while firmly holding us to high standards of kind and clear communication. We pray for an interim pastor that can help us set the stage for successful forward movement in the future.

Two years went by and they wrote a new profile for a Settled Pastor.  They looked back, in their words, on

a period of anxiety, sadness, and sense of loss; yet the congregation came together with a renewed faith and a shared belief that our church would find a path forward and flourish again…. We have used the current interim time to transform the church’s way of communicating in conflict….

We learned about caring communication, various approaches to conflict resolution and…a restorative justice circle process for conversations about important or difficult issues.

We have now used the circle format many times in small groups and committee meetings, including our…Open and Affirming process. The results have been extraordinary, with a feeling of compassion and closeness where before we could have felt frustrated and divided.

That is the story of the recent past of this congregation in your own words.  It is a story about the Holy Spirit.  As the Psalm says, “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”

People sometimes have a problem believing the Pentecost miracles, but it is a far bigger problem to have miracles take place before your eyes and not even see them.  I hope you can recognize the miracles of transformation and resurrection that the Spirit has worked through you in the past three years, so that now, as you enter another stage of your interim journey, you can have patience and faith that the Spirit will continue to work among and through you.

You will certainly face challenges, as all churches do in this new and rapidly evolving social context.  Yet it is also certain that the Spirit will be here to guide and empower you to serve with Christ-like compassion and love, fulfilling the Identity and Aspiration Statement it led you to create.

The growth and powerful new life of Pentecost came to the first church after Jesus left. Good things came to them because they kept gathering together with a ready openness to do whatever the Spirit asked, no matter how risky or hard it seemed.  I hope you will do the same and grow and gain an even more powerful new life in the years ahead.

Let us pray in silence…


Mary and Eris sharing a laugh in 2016.