Sermon, March 26, 2017

The Light of the World
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
March 26, 2017
Fourth Sunday in Lent, A Service of Preparation
Psalm 23; John 9:1-41

We are preparing spiritually for our meeting today where we will decide whether or not to become an Open and Affirming congregation. I wrote in my description of this service on the website:

“We need as much as possible to act from our truest, most Spirit-connected self and show one another Christ-like love and compassion as we make this decision…. The service will…give us the opportunity to open wide to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to remember who we have been…at our best in the past and what we feel God is calling us to be and do in our time.”

I have been trying to accomplish that, beginning with the bulletin’s Silent Meditation that recognizes this congregation as “a loving church family where everyone feels welcome and at home, appreciated and supported…where we take the love we find here out into the world around us.” The Meditation continues with an aspiration that is crucial to what we are doing today: “We will seek to maintain healthy communication and a positive, hopeful attitude as we face inevitable challenges.” It says, “We dream of being a church that shines like a lighted window into the community,” referencing the Lighted Window poem and these gorgeous windows and all the love and faith and generosity of spirit that they represent.

We read together the general Covenant of the congregation, which brings to mind the best of our past in the form of the people who formulated those ideals so eloquently and sought to live up to them. We promise as they did to ask what God is calling us to do and we promise to let the Holy Spirit lead us.

I hope you feel inspired recalling all the Christ-like things you have already done while being led by that Spirit—the bulletin mentions the Food Shelf that you founded, the Community Dinners you serve, the building you so lovingly maintain and provide to the community. Recently I quoted a letter to the Diaconate from Martina Stever who feels strongly that this congregation has been open and affirming for the entire 60 years she has been here. She shared many examples of your whole-hearted inclusion of different races, sexual orientations and physical abilities.

You have gained a reputation throughout Vermont and New Hampshire in the last year as a leading congregation in the skills of healthy communication and beloved community.

I am trying to hold up a mirror for you today. As the Persian poet Hafez wrote, “I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being.”

So here I am, working hard to nurture a warm and positive feeling to bring into this meeting—well, imagine my dismay when I look at the worldwide lectionary for today and find this gospel passage we heard that includes perhaps the unhealthiest communication and most divided, cold hearted community in the whole Bible!

Poor Jesus! He was just trying to free his community from its traditional discrimination against disabilities, just trying to show how God and God’s beloved community do works of mercy in the world, just trying to drive away the shadows of fear and judgment with the light of love—he was just trying to heal a blind man, and look what happened. His light brought him into a struggle with darkness, his desire to help people see brought him into controversy with those who are afraid to see, his love brought him into conflict with a prejudiced world.

And the poor healed man! He opened his eyes and found a raging storm of hurtful, unhealthy communication coming at him. Don’t you wish you could go back there to protect him, wielding your Healthy Communication Manual?

“Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’” You could pull out your Manual and point to the section on Caring Communication where it says, “I care about you, so I will listen carefully to what you have to say to me.” You could point to the page on Listening where it says, “Be attentive to the person speaking…. Be curious about the other person’s experience…. Ask clarifying, not probing, questions to make sure you understand the other person’s perspective and feelings…. Acknowledge what you have heard.” A little better listening skill could have chanted the whole story.

A little later the Pharisees got angry. If you were there you could listen to them with compassion, because, as the Manual says, “Remember, anger is almost never the primary feeling—it will be fear or hurt that lies below the anger. And below that, it will be a threat to the person’s sense of connectedness—of belonging.”

You could acknowledge that you hear the Pharisees’ fear of a miraculous healing that went against the Sabbath laws and turned upside down their traditional way of being. You could acknowledge that they might feel a threat to their belonging if this Christ movement was allowed to go forward.

But as it was, nobody calmed the Pharisees down, the communication was not healthy and emotions got out of control. The healed man said defensively, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing,” and the Pharisees said, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Maybe you could have prevented that by offering your caring and compassion, or by pointing out from the Manual that, “Deep regulated breathing can help keep your own emotions under control when listening to something difficult to hear.” You could read where it says, “I care about what I need to say to you, so I will choose my words with care, better enabling you to hear without becoming defensive.” You could turn to the page of Communication Potholes and show them the one about Passing Judgment: “Criticizing, blaming, being sarcastic: these tend to stop a conversation in its tracks. These often come from a position of defensiveness and also can provoke defensiveness.”

Of course by this time the Pharisees could be driving you out, as well, but maybe not. Maybe they would breathe and let curiosity and lovingkindness replace their fear. Maybe they would have been with the healed man when Jesus asked, “Do you believe?” Maybe they would have asked a clarifying question to understand, and then maybe they too would have been moved to a place where they could say, yes, I believe. Maybe you could have helped that transformation happen because this kind of communication is not only healthy—it can work miracles of healing.

Jesus healed a blind man and he saw the light of the world, the light of God’s love, shining through Jesus. Jesus calls us to be the body of Christ, and do the kinds of works he did, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that the light will shine through us as well.

I have seen the light shining through you. I have seen you perform miracles, opening eyes and healing old wounds. You have worked so hard over the past two and a half years to transform this congregation into the body of Christ that you are today. You have listened to the Spirit and listened deeply to one another.

There were times in this Open and Affirming process when we sat in a circle practicing caring and compassionate communication and people came to see things in a whole new way. They understood suddenly why saying the word “affirming” was so important, or why they needed to tell a person they loved that they understood their suffering now. We listened and felt how painful it is to some of us that the world cannot take for granted that this or any Christian church is open to and affirming of all—how truly sad it is that we have to say it.

Search Committee meetings, Deacons, Mission, Church Council—time and again we have sat in a circle and taken on difficult issues that could have divided us, and instead we have listened respectfully to one another’s truth and found a way to walk forward together.

This has become the new culture of our congregation, a culture where everyone belongs, where everyone is urged to speak their truth and is promised that we will listen to try to understand, if not agree with, their perspective.

Open and Affirming has provided a major opportunity to practice these skills and establish this culture. Today is the culmination as we decide whether or not this particular light of openness to all is one that we want to shine out our window.

But we also have another decision to make. We need to decide if we will be the light of the world to one another today, if we will go through this final stage with all the love, caring and compassion that we have had so far. People will look back on this day for years to come. We have the opportunity to shine a beacon into the future showing that a congregation can go through difficult discussions and differences and emerge an even closer and more beloved community. That is a light that the whole world needs to see.

Let us open once again to the Holy Spirit in silent prayer…

2016-03-04 23.18.40