Sermon, March 6, 2016

Becoming a New Creation  
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
March 6, 2016   Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

I assume we have no perfect people among us today. I assume we all fall short of the glory of God. I also assume we all aspire to do better. So I assume you are as encouraged as I am that today’s scriptures promise we can become a new creation, we can walk in God’s ways as purely as Jesus did, we can be transformed by the grace of God. God will not be done with us until that happens.

The scriptures show us the way to open to God’s transforming grace. According to tradition King David wrote Psalm 32. David was plenty flawed. He had arranged to have an innocent man killed. He said, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.”

David’s agony was the beginning of his transformation, just as the Prodigal Son’s poverty and hunger were the beginning of his way back home. The first of the 12 Steps of the Anonymous groups is based on this wisdom. We “admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.” It feels awful to be estranged from God and God’s sacred way. Waking up to our pain is the first step out of it.

Then, as the second of the 12 Steps says, we need to believe in the mercy and transforming grace of a higher power that can restore sanity to our lives. David believed that God could do that, and the Prodigal believed that his father would.

Then the third step is to act on that belief. In the 12 Steps it is to make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” David acknowledges his guilt to God, and the Prodigal acknowledges it to his Father. The assurance of the scriptures is that when we confess our true condition, admitting that we have strayed and our lives have become unmanageable, and we ask to be taken back and restored, God forgives us. God accepts us back. Our agony is eased, our hunger filled.

The Psalm says, “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

God lifts us above the dangerous waters in which we are sinking, we find peace as we hide in God, but that is not the end of the transformation. The Psalm goes on, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go.” It is not clear if that is God speaking or David. It is certainly true of God. When we turn to God, confessing how lost we are, God takes us back and guides us on the way. Then God sends us out to show others the way.

This is the wisdom of the 12th Step: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Long before AA began, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier prayed, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,/ Forgive our foolish ways./ Reclothe us in our rightful mind;/ In purer lives thy service find,/ In deeper reverence praise.” Whittier’s poem follows the same movement as the Psalm and Prodigal story: first we recognize and confess our foolish ways, then we are forgiven and restored to sanity, and then we take our rightful place serving and sharing the good news.

Paul puts it this way, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

The good news is that we can change if we turn our will and our life over to God. The even better news is that God can then work through us to change the world around us. As Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, “Have peace in yourself and thousands will find salvation around you.”

The 20th Century American monk, Thomas Merton, explained why early Christians left the comforts of the Roman world and founded monasteries in the desert. He wrote,

“Society…was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which every single individual…had to swim for his life…. These were [people] who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”

But Merton goes on to say that the desert fathers and mothers “did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.”

As our neighbor in the Upper Valley, the late Donella Meadows, put it: “The most anyone can do to upgrade the moral tone of a society is to offer a shining example.”

This congregation took a giant step forward yesterday in that direction.

We live in a society painfully divided by conflict. Our congregation has suffered its own divisions in the past. We confessed this in the survey we took over a year ago. We acknowledged deep pain, which is the first step out of the pain. We admitted things had become unmanageable.

The second step is to believe that a higher power can restore us to sanity. The Diaconate and Board of Mission and Social Action took that leap of faith in God’s grace when they launched the series of Healthy Communication and Beloved Community workshops. Thirty-seven people attended the first workshop yesterday, almost half of them from our congregation.

We have more to learn in the next two workshops in April, but already we see the possibility that we will change, that we will become a new creation and a shining example to the world. In fact the many faith communities represented at yesterday’s workshop already see us as a shining example. Several hope to adopt Communication Guidelines modeled on ours.

God does not just wait for us when we are like the Prodigal Son and turn our steps toward home. God runs to meet us, throws loving arms around us, kisses us, and prepares a feast. This child was lost and now is found! Feel the joy pounding in God’s heart, holding us so close. The scriptures say, “Be glad in God and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” Then take your message of reconciliation to the world. Tell the world, we can change, we ARE changing by the grace of God, and you can, too.

I invite you to take a few minutes now in silent prayer to imagine yourself returning to God as the Prodigal Son did. What would you confess about your own life? How does it feel to be greeted by God’s unconditional forgiveness and love?