Sermon, May 7, 2017

Shepherding the Beloved Community
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
May 7, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday
Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-11

Our Communication Guidelines say, “We are precious to one another and seek to build a beloved community in which our faith can grow.” Our Open and Affirming covenant says, “We pledge to work to end oppression and discrimination whenever we encounter them, and, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to help create the beloved community of God’s realm.”

God’s realm, or the kingdom of God, is the ideal of beloved community as Jesus described it.  It is a place where all rules and laws can be summed up by two: love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as your self.

Beloved community is an unconditionally welcoming, affirming and loving society that treats everyone with equal compassion and respect, no matter who they are or how different they are.

More than that, beloved community is a place where people lay down their lives for one another, even for their enemies.  Jesus was asked who our neighbor is and he told the story in which a Good Samaritan risks and gives of himself to save and care for a Jew whose people despised, reviled and treated Samaritans as enemies.

Beloved community happens when we love one another not because of any quality that the other person possesses but because love is simply what we do.  So when we are at refreshments after worship we do not ask ourselves if we like this person, or if this person is like us. We do not hold against them that they voted differently or said something we disagreed with in the past, we forgive that and let it go and greet them with an open heart.  We invite them to share what is going on in their life and we share our own truth in turn.

We welcome them into the flock that we are part of, and if we have differences, we do what the Guidelines say.  We ‘listen intently to understand, though not necessarily to agree with, another person’s point of view, knowing that diversity enriches our community of faith.  We communicate directly our personal opinion and experience, and welcome inquiry into our point of view and are willing to inquire respectfully into the other person’s point of view.’

The Communication Guidelines end saying, “I will endeavor to do this, out of my love for our community of faith.”  This is another quality of beloved community: it is lovable!  We want to nurture it because it feels so good and does so much good, so we promise to hold ourselves to healthy communication and to call one another back when we stray like lost sheep, as we all sometimes do.

Shepherding is a good image for how we relate in the beloved community.  It is our mutual responsibility and pleasure to shepherd one another.  We have felt the joy in the vestry when we are doing it well—when everyone is reaching out to others with special attention to those who could be on the margins because they are new or shy or very young or very old or different in some way.

Shepherding and the resulting beloved community do not happen without our intention and commitment to work on them.  They take constant practice, and they take continuing education.  I am so excited that Nancy Brown is coming back on May 21st for our half-day retreat for all committee, board and council members and all who are actively involved in the congregation in any way.  I know that I still have much to learn about healthy communication, and I know that every time I master another part of it my ability to walk together with diverse people increases.

I hope you are excited about this retreat, too, having seen the small miracles that our circle process has worked over the past year or so—all the times when we could have divided over issues but instead listened respectfully and found a way forward that made us closer and stronger, or the times in the Open and Affirming process when people came to insights that changed them and moved many of us to tears.  We need the training on the 21st to be able to keep making those miracles happen.

Today’s scriptures offer some insights about good shepherding.  The passage from I Peter forms the theological foundation of Christ-like nonviolence that the Christian church practiced for its first 300 years.  Peter says, “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps…. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

Please note that this does not mean we should allow abuse or injustice or violence to go unchallenged.  Quite the contrary.  We need to be prepared to give our lives to defend against them and change them.  The question is how.  Peter says we are not to return violence, we are called to suffer without striking back. That is how Christ overturned the Roman Empire and changed the world.  He proved that nonviolent love is the most powerful weapon in the world.

Peter connects Christ’s nonviolence to his being our shepherd.  The link may be hard to see, but it is essential to our shepherding the beloved community—it is essential to our creating the realm of God on earth.

Jesus said in John, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

To be a Christ-like shepherd we need to be spiritually mature enough to lay down our lives for others.  That may mean literally exposing ourselves to violence like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., or it may mean being ready to respond with self-giving love in a dangerous situation.  Remember the story I have told before of the southern, rural Christian lady who opened her front door to find an escaped murderer pointing a shotgun at her.  She told him she didn’t allow violence in her home and made him put his gun on the couch.  She took him into her kitchen and fed him.  She gave him dry socks.  She showed her Christ-like love and talked with him about how much God loved him until he was calm and willing to surrender to the police.  He was devoted to her like a son for the rest of her life.

Christ calls us to go into every encounter we have with the attitude of the good shepherd, wanting to help those around us have life and have it abundantly, even if they are pointing a gun at us.  We want to be the gate to the green pastures and still waters that can restore their souls.  We do not want to be thieves who think only of themselves or kill or destroy.  We let our own wants go enough to attend to others. This is what it means to love your neighbor as your self.

Shepherding the beloved community of this congregation means that we approach every person who comes through these doors this way, and every person we serve beyond them.  It means that when we are in a circle discussing a difficult issue, we do what the instructions say in today’s Silent Meditation, we give equal worth and dignity and voice to all participants, even when they disagree with us.  We work for the good of the whole circle, and seek resolutions that serve every member, not just us.

We need to be prepared to suffer the pain of difference, disappointment or conflict without threatening or striking back.  That is how we keep walking together in beloved community when we disagree.  It works because we are all loving shepherds for everyone else in the flock, and everyone else is a loving shepherd for us, so nobody is left out and nobody loses.  It works because the divine love of the Good Shepherd is watching over us, ready to bring us back when we stray and carry us when we stumble.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life if we walk in that way, and we shall dwell in this beloved community forever.

Let us pray for that in silence…