Sermon, November 20, 2016

Serving the Whole Family
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
November 20, 2016, Twenty-seventh after Pentecost,
Reign of Christ Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday
Psalm 95, Matthew 25:31-40

Psalm 95 says, “For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.”
It is important we understand what that means.
Christ calls us to follow him and be like him,
including being good shepherds to God’s sheep.
But who exactly are the sheep of God’s hand?
Who are the people of God’s pasture?
Who are the members of God’s family?

Astronauts looking back at Earth from space have seen it.
Saints and mystics of all times have seen it.
Hunters watching the woods all day have seen it.
Soldiers falling in love in a foreign land have seen it.
Thomas Aquinas, the hard-headed scholar,
put it this way:
“The immense diversity and pluriformity
of this creation more perfectly represents God
than any one creature alone or by itself.”
Meister Eckhart, the great-hearted preacher and mystic,
put it this way:
“Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—
even a caterpillar—
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.”

Jesus wanted his disciples to see
that everything in all creation is part of God’s family,
and each member of that family is full of God.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry
and gave you food, or thirsty
and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger
and welcomed you, or naked
and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison
and visited you?” And Jesus gave the answer,
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it
to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.”

The least, the lost, the last; the lame and the outcast;
the sinner and tax collector; the enemy soldier;
the leper and beggar; the worst of the worst,
the ones everyone else had given up on;
the smallest sparrow or lily of the field;
the one stray sheep out of a hundred:
these are the ones Jesus loved and served most,
and he commanded us to do the same.
The realm of God is the place where all
are recognized and treated as the family of God.

We have one overarching job, as followers of Christ.
Our job is to keep working to make the world
closer and closer to being the realm of God,
until all creation lives as one loving family.
We need to transform our own hearts first
to be able to see what makes us a family,
to be able to see God in all things
and all things in God, to be able to see
every neighbor as one with us,
and to be able to treat everything on earth that way.
We need to love and serve especially those
that others treat as deplorable, be they
hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned.
Christ calls us to make our homes and church
and work places and community
ever more compassionate and merciful,
embracing all our differences,
forgiving all our flaws and foibles and faults.

The great heroes of the Christian faith
have given their lives to this cause
of establishing God’s realm on earth
and serving the whole family of God:
Jesus himself; the Apostle Paul who said
there was no Jew or Greek, all were one;
St. Francis who included the birds and fish
and even man-eating wolves in God’s family.
Abraham Lincoln gave his life trying to hold us together,
and said he cared not for a person’s religion
whose dog or cat were not the better for it.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life
for the dream of all God’s children living together as one.

The prominent pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer
was a leader of the Christians who stood up to Hitler
and the Nazi party and fiercely resisted
a society that condoned hateful violence against Jews
and homosexuals and people with disabilities.
Bonhoeffer began speaking out and organizing
as soon as Hitler and his party were elected.
He trained the small percentage of Christian pastors
who had the courage and faith to stand with him.
The Gestapo increasingly restricted or stopped him
until finally he joined the Nazi intelligence during the war,
pretending to serve it but using his post
to rescue Jews and keep the Christian resistance strong.
In the end, against his own nonviolent principles,
Bonhoeffer co-conspired to assassinate Hitler
as a last resort. The plot was discovered,
Bonhoeffer was arrested, and just a month
before Germany surrendered, the Nazis hanged him.

He left behind some of the most influential Christian writings
of the 20th Century, including those collected
in a book entitled, God Is in the Manger:
Reflections on Advent and Christmas
I highly recommend it as a daily companion for Advent.

Bonhoeffer saw God’s presence in us all,
he saw the kinship of one family of all Creation,
He wrote in God Is in the Manger,
“Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20).
In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar,
of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes,
asking for help. He confronts you
in every person that you meet.
As long as there are people,
Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor,
as the one through whom God calls you,
speaks to you, makes demands on you…
Christ is standing at the door;
he lives in the form of a human being among us.
Do you want to close the door or open it?” (p. 2)

Today we are celebrating many ways
in which this congregation has chosen
to open its door to the Christ who is our neighbor.
Bonhoeffer saw the beauty of the coming realm of God
shining all the more brightly from his jail cell.
He saw its hope and promise all the more keenly
in a society full of fearful and violent hate.
The past year in our nation has been ugly and disturbing
with deepening shadows of its own versions
of fearful and violent hate,
so we can see the beauty of the realm of God in contrast
all the more dramatically within and around us.
We can celebrate the hope and promise
of every candle in the dark,
of every lighted window shining
a ray of God’s realm into the world.

Today we can give thanks that this congregation
has become a leader in healthy communication
and beloved community, transforming its own ways
to be more like the way of Christ and realm of God,
and inspiring and training many other congregations.
We can celebrate that our Board of Mission and Social Action
has worked hard to prepare a home and Christ-like welcome
for Syrian refugees in Vermont.
Many of us helped with that project in material ways,
just as we did with the Church World Service Kits
that we dedicated today.
We can celebrate that our children
take such pride in helping make those kits
and in thinking about the children
across the world whom they are helping.
They are learning hands-on what
God’s realm and Christ-like love mean.

We can give thanks that our community
rose again this year to the challenge
of the Wild Game Supper, opening our doors
to hungry neighbors, raising funds
to support the work of this church.
We can give thanks to the Trustees
who have cared for this building lovingly
so that so many people can use and enjoy it.
We can give thanks for the Community Dinners
every month down in the vestry, providing a meal
and companionship for people in need of both.
We can give thanks for those our Deacon’s Fund
has been able to help through hard times.
We can celebrate all the unsung individual acts
of lovingkindness we each have done
in the past year for family or friends or strangers.
This is just a partial list of all that we can be thankful for
in this congregation today.

We may be few, small and far from the halls of power,
but the realm of God needs to be established everywhere,
and our job is to do it right here
and to reach out as far as we can,
serving the whole family of God.

We can give thanks because we have been doing our job!
Look at all the light we have poured
out of this window into the world this year!
The realm of God and the reign of Christ’s love
are coming into being through us!
We are opening the door.
How amazing is that?
There is no higher purpose, no deeper meaning in life,
so let us celebrate and go forth into a new church year
to do even more to usher in the time that is approaching,
what our covenant calls “the coming kingdom of God.”

Let us pray in silence, opening wide the door of our heart
and giving thanks for the Christ who enters there…