Sermon, November 22, 2015

And All These Things Will Be Given to You As Well    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont, November 22, 2015  
Twenty-sixth and Last Sunday after Pentecost,
Reign of Christ Sunday,
Thanksgiving Sunday, Neighbors in Need Sunday
Psalm 95; Matthew 6:25-33

Jesus appeared on earth in an anxious time and place. The leaders of the Jews were anxious about the Roman Empire whose army and colonial government imposed their might whenever they stepped out of line. The Romans were anxious, too, ever vigilant for Jewish revolutionaries stirring up the people. The people were most anxious, oppressed by both Jewish and Roman leaders alike.

Jesus appeared in the midst of all this anxiety saying over and over, do not worry! Be at peace. Trust in God, trust in the Spirit, trust in me. Jesus’ followers responded with thanksgiving to that message and to the power of God that showed through him. They saw how God rewarded Jesus’ trust with miraculous words and healings. They felt the peace flowing through him, and it filled them to overflowing, and then others caught it from them. The first church became a powerhouse of peace and joy and works of love, and it grew and grew.

There were two parts to the message that people received in the early church. One part was the good news that the church could provide relief from all their anxious striving, all their struggling and suffering. People found material help in a loving community that supported, fed and healed them. People found spiritual help, too. The spiritual help did not change their external circumstances so much as change their experience. The presence of God in their hearts and daily lives miraculously transformed what were real sources of anxiety into equally real experiences of peace, joy and love.

The church was small, weak and vulnerable at first. What it had was this living presence of the Spirit that enabled its members to flourish under any circumstances. Over time, that Spirit guided and empowered the church to do things they could never have imagined possible.

The first part of the message the church offered was the very present help every moment of every day that it could provide to people who were struggling with material needs or with anxiety or grief. The second part was that Christ would come again and end the anxious times forever and establish the realm of God’s loving mercy, justice and peace over all the earth.

And here we are again today, on this Reign of Christ Sunday two thousand years later, and guess what?

We still live in anxious times. Terrorism makes us anxious, ecological catastrophes make us anxious, the middle class and poor getting poorer while the very rich get richer and richer makes 99% of us anxious, the media are full of horrific stories and tragedies that make us anxious every time we give them our attention.

And just when the world needs it most, the church is rapidly shrinking and weakening, and that makes most congregations today feel anxious. They are all asking themselves, what can we do to turn things around?

Here is the good news. The same two messages that built the church up during that first anxious time have saved the church in many anxious periods of history since then, and they can do so again today.

Many experts are doing excellent work to figure out how the church needs to change in order to reach people in this culture that has changed so dramatically around us in such a short time. We need to make changes or the church will die, that is a fact, and we need to give thanks for all the books and experts who can help us learn how. But the deepest, most important change we need is not doing something entirely new, but rather renewing the old essential way of ‘being the church’ that has never changed.

The first part of our message today needs to be that we can offer material and spiritual relief from the anxiety of these times. Our Identity and Aspiration Statement talks about a variety of ways we can do this. One is by providing the comfort of a welcoming, supportive, positive church home and family. Another is by providing worship and programs for children, youth and people of all ages. Another is by helping people with their material needs.

But most important is our aspiration for a “steady deepening of Christ-like love and faithfulness” among us. All the material help we can offer depends on our having a steadily deepening spiritual grounding in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. We need the Spirit to guide and empower us through the challenges and changes that lie ahead for any church that is going to survive.

This Advent we are offering a three-session course based on the book The Practice of The Presence Of God, by a humble 17th Century monk named Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. He was born Nicholas Herman in a very religious family in rural France near the German border. At eighteen he entered the army during the height of the Thirty Year War. He was captured and almost hanged as a spy, but then was released. He returned to his unit and was wounded in battle. He was lame from it the rest of his life and was scarred even more by PTSD from the hideous atrocities of that war.

Nicholas felt moved in response to the war to devote his life to Christ, but he worked for a while as a footman for the Treasurer of the King of France. He described himself as “a clumsy lummox who broke everything.” He turned toward the monastic life after that. His first years as Brother Lawrence were torture because he was assigned to the kitchen, which he hated and where he continued to be a clumsy lummox who broke everything. But something miraculous happened along the way.

Brother Lawrence developed an extremely simple spiritual approach that he described as “the practice of the presence of God.” It was straight out of today’s gospel passage: “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Everything in the book The Practice of the Presence of God is about how to do that simply, practically and effectively.

The result for Brother Lawrence was that he experienced just what Jesus said he would. He kept turning to God, and God kept giving him all those other things as well. Jesus said, “Do not worry,” and Brother Lawrence says over and over that whenever worries arose for him in the kitchen he was able to return to peace, and was also able to get done what he had to do even better than if he had fretted.

The church needs to return to its simple but powerful spiritual practices and let the world know that we have what it takes to find peace in today’s anxious and depressing world.

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, has a new President, the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer. He is stressing the importance of the church grounding itself more deeply in the Spirit. In his first podcast to the congregations he talked about where our spiritual practice will lead. He quoted a poem by Emily Dickinson that ends,

The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

Dorhauer writes, “Do you have grand aspirations of changing the world? Is your soul and spirit unsettled by the overwhelming injustices of our time? Do you dream and scheme about how your actions…will make a real difference or have a deep impact? Simple things matter. Small things add up. As I heard someone recently say, ‘Do one thing right. Then, do another.’ Lives are changed by the simple exchanges of kindness, compassion, and love.”

The first part of the message we as a church have to offer the world is a simple practice of the presence of God that leads to little toils of love that are enough for us. Do this, and all these other things will be given to you as well.

The other part of the message is that all this is leading somewhere. Every moment that we practice God’s presence, every little toil of love we do is moving us farther along the way toward God’s realm. Jesus said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” The church has a vision of what that kingdom and righteousness look like. People need a vision of God’s realm to help them find their way through these times—but not the vision of catastrophic apocalypse and rapture that endlessly fascinates so many churches.

We need the kind of vision offered by the farmer and writer Wendell Berry in today’s silent meditation. He writes, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement [at-one-ment] with God.” (Wendell Berry, from Another Turn of the Crank)

All our momentary practices of God’s presence and all our little toils of love are leading to a day when God’s presence and love will bless the earth with universal mercy, justice and peace. They are leading toward a future Thanksgiving when the human spirit will have evolved to be so full of Christ-like love that we ensure that every person on earth has reason to give thanks for peace and plenty. We see in the man Jesus what all people were created to be. The love of Christ is our evolutionary destiny, according to the vision the church has to offer. A world shaped by that love is where the church’s vision is leading.

This congregation challenged itself in the past year to come up with a vision for its future through the process that ultimately created our Identity and Aspiration Statement. We know it was the Holy Spirit talking because the Statement is consistent with the Reign of Christ vision of God’s realm on earth.

So we do not have to worry. Fulfilling our Identity and Aspiration vision is what God wants for us. It is the evolutionary destiny of this congregation. All we need to do is practice the presence of God and do our little toils of love and all these other things will be given to us as well.

Let us pray in silence …

Identity and Aspiration Statement

Representing what we have appreciated about our congregation at its best

and what we dream of it becoming.

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, Bradford, Vermont, strives to be a loving church family where everyone feels welcome and at home, appreciated and supported. We want our faith community to be a safe, comfortable place for worship and spiritual growth, providing programs for children, youth and adults and offering high quality worship services and sermons that feel personal and meaningful. We value our music program, which draws from diverse traditions for worship and provides a vibrant local center of musical performance. We honor the rich history of contributions to the town of Bradford made by our church and its members. We respond to the Christian message by coming together as a united force to help in times of crisis, and by supporting local and global missions, and by serving those in need. We cherish our church building not only for its physical beauty and as a peaceful place to worship, but also as a resource for serving the greater community.

We aspire to grow in numbers as we make this an increasingly welcoming, loving, helpful congregation where we take the love we find here out into the world around us, and where people want to participate because the church makes a positive difference in their lives throughout the week. We will seek to maintain healthy communication and a positive, hopeful attitude as we face inevitable challenges. We want this to be a church where we feel joy, peace and a steady deepening of Christ-like love and faithfulness among us. We intend to continue being a congregation where children are cherished, and where we offer encouragement, support and programs for youth and young families as well as people of all ages. We dream of being a church that shines like a lighted window into the community, a beacon for social justice, increasingly engaged in works of mission and widely known for generously serving those in need.

Adopted July 19. 2015