Sermon, October 30, 2016

A Reforming and Reconciling Force   
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
October 30, 2016   Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost,
Reformation and Reconciliation Sunday, All Saints Day Sunday
Psalm 32; Isaiah 1:10-18; Luke 19:1-10

Bob Dylan recorded the song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in the few months between Martin Luther King Jr.s’ “I Have a Dream” speech and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The times certainly were a-changin’ in the 1960s. But then again, they certainly were changing in the 1970s, too, with Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, and they were changing in the 1980s with the rise of the “Me Generation” and the fall of the iron curtain. The times were changing when Bob Dylan first sang the song over fifty years ago, and they still are changing today.

Things were about to change when the prophet Isaiah warned the people that God was running out of patience with their heartless neglect and violent injustice toward the poor and vulnerable among them. In fact, Dylan’s song sums up the message that all prophets receive from God. Go tell the people, God says, that the times, they are a-changin’.

Nobody could have known it when it was happening, but the biggest change in all of human history began eight centuries after the Prophet Isaiah.

It took place during a short span of three years in a Middle Eastern backwater called Galilee. The change did not come through war or the wealth of kings, it did not come through natural disaster or technological invention, it came through one humble itinerant teacher and healer who walked dusty roads seeking to serve the poor, the sinner and the outcast.

No one could have known that Jesus was starting a movement that would win over the entire Roman Empire and shape the world for two thousand years. But if you had been there that day in Jericho, you certainly could have seen that something was a-changin’.

Today we can read the story of Zacchaeus as one of the most joyous, hopeful and comforting in all scripture, but when it happened the people who saw it unfold must have experienced shock and dismay at the scandal of it. Zacchaeus was a wretched little man. He was a traitor to his people, he served the oppressors, he victimized the poor, he was greedy and a thief. And he was ridiculous, caught up there in a sycamore tree, so undignified.

We can imagine that in the crowd lining the streets that day were faithful Pharisees and leaders of the synagogue and maybe even scribes and temple priests from Jerusalem. Of all the people Jesus could have chosen to single out, Zacchaeus would be the last that any respectable citizen or spiritual teacher would approach. But Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

That is the best of good news for us when we are lost, but we need to recognize that Jesus was not just changing the times, he was turning them completely upside down and revolutionizing them. No wonder he was executed within a week of this happening. Jesus’ death could have been the end of the story, except for the power of resurrection that he released everywhere he went. What changed history was partly what Jesus did and even more what others did and still do in response to his unconditional, all forgiving compassion and love.

Look at Zacchaeus. By the end of the story he has reformed, and he promises to reconcile himself with the ways of God and his community by giving half of all he owns to the poor and paying back four times over those he defrauded. He becomes a hero, a saint, and the joyous hope of all of us who know that our lives are in need of reformation and resurrection.

This is what saints are called to do, to be a reforming and reconciling force in the world. Every time we fall and get up, every time we repent and begin life again, every time we try to make peace where it has been broken or do right where there has been wrong, it releases cosmic energy within and around us. Every act of love gives birth to spiritual energy in the world, and this energy does not die. It multiplies.

At least some of the people who witnessed the change in Zacchaeus were changed themselves by the sight of it. They turned around and passed that good spiritual energy along to others, and they to others, and it continues to spread every time people respond to the story by reforming and reconciling themselves. We become part of the movement Jesus launched to establish the realm of God on earth, one person at a time. We join the saints who have been part of that struggle in all times and all places. Their powerful spiritual energy lives on and can help us in our need.

There is one more thing to notice about the story. It is Christ who seeks out and saves the lost. It is Christ who calls Zacchaeus out of his tree. It is Christ who changes him. As Martin Luther said in his great reformation hymn, “Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing.”

The same Holy Spirit that flowed through Jesus flows through those he calls and changes. We can expect the Spirit’s reforming and reconciling and resurrecting force to be at work in and through us. We can expect the times to be a-changin’ because of us. If they are not, it is because we are doing something to get in the way of the Spirit.

So how are we doing here in this congregation on Reformation/Reconciliation and All Saints Day Sunday 2016? Where is the Spirit at work within and among us? Where is it leading? What is it changing to bring something more like God’s realm into being here?

Yesterday we heard Nancy Brown say at the Healthy Communication and Beloved Community workshop that the churches that thrive today are ones that have a clear sense of mission and that serve their mission in everything they do. One of the major changes in this congregation’s life in the last two years is the development of our Identity and Aspiration Statement, which contains both mission and vision.

You could sum it up by saying that this congregation feels called to love and serve everyone who comes through these doors, offering welcome, appreciation and support. We feel called to love and serve people who go out from here to love and serve others, by offering worship and programs to support them. We feel called to love and serve especially our children and those in need of all ages. We want the love we find here to shine like a lighted window as we put it to work serving in our community and around the world.

Love is the reforming, reconciling and resurrecting force that we name God that flows through the universe. The way the times are a-changin’ here is that we are learning how to be more loving, which is the same as saying more Godly or Christ-like.

We are practicing being more loving during refreshments after worship, and in healthy communication circles where we discuss important and difficult issues together, and in the mission and social action projects where we are stretching ourselves to serve even more generously.

We are considering how God may be calling us to love and serve people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and people who are refugees, and people who are in desperate need of Church World Service kits, and the children and youth of Bradford, and the lonely or hungry people who need our Community Dinners, and the new people who come here for the first time hoping to find a loving and beloved community whether for an hour or for the rest of their lives.

“We aspire to grow in numbers as we make this an increasingly welcoming, loving, helpful congregation.” This is how the Spirit is working here.

The times they are a-changin’. That is something that never changes. Nor does the way of Christ, nor does the God who is love’s reforming and reconciling force flowing through all creation. As the hymn says,

In heavenly love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear,
And safe is such confiding,
For nothing changes here.
The storm may roar without me,
My heart may low be laid,
But God is round about me,
And can I be dismayed?

Let us rest in that confidence and open our hearts in silent prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us to be its instruments of change…