Candidate Sunday Service
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
June 25, 2017 Third Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 104; Romans 12:1-2; Mark 1:9-15
Greeting: Good morning, and welcome to the United Church of Strafford on this Third Sunday after Pentecost and Candidate Sunday. My name is Tom Kinder. It is a tremendous joy to be back here in this pulpit where I first stood as a Deacon in the 1980s. In 1996 I preached my neutral pulpit here for the Thetford Hill Search Committee. It led to a long, blessed pastorate, and I am praying that this time will have the same grace!
I am mindful of others who have stood here before me. Dana Douglas was the pastor when I arrived. I was on the Search Committee that called Regina Harding. I heard Mary Thompson preach. I remember vividly a sermon Mike Manheim gave on Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mudtime,” which has been one of my favorite poems ever since. I am as grateful as you are for Lynn Wickberg. And of course no one can stand here without feeling the presence of William Sloane Coffin.
But I am not thinking of Bill today so much as his brother Ned.
Ned asked me to apply for this position several times over the years. He could be just a little persistent when he thought he was right. It was hard to disappoint him. I would have been so happy to tell him I was finally fulfilling his wish, because when we said yes, Ned’s usual ten thousand watt glow went up to a hundred thousand.
I will talk more about Ned with the children, but this service is dedicated especially to him, as well as to all the other saints who have blessed this beloved sanctuary with their light. Please stay for refreshments and greet one another aware that each person could be someone you will think back on years from now with love and gratitude. Please treat one another with that honor and care, especially those you do not yet know or know well.
Children’s Time—Good morning! We read the 104th Psalm a few minutes ago about the Spirit of love and life and light we call God. God renews the face of the ground every spring with green grass and lambs to eat it.
The Psalm says that all creatures look to God to give them their food in due season, but once upon a time there was a young man who suddenly found himself living in Vermont keeping a flock of sheep. They all looked to him to give them their food in due season, and he was not always on time in their opinion. One day the sheep decided to take matters in their own hooves, and found a way through the barnyard fence into the greening pasture. The young man went racing out to convince the sheep to go back through the gate. He tried coaxing them with corn, but they completely ignored him.
Finally he decided he would pretend he was a border collie. Border collies move sheep by staring and creeping up on them and dashing this way and that. It looks really cool when a dog does it, but when a full-grown man does it, it looks kind of ridiculous. This man was desperate, and he lived up on a hill where no one would see him, so he started crouching and slinking and then racing one way and another. The sheep looked worried that he had gone insane, but still did not go through the gate. The man was so frantic that he slipped on some sheep manure and went slam down into it and got it all over himself.
That was when he noticed that he had company. Two older people from his church, along with some elegantly dressed strangers had seen the whole thing. They were kind enough not to say how foolish the man looked or mention the sheep manure all over him. They helped surround the sheep and calmly walk them into the paddock.
Years later the young man felt the Spirit calling him to become a pastor. The ancient meaning of the word pastor in Latin is literally shepherd, and the older man from the church who had seen what kind of shepherd the young man was urged him to go into business instead, but the young man knew being a pastor was the right thing. Sometimes as a pastor he made a fool of himself and slipped in the manure, but he learned along the way and many kind people helped him.
Years later the older man, whose name was Ned, heard him preach, in this very pulpit. After the service he said to the younger man, “Tom, I am so glad you didn’t listen to me. I was so wrong. This is what you were born to do.” And here Tom is today, hoping to be the shepherd of the flock of this church. I can guarantee you there will be times when I look or sound ridiculous, and I hope we will be able to laugh together about them. I hope you will help me be a good shepherd, the way Ned and Vi and their friends did. I will try to be like Ned, too, and admit when I am wrong, and always show you the love and kindness that Ned showed me, knowing we are all imperfect and trying to do our best at what the Spirit has given us to do. When we find ourselves feeling foolish or covered in sheep manure or when we want to understand what love would have us say or do, there is something that always helps, and that is to pause and take a breath and pray.
I am wondering if you know the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a good one to have memorized because then you have it whenever you need it. Does anyone want to help me lead it? Let us pray, saying “Our Father…”
Sermon: Renewing the Ground
The Reduced Shakespeare Company has produced the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), running hysterically through all 37 plays in 97 minutes. Similarly, this sermon will cover the entire history of the universe and the church and where we are now and where we can go from here in substantially less than 97 minutes. So hold onto your pew. Here we go.
Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit of God brooded over the formless void, and God said let there be light, and there was light.” Psalm 104 says, “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
13.8 billion years ago the universe exploded into being at the Big Bang. God sent forth the Spirit and renewed the face of whatever was there before the bang, and from that moment to this, the same force of love and life and light has been at work creating new things out of nothingness or death, bringing things together and holding them together in a universe where things fall apart.
And so it was 4.5 billion years ago that debris from a supernova explosion came together to form a new planet around a young star. God sent forth the Spirit and renewed the ground where an old solar system had died, and Earth was born.
And so it was almost a billion years later that five chemical ingredients combined to create the most basic one cell life form. The Spirit began to work its will in living beings, which led, three billion years later, to the first creatures crawling out of the water onto land. It did not all go smoothly. There were five mass extinctions. 96% of all life on earth died at one point due to volcanic eruption and climate change. Yet the Spirit kept renewing the face of the ground until finally, two hundred thousand years ago, homo sapiens began to walk the earth.
One hundred and ninety-eight thousand years after those first humans, a thirty-year-old man named Jesus climbed out of the River Jordan where he had been baptized by John, and the same Spirit came into Jesus that kindled the light of stars and formed the earth and inspired living things to struggle back from the brink of extinction, and since that first single living cell three and a half billion years ago, no one being has renewed the ground of earth more dramatically than three Spirit-filled years of this one man’s life.
The Hebrew people were oppressed by Rome and by their own corrupt religious and political establishment. Their realm was ruled by the greed and pride of the ego—whereas the realm of God is ruled by compassionate love. The Spirit is always striving to make the world more conducive to peace and the wellbeing of all. It gives preference not to the powerful and wealthy, but to the lowly and vulnerable.
Anytime the Spirit of God fills a person or a church there will be a clash of these two realms. John the Baptist led a mass movement with the slogan, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The kingdom of Herod thought John’s call to allegiance to the kingdom of heaven sounded revolutionary and treasonous. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, “Herod feared that the great influence John had over the masses might…enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), so he thought it best to put him to death.”
What happened next is breathtaking. Jesus heard John had been arrested and he picked right up where John left off. He dared to use the exact same slogan! He recruited a mass movement of his own. The Spirit could not be stopped. It brought new life out of death.
Three years later, Jesus was executed as a revolutionary as anyone could have predicted, but the Holy Spirit came into the church at Pentecost and renewed the ground with a bang whose force has carried us to where we are today, part of the same movement of the Spirit.
The rulers were right to be worried about Jesus, but not for the reasons they thought. Jesus responded to the violence and injustice of his society by offering an alternative vision of how society could reform itself into a beloved community. The rulers imagined an armed uprising, but Jesus was up to something far more revolutionary. He set out to change the world the way he himself had been changed, nonviolently, through the Spirit in the heart.
12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have a saying about recovery from addiction: “It’s easy. All you have to change is everything.” The church is a recovery group for a society addicted to things that block us from letting the Spirit of God flow through us as it did through Jesus.
The motto “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” is a formula for this recovery. Jesus said that the realm of God is within and among us—we can create or uncover it in every moment. The secret of how to do it is hidden in that unfortunate word repent.
“Repent” is one of the worst translations in the Bible. The original Greek word for repentance is “metanoia,” which does not mean to feel guilty, but to change our heart, mind and spirit right now, to go beyond our narrow ego focus and turn our entire being to God and have in us the mind of Christ, which changes everything.
Paul put it beautifully in Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We were created by the same force that made the universe, so we have a built-in capacity to feel the movement of that Spirit and discern its sacred way of love and life and light. The church exists to help us nurture that inner sense and let it guide all we do.
Jesus calls us to transform ourselves in order to transform the world around us.
That is our calling as individuals and as a church. The question for us today is, how?
You wrote in your church profile:
“We do not believe we, as individuals or as church, have all the answers, but we do believe that an inclusive, thoughtful, multi-generational church can be a vital part of life in this community going forward, and can serve people in ways that nothing else can. Our challenge at this point is to figure out what that looks like, and we hope to find a pastor who understands this and can help us.”
How can we find our way? By being still, and knowing that God is God, knowing that the Spirit of love and life and light is still here, flowing within and among us, wanting to guide and empower us. We can find the sacred way by listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices around us, and by digging deeply to hear the heart of the universe whispering within us. The sacred arts are designed to help us do this. We need music and poetry, mindfulness and centering prayer. We need to keep following our yearning to serve the needs around us. We need to ponder our sacred scriptures and good stories for the wisdom they offer.
I will end with a story that may be helpful today.
Martin Smith is an Episcopal priest and author of the book, A Season for the Spirit, in which he tells a story from his college years at Oxford. One hot summer day he rode his bicycle into the countryside to see if he could find an ancient spring, lost since the Middle Ages, which had been said to heal eye diseases. He had read an account of an Edwardian expedition that had gone in search of it, but failed to find it. Smith searched the fields where tradition said it should be, poking around with a spade in every likely spot, but to no avail.
Finally he retreated dejectedly to the shade at the edge of the field to rest. After a while he noticed that the cows were standing in a wet spot. He jumped up and drove them off and dug down in the mud and dung. After twenty minutes his spade grated against stone. He uncovered an ancient carved platform from which a wooden pipe still protruded. Pure water poured out of it in a steady flow.
Smith points out that the “fastidious Edwardian ladies and gentlemen had failed to find the spring because they had hurried past the stinking mud patch.” (A Season for the Spirit, “Finding the Spring,” p 17)
Smith reminds us that the creative Spirit of love and life and light works in the midst of messes and lowly places. It can lie buried under mud and dung accumulated for generations and then resurface in all its purity and power. Its light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. The Spirit is always at hand, it is here right now, waiting only for us to turn in metanoia to let it heal our wounds, restore our vision and guide and empower our life, renewing the face of our ground.
Let us open our hearts and minds to the Spirit now in silent prayer…