Sermon from September 3, 2017

Standing on Holy Ground: Resetting the Mind
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 3, 2017   Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12; Matthew 16:21-28

Paul tells us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so we may discern the way of God.  Do this, he says, and we will become instruments of peace and transform the world.  The transformation Paul has in mind is to a purer, truer, Christ-like love.

Jesus called his disciples to undergo this transforming renewal.  Peter thought Jesus would be the triumphant Messiah that many Jews expected, claiming the throne of David.  He pictured worldly success.  Jesus said he would instead suffer the way of self-sacrifice and apparent failure, and Peter was so dismayed that he actually rebuked his teacher.

Jesus turned in response, the gospel says.  He turned from Peter’s temptation, put it behind him and renewed his mind once again.  This is the secret Jesus revealed of how to renew our minds.  It is a simple turning from setting our mind on human things and setting them instead on holy things.  This does not mean turning away from the world so much as turning to the spirit at work within the world, like changing the focus of a lens from close-up to infinite distance, looking at the same things but changing our perspective and values and allegiance.

This turning is hard to do, and can be scary.  Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, and take up our cross and follow him.  He is calling us to turn away from our ego or false self that conforms to this world’s judgments and expectations.  To turn from that self goes against our upbringing and sense of self-concern.  It can lead, as it did for Jesus, to letting people down, changing our comfortable habits or risking our lives for a cause.

But the reward of that inner transformation is that, like Jesus, we see God everywhere, we see that we are already living in the realm of God, we find the hidden way through every situation that the love in our hearts makes visible.  This way of Christ-like love leads to peace and harmony, to acts of justice and mercy, to a world that we transform by living in it transformed.  It is a mysterious path we walk by faith and not always by knowing what we are doing.

God appears in the burning bush, and Moses turns and looks.  What he learns is that he is standing on holy ground, and that the name of God is I AM, the name that means that all ground is holy, all creatures and all creation are holy because God is what is, God is the force of love and life and light that brings all things to being as manifestations of God’s living presence.

Moses tries to argue his way out of his calling, saying he is weak and inadequate, but God keeps turning him back around, setting his mind on divine things, showing him the way of love and mercy and justice and peace.  Moses is transformed and returns to Egypt to lead his people to freedom.

God is calling us, too, through the need of our neighbors and nation and world.  Christ and Paul call us to renew our minds, to be transformed, to change our lives to be instruments of God’s transformation in the world.

Maybe like Moses we want to argue with God.  Can it really make a difference?  We are just ordinary people in a society dominated by the super-rich and their corporations.  We are just a little village far from the halls of power.  How can it matter what we do in Strafford?

The last page of William Sloane Coffin’s autobiography, Once to Every Man, talks about how Ned and Vi sheltered him in a room in their barn here when he was feeling lost and had retreated from the national stage.  Bill said of the people of Strafford, “So impressed have I been by their independence, their concern for one another and the beauty of their surroundings that I have even dreamed occasionally of trying to follow the example of Howard Boardman, the local preacher, who pastors two churches, one on either side of Sharon Hill.”

I am very happy to be fulfilling half of Bill’s dream—this side of Sharon Hill.  Extremely happy.  Yet Bill immediately turned from the dream, saying, “Even the beauty of Vermont can’t still the clangor of the cities, and the vision of a just and global future beckons insistently…. I want to join the many people I know in the Unites States and abroad…who feel as I do that fresh energies have been released, that now is the time to devote themselves anew to the creation of a world without famine, a world without borders, a world at one and at peace.”

For Bill, it was not enough to remain and serve in Strafford.

We are now living in another time when fresh energies are being released.  It feels urgent that people choose as Bill did to join together and create something more like the realm of God on earth.

I would like to believe that I am doing that, that we are doing that as a church, and that it matters and makes a difference that we do it here, as small as we may be.

One of the voices that reassures me is the Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry.  His essay, “The Work of Local Culture,” recounts the environmental, economic, cultural and spiritual degradation, and the damaging fragmentation of families and communities that our society’s way of life has produced.

Berry asks, “Is a change for the better possible?  And who has the power to make such a change?”  He concludes his essay, “In this difficult time of failed public expectations, when thoughtful people wonder where to look for hope, I keep returning in my mind to the thought of the renewal of the rural communities.  I know that one revived rural community would be more convincing and more encouraging than all the government and university programs of the last fifty years, and I think that it could be the beginning of the renewal of our country, for the renewal of our rural communities ultimately implies the renewal of our urban ones.  But to be authentic, a true encouragement and a true beginning, this would have to be a revival accomplished mainly by the community itself.  It would have to be done not from the outside by the instruction of visiting experts, but from the inside by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home.” (from his book What Are People For?)

The renewing of our minds leads to the renewing of our community which leads to the renewing of the world. It is both spiritual and materially practical to be transformed by resetting our minds on the holiness of the ground that we share and on “the ancient rule of neighborliness, the love of precious things, and the wish to be at home.”  There is tremendous power in “letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves” as Mary Oliver puts it—in being true to our own hearts.  (from her poem “Wild Geese”)  Gandhi called it satyagraha—soul force—and said it was more powerful than the atom bomb.

The great Jewish teacher and writer Martin Buber shares a tale of the Hassidim in which Rabbi Zusya has a vision of what will happen when he dies.  “The angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses, leading your people out of slavery…?’ They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

This is what Jesus is calling us to be when he says to lose our life to gain it.  He is calling us to stop setting our mind on being Moses or William Sloane Coffin or whoever our parents wanted us to be, and instead set our minds on being who the force of love and life and light created us to be, with our particular gifts to serve our particular time and place.  This is the transformation that comes with the renewing of our minds.  This is what the church at its best can train us and support us to become.  This is the way we can transform the world.

Let us pray in silence…

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