Sermon from October 8, 2017

The Realm Is Given to Those Who Produce Its Fruits
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 8, 2017   Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 19; Exodus 20; Philippians 3:1-14; Matthew 21:33-46

The word liturgy makes us think of things like today’s responsive call to worship, but it has a broader meaning.  It comes from a Greek root that means public service or the work of the people.

It is good to remember that we have work to do here that is a public service.  Our Mission Committee helps us serve the world in meaningful ways, but also just our being here saying the prayers, singing the hymns and sitting in silence is work that we are doing for the world and for God as well as ourselves.

Part of our work is to transform our individual way of being in the world, increasing our compassion and opening to peace, joy and love.  This is important work because we cannot help fill the world with those things very well if we have not filled ourselves with them first.

Another part of our work here

is to pry our white knuckled fingers off the steering wheel of our life and hand control over to the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us.

We come here to work on growing spiritually, so that we can handle the challenges life presents and offer wisdom to our children and a confused world.

We come here overwhelmed by the enormity of terrible violence and injustice in order to work toward becoming instruments of God’s justice, mercy and peace.

We are doing important work for the world just by tearing ourselves away from home on a Sunday morning and being part of this beloved community that is dedicated to the cause of serving love and life and light.

Liturgy includes all those works of the people, and yes, it also means the inspired words and music that can spark a mysterious and miraculous transformation in us.

We have beautiful Psalms from 2500 years ago and we have Mel Goertz writing and composing beautiful psalms today.  A word, a phrase, a concept, a haunting or stirring string of notes—each one changes us in the direction of our best and truest and most selfless self, our Christ-self.

The church year works a similar magic, one that we tend not to notice most of the time.  Something is happening right now in the church year that is designed to teach and transform us and make us wiser and more mature.  The Season of Pentecost is approaching its climax.

Pentecost begins in the Spring at planting time with the Holy Spirit coming like wind and fire into the room where Christ’s followers were gathered, filling them with the power to become the first church.  The Season of Pentecost celebrates the work the Holy Spirit does in the world.  We follow the gospel story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry right up to his arrest.  Pentecost ends when the harvest is gathered in.

We have just crossed a line in this season.  The gospel readings now are coming from Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.  This means tension is building as the religious and political establishment is feeling increasingly challenged and threatened by him.  They are afraid he will stir up a violent revolution, as leaders like Jesus had done in the past.

Jesus saw John the Baptist be arrested and executed, and Jesus knew it was likely to happen to him when he picked up John’s slogan and carried it courageously into the very center of public life.  Yet Jesus did not stop confronting a nation that had strayed far from the realm of God it claimed as its ideal—God’s realm of shalom, of peace, justice and mercy extended equally to all people, especially to the weak and vulnerable whom Jesus saw were so oppressed.

The liturgical structure of the church year is telling us what we can expect, and what we are called to do.  We can expect to live in tension with a world that is in conflict with the qualities Christ calls us to embody.  We can expect that there will be a clash of the human realm versus God’s realm.  We can expect that we will be called into controversy again and again as we promote the ideals of God’s realm.

The Season of Pentecost ends in late November with Reign of Christ Sunday when we glimpse in all its shining beauty the vision of a world finally ruled by love and light.  Then the new church year begins in the silent darkness of Advent, watching and waiting for the coming of love and life and light into the world anew.

Picture Jesus in Jerusalem in his last week telling the inflammatory parable we heard.  His enemies were standing only a few feet away.  Jesus may have been talking about himself when he said that the son was killed by the greedy, power-hungry people who have taken over the vineyard, but Jesus was also talking about John the Baptist and all the Hebrew prophets who spoke truth to power and suffered for it.  He is speaking about us, as well, if we dare to stand up to those who are stealing and ruining the vineyard of this fragile earth for their own gain.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God will be taken away from those who work against it and given to people who produce the fruits of God’s realm.  And here we are, doing the work of the people of God, like Paul, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal.”

Liturgy in all its forms recognizes the need to keep pressing forward in our pursuit of spiritual growth and wisdom, because the clash of realms is not just outside of us.  There are inner forces that try to steal the vineyard of our heart from God.

One of the most inspired artists of the 20th Century, Isadora Duncan, said: “We may not all break the Ten Commandments, but we are certainly all capable of it. Within us lurks the breaker of all laws, ready to spring out at the first real opportunity.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart… And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

We have no grounds to judge another person. We have the same capacity for wrong in us.  Judging is a complete waste of time.  Forgiveness frees us from negativity to produce the fruits of God’s realm.

There is a story from the third century Desert Fathers and Mothers about a holy man who was called to sit in judgment of a brother who had done wrong.  The monk refused to come, but they begged so he took up a sack that had holes in it, filled it with sand, threw it over his shoulder and walked ahead of them.  The brothers said, “Father, your sand is all leaking out.”  He turned and said, “My wrongs flow behind me for all to see, yet you ask me to come judge another?”  They asked his forgiveness, and went and forgave their brother.

Dostoevsky took this farther in the Brothers Karamazov.  Father Zosima says that no one should judge another.  He says we are as guilty as the person who did wrong, because no one shines their inner light as brightly as they could and, “If you had shone, your light would have lighted the way for others, and the one who did wickedness would perhaps not have done so in your light.”  The response when we see wrong in the world is not to judge, but to turn to our own heart and do the work to shine our light more brightly.

Strafford is blessed with many beautiful hills.  At the top of Preston Hill is the corner of an old stone wall.  Twenty-five years ago the angle of the wall enclosed a last patch of old pasture with apple trees that were getting crowded out by hardwood thicket.  On the other side was a dense, dark woods.  I spent a blissful day once working with an ax and hand saw clearing the thicket so the old pasture apple trees could have a new lease on life.  I did it for the joy of the work and the satisfaction of helping fruitfulness and beauty continue in that tiny corner of God’s realm.

We have similar work to do.  We need the help of all the tools our religious tradition offers us—the structure of the church year, the words and music, the beloved community of our congregation, the active and contemplative paths.  We need whatever tool will help us where we are in our own life, and where we stand in our world, so that we produce the fruits of God’s realm within and around us.

We have work to do, the most meaningful and exciting work there is.  We get to use our short time on this earth to serve the force of love, life and light that created the universe and planted us in it for this purpose: to establish its realm so that our children and their children and generations to come may live in peace and sufficiency for all. Let us pray in silence and open to the Spirit to guide and empower us in this crucial work…

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