Sermon from October 29, 2017

Bearing the Seed for Sowing    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 29, 2017   Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 126; Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46

The start of Psalm 126 may be the most purely joyous passage in the Bible.  The Hebrew people had lived in captivity in Babylon for seventy years without any indication they would ever get home.  Then,

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Today our world and nation are in crisis and the church feels lost in a wilderness and we have no indication we will ever get home.  We need this reminder that fortunes can be restored by the miraculous grace of God, that nothing is impossible.

The real power of the Psalm comes half way through where it shifts from the past to the present.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.

The people had the joy of returning to the Promised Land, but they found their houses burned, their orchards and vineyards uprooted, their temple destroyed.  Their joy came home to grief, poverty and struggle.  They literally sowed in tears as they replanted the scorched earth, with nothing but a hope and a prayer that they would someday reap with shouts of joy.

The poem ends with an affirmation that has proven true throughout history:

Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

That assertion is believable because the Psalm has been honest.  Times of restoration are followed by times of struggle, which are in turn followed by times of restoration.  We have seasons of sowing in tears and seasons of harvesting with joy, and then winter comes, and before long we need to plant again.

The key that enables the cycle to continue is “bearing the seed for sowing.”  That is our hope of joy.

Someone said at the small group at the Coburns’ this week that we live in a “nutty world.”  I haven’t heard anyone call our world of climate change and racial violence and economic injustice and 65 million refugees and political polarization nutty before, but I like it because it implies that the problem is just that we have a screw loose, we are off our rocker, and if we can just be restored to our right minds, the world will not be so nutty.

The good news is we bear that very seed for sowing.

  We have the wisdom of three thousand years of prophets and saints, and if we will go out into this world weeping, bearing that seed of wisdom, we can hope to come home with shouts of joy, carrying our sheaves.

We heard Jesus give us the essential living germ of that seed in one word: love.

The psychologist and writer Viktor Frankl describes a moment in his book Man’s Search for Meaning when he came to understand that the power of love was far greater than the power of an insane world.  Frankl was a prisoner in the most dreaded of Nazi death camps, Auschwitz.  The prisoners were forced to march miles through freezing dark to work sites on winter mornings, the wind knifing through the thin rags they wore.  If they slowed down a guard would slam his rifle butt into them.  The prisoners marched close together for warmth and support, but they rarely spoke.

One morning the man next to Frankl whispered, “If our wives could see us now!  I hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

Suddenly the thought of his wife filled Frankl’s mind and heart, and he saw her before him as clearly as if she were right there.  He saw the smile and the look he loved.  It was more luminous than the sun that was just starting to rise.

Frankl wrote, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which a man can aspire.  Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.  I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.  In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position a man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment…. Nothing could touch the strength of my love.”

Gandhi said that the truth in our souls, what he called satyagraha, is the most powerful force in the world, the only thing more powerful than the atom bomb.  That truth is God’s love present in us each.  That was the seed Gandhi went through India sowing in tears, in the face of impossible odds, oppressed by the greatest economic and military empire the world had ever seen.  It was the seed Frankl found in Auschwitz.  Nothing can touch the strength of that love.  Nothing can take that hope away from us.

The church always bears this seed, but it does not always bear it well.  The church became the official religion of the Roman Empire and began to compromise.  It started to tolerate greed and violence.  It became increasingly loveless and corrupt.

The Protestant Reformation did much to free the church from corruption 500 years ago.  Today we are letting Martin Luther and his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” represent all the people who made the Reformation happen, but to me the real heroes of the Reformation were people Luther and his followers persecuted and killed by the thousands.  They were the Anabaptists, groups like the Mennonites and Amish.

The Anabaptists saw that the church was still far from the pure teachings of Jesus despite Luther’s reforms.  They modeled their lives on the Sermon on the Mount as closely as they could.  They rejected the Lutheran church as much as the Roman Catholic for how it failed to follow Christ, particularly how the church resorted to violence to enforce its rule.

The sword of Luther came down on the Anabaptists.  They were tortured and martyred, but they were so full of joy that they could not be stopped from shining Christ-like love all the way to their death.

In the 1500s, an Anabaptist named Dirk Willems was about to be executed for his beliefs.  He lowered himself out of his prison window on rags he knotted together, and started to run across the frozen moat.  A guard saw and ran after him.  Dirk was emaciated like a prisoner of Auschwitz, but the well-fed guard broke through the ice.  He cried for help, and Dirk turned back to save the life of his pursuer, knowing he would be recaptured, knowing full well what it would mean.

Dirk Willems was burned at the stake not long after, but he went with complete forgiveness, proclaiming and showing Christ-like love.

Several years ago when the Pennsylvania Amish girls were gunned down in their schoolhouse, the world saw that love again.  We saw it in the older girl who begged that she alone be killed and the younger girls be set free.  We saw it in the response of the Amish community which immediately surrounded the family of the gunman with love and compassion and breathtaking forgiveness.

A recent novel about the Amish entitled When the English Fall takes place when electromagnetic waves from a solar storm have permanently fried every computer and motor and electrical circuit on earth.  At first the Amish are not affected much.  They have their horse powered ways intact, they have food and water, but the upheaval in the world gradually threatens the Amish as armed people come desperate enough to kill in order to steal what the Amish have.

The Amish are forced to decide, will they compromise and allow people to take up weapons to defend them, or will they find a way to remain true as a community to the teachings and model of Christ.  Will they bear that seed of nonviolent love and sow it into a lost world?

We face a similar dilemma.  We live in a society that is saying with its feet that the church is no longer relevant or important enough to compete with all the busy activities that crowd it out.  Churches in the United States are dying at the rate of over ten a day.  The question has come up at our small groups this month, what can we do to become relevant to the younger generations?

One of the saints of the 20th Century was a Catholic archbishop in Brazil named Dom Hélder Câmara.  He worked for human rights and democracy during the military regime.  He was famous for saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Câmara came to America and met with church leaders.  The writer Avis Crowe tells the story that “toward the end of an evening Câmara said, ‘If you will live your religion, you will become different.’ He gave a gleeful little laugh, as though that idea thoroughly delighted him. He went on to challenge each of us….to live as we say we believe, acknowledging God everywhere, living from that place within each of us where God dwells. It was a call to be courageous and faithful. To be who we are meant to be.”

We are called to go out weeping into this tormented world bearing this seed for sowing—the seed of living Christ’s two commandments to love, trusting that if we do, we will become different in just the way God needs us to be.  The seed is to live from that place within us where God dwells, to be who we are meant to be, courageously and faithfully.  We are figuring out what that looks like through our small groups and questionnaire.  Then,

when the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion,
we will be like those who dream.
Then our mouth will be filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Let us pray in silence in that faith….

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