Sermon from November 19, 2017

And All These Things Will Be Given to You As Well
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 19, 2017
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost,
Thanksgiving Sunday
Psalm 95; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 6:25-33

Jesus turns us away from worry toward trust, away from a negative orientation to life to a positive one, and in this he has been proven wise by modern psychology and sociology.

The field of Positive Psychology has demonstrated scientifically that we are more creative and insightful and more likely to find a way where there seems to be no way if we are in a positive, trusting, open frame of mind.  We do not need to be all positive all the time—in fact, we lose our creative edge when we live in constant denial of negative things.  What we need is a ratio of thoughts and experiences that is in the range of at least three positive to one negative, with six to one being optimum, although when someone blasts a group with harsh negativity it can take nine positives to dispel the negative effects so that the group can flow creatively again.  (There are studies to back this up!)

Jesus did not deny the existence of negative forces in the world.  He put his life on the line in opposition to them.  He created a counter-culture, a movement to establish the positive, love-centered realm of God on earth in a way that was so threatening to the wealth and power centered realms of Herod and Caesar that he was put to death.

The empire was afraid of a violent uprising, but Jesus did not lead his followers anywhere near that path.  Yes, he had many confrontations.  He defied unjust laws or practices like Sabbath restrictions and the purity code that oppressed the sick and the poor, but like Gandhi after him, Jesus invested himself much more in positive constructive programs than obstructive actions.

Gandhi is most famous for his fasts and marches, but the vast majority of his time was spent building up the local economy to lift his people out of poverty, and empowering them to be independent of the British Empire.  Like Jesus, Gandhi educated and fed and healed.  Gandhi spent hours every day in prayer striving first for the realm of God and its right ways of being, trusting that everything else would work out if he and his followers were allowing the force of God’s love and truth to flow through them.

There were times when the movement for independence in India was gaining power and seemed on the brink of overthrowing the empire, but Gandhi put a halt to their efforts because he saw that they were not coming from a positive and right place.  Jesus had a moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when his followers pulled out weapons to fight the soldiers who had come to arrest him.  It could have been the start of a revolution, it might even have succeeded, but he pulled them back.  It was not the way, and for Jesus, the way was everything.

Today the field of Appreciative Inquiry affirms that wisdom.  Appreciative Inquiry is a philosophy of how to approach challenges and transform organizations.  Rather than worry and confront problems head on, it turns people toward what you could call the realm of God, a vision of the ideal way the organization could work.

Appreciative Inquiry is not pie in the sky, though—it asks the question, how are we already living in that blessed realm?  What is working well?  How are we succeeding?  It believes that what we focus on, we will become, and that we must be the change that we wish to see.

Appreciative Inquiry helps people approach challenges from a solidly positive place by focusing them on the things they can feel grateful for and celebrate, and encouraging them to imagine how they could do even more and better along those lines.

The women’s product company, Avon, hired experts in Appreciative Inquiry to help solve a problem in one of their most successful divisions.  Avon as a whole is considered an excellent place for women to work, but Avon Mexico had an extremely poor record, with no women on the executive committee and few in any executive positions.  Avon turned to Appreciative Inquiry to help study and address the issue of gender equity.

In most situations like this outside consultants come in and document the problem, but the Appreciative Inquiry team asked Avon Mexico employees to tell them stories not of sexism, but of shining examples of men and women working together as equals within the company’s recent history.  They were surprised to hear how many stories kept emerging.

The employees of Avon Mexico discovered much good that had been hidden by the overshadowing experience of inequity.  That positive vision of what they already were doing inspired them to do more of it and gave them the confidence that they were capable of it.  Within a year Avon Mexico had changed so dramatically that it won the world-wide Catalyst Award given annually to honor a company whose policies and practices benefit the women in its workforce in exemplary ways.

The ecumenical spiritual teacher and writer, Eknath Easwaran, told a story about a sculptor in ancient India who was famous for carving life-size, life-like statues of elephants.  Their trunks curved up, their tusks thrust forward, their legs trampled the earth, you expected to hear them trumpet any second.  One day a king came to see these magnificent works and commission some for his palace.  The king was struck with wonder.  He asked the sculptor, “What is the secret of your artistry?”

The sculptor told him that he would do nothing for days but study the gigantic block of granite from every angle, focusing all his concentration.  At first he would see nothing, then slowly the rock would begin to reveal what was hidden deep within it—an outline visible only through patient waiting and watching.

The sculptor would continue looking with an open and increasingly joyous heart as the outline grew stronger in his mind, until he could see the elephant stirring within the rock.  He could feel how the elephant strained to break free.  Only then would he take up his chisel and mallet, feeling eager, his work clear.  He would know the one thing he had to do with an utter singleness of purpose.  He had to chip away every last bit of stone until all that remained was pure living elephant.

That story is from the Hindu tradition, but Jesus would have nodded in agreement.  He knew how life can seem like a monolithic rock, how our troubles can fill our vision until everything positive is buried within a block of negativity.  Jesus knew that without spiritual vision, people can get lost in defeatism and their creativity and energy for change can wither.

Jesus shows us the way to become the beautiful child of God, the powerful instrument of God’s realm of peace and love and light that we were uniquely made to be.  We each have a calling, a dream deep in our heart’s core that is the Spirit trying to break free and flow through us. By looking deeply into our positive truth, a vision emerges of an even more positive future that we can wake up and grow up to fulfill at any age—it is never too late if that live elephant is breathing within us!

This is true of us as individuals and as a church. This fall we have looked deeply into our positive truth and found much to celebrate.  We have found that we love this loving and beloved community.  We give thanks for how welcoming and inclusive it is.  We appreciate especially the ways that it has nurtured younger generations, the families and youth and children who have grown up here, like Thomas Leddy-Cecere whom we celebrated this week for his work with refugees in Texas.

Thomas said that this church taught him “the importance of doing good in the world.”  We rejoice in all the works of mission and social action that we have been able to do, and in how our doing them has inspired others.

We appreciate the way our spiritual growth is nurtured here through worship and programs and relationships.  We are so thankful for Annemieke and the choir, for Mel and her poetry and music, for the diverse gifts that each successive pastor has brought, for the help we find just by entering this simple, peaceful and spirit filled sanctuary.

Next Sunday we will reflect on our dreams for the future that we hope to plant in this positive soil, but today we are celebrating harvests of the past and present.  We have plowed the fields and scattered these good seeds on the land, and God has fed and watered them.

Look at the beautiful and powerful good that has happened here.  Look at the lives that have been transformed.  Look at how the youth we have brought up are out in the world doing Christ-like work, multiplying our effect exponentially.  Look at how this church has overcome droughts and storms over the years and found a way to keep bearing life-giving fruit.

Let us pray our gratitude now in silence, wordlessly, or if you want words, say just, “God, thank you,” repeating God on the in-breath and thank you on the out-breath.  Let us pray in silence…

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