Sermon from November 26, 2017

The Earth Will Be Full of the Knowledge of God
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 26, 2017   Twenty-fifth and Last Sunday after Pentecost,
Reign of Christ Sunday
Isaiah 11; Ezekiel 34:11-16a; Matthew 25:31-40

Isaiah envisioned a coming time when,

They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God
as the waters cover the sea.

Fulfilling this vision is the goal of Reign of Christ, or Christ the King, Sunday, a fairly recent tradition that arose at a time similar to our own.  In 1925 fascism and nationalism were already sowing the seeds of the next World War.  Greed was setting the stage for the Great Depression.

Pope Pius XI looked out at the world of 1925 and felt the need to do something significant in response.  He published an encyclical lamenting that,

The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences…. bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder so much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism…; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these…; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin.

I doubt that Gus Speth had the Pope’s words in mind, but he had the same spirit in him when he said,

I used to think the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought with 30 years of good science we could address those problems, but I was wrong.  The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy—and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.

Pope Pius XI believed that a spiritual and cultural transformation to peace and well-being could come only if Christ’s law of humble, self-giving love ruled in the heart and world.  He instituted this day every year to redirect our allegiance from the realm of violence and greed back to the realm of God that Jesus proclaimed.

Reign of Christ Sunday reminds us that Jesus did not found the church as a building or an institution, but as a movement like the Civil Rights Movement, a movement for spiritual and cultural transformation.  Jesus recruits us to establish God’s realm on earth in our time and place.

There is a story from the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of Christianity that goes like this:  Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I chant the psalms, I fast some, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Reign of Christ Sunday is the church’s New Years Eve, with the new church year beginning on the First Sunday of Advent next week.  It is a time for reflections and resolutions on our life as a congregation.  Like the desert father, we list what we have done and ask what more we can do to bring about spiritual and cultural transformation and become all flame.  Have we made progress toward establishing something like God’s realm here in this church or community or world?  And where does the movement seem to be heading now?

Our questionnaire and small group process this fall provided some answers to those questions. We asked first what we loved and appreciated in this church.  The responses reveal some qualities of the realm of God that we have established here, and some work on that realm’s behalf we are doing in the community and world.

Here are some of the comments the 26 participants made, selecting those that relate to the reign of Christ and God’s realm on earth:

We feel safe here, not judged.  We are accepted as we are, and little children can run around and be accepted as they are.  We celebrate diversity—nobody says “you don’t belong here.”

People give what they can to help others here and in the town and world, and the church as a structure is designed to be attentive to even the tiniest of people’s needs and take care of them.

People in the church are here for you when you need it.   When you are in trouble, you can call a church person.  We appreciate that sense of security.  During joys and concerns, we have the chance to speak our hearts, we reveal our pain and struggles and we all support one another.  We relate more deeply because we know what is going on for people that matters and we can connect around it.  I love the way we end up having extended family because we get to know each other in a different way in church than anywhere else.  We talk about concerns and problems.  It is one of the only places we can do that, and the structure and value system tell us it’s OK and it’s expected to share deeply—it’s part of the love thing.

All the arts here, including poetry and music, are deeply spiritual.  This is a place of spiritual exploration.  We have the chance in this safe, warm place to sink into existential anxiety and dread as we see problems in the world, and we have the chance to construct a ladder of faith and hope to climb out of that dark abyss into constructive thought and action.

I love the space of the sanctuary, its simplicity and light.  I loved coming out from a Christmas Eve 11:00 PM service with snow falling, knowing it is Christmas now, that magical feeling.

That is just a tiny sampling of the comments we received, but they are enough to show that we are nurturing the realm of God in this beloved community and carrying it out from here into the world.

We also asked ourselves what we dreamed this congregation would do, be or become.  The responses give us a glimpse of ways in which we can be part of the movement to establish the reign of Christ’s love in this church and town and world in the time ahead.  The Church Council is forming a group to discern exactly what God is calling us to do and be through our responses, but here is a sampling of what was said.

We dream of helping people who are maxed out, helping them manage their lives, offering support and aid, and making church work for maxed out young families somehow—they need church!  We dream of helping people be less busy so they have time for spiritual life.

We dream of finding a way to make the church useful and attractive to younger generations, with children and youth continuing to be part of the church, addressing the spiritual needs that young people still have, addressing their anxieties—like how are we going to survive?  We dream of being a place that gives a vista of ideas and perspectives and actions to younger generations.

We need to be relevant addressing social peace and justice and environmental issues or the young won’t come.  We need to connect issues to religion and religion to issues.

We dream of church being an act of resistance to the destructiveness of our society’s culture.

We dream of helping people in need in Strafford particularly, being a place where everyone and anyone in town knows they could turn and find acceptance, love and help.

We dream of doing things to put our love and faith into practice, undertaking a big meaningful project that we truly believe in, that is directed outward in service to others.

We need to think of church as bigger than just Sunday morning.  It needs to be out where people need it with projects or programs or service or gatherings.

We dream of being a church with a purpose, providing clear opportunities for action to help people who feel overwhelmed find a meaningful way to respond to the world.  We dream of being a church that speaks out against evil.

In the past when things have been egregiously wrong in society it took people coming together to figure out a way through to a better place, so we need to find the answers together to today’s big problems.  We hope to be a place of long term thinking, a place for big conversations, a place that feels safe for big questions, a place of dialogue (as opposed to the polarized political discourse today), a place where we can be decent and civil and engage in differing views, where topics people are concerned about are addressed not in a debate but by sharing diverse perspectives with healthy communication, with fairness and compassion, a place where people can disagree and still get along.

We dream of offering bagels and coffee and conversation, replacing the café without being a business.

We also dream of church being a place where we can get reset for the week, where we come away with food for the soul, a place to learn new things and grow.

We dream of being a place that nurtures contemplation, offering a chance to practice and learn meditation and mindfulness and different ways to pray.  We dream of being a deep, rich well that provides a regular contemplative group as a service to the community.

We dream of marrying contemplation with action, because action that is not preceded by contemplation is a problem in this world.  Contemplation and action together implies a different way of being active.

We dream of being a force, not just a presence.

These are beautiful dreams.  The Church Council and Diaconate will be leading us through a process of translating them (and the many, many more that I have not listed) into a vision for our path ahead, but even in the raw form of these selected comments, they are inspiring.

The scriptures today urge us to be bold in our dreams and in our actions.  Ezekiel speaks of God as a shepherd who will bring us into good pasture, helping us in our weakness, and Jesus speaks of the reward that will come if we follow his law of loving our neighbor as our self and helping especially those most in need.  Isaiah paints the picture of the peaceable kingdom, the realm where we no longer hurt or destroy, “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”

The scriptures prophesy that God will help us bring about the “spiritual and cultural transformation” that we so desperately need.  We have Christ’s vision of this transformation, and we have the beginning of a vision of how we as a congregation can help.  We are the holders of a great hope, and we need to have the conviction and courage of our conviction that we can bring about this Reign of Christ transformation, so that the Holy Spirit can work through us, guiding and empowering us to fulfill our dreams.

Let us pray in silence, opening ourselves to the possibility and praying it may be so…


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