Sermon from April 22, 2018, Earth Day and Good Shepherd Sunday

What We Will Be Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
April 22, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Earth Day and Good Shepherd Sunday
Psalm 23; I John 3:1-3, 14-19a; John 10:1-16

The star we call the sun formed about four and a half billion years ago, and Earth not long after that.  Our species, Homo sapiens, has been around for about three hundred thousand years.

The sun has a life expectancy of another four or five billion years.  It is conceivable that humans could live on earth that long.  If so, think of our infancy—only three hundred thousand years into an evolution that could last four billion more.

Imagine how mature and wise humans could become.  Think of the technological advancements in just the past hundred years and multiply it by hundreds of millions. But everything depends on our surviving this stage.  As five-star general Omar Bradley said not long after World War II, “We have men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.”

Homo sapiens means wise human.  It is crucial to our survival that we live up to our name.  The good news is that we have ancient scriptures and modern exemplars that show the wisdom we need.

Today’s passage in I John says we are children of God.  We are manifestations of the force of love and life and light that we name God, the same force that formed the sun and earth and created life.  People who see this will treat all creatures and all creation as holy.

We are God’s children now as we are, but we are not done evolving.  I John says, “What we will be has not yet been revealed.”  Humanity has made leaps before— Buddha and Christ, Fifth Century Athens, the Enlightenment.  As our consciousness evolves, we have the potential to develop the heart and mind of Christ, we can become a purer pane of glass through which the light of God within us may shine.  That is our hope, and the hope of the earth.

How can we know that we are on the right path? The scriptures are absolutely clear: Love is the sign.  An increase in lovingkindness means we are growing more like God.  Love is the eternal life of God, and when we are unloving, we destroy that life in ourselves and on earth.

God-like love lays down its life for others.  It sees a part of God’s creation that is hurting or in need and it responds.  This is what the force of love and life and light created us to do.

Jesus said in today’s Gospel passage that he was the good shepherd and the gate for the sheep—and not just for our sheep but for all sheep, the universal flock.  What we see in Jesus is the highest and purest evolution of God’s love in human form.  Follow Christ, and we enter the gate of abundant life, and we in turn will lay down our lives to increase the abundance of life on earth.

The force that created the earth has evolved a complex consciousness and we happen to be the lucky species that has it.  Our job is to spend the next few billion years learning to live as the conscious forces of love and life and light, as the instrument of God’s peace.

So how are we doing at this?

One measure is the Doomsday Clock.  A board of the Union of Concerned Scientists periodically assesses the likelihood of nuclear war and global devastation from climate change and other emerging threats.  They set the clock to reflect how many minutes it is to midnight, meaning global catastrophe.  They began in 1947 at seven minutes to midnight.  At one point in the early 1990s they rolled it back to 17 minutes.  This year the scientists have set the clock at two minutes, as close to midnight as it has ever been.

National Geographic has been tracking the dramatic reversals in environmental policy over the past year, including:

  • rolling back car emissions standards;
  • defunding clean energy;
  • removing regulations on toxic emissions;
  • removing protection from industrial killing of birds;
  • halting enforcement of environmental regulations;
  • throwing open public lands to gas and oil companies;
  • and pulling out of the Paris climate agreement;

…and National Geographic lists many more.

What we will be has not yet been revealed, but what we are now is not so good.  We are children of God, we are manifestations of God’s force of love and life and light made conscious flesh with the capacity to create great works of art and perform heroic deeds of love, but a dominant segment of our species is waging war on God’s creation and speeding earth toward doomsday four billion years early.

And yet, much in our spiritual tradition and human history encourages us to hope.  The 23rd Psalm leaves no grounds for despair.  As Bill Coffin preached from this pulpit, the 23rd Psalm is all indicatives with no imperatives—it is all statement of fact and not something we have to earn.  The God within and around us is our shepherd, the restorer of our souls, the guide of our feet, our comfort in the shadow of death, our source of courage and power.

We have hope because we are children of that God, and we are still evolving.  People who have achieved great moral maturity and spiritual depth show what we may become.

Nelson Mandela was interested only in his material wellbeing as a young man, but then awoke to compassion as his people struggled to become free.  At first, he was ethnocentric and wanted nothing to do with people of other races, but then he awoke further to a pluralistic view, seeing that South Africa should be the nation of all who called it home.

Then, as Bishop Tutu observed, Mandela awoke again beyond mere pluralism to a level few in the past ever attained, a magnanimous universal Christ-like love that enabled him to find a way to bring together the most polarized, hostile opponents and help them live as one.

Where Mandela went, we can go, too.  Where Jesus went, he said we could follow and do even more than he did.  What we will be has not yet been revealed, but social scientists are observing something exciting.  Increasing numbers of people are maturing to the stage that enabled Mandela to transcend differences and find a common way forward.

Bishop Tutu said that it was great suffering that transformed Mandela—great suffering combined with great love.  We can see it in others throughout history.  Horatio G. Spafford was a prominent lawyer, devoted church member, loving husband and father.  In 1873 he and his family were about to travel to England, but at the last minute, business delayed Spafford’s departure.

He sent his wife and four daughters ahead.  A week into their Atlantic crossing, in mid-ocean at dead of night, their ship collided with another and quickly sank.  His wife, Anna, was found floating unconscious on a plank of wood, but their four daughters, aged two to eleven, were lost.

As soon as he heard, Spafford left to be with his wife.  The captain of his ship called him to his cabin one night to say they were passing over the place where his daughters had died.  A feeling welled up in Spafford, a certainty that his daughters were not three miles down in the cold dark.  He had a vision of them in the fold of a good and loving shepherd who was embracing them like little lambs.  Out of the restoring of his soul he wrote a hymn as a gift to God and the world.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Horatio and Anna went on to dedicate their lives to a healing ministry in Jerusalem that brought together Christians and Muslims and Jews, in a spirit like Nelson Mandela, and like Christ.

Our Upper Valley neighbor Russ Keat was in Haiti as a disaster relief worker in the first days after the 2010 earthquake.  Keat was overwhelmed by the devastation when he arrived—a hundred thousand dead, a million homeless.  All day the relief workers had seen people dying of dehydration, and they felt helpless to stop it.  They did not know how to handle all the problems or where to turn for help.

Keat was lying outside that night in a valley surrounded by densely settled hills, unable to sleep, thinking over the suffering he had seen, thinking over the next day’s seemingly insurmountable challenges.  Gunshots were echoing through the city.  Fear and grief and despair filled the night.

At one in the morning, out of a home above him, a voice sang out.  It was a song he knew but could not place at first.  Then other voices began to sing.  Soon a whole neighborhood was singing.  And then from the other side of the valley, another neighborhood joined in, and another, and then he recognized the song.

It was Horatio G. Spafford’s hymn,

When peace like a river…

It is well with my soul…

Before long the entire valley was singing, a hundred thousand voices, and for four hours they sang like a river of faith, a river of love, a river powerful enough to fulfill the deepest longing, the greatest hope they had, that it would be well, that it truly was well with their soul, on this earth.

Humans have a tremendous capacity for resilience, transforming suffering love into wisdom and peace.  What we will be has not yet been revealed, but we have all the reason in the universe to hope.

Let us pray together in silence …

When Peace Like a River

tune: Ville de Havre (NCH#438) with refrain
v. 1 by Horatio G. Spafford; vv. 2-4 by Thomas Cary Kinder, 2011, 2012

When peace, like a river, upholds me each day,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot you have taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”
refrain:  It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

My grief is a shipwreck beneath a dark wave,
My heart, a hull crushed on a shoal,
Your love is a current you send forth to save
And make life flow again in my soul.    refrain

When death seems an ocean where all hope will drown,
When dark depths have swallowed me whole,
Your love still will rise and will not be dragged down
And will lift to the light my lost soul.   refrain

You pull me ashore by a friend’s loving hand,
Restoring the hope that death stole.
You give me new strength and this rock where I stand
To lift others to wellness of soul.   refrain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: