Sermon from July 22, 2018

Responding to Evil: “I Will Raise Up Shepherds”
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 22, 2018   Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 23; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34

Greeting from the July 22, 2018 Service

Good morning, and welcome to the United Church of Strafford on this Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.  Frodo and Sam were simple rural folk who stumbled onto a hero’s journey.  They became the unlikely pair on whom all hope of overcoming evil rested in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Frodo and Sam were despairing once in the face of almost certain defeat when they remembered the stories of past courageous heroes and suddenly realized it was all one long struggle, and they were living their part of that same story.  It gave them hope.  Churches are on a hero’s journey, too, to create the realm of God on earth, a society shaped by compassion and lovingkindness, justice and peace.  We are part of the same story as the Hebrew prophets and Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day and Nelson Mandela.  We may be simple rural folk, but we have our parts to do, and the first is to create an outpost of God’s realm right here, a beloved community that can comfort and support and train and equip us for what the Spirit needs us to do in the world.  We each have our own struggles and gifts, but we are all part of the same story, so please greet one another in that spirit after the service over refreshments, extending your care especially to those you do not know so that all may feel that we are one here today.

Time with the Children

Good morning!  I am going to tell you three very short stories to see how many connections you can find between them.

First, David was a shepherd boy who wrote the 23rd Psalm and grew up to become a great king of Israel.  He had older brothers in Israel’s army fighting the Philistines when he was a shepherd boy. Everyone was afraid of one giant Philistine named Goliath, but David said he would fight him because he had fought lions and bears to save his sheep.  The King said “May God’s force be with you,” and David went and prayed and picked up a small smooth stone and put it in his slingshot and slung it and knocked the giant out…and that was that.

The second story is about a boy about David’s age named Luke Skywalker who grew up to become a great Jedi master.  Luke the boy was flying a tiny spaceship and trying to destroy a deadly weapon the size of the moon and powerful enemies were trying to stop him with their space fighters.   He was taking aim on his target with his computer when he heard the voice of his dead teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi, saying, “Luke, the force is with you.  Trust in the force!”  And Luke put the computer away and instead centered himself like David and opened to the force and took a shot and hit the target perfectly and knocked the death star out…and that was that.

Then the third story is about Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, who were only 11 years old at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry when their classmate, Hermione Granger, was attacked by a huge Mountain Troll.  It could have killed them, and but they trusted in the force and waved their magic wands and said a spell and the troll’s own club flew up in the air and came down on his head and knocked him out…and that was that.

I wonder if you notice any connections in those stories… For instance, they each involve a small person or thing against a giant one.  Each small represents the side of good and each huge and powerful represents the evil side.   Each small one does something like pray and gets centered and trusts in the force, and because of that the good little guy wins.

God and the Spirit are not magic, they are not in our control, but they represent a higher power that can help us in mysterious ways, and they make it possible that the smaller and weaker good side can knock out the bigger and stronger evil side, ideally without our doing any violence and using only God’s force of love and light.  There is something we can always do to open ourselves to that force, just as David and Luke and Harry, Ron and Hermione did: pray!


Sermon:  Responding to Evil: “I Will Raise Up Shepherds”

A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a dismayed couple watching the news.  The reporter is saying, “Everything is horrible—worse than we ever imagined—and there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of it.  But whatever happens, we cannot give in to despair.”

The irony is meant to be funny, but it’s hard to laugh.  Things are feeling worse than we ever imagined to some of us, and if we feel there is nothing we can do, despair is the natural response.   But our scriptures and spiritual tradition assure us that there are things we can do about the evils of our day, and we will be working with the highest power in the universe as we do them.

The Prophet Jeremiah said that God would work against the evil shepherds who were neglecting the poor and dividing the nation.  “I will raise up shepherds over my people who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed.”

Jesus had compassion for the poor and oppressed people of his day “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus was moved by the Holy Spirit to act as the good shepherd, gathering the hurting people, sheltering them from the evils of their society, healing and nurturing them and then organizing them as a movement and sending them out to be good shepherds themselves.

Jesus took stands against evil: he staged a nonviolent demonstration in the temple; he spoke out against the hypocrisy of the rich and priests who neglected the poor and vulnerable; he taught that we should side with the kingdom of God and against any evil human kingdom.

The Apostle Paul calls the church the body of Christ living and acting in the world.  In other words, God raises up churches as good shepherds to respond to evil as Jesus did.

Most churches can agree with that in principle, but when they get down to taking stands against specific evils, they get very uncomfortable very quickly.

One church discomfort with public action against evil is about the separation of church and state, but the purpose of the First Amendment is entirely to keep the state from interfering with religion.  The separation is only one way.  It was fully expected by the founders of our nation that religion would be, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “the conscience of the state.”  Our political system depends on the church working against the evil it sees in that system.

Churches also stay out of politics sometimes to avoid controversy and conflict, especially a church like ours that wants to serve the entire community and that has experienced painful divisions in the past.

But this congregation has just given unanimous support to a Future Direction statement that says, “We dream of being a force, not just a presence, trying to make a difference in the world, responding to social wrongs …including issues of peace, justice and the environment.”

It is clear that there are social wrongs today that churches need to confront.  Twenty-three of the most respected elders from many denominations have drafted a statement entitled, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” They say, “We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake…. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ.”

The statement names six areas where the church needs to speak and act in order to be good shepherds to our nation, issues of peace, justice and the environment, and it acknowledges that some of the evils we face are political.

For instance, Christ stands for truth.  Persistent lying as a political tool is evil.

And Christ calls us to love all people and see all creation as sacred.  Oligarchical, authoritarian and totalitarian forms of government are inherently exclusive and oppressive, especially neglecting or hurting “the least” of people whom Jesus loved most.

A church that says it will be “a force, not just a presence, trying to make a difference in the world, responding to social wrongs” is hearing a call to action in the news every day.  The poor are crying, the refugee is crying, the earth itself is crying.  We as a church are forced to decide whether to act as a good shepherd or to remain silent and allow evil shepherds to do their worst.

Change is happening fast.  What we do or fail to do today will determine the world that little Luke and Maeve and Esme inherit tomorrow.  Will we let the world of our children and grandchildren be ruled by evil without trying to stop it as Jesus did?

Yet we feel tension in our collective gut at the possibility of alienating people in the community by acting boldly.  What can we do?

We have another Future Direction Statement that helps answer that question.  It says, “We want to be able to consider big questions and controversial issues, sharing with healthy communication, where we can disagree and still get along. We want to stand consistently with our ideals while listening humbly, openly and with fairness and compassion to others with differing views.”

This is the answer: we need to be a force for good if we are going to be faithful to Christ and our conscience, but we need our means to be as faithful as our ends.  Jeremiah does not say God will raise up wolves to tear apart the evil shepherds.  God raises up strong, loving and nurturing shepherds, nonviolent shepherds who try to bring together the flock and lead them in paths of righteousness, who live in the hope that their enemies will come to renounce their wrongs and become compassionate and just members of God’s beloved community.

Catholic Sister Simone Campbell is a beautiful example of this.  She is the director of an organization that lobbies on issues of low income and widening wealth disparity.  She has written, “My meditation practice has led me to see that God is alive in all. No one can be left out of my care. Therefore this political work is anchored in caring for those whom we lobby as well as those whose cause we champion. This was illustrated for me . . .  when I was…lobbying a Republican Senator on healthcare legislation. I commented on the story of a constituent and asked her how her colleagues could turn their eyes away from the suffering and fear of their people….

“She said that many of her colleagues…. did not see these constituents as ‘their people.’ Tears sprang to my eyes at her candor and the pain that keeps us sealed off from each other because of political partisanship.”

Meditation practice enables Sister Simone to see the oneness of all and have compassion for all, both those who are suffering and those who are working the evil she opposes that is causing the suffering.  Being a good shepherd means cultivating the heart and mind of Christ within us through contemplation and action, seeking to evolve to Christ’s level of consciousness that sees the world differently, that can discern the sacred way of love and life and light that flows through all creation.  Good shepherds discern a good path and then help others follow it, and keep seeking the lost sheep, trying to bring them along as Sister Simone does with those she lobbies and as the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement did with their white supremacist oppressors.

We need to be just good shepherds, not perfect ones.  We will not always get it right.  Our calling is to do the best we can in this moment, and keep pursuing the spiritual practices and right path so we continue to grow wiser.

This week President Barack Obama gave a speech in South Africa honoring the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.  Toward the end of his speech Obama said, “we have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of hope. It is tempting to give in to cynicism: to believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back, that the pendulum has swung permanently…. We have to resist that cynicism. Because we’ve been through darker times; we’ve been in lower valleys and deeper valleys….

“Madiba reminds us, ‘No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and, if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.’ Love comes more naturally to the human heart; let’s remember that truth. Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on Earth, so that, a hundred years from now, future generations will look back and say, ‘They kept the march going. That’s why we live under new banners of freedom.’”

Former Civil Rights Movement leader, Representative John Lewis said recently, “Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America. It’s not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. It is the struggle of a lifetime, more than one lifetime.”

There have been horrifyingly evil periods in history before, and God has raised up shepherds to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death and teach us to fear no evil.

Now is our time.  Now it is our privilege to take our place in the one story, the one long journey, alongside Jeremiah and Jesus and Nelson Mandela and William Sloane Coffin and also Martha Manheim and Danette Harris and Bill and Dot Burden and Kim Welsh and every person here today who is doing her or his part to assist this church’s mission to be a good shepherd and lead our world from evil to God’s realm of love and justice and peace.

Let us pray together in silence, opening to the heart and mind of Christ to transform us so that we may discern how the Spirit would have us transform the world…

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