Sermon from September 2, 2018

Our Struggle Against the Spiritual Forces of Evil
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 2, 2018   Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 34; Ephesians 6:10-18a; John 6:56-60, 66-69

The Strafford Unitarian-Universalist congregation sends a daily devotional email.  Recently it shared this gem:

In 1998 the Rev. William Sloane Coffin gave a speech about Justin Morrill as part of a symposium….  Coffin said…

“[Justin Morrill’s] faith was in the basic goodness he sensed in…the citizens of the United States.  It was a faith he never lost, not during the dark days of the Civil War, nor during the corrupt times that followed.  He kept his faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing did the evidence have any chance of changing.  His deepest desire was that we not sell ourselves short.”

That is classic Bill Coffin.  He said in an interview on National Public Radio in 1994, “Hope is a state of mind, independent of the state of the world…. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing, has the evidence any chance of changing. So while I’m not optimistic, I’m always very hopeful.”

The evidence today is overwhelmingly against optimism.  We have no idea how we will solve the urgent problems threatening human civilization.  And yet, only in keeping faith despite the evidence does the evidence have any chance of changing.  The scriptures help us see why.

The ancient Hebrews may not have faced global climate change, they may not have been watching a worldwide food crisis approaching, but shifts in climate patterns brought on a seven-year famine and resulted in them being refugees and then slaves for four hundred years in Egypt.  The Psalm says from experience, “God is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of those who serve God’s love, but God rescues them from them all.”

There is tremendous hope in this.  If we keep faith against the evidence, the worse things get, the more we turn to God and let the Spirit comfort and strengthen and guide us.  The Franciscan contemplative teacher, Richard Rohr says, “You will remain largely unconscious as a human being until issues come into your life that you cannot fix or control and something challenges you at your present level of development, forcing you to expand and deepen. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of consciousness. I doubt whether there is any other way.”

The more we turn to God’s higher power to help us, the higher our level of consciousness will grow, and a higher level of consciousness is exactly what we need to solve the problems that now seem unfixable.

Another of Bill Coffin’s wonderful one liners was, “I love the recklessness of faith.  First you leap and then you grow wings.”

Jesus asks his followers to take a reckless and irrational leap.  Eat my flesh and drink my blood, he says.  Eat this bread and you will live forever, he says, and many of his disciples say, that is crazy talk.  Even his devoted core of disciples did not sound too enthused.

Yet the disciples made that completely reckless leap based on pure faith, and they grew wings when things were at their worst, after the crucifixion, when they were leaderless and their lives were at risk.  That is when the Holy Spirit came and equipped them to do exactly what needed to be done to continue Christ’s work of compassion and love.  They grew from being tiny, a world-wide church about the size of our congregation on Christmas Eve, to being the religion of hundreds of millions.

Ephesians tells us how to leap in faith: pray in the Spirit at all times; be strong in God’s power.  Then it describes the wings: God’s truth in our gut; God’s right ways of love in our heart; the ability to be an instrument of God’s peace; faith that shields us when we are tempted or attacked; knowledge that we already live in God’s eternal realm, so we can keep our head when things look scary—we can do what the Spirit tells us and be effective in our struggles.

I have seen these wings, this whole armor.  I worked with people living near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant not long after the partial meltdown.  They were trying to block the restart of the undamaged reactor because they did not trust the company to run it safely.  They had no money and the international nuclear industry was waging a massive media campaign.

I went down and helped organize a press conference.  Before it the leader of the citizen’s group introduced me to a quiet, timid woman, a local kindergarten teacher.  The leader told me the woman would be their spokesperson.  I started to argue, but the leader said, wait and see.  The woman walked up to the front to speak and within seconds it was as if she had changed into Martin Luther King Jr—powerful, impassioned and persuasive.

Afterwards I asked her what happened.  She said that it took her about ten seconds to get in touch with her love for her kindergarten children and her rage at the nuclear industry for putting them at risk.  She immersed in the Spirit of love and suddenly she was wearing the whole armor of God.

Without that transformation her spirit could have been crushed by the power arrayed against her.  Ephesians says that we are up against a dark side of the force that is far stronger than we are.

That can certainly feel true with problems we face today. Look at the collective strength of the greed that is driving economic inequality and climate change.  Look at the strength of the fear and hatred that are driving racism and are undermining democracy.  There seems to be a spiritual force of evil that is working against the spiritual force of God’s love, and the human heart is where the life and death struggle between them is taking place.

Mark Kutolowski said in his sermon here two weeks ago, “What we must realize is that, because our hearts are ‘occupied territory,’ our efforts to open to the Kingdom of God and to spiritual truth will be met with opposition from other forces… These forces are accustomed to having considerable control over our hearts, and they do not relinquish this control without a struggle. Do not be discouraged by this!”

Mark echoed Bill Coffin’s call to hope.  He gave specific steps we could take to liberate our hearts from evil and to grow to a new level of consciousness.

One step is to seek the realm of God, which implies a prior step—to have just enough faith that there is a higher power and a spiritual realm to leap toward it.  The way to seek God’s realm is primarily to pray, and the most effective kind of prayer to bring about a change in consciousness is what we learn in the Heartfulness Contemplative Training Circle here every Thursday—meditation and mindfulness.

Another step Mark gives us is facing our demons, meaning those inner forces that want to keep us from being transformed to a new level of consciousness.  The key is not to try to defeat them by our own power, but by praying and handing over, letting God’s power do the work.  By turning to God for help, we strengthen God in us, whereas if we skipped God and turned to fight our inner blocks or temptations directly, we would strengthen them, because what we focus on, we give energy.  It actually is a good thing to have impossible struggles if we turn to God in the midst of them, because we grow stronger and stronger in God’s force.

The last step Mark suggests is to understand that whatever transformation any human has ever undergone, including Christ, is possible for us, too.

We can do this.  Bill Coffin said that Justin Morrill’s “deepest desire was that we not sell ourselves short.”  We need to have faith in what we can be.  We need to have faith in each other.  We need to realize that the force of love and life and light that created the universe wants to work through us right now to save what it created, and we need above all not to sell that force short.  If we let the Spirit transform our level of consciousness to be the heart and mind of Christ, we can transform the world.

We can do this.  Let us pray, centering in silence, knowing that as we do, we are putting on the whole power of the Spirit that will work the miracles we need…


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