Sermon from October 14, 2018

Seek Good and Not Evil, That You May Live
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 14, 2018   Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 90; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Mark 10:17-31

Children’s Time Message:

I keep thinking that I am done talking about Charlotte’s Web and then another part of the story comes along and says, Salutations! This week I am thinking about the moment when Wilbur finds out how pigs turn into bacon and ham.  Wilbur freaks out and runs around squealing “I don’t want to die!”  Charlotte is a spider, she knows she will die in the fall and nothing can save her, and she has a much harder life than Wilbur.  No Lurvy brings her delicious slops from the farm kitchen.

Yet Charlotte helps Wilbur calm himself, and then she gives everything she has to help the poor pig.  It is beautiful and heroic.  She has no idea at first how she will help, but because she makes up her mind to try, she opens herself to miracles.

Toward the end Wilbur asks Charlotte, “Why did you do all this for me? I don’t deserve it.  I’ve never done anything for you.”

Charlotte says, “You have been my friend.  That in itself is a tremendous thing.  I wove my webs for you because I liked you.  After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.  A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating of flies.  By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.  Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

A former winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Albert Schweitzer, was almost as wise as Charlotte.  He said: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know—the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

Charlotte’s life had so much meaning and hope and joy in it because she found a way to help even though the situation seemed hopeless.  To see someone do that uplifts us, we feel like going out and seeing what miracles we can work to help the world, or at least help around the house!

There is something we can do to have a life like Charlotte’s—in fact it was the first thing she did that helped her figure out what to do.  Meditation and prayer connect us to our deepest heart where we get the best ideas and find the courage to try them….

Sermon:  Seek Good and Not Evil, That You May Live

The Prophet Amos was a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees, but he was also a highly educated poet and political activist.

Our neighbor in Thetford, the late Noel Perrin, coined the phrase “alternative culture semi-farmer.”  Ned meant it as high praise.  He felt that alternative culture semi-farmers were carrying traditional Vermont values into a new era and adding their own important dimensions.

Picture Steve Marx of Strafford, a source of vegetables and eggs to some of us, running for governor of Vermont, calling for the rights of the earth to be as respected as the rights of people or corporations.  If you want a picture of the prophet Amos, picture Steve or any of Strafford’s articulate, passionate alternative culture semi-farmers rising out of their quiet lives and speaking truth to power, saying look, your unjust ways are going to have consequences, a catastrophe is coming, and our society needs to change.

Amos said, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live….establish justice in the gate and it may be that God will be gracious to the remnant.”  That word remnant is sobering.  Amos holds up two futures for the people to choose.  The evil future is the total devastation that in fact did come because they failed to listen to the prophets.

The good, though, was not the continuation of the former life of prosperity and comfort they had enjoyed thanks to their corrupt ways.  The good possibility was that a remnant would survive to find a path of grace through their society’s inevitable downfall and create a new alternative culture that would be like the realm of God’s justice, compassion and peace.

This week we received a new prophecy. 

It came not from one alternative culture semi-farmer but from 91 leading scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows two paths ahead.  One is to keep going full speed into a catastrophe that is literally unimaginable in scope, ending in the collapse of civilization and mass extinction.  Can we call that path evil?

The other future is not perfect—there is no escaping some amount of upheaval now from the climate change that we have already set in motion—but it is not too late for a path that could be gracious to the remnant if we change our ways completely, if we turn to a way of life on earth that is like the realm of God, that is ruled by love for the earth, and compassion and mercy for the poor and vulnerable, and justice and equity for all.  And can we call that path good?

If we turn right now and live by the laws of love, if we seek that good and not evil, we may yet live.

The new study shows that we have twelve years to turn this world around.  We have only twelve years finally to fulfill what Christ came to do.  We have only twelve years to overcome the forces of greed and fear and hate, twelve years to end our polarization and work together for the survival of the human race.  Twelve years to evolve a new consciousness, a new developmental leap greater than the awakening in Ancient Greece, greater than the Enlightenment.  Twelve years to attain what we call the heart and mind of Christ so that love will rule our politics and economy and every aspect of our world.

As a 12 Step Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes, “It’s easy.  All you have to change is everything.”  And that is exactly the wisdom that Amos and Jesus urge us to gain.  A path leads to grace and peace, it leads out of our addiction to old ways and through the coming consequence of evil times.  Seek good and not evil, change everything, and you will live.

Charlotte the spider had that faith while Wilbur was running around hysterically squealing that he did not want to die.  Like Charlotte, I cannot tell you how we are going to change everything we have to change in twelve years.  But like Charlotte, I know where the path begins.  It begins hanging upside down in our web waiting for inspiration to land like a fly.  It begins as Jesus described to the rich man who begged to know the path to eternal life.

The man had been a good synagogue goer, he had done everything his culture described as good, and he had gained enough spiritual wisdom to sense that this was not enough.  The path led farther on but he could not tell where the next steps were.

Jesus said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  In other words, it’s easy.  All you have to change is everything.  Seek good with all you have and not evil, and you will have life.

The man was distressed because he led a comfortable existence.  He owned many possessions.  He had achieved his culture’s definition of success.  The disciples were stunned when Jesus said it was like a camel going through the eye of a needle for someone with wealth and status to enter the realm of God.  Everyone in those days thought that worldly success was the sign of God’s favor.  The disciples asked, then who can possibly enter the realm of God?

Jesus gave the crucial answer.  For humans on their own powers it may be impossible to let go of our attachments enough to change everything.  With God, all things are possible.

Seek God, seek good and not evil, seek it like Charlotte waiting in silent prayer in her web, ask God to help you let go of your attachment to everything you thought you knew and every possession in which you thought you could trust, not because your perspectives or possessions are all bad, but because the more you empty yourself of yourself, the more the Spirit of God can fill you.

With that Spirit in us, all things are possible, because it is the same Spirit of the universe that created this planet where life could form, the same Spirit that nurtured the conditions on earth to sustain life and allow it to become ever more complex, the same Spirit that miraculously sparked the first human into consciousness, the same Spirit that miraculously opened the human heart and mind to language and the profound beauty and truth of philosophy and science and art, the same Spirit that showed the path through authoritarian tyranny to freedom and democracy, the same Spirit that evolved Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry into ecological consciousness, and the same Spirit that has revived the contemplative path just when we need its wisdom most.

That Spirit is not going to give up, that Spirit is searching right now for hearts and minds that are willing to change everything and be transformed into a new stage of consciousness, into the heart and mind of Christ to lead us through evil times to grace.

I do not know how we are going to change everything we need to change in the next twelve years, but I know that it is not acceptable to me to walk away from Christ sadly like that rich man because I cannot let go enough to follow him.  It is not acceptable to me to look at our children or look at the poor hurricane victims of the Florida panhandle or look any of you in the face and say “everything is fine” as a tsunami rushes toward our little sandcastle world.

I confess that at times I feel afraid for all that I love, at times I feel deep grief anticipating all we may suffer and lose, but I am not freaking out like Wilbur.  I am hopeful like Charlotte.  I am excited, because whatever happens, I see a path of purpose and meaning ahead.  I see a use for every resource we have, for every skill, for every bit of wisdom and knowledge, for every breath for the rest of our lives.

I see that the church has exactly what our world needs.  It has a vision of a way to live on earth that is sustainable, that is beautiful and good, that solves all the problems that climate change could make far worse.  We know that the way of Christ can solve problems like racism and refugees, poverty and economic inequality, the erosion of democracy and the deterioration of the health of the earth.

We have this vision needing only for us to believe and live into it.  We also have spiritual tools to overcome old habits and transform our consciousness.  We also have models in Jesus and Saint Francis, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and many others.  We each have our calling, our particular part of the vision to serve.

And we have something else, too.  We have the power to be healers.  This week I talked with two people who told me that they could not deal with the news about climate change.  One is going through a divorce.  He is in such deep pain and confusion about his own life that he can’t listen to the news.

The other is a woman confronting sexual abuse that she suffered years ago that resurfaced during the Supreme Court nomination hearings.  Healing the wounds of our abused Mother Earth has to wait until she finds some healing of her own.

Jesus looked at the rich man with great love and compassion, understanding that he had spiritual work to do before he could follow the path that Jesus opened to him.  We each have our own inner journey to heal and free ourselves to live fully into our true calling in life.  The church is here to help us do that.

The church helps us transform ourselves and go out and transform the world.  We do not have to be perfect or fully transformed before we can help others.  We are all wounded healers, as Henri Nouwen said.  We all come here both to be healed and to help heal others, we come both to be held and to uphold those around us.

The Spirit created humans to evolve into a way of life that can be sustained forever, the eternal realm of God on earth.  We have been moving toward it for thousands of years, and now it comes down to that powerful Biblical number, twelve.  Twelve years.

Let us commit together to our congregation’s vision to be a force responding to social threats and wrongs and let us each commit to own healing and transformation.  Let us wait like Charlotte in her web, calmly, quietly, for the Spirit to show us what our role will be in healing and transforming the world.

Let us pray together in silence…


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