Sermon from March 10, 2019, First Sunday in Lent

Lent and the Survival of Life on Earth
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 10, 2019    First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

After worship we have an exciting meeting, the culmination of the process designed by the Fulfilling Our Vision committee.  Our new Future Directions statement says in part, “We intend to be a force, not merely a presence, effecting positive social change for peace, justice and the care of God’s creation.”  Today we will address the question of specifically how we feel called to be that force for the good.

It is fitting that we are meeting to discern this on the First Sunday in Lent.  Lent is designed to open us to be filled more completely with the Holy Spirit, to let it be what guides and empowers us.  Lent helps us discover our deepest, truest self and bring it out into the world to fulfill its calling and serve the force of love and life and light that created it.  This is what our Fulfilling Our Vision process is helping us do today as a congregation.

At our first congregational meeting we had the epiphany that by doing one thing, changing the consciousness of our society, we could solve all the major problems that threaten to destroy us.  If we could change society’s consciousness finally to see the world as one, as the ancient wisdom of most spiritual traditions teach, if we could help humans evolve to live by the Golden Rule and love of neighbor and care for the poor and vulnerable that most traditions hold as the highest ethical ideal, then climate change, racism, poverty and oppression would end, war would end, and our differences at home, Town Meeting or the United Nations would be resolved nonviolently and lovingly.

This sounds like a wild ideal, but the truth is that if we do not make this change of consciousness right now as a global human community, the massive dying off of species will continue until humans have driven themselves to the brink of extinction.  We have a little more than ten years to change our ways, according to conservative worldwide scientific consensus.

So what we are doing today is as important as anything could be—not only the meeting, but also taking Lent seriously.  It is not a stretch to connect Lent and the survival of life on earth.  Lent puts us in touch with the exact thing that the world most needs, the God consciousness within us each that can bring to birth God’s realm on earth, a Golden Civilization, if we join together and commit ourselves to it.

One of our hymns describes the work the Lenten journey leads us to do.  The hymn begins,

God, this wilderness seems trackless,
Dark night of soul a starless blackness.
Wounds, wrongs and losses tempt despair.

William Bridges wrote the classic business book entitled Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.  I read it in my interim ministry training.  Bridges uses the image of Moses and the children of Israel in the wilderness as a useful metaphor for transition, moving from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Lent is a transition time leading through struggle, suffering and some kind of death to Easter dawn, to resurrection and new life.

Often what drives us into a transition is suffering a wound or sickness, a failure or wrong, a loss or disruption to our lives.  It could be something as global as climate change or as intimate as aging.

The Spanish contemplative poet, John of the Cross, wrote about the dark night of the soul as the experience of being completely lost in a lightless, trackless wilderness.  Fear and despair are by far the biggest threats we face there because they make us vulnerable to all other temptations.

The hymn goes on,

All my stumbling steps betray doubt.
My flailing mind can find no way out.

It would not be a wilderness or dark night of soul without that experience.  Bridges says that the wilderness is a dangerous place, we can die there, but transitions can also be the most creative times of our lives.  We may feel as if we are going around in circles for forty years, we may stumble and flail, but those are necessary steps.

As Richard Rohr says, “You actually need to have some…issues come into your life that you cannot fix or control [that challenge] 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.”

The hymn goes on,

At last I fall to humble prayer.
I quiet as I wait.
The swirling sands abate.
Faith, courage, love:
Like stars they rise.  Light fills my eyes.
Christ shows the way, his truth makes wise.

This is the turning point within the transition.  Letting go and opening to a higher power is the crucial step that leads to the needed change of consciousness out of which a new way of being rises.

If we go outside at night from a brightly lit house we stumble around blindly, but if we stand and wait, our eyes adjust, and we can find our way through the darkness by the starlight that was there all along but we could not yet see.  Lent is designed to help us be still and gain the vision that can see the light that shines in the darkness to comfort and encourage us and help us find our way.

The second stanza of the hymn begins,

Holy Spirit drives and leads me,
It teaches me, its angel feeds me
If I give God my will’s control.
Then when demons come attacking
And tempt with all that I feel lacking,
I turn to God and lift my soul.

Some of us are reading Martin Smith’s classic book of daily Lenten readings.  Its title is A Season for the Spirit.  The entire trajectory of Lent is set in motion by the Spirit that created us and created the universe.  That Spirit always wants to guide and empower us to be what God needs us to be.

We are addicted to our harmful way of life, we are addicted to fossil fuels, but if we hand our will and our life over to God’s control, the Spirit will teach us what we need to know to live our lives consistently with God’s way of love.  Just ask veterans of 12 Step programs. They use this strategy to survive temptation in the wilderness of addiction every day.

The hymn goes on,

Christ takes my outstretched hand.
He, too, has walked this sand.
He leads me through.
Strength to endure, faith’s steps made sure:
God’s steadfast love holds me secure.

William Sloane Coffin gave a sermon from this pulpit not long after 9/11 and the beginning of our war in Afghanistan.  Maybe some of you were here that day.  He was responding to the ubiquitous singing of “God Bless America” at that time.  Bill’s understanding of God was that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” (I John 4:16)  If only we had abided in love of enemies instead of fear of enemies, if only we had taken Christ’s hand instead of taking bombs in hand, if only we had trusted God’s steadfast love to hold us secure, imagine how different the world would be today.

The point of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness is not that he was perfect—just the opposite.  He was sorely tempted to use his powers in self-serving ways, but he chose instead to serve all who were struggling, and not to lift himself above anyone, even a terrorist.  His unconditional, all-forgiving love reaches out to everyone.  He takes our hand as a loving friend who knows how hard the wilderness can be and who has found a way through it.

The last verse says,

Spirit leads to confrontation
With foes of soul and of Creation.
Christ leads us out to serve all earth.
Wilderness is our preparing
For paths of loving, healing, caring.
Dark nights of soul are throes of birth.
We reach the other side
Stripped of self-will and pride.
We rise, all God’s.
We follow on where Christ has gone
Down paths that lead to Easter dawn.

The loving, generous-hearted Spirit in us confronts the ego in us that is fearful and self-concerned.  A compassionate Christ leads us into conflict with a world that refuses to live by the ethic of love and Golden Rule.

Nelson Mandela made his hero’s journey through the horrific wilderness of apartheid and prison.  He believed that until he changed himself, he could not hope to change others.  Lent invites us to deepen our spiritual life, to change ourselves so that we may have the hope of changing others and changing the world around us into something more like God’s realm.

Jesus came out of the wilderness loving, healing and caring.  He came out reborn.  Our wildernesses and dark nights of soul empty us and strip off the trappings of our lesser selves and show what an illusion it is to think that we are in control of life.  Lent wants to make us all God’s, as we were born to be, because then the earth will be safe from human destruction, then we will treat strangers and even enemies as beloved children of God, then all the species of earth will benefit from a humble human love that mirrors the love and care of their creator.

We are struggling to find our way through many global and personal wildernesses right now.  Taking Lent seriously can help us.  It is worth whatever we have to do, because the light of Easter dawn waits ahead, not as one man resurrected but as all people and all the earth resurrected together.  We need to die to our old ways, but what a glorious possibility of a future world is coming within sight.  Please stay after worship and help us decide our next steps on the journey toward that light.

Let us pray in silence…


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