Sermon from June 23, 2019

Creating a New Civilization: God’s Realm on Earth, Part II
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
June 23, 2019    Second Sunday after Pentecost
Psalms 42 & 43; Romans 12:1-2; Luke 4:14-30; John 15:9-17

Many Christians do not believe climate change is a big deal.

Many support the immigration policy that is separating hundreds of children from their families and throwing them into overcrowded warehouses to sleep on cement floors, including two-year-olds and young teenage mothers with new babies with no supervision, no sanitation, no windows, sometimes for weeks on end.

Jerry Falwell Jr. says, “It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally—to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor—can somehow be imputed on a nation…. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving…. There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.”

To Christians who think that way, what’s best for our country can include things like the brutal treatment of refugee children, and economic inequity, and racism, sexism and homophobia, and corporate deregulation and climate change denial.  Social justice is a concept they openly ridicule.

Other Christians respectfully oppose that position.  The Future Directions Vision statement of this congregation says that we aspire

“to be a community of open hearts and minds
embracing differences and diverse traditions,
extending faithful Christ-like love and support to all,
reaching out especially to those in need.
We intend to be a force, not merely a presence,
effecting positive social change
for peace, justice and the care of God’s creation.”

The thinking we did together about the Golden Rule and loving our neighbor as ourselves directly opposes the thinking of Jerry Falwell Jr.  We see that we must apply the ethic of love to government and corporations and all aspects of our society, that the consequence of not doing so will be civilization’s collapse and possibly humanity’s extinction.  Already the suffering is too great and our understanding of Christ’s life and teaching and of common human decency says we must do something to stop it and heal it as we believe Jesus would want us to do.  We see that we need to create a new civilization, and it needs to be what Falwell calls “the earthly kingdom” living by the ethic of what he calls “the heavenly kingdom.”  We need to establish the realm of God’s mercy, justice and love on earth.

I am afraid we have to accept that we are engaged in conflict with Christians who believe that our nation does not need to follow the ethic of love.  We are in conflict with the policies of the current Administration and the fossil fuel industry and the mega-corporations and multi-billionaires who control much of Congress and the media.

We face fierce opposition that is fighting every day against us with overwhelming resources of power and wealth.

Is there any hope, or is all lost and the world doomed?

The good news is we have every reason to hope.  We may not be optimistic, but we can hope because people have turned around impossible-seeming situations in the past when the time has come for change.

There are many things that we can do as a congregation right now to help make this happen.

To begin with, we need to listen, and in two directions.  Listen first to the Holy Spirit within us, to our own innermost hearts.  We are in a rapidly evolving situation and we need the Spirit’s guidance every step of the way.  We need to discern what we are called do as a church and as individuals.

The writer and monk, Thomas Merton, was part of the Civil Rights and Peace Movements in the 1960s.  He wrote, “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”  The church was born for this moment, as Bill McKibben says. The Spirit that created us and created the earth has given us gifts to use in this moment, and we need to listen to our hearts individually and together as a congregation to find our way.

The second kind of listening is what the Rev. Fred Garry of Watertown, New York talked about when asked why there was less polarization there than anywhere in the country.  “We are more civil because we hear each other, because we know each other, because we listen, and this listening gives us power to live better lives.”

Listening can bridge divides because when we listen respectfully and compassionately, seeking to understand even if we cannot agree with the other person, it changes our relationship.  We step across our differences.  There is no divide between our hearts if we are listening carefully to one another.  That step toward oneness may never make us agree, but it may make us friends, and that may lead to miraculous third ways through problems that our two opposed ways could never resolve.

The exciting news is that our congregation is working on listening in both these ways.  Our Heartfulness Contemplative Training Circle practices inner listening every Thursday afternoon.  If meditation and mindfulness do not appeal to you, I would be happy to explore other ways that you can discern where the Holy Spirit is leading in your life.

Our Deacons are moving quickly to schedule workshops on the other kind of listening—on conflict resolution and respectful, caring ways to communicate.

Both of these kinds of listening were central to the movement that Mahatma Gandhi led.  Remember that the British Empire was the most powerful the world had ever seen at the time, and India was utterly subjugated and oppressed.  The vast majority lived in absolute poverty and dependence on Great Britain.

Gandhi said his greatest weapon in the struggle for freedom was silent prayer.  He spent two hours a day in worship and meditation, joined by many of his followers and colleagues.  It gave them vision, courage and strength.

Gandhi also listened respectfully to others.  His movement was nonviolent, with the goal of oneness and cooperation among opposing factions.  He wanted to help the British listen to their own Christian values and apply them voluntarily to their policies in India.

But listening was not all Gandhi did.  He developed a sophisticated, highly effective movement for change that had two approaches, an Obstructive Program and a Constructive Program.  The Obstructive Program is the one everyone knows about, the one featured most prominently in Richard Attenborough’s excellent film, Gandhi. The Obstructive Program resisted unjust laws and acts of oppression with strikes, marches, court cases, fasts and civil disobedience.  The less well-known Constructive Program received much more of the movement’s time and resources, but it did not attract much media attention outside of India.

The movement’s Constructive Program included local economic development, health care, spiritual practice, model cooperative communities, leadership development, and education and consciousness-raising for the new society they were creating.  It was even more important in bringing social change.  You see Gandhi building model cooperative farm communities in the film, and you also see people lining a village street spinning homespun cloth as the Salt March passes by.  The spinning wheel was central to Gandhi’s Constructive Program and it became literally central to the design of India’s national flag.

Our congregation has Obstructive and Constructive Programs as well, and I expect they both will increase in the time ahead.  An example of Obstructive Program was the Poor People’s Campaign last summer at the State House.  We did not participate in the civil disobedience and get arrested, but several of us marched in support of the clergy and lay people who did.

Another example is the global climate strike for all ages that will be taking place from September 20th through 27th, inspired by the student strikes led by Greta Thunberg.  Jim Antal’s book, Climate Church, Climate World, urges churches today to be as bold and courageous as the black churches of the Civil Rights Movement.  I suspect many who are reading the book will lead us to more obstructive actions.

Our Constructive Program is much more extensive.  Both our Mission Committee and our Deacons provide help to people suffering from economic or personal hardship.  We offer education and training related to creating a new society of God’s realm on earth—movies, freedom song workshops, the climate change book group, the planned communication workshops, the Heartfulness Circle and children’s programs.  We will soon be installing a permanent sign-board in front of the church.  It will not only announce our activities but also share our vision of what a civilization looks like that follows the ethic of love of neighbor and the Golden Rule.

I hope we will use our new communication skills and host community-wide conversations about increasing our resilience as a town and region in a climate crisis world.  I hope we will find more ways to articulate an inspiring vision to work toward like the vision that emerged from our Golden Civilization conversation, or the vision found in the books that Gus Speth has written or edited.

Will all this make a difference?  Will we prevail and establish the realm of God on earth?  Will the beautiful Global Ethic and Earth Charter documents become the foundation of a new civilization?  Will we create a model in this church and in this town to help lead the way there?

What does the Holy Spirit say about this in your heart?  What does it urge you to do?

Let us pray in silence listening for the Spirit’s movement within us…


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