Heroes and Good Shepherds: “I Will Not Cease from Mental Fight”
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 18, 2021 Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
You can read or download the scriptures here: 7-18-21 Service Readings
You can watch the video recording of the Call to Worship and Sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here. Here is a pdf of this text: 7-18-21 sermon pdf
Call to Worship:
Bill Burden was a good shepherd of this church as Moderator and Trustee, and of this town as Emergency Management Director, and when Covid arrived his shepherding rose to heroic stature. He died at the end of July last year, but what he did in the early months of the pandemic set the course for Strafford’s carefulness and care for one another that got us through so well. Later in the service we will have the opportunity to talk about heroes and heroic actions we have seen, and there is much we could say about Bill’s steady good shepherding. We also will be asking ourselves the question, what heroic actions do we need now? What do we need in our families, or as a church, nation or world?
Heroes are everyday people who overcome whatever holds them back from using their gifts to serve others in some way, large or small. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and that is a call to heroic action. William Blake attached the words of Moses to his poem “Jerusalem” that the choir will sing as the Anthem today. Moses said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the divine spirit on them!”
What heroic action is God calling you to, what situation in your life or in the world calls to you or calls to this church? Let us worship together, opening to the voice of the divine spirit within and around us.
Time with Children on William Blake’s “Jerusalem (And did those feet)”:
In a few minutes the choir is going to sing a poem by William Blake. It relates to good shepherding and heroes and really the core of what the church and Jesus are all about. The poem begins:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
Blake is imagining that Jesus visited England. Imagine that Jesus once sat where you are sitting, or rode his bike around the Strafford common, or hiked up Whitcomb Hill. That thought wakes us up to the truth that we live in a sacred place, and the best of people could be here among us. It gives us hope. The poem goes on:
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
The problem is, humans have not lived up to Jesus. The smoke of our pollution clouds the hills, the mills and machinations of big corporations make the rich richer and the poor poorer. In this poem Jerusalem means the ideal society, the realm of God on earth, a place of the Golden Rule and fairness for all, democratic and free. The poet gets all fired up, he wants to establish that ideal loving society on earth, so he says,
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
This is the song of a good shepherd, a hero rising to do what is right. Notice that Blake says, “I will not cease from Mental Fight.” I wonder if you can guess what that makes me think of? Right! Prayer! Mahatma Gandhi said that his greatest weapon was silent prayer. The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing. This hymn calls us to work without ceasing to change the world, and to let prayer guide and inspire all our actions. So let’s pray…
the sermon begins below
Heroes and Good Shepherds: “I Will Not Cease from Mental Fight”
Moses said in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the divine spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)
The divine spirit came upon William Blake in a wilderness of social injustice and environmental destruction and he wrote, “I will not cease from Mental Fight…/Till we have built Jerusalem/In Englands green & pleasant land.”
This is the core of Judeo-Christian religion, the core of all spirituality, and the core of evolutionary science, too: the Spirit of the universe calls all of us, all its creations, to build the realm of God around us, meaning the ideal conditions for life to survive, thrive and evolve. This is what good shepherding means, and we are all called to do it in our own way in our own place.
The reason why good shepherds are called to heroic action is that there are forces that threaten those ideal conditions of life. The word hero’s Greek root means to protect and save.
Professor Joseph Campbell identified a journey that mythological heroes typically follow. They begin living ordinary lives, then receive a call to do something extraordinary. They overcome inner and outer obstacles that would hold them back and depart on a wilderness path of tasks and trials. In the end they achieve a goal that results both in new self-knowledge and in gifts to share with others when they return.
Joseph Campbell cited Jesus as a classic hero. Today’s passage begins with Jesus inviting the disciples to take a break. This is a form of heroism we need to understand. It is heroic to resist the pressure to do too much and burn out. It is heroic in our society to keep the Sabbath, to have a day of rest, to spend time nurturing our spiritual life at home and at church.
But as often happens to good shepherds, people in need came to Jesus, and he had to choose whether to rest or serve. Mark says, “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” It is not so much what the hero does as who the hero is that makes a difference in other lives. Compassionate actions arise from a compassionate heart. Heroic actions are by-products of a way of being that allows theSpirit to match our gifts with the world’s need.
The Prophet Jeremiah talked about the hero whom God would raise up as good shepherd of Israel. Jeremiah said, “This is the name by which he will be called: ‘God is my righteousness.’” Heroes may be of any religion or no religion, but they have a higher power as their source of righteousness.
Jesus was vulnerable and relatively weak compared to the powerful forces he opposed but the Spirit’s power flowed through him. This transcendence is one of the most beautiful qualities of true heroes and heroic actions.
Alice was in her mid-80s and starting to get confused in the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s. She had been an organist and choir director as a younger woman, but had not done anything with music for forty years. She had just moved back to her old hometown and joined a church choir when the organist and choir director got very sick, two days before the Christmas Eve service.
Alice was scared and unsure of herself, but she volunteered to step in playing all the music for that packed service of over 300 people, and directing a choir of 30. Imagine how vulnerable she felt, how weak compared to what was required of her. Everyone knew the heroic risk she was taking. It made that Christmas Eve service feel miraculous. Alice continued that heroism for months as the interim organist and choir director. Years later when she was in her 90s Alice was deep in dementia but still sitting with the choir. One Sunday the organist left the sanctuary during the sermon and had not returned when it was time for the hymn.
The congregation sat in awkward silence, and then suddenly before anyone could stop her, Alice rose from her seat and walked to the piano. Everyone held their breath because Alice no longer knew even who or where she was. The hymn was “Be Still My Soul.” She played it perfectly, but the singing was not so good, because there wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary.
We tell the stories of good shepherds and heroes because they move us deeply. The divine Spirit in them calls out to the divine Spirit in us to risk our own vulnerability and open ourselves to the higher power that can work miracles through us.
Heroism is about a way of being, so heroism is grounded in daily practice. We need to resolve with William Blake, “I will not cease from Mental Fight.” Alice had meditated daily for decades. Contemplative, listening prayer is a hero’s practice, whether it be two twenty-minute meditations a day or a walk in the woods or spiritual conversation or listening to sacred music—whatever opens us to the Spirit’s still, small voice. We are seeing the connection between contemplation and action clearly in the resurgence today of the Christian contemplative tradition.
Engaging with big questions, learning, evolving to a new level of consciousness—these are important practices, too.
The question facing us as individuals every day, and the question facing this church this fall when it will seek a vision for its future, is what is the Spirit calling us to be and do? Right now, in the middle of summer, after a pandemic and transition back to active life, the hero’s journey may be leading us up a mountainside to rest and pray, heroically resisting the temptation to overdo and burn out. But we can be sure that sooner or later a new need will present itself and call us into action.
Heroes are heroes because they are listening for that call even when they are on their way to a deserted place to rest, and they are ready to be moved by the Spirit to say, “Yes.”
Let us pray in silence, listening to the Spirit calling us, whether to heroic rest or heroic action…
Here is the video:
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This focus on “Jerusalem” made me remember Sheila Paget, an ex-Brit who was in the choir for years. She was short, opened her mouth a big O when she sang, and she sang this hymn alight with joy. She was a reading specialist and helped many a child to be able to grasp more of the world by helping them to read. Your sermon challenges me to write about my fears for my country, since writing is my sole device (well, talking , too!). And since your sermon and action in this church are supportive in so many ways, when religion is under attack, you too are a hero. Did you see the story in the NYTimes, “Can Silicon Valley Find God?” I continue to imagine the Holy Spirit raining down on us as generously as the rain in this season in Vermont. Martha