Happy Are Those Who Live in the House of God
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
August 1, 2021 Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
from Psalm 84; from Isaiah 11:1-9; Matthew 5:3-9
You can read or download the scriptures here: 8-1-21 Service Readings
You can watch the video recording of the Call to Worship, Chi 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: 8-1-21 sermon pdf
Call to Worship, “Way Over Yonder”
Life is so miraculous, how it began billions of years ago as single cells, how they evolved into human brains and opposable thumbs and octopus brains that stretch into their tentacles.
One of the most miraculous things is how the Spirit of life guides each unique creature to what they need for health and wellbeing through inner longings—the longing to eat, to sleep. Think about the complexity of that inner guidance system!
Most amazing of all are the higher longings that transcend the individual self. We have an ancient dream programmed into our souls for the realm of God’s love and peace on earth. That longing in the heart of our species is now the greatest hope for the survival of all species. The Creator of life is trying to guide and empower us to save its creation by helping us evolve into the kind of people that Jesus called us and taught us to be.
I first heard Carole King sing “Way Over Yonder” when I was a teenager longing for peace in the midst of a wilderness of adolescent angst. “Then trouble’s gonna lose me, worry leave me behind.” It captured my yearning for the world to be the Promised Land and Garden of Eden, “the land where the honey runs in rivers each day,” “a garden of wisdom from some long ago dream.” “Way Over Yonder” was a hymn to me, inspiring me to keep working toward the vision of a better world and way to be in it.
Today I hope you will allow yourself to feel your longing for an ideal church, or town, or nation, or world, I hope you will allow yourself to share your dream in the faith that it is the Spirit of God speaking through your longing to a world that needs to heed it. Let us worship together with thanks and praise.
Time with Children on the Promise of the Promised Land
The Promised Land was promised when Abraham longed to find a homeland and had a vision of God saying this is the land you have been searching for that I will give to your descendants. Abraham felt in his heart that this vision was true, a sacred promise.
In a way, this happens to us all. The Spirit puts in us a sense of where we feel at home and what we feel called to do. Every living thing has a Promised Land, a place that the Spirit of the universe has created as their natural habitat, the place where they can fulfill the life they have been given.
The first living cells had an ocean with just the right temperature, acidity and salinity and they had a dream programmed into that one cell to increase and evolve into greater life. If you look around at earth’s plants, animals and insects you find they each have a similar Promised Land. You have one, too. Yours may be in the mountains or in a city, it may be as a teacher, a builder, a musician, a parent.
We each have our dream, but how do we know like Abraham that the vision is promised, how do we know it is our true calling?
People have asked that question for thousands of years. Tradition says there are three ways to know. First is to look to spiritual wisdom collected over the ages and see what it tells you about your vision; second is to talk with wise people about it, like the people of this church; and the third way to learn if your vision is right—I wonder if you can guess?
Pray! Especially a listening prayer like the examen I taught you last week, where you listen to your life. The key is to quiet your mind and allow the deepest spirit within your heart to speak to you. A familiar prayer of few words that you say over and over helps you listen more deeply because you don’t have to think as much about it, it is like a raft you ride down river to your deepest soul.
Let’s pray that way now, with words, but also listening for the Spirit beneath and in between the words…
the sermon begins below
Sermon: Happy Are Those Who Live in the House of God
Last week I talked about the three stages of transition that we go through to adjust to any change, based on the metaphor of the Exodus.
Transitions begin with an ending. First, we leave the old ways of Egypt, with joy or grief or a mix of both.
Second, we enter an in-between time, wandering in a trackless wilderness where we have left the old settled place but are not yet in the new. The wilderness can be uncomfortable, chaotic, confusing, and yet it also can be creative and transformative, preparing us for what is next.
Third, transitions end with a beginning. The children of Israel cross the River Jordan into the Promised Land. We enter the new place or ways of being that we have longed to reach.
Last week I talked about the role of remembrance and rest in getting through the wilderness. Today we are focusing on another practice.
Leo Tolstoy put it this way: “One needs a vision of the Promised Land in order to have the strength to move.” Moses shared the vision of the land flowing with milk and honey whenever the Israelites felt discouraged. He helped them picture it and long for it and keep moving toward it.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” the book of Proverbs says (29:18 KJV). There are different ways in which vision can save us. We need a vision to remind us of our goals, but we also need a vision as a place to go in our minds when our wilderness reality is painful. Acting as if we are already there can help us survive.
A little girl sat at midnight in the bar where her mother worked. Her mother had come that night not to serve but to drink, and she and her friends were already fall-down drunk when they arrived. One of the friends had to be taken out in an ambulance after falling and hitting his head. Then her mother’s boyfriend started shouting and threatening to punch her mother. The little girl heard it all.
A kind waitress was sitting with the little girl in a booth trying to shelter her from what was going on, but she needn’t have worried.
The little girl was calmly drawing with crayons. The waitress asked, “What are you drawing?”
She answered, “A family—the girl is holding hands with her mommy and daddy, and here are her dog and cat and horse, and this is her farmhouse, and this is the garden where she grows flowers, and this is a birdhouse where the birdies can be safe, and this is the mountain where the girl has picnics where it is quiet and there are cute rabbits and foxes and deer that snuggle with her.”
It is heartbreaking when people live in a wilderness of abuse, yet the Spirit of life that created us has given us the ability to dream of a place way over yonder, a Peaceable Kingdom, a lovely dwelling place of God. In the worst of circumstances, we can still envision and even imagine that we are in that Promised Land.
It could be a kind of magical thinking, it could lead to dangerous dissociation from reality or a coldhearted denial of the suffering around us, but when the vision is coming from the Spirit within us, when it is the realm of God on earth that we long for and imagine ourselves living in, it can work a positive magic.
We can escape into the realm of God in our minds and be in this world even more realistically, because the realm of God turns us outside ourselves. God commands us to love our neighbor as our very own self, and sacrifice to serve the needs of those who are vulnerable, hungry or hurting.
To live as if we are in the realm of God is to imagine a house and earth like the little girl, but it is also to look at the drunken, irresponsible mother, whose life is a tragic mess, with forgiveness and with a yearning, compassionate love.
It makes all the difference what vision we follow. I have hope for that little girl in the bar because she could have been drawing monsters taking revenge on an evil world or a little girl running away from home, but what she envisioned was full of light and beauty and peace.
The picture Jesus drew was of living the beatitudes—people humble and lowly, open to the world’s pain, constantly seeking the Spirit’s way of justice and mercy, with hearts focused on God, peacemakers.
The Prophet Isaiah put the vision poetically, traditionally called the Peaceable Kingdom: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…a little child shall lead them…. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
People have been longing for that Promised Land and living as if already in it for three thousand years.
The question is not why haven’t we reached it, but where would we be without that vision? It has led to leaps forward in human consciousness and social justice in the past, and if anything can save us now, it is this.
We need to picture it, though, as clearly as the little girl did. What would the ideal world look like that the Spirit created us to desire? What would an ideal nation look like? What would our town be like if its citizens fulfilled the highest ideals of love of neighbor? What do we dream that our church will do and be? Picture it.
We are pilgrims on a journey. We need a vision of where we are going. The 84th Psalm puts the longing so beautifully:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O God my hope and strength
My soul longs, indeed it faints for your courts…!
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.
For that poet, the image of birds at peace in their nests was the equivalent of the safe bird box of the little girl in the bar. We need to picture our dream and dwell in it as if already there, because happy are those who live in the house of God, ever singing God’s praise.
Let us go there now in our hearts, that ideal place where we long to be. Picture it, then wordlessly sing to God your heart’s praise from that place…
Here is the video:
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It is truly amazing to me how the kindness I am experiencing in my old age here in Strafford is my ideal of human behavior. It is such experience that makes me believe. Joy to those who give; joy to those who receive. My dream of goodness includes the idea that it is possible in real human life, complex as it is. We all begin ignorant; learning to be part of a promised land is growing up. Onward! I am aware that I am not there yet. Thank you for the sermon, Tom. Martha Manheim