Sermon 5.21.17 Following Jesus

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 4:12-23
Sermon: Following Jesus
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

When I was a kid my dad and my brother loved to fish. I didn’t like it. All that sitting still in the boat. Being quiet. Waiting. No thanks. And I didn’t like to eat fish either so that sealed the deal. No fishing for me. Now that I am vegetarian, my distaste for the fishing enterprise is confirmed.

So, if I was stuck in a family in the fishing business and Jesus came to me and said, “Come on, I’ve got something for you, and it’s not fishing,” I’d be happy to drop my nets and not look back. But for these fish folk in the story we heard this morning – it was there life. Their heritage. Their identity. Their trade and craft. It was their expertise and their livelihood. Their lifestyle was determined by the seasons and the weather relative to fishing. Fishing is what they know. It is who they are.

We have this story of Jesus coming and inviting these fishers to follow him. And they drop their nets and go to embark on an itinerant life of radical love. It’s a far cry from the familiar fishing trade. Evidently, Jesus had something really compelling to offer: A new life, rich, full, and vibrant with a sense of being part of something more. There was a bond to all of humanity, life, and Creation. There was a sense of the transcendent. In following him, you found you were giving your life to something worth giving your life to. It was not boring or meaningless. It involved going deeper. Acting together for good. There was an intense shared sense of mission, purpose, and belonging. Maybe it was something like people find in the being part of the army today – that shared sense of mission, purpose, and belonging.

Jesus taught that the realm of God was within people and among people. Here and now. Religion was about the present moment not just a cataloguing of what happened in the past, not just a starry-eyed gaze to a distant Edenic future at the end of time. With Jesus it was about the realm of God right here and right now – with this stranger, with this enemy, with this detested tribe, with this beleaguered sinner, with this hungry person, with this tortured soul, with this suffering sick one. Right here. Right now. Offering yourself in service. Reaching across human constructs of separation and division. Being part of the healing of the world through reconciliation, forgiveness, and generosity. Taking delight in the beauty, mystery, and abundance available to all – as pure gift.

Come follow me: Live for others., help heal the world, be awed by this amazing life, live by universal, unconditional love, know your own value as a servant. It’s a beautiful life!

I have a new doctor and at my last appointment when she learned that I as a pastor, she asked, “Are you a Jesus follower?” I thought that was an odd question. I just said I was a pastor. Can you be a pastor and not be a Jesus follower? What could I say but, ‘yes.’ She confirmed this. “So, you are a Jesus follower,?” “I try to be,” I replied. And then we went back to the minor medical matters at hand.

So those simple fisher folk said yes to Jesus. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, and many others. They said yes to the beautiful life of high commitment devotion to a different reality – a reality where everyone is equally valued as a human being, there is reverence for all life, an on-ramp after any wrong that is done, a life of healing, well-being for everyone never at the expense of others. It’s a reality where there is no place for violence, in any form, from spanking a child to dropping a bomb, to extorting a mortgage. It’s a reality focussed on the good of the whole, the community, the species, the Earth because the good of the whole is the surest way to healing and wholeness for the individual.

Follow me, not down a rabbit hole, but to a beautiful life of love and goodness and joy. Can this life with Jesus hard, challenging, and demanding? Yes. It might even cost you your life. But it is so compelling you will not look back. This life requires creativity, devotion, intellect, character, and self- discipline. It’s not easy though it may be simple.

New life is possible after tragedy, loss, mistakes, regrets, calamity, addiction, abuse, greed, mental or physical illness. There can be new life, healing, and joy in the realm of God, present here and now, that Jesus embodies for us and invites us to be part of.

So here we are, talking about the beauty of the Christian life, reminding ourselves why we’re here in church celebrating what it means to be Christian, and have you noticed, there’s something we haven’t mentioned. Heaven. Life after death. We haven’t spoken of Christianity as following Jesus so that after you die you go to heaven to be with him and with your loved ones and all the saints of light with God in an eternity of paradise. We’ve talked about the Christian life but not heaven.

Just after Easter, Betty, my 93 year old mother in law, came to visit from Cleveland. She’s a life long church goer. Her father was an Episcopal priest and her father in law was a Presbyterian pastor. We got to a talking about life after death. She absolutely believes that when she dies she is going to heaven to be with loved ones. My husband, Jeff, her son, also believes this. I said I believe we don’t know. I’m not saying there is no heaven, no after life, but we don’t know. Maybe this life it is. And that’s more than enough as far as I’m concerned. When I expressed this perspective, Betty replied, “If you don’t believe in heaven then why be a Christian?” Because it’s a beautiful life. Following Jesus and continuing his ministry of compassion, healing, and reconciliation is a beautiful life.

So, maybe for some of you, I’ve “come out of the closet.” No, I don’t believe in heaven as somewhere or a state we go into after we die. Is there something after we die? I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s impossible. Maybe there is some kind of continuing experience after our moral bodies cease. But I don’t know, so I’m not counting on it. This life, trying to follow Jesus, I can believe in and give my life to.

As a pastor, I feel that my responsibility is to help others mobilize their spiritual resources especially at the time of death. So I try to understand the beliefs of those involved. If someone is dying and looking forward to being reunited with a spouse who has died, I offer encouragement and support on that journey. If the person feels the death of our bodies is the end then I encourage comfort and peace on that journey. I take the same approach with a funeral or memorial service. If the person or family has a strong belief in heaven and life after death, we draw upon that in the service. If the person and family are not so sure, we adapt accordingly. Pastoral care is about encouraging people to trust their faith and put it to work for good in their lives.

I believe that Christianity and following Jesus is about much more than heaven in
the next life and that that should not be the main defining characteristic of Christianity.

In Jesus’ day, there were Jews who believed there would be a resurrection to new life in the end times and there were Jews who did not share that belief. That’s how I think it should be with Christianity today.

Now, about Jesus’ resurrection. The Biblical stories tell of Jesus being crucified, dead, buried, and rising on the third day. Coming back. Alive again. This has come to be understood literally by some. For others, even since ancient times, this has been understood as a metaphorical representation of the aftermath of the crucifixion.

With the Bible and ancient literature across cultures, factual reporting and accurate biography were not the order of the day. There were no fact checkers, no Politifact, no paper trail, or confirmation of sources cited. Stories were shared and recorded to convey meaning not fact. It was about conveying something of importance not of literal historical accuracy. There were images and constructs that were used to impute the meaning.

Jesus lives an extraordinary life. So in looking back to his birth, the stories are told incorporating constructs that were associated with a special, important life. Jesus’ death can be viewed in a similar way. Because of his extraordinary life, the importance of that life and its meaning is conveyed by attributing special circumstances to his death. While Jesus’ followers may have continued to experience his presence with intensity after his death, it was common to attribute life after death, resurrection, and eternal life to important figures – like Caesar. This helps us to better understand the stories that are in the New Testament.

The story of Jesus, walking along the lake and inviting Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him appears in the gospel long before the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection. So the fishers and others agree to follow Jesus, drop everything, leave family, job, home, community, based on Jesus’ presence, persona, teaching, healing, etc.. not based on the promise of eternal life in heaven after they die. They follow based on their experience of Jesus in the here and now, on this Earth, in this life.

The commitment to follow Jesus leads to a beautiful life of meaning and service. It is a life of community and belonging. People are looking for that kind of life today especially younger people.

The insistence on the belief that Jesus himself literally rose from the dead and that we, too, are all going to be with him in heaven can be a barrier to people becoming part of the church. Maybe they want to follow Jesus in terms of values, ethics, and life style, but they can’t accept the supernatural aspects of Christianity so they don’t feel welcome in the church. They miss out on what the church has to offer and the church misses out on their presence and participation.

I would like to see the church offer an extravagant welcome to all people who are interested in exploring the Jesus life: Those who believe in life after death, those who don’t, those who have other views about what happens when our mortal bodies die, and those who don’t know – like me. Views about what happens when we die should not be the defining tenet of Christianity. That should not be a deal breaker.

The focus of the church can be on following Jesus: Experiencing the realm of God with us and among us. Helping to create the commonwealth of God here on this precious Earth.

This Sunday, the World Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ are asking us to call attention to the famine in Africa where 20 million lives are at risk. On Pentecost, June 4, we will receiving the special One Great Hour of Sharing offering which will help respond to the famine. I encourage you to ponder and pray about how you are being called to help as a follower of the one who fed the hungry. Hopefully all the so-called Christians in our government will also advocate for a generous response to this humanitarian crisis. We know that it is our moral and religious imperative as Christians to respond to this need, here and now, on the Earth, in this life, at this present moment. That is what it means to say yes to following Jesus. It is a commitment to a life of radical love and generosity. It is beautiful life of self-giving and belonging.

So my doctor asked if I was a Jesus follower. Well, I’ll write out a check on June 4th. Just don’t ask me to fish! Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon Memorial Day 5.28.17

Date: May 28, 2017
Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22
Sermon: Peace and Patriotism
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It’s Memorial Day weekend. A time to remember those who have served in the armed forces and particularly those who have died in service to this country.

I’m wondering who here this morning has served in the military?
Who has a loved one that has served?
I’m wondering who has a family member or friend that has died while serving in the armed forces?
Anyone currently serving in the military?

While it may seem like the many wars the US has been part of are far away for they are often in distant lands, these wars come home to us as we think of the service given by those among us and those close to us. Though war may seem remote, especially in today’s world when we aren’t asked to buy war bonds, and ration gas, and have victory gardens, when we reflect on it, we can see how military conflict seeps into society and into our communities, families and our
lives.

Why do become involved in wars? There is a sense of threat. There is something to protect. To defend our homeland, our way of life, our values. Sometimes war is seen as a way to protect others. But really, none of us wants war. No one wants to see people engaged in armed conflict with other people. Well, except maybe political leaders who want to boost their standing with their citizens or defense contractors. But for the most part, no one wants to be involved in war. No one wants their family members and friends putting their lives at risk.

War comes at an astronomical cost. There are the men and women of the military
who serve and whose lives are risk. There is the loss of those who are killed. There is the sacrifice of the families at home. There is the loss of the military personnel of other countries. There is the collateral loss of civilians, children, older adults, etc. There is the damage to the lives of those who serve who come home with PTSD and other conditions – physical, mental, and spiritual. I heard on the radio this week that in the US twenty veterans a day commit suicide. This is beyond heart-breaking. And these are just some of the tragic, incalculable losses that occur because of war.

Then there is the money. Wars cost billions of dollars in today’s world. This is money that could be going to social uplift. As Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower pointed out: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” The money used for war could be used for schools, health care, clean energy, infrastructure, the arts, etc. The resources used to create weapons, technology and equipment for war could be redirected to new treatments and cures for diseases, clean, renewable energy, and other constructive purposes. All of the resources used for war could be used in ways that enrich life rather than diminish it or end it.

So why do we have war? Why is it part of human culture and history, present and past? Human societies live by myths. Humanity has chosen to accept the myth of redemptive violence. We have chosen to organize ourselves around the myth that violence can be used in service to what is good and true. We humans have decided that it is worthy to use violence to achieve noble ends. And that the highest aims are worth the cost of violence. We may even embrace the idea that violence reinforces the worthiness of our aspirations. We have inherited these cultural myths that have evolved over centuries in various settings around the world. We have come to accept the validity of the myth of redemptive violence. We see this with our military today. The men and women of the armed services are offering themselves in service to the noblest values of our country. But we also see this myth skewed and twisted in the horrific actions of terrorists. Somehow they bend their minds to believe that what they are doing, and the pain and death that is caused, is justified because of the worthiness of the aims they are pursing. To us, the justification is unimaginable, but in a context that accepts the myth of redemptive violence, aberration and mutation can lead to horrific acts.

So humanity has come to accept this myth. It has taken centuries to develop. It has infiltrated most countries and cultures. Can it be changed? Can we evolve new myths that are grounded in anti-violence and no longer incorporate the model of war as a tool for conflict resolution? Is this possible?

Here we turn to the scripture that we listened to this morning and we consider the meaning of this season of Easter. Easter is a season of new life and transformation. We celebrate that with God all things are possible. We rejoice in the triumph of life over death. Jesus changed the story. He created a new myth for people to live by. He told stories and took action that was based on a God of universal, unconditional love. No one beyond the scope of forgiveness and reconciliation. No insiders and outsiders. No good guys and bad guys. No more dualism and separation. Everyone beloved. Everyone created in the image of God. No exceptions. No exclusions.

We see this new myth, this new world view, expressed in the verses that we heard from Ephesians today. In that context, people were divided into two basic groups. There were Jews and there were Gentiles. Separate. And not equal. In the new community that was forming around the teachings of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles were equally welcome. All were invited to be part of this new faith community. There was to be no division between these two long-separate groups. They were to come together in this new reality formed around this new myth. As we heard, “Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” Just a brief comment about the law and commandments. While these were intended to help people live with justice, by some they were used to create a hierarchy and a division between those who lived by the law, the Jews, and those who did not, the Gentiles. So they became a construct of separation and division. But these verses from Ephesians show us that the community which formed around Jesus was a community living by new myths creating a radically new reality. This is a concrete expression of the hopes and dreams of Easter. New life. Transformation. The overcoming of division and hostility. The triumph of love. Peace.

So when we look at our circumstance and our context we see that as Christians we are called to work for the transformation of society. We believe that it is possible to live by new myths. The way of Jesus shows us that there can be a new way of humanity living together in peace. We can replace the myth of redemptive violence with new myths of peace.

While humanity has accepted that war is a noble way to protect property, values, and culture and that it is an acceptable way to resolve conflicts, our Christian faith teaches us that we can change those ideas. We can accept that that was the way of the past. And that it was what was thought to be good. But now we are choosing a different way which we believe is better for humanity now.

We can give thanks for those who have served in the military and especially those who have died in war. We can honor their sacrifice for the cause of good. We can celebrate their love of country. And we should. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change the myths and create a culture of peace. We did not get this way overnight; it took centuries and centuries and it will not be changed overnight. This is not work that is going to be done in a lifetime but that does not mean it is not work that should be done.

To create a culture of peace, to transform the myths that define human society, takes effort, commitment, resources, training, advertising, technology, social media, and everything else we can muster. If Pentagon funding is matched with funding for a “Peacagon” a lot of progress could be made toward redirecting our culture and the world, honoring the past, and creating a new future of peace. New songs, new stories, new symbolism, and new art are needed. Peace needs to be taught, cultivated, and celebrated. As Martin Luther King, Jr. advised, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.”

As Christians, our faith reminds us of what is possible. We celebrate transformation and new life. Jesus shows us how new myths can transform human relationships and society.

At picnics, concerts, parades, and gatherings this weekend we celebrate with family and friends our country, our system of government, and the beauty of this land. We enjoy those things that our veterans and those in the military serve to protect. We honor those who have given their lives. Because of their sacrifice, we can use our freedom and our way of life and our form of government to make change. We live in a context where we can work for peace, where we can change the conversation, where we can transform the myths and assumptions and stories that shape and form our collective society. We can honor the memory of those who have died by exercising the freedom that they have given to us by working for peace.

May we love our country so much that we will devote ourselves to its healing and transformation to a culture of peace. Stanley Baldwin, former British Prime Minister and politician between World War 1 and World War 2 declared: “War would end if the dead could return.” May we honor the dead by creating a culture of peace. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon Easter Festival 4.16.17

Love on the Loose

Date: April 16, 2017 Easter Festival Service
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

When you hear the name Serena Williams, one thing comes to mind, right? Tennis. She is known for being one of the premier tennis players in the world.

Bill Nye is famous for, of course, science. I bet he’ll be at the science march in Washington, D.C. next Saturday.

If you follow soccer, then of course you know Cristiano Ronaldo, forward for Real Madrid and the Portuguese National Team.

Michelle Obama is famous for being first lady. She won the hearts of people the world over and she promoted healthy eating and exercise.

J. K. Rowling was unknown, until Harry Potter. Now she is famous for the world of wizarding that she created in her books.

Stephen Hawking has brought theoretical physics into mainstream thought and conversation. That is what he is famous for.

Jamie Foxx is famous for being an actor and comedian.

When we hear of Malala Yousafzai, we know she is famous for promoting education, especially education for girls around the world. And for being the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Different people are famous for different things.

So, each Sunday we come to church and we talk about Jesus. We remember him more than 2000 years after he lived. Why is Jesus famous? What is he known for?

Jesus is known as a teacher who taught people about God and life and being good. We are told that he healed people. He is famous for that. There are stories that tell us that Jesus fed people. So, Jesus is famous for that. Jesus was crucified, as were thousands of other people, but he is certainly famous for that. There are stories that tell us of Jesus being raised from the dead so Jesus is known for the resurrection. All of these different things are important. Maybe keeping all of these things in mind, we could say that Jesus is famous for being loving. He is known for his love for God, for his family, for his friends, and maybe what makes him really famous is that he is known for loving those who did not like him or did not agree with him. He is known for loving his enemies and opponents. He is even known for loving and forgiving the people who were responsible for his death. So, I think we can say that Jesus is famous for his extraordinary commitment to love.

We are told that after Jesus died, his body was put in a tomb, like a cave, with a large rock in front of the opening. People thought that was the end of Jesus. It was all over. It was the end of all of that love that he was famous for. Finished. But the Bible stories tell us that the stone was rolled away from the opening of the tomb. The tomb was empty. The love got out. It was released back into the world. God’s love can’t be stopped.

Jesus’ friends and followers thought Jesus was dead and gone and his love with him. But they got together and talked about Jesus. The reminded themselves of their experiences with him. Remember when he did this . . . I’ll never forget the time he did that . . . And they kept up doing what they had done with him: Taking care of each other, praying, healing, sharing stories, and they recognized that the love was still there. It was among them. It was within them. It was in the world. Jesus’ love wasn’t dead and buried. It was still a powerful force in the world. In fact, it even seemed like it was getting stronger.

Easter is a celebration of the Divine Love that is stronger than death; love that cannot be killed and buried. Easter is held in the spring because this is the time, especially in places where there is a very cold winter, that the plants come back to life, and leaves come back onto the once bare trees, and flowers appear from the cold, hard, ground. The new life of spring emerging from winter is a powerful image of life emerging from death. Love may be dormant but it is never dead and gone.

Jesus, famous for his loving, changed the world. And love is still changing the world today. Love inspires people to work together for peace even in the most difficult situations. Love is at work for healing in the world. Love is making things more fair for everyone. Love is helping us learn to take better care of the Earth. The power of love seeps in through even the smallest crack. Love invades with the force of thousands of voices raised. Love can always find a way. The power of love is loose in the world; it cannot be stopped.
It isn’t fading. It isn’t evaporating. It can’t be gathered up and put away. It can’t be deleted. It can’t be erased. It can’t be contained and buried and stored. Even in a remote location. It will get out. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. There is simply no stopping God’s love. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon Easter Sunrise 4.16.17

“From Fear to Courage”

Date: Easter Sunrise April 16, 2017
Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

We are told that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them made their way to the burial place of the body of Jesus. The women are not only afraid, but we are told that they were “terrified.”

Some think the women may have been afraid for their safety. Their beloved teacher, Jesus, had just been killed. Were their lives in danger? Would the soldiers guarding the tomb arrest them?

When a traitor or a rebel was involved in an armed attack on the Roman Empire, the leader and all the followers were killed. In the case of Jesus, only Jesus was killed. His followers were left alone. So we know that his challenge to the authorities was not violent, and his followers were not at risk of being put to death.

We are also told that the women stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion, unlike the men who fled. In Matthew we read: “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (Matt. 27:55-56) If the women were wanted by the law, they could have been arrested at the cross. And they weren’t.

Yet we are told the women were afraid. The women were coming to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with herbs and spices. They were there to carry out the proper burial rites. Even the Romans had respect for the dead. And these were women. No one much cared what they did. The woman were afraid but probably not for their personal safety. It doesn’t appear they were risking their lives by going to the grave to tend to the body of Jesus.

And yet they were afraid; not just grief-stricken and distraught but terrified.

Why were they afraid? Maybe they were afraid that it all was meaningless. That what they had experienced with Jesus was over. That everything would just go back to the old normal. I think they were afraid about the future. They had left home, family, social ties, religious community, to be part of this new experimental movement led by Jesus. The commitment and devotion were all-encompassing. Was it all over? What were they to do? How were they to go on?

It had been so intense. So strong. They had been so sure. And now? Were they afraid because their hopes had been shattered? Were they utterly despairing of the future?

In the story, the women go and tell the other disciples of their experience at the tomb. They tell the disciples that the presence of Jesus is still with them. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Matt. 27:5) It’s not over. But their story is labeled an “idle tale.” Their witness is not taken seriously. Why should they bother? We can imagine that they are afraid – of being laughed at, mocked, ridiculed, ineffectual and ignored.

So, it takes courage for these women to face their fears. To examine their hearts. And then to find the courage within themselves to proceed. The way the resurrection stories are told, if it were not for the courage of the women, going and telling, we might not be here this morning or any Sunday morning. They were very brave making a witness for their truth, for an alternative reality, for a different future for themselves and for the world. They trusted their experience and overcame their fears.

We need the inspiration of these women. We live in fearful times. We know what it is to be afraid. Our faith is calling us to be witnesses to the alternative reality shown to us by Jesus; to live not for ourselves but for the common good. We are needed to embody and enact the commonwealth of God. We are needed to speak the truth of love, compassion, and justice. Our voices are needed to confront greed, ignorance, hatred, fear, lust for power, violence, and self absorption, just as Jesus did. Like the women, we need to speak out in spite of the resistance we encounter. And that takes courage. We need to be brave and take risks so that the realm of heaven may be experienced among us, here on Earth, as it was by the women who went to the tomb.

This morning we reflect on the Easter pilgrimage from fear to courage and new life. We think about our call to share our experience of Jesus. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon 4.2.17 “Dead Again”

Scripture Lesson: Ezekiel 37:1-14

A pile of dry bones. That’s about as absolute as you can get. Dead. No life. Over and done. Final. That’s the scene we are given in Ezekiel.

These bones indicate the death not only of individual people but of a society. Of the people of Israel. Of the Temple and worship in Jerusalem. Of the monarchy. It’s all over. Brought down by super power politics in a military defeat. The result of ethnic nationalism and idolatry manifested in violent crime and oppressive economics. Kind of sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The people of Israel, those that are still alive, anyway, have been driven from their homes, their land, and scattered. It is the end of the world as they knew it.

A pile of dry bones. The story makes sure to get the message across by telling us that the bones were “very dry.” No life. No hope. No future.

In the story the prophet is asked by God, “Can these bones live?” We can imagine Ezekiel thinking, “What kind of a question is that? Of course a pile of dry bones scattered out here in the wilderness cannot live.” Then trying to think of a diplomatic way to parlay the question. Ah, toss it back to God. “Can these bones live?” “You know.” Whew. Dodged that one!

The next thing we know, the prophet is instructed to prophesy over the bones. Again, can’t you hear the little voice in the prophet’s head: “Why are you doing this? This is ridiculous. This is absurd. Talking to dead, dry bones all in heap in the middle of nowhere.” But the prophet follows instructions. And – “. . . suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. . . and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.”

We are told of the bodies but they are not animated. There is no breath in them. So, reminiscent of Genesis, in this re-creation story, we are told of the breath entering the bodies: “Thus says the Sovereign God: ‘Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live’ . . . and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

Ezekiel and the people of Israel who are left get the message. Don’t limit God. Don’t presume to think that you know the power of God. God is more powerful than the Empire that annihilated Israel. God is more powerful than fear. God is more powerful than death. God is more powerful than all the evil we can imagine.

And the story tells us, in graphic terms, that God is free. What the people have or have not done does not control God. However Israel got to the point of defeat and exile, God is going to do what God is going to do. God is completely free. No limitations. No constraints.

Like the people of Israel in the story from Ezekiel, we too, face death on many fronts. We face the death of our bodies, the end of our span on Earth. We face the death of loved ones. On top of that we are confronted with the death of our familiar lifestyle and assumptions. Our society is stressed to breaking. We live in a culture of violence. We see the inequities of our economic arrangements. We see the erosion of the commonly held values of honesty, decency, and civility. People around the globe, including within the United States, are forced to flee violence, famine, and changing environmental conditions facing the end of their world as they knew it. There is the looming collapse of the natural world as we know it. It may not be in our lifetime, but our grandchildren or great grand children will face a very different reality.

But Ezekiel tells us that in the mysterious power and freedom of God, there is the possibility of new life. Whatever the circumstances. There is a power in the universe, call it God, call it love, call it Oneness, call it Life, that is stronger than anything we can dish up.

This Lenten season, as we think about migrating closer to God, to our center, to the heart of the universe, we must remember that we are talking about mystery, freedom, and power that we do not control; that cannot be domesticated to suit our cultural proclivities, our sensibilities, and our assumptions.

God is not restricted and limited to what is in the Bible or to what the church has said about God.

We are reminded of a bigger God – a God not just of the US. Not just of capitalism. Not just of Christianity. Those are strong influences that shape our identity. But in God, those are small considerations. Our tradition shows us a God always powerful and free to do something new that is life giving and life affirming. Newness, beyond our imagination is possible. Not limited by our small sights.

To move closer to God, don’t hang on. Let go.

God, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow – yes! Powerful and free! Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon 3.12.17 “To Bless the Earth”

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Who wants to move at, say, 98 years old? That’s a time when a person is well-established in their surroundings and relationships. Life is familiar and comfortable. Move? Why would you want to move? Well, maybe it would not be too bad if you were moving to a wonderful community like Lake Seminole Square – a place where one can easily make friends in a safe, welcoming environment where all your needs are met. Maybe that would be ok. But generally speaking, moving at that stage of life is not something most people would find appealing.

In the scripture from Genesis, we heard a story of God telling Abram that it is time to move. Abram is 75, we are told, which would be really old for those times given the life expectancy. But God is asking him to move to a whole new territory, a new life, and a new culture with Sarai, his wife, and his servants, flocks and herds. And Abram is told that he will have many descendants which is another surprise considering he has no children yet. God is introducing something new into the human drama. This new community is to be a blessing to all the families of Earth. And, Abram and Sarai are to lead this new endeavor even though they are well past the age of retirement.

So Abram and Sarai, head out on this new adventure. Why? To bless all families of the Earth. All families. Blessed. Thriving. Flourishing. At peace. All families of Earth. That’s the dream. And so they go.

Throughout history, and certainly throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, people have been called to migrate not only from one place to another physically, but also from old ideas and old ways to new expressions of faith that bring Divine blessing to all of Creation. Changing times and circumstances call for new kinds of thinking about God and faith. Christianity has been migrating for 2000 years. It has adapted to new circumstances and cultures: Jewish, Middle Eastern, African, European and Asian, so that it can be a blessing in all of these different cultures and contexts.

Christianity has also made a significant migration from being a small, fringe religion to being the dominant religion of a major Empire. This change enabled Christianity to influence the empire but the empire also influenced Christianity.

Christianity has had to migrate and adapt as social realities have changed and as scientific knowledge has expanded human understanding. Archeological discoveries, linguistic discoveries, new knowledge in the fields of biology and astronomy, as well as other disciplines, have all influenced Christianity, which is always adapting and changing as humanity develops.

Given this ongoing process of migration and adaptation, I would like to share with you some of my thinking about how Christianity might migrate and move forward so that it can be a blessing to all families of Earth and all of Creation.

One thought is that for the church to be part of blessing the whole world and all families of the Earth, the church needs to embrace religious diversity. The God of the universe, of the cosmos, of black holes and deep space, of eukarya, archaea, and bacteria, is a God of diversity and mystery. So it only makes sense that people would respond to the Love at the heart of Creation, in many ways leading to the formation of different religions just like we have different languages and cultures.

This morning we heard about Abram who, the story goes, has two sons. One branch of the family is part of the Jewish tradition. From the other branch of the family, Islam emerges. It just seems too controlling and restrictive to confine Divinity to one religious expression.

So I think one of the challenges for Christianity is to let go of idea that it is the only one true, valid, religion, a claim that originally emerged to serve different circumstances. Today, I think we need to show acceptance and understanding of other religions. We need to be respectful and work with others in mutuality. It is time to end the condescension that Christians sometimes show toward people of other faiths and no faith if we want to be a blessing to all of Creation.

Another direction I think the church needs to migrate is hinted at in the Nicodemus story. At the end we hear that famous line, “God so loved the world.” I think Christianity needs to move toward being focussed on love for the world, the whole world, and all of Creation. This includes the land, the rocks, the waters, the air, the planets, the stars, the atmosphere, the molds, the trees, the grasses, the birds, the fish, the animals, all of life and all of material reality because all of it is the self disclosure of God. All of it is beloved.

We are part of a web of life dependent on other species and on the land and water and air for survival. I think we need to be thinking about and expressing our faith in terms of the salvation of Creation not just humanity. We need to move away from our anthropocentrism which focuses the expression of Divine Love primarily, if not exclusively, on the human condition. We need to think about more than Jesus calling people to a transformed life and loving our human neighbor. I believe the church is being called to expand its horizons beyond love for humanity to love for all of Creation. This involves thinking about revering, honoring, serving, and respecting all of Creation and its creatures. I think the church needs to migrate toward putting the God of Creation back at the center of Christianity.

Another new direction I think about for the church is perhaps the most difficult to talk about. The church has been called to be part of blessing all families of Earth. Its mission is to love the whole world, all of it. This is an all inclusive, expansive, and universal vision. Social scientists, anthropologists, linguists, and theologians are helping us to see the difficulties of fulfilling that calling when the God of our faith is predominantly imaged as male. Yes, we say that God is not really any gender. God is spirit. Male terminology is just a default setting because of the limitations of language. But we have come to learn that language has the power to form and shape culture and understanding. God as male morphs into male as God.

In practice, a male God doesn’t end up blessing all of Creation. A male God ends up being used to endorse male domination of human social arrangements. I don’t think this was an intentional strategy of oppression on the part of the church or of men. It is just something that evolved. The power attributed to men in a system with a male God ended up being used to dominate and subjugate women. Just recently, we saw the silencing of Elizabeth Warren reading the words of Coretta Scott King. Women. Silenced. By men. We read of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, Jameis Winston, telling the students at an area elementary school, “All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down. But all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time: I can do anything I put my mind to. . . But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men are supposed to be strong.” [Tampa Bay Times 2/23/17, 6A] There you have it again. Men strong and running things, women, silent.

When the Constitution said all men are created equal, that’s what it meant – all men. Not women. Black men got the right to vote in America in 1870. Women of any color did not get the right to vote until 50 years later in 1920. This week we heard about thousands of women around the world participating in International Women’s Day on March 8. Why? Because women still don’t have equal rights. And the whole system which keeps men bound and limited as well as women, is enmeshed with male language for God.

When God is a he, you get a social system where men are considered superior and women inferior, and that is considered the natural order of things.

Scholars tell of the benefits to society when women and men are equal. There are benefits for the health of the species, for the economy, for peace, for the flourishing of human civilization, but patriarchy persists undergirded by the use of male language for God. I would like to see the world after 100 years of no male language or imagery for God in any religion. I think we would be much closer to the kind of world that Jesus had in mind for all people.

So I believe that the church needs to take seriously migrating away from male language for God toward new imagery that does not make God into some kind of male super hero. Then Christianity will increase its potential for being a blessing to all of Creation.

We, as individuals live, learn, and grow throughout our life cycle. We mature and adapt and change as our life journey progresses. We learn from our experiences and are in a continual process of adaptation. So it is with Christianity. As time goes on, and circumstances change, and we learn new things, our religious ideas must change and adapt so that our faith can continue to be a blessing to all of Creation. We in the church are responsible for saying yes, and being part of the migration of our faith into new territory which will be a blessing to all.

Some of you know that Lloyd Conover, of our church family died yesterday. Lloyd invented tetracycline, the antibiotic which was so effective in medical treatment. Until that point, antibiotics were grown and harvested from mold. They were made from naturally occurring substances. Lloyd, a chemist, believed that they could be created synthetically – which would make them much easier to produce and more readily available. He studied this and thought it was possible. It is notable that the others in his lab did not agree. They did not think this was possible and they did not support his research and efforts. He was pretty much on his own. And he eventually succeeded. And other drugs have been created building on his work, again increasing the effectiveness of medical treatment and healing. But Lloyd was an outlier. He did not have the support and encouragement of his colleagues.

This reminds us that sometimes when we venture into new territory, we must blaze the way. We may not have the encouragement and support of those around us.

When we think about the two stories we heard this morning, we remember Abram and Sarai, who said yes to migration and ventured into new territory. They were willing to be part of forming a new community intended to be a blessing to all families of Earth. And we think of Nicodemus who was also invited to migrate in his religious beliefs and understandings and he held back. He was not ready to move forward.

Today, we see the problems of the world. We see the violence, the war, the shootings. We see the tensions in international relations. We see conflict between religions and cultures. We see economic problems facing communities and countries. We see educational challenges and environmental devastation. And we want to be part of the healing. Part of the migration to a world where all may flourish in peace. So let us look for those new paths. Make needed adaptations. Embrace changes. So that we may be a blessing to all of Creation. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon 2/26/17 The Mountain Top Experience

Date: Feb. 26, 2017
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 17:1-9
Sermon: The Mountain Top Experience
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Our world grew this week. Our reality got bigger. And that is not just because the Universe is expanding. Astronomers from the US and Belgium found 7 new planets about the size of Earth orbiting a single star named Trappist-1 less than 40 light years away. Given the location of the planets, their size, and the size of Trappist-1, it is very possible that there may be life on several of these planets. NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen says that this discovery, “gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when.” [Tampa Bay Times, 2/23/17, “Earth-size planets found orbiting a single star,” 3A] This is very exciting for the advancement of human knowledge and self understanding. We are closer than ever to finding other life forms beyond Earth. This is amazing. Our horizons are continuing to expand. Or so we would hope.

You see it is very important to know and understand how we are part of a bigger picture, a larger reality, a cosmic drama. Since ancient times, God, Divinity, Holiness, and the Sacred, have been associated with mountains and high places. Think Mount Olympus of Greek mythology. Think Mount Sinai of the Jewish tradition. Think the Sermon on the Mount. Think Mount Everest which is sacred to the cultures that live nearby. High up – Sacred, Divine, Holy.

From a high place, you get a large perspective. You can see for a long way. You get a sense of the broad scope of reality. A vast vista. You get a feeling for your place in the big picture of things – Creation, history, geography, and culture. This perspective, the big picture, helps us to know how we fit in, where we belong, and how to properly understand who we are.

This morning we listened to a story of how Jesus, at a crucial point in his life and ministry, heads up a mountain. He is seeking God; direction from God, confirmation from God, and affirmation from God. He wants to see the big picture, the wider scope of things.

This story is placed after Jesus has told his disciples that he is to be killed. They are understandably horrified at this prospect. Their beloved leader. The one for whom they have left home and family. The one who has shown them the commonwealth of God and invited them to be part of that reality. How can he be killed? What will become of those who are left? Does that mean the end of everything? Have they misplaced their trust? Bet on the wrong horse? How can that be? The scene on the mountain conveys the message that Jesus is in line with the Law and the Prophets. The same words that are mentioned at Jesus’ baptism are mentioned in the story on the mountain. “This is my child, my Beloved.” With an added instruction: “Listen to him.” This story functions to confirm the identity and validity of Jesus as a faithful one of God; as a manifestation of Divine love. It is a scene of reassurance. In the midst of daily issues with the disciples and their lack of understanding and faith, in the face of the suffering and humiliation that lies ahead for Jesus, he is encompassed by God, living in God, part of the reality of God, part of the larger purposes of God to bless the entire Creation. We see how Jesus accepts that he is part of a much larger story.

It is important for us to remember the need to see the view from the mountain. So often we can get caught up in our own lives, our own realities, our own problems, that we ignore or worse yet intentionally discredit the larger view of reality. This kind of small scale thinking can lead to many problems. It can mean that we only see our own interests. And we advocate for those interests. And pursue those interests. Perhaps not seeing the wider ramifications that may not ultimately serve our own good or the good of the world.

An example comes from the agricultural sector. Farmers have been counseled to use toxic chemicals to deal with weeds and pests. This leads to greater crop yield. A good thing. So, thousands of tons of toxic substances are applied to field after field. The producers are happy to sell their products. The farmers are happy to be relieved of weeds and pests. But a wider view shows that the chemicals are poisoning the soil as well as poisoning water sources. They are causing health problems in animals, in plants beyond the field, and are a danger to human health. If we take the bigger view, we see the multiplicity of consequences and complexities involved and can make better choices.

As another example, we may look at pictures of polar regions and see amazing expanses of snow and ice. But satellite imaging and aerial photography over time show us the incredible depletion of glaciers and ice in polar regions. So, a view from above, over time, shows us a bigger picture. And tells a different story about what is happening with global warming.

Sometimes when we are having conflict in a relationship, with a family member, or with a neighbor, or at work, or even with someone at church, we may only be looking at the situation from one vantage point. Maybe if we take a bigger view, listen more, try to understand various perspectives, we can see more about what is going on. We can be better able to understand the conflict and strengthen the relationship when we take a larger view.

Seeing the bigger picture helps us to be people of integrity. Yes, we may want to be part of a world that is just, but taking the long view reminds us that we must use means that are consistent with the purposes of justice. We cannot achieve true and lasting justice through unjust means. We cannot create peace in the world through violence. It is not enough to be expedient. The means must be consistent with the ends for lasting transformation and change. This lesson we learn well from the farmworkers who will speak with us later this morning.

When we come to church each Sunday, in a way we are coming to seek that mountaintop view. We come here to remind ourselves again of the bigger picture: Of God’s intentions and purposes and character. Of our nature as human creatures created in the image of God. Of what it means to love ourselves, our neighbors, all of humanity, and all of Creation. We come to church to remind ourselves of this broader view so that we don’t become captive to the narrow interests of tribalism and self interest.

In the story of the Transfiguration, we are told of Jesus and several of his disciples having this mountain top experience, but then they head down the mountain. Jesus knows that the path will take him to Jerusalem where he will be confronted by the authorities which will lead to his death. The mountain top experience gives him an overall view which then guides his day to day behavior. This experience gives him the perspective and strength to face the challenges ahead. He will make choice after choice based on what he knows of the broader reality. He will be guided by the visions and dreams of God. He will trust God. Over self interest. Over safety. Over self preservation. Over the disillusionment of his followers. And the betrayal and desertion of his friends. Jesus keeps himself focussed on the bigger picture. The long term goal. The greater good. And absorbs the risks and costs.

To be God’s people, to be faithful followers of Jesus, to fulfill our purpose in life, to find meaning and direction on the journey, we need that big picture, that long view, that mountain top inspiration. It doesn’t give us all the answers. We still have to find our way, but it helps us to maintain our focus on what is truly important and it strengthens our alignment with the purposes of God for all of Creation.

On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at The Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, TN. In that sermon, King talks about the long view. He mentions the, “panoramic view of the whole human history up to now.” King mentions how people are rising up not just in the southern United States, but all over the world, “in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City,” and of course, the South. King saw a human rights revolution erupting around the globe and he knew that what was going on in the southern United States was an expression of a much larger human longing. King could see what was going on in Memphis within the scope of human history and as part of a global movement. There was a much bigger picture. He got his understanding, his sense of purpose, his self identity, and his strength from that vast vista. Listen to how he ends his sermon, the last sermon of his life, the sermon delivered the night before he was killed:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

[From “I See the Promised Land” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, p. 286]

May we take in that mountain top view. For then we, too, will be able to shine love’s pure light without fear. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon February 12, 2017 Spiritual Evolution

Scripture Lessons: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 and Matthew 5:21-37
Sermon: Spiritual Evolution
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In December of 1831, the HMS Beagle set off from England on a voyage to chart the coastline of South America. On board, as naturalist and geologist, was Charles Darwin who was born on Feb. 12, 1809. The journey was projected to take 2 years. It took 5. In those 5 years, Darwin did geological study and collected natural history specimens including fossils. Darwin made drawings, took measurements, and kept extensive notes on his travels, which as we know included the Galapagos Islands. The expedition returned to England in 1836.

In the years following the voyage Darwin continued his study of his findings on the trip. And he pursued additional investigations as a naturalist. He examined the evidence and information that he was amassing. He looked for the ideas and explanations that were emerging from the data.

Up to that point, the accepted view was that each species was created in its final form as we know it. The religious view was that God created each species individually. All the biodiversity on Earth came from the hand of a creator God, species by species, one by one.

Darwin and others were seeing the relationships and connections between species and their studies led them to see that species were not independent and unrelated but that they were related and connected, evolving and changing over time.

Finally, after many years of investigation and exploration, in 1859, 23 years after the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin, in collaboration with Alfred Russell Wallace, published a paper entitled, “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.” Later that year, Darwin’s full views about natural selection were presented in On Origin of Species. Darwin made the case for what we know as the theory of evolution. That was in 1859. By the 1870’s, Darwin’s views on natural selection and evolution were widely accepted.

The basic understanding is that species adapt and change over time in light of changing circumstances and conditions in the environment. Genetic traits that promote the survival of the species persist. Traits that are detrimental to the perpetuation of the species do not. Through this process of change new species emerge and some species go extinct. This is a natural on-going process that is part of the dynamic ever-changing environment. Change and adaptation are part and parcel of Creation which is in a constant state of flux.

Just as plants and animals adapt and change, so humans, too, are evolving and changing both biologically and culturally. For instance, the appendix is getting smaller and smaller as humans evolve. It is disappearing because it no longer serves a useful purpose. So, at some point in the future, it may be that people are born without an appendix.

In addition to the biological evolution of human beings, we also see that human culture is evolving and changing over time. This, too, contributes to the perpetuation of the species. There was the harnessing of the power of fire. There was the development from being hunter-gatherers, to settled agriculture. There was the age of fossil fuels which powered industrialization. Human culture is continually adapting, changing, and evolving.

We also see the evolving of religion in the history of humanity. In past times, people thought the world was controlled by gods who had different jobs. One was in charge of rain. One took care of the thunder. There was a god of the sun and a god of the moon. People believed in many different gods that were doing different things to keep the world running. Humans believed they could influence these gods to their benefit.

With Judaism, we see the emergence of the first form of monotheistic religion, religion with just one God. And Christianity and Islam emerge from that. There has also been the emergence of many other religions. These religions emerge to meet the spiritual needs of people in varying circumstances as humanity develops. Religion adapts to the ever advancing human understanding of the world and nature and science. As humanity has grown and progressed intellectually, religion has adapted accordingly. Or it should.

In our religious tradition, we see the process of evolution at work. Jesus was Jewish. In the scripture that we heard today, Jesus references traditional Jewish teaching about murder. Thou shalt not kill. Jesus builds on this. He doesn’t replace it, he takes it further. He affirms that our religious ideas are growing, changing, and deepening as humanity moves forward.

Sure, it is fine to have a teaching that we should not murder or kill. But Jesus adds to this the challenge to look at what causes killing and murder. Anger. Hatred. Strife. So he encourages people to deal with their conflicts in a constructive manner. Don’t just “not kill.” Work out your problems. Learn to get along with others. Pursue reconciliation before you are thinking about killing someone. And the sooner this happens the better. The longer we wait, the more difficult it can become. We are to work out our differences and to pursue right relationship with others. He is encouraging reconciliation not exploitation or violence.

Jesus’ message is basically the same when it comes to marriage. Sure, there are legal standards around marriage. There is what is lawful. But Jesus is encouraging people to do what is good and true. He is viewing marriage not as a property transaction but as a human relationship of mutuality, dignity and respect.

As for a vow, if you have to take a vow to make sure you are not lying, the presumption is that the rest of the time, you may very well be lying. Jesus is saying don’t lie. Ever. So you don’t have to worry about taking a vow. Be true all the time.

What Jesus is showing us is the evolution from needing rules to keep us from harming each other to offering teaching that shows us how to get along with each other and live as brothers and sisters in communities that foster life and creativity. Jesus is showing us how to transition from a basic view of “don’t do the bad,” to “do the good.” It’s not enough not to hate, we must love one another, even those we consider an enemy. Jesus is drawing upon the traits of his religious tradition that he feels are needed to advance the perpetuation of the species. He is offering what is good for the continuing future of humanity.

In a time of extreme conflict and challenge, Abraham Lincoln drew upon those teachings to foster the perpetuation of the United States, its people and ideals. Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, the same day and year as Darwin. While Darwin was busy helping us to understand how species develop biologically, Lincoln shows us how a species develops morally. He is a great teacher of the practicalities associated with the moral evolution of humanity that we are taught by Jesus. While Lincoln was not much for church, he was an avid reader of the Bible and very much committed to the teachings of Jesus including the teaching that we heard this morning.

Lincoln was committed to the hard work of being in right relationship with others personally, in society, as a nation, and in international affairs. We see this carried out by Lincoln who said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” He applied this in all circumstances including war and peace.

In addition, Lincoln very specifically selected a cabinet that included people with differing points of view, from each other, and from Lincoln himself. Lincoln believed in the honest sharing of a diversity of ideas and perspectives. Through this give and take, he felt that a better result would emerge. From conflicting viewpoints better policy could be created. Lincoln wanted to learn from others and felt that a diverse cabinet would best serve him and the nation. You can read more about this in the book, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In Lincoln, we see the commitment to reconciliation over exploitation especially in the aftermath of the Civil War. We remember those great words of his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In this address, we see Lincoln’s desire not so much to win a war as to win a peace. And he knows that to win peace means pursuing reconciliation with the South. That will require compassion and generosity. It must be based on respect and dignity. This is not how those who win a war typically treat the loser of the war. What is customary is for the loser to be punished, debased, stripped of power, agency and resources; exploited. Lincoln would have none of that. He exhibits the commitment to making things right with the South in accordance with the teaching that we heard from the Gospel this morning. Lincoln tells us, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

Lincoln was very much inspired by the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. And we see the ethics of Jesus borne out in Lincoln’s life and work. It is for this that he is revered and remembered, though, sadly, not enough emulated.

We see Lincoln drawing upon the traits of Christianity that he feels will best serve the good of the world. In him we see the evolution of Christianity as a force for good not just in the North, or in the United States, but in the world. And this leadership is based on the Bible. But notice that Lincoln chooses carefully what teachings in the Bible to follow. He could have followed teachings in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament that would have supported punishing the South. Taking the spoils of the South. Degrading and demeaning the South. Lincoln could have impugned the South with threats of the fires of hell and burning for eternity. There are plenty of verses in the Bible that Lincoln could have drawn upon to support that agenda. But just as biological species evolve and change and adapt to ensure survival, religion changes to meet the challenges of the circumstances that it confronts. Lincoln knew that vindictiveness and revenge were not going to promote the survival of the United States of America. And so he chose carefully from the Christian tradition the traits that would best serve the interests of survival and peace at the moment and into the far future.

The church has always been involved with choosing from its heritage what to preserve and what to let go of to meet the current situation. The church has always been choosing what traits to carry on and what traits to let go of. This is nothing new. Jesus came for the good of the world. The church exists for the good of the world. So it is incumbent upon the church to always be seeking how to serve the good of the world in the current circumstance. And we have a rich heritage to draw upon.

Today, the world needs a witness to right relationship, to dignity and respect, to truth and integrity. The world needs to be shown how to engage in reconciliation. Our first response seems to be weapons and conflict and violence when there is a problem. The world needs a world view; looking at what is in the best interests of the world, not just one people, one country, one place, but the world needs a planetary perspective including all of Creation. Given our technology, weaponry, mobility, and the rampant greed around us the world need the witness of the expansive moral vision of Jesus now more than ever.

We see Darwin and Lincoln giving the world their best for the good of the world. We see them giving the world their best intellectual capacity, their best creativity, their best moral vision. In their own way, they are contributing to the perpetuation of the species. The church needs to be giving the world the best it has to offer.

It is in the DNA of the church to be an agent of reconciliation and right relationship not only between people, but between humanity and the natural world, plants, animals, land, water, and space. The church must draw upon those traits for they are necessary for the survival of the world and offer them as a bold witness.

We are living in a time of strained relationships from the court room to the board room to the situation room to the bedroom. In decades and centuries to come, looking back upon these days, will the church be remembered as a spiritual infant, an image we are given in Corinthians? Will the church be remembered for promoting a faith of prohibitions. Don’t do this. Don’t’ do that. Avoid evil. Will the church be remembered for promoting intimidation and threat? Don’t do that or you’ll spend eternity rotting in hell. Do this if you want to go to heaven and live for eternity in paradise. Will the church be remembered for fostering inequality and division?

Or will the church be remembered for preserving the traits of our heritage that promote universal love and extraordinary reconciliation? Will the church be remembered for its spiritual maturity embracing the full scope of the ethics and teachings of the Jewish Jesus?

In biology, when traits are no longer serving the survival of the species, they adapt or the species becomes extinct. In culture, when practices and attitudes no longer serve the future interests of the community, they are left behind. So it is with religion as well. Aspects of our tradition that are no longer useful, that no longer serve the good of the whole Creation need to be jettisoned. The church has significant traits to offer to the world that can definitely contribute to the survival of humanity and the planet. Will the church continue its evolution and perpetuate those traits? If the church ceases to exist in a significant way, we will know that the church was not serving its purpose. That it did not allow adaptation and natural selection to work.

Christianity has been opting for various traits since faith communities began gathering in the first century CE. Slight variations to fit the circumstances. Slight differences being preserved so that the radical love and scandalous reconciliation of the way of Jesus will continue to be enfleshed for the good of the world. Our religious tradition is needed to be a source of good news, new life and the transformation of creation into the paradise God intends for it to be. May the church encourage the process of natural selection and continue to evolve and contribute to the good of the world.
Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Lincoln Speaks Today

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1809

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a Nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

In a letter to Kentucky friend, Joshua F. Speed, 1855

“In times like the present men should utter nothing for which they could not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”

To Congress, December 1, 1862

These two quotes come from The Living Words of Abraham Lincoln: Selected Writings of a Great President, 1967, with a foreward by Carl Sandburg.

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Sermon – Feb. 5, 2017 Salt and Light

Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It seems like many people I talk to feel out of kilter, adrift, and disoriented. Maybe the pictures of people being turned away at airports under the temporary travel ban on certain Muslim countries hit home because in some sense we feel troubled, alienated, and dispossessed as America we knew it seems to be eroding. . . I imagine that for people who support what is going on, the protests and demonstrations seem confusing. People are supposedly getting what was voted for, why are they agitating so passionately? In any case, many feel disoriented.

In a 1995 commentary about the Isaiah lesson for today, a Biblical scholar remarks, “There are clues here about rehabilitation of a society in disarray!” [Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on NRSV – Year A, Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, and Newsome, p. 129] How appropriate for us today!

In the book, The Sellout: A Novel, by Paul Beatty, which won the Man Booker prize, unusual for an American, the father of the main character, a psychologist, an eccentric sort, tells his son, “You have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? and How may I become myself?” [p. 250]

So in this time of shifting sands beneath us, we turn to the scriptures with these questions: Who am I? and How do I become myself? In the lesson from Matthew, Jesus tells us that we are salt and light. Notice we are told that Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. . . You are the light of the world.” [Emphasis added.] It doesn’t say, if you do this, then you will be the salt of the earth. If you believe that, then you will be the light of the world. It doesn’t say, you could be the salt of the earth. Or you might be the light of the world. It says, “You are the salt of the earth. . . You are the light of the world.” [Matthew 5: 13,14] That is who we are.

We are here today, in this church, some of us Christians, some Jewish, some Buddhist, some agnostic, some atheist, some “other,” because somehow, in some way, we have experienced the stirrings inside us telling us that we are salt and light. We have been called to, as theologian Carter Heyward puts it, “. . . join Jesus and many others in giving God a voice, giving God an embodied life on earth.” [Resources for Preaching and Worship Year A: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 66] We are here to enflesh love.

Now we know who we are. So we turn to, “How may I become myself?” How do we function as light and salt? How do we embody Divine love in the world, the world that we are in, the world as we know it, the world that is shifting under our feet, the world that seems to be becoming more and more divided?

From both Matthew and Isaiah, we hear that our calling is to make a difference in the world. We are to take action in the public realm. To make a concrete response to public issues, to human need, to dehumanization, oppression, and poverty. One scholar says it this way, “. . . the direct, immediate engagement with self and neighbor with clearheaded awareness of systemic issues.” [Texts for Preaching, p. 129]

I know that you are not the crowd that needs to be convinced of our call to do good in the world, make a difference, and show God’s love for all people. But sometimes we need help moving from our minds and hearts to our hands, feet, and wallets.

This week, I was inspired by the Rev. Bernard Lafayette who spoke at the University of South Florida. Rev. Lafayette was an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. In his last conversation with King on the day King was killed, King told Lafayette that they needed to take the movement from civil rights in the United States to human rights around the world. He told Lafayette that the agenda was to go global with nonviolent direct action. And Rev. Lafayette has spent his life doing just that leading workshops on nonviolent action around the world, including in Israel, Niger, and Columbia where he had to laugh when they referred to him as a “gringo.” In his remarks, Lafayette reminded us: “Don’t sit on the couch, the rocking chair, the floor, and grieve. . . Don’t be weak and pitiful and just complain. . . Don’t wait and see what’s going to happen next, make something happen. . . Look for cracks in the system and use your crowbar to pry. . . Don’t burn down the bus station.”

In these times of great challenge and peril, it can be hard to be salt and light, to be ourselves. We can feel so out of step with what is going on around us. In the face of fake news, alternative reality, deceit, lies, delusion, and the complexity of every problem that we face, we must resist the temptation to crawl under a rock! We are needed to be discerning and responsive, following in the way of Jesus. We know that to be salt and light is to act with love. It is, as one commentary suggests, to embody “unheard-of reconciliation, simple truth-telling, outrageous generosity, and love of one’s enemies.” [Texts for Preaching, p. 136]

It’s a challenge at the best of times. To do this, to embody “unheard of reconciliation, simple truth-telling, outrageous generosity, and love of one’s enemies,” to be salt and light, we want to keep three things in mind.

One is feed the soul. We need to be sure that we are feeding our souls and nourishing our spirits. This means coming to church, daily prayer, turning to scripture, meditating, journaling, walking the labyrinth, going on silent retreat, whatever it is that keeps you connected and grounded in the transcendent, the Divine, the greater good, the larger reality. Feeding the soul is critical to being salt and light.

And we want to keep in mind that there are many people who may feel the urging of God, the sense of the transcendent in their lives, but they are not connected to a faith community. They have not yet found a way to feed the soul through a church or religious community. They may be needing that connection now, and it is up to us to let people know about this church and invite people to see what is here because it may be just what they need to help them be the salt and light they are called to be. So don’t be shy about mentioning the church to your friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Let them know that being part of this church grounds you in your world view, your activism and your service. Invite others to come and see. This is another way of giving food to the hungry and clothes to the naked; it is meeting the core human needs of others.

So, we maintain our ability to be light and salt by nourishing the soul and that can take many forms. We also want to be clear that as we seek to stay grounded so that we can radiate Divine, universal, unconditional love, we may need to ration our intake of negativism, hate, and delusion. Yes, I am talking about turning off the news. Spending less time on Facebook and Twitter. Giving the radio a rest even if it is National Public Radio. And maybe even limiting exposure to certain people – friends and even family. The constant frenetic pace of unfolding events can lure us into being almost voyeuristic – we want to see what is going on. We don’t want to miss anything. But we have to exert our power to limit the negative material we allow to enter our beings or it will take us over. We are in danger of being overwhelmed, drowned, and held hostage. We want to maintain our freedom to stay true to our Divine calling as salt and light. We cannot let our light be put out and we cannot let our salt be trampled underfoot. So we must take responsibility for what enters our minds and hearts just as we do with our bodies. I know that I listen to NPR far less than I used to. I have stopped catching up on Twitter before I go to bed because I get too worked up to sleep well. And we need to be well-rested and in good form, physically and spiritually, to be the salt and light that we are needed to be right now.

So, we need to feed our souls, limit negative influences, and lastly, confront our fears. Much of what is going on around us is fear-driven. There are economic fears. There are fears of those who are different. There are fears of other countries. There are fears of losing freedoms. There are fears of hastening environmental collapse. There are fears of violent attack. There are fears around access to health care. Every day, there are more things for us to be afraid of. And when people are afraid, they give up control and power. And the darkness grows.

We are salt and light. Salt and light are naturally occurring, part of Creation, of God. Their power is derived from the Divine. As salt and light, we are powerful. Think of living without light. Or life without salt. We would die. Salt and light are images of power. Power that stands down fear.

In his remarks on Thursday night, Rev. Lafayette spoke of fear. He said, “You have to overcome the fear of death. Then you can operate nonviolently. You are going to die anyway. Don’t wait. Do some good. The greater fear is that you’ll die before you do some good.”

We are salt and light. We are to fulfill the vision presented in Isaiah:

“to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.
To share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house:
when you see the naked, to cover them. . .” [Isaiah 58:6-7]

We are needed in the world as the embodiment of God working for reconciliation, justice, compassion, and peace. For each and every individual. And for the whole Creation.

As we revisit the poetic words of the prophet Isaiah let us remember what is promised. He tells the people to give up their hollow, showy piety, and to get down to business caring for others, and creating a just society. In other words, be salt and light. But when the people are true to their God-given nature, when they fulfill God’s desires and intentions, then they experience the fullness of life. The prophet tells us:

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly,
God will guide you continually
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.” [Isaiah 58: 10-11]

When we are true to ourselves, when we are the salt and light we have been called to be, we find our deepest joy and strength. We find our highest good. We find our healing and wholeness.

The Gospel in Solentiname by Ernesto Cardenal shares the responses of a community of campesinos in rural Nicaragua to stories in the Gospels. It was written in 1976. In her response to the teaching about being the salt of the earth, Dona Adela, a little old woman, calls to mind the preservative properties of salt. With a weak voice, she says: “We are the salt of the world because we have been placed in it so the world won’t rot.” [p. 94] And we can add, so that we don’t rot with it. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon – Jan. 15, 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

Sermon: Taking the Plunge – Making a Pledge
Scripture: John 1: 29-42
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Jesus lived in a time when his people, the Jews, were being oppressed by the Romans. The Jews had their rights of self determination curtailed by the Romans. They were being exploited economically by the Romans. And their labor was being abused by the Romans. In first century Palestine, Roman rule was being imposed upon the Jews by force. Cooperation was mandated through intimidation. It was a system maintained by violence.

And in these circumstances, Jesus comes to foment rebellion: A rebellion of love rooted in justice for each and every person. Jesus knew that beloved community, community of mutual dignity and respect, cannot be created through violence means. The hopes and dreams of God cannot be fulfilled through violence.

When people use violence they are betraying the sacred image of God within themselves. They are defying their true, core identity as a human being. They are acting in contradiction to the divine love that is at the heart of life.

In addition, when violence is inflicted, it is a betrayal of the sacred image of the Divine in the ones who are harmed. It is a denial of the true, core identity of others. And this dynamic is present whatever the nature of the violence – domestic violence, economic violence, military violence, a barroom brawl, a playground scuffle, a shooting, drone bombings – it is all part of the dynamic of the betrayal and denial of the sacredness of life. And we all suffer for it: Those directly engaged in the violence as well as those who are part of the society in which the violence takes place. Violence takes its toll on everyone.

Jesus, as one wholly imbued with the Divinity of God, cannot advocate or engage in violence. To do so would be a betrayal of his identity, his humanity, and his God.

Jesus invites his followers to experience beloved community, the commonwealth of God. As we heard this morning, those who are wondering if Jesus is the Messiah are invited to “come and see.” Experience the community. See the behavior and values in practice. Hear the teachings. Then decide. While Jesus is a freedom fighter seeking the freedom of his people, he is committed to building the reign of God which embraces all people. And this can NEVER be achieved through violent means. To use violence to implement the realm of God is to deny the foundational premise of that realm. So Jesus never uses violence: Not against the everyday people who denied him. Not against the religious leaders who were afraid he was undermining their power and sought his death. And he never advocated the use of violence against the Romans who were occupying the country and denying the human rights of the Jews as well as extorting their money and labor. No violence. Period.

There were plenty of Jews who wanted to violently overthrow the Romans and kick them out of Palestine. There were people who wanted to violently rebel. But Jesus teaches, love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you. Do good to those who seek to harm you. He knew that was ultimately the way to convert and transform reality. Violence will always beget more of the same. Love has the power to transform. That’s what Jesus invited people to come and see. And they do. And, as we heard this morning, many follow.

This weekend we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While we are reminded that King was a civil rights leader, we want to remember that first and foremost, King was a Christian, and a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was a follower of Jesus. He was committed to the Gospel. In his book about King, Tavis Smiley describes King’s message as “justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates, no matter the cost.” (Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Year, Tavis Smiley with David Ritz, p. 4) That is a beautiful, concise description of the Gospel of Jesus. In the story of Jesus, King saw the parallels between the condition of the Negro in America and the situation of the Jews under the Roman Empire in first century Palestine. He also saw that Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence, in spite of the resistance around him, was the way of faithfulness in the face of oppression and injustice. King knew from Jesus that there was no way to justify the use of violence if you’re following Jesus. From Jesus, King knew that only love and nonviolence can transform an individual and bring forth our truest humanity. And only love and nonviolence can transform a society and bring forth justice and peace. That was the foundation of King’s life.

King pursued the commonwealth of God for all of creation through nonviolent means. He worked to eradicate racism, poverty, and militarism all through nonviolent action. Yes, it was practical since blacks would easily be outgunned and overpowered by whites, the poor by the rich. And nonviolence was a tool available to the masses. But it was not just practicality that motivated King’s commitment to nonviolence. It was the message of Jesus and the goal of authentic transformation. It was the moral demand that compelled King to root himself in nonviolence. And that commitment extended beyond gaining human rights for blacks to the protection of human rights for all people in all places.

In his famous sermon at The Riverside Church in New York, King declared his thorough going commitment to nonviolence as a moral commitment not just a convenient tactic for gaining rights for blacks: “They applauded us on the freedom rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise that I was saying be nonviolent toward Bull Connor. There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say be nonviolent toward Jim Clark, but will curse you and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children! There is something wrong with that.” (The King Years by Taylor Branch, p. 160)

The legacy of Dr. King reminds us that the gospel of nonviolence applies to all of life and all situations, personal as well as political and international. Life is life. And love is love. Regardless of the circumstances.

As we reflect on the Christian commitment to nonviolence, we want to remember that nonviolence is not about being passive and sitting back and accepting your fate. Nonviolence is not about sitting back and watching your favorite news channel, or being glued to your siloed newsfeed online. Nonviolence is about active engagement with people and power. It is about disarming injustice and oppression. Jesus was known for getting out and engaging with people, dealing with those considered enemies, engaging with foreigners, healing on the sabbath, telling stories about defying the power structures of the day. In a similar manner, King and those engaged in the civil rights movement were not sitting at home wringing their hands. They were organizing sit ins, protests, marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and voter registration drives. They were nonviolent, but they were not passive. They were taking direct action. And direct action was being taken against them. There were beatings, bombings, and murders. There were violent enemies of civil rights and Dr. King just as there were violent enemies of Jesus. Nonviolence does not necessarily guarantee personal safety at least not in the short run.

Knowing this, when there was going to be a civil rights action, the people were taught about nonviolence. They were schooled in the philosophy and the techniques of nonviolent resistance. And they were asked to take a pledge of nonviolence. There was much preparation for this and not every one agreed to it. In fact, only a small percentage of the people involved in the civil rights movement committed themselves to nonviolence. Maybe that is why the goals of the movement have yet to be realized.

It’s a big commitment, the commitment to nonviolence. We see what it cost Jesus. We know what it cost King and others who committed their lives to nonviolent social transformation. King reminds us that Christians desiring to follow Jesus must take seriously the commitment to nonviolent resistance. Following Jesus means seeking the transformation of ourselves, our communities, our religion, our country, and our world through nonviolent action.

When those involved in the civil rights movement were preparing for an action, they were asked to consider signing a pledge of nonviolence. That pledge is printed in your bulletin. Take a look at it. In a moment we will read it together. Notice that that the pledge was to be signed like a mortgage or a lease or a contract. It was a commitment. There is a space for noting Nearest Relative, yes, next-of-kin because there could be serious consequences to committing to nonviolence. This was not to be taken lightly. The pledge also included many ways to serve. Marching, demonstrating, and sitting in were not the only options. There was day to day work, background work that was important, too. The commitment to nonviolence was comprehensive.

We are just beginning a new year. It is a time of transition in our country as new lawmakers begins their service and a new administration moves into the White House. We are in the midst of a major transition in human history and development that won’t be understood until well into the future. We need to ask ourselves where we stand in relationship to injustice, oppression, inequity, and the violence and greed around us. Will we be passive observers? Or will we take seriously the model we have been given in Jesus as King did?

In our context, we hear Jesus’ invitation to come and see: Experience the transforming power of radical love. See the results of nonviolent action in pursuit of God’s dreams for Creation. Become part of passionate, active engagement with the world promoting a vision of universal justice. Work for the transformation and healing of individual lives, social arrangements, economic systems, educational settings, and religious institutions. Protect the planet itself. Come and see another way that honors the sacredness of life and trusts the power of love not weapons, might, fear, hatred and greed. Come and see. Find where you are being called. Look for where you can plug in. See where your voice needs to be heard. And take action. Nonviolent action. So that others may come and see the power of love. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Commitment Card

I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement.

Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:

Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

Remember always that the non—violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation
not victory.

Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.

Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.

Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.

Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.

Name______________________________________

Address____________________________________

Phone_____________________________________

Nearest Relative_____________________________

Address____________________________________

Besides demonstrations, I could also help the movement by (Circle the proper items): Run errands, Drive my car, Fix food for volunteers, Clerical work, Make phone calls, Answer phones, Mimeograph, Type, Print Signs, Distribute leaflets.

ALABAMA CHRISTIAN MOVEMENT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Birmingham Affiliate of S.C.L.C.
505 1/2 North 17th Street
F.L. Shuttlesworth, President

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Advent Devotion Christmas Eve 2016

untitled The Light Still Shines. This has been our theme for this Advent season and for these daily devotions. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the light of the world. We celebrate Jesus as a manifestation of Divine light.

We have explored how that light helps us to see the truth of our circumstances. It illuminates how things really are even when we don’t like what we see. We have thought about how the light invites us to change direction, turn, repent and live in a way more consistent with the intentions of God and the teachings of Jesus. We have examined the transformation needed for our well-being and the well-being of the world and the toll taken by avoiding change. We have considered the call to self giving and the need to keep at bay the lure of greed, selfishness, and arrogance. We have thought about how Jesus is a messenger telling us all that we need to know for the living of our days. We have sought out the way of Jesus, a way of compassion and joy.

Receiving the Light of the World requires soul searching and brutal honesty. It is an invitation to transformation when for the most part we don’t like change. But the result of committing to the way of Jesus, to following his light, is life. It is full, abundant life for ourselves. For others. And for Earth. It is peace and security that the world cannot take away.

Santa won’t have that in his sack. He won’t leave a package with that wrapped under the tree. He won’t stuff that in your stocking even if you are on the “nice” list.

Prayer: May we open ourselves to receiving the gifts that Jesus seeks to give us. Amen.

Don’t forget to bring your donation can for The Micah Center to the Christmas Eve Service. Music begins at 6:30 p.m. and the service starts at 7:00.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Seven 12.23.16

untitledThe Light still shines. And in our dark days, we need it. Looking at the newspaper has become scary. I find I am only looking at about half of my emails from organizations and movements. I don’t have NPR on much. The brevity of Twitter seems bearable. I find that I just can’t take all the darkness in the news, especially our national news these days.

Personally, I have a great life and I am not complaining about family, job, home, etc. Well, not much anyway. But despite the candles, cards, and carols, I can’t say that I feel much in the “Christmas spirit.”

In their book, The First Christmas, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have this to say about light:

Like much of the Bible’s language, the imagery of light is both personal and political. The contrasts between darkness and light are correlated with other central contrasts: bondage and liberation, exile and return, injustice and justice, violence and peace, falsehood and truth, death and life. These contrasts all have a personal meaning as well as a political meaning. It is important to see both. . . Too see only the personal meaning is to miss half of their meaning.

Yes, it is important for us to see the Light of Christ in personal and political terms. And, perhaps, this year, more than most, we need the political, though it may be just what we think we want to avoid. Maybe by avoiding the political implications of the teachings of Jesus, we are only letting in part of the light, we are restricting the full shining of the light, we are not opening ourselves fully to the Light of the World.

So many people in this country and around the world are celebrating Christmas – the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World. His light brings liberation, community, justice, peace, truth, and life. If everyone knew that, I wonder how many would still celebrate Christmas? It’s really a radical, subversive, counter-culture revolution. Truly honoring Christmas and the coming of the Light of the World is about setting the world on fire. Maybe if I open myself more to the political imagery of light, I will start to feel more of the Christmas spirit.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

In your journal, reflect on how you see the light of Christ in your personal life and in society at large. Where is the light needed now?

There is still time to put more donation money into your can for the Micah Center. Won’t it be great to hear all that change clanking at the Christmas Eve service? Our giving to The Micah Center is both personal and political – we are helping individual students and we are working to remedy the injustice of the education system.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Six 12.22.16

untitled In comics there is the symbol of the light bulb above a character’s head to show they have a bright idea. Lightening strikes and there is a huge, bright flash. We flip a switch and a room lights up. In many of the ways we think of light, the illumination is immediate. A stage was dark and then suddenly it is lit.

When we think of our faith shining light, it is often a more subtle, incremental, evolutionary process. It can be an abrupt transformation. But more typically, the light of faith “works” on us over the process of our lives and when we look back we see that we have been changing and being transformed.

Also, when we think of shining our light, as in “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” the change created may be very slow and gradual. We may not see drastic transformation and receive immediate gratification from our good works. We may be doing good and impacting lives but the world still seems to be going on as is. We may be addressing ourselves to systemic change and advocacy, but not seem to see any wins. Change can be extremely slow when it comes to institutions and society. The fact is, we may be serving others and the world in a dedicated manner and never really see much of the fruits of our labors. Maybe we get a “thank you” here or there, but we may not see any real change.

That is how it is with light. Yes, it can be drastic and dramatic. But it can also be slow and emergent. Here we may think of dawn or twilight. The change in light is gradual, subtle, and slow. We may not even notice that change is happening – until we realize, “Oh, it’s day time.” Or, “Oh, it’s dark outside.” We may not see the effects of the light in our lives or in the world in dramatic ways on a regular basis. Sometimes we have to look carefully, attune ourselves to minute shifts, take a long view.

So don’t be discouraged if you don’t see your faith producing sudden, dramatic change in your life, the lives of others, or the world. The light sometimes creeps in, virtually unnoticed.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

In your journal, think about how the Light has created change in your life over time.

Sometimes students improve slowly. Help the students at The Micah Center with your donation.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Five 12.21.16

untitled Today is the shortest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. There will be the fewest hours of daylight and the most hours of darkness on this day for half the planet.

Though we won’t see much sunshine, the sun is still there in space, blazing. When the stars are obscured by clouds, snow, fog, or rain, they are still out there in the great beyond shining. When we don’t see many stars due to urban light pollution there are still millions upon millions of stars beaming out in the cosmos. When buildings, trees, or other vegetation shield the light from the sun or other stars, they are still there burning brightly whether we see them clearly or not.

This helps to remind us that there may be things that obscure the Light of the Divine, but it is still shining. It is shining in us. It is shining in others. It is shining in the world. It is blazing through the universe. Whether we see it or not.

If we don’t feel like we are seeing the Light, or if the Light seems dim, we need to examine what is obscuring the Light. And then we want to remove those impediments to our experiencing the full, bright, shine of the Divine for we need that Light to help us make our way. The Light gives us direction for navigating the complexities of our time. The Light is a source of much-needed hope. The Light dispels the all-too-prevalent fear around us. And the Light empowers us to shine in our family, community, and society illuminating the world!

So, take the opportunity this Winter Solstice to reflect on what, if anything, is obscuring the Light in you and around you.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

School is out. Students and teachers are getting a break. Hopefully they will return to school refreshed. Your donations to The Micah Center will help the students succeed in the new semester.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Four 12.20.16

untitledAlexander Von Humboldt was one of the most amazing thinkers of the 19th century. He combined a keen scientific sensibility with a deep poetic sensibility. He intimately, exhaustively studied nature, but he was also moved by nature and in awe of the world around him.

On one expedition, he writes about the influence of a lone palm tree. It is a wind block. The tree with its fruit and leaves attracts birds. Sand builds up around the base of the tree. The soil on the side of the tree away from the wind retains moisture long after the rainy season. Insects and worms, scarce elsewhere, accumulate in the moist soil. One tree has a big impact upon its surroundings. [See Humboldt’s Cosmos, Gerard Helferich, p. 185]

This assessment of the impact of a palm tree, not likely to even be noticed, helps us to see the influence we may have when we shine the light of Divine universal love. When we shine the light, we may be having an influence in many ways. We may be subtly or not so subtly affecting the circumstances around us. We may be creating networks of people and projects. We may be offering protection. We may be helping others. We may be offering encouragement that is needed. There are so many ways we may be influencing things around us when we shine the light – improving the world around us and making things better for others. And we may have no awareness of the effect we are having. We may never know.

This Advent season is also a time to think about how others have been a light for us. Each one of us has received inspiration, encouragement, and support from others who are shining the light for us.

As we approach Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we reflect on the ways his light changes the world. We also trust that when we shine the light, we, too, are changing the world. The light still shines!

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

You may want to note in your journal something you have done which has changed the world because you HAVE changed the world!

The Micah Center is shining the light of support for students. Don’t forget to put some money in your can today.

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Advent Devotion Twenty Three 12.19.16

untitledIn the Christmas story in Luke, the shepherds abruptly head to Bethlehem to see this new born baby. They leave the sheep. They drop everything. They walk off the job. They clock out.

I am thinking about this sudden response. In what circumstances do we walk off the job? Drop everything? What is so important that we simply stop what we are doing and address ourselves to a new, unexpected situation?

Maybe this happens when the school calls and a child is sick and needs to be picked up. Maybe it happens when we are called from a hospital and informed that a loved one was in an accident and we are needed. Maybe we get up and leave work for a crisis or tragedy. It seems that it is even difficult these days to leave work to attend a memorial service.

All the things I think of that we would drop everything for are “bad.” An accident. A sickness. A sudden death. Some kind of catastrophe.

I am wondering when we would leave work, abruptly, suddenly, for something “good.” The shepherds in the story are told of something wonderful happening and they respond right away. They make the trek to the town of Bethlehem to see this thing which has been made known to them. When might we do something like that? What is so wonderfully compelling that we would drop everything and go? I can’t think of much. And I don’t think it happens very often.

Is it because we place too high an importance on work? We need our jobs. We need to make money. We can’t “afford” to leave abruptly and expect to come back. Is it that money, work, and a job are given too much significance? Is work running our lives instead of we running our work? Is work a tool for making a contribution and feeling worthwhile and providing for our needs? Or has work become a tyrant, and we more like indentured servants?

Again, in thinking about what we would walk off work for, is it also possible that we are not tuned in to being surprised by wonder? Is our capacity for being stunned by something wonderful diminishing? Are we so busy and so scheduled that we will only notice something remarkable on cue? Are we losing our openness to being knocked down in our tracks by something amazing?

Would “shepherds” today, say factory workers or field hands, walk off the job, risk the boss’s ire and being fired, in response to an angel chorus? Would you? Are we being offered good news that we are ignoring or not tuned in to see?

May we see the light shining this Christmas. May we hear the angel’s song. May we be caught utterly unawares.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

Here’s hoping that The Micah Center will be stunned by the generosity of our giving this Christmas season!

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Two 12.18.16

untitled The last time I went to my doctor, a new doctor, I mentioned something about church. She asked me about it. I told her I was the pastor. Then she asked me, “So, are you a Jesus follower?” Well, typically, if someone asks about my religion, I would say that I am a Christian. In today’s social climate, that could be taken many ways. So, it may actually be a response that creates confusion rather than clarity. Maybe that is why the doctor asked if I was a Jesus follower. My first thought was, I just told you I am a pastor. I have already answered your question, haven’t I? Evidently not. But as a pastor, what could I say? No. I am not a follower of Jesus. There was only one answer I could give to this question. The doctor seemed very excited about this. She followed up to confirm my response. She was beaming. In the course of the appointment, I had also mentioned that I go to a doctor of Eastern medicine for acupuncture and Qi Dong. At the end of the appointment, she said, “Don’t worry about anything. With me, your Chinese medicine doctor, and Jesus, we will take care of you.” There you have it!

Are you a Jesus follower? In this time of varying expressions of Christianity, expressions which are very much at odds, maybe a better way to describe our religious identity is to say, “I am a follower of Jesus” than to say, “I am a Christian.” What does it mean to be a Christian? Some Christians are decrying homosexuality and abortion and defending corporate America and promoting getting rich, while other Christians are working for gay rights, respecting the rights of women, decrying corporate greed, and promoting material simplicity. You’re Christian? What does that mean? Which team are you on? The media has taken the default definition of Christianity to be the conservative/fundamentalist version and that hasn’t helped matters.

To say, “I am a follower of Jesus” sends a completely different message than “I’m a Christian.” And perhaps the message is more accurate. Our expression of Christianity is more about following Jesus, behavior and action, than it is about theological propositions and doctrine. To say you are a follower of Jesus implies certain behavior and attitudes. People think of Jesus as loving, compassionate, and forgiving. He is concerned with “the least of these.” He is dedicated to serving, especially those most in need. To say you are a follower of Jesus implies that you are trying to make the world a better place for everyone and that you are willing to be helpful and compassionate.

To say, “I am a follower of Jesus” means that we are committed to shining the Light of universal love, justice, peace, and healing. Are you a Jesus follower? What is your response?

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to cite an instance in which you felt you being a “Jesus follower.”

Show your support and compassion for the students of The Micah Center with your donation.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-One 12.17.16

untitled We live in a time obsessed with scarcity and accumulation. We are constantly vying to get our place, get our due, make sure we have what we need and For, that we are prepared. We are constantly messaged that there isn’t enough, be sure to get yours. . . We are trained to buy and buy and buy things that we may or may not need and that we have been convinced to want. Think about it – have you spent more time in prayer, devotion, and reflection this month, or more time shopping? I’ll confess it straight up: My honest answer is shopping, thank you, Amazon!

The whole idea of scarcity, being worried about supply, running out, and having enough, is at odds with the Christian outlook which values generosity, service, self-giving, and material simplicity. So we are always paddling up stream in our context.

The candle is a great image for the Christians perspective on generosity and service. You light a candle. There is a flame. From that flame, you can light countless other candles. We will do this very thing on Christmas Eve at church. Spreading that light takes nothing away from the original flame. That’s how it is when we shine the light of love that is within us. We are not diminished. If anything, our light increases and shines more brightly. As the children’s song of yesteryear reminds us, “Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away. Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more. It’s just like a magic penny: Hold it tight and you won’t have any. But lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor. For love is something if you give it away. . .” Back in the day, we were taught that song in school (not church). It should be restored to the curriculum, at least in the schools that still have a music program. . .

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, remember a time that you have shared your light. How did that feel?

Maybe we can’t directly influence the school curriculum, but we can help the students at The Micah Center succeed in school with our donations. Put some change in your collection box today.

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Advent Devotion Twenty 12.16.16

untitled Monday is typically my “day off.” It is often my busiest day of the week! This past Monday, I stayed home all day cleaning and putting things away and dealing with Christmas stuff, etc. While I was suitably occupied with fairly mindless activity, I had the radio on. National Public Radio. I often listen in the morning while I am getting ready for the day. And I often listen while I am making dinner. And sometimes in between briefly while I am in the car. But Monday, I listened the whole day. News from the BBC. The Diane Rehm Show. Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Tom Ashcroft and On Point. And, The World with Marco Werman.

Toward the end of the afternoon, my spouse, Jeff, got home from school. We had a holiday dinner to go to in Tampa which I had been looking forward to. But as I was rushing around getting ready to leave I realized I was in a bad mood. Jeff commented about it. I said, “Of course I am in a bad mood, I was listening to the radio all day.” He said, “Why would you do that? Put on an audio book.” Of course, he is right. Why would I listen to the negative messages about the influence of Russian hacking on the election and the crisis in Aleppo all day? It was dark.

Yes, the light still shines, but we can be consciously or inadvertently shutting it out. It is up to us to make room for the light, to seek it out in ourselves, in others, and in the world. Jesus in story after story finds the light – in unexpected situations, and certainly in unexpected people. He does not let the darkness shut out the light. This is a season to remember that we can have some effect upon keeping the darkness at bay.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

Maybe in your journal you could comment on how you are letting darkness into your life and how you might change that.

Help dispel the darkness for the students benefitting from The Micah Center. Put a donation in your box today.

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Advent Devotion Nineteen

untitled Who would have thought that we would be seeing the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and other religions? In the ’60’s and 70’s when I was growing up we were taught, in school, that a more enlightened future was ahead. People would be more tolerant and accepting of difference. It seems that a backlash has occurred before we get to that more enlightened society that most people want to see.

As far as religion is concerned, more light leads to a more open, accepting, loving and compassionate religious expression. I know that the more I learn about the Bible, about theology and faith, the deeper my understanding of Christianity becomes, the greater my appreciation of other faiths. More light leads me to a more expansive spiritual sensitivity.

Hard, intractable expressions of religion seem, well, smaller somehow; less worthy of the grandeur of a larger reality. Rules, punishment, fixed theological and political ideas seem more primitive and less developed. The mystery of transcendence implies a greater scope to our spiritual understanding. If the Divine is so awesome why not accept that the Divine can shine light not only through my religion but through other religions as well? Why would I want to restrict the workings of God, or why would I think I could restrict the scope of the influence of Divine Love?

In this era of globalization and information, an awful lot of people seem to want to keep their picture small. How sad. Jesus was always expanding his circle outward, to people on the edge, on the fringe, beyond the scope of his religious tradition and ethnicity. That’s how it is in God. Borders, boundaries, differences don’t take on undue significance or limit the scope of our loving.

This is a season to look for light – wherever it may be shining. And to let that light show us more and more and more of this big, wide, amazing reality in which we find ourselves.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, can you write about a time that you had your assumptions or attitudes expanded by the teachings of Jesus? I’ll never forget when we had a prayer service at church on 9/11/01 and someone asked that we pray for those who carried out the attacks. That really expanded the horizons of my compassion and showed me the greater light of God in the teachings of Jesus.

Remember your donation for The Micah Center.

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Advent Devotion Eighteen 12.14.16

untitled There is that scene in the movie “The Little Mermaid” in which the mermaid, Ariel, is trying to figure out what a fork is. She finds one under the sea, a metal rod with four sharp, pointed spikes. She runs it through her hair. What is this thing? And what is done with it? We know, of course, but if you haven’t seen western culture on land, how would you know?

This Advent season we are thinking about the theme The Light Still Shines. The light of God helps us know how to interpret, understand, and frame our experience. Things happen. How do we understand the experience? The light of God helps us to know what is loving, just, compassionate, and forgiving. The light shows us what is good and true for us as individuals and as a society. The light of God shows us how to interpret what is going on around us and within us.

There are many things going on around us and it can be difficult to make sense of it. Maybe all the information just seems like random noise. But the light of God which is shown to us through Jesus, helps us to understand what is going on.

When we let the light of God show us what is going on, we can see where we are needed. We can see where change is needed. We can see what is good and just. We can celebrate what is beautiful and generous. Without the light, we lose our way often spiraling into self interest, greed, and fear. At times, we may not like what the light shows us, but it can be trusted.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, you may want to note an example of how your faith has helped you to see something in a new light.

Remember your donation for The Micah Center.

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Advent Devotion Seventeen

untitled Fossil fuels are amazing. They have brought humanity far along in its development. They have made a wonderful contribution to the furthering of civilization. Advances in transportation, electricity, and new materials such as plastic are incredible and have made such a difference to humanity. We are so fortunate that fossil fuels were discovered and put to use in so many helpful ways.

Now we know, however, how damaging fossil fuels are to the environment and how they are significantly contributing to global climate change. We know that the environment is poised at a tipping point in large measure due to the use of fossil fuels. So we are in the midst of a transformation in the energy sector away from fossil fuels and toward renewable, sustainable, clean energies such as wind and solar.

This is a large scale, global transformation, consequently, it will take time, which is of the essence given recent findings provided about carbon emissions. And, as with any transition, there are challenges and difficulties along the way. Some want to go slowly and others are resisting entirely. Some are oblivious. And for some, it can’t happen fast enough. But in a hundred years, we’ll see how things were and how the transition was accomplished, and everyone will be adjusted to the new paradigm without fossil fuels.

Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that there were no airplanes. Now we fly everywhere. There was a time when there were no cars on the road. My grandfather delivered milk with a horse and wagon in New York City. Now the problem is too many cars and too much traffic. Oh how things can change and sometimes just within a lifetime.

Technology is not the only thing that changes. Religion changes, too. Jesus stepped onto the scene and he called for major changes in religion. He challenged some of the foundational assumptions of his religion. Here are just a few examples. People believed that if someone was sick or disabled it was because they had sinned. Jesus challenged that assumption. If a person was hurt or killed, by accident even, it was assumed that this was a punishment from God. Jesus did not support that position. People believed that if you were materially wealthy it was because you had found favor with God. And they thought the opposite was true: If you were poor, it was because you had not found favor with God. Jesus completely rejected that thinking. Jesus challenged things and changed things that no longer served the deeper intentions of his religion. To some, Jesus’ thinking was scandalous.

In terms of religion, we are also in the midst of a great transition. The thinking and assumptions of times past are being challenged. New ideas and theologies are emerging within Christianity. Some of these new ideas preserve the original intentions of Christianity but shed outdated, antiquated thinking that can no longer be accepted given the advances that humanity has made. Some of the new thinking in Christianity is related to new scholarship about the Bible and the context of the original writers. In a hundred years or so, people will look back and see the old ways and how new versions of Christianity emerged. That does not mean that what came before was bad or wrong. What it means is that new ways of thinking are needed to enable Christianity to continue to have a positive impact on the world, to bless the world, to bring love and joy to the world. And, as with other major transitions, there are challenges and difficulties along the way. As with fossil fuels, some want to go back to older modes of Christianity, some are oblivious, some want to proceed slowly, and some can’t move ahead fast enough!

In this Advent season, we are thinking about how The Light Still Shines. New energy means that lights will still shine, they just will not be powered by fossil fuels. In terms of our faith, The Light Still Shines, but it is being conveyed in new ways.

Prayer: Divine Light is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

In your journal, you may want to note an example of how your concept of Christianity is growing, changing, and evolving.

And don’t forget to put a donation in your box for The Micah Center. Education is about shining the light!

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Advent Devotion Sixteen 12.12.16

untitled Virgin of Guadalupe Day

The Virgin of Guadalupe may be the best known “version” of Mary in the Catholic church. She is the patron saint of Mexico and she is taken very seriously. Practically everywhere you go in Mexico you see Guadalupe: in stores, restaurants, homes, businesses, hotels, banks, offices, and, of course, churches. Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe is not restricted to Mexico. She is revered by Catholics around the world.

To me the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a wonderful example of how the light of Divine Love finds a way to shine and cannot be put out. In the story of Guadalupe, we can see God always somehow finding a way to get through. The light still shines!

When the Spanish came to Mexico, they came to give Christianity and take gold. The first peoples were killed off through war and disease. Their cultures were decimated. The temples of indigenous religions were taken down and the stones were used to build churches on the same sites. Gone were the gods and goddesses related to the seasons, agriculture, and fertility. In came the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and Mary.

The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is about the Virgin Mary appearing to the poor Indian peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531. She tells Juan Diego, in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire, to instruct the archbishop to build a church on a certain hill in her honor. It happens to be on a hill where the Indians had a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods which had been taken down under Spanish orders. Juan Diego tries to persuade the archbishop to build the church but to no avail. The archbishop wants a sign. The Virgin of Guadalupe shows Juan Diego to a bed of Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, blooming in the middle of winter and instructs him to take the roses back to the archbishop as a sign. Juan Diego gathers the roses in his tunic and takes them to the archbishop. When Juan Diego presents the roses to the archbishop on the fabric of the tunic there is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the middle of all of this, the Virgin also heals Juan Diego’s uncle. She does not relent until the archbishop agrees to build the church. And so there is a huge church on the site on the north side of Mexico City and because the old church was no longer structurally sound, a huge modern church was built in the 1970’s. And this Basilica to Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.

There are many things to love about this story. The “little guy” wins. The indigenous people essentially get the monolithic, monotheistic Catholic church to give them a goddess. Mary won’t take no for an answer. Guadalupe is essentially the primary figure in the Mexican expression of Christianity virtually preempting the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, thank you very much.

Even if we can’t relate to much of this story – the context in Mexico, Catholicism with its devotion to Mary and to the various versions of Mary – hopefully we can see that Divine light finds a way to get through. Whatever the circumstances and conditions and context, Love finds a way to beam into our darkness.

Prayer: The light of God is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

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Advent Devotion Fifteen

untitled There is the spiritual Christmas going on at church and in our life of faith. We’re praying and reading and singing and looking for the light. We are anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus and all he brings into the world.

Then we go out the door and there is the cultural Christmas going on full force in the world. The parking lot at the shopping center is full. The traffic is awful. The UPS golf cart is tooling around the neighborhood delivering packages. People are out in public, like in restaurants, wearing Santa hats. The newspaper is stuffed with ads. In my in box, just when the political stuff started to slow down the Christmas deals started flowing in. And what does all this have to do with a story about God coming into the world in a tiny baby demonstrating fierce, uncompromising love? What does this have to do with the inauguration of a whole new world of justice and peace? Seems like Christmas would look more like a farmworker demonstration than a half time show but here we are. And we are drawn into these various dimensions of Christmas.

The movie, “The Infiltrator,” is based on the autobiography of Robert Mazur, a US Customs special agent. The movie, starring Bryan Cranston, takes place in the ’80’s and tells the story of Robert Mazur going undercover and taking on the created identity of Bob Musella to expose the money laundering operations of the world’s largest drug cartel. In real life, Mazur is a loving, caring father and husband who plays games with his kids and adores his wife. For his job, he is dealing with thugs, involved in shoot outs, and matching the macho of these drug lords. Several times in the movie we see the psychic conflict that this causes for Robert/Bob. There is a horrible episode with his wife in a restaurant that leads to their separating. In another scene, we are shown the tension that occurs because Bob has become very involved with the drug lords that he is trying to entrap. It’s almost as if he is betraying his friends.

Having divided loyalties, trying to maintain multiple identities, dealing with conflicting values in different realms of our lives takes its toll. It creates spiritual, emotional, and psychic stress and pain. It can take a lot of lies, rationalizations, and twisted thinking to keep it all together.

Christianity is about wholeness and healing. It is an invitation to be one person with a united heart and spirit. It is about living from one set of values and morals in a unified manner. Our guiding principle is love – love of self, love of neighbor, and love of God however God is defined for you. By the light of Jesus we can come to see the compromises, conflicts, and discontinuities in our lives that are preventing us from living abundantly. May we welcome that light into our lives this holy season so that we receive the promised comfort and joy of Christmas.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world and in my life. Amen.

You may want to note in your journal a time when you felt a conflict of values or interests in your life. How did that make you feel? How was it resolved? What did you learn?

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Advent Devotion Fourteen

untitledI had dinner with friends recently and we had not seen each other in a long time. In catching up, we got to talking about the election. The friend said he was reticent to discuss it for fear that someone at an adjacent table would overhear the conversation and perhaps threaten us in some way. I said, “I am not giving in to that.” This is a free country and we can say whatever we want to about the election or anything else, for that matter, while we are at dinner. We are entitled to free expression as a human right according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today is International Human Rights Day. On 10 December in 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yes, it’s long and comprehensive, but it is worth reading. [It is included below.] It is an expression of light. I hope that in my lifetime I have the opportunity to live in a country that honors all of the human rights enumerated in this glorious declaration.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world, in others, and in myself. Amen.

Perhaps in your journal you might want to mention how you are helping to ensure basic human rights for all people.

In light of Article 26, consider making a donation to The Micah Center so that all children have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of an education.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Preamble
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. 

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.
 Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3. 
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5. 
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6. 
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7. 
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8. 
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9. 
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10. 
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11. 
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12. 
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13. 
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14. 
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15. 
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16. 
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17. 
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18. 
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19. 
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20. 
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22. 
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23. 
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24. 
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25. 
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26. 
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27. 
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28. 
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29. 
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30. 
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

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Advent Devotion Thirteen

untitled The Light still shines. Yesterday was Bodhi Day. It is the commemoration of the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under the bodhi tree. He vowed to sit and meditate under the bodhi tree until he had found the root of suffering and how to be liberated from it. That is a big commitment. He could have been sitting there for who knows how long.

That’s the thing about the light. Yes, there is light and it can be found in differing religious traditions, but to experience the light one must look for it and be open to it. The spiritual quest takes commitment, devotion, time, energy, courage, and perseverance.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t need religion or religion doesn’t do anything for them. To see the light, for religion to impact us, we have to embrace it. We have to invest ourselves in our faith and let it work on us. Time and attention to spiritual practice, service, and the faith community lead us to the light. It is when we go deeper in our faith that we find the light.

If we aren’t seeing the light, maybe it is because we are not really open to it. Maybe we are not looking hard enough. Maybe we need to be more devoted to our religious practice.

This holiday season is a busy time of year. But are we busy with the things that reveal the light? Are we setting aside time for prayer, the reading of scripture and devotional writings? Are we attending worship? Are we making time for silence and reflection? Are we finding ways to serve and give that make a difference?

Yes, the light still shines, but we have to make the effort to see it.

Prayer: In these dark days may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world, in others, and in myself. Amen.

In your Advent journal, you could note how you are investing yourself in your spiritual quest for the light. Some people keep track of an exercise regime. What about keeping track of our spiritual regimen?

Your donations to The Micah Center are a sign of commitment to light. They will help individual children to succeed in school. That is shining the light!

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Advent Devotion Twelve 12.8.16

untitled Happy Bodhi Day! Have you put the lights up on the tree yet? Will you light a candle? Bodhi Day is the annual remembrance of the day in 596 BCE that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, sat under the Bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment. While Bodhi Day is celebrated on different days and in different ways depending on the country and culture, it usually includes chanting and meditation, as well as decorating a Bodhi (fig) tree with colored lights and lighting a candle. The remembrance lasts for 30 days. The lights that are used to decorate the home or the tree are multicolored to represent that there are many paths to enlightenment.

For Christians this is a season for lights on the tree and candles as we remember the light of God coming into the world in Jesus. For us, Jesus is a path to enlightenment or awakening. We remember him with the image of light.

For those who are Jewish, the festival of lights is ahead. Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve this year. It is an annual celebration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE following the successful Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy. Candles are lit for eight nights in observance of Hanukkah.

These holy days in various religious traditions all involve light. These observances remind us that Divine Light comes into the world. In many ways. Through many religious traditions. The Light is so intent on shining that it is not just restricted to one way of entering human experience. Humanity is wildly diverse, so it only makes sense that Divine Light would be made manifest in many ways. We don’t want to limit how the light of Divine love and power comes into the world. It will find a way. And if one way is not effective, there will be another.

This season, we join our sisters and brothers of different religions around the world in celebrating Light. The light has come into the world and the darkness has not put it out.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of the Divine shining in the world and in my life. Amen.

Remember to make a donation to The Micah Center. Shine the light in support of increased student achievement!

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Sermon 12.4.16 “Brooding Vipers”

Date: Dec. 4, 2016 Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon: Brooding Vipers
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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Last week we saw a banner depicting John baptizing people at the Jordan River in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Burlington, Massachusetts. The image shows a happy scene. People are dressed in bright colors. Women with covered heads looking like Muslims line the banks of the deep blue river kneeling in prayer. John is waving to Jesus off in the distance headed out to the wilderness. It’s a peaceful, serene, joyous scene.

Yet in the scripture we heard this morning, we are told of John the Baptizer ranting and railing. It hardly seems peaceful or serene. Apparently, the people are coming from nearby cities and towns to be baptized by John for the forgiveness of sins. That is going fine. But then the religious authorities arrive from Jerusalem and that’s when the fireworks start. Religion is supposed to be a comfort and a guide. These leaders should be offering light and hope to people. Instead, they are imposing laws and rules that cannot be followed and are very costly. These imposed requirements reinforce the authority and power of the leaders which fuels their tyranny. Their teachings and directives end up generating income and personal prosperity for the leaders. Instead of offering religion that is a comfort and support to people, especially people that are downtrodden, they are taking advantage of the people for personal gain. This ignites John’s fury!

While people may have expected John to rail against Rome, the Roman Empire, and the oppressive occupation being imposed by the Romans, a tirade against the religious leaders was probably quite unexpected. In his excoriating remarks, we hear John malign the leaders for banking on their relationship to Abraham to save them. They are counting on their privilege to work to their advantage. They are not concerned with truly repenting, changing their ways, reforming their religious practices, and showing forth the fruits of generosity, compassion, and mercy. They are children of Abraham. They do not expect to be held accountable for their deeds. They expect a free pass. Privilege then worked the same way that privilege works today.

But in the story we heard, John tells these people of privilege just what they can expect from the God that shines light for all people, not just some people. There is one coming, one who represents God, who is going to clean things up; get religion back on its proper footing. There is light coming that will shine joy, peace and hope upon all people. There will be no more undue privilege in the name of religion. There will be no more taking advantage of everyday people in the name of religion. There will be no more power abuse and manipulation for self gain in the name of religion. Not the religion of the God of the Jews. No. The light will expose these abuses and will shine in a way that is pure, healing, and restorative.

It is interesting to note that later in the gospels, Jesus, too, has a melt down over the power abuse of the religious authorities in the story of the overturning of the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Religion is to be a source of sustenance, hope, and comfort. It is to help people be morally good and compassionate. Religion is meant to feed the human spirit so that it flourishes and bears the fruits of compassion, justice, mercy, and right relationship. Religion is precious to the vitality of the human soul. Misusing religion for personal gain is heinous and we see that conveyed in the vehement condemnation from John and from Jesus.

I think that if John were to show up at the waterfront today, he would find plenty of brooding vipers. Still many abuse religion as an avenue for personal gain and as a way of validating their cultural values and attitudes. Religion is still used today to keep some people down and to privilege other people. And religion is still used to make some people rich and to give some people power over others. So, I think John would find plenty to rail about today.

We still need to be reminded that there is no room in the intentions of God for some people to benefit from privilege at the expense of others. There is no provision for gender bias in the reality of God. There is no place for racism in God’s domain. There is no tolerance of homophobia in the dreams of God. There is no space for discrimination against “foreigners” for there are no foreigners with God. Everyone is family in the reality of God. And there is no room for hatred of neo Nazis, white supremacists, or fundamentalists. Later, Jesus will tell his followers, Love your enemy. Maybe today it would sound something like, Love the deplorables – whoever they are for you.

In the stories of Jesus, we are told that the first word he utters when he begins his ministry echoes John: Repent. Turn around. Change direction. Reorient your life toward God. Chart a course in the direction of love. Accept grace. Like plants and trees that naturally grow toward the sun, be led by the Light.

Even brooding vipers are welcomed by the open arms of God. No matter what we may have done, all are offered grace. Everyone has a place in God’s realm of love and light. We can all make a new start. No one is doomed to perpetually living at the expense of others. Even well-ingrained habits of abusing power can be broken. The Gospel is good news for all people, including those who have been caught up in systems that abuse and oppress.

There is no one that is beyond the scope of Divine grace. We all, each and every one of us, have the capacity to bear the fruits of repentance – generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and justice. The Light of the world offers joy and peace to all, all upon whom the sun shines.

Brooding vipers. It’s quite an image. Distasteful, gross, scary. Yet the snake is really a quite fascinating creature. The color patterns and markings are quite remarkable. The mobility of snakes is astounding. They are incredibly flexible even able to defy gravity and climb trees! Snakes are also strong and very efficiently designed. When a snake grows, it must shed its skin to accommodate its expanding body. To do this, it rubs its nose against something rough to break the skin. Then through a long, slow, tedious process, the snake maneuvers its way out of the old skin and leaves that behind. Underneath is reveled a new skin. One that will stretch until it is time for other new skin. The old skin is dull and flat in finish. The new skin usually has a glossy shine.

Given their unique traits, snakes have long been a cross cultural religious symbol. In Christianity, the snake, with its shedding of skin, is seen as is a symbol of resurrection – leaving behind an old life and embracing a new life. In the reality of God, everyone is always welcome, even brooding vipers, because in God new life always awaits. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Advent Devotion Eleven 12.7.16

untitledDecember 7th. If you are of an age, that date is etched in your mind. You can’t see it or write it on a check or a form without a flash of memory. December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack on a Sunday morning by the Empire of Japan that launched the US into World War 2. Then-President Franklin Roosevelt declared it “a date which will Iive in infamy.” And it should be remembered: 5 out of 8 battleships, 3 destroyers, and 7 other ships were sunk or severely damaged at . Over 200 aircraft were destroyed. Twenty-four hundred Americans were killed and 1200 wounded. In one attack.

There is more to remember. President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war. The Senate voted 82-0 in support of the declaration. The House voted 388-1 in favor of war. What about the one? The one “no” vote was cast by Jeannette Rankin from Montana. She was the first woman elected to Congress; an advocate for women’s suffrage and a strong supporter of social welfare initiatives. And she was a Republican. Rankin, a pacifist, also voted against entering of World War 1. Her rationale: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”

While December 7 was a dark day even in that darkness a light was shining. Jeannette Rankin was shining the light for peace, for standing by your principles whatever the consequences, and for maintaining your integrity and incorruptibility. In her subsequent comments, she made it clear that she loved and supported her country but also felt compelled to remain true to her convictions. She exercised the precious freedom that we hold so dear here in these United States. On the whole, Rankin was respected for her position. I’m not sure that would be the case today. Pacifism, principles, integrity, and respect seem to be in short supply.

May the darkness of December 7 remind us not to be afraid to shine our light. It is needed today just as much as it was in 1941 and maybe even more.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to remember a time that you were true to your convictions even when that was very unpopular or had significant negative consequences for you.

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