Sermon June 3, 2018 “Mother’s Milk”

Scripture Lesson: Psalm 138
Sermon: Mother’s Milk
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Sure we have a good life. Most of us have plenty of food to eat and a safe place to live. Many of us have adequate access to health care. We have friends and family to love. There is awe and delight in every day for many of us. We have blessings to count and we know it.

But still, these are trying times by most people’s standards. You can hardly have a conversation with anyone without some hot button issue coming up: Rosanne. The Mueller investigation. Gaza. Korea. Trade wars. #metoo. School shootings. Immigration. Puerto Rico. All of this with a backdrop of increasing income inequality, a health care crisis, never-ending wars, and environmental problems. It can seem like we are under assault. Being continuously re-traumatized.

In these times it is important to cultivate and nurture compassion, reconciliation, and courage. This is a time for fierce, tenacious, healing love. Oh Jesus, how we need you now. How we need your model of just that kind of loving. Strong. Honest. Bold. Gentle.

In the past couple of weeks people in the church have expressed gratitude for the ministry of the church; for the support and inspiration they’ve received from this faith community. Twice the expressions of gratitude noted how extraordinary this is. How special. How notable. Really? To me it seems like we are simply doing what we have always done. Trying to be a church. A faithful part of the body of Christ. A supportive, loving community. Why does that seem extraordinary? I think it is because things in the public realm have become so charged. So uncivil. So coarse. So mean-spirited. The “outside” has changed, and so the church, which I think has pretty much stayed the same, seems much more loving and kind. And, of course, that is how the church should be.

We need our religion, our spiritual path, now more than ever to help us to stay grounded in compassion, love, justice, and reconciliation. We need the church to help us to stay kind and courageous. We need our faith community to help us to resist sinking to the ways of many around us, sad to say, the ways of many in leadership in this country. It is a time to band together and stay strong and loving. There is that beautiful verse in the Psalm that we read: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” Oh how we need our faith to help us stay strong and courageous and grounded in love. We need our faith to nourish us, to feed us, to keep us healthy, and to help us grow as we journey through life never knowing what lies ahead.

Now, in the realm of life science and biology, one of the most nourishing, sustaining substances we know about is breast milk. In recent years, studies by evolutionary biologists, dairy scientists, microbiologists, anthropologists, and food chemists have uncovered amazing information about human breast milk. Breast milk has proteins, fats, carbohydrates, nutrients, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, vitamins A, C, and E, and long chain fatty acids that provide omega 3’s. Sounds like a liquid multi vitamin!

And there are microbes in breast milk; it is not sterile and these bacteria aid the baby’s digestion. Breast milk also has 150 oligosaccharides. These are complex sugars unique to breast milk that cannot be digested by the baby. They are to feed the microbes in the baby’s digestive system. So the milk feeds the baby and the good bacteria in the baby’s gut. Pretty amazing!

Breast milk has all the nutrients that a baby needs for the first six months of life and added to that are germ and disease fighting substances that protect the baby from getting sick. Breast milk is amazing for promoting health. And on top of all that, apparently, the taste of the milk changes according to what the mother has eaten. It’s not just the same flavor day after day after day. How perfect is that?

Breast milk also has pluripotent stem cells. These can form more that 200 different kinds of cells found in the human body. So breast milk has huge potential for regenerative medicine.

Now all of that seems pretty incredible, doesn’t it? But here is what I think is the most amazing characteristic of breast milk. The composition of the nutrients and disease fighting elements of the milk change. Daily. Every day the make up of the milk changes to meet the baby’s need at the moment. And the hormones in the milk change during night and daylight hours to promote sleep or activity depending on the time of day. So there is night milk and day milk each with different hormones. Breast milk is constantly changing according to the infant’s needs. How incredible is that?

And how does this happen? Well, here’s where we get a little graphic so bear with me. Apparently, when the baby sucks a vacuum is created. The milk comes out. But it has been discovered that saliva from the baby’s mouth gets sucked into the mother’s nipple. Basically, think back wash. And there are receptors in the mammary glands that adjust the milk depending on what is in the saliva. So if the saliva includes indication of a sickness of some kind, the mother’s body sends the antibodies needed by the baby through the milk. Now that is awesome in my book. You can read all about this in Angela Garbes new book, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, or in the article that she wrote for The Stranger in 2015. [“The More I Learn About Breast Milk, the More Amazed I Am,” https://www.thestranger.com/features/feature/2015/08/26/22755273/the-more-i-learn-about-breast-milk-the-more-amazed-i-am]

Now you may be wondering why in heaven’s name we are discussing human breast milk of all things. Well, we are talking about how we need our faith to stay strong and grounded in love and goodness. How we need our faith to keep us healthy. I think that Christian spirituality, faith, religion, and certainly the way of Jesus, work kind of like breast milk. I think that we can find in our faith whatever it is that we need for any given moment, any circumstance, any issue, any problem, and any challenge. I don’t think ours is a religion that only addresses one problem or issue. I think our faith tradition has lots of teachings and traditions and expressions that meet us where we are and help us to find our way so that we stay rooted in universal, unconditional love for ourselves, for others, and for the world. Our faith gives us the strength to respect the fundamental dignity of every human being – even if they have done something terrible; even if we disagree with them; even if we find them hateful and harmful. Our faith gives us the strength to love. What we need at any given moment to sustain our love, courage, and compassion is offered to us by our faith tradition. Just like an infant, at different times in our lives, we need different things. And the way of Jesus offers us what we need. Whatever that may be. We have but to take it.

In today’s world, a time of drastic change, including of changing theologies, some Christians embrace the concept of a theistic God, a spirit God, alive and active in the world. Our faith tradition helps us to draw upon that image of God for strength, forgiveness, and love. The teachings of Jesus speak to those rooted in that kind of faith. There is a source of strength for the living of these
challenging days.

Some Christians today embrace a concept of a non-theistic God. This is an image of God as ground of being, love, unity, a concept of cohesion and interconnectedness. And there is much in our tradition to offer strength, wisdom, and guidance, for people rooted in that kind of image of God.

Some Christians don’t really care to concern themselves with doctrine and theology about things like whether Jesus is God and whether there is life after death, etc. They find their roots in the ethical, wisdom teachings of Jesus. Ok. For those Christians, again, there is sustaining food and nourishment for staying rooted in love and facing the many issues of our times and the challenges of life’s journey.

We know that throughout our lives, we need different things from our faith, depending on the times, depending on what is going on in our lives, and we are part of a faith tradition that speaks to us, that meets our needs, that offers us sustenance and health in all circumstances.

The world is changing around us, there are new developments everyday that confront us with racism, sexism, oppression, greed, callousness, and violence. New technologies present new ethical challenges and issues. We face health concerns; physical health concerns, mental health problems, addiction. We must come to terms with our mortality. Our families face problems. Our relationships change. Abilities change. Geography changes. We must deal with life decisions and transitions day after day.

We are in a constant dynamic state. Our lives and the world around us are in continuous flux. And like the breast milk that adjusts to the needs of the infant at the moment, so our faith will speak to us in the ways that we need to stay strong and grounded in compassion and love. We want to be open to receive what we are being given.

The psalmist celebrates, “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” We can count on our faith, on the way of Jesus, on the teachings of the Bible, on the wisdom of the ages, on the messages that come to us from countless sources, to increase our strength of soul wherever we are on the journey so that we might be agents of goodness and compassion in this ever-changing world. The strength we need will come tailored to our situation. It will be just right for our circumstances. Designed to promote our growth as we seek to serve the world. And it may even come in a way that offers pleasure, awe, and delight. 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 5.27.18 Memorial Day

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon: Looking to the Stars
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It was the last Christmas of the 20th century and the space shuttle was in orbit. At the transition to a new century, Commander Curt Brown delivered this message from the shuttle to Earth:

“The familiar Christmas story reminds us that for millennia people of many faiths and cultures have looked to the skies and studied the stars and planets in their search for a deeper understanding of life and for greater wisdom. We hope and trust that the lessons the universe has to teach us will speak to the yearning that we know is in human hearts everywhere. The yearning for peace on Earth good will among all the human family. As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium we send you all our greetings.” [Quoted in Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly, chapter 12]

From the stars, from the heavens, from space, come messages of peace. It is a universal human longing. We see this in our beloved stories of Christmas. We celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. We revere the story of Jesus as one who is coming to Earth from heaven to bring peace. We have the beautiful story of the magi that was read this morning; these astrologers, philosophers, astronomers, from a distant land, a foreign culture, following a star, in a search for wisdom and understanding, in a quest for peace. These wise ones are led by the heavens in their search. The trek is well worth the cost, the inconvenience, the financial burden, the hardship, because it is in the interests of peace. Peace is worth the price as we will later learn from Jesus as he makes his sacrifice.

But the dearly beloved story of the magi and their journey following the star is not just a romanticized fantasy. In their search for the Prince of Peace, these wise ones encounter Herod. They come face to face with a leader who is filled with “warring madness.” Herod is a violent, tyrannical despot. He has killed his own family members to protect his power and position. Herod will not tolerate any threat and will stop at nothing to maintain his control and authority. Intimidation, fear, violence, and death, these are the tools he uses to reign. We are told that he orders the killing of all young boys in an effort to eradicate this new baby king who is a potential future rival. So the magi are faced with conflict and violence as they make their way to peace.

The magi follow the star, the leading of the heavens, their dreams, and steer their way between love and fear, war and peace, as they navigate past Herod to the Divine peace symbolized in the birth of Jesus. Then they go home another way. They avoid Herod; they steer clear of confrontation and violence. They choose another way; a way of peace.

Memorial Day, as we remember those who have served our country, is a time to think about how we are navigating our way to peace in our time. Those who have served in the military and who have been killed in armed conflict have given their lives in the pursuit of peace – for their families, their communities, our country, and the world. This is the honorable basis for military service.

So the most reverential way we can honor those who have served is by working for the peace. Memorial Day is a time to think about how we navigate to the destination of peace on Earth in a culture that is wracked with violence and pursuing endless wars. It is a time to think about what stars are guiding us, what stars we are following, and where they are leading us.

In today’s world, so many lives and resources are devoted to war and to violent resolution of differences. What other species devotes such resources to destruction, to death? What other species diverts so much energy away from what fosters life to what destroys life?

We mere mortals here on Earth seem so bent on pursuing war. The US is involved in armed conflict in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Pursuing these wars is costing lives and resources; resources that could be used to building up this country and the quality of life for all of its citizens. We are all suffering the effects of these endless wars in many ways though we may not feel directly involved with, say, a loved one serving abroad in the armed services. Still we are involved. And we are being affected by the government’s pursuit of war. This contributes to reduced funding for education, healthcare, sustainable energy, the arts, infrastructure, and so much more. Our society as a whole is suffering the effects of prolonged armed conflict.

In addition, we project destruction, violence and war into space through our entertainment. The Star Wars, get that Star Wars, franchise is one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in existence. There are many instances in which we have projected the concept of war into space in our entertainment. This is a symptom of our captivation and some say addiction to war.

And we project our very real, earthly conflicts onto space. US astronaut Scott Kelly recently spent a year in space on the International Space Station. He recounts his experiences in the book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery. While on the International Space Station, the US astronauts were asked to participate in a hearing with a congressional committee about the funding of the space program. The crew told of bio medical experiments and growing lettuce. Then they were asked about Russia. The US and Russia were in a difficult geo-political situation. Were the American astronauts sharing data with the Russians on the space station? Kelly told the committee that international cooperation was one of the strengths of the space station. He mentioned that when he was the only American on the space station, the counted on the two Russians. “We have a great relationship and I think the international aspect of this program has been one of its highlights.” [Endurance, chapter 17]

While conflicts brew and boil on Earth, astronauts tell us that space is very peaceful. The view of the Bahamas is gorgeous. From space, Earth looks beautiful and peaceful. In addition, the International Space Station involves many people from many countries working together. The countries may not be getting along on Earth but they work together in space. The astronauts all cooperate beautifully in space. They must. They know that their survival depends on their cooperation. I’m wondering when we will learn that lesson on Earth. On the space station, there is commitment to a higher goal, a nobler aim. With the space station there is no room, no literally or figuratively, for disagreement, competition, domination, or hostility. The enterprise can only succeed if the astronauts as well as all of those involved on the ground fully cooperate with each other. And everyone involved knows this.

Though I do not have much interest in space exploration, unlike like my husband who minored in astronomy and teaches physics, I do love the international cooperation that happens on the space station and in conjunction with the space program. It is an encouraging model for what can happen on Earth.

In the story of the magi, they find the baby Jesus, bring him gifts, worship him, and head home. They must decide how they will proceed. Are they going to go back to Herod and risk possible involvement in conflict and violence or will they go home another way, a peaceful way? Will they risk taking a new route, through unfamiliar territory, in pursuit of peace? Yes. That is what they choose.

We, too, have encountered Jesus. We know him through his teachings and the stories of his followers. We know him through our experience and through the church. In Jesus, we see the way of peace. It is a lifestyle of generosity and self giving. It is an orientation of humility and meekness. It is a way of strength through gentleness. It is a way of peace that steers us away from competition, from greed, from conflict, from violence, from domination, and away from the intimidation and fear that lead to armed conflict and war and death. Not peace. Having encountered Jesus, like the star that leads the magi, we are being led to proceed on the path to peace. And, yes, it can be very difficult. And it can require sacrifice.

After spending a full year on the International Space Station, US Astronaut Scott Kelly boarded the Russian Soyuz to return to Earth. His last view of the space station as he departed prompted these reflections:

The International Space Station is “the work of 15 different nations over 18 years. Thousands of people speaking differing languages and using different engineering methods and standards. . . In a world of compromise and uncertainty this space station is a triumph of engineering and cooperation. Putting it into orbit, making it work, and keeping it working is the hardest thing that human beings have ever done. And it stands as proof that when we set our minds to something hard, when we work together, we can do anything including solving our problems here on Earth. I also know that if we want to go to Mars it will be very, very difficult. It will cost a great deal of money. And it may cost human lives. But I know now that if we decide to do it, we can.” This is how Kelly ends his book, Endurance, about his year in space.

May we look to the stars, the stars in space, the stars on our US flag, the stars of our faith tradition, and decide to create peace on Earth. Yes, it will be very, very difficult. It may cost a great deal of money. And it may cost human lives. But if we decide to do it, we can. 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 5.20.18 Pentecost

Scripture Lesson: Acts 2:1-21
Sermon: Have You Heard the Good News?
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells and congregation

Maybe you were among the hoards that thronged MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for the airshow recently. The newspaper says upwards of 150,000 people attended, or tried to attend, the air show. That’s the equivalent of over half the population of St. Petersburg. Can you imagine that many people all together in one place for one event? Pretty crazy! Yes, there were traffic issues, but otherwise, things seemed to go pretty smoothly.

And why did people go to the airshow? Probably many reasons. I did not personally attend so here I am definitely speculating. I imagine there are folks that celebrate the technology and speed. And folks that glorify the military. And folks that like to see what their tax dollar, actually tax dollars, many, many of them, are doing. There may be people who went to be with their friends that wanted to go. And people who had nothing else to do so went to avoid boredom. Some people just like a parade, so to speak. Along with many reasons for showing up in the MacDill vicinity last weekend, I am sure there were many kinds of people who attended the event. A wide range of people. A diverse population.

In the story of Pentecost, we are told of a festival, a large public event, a harvest festival. And people have come from many places and backgrounds and circumstances to give thanks for the harvest. Well, everyone needs food. . . Among those at this festival are friends and followers of Jesus. They are still confused and scared after the crucifixion. They don’t have a sense of cohesion, direction, or purpose. But they go along with the crowd and participate in the festival. In the course of things, they find themselves filled with boldness and courage, and speaking about Jesus. And we are given this story of the followers of Jesus, mostly Galileans, speaking to the eclectic, multicultural crowd, in various languages so that all could hear and understand the good news of the teachings of Jesus. Everyone heard a message of Divine hopes and dreams for humanity. It was uplifting, transforming, exciting, surprising, inexplicable. But there was good news for all who had ears to hear.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is intended to be good news for all people. Even people of other religions. The values and affirmation and respect and hope of the Jesus way are meant to be good news even to people on other spiritual paths. People who are living the Jesus way are intended to be a force for good in the world for all people whatever their background or religious sensibilities or lack there of.

The church, the on going community of Jesus, the body of Christ, is charged with continuing, in every age, in every circumstance, in every setting and situation, to share that good news, that word of hope and life and meaning and joy. This good news is not just something for people in the church. This is something the church has to give to the world; to feed and nourish the life of Creation. So the Jesus people were given words of hope and love to speak to that wildly diverse crowd gathered at the Pentecost harvest festival. Each hearing in a way they could understand.

I am thinking about that crowd at MacDill, or at the Fourth of July fireworks, or at the Pride Festival, or the Santa Parade, or Gasparilla, a setting where there is a multitude of diverse peoples. Many languages spoken. Different kinds of food being eaten. This is a land that has historically welcomed people from every background and circumstance. This was a land of second chances. So here there are many occasions for the gathering of diverse peoples. What kinds of people are there? What are their needs and concerns? As we think about this, we must ask, what good news does the church have for all of these people? What words of joy and hope and goodness does the church have to offer? What message of comfort and encouragement are we being given to share with others? The church teaches that baptism is recognition of the presence of the Divine spirit of God in the life of the one baptized. So everyone who has been baptized is being given good news to share with the world.

So what good news do we have for the diverse crowd around us – either literally, at
a festival, or around us in our daily lives, on social media, in our communities and
the wider world? What good news do we have to share?

We can imagine people in a crowd, like the Pentecost crowd or MacDill, who are lost and afraid. We can imagine people in the crowd around us who are made poor, facing job insecurity and economic fear. Surely there are people with physical infirmities which diminish their abilities and the stress and grief that come with that. People facing a cancer diagnosis. We can imagine people who because of how they were born face discrimination and disrespect each and every day and the anger and defeat that comes with such treatment. People who have little hope for future prospects because of how they were born. We can think about people who ache inside over what humans are doing to the planet.

What good news to we have for immigrants – legal, illegal, dreamers. refugees, for surely there are immigrants in a crowd. Surely there are people in the crowd from problem schools, teacher and students, who are struggling with a broken education system. What’s the good news for students who are forced to learn in a way that can be reflected on a test but are not encouraged to think or take delight in knowledge? Or celebrate curiosity? And there are young people worrying about succeeding in school, getting into college, and paying for college. In a crowd, surely there are homeless people, people who can’t find a way to live in a safe and secure manner. What good news do we have for rich people who have all this money but still feel hollow inside and are drifting and not satisfied – lost?

Sadly, in a crowd there are people who have had loved ones killed, murdered, shot. People who are grieving the natural loss of a loved one. People who feel alienated from society, from the world around them. People who can’t read and write. People disgusted by the dysfunction in the government, all three branches on the federal level, as well as problems at the state and local levels. Kids worrying about their family, safety, the future. Teens worried about the pressures of sex and drugs and lack of meaning in life. People trying to afford healthcare and worrying about paying for needed medications.

In a crowd, there may be people who are worried about going back – to somewhere that is not safe and where there is no way to make a living. People whose lives have been taken over, wracked by addiction and its ravages. People facing an unplanned, perhaps unwanted, pregnancy. People coming to terms with their sexual identity in an environment that can be hostile to difference. People who have lost a sense of meaning, purpose, or wonder.

If we think about the crowd at MacDill, we can imagine people worried about loved ones serving in endless wars; life at risk on a daily basis, and for what? Yes, Jesus taught about laying down your life for others but many people in the military today have a hard time seeing how their sacrifice is helping anyone. Hence the high suicide rate among veterans.

What good news do we have for this crowd? For society? For our friends and family? What good news are we being given to share?

Here the congregation was invited to share the good news that they have to share with the world. There were several written suggestions submitted by the children of the Church School:
The church helps people who need it.
The church teaches peace.
The church teaches us not to litter and to keep the world clean.
The church is a community where we care about our moms and ourselves and everybody.

Some years ago, Vita Uth, a charter member of the congregation called me and requested that people in the church bring dinner for her and her husband each night for two weeks. This request stemmed from the stresses of health issues and care giving. People from the church all signed up on a schedule that was passed around on a clipboard on a Sunday morning. One evening our family brought food and had dinner with Vita and Knud. Recently, we were talking about that dinner many years ago. Our son, Malcolm, 22 years old, reflected that it was great that Vita knew what she needed and the church stepped up. He said, People my age don’t understand that that is what church is about. It is about the community. They just don’t understand it. And he thinks they are missing out.

Thinking about our situation today, it is not enough for just the pastor to talk to the congregation. We have to be taking the good news we have out into the world and sharing it with people. And in today’s world, we not only have many languages and Google translate, we have social media to help share that good news. What an amazing tool! And if people want more they can come to church. But if not, we are still giving them good news whoever they are, wherever they are, in their context. Because there is always good news in the reality of God and the Jesus way of life. 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 5.13.18 Mother’s Day “Why Women Voted for Trump”

Scripture Lesson: 1 John 4: 7-21
Sermon: Why Women Voted for Trump
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Note: There were certain background comments made before the sermon.

The topic for this sermon was requested by someone in the congregation.

LUCC supports the constitutional concept of separation of church and state. Regarding implementation, the church seeks to follow the guidelines of the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. So this sermon is not intended to be political or partisan.

The pastor is trained as an historian and knows that everyone speaks from their own perspective and experience. Here are some of my biases upfront:
I was born into a church that is not fear-based but justice oriented. The United Church of Christ.
I was born to parents who were feminists. They believed men and women are equal and deserve equal rights. They encouraged my brother and I to follow our dreams whatever they may be.
I was born into a family that was, relatively speaking, financially advantaged. My parents could pay for whatever was needed for me to follow my dreams.
I am a graduate of Wellesley College, the alma mater of Hillary Clinton.

Several people in the congregation have made it known that they do not speak the name of the current president and they do not want to hear the name of the current president. So, here is the trigger warning. The word Trump is used 6 times in this sermon.

In the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Harari, a professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and best-selling author, talks about the importance of the mother-child bond: “We can argue about other emotions but since mammal youngsters cannot survive without motherly care it is evident that motherly love and a strong mother-infant bond characterize all mammals.“ He adds, “It took scientists many years to acknowledge this.” Well, I don’t think it would take any of us many years to acknowledge this. From time immemorial we know the bond between a mother and child. It is fundamental. It is instinctual.

A human mother will innately provide for and protect her children. She will fiercely defend them. Yes, there are exceptions, in cases involving mental illness or addiction for instance, but basically, a human mother will care for her young, regardless. She will deprive herself of food to feed her children. She will endure any hardship to protect her children. She will resort to whatever it takes to ensure their health and well-being.

Sadly, we live in a climate of fear even though statistically things are better now than ever for people in the US any way. Life is safer and healthier and material comforts exceed those known by generations past. Medical science has made incredible advances. We are living longer. Worldwide, war, famine, and disease account for fewer deaths than in the past. Think about it – In the US, even a no income homeless person has a cell phone. That would have been unimaginable even 30 years ago.

Yet there is fear. Fear of your neighbor. Fear of someone who does not look like you. Fear of someone you do not know. Fear of robbers and murderers. There is fear around money, jobs, and the economy. Fear of dishonest business people. There is fear of war and terrorist attacks. There is fear of random mass shootings. These things happen. It is horrific when they do. The grief and suffering is immense and tragic. I am not trying to paint a rosy picture, but you can ask our resident award-winning statistician, Charlie Lewis, or consult Yuval Harari, we’re better off, safer and healthier than any previous generation.

Nonetheless, the fear continues to increase. There are people that work at increasing the fear in our society so that they can have more control over others. And they are succeeding. So in today’s climate of induced fear, many mothers are afraid for their children. They feel their children are under direct threat. They feel their way of life, economic opportunity, values, and culture are being taken away. And they feel desperation about the future of their families and their children and their property.

And what do mothers do when they feel their children are threatened? They protect them. They will fiercely fight for their children. For their future. For their well-being. In the face of all of this fear, unfounded for the most part, but experienced by the majority of people nonetheless, mothers will feel instinctually led to protect their children whatever the cost.

In the last presidential election, I suspect many mothers who voted for President Trump, whether they know it or not, voted out of fear. The statements about I will protect you, I will make you safe again, I will make sure your children are taken care of, I will defend you, etc. I think these kinds of statements provided security and comfort to mothers who are frightened for their children’s future. And this influenced their vote. As I said, whether they know it or not.

Let’s zero in for a moment on economic issues. We live in a time of great economic fear and anxiety despite the low unemployment rate, the high stock market, and the growth rate of the economy. And this fear, this anxiety, is actually well-founded though not in the ways some may expect. Following the economic policies begun in the 1980’s, CEO compensation has skyrocketed, corporate taxes have been lowered, real worker wages and benefits have decreased, and the government tax base is shrinking due to corporate tax cuts and loop holes, and lowered taxes for the most wealthy. People, mothers, are and should be afraid for the economic future of their children. And with the growing wage gap, social instability is increasing. The poor and disinherited are not going to stay silent forever nor should we. That is why the Lakewood UCC advisors chose for the church to support the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We want to work for positive, constructive economic justice through institutions and channels in our democratic republic. Better for change to happen that way than through violent revolution or civil war as we see in some societies today.

Mothers are concerned about their children’s future. In the face of economic anxiety and financial fear maybe many of the mothers who chose to vote for the current president did so because they thought a millionaire would know how to create an economic climate that works for everyone; in which everyone has a chance to at least be economically successful if not become extremely wealthy. Surely a millionaire could do this. Was this something up front and conscious among most of the women who voted for President Trump? I don’t know. But we can see that there could be a motivation here even if it was subliminal.

Yes, we live in a culture imbued with fear. It is also imbued with oppression on many fronts including oppression against women. We know that women’s pay lags behind that of men for the same job. We know of the inequities in the IT sector, in the math and science sectors, in the visual art sector and the entertainment sector as well as many other fields.

Here is a recent Facebook post from a book store in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s not the US, but I imagine we have the same issues. Here’s the post:

Nothing like a count of Oxford University Press catalogue to let you know casual sexism & racism are alive and kicking in academic publishing! Leading academic publisher in uk? We’ll just leave the numbers here…
July-Dec books:
105 (white) men
26 (white) women
6 writers of colour

As I said, it is not the US, but I don’t think things are 50-50 here by any means.

There are multitudes of ways that women are not only not equal to men in the US but they are blatantly taken advantage of, disrespected, and demeaned. And it really pains me to have to point out that this happens in church settings. In the body of Christ. All the time. In fact, I think that a case could be made that the church brought the oppression of women to this continent and has perpetuated it.

Several years ago, I had a prominent, local politician, a woman, a Catholic, tell me that she thought only men should be priests because if a parishioner needed the priest in the middle of the night to go to the hospital, say, and the priest was a woman, she would have to ask her husband for permission to go. Again, this is from a woman elected to office and serving the public good in Pinellas County. And, in case you are wondering, she happens to be a Democrat. I was dumbfounded when she said that. I didn’t even know where to begin to refute her remark. I think I said something like, “If I need to go to the hospital for a parishioner in the middle of the night, I do not need to ask my husband for permission.” Actually, I don’t know if I have ever asked my husband for permission to do anything.

The point is, we live in a very sexist culture, and women, whether they know it or not, are oppressed. And if you are a woman of color, it is a double whammy. And this oppression is largely internalized by women. They don’t see it. They don’t notice it. They are not aware of it. They don’t realize that it exists. It is just part of who they are. It can be very subtle and it is ingrained in many of the attitudes and assumptions that are part of our culture. And it is very present in the church, from male priests, to few women pastors of tall steeple churches, to women passed over for lay leadership in the church, to the church teachings that draw from the sexist cultures of Bible times. And there is plenty to work with there.

We can readily see the sexism in the culture of Jesus’ day. There are many stories in the gospels where men cry out to Jesus to be healed or they come to Jesus asking for something. But how often do women come to Jesus asking for help? Begging for healing? Of the many healing encounters portrayed in the gospels, sometimes Jesus initiates those encounters with men and with women. In one story, Jesus approaches a man with the withered hand. In another story, Jesus approaches a woman with a bent back. In some stories, people bring their friends to Jesus to be healed. While the gender of those involved in these references is not always specified, when it is, they are male. For example the paralytic that is lowered through the roof of the house. In addition, there are stories of some men who come to Jesus seeking healing for their loved ones – a daughter, a slave. But in many stories, men come to Jesus for help and healing for themselves. In one gospel, even a thief crucified with Jesus begs Jesus for mercy.

Now let’s think about the stories in which a woman comes to Jesus begging for help or healing. There is the story of the woman with a hemorrhage who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. She takes the initiative but she doesn’t plead or beg. Her intention is to remain unnoticed. Where are we told of women begging? Pleading? Where do we see that? There is a mother who begs for healing – for her daughter. There is Martha who begs for help – for Lazarus, her brother, who has died. There is the mother of the sons of Zebedee who begs Jesus for a favor – for her sons, that they might have a place of honor in Jesus’ realm. Each time a woman comes to Jesus to beg or plead – it’s for someone else. Of course, because women are caregivers. They see to the needs of others. Not themselves. These women will brazenly approach a man, a holy man, a prominent man, pleading and begging, violating religious law and social convention. They will risk being criticized, derided, and berated. For others. Not for themselves. If a woman is healed, it is because a man took the initiative. While there is story after story in the Gospels of men seeking healing for themselves, there is not one story about a woman begging Jesus for healing for herself. Not one. This sends the message that women are not worthy of seeking their own healing from Jesus. So women never hear a story from the gospels that tells them that they have the agency, the value, and the worthiness to seek healing for themselves from Jesus. So is it any wonder that women of today, especially, sadly, Christian women, live with internalized oppression?

So part of the internalized oppression of women, mothers, in our time, is that from stories and movies and TV and entertainment and religion, we absorb the idea that when women are in trouble or in need, it will take a man to rescue them. Noble and chivalrous, maybe, but a man will need to come to the rescue. Women will be saved by a man. From Little Red Riding Hood to Jesus Christ, we all hear it again and again and again and again. Stories of a girl or woman being rescued by a man. And we internalize that narrative as men and as women.

So, the women of today, mothers who are afraid and desperately trying to protect their children, are pre-programmed to be looking for a man to save them and their kids. And whether they know it or not, I imagine that this also contributed to the election of the current president because he certainly seems to portray himself as a male savior.

While Hillary Clinton talked about our working together to create a better future, Donald Trump personally promised to make things better himself. As I said, whether the women voters are aware or not, that narrative ties right into the socialization of women in our culture.

There are other signs of internalized oppression in the election results. I am sure there are women who voted for the current president because, whether they know it or not, they do not believe that a woman is capable of doing that job; it is a man’s job. I am sure there are women who believed all the negative things that were said about the woman candidate while they minimized, ignored, or overlooked the negative things that were said about the man candidate. There are women who voted for the current president because their husbands told them to and they are used to doing what their husbands tell them. I expect there are women who voted with their party and always vote with their party, whichever one it is, because they don’t have confidence in their own ability to think for themselves. They don’t trust themselves to analyze information. They don’t feel capable of sorting through the facts. So they choose to rely on an outside organization, in this case, a political party, to do that for them. There are all kinds of ways that internalized oppression could have influenced the way women voted in the election.

But those kinds of explanations may be subliminal, unconscious; not matters of conscious choice. So, why did women vote for Trump? I think in a fundamental way, it was out of concern and love for their children. They have allowed themselves to be made afraid. They feel they are in a perilous situation. They are desperate. So they chose to overlook a lot because they believed what they were doing was in the best interests of their kids, their families, and their future. So I can even imagine some women holding their noses while voting for Trump.

While this may explain some things, it does not reflect an approach that is consistent with the core character of the teachings of Jesus, despite the fact that many women who voted for Trump go to church or at least consider themselves Christian. They may be part of expressions of Christianity that reinforce the cultural biases of patriarchy and contribute to the second class status of women. This is usually done in the name of Bible-believing Christianity either by people who are ignorant or people who want to perpetuate male dominance and so attribute their desires to the scriptures.

True Christ-like love has no room for such biases. As we noted above, Jesus chose to heal many women. He took the initiative. He demonstrated their worth, equal to men, in the economy of God. The universal, comprehensive nature of Divine Love leaves no room for oppression or fear. As we heard this morning from the First Letter of John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect [or complete] love drives out fear. To fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect [incomplete] in love.” [1 John 4:18]

Jesus showed love for everyone which was evidence of his lack of fear. When we let ourselves be filled with love the fear is driven out. When we let the fear in the love is driven out. The potential for the love is always within us. It is our choice whether we function from the fear or the love. It is the business of the church to admonish people to choose love and cast out the fear. The church needs to encourage people to trust the power of love to transform.

Jesus chose love over fear. He chose love over self interest. He chose love over self protection. He chose love over greed and economic interest. He chose love over social conditioning. He chose love over twisted religious teachings. Jesus lived by the power of love. From a Jesus perspective, the best way we can protect children and provide for their future is to teach LOVE, love for all people, love for Creation, and reverence for all forms of life. That’s how you get a better, safer, more vibrant future for your beloved offspring.

If this was a love-based society where the glue that held us together was our commitment to the common good, we would not have the problems we do. We would not be such easy prey for fear. And we would not have the president that we have. But fearful people are often consumed with their own well-being, their own safety, and their own survival. It’s a higher level of moral development to be able to choose love, not just for yourself, not just for your family, not just for your tribe or even your country, but to choose love for the stranger and the enemy as well. Love is what will create a more just, more stable, and more creative society. Science may never prove it but love is the strongest force in the universe. Just ask a mother. 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 5.6.18 Open Borders

Scripture Lesson: Acts 8:26-40
Sermon: Open Borders
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I love this story of Philip and a treasurer from a far off land. I love it because it challenges our assumptions and our complacency. Philip, an evangelist, gets dropped here and there into unfamiliar, and perhaps unwanted, situations and is expected to deliver good news, the gospel. Whether he wants to or not. Whether it is wanted or not. And in this story, after all of the stories of Jesus and people who are poor, and sick, and forgotten, and outcast, here is the Ethiopian eunuch. About as far out as we can imagine. Stranger. Alien. Foreigner. Outlier. Not the typical down-on-her-luck type we are used to hearing about in the gospels. No. So, again, our expectations, our assumptions, are jarred.

First, Ethiopia. Where was Ethiopia? What scholars seem to agree about is that it was south of Palestine and probably south of Egypt. But since this is before the days of Google Earth, Ethiopia is really a way of saying the end of the known world. The edge. The fringe. The margin. This person was as far out as you could get, geographically, ethnically, and religiously from the mainline Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.

And as if that was not enough, we are told that the person is a eunuch. His body has been altered. He is not “normal.” He cannot function as a man in the biological, procreative sense. So, in yet another way, he is beyond, outside, over the edge.

And before we pigeonhole him as a forlorn pathetic outcast, we must remember that we are told that he is the keeper of the treasury for the queen of his country. He is a person of high esteem, great authority, important responsibility, and, yes, probably very, very rich. Think the 1%. Again, not a characteristic of the typical Jesus follower. So, again, he defies anything that could be considered “normal.”

And, perhaps as we might expect by this point, we are told that the setting for this encounter is the wilderness. Of course. A wild place. Away from typical conventions. Untamed. Unregulated. Because this story ventures into completely new territory for the Jesus movement.

We are told that this Ethiopian man is on his way back from worshipping in Jerusalem. This tells us that he is drawn to the Jewish religion. But because of his physical alteration he cannot enter the precincts of the Temple. He must remain outside and express his devotion among the other “unclean” people who must remain outside the gates of the Temple. He has made a very long journey to have this second hand spiritual experience. So we get the impression he is quite devout; a seeker.

We are also told that he is reading the prophet Isaiah about a lamb led to the slaughter. How would this sound to one who has been altered by a knife? Of course this attracts his attention. He is drawn to a religion that lifts up someone who has been killed as symbol of faithfulness and godliness for he knows what it is to be a suffering servant.

When Philip talks about Jesus, the suffering servant, who has been recently killed, we can see how this Ethiopian would be drawn to a religious figure who has known suffering and yet has stayed true to Divine Love. So he wants to be baptized, to be claimed by this Jesus, as soon as he sees the water.

And so we are told that Philip baptizes this Ethiopian eunuch. Baptizes him into the community of Jesus. He is no longer outside the gate looking in. This foreigner. This one who is unclean. This one who is not normal. This one who is rich. This one with a different language. And a different color of skin and texture of hair. This upscale outsider is accepted and welcomed fully as a follower of Jesus. He is overjoyed!

Now at a UCC church in another part of the country, the people painted 5 doors, rainbow colors, displaying the words “God’s doors open to all,” and installed the doors out in front of the church. Our church is planning on making a similar witness. And I hope we can live up to it.

The church, every church, including this church, is made up of people. And people bring their assumptions and customs and attitudes to church with them. And so in church there are often both blatant and subtle barriers to welcome and inclusion. When this church was going through the Open and Affirming process in the ’90’s, we heard from gay people who were denied communion in the church because they were gay. The clergy would not visit in them in the hospital because they were gay. And these examples were from the Episcopal church not a conservative fundamentalist church. The church creates barriers to Divine Love.

We know about churches that only let baptized members take communion. And sometimes only if they have been baptized in a certain way. We know about churches that put economic stipulations on church membership. We know about churches that restrict full participation based on gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And, again, not just fringe fundamentalists, but think mainstream Catholics, Methodists, and others.

And then there are the churches that insist that Christianity is the only right way to God. The only true religion superseding not only Judaism but all other religions. How does that work for someone who has friends and family of another religion? These attitudes are barriers the church puts up restricting the message of Divine Love encompassing all.

There are also perceived barriers that have to do with means. We regularly have people come to our church during the week to ask for financial help with rent or transportation or other necessities. We invite them to come to church on Sunday. They almost never do. Some have said, I don’t have the right clothes for church. Some have mentioned transportation. They have no car and can’t waste a bus fare. Some worry about the offering. What will they be expected to put in the plate? There are all kinds of perceived potential barriers that keep people out of church.

There are issues around race. After all, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. There are issues around gender and sexual identity. There are issues around financial assumptions and expectations. There are concerns around dress and hygiene. There are all kinds of things that may keep people from taking the risk of entering a church and thus keep them from receiving the spiritual sustenance of the church and from being nurtured by a supportive faith community.

This is a problem that has been created by the church. If the church had always and forever been as welcoming as the church of the New Testament, these impressions would not exist. But the church has done things throughout the centuries, subtle and blatant, to create barriers, borders, and boundaries that try to wall off, manage, and control Divine Love. This is wrong. It is not of God. It is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. It is sin.

Some years ago, I was invited to a breakfast for ministers that was supposed to be about working on racial harmony among various religious groups. I got a letter about the breakfast. I had the church office manager call in my reservation. I appeared on a Saturday morning at the breakfast. As I went in I greeted several people that I knew. When I went to the sign in table I sensed some hesitation. I made a name tag. I introduced myself to people I did not know. But I still had a strange feeling. There were whites and blacks there. There were pastors I knew. But then I saw what was going on. There were no other women there. No one else of the female persuasion. Finally, a colleague I knew well told me that this was a breakfast for men only. But I got an invitation. Well, the person sending out the invitations made a mistake. Must not have known that I was a woman. Basically, I was not welcome. I did not fit in. Like the eunuch, I did not have the right parts. I was not supposed to be there. The men felt uncomfortable and did not know what do to with me. But I did not leave. I stayed for the whole thing. And listened to their plans for their male movement to work on breaking down racial barriers. They needed to work on gender barriers, too, but they couldn’t see that. I was not wanted and I knew it.

So even though I am white and carry my white privilege, even though I am of secure financial means and can dress appropriately, even though I am well-educated and well-spoken, even though I am a married heterosexual mother of three, I still know what it is to feel that I do not belong, that I do not fit in, that I am not accepted, that I am not welcome. And people are made to feel that way all day, every day in countless settings.

NO ONE SHOULD EVER FEEL THAT WAY IN CHURCH. EVER. Period. Even if you are a white supremacist neo nazi rapist and child molester, you should still feel that this is a place where the people will love you and open their hearts to you and treat you in a way that is compassionate. NO EXCEPTIONS. And that is the message that the world needs to hear loud and clear from the church today.

Peoples’ lives depend on it. Peace in homes, communities, and between nations depends on it. Our US democracy depends on it. The well-being of the planet itself depends on it. This is not feel-good blather. This is core to the harmonious functioning of civilization.

Jesus goes beyond the borders of his religious tradition in so many ways to make this message known: God’s love includes everyone. Every single person is created in the image of God. And Philip is dropped down in Samaria, and then in the wilderness, and then in Azotus, another foreign territory, to make the same point. Whether the people want to hear it or not. The love of God encompasses everyone.

We, too, are called to proclaim this message. Now, it’s pretty easy here where we mostly agree about this. And with our friends and family that mostly feel this way. But, like Philip, we are called to be snatched up and plunked down in situations that feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and maybe even unwelcoming and unreceptive, and to proclaim the bold and daring all-encompassing love of God. Maybe we even need to be seeking out these situations. We can proclaim the open borders of Divine Love with gentleness. We can do it with love. We can do it with compassion. But we MUST do it, and we must do it with strength and conviction. Whether the message is welcome or not. Whether we feel comfortable or not. Whether it is safe or not. The church, you and I, need to dismantle every border and boundary and barrier to the full humanity of every single homo sapiens sapiens. We must be a people of open borders. 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 Earth Sunday 4.22.18

Scripture Lesson: Acts 3:1-20a
Sermon: A Season of Refreshment
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In the Harry Potter books, there are three unforgivable curses. One is the cruciatus curse. This involves inflicting extreme torture. A second one is the imperious curse. This curse controls the actions of another person. And the third unforgivable curse is avada kedavra, the killing curse. In the world of Harry Potter, these three curses cannot be forgiven.

When we think of the world of Christianity, what are the things that cannot be forgiven? Certainly real live people, in the actual world, do horrific things, cause unimaginable pain and death, and devise schemes of extreme evil. We humans are quite capable of torture, control and slavery, and, yes, death, even grand killing schemes responsible for the deaths of millions. Yet, in the world of Christianity, in the teachings of Jesus, in the tradition of the Bible, what is unforgivable?

Peter and John are part of the community of followers of Jesus staying in Jerusalem. After the crucifixion they remain in Jerusalem first afraid and then emboldened by their experiences of Jesus. They are confirmed in their conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. And as we heard today they are still devout Jews going to the Temple for services. They have not abandoned their religious tradition. They have not founded a new religion. They are functioning very much within Judaism trying to extend its influence and inviting others to experience the saving love of Jesus as they have.

So Peter and John go to the Temple and encounter a lame person who is put just outside the Temple gate each afternoon before services begin so that the worshippers will pass by and give him alms. Peter and John have no money for him, so instead they offer him healing. And the man gets up and not only walks, but leaps and dances, through the gate and into the Temple. His infirmity marked him as a sinner and so he was not permitted into the Temple precincts, but now, healed, he may enter the Temple, he is restored not only in body, but he is restored to full participation in the faith community.

And what accounts for this healing? Peter and John take no credit. It is not because of them. It is because of Jesus. It is the power of the name of Jesus that is responsible for the healing of this man. The power of Jesus’ love is so great it restores health, wholeness, and relationship. Jesus, the Just One, the Holy One, the Author of Life, Jesus is the one responsible for this healing.

In light of this extravagant display of the great power and love of Jesus, Peter reminds those present that they are responsible for the killing of Jesus. It’s almost like he is rubbing salt in the wound. Yeah, ya know, the guy you killed, he healed this man. Yeah, he’s that good. He’s that “of God.” And you killed him. Peter sees that some may have been party to Jesus’ death unknowingly. He acknowledges ignorance. But still, many of those to whom he speaks had a hand in the killing of Jesus; were perhaps part of the crowd that yelled, “Crucify him!” But Peter doesn’t stop with an accusation, with pointing the finger, with guilt. He goes on to offer forgiveness. Just as the lame man has been healed and restored to the community, forgiveness and restoration is offered to those who are responsible for the death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus, this worst thing imaginable, even this is forgivable. With God, in Divine Grace, nothing is unforgivable. There are no unforgivable sins. Not even one.

This Sunday is Earth Day. And yes, we all give thanks for the beauty of Creation. We know our dependence upon the Earth for life. We cherish nature. We marvel and awe at the ever expanding cosmos. We see the goodness and holiness of Creation ever before us. But this is also a Sunday to be reminded that we are in part responsible for the abuse, the degradation, and perhaps the collapse of the life-sustaining environment on Earth as we know it. Humans have known of their effect for good and ill on the environment and on the climate for centuries. Humans have known the negative impact of fossil fuels for decades. And if we may not feel personally responsible, we may at least acknowledge ignorance. We didn’t know. And we didn’t know what to do about it.

But now we do know much more about what is happening. And we do know much more about what to do about it. Fossil fuel usage contributed much to human advancement, but humanity has developed the capacity to progress even further using sustainable energy sources, and yet we are resisting the transition, the change, to this new future. We have been holding on to the past and now, yes, it is killing us.

I have a friend and colleague who is black and is rightly concerned about the killing of black people in America; the deaths attributable to racism from violence and poverty. It is unacceptable for unarmed black children to be shot dead especially by police who are committed to protect and to serve. I get that. It horrifies me as well.

But when I mention that even more black people are dying of toxins in the air, water, and land, that is dismissed as irrelevant. My friend sees environmentalism as a cushy concern of people like me with white privilege. I can worry about plastic straws and solar panels because my kids aren’t being killed. But restoring the environment is as least as important as other concerns because the first people suffering the negative effects of climate change and pollution are often, well, people of color. Usually poor and brown. In America, in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Asia. Climate change is contributing to conflicts around the world, including the civil war in Syria, and exacerbating the refugee crisis which is fueling the white supremacist movement worldwide which brings us right back to an unarmed black child being shot asking for directions about how to get to school right here in America.

Our tradition teaches that Creation, the Earth, the environment is holy and sacred. A gift to be revered and cherished – like Jesus. And we are killing it, as we did Jesus. But we, too, can be forgiven, restored, and given new life with the power to transform ourselves and the world to our intended health and wholeness. Just like those who are responsible for the death of Jesus, like the disciples who deserted Jesus, fled, and denied him, and were restored and forgiven, we too are offered new life with the boldness and courage to proclaim the sacredness of Earth and the entire cosmos.

Part of that transformation process is forgiveness. Forgiveness can relieve us of making excuses for the past. It can free us from defending past choices. Forgiveness can unburden us and allow grace to flow freely and infuse us with the power and energy for change. Humanity has the know-how and the resources to reverse climate change and to renew the natural world. What is needed is the will, the commitment, and the desire. Through repentance and forgiveness may we find new life in the name of the Just One, the Holy One, the Author of Life, the one who unjustly died a horrific death. Because in our reality, in the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there are no unforgivable sins and the power of healing and new life is never dead to us. 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.

After the sermon, there was a litany of confession:

VIDUI FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY from the Jewish tradition

ALL:
We confess our sins against the earth.
We commit ourselves to saving it.

We have assaulted our planet in countless ways
We have blamed others for the spiraling, deepening crisis
We have consumed thoughtlessly and irresponsibly
We have driven myriad species to the point of extinction
We have exhausted irreplaceable resources
We have failed to transcend borders and act unselfishly
We have given in to our many appetites and our gluttony
We have harmed beyond repair the habitats of living beings
We have ignored the signs of change in our climate and our seasons
We have jeopardized the well-being of future generations
We have known the problem but left problem-solving to others
We have lost sight of our role as God’s partners in creation
We have mocked, cynically, those who love creatures great and small
We have neglected the environment, most of all, in places of poverty
We had over-populated our cities and over-fished our oceans
We have polluted seashore and sky, fertile soil and freshwater springs
We have questioned and doubted solid evidence of danger
We have ravaged the old growth forests – ecosystems created over centuries
We have spewed poison into the bloodstream of our land: its rivers, lakes, and estuaries
We have transformed dazzling beauty into industrial ugliness
We have used shared resources for personal gain and corporate profit
We have violated the commandment “Do not destroy”
We have wasted precious treasures, our God-given gifts
We have exploited the weakest and most vulnerable in our midst

ALL:
And yet we yearn to be better guardians of this earth and the fullness thereof
Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos, this planet – our sacred home.

After the litany, the congregation was invited outside for a special Ritual of Healing.

RITUAL OF HEALING

Reflections on air.

You are invited to breathe in – breathe out. Take several deep breaths.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing of the air.

Reflections on water.

You are invited to come to the fountain and dip your hand in the water, feel the sensation, so natural and yet so unique. Life-giving. Life- sustaining. As the touch of water led to understanding for Helen Keller, may the touch of water help us to understand that we are water, we come from water, water is our life.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing of the waters.

Reflections on plants.

You are invited to raise your arms and spread them, wave them, like the limbs of a great tree. May our upraised arms remind us to branch out in faith and service!

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing of forests, trees, and plants.

Reflections on animals.

You are invited to look for an animal, a sign of animal life – right here, right now. And be reminded that we have been entrusted with the care orc each and every creature.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing and restoration of animal life.

Reflections on earth, soil.

You are invited to touch the ground, the earth. Maybe take your shoes off and feel the ground under your feet.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos,
We commit ourselves to the healing of earth.

Reflections on humanity.

You are invited to touch someone, someone near you, in a way that is mutually agreeable. Notice the person you are touching. Feel the hand of the person who is touching you, the sensation on your flesh. The laying on of hands has long been a powerful symbol of healing and authority. As we touch each other, we claim our authority as healers of humanity and of creation.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos,
We commit ourselves to the healing of humanity.

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Sermon 4.29.18 Love Is Kind of Crazy

Scripture Lesson: 1 John 3:16-24
Sermon: Love Is Kind of Crazy
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Barely 30 years old, divorced for the second time, and the mother of 7 children, Dolores Huerta left her home in Stockton, CA where she was working as a teacher and community organizer to work on forming a labor organization for farmworkers. There was no promise of an income, a salary, health insurance, nothing. But as she puts it, “I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolores_Huerta] So she left home and job to take on this problem. Now why does someone do something like that? If Huerta was poor and suffering from the horrific working conditions of farm workers, she would be doing it to help herself as well as others. But Huerta was not a farm worker. As she told the audience at Eckerd College this week, she is a 6th generation American. Her mother was a successful business woman running a hotel and a restaurant. Huerta grew up with piano lessons and season tickets to the symphony. She was a majorette and a Girl Scout. [http://doloreshuerta.org/dolores-huerta/] And as an adult, she was working as a teacher and in a community service center. She was a professional. And yet she left all of this, a single mother with her children to care for, and moved to a distant community to work for human rights for farm workers because she was alarmed by the awful living and working conditions that the farm workers were forced to endure. In 1988, Huerta was severely beaten by police during a non violent demonstration. Her injuries were extreme. She was truly putting her life on the line to end injustice.

How do we explain something like this? Making such a radical choice? Enduring such suffering? After hearing the New Testament reading this morning, we know what this drastic, self sacrificing action is. It is love. In her own way, Huerta was laying down her life for the lives of others. I have to tell you, Huerta is an inspiration. At 88 years old, she has the vigor – intellectual and verbal – of someone half her age, and she has passion to match the room full of college students that gathered to hear her speak. Today she addresses her efforts to far more than farm workers. She supports full human rights for every single person. No matter what. She is committed to social change on every front and she believes this can only happen through non violent organizing. Divine Love was definitely present in Fox Hall at Eckerd College Thursday night.

Yes, packing up your kids and heading into an unknown future with little promise of security of any kind, that’s crazy. It’s also love. And love is kind of crazy.

Many songs explore the inanity and insanity of romantic love and I’m sure we can think of many examples. People do all kinds of crazy things for their romantic partner. Parents do crazy things out of love for their children. But the craziness of love extends beyond familial love to Divine Love, the love we see in Jesus. As we heard today, Jesus, out of love, laid down his life. Gave it up. How crazy is that? Think about it. If he had done it differently, he could have kept preaching and teaching and healing for decades. Think of all the good he could have done if his ministry had been so much longer. There could have been many volumes of his sermons and teachings to inspire future generations. But no. After 3 years, he laid down his life. He chose to give up his life. He opted for self sacrifice, for martyrdom, rather than self protection. Why? Love.

Jesus’ love, his full and free love of all people put him at odds with people who wanted to protect their power. The more he loved the more threatened they felt and the more hostile they became. But Jesus would not relent in his loving. And the antagonism grew to fatal proportions. The only way to avoid death was to hold back on the love. And he couldn’t do that. So Jesus chose death. He laid down his life. Yes, it’s crazy.

And there is a back side or underbelly to this laying down your life, choosing to face death. Those committed to the way of Jesus will lay down their lives, but they will not take a life. Ever. The Jesus followers of the first century were persecuted, tortured, and killed. But they did not take a life. They did not engage in violent activity of any kind. They emulated the pacifism of Jesus. We see this, too, in Dolores Huerta and in the farm worker movement. No violence. Of any kind. Under any circumstances.

The Jesus way of love is extreme. We read in the New Testament of people leaving home and family and job essentially for love. We are told of people selling land and possessions and all that they have and living in common out of love. We are told of people being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for love. To our thinking in our culture these things seem irrational, unreasonable, not prudent, even irresponsible. Yes, love is kind of crazy.

And the message of the New Testament is that those who follow Jesus, those who have been called to life in his name, are to do the same and commit to this extreme kind of love. They are to love one another to the point of laying down their lives for one another. Radical? Fanatic? Yes, pretty crazy.

A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon about the importance of factuality and reason- based religion in this age of fake news and personally constructed realities. I talked about the need for rationality in religion. Yes, facts and reason are important. But love is the complement. It is the completion. It is the both/and of faith. Divine Love, with its seeming irrationality and imprudence and extremism, challenges us to put our intellect and reason and our moral vision to work at the highest level. With full commitment. In the extreme. So, yes, Divine Love can look kind of crazy!

This crazy kind of love is needed today as much if not more than it was in the first century. And it was as crazy then as it is now. The words we heard from the New Testament remind us that our faith is about more than just saying something or praying something. It is about taking action. Action that may be drastic. Extreme. Even laying down our lives.

Now, such opportunities for heroism, giving up your life for someone else, may be rare. So the writer of 1 John extends the expression of love from the extreme of giving up your life out of love to offering help to those who are in need in some way. First John asks: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

So even if we can’t see how we would lay down our lives we can see that there is great need in our families, in our communities, and in the world. So there is no lack of opportunity to address ourselves to the needs of the world in ways that are seemingly extreme and radical as Dolores Huerta did. So when you feel some kind of urge to do something wild, seemingly irrational, outrageous, pay attention. It might be Divine Love seeking expression in you!

When you think about it, people in our culture appear to be making sacrifices all of time. But are they self giving sacrifices made from a place of love? Or are they ultimately self serving? Made to comply with cultural norms especially around economic and material gain? Are the sacrifices made out of self interest and self protection?

The love we heard about this morning, the love that Jesus commands, is love for others, all others. It is love that sacrifices for the well being of others especially those who are in the most need. It is love that takes risks for those who are in need and who are suffering; stranger as well as friend and family.

I read some years back about a child rescued after an earthquake. [I don’t know remember the origin of this story.] There were many people buried and many who had come to help. A reporter watched as a man dug a child out from a very dangerous location. The man was clearly risking his life to save the child. He got the boy out and then carried the injured child to a taxi that would take them to the hospital. The boy’s life was in peril. The reporter got in the cab with the man and the boy. She watched as the man cradled the boy and kissed him and said soothing things to him. As they rode to the hospital, the reporter wanted to complete her notes for the article she would write. She asked the man his name. He replied. Then she asked the man the name of the boy. He looked at her. Confused. He explained to the reporter, I do not know the boy. I have never seen him before today.

“We know love by this – that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. . . Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Love. It is kind of crazy. 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 50th Anniversary – Rev. Angela V. Wells

Scripture Lesson: Colossians 3:12-17
Sermon: A Third Way
Pastor: Rev. Angela V. Wells

I went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City for graduate school from 2009-2012. My entering class had probably 150 or so people in it. The first-year Master of Divinity students took a lot of classes together, including Introduction to the Old Testament, Introduction to the New Testament, Systematic Theology, Church History, and so on and so forth.

During our class discussions, and in the library, and other informal gatherings around campus, I could see that my classmates were struggling in a way that I was not. Now, I was no expert, I was one of the youngest in our class, fresh out of college. I had less life experience and formal education than many of the people in our entering class, so I tried to figure out what in the world these people were grappling with that I… wasn’t.

It turned out that many of my classmates were raised in Christian traditions that were, well, suffice it to say, different from the context in which I was raised. They were from the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the American Baptist church, the Episcopal church, the Methodist church, the African Methodist Episcopal church and the list went on. What I eventually came to understand was that my classmates were struggling with trying to reconcile what they’d been taught in their home churches with what they were learning in seminary.

At home, they had either implicitly or explicitly been taught that Christianity was the only right way, now in seminary, we were being taught classes by a man named Paul Knitter, who wrote a book entitled, Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian. At home, they’d been taught that the Gospel stories about Jesus’ life were historically accurate, that these events, these miracles literally took place.

In seminary, we were being taught that the different Gospel accounts of the same stories were written at different times, by different people, with different political motivations. So these facts made it really hard for anyone to know what literally took place, what didn’t, and how Jesus’ life actually played out. Not to mention the fact that in our language classes, we were learning that one Hebrew or Greek word could have upwards of 10 or more English equivalents, and the English word that the biblical translator chose could significantly affect the meaning of the whole sentence or larger story. AND, remember that the first texts written down, Paul’s writings, were written starting about 30 years after Jesus died, so we can be pretty sure that none of the Gospel accounts were written by first-hand witnesses because they were all long dead by the time any of this was put on paper.

I was fine with all this information. I absorbed it, with varying levels of enthusiasm or interest, but I certainly wasn’t bothered by any of it, I wasn’t struggling with this new information. But my classmates were another story. Some of them were even having crises of faith, questioning all that they’d been taught in their churches up to that point, questioning so many of the sermons they’d heard, Bible studies they’d sat through, and so on. They were trying to figure out whether what they’d been taught by beloved pastors, mentors, parents, friends, and Sunday School teachers was “right,” or what they were learning in seminary was “right,” because they couldn’t reconcile the two.

My experience was vastly different. What I was learning in seminary completely aligned with all that I had been raised with. It resonated with the sermons I heard, the family discussions we had around the dinner table. All the puzzle pieces fit together for me.

For example, one day, in our Preaching and Worship class, our professor spent the day talking about the hymnal that we used in our chapel at seminary, also the hymnal that you all use, the New Century Hymnal. She talked about the controversy over changing the words to hymns. She talked about the theological reasoning behind removing militaristic imagery and regal imagery like king and kingdom. She talked about why they removed the word Lord and didn’t use the male pronoun for God in any of the hymns, unless the female pronoun was used as well. Some of my classmates were aghast, they thought this was sacrilegious. The editors had butchered their beloved hymns that they had memorized from childhood.

I sheepishly raised my hand and offered another perspective. I told them that I was raised with this hymnal. That my home church didn’t use male pronouns for God and I liked that our hymnal’s vocabulary matched the language we used in the rest of the service. I said that the words to the beloved hymns that I had memorized were the words of the New Century Hymnal. They were my “original” version of the hymns. The new way, the new vocabulary, it wasn’t new to me, because it was all I knew.

They say that you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, and I can admit that I didn’t fully appreciate Lakewood until I was exposed to the wider world of churches and Christianity. You see, this church is a gift to Christianity because in a black and white world of dichotomies and either/ors, Lakewood presents a third way. I didn’t know it was a third way until much later in life, because, during my childhood it as all I knew, I thought it was just how church was done. But most Christians in the world know of two ways, and the problem is that an increasing number of people can’t see themselves in either of those two ways. The third way is a lifeline for people who are seeking something, who want to be part of a Christian community, but can’t find belonging in either of the two ways our society offers. So, what are these two ways?

The first way is dogmatic Christianity as we hear about it in the news and from traditional/conservative preachers and public speakers. It’s the Christianity, which professes that Jesus is God-incarnate and rose from the dead on the third day. This Christianity professes the doctrinal truth of the trinity, that God is 3-in-one, Father, Holy Spirit, and Son. This Christianity subscribes to substitutionary atonement, or the belief that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world, to atone for the original sin that Adam and Eve committed. This Christianity teaches that God loved the world so much that God sent his only son to die for us. This Christianity usually takes the Bible literally, lifting it up as the inerrant word of God. This Christianity professes that God is a theistic being which created the world and still has control over something so vast as the cosmos and something so minute as our individual lives. This Christianity teaches that prayer is a way to appeal to, or talk to this God. We ask for what we want and if we don’t get it, it’s because we are not faithful enough, didn’t pray hard enough, or it’s just not God’s will for us.

I can understand if some of this is making you bristle or cringe, which is why you feel at home at Lakewood and not any of the other thousands of churches in our country. Lots of people who are looking for a community of faith can’t get on board with most of this, regardless of whether they were raised Christian. They can’t subscribe to the magical thinking, suspension of reason and logic, ignorance of historical and scientific truths, not to mention the exclusiveness of it, because in this first way, Christianity is the only way. So, people who just can’t be part of this faith tradition, they either cobble together something on their own such as “spiritual but not religious,” or they do away with all of it and call themselves an Atheist.

This is the second way. Such people back up their argument with all the statistics about how many wars have been fought in the name of religion, and that we’d be better off not having any organized religion at all. They might tell you how religious people meddle in politics to the detriment of society and, by the way, there is no God, so let’s stop pretending there is and just get rid of all houses of worship.

I can understand if this second way also makes you cringe because, since you are part of a faith community, I presume you see the value in it. You see the importance of coming together with people that have the same values to celebrate all that is good in the world, lament when things aren’t good, and work together to change them. We happen to do all this in the name of Jesus, whom we follow.

This is the third way that Lakewood is following, which is a lifeline to people who want to be part of a faith tradition, who want to be part of a community that recognizes all that around us is sacred and so we’re committed to protecting it for the sake of all life.

You all engage our Holy Scriptures, but you don’t believe that critiquing them, questioning them, or learning about their origins is somehow threatening to their inherent worth. The fact that you all can say that the Bible is valuable because of all that it teaches us through its stories, not because it’s historically accurate or because it was written by God through men, is revolutionary.

The fact that you all engage scientific advancements as being amazing and awe-inspiring because they reveal more and more to us about the vast, unknown universe, and that science isn’t threatening to our beliefs but reinforces what we know to be true, that we are not the center of the universe, is reassuring and humbling.

The fact that you all don’t ask people to check their critical thinking skills or their rationality at the door, and that you all put on your shoes and use your hands and turn your “thoughts and prayers” into action, you all are what Christianity needs.

If the church continues to insist that people buy into the first way, well, Christianity might continue to exist in some form, but it’ll be small and irrelevant because most people won’t buy into the that myth anymore. But if we continue to expand the third way, that people can have a faith practice that aligns with their worldview and encourages their political participation, in the name of following Jesus, then the church will thrive in the future.

Lakewood is so needed at this moment in time, because you all, church and pastor, encourage engaging our faith with our lived reality. As the famous theologian Karl Barth said that, “one must do theology with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.”

Now, I know that Lakewood is a small church, always has been for as long as I have been around. But I lovingly call it “the little church that could.” Because I know you all worry about finances and getting a new roof and paying bills and staff salaries, and maybe there have been times when you’ve wondered whether Lakewood could stay solvent long enough to have a future.

Well let me tell you, it’s lonely at the front. You are at the forefront of a religious sea change, the rest of us just haven’t caught up yet. The third way that this congregation offers is life-giving to people who are longing for community, critical thinking and social justice through following Jesus Christ.
Don’t tell my church this, but you’re also having an impact up north because a lot of what I do, and much of the information that I share with my colleagues in the Boston area, is inspired by what you all are doing, down here. So your influence extends far and wide beyond St. Pete.

Sometimes the future might seem bleak, and the road ahead won’t always be easy, but it is necessary for the future of our faith. So please, keep being you, keep being trail-blazers, because the rest of us, who also are seeking a 3rd way, we are looking to you all to set the pace.

Thanks be to God for this community of faith, Lakewood United Church of Christ, as it was, as it is, and as it is yet to be. Amen.

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Sermon Easter Sunrise – Fully Known, Fully Loved

Easter Sunday April 1, 2018
Scripture Lesson: John 20:1-18
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It is painted, sung about, and immortalized. That moment in the Easter story from the Gospel of John when Mary meets Jesus in the graveyard. She does not recognize him until he says her name. Mary. In the name is the knowing. It just takes the name and we know that this is a reference to the identity of the person, the history, the experiences, the inner feelings, the relationships, the habits, the quirks, the foibles, the full sense of Mary’s being. In that moment, Mary is made aware that she is fully known.

Jesus is known for fully knowing. He is known for knowing people as they truly are, not as they may perceive themselves nor as they may be perceived by others. His is a true knowing. A knowing in full not in part.

We see this in story after story in the New Testament. In the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, he mentions that she has had five husbands. That is not something that she would have been advertising about herself. Yet he knew. Probably everyone else in her town was spreading the word. And we are shown a Jesus who knows this. And he still asks her for water. And he still gives her living water. And she goes to offer this saving gift to the people of her town who have doubtless tormented her. Fully known.

The gospels share a story of Jesus finding a group of men ready to stone a woman for adultery. She makes no plea of innocence. Fully known. But in the story, Jesus turns to those with the rocks at the ready, arms drawn back, and says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” They, too, are fully known.

In another story, Zacchaeus, a notorious hated upper crust financial functionary, climbs a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. And Jesus stops and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus knows all about Zacchaeus and his cheating and his greed. Zacchaeus is fully known.

And there is the story of a rich young ruler. He comes to Jesus desperately seeking life in God. Jesus knows this man. He knows there is just one thing. And the rich young man cannot accept Jesus’ offer. And Jesus is sad, so sad, for he knows this man.

We are told that Jesus knows those who initiate his execution. He knows those who adjudicate his trial. He knows the governor who can stay his execution, but does not. He knows the thieves that are crucified with him. Jesus knows them all. They are fully know.

Just that one word, in the cemetery, “Mary.” She is fully known. As are so many others. Nothing is hidden.

And what of these people who are fully known? With their past. With the evil intentions of their hearts. With their cheating and stealing. With their self absorption and greed. With their lust for power. With their self protectionist proclivities. What of this sorry lot? We are shown a Jesus who knows it all. They are fully known. Not in a clairvoyant, woo woo, supernatural way. But in a sincere, insightful, honest way that comes from paying attention and listening and caring.

We are also shown something else about Jesus. All of these people, all of the people healed and forgiven. The crowds. The women. The townspeople. The corrupt leaders. The hypocritical priests. The executioners. The disciples. All of them are fully known. And they are also fully loved. Loved for their full humanity and all of its imperfections. Loved for all of their misguided schemes. Loved for all of their hopes and dreams. Loved for all of their pain, grief, and guilt. Loved because of who they are. Loved in spite of who
they are. Fully known. Fully loved.

We may not know all about Jesus. We may hardly know his story. But all we really need to know is about the love. For each and every person. Because at the core, each and every one of us is holy and sacred. And because of that, we are worthy to be loved. Before anything we do or say, we are beloved. Because of everything we do and say, we are beloved. In spite what we do and say, we are beloved. And there’s nothing we can do about it. We are fully known and fully loved in the reality of God.

In the book, The Song of the Bird, Anthony De Mello shares this story:

I was a neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. And everyone kept telling me to change. And everyone kept telling me how neurotic I was. And I resented them, and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but I just couldn’t bring myself to change, no matter how hard I tried.
What hurt the most was that my best friend also kept telling me how neurotic I was. He too kept insisting that I change. And I agreed with him too, though I couldn’t bring myself to resent him. And I felt so powerless and so trapped.
Then one day he said to me, “Don’t change. Stay as you are. It really doesn’t matter whether you change or not. I love you just as you are; I cannot help loving you.”
These words sounded like music to my ears: “Don’t change. Don’t change. Don’t change. I love you.”
And I relaxed. And I came alive. And, oh wondrous marvel, I changed.

[Quoted in 25 Windows into the Soul: Praying with the Psalms, from the writings of Joan Chittister, p. 78]

Yes, the story of the encounter between Jesus and Mary in the garden is famous for that one word, “Mary,” showing us that we are fully known and fully loved. But there is another phrase in that story that is also well-remembered. Jesus asks Mary, “Why are you weeping?” Why are you weeping?

Do we weep because of this great love? We are fully known and fully loved. Does the enormity of it bring us to tears? Why are we weeping? Are we weeping in repentance? Seeking the healing of forgiving love? Why are we weeping? Are we weeping because the awareness that we are fully known and fully loved makes our compassion for ourselves, others and the world well up? Why are we weeping? Is it because in spite of this love, we will continue to hurt ourselves and others? Why are we weeping? Is it because we have not been able to say yes to this belovedness?

Why are we weeping? This Easter, may we know that we are fully known and fully loved and may we weep tears of joy. 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 Palm Sunday – Ashes to Ashes: Life Before Death

Sunday March 25, 2018

Rev. Kim P. Wells

We began the Lenten season with ashes on Ash Wednesday. We reminded ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Death is the great fact of life. Real. True. Undisputed. No fake news, here. Death is democratic and egalitarian and inclusive. If you’re alive, there is one thing you can be sure of. You will die. Everyone dies.

This week, we remember one particular death. One very specific, cruel death. And this, too, is real. Factual. No fake news. While there is not much that can be historically verified about the life of Jesus, about his death, there is agreement. He was put to death on a cross. This was the Roman punishment for traitors, insurrectionists, and people who were thought to be threats to the Empire. Apparently, Jesus’ influence had become so great, that the Roman authorities could be convinced that he was a threat to their power in the territory of Palestine, already known for being rebellious.

So this week, we remember the death of Jesus. His death on the cross. But his death only really matters, only really is remembered, only really has meaning for us today, because of his life. Jesus lived his life in the reality of God. He breathed in and out unconditional, universal love. When he looked at a person, any person, he could only see a beloved, sacred, Divine being. And he, himself, was the most fully human human being.

Jesus knew that he was a wanted man by the authorities in Jerusalem. He knew they wanted him dead. We know from books and movies and TV that when there is a death threat, the person heads the other way, hides out, steers clear of the source of the threat. Not Jesus. He knew the threat was in Jerusalem. The capital. Where there was a concentration of religious power and political power. In collusion. Which typically results in corruption. And that is where he goes. And he doesn’t sneak in. We’re told he makes an entrance. In a parade. Not military style on a strapping steed with armaments in tow but on a donkey, the way strewn cloaks and with branches from nearby trees. Jesus imbues a traditional image, the military procession, with new meaning. He is not coming from having killed others in defense of the Empire. He is coming to be killed, to face his own death, because he is perceived as a threat to the Empire.

When we think of facing fear or a threat with our natural human instincts our response is typically fight or flight. Jesus chooses another way. He chooses the way of sacrificial love. He proceeds to his death not with resignation, but with strength, courage, and defiance, infused with compassion, meekness, and humility. It a rare and beautiful combination. Because of the way Jesus lived, because of the way he faces his death, because in him we see love conquering fear, the death penalty, the crucifixion, will not silence his voice, as his killers hope, but will amplify it so that his message is still powerfully heard today.

According to the gospel of John, in his last evening with his friends, his last opportunity to get across the main point, the big picture, the core concept, Jesus washes the feet of his friends. A humble, servile act. And he gives a new commandment – to “love one another as I have loved you.” Love and serve. That’s what he did. He didn’t just talk about it. He did it.

And he did this up to the very last moment of his life. We are given the tradition of Jesus forgiving even those responsible for his execution. We remember his death because of the way he lived his life.

The way you live is the way you die. Jesus shows us Divine Love that is not intimidated by fear or violence or hatred. When we live in that love, we need have no fear. Not even of death. Amen.

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Sermon 2.4.18 Healing Faith

Scripture Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

Rev. Kim P. Wells

This week we heard the heart breaking story of Luis Blanco and his family. Blanco is married and the father of 6 children with another one on the way. The children are US citizens. He has been living and working in the US for 20 years, contributing to the community and taking care of his family.

But as we know, Blanco is not in the US legally. He doesn’t have citizenship or a green card. So he is being held by the authorities and expected to be deported back to Mexico. It is a heart breaking situation for this family and many others like them. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that we can send a person to the moon, a probe to Mars, we can carry the world in our pocket in the form of a cell phone with the Internet, but we don’t seem to be able to come up with a way for longterm residents of the US who work and contribute to their communities, to live here legally. Can we really not come up with a solution? Are we really just too dumb to resolve this? My brother lives in Wisconsin, and he says that if all the undocumented agricultural workers in that state are deported, the dairy industry will collapse. He assures me there will be far less cheese on the shelves here in our Florida grocery stores.

This is just one of many situations in the world around us that show us that we are not well. Our society is not healthy. In the US, there are 29.7 homicides by firearm per one million people a year. The next closest country is Switzerland, with 7.7 homicides per million people a year. [The Christian Century, 11/8/17, p. 9]  There is a gun problem in this country. There is a violence problem. With #metoo, and the recent revelations about sports doctors, we are reminded that there is a sexual misconduct problem of epic proportions in this country. We know of the opioid crisis and addiction problems. We know of rising poverty in spite of the rising stock market. The statistics say there are more jobs and higher wages, but people still keep coming to the church for help with rent and food and  medication and bus transportation. The economy is only healthy for some. We know that there are racial problems in our country. We know of the problems in families where everyone is on their phone and their screen device and there is little to no communication and involvement among family members. And while we know about global warming, did you know that pollution kills at least 9 million people a year and not just in impoverished countries; Japan and the US are among the top ten countries with deaths due to fossil fuel and chemical pollution.  [The Christian Century, 11/22/17, p. 9]   We see sickness around us in so many ways. We experience dis-ease in our own lives and in our families as well as in the world around us.

In the beautiful first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus starts his ministry full force. We hear of John the Baptizer preparing the way. Jesus is among the crowds that head out to the wilderness to be baptized. Then Jesus is tempted by evil in the wilderness for 40 days. After that, he begins his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus recruits a few odd folks working in the fishing industry, and it’s off to teach in the synagogue, and exorcise demons, and heal. All in chapter one. Healing, healing, healing. We are told of Simon’s mother in law. Then, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” People so in need of healing. Then the next day, as Jesus prays alone in the dark, Simon comes to find him and announces, “Everyone is searching for you.” The people are so in need of the healing Jesus has to offer. So we are given this testimony of a beautiful ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing.

We see so much need for healing around us and the beautiful passage from Mark that we heard this morning reminds us that the ministry of Jesus, and so the ministry of the church, is a ministry of healing. Through worship, prayer, ritual, teaching, visiting, advocacy, and preaching, the church is about offering the healing ministry of Jesus to the world. From Jesus, we don’t see condemnation, we don’t see judgment, we don’t see people being castigated and vilified. There is no threat of punishment or violence. Jesus offers healing through forgiveness and love. His healing is based on love not fear. And it is not only available to those who can pay. Jesus freely offers healing to everyone. He shows us that love is the most powerful force there is. It is more potent than nuclear power, political power, or economic power. Because love is transformational.

While the world wants to keep accounts, and the world wants to promote success in the form of looking young and being rich, while the world promotes looking out for number one, and domination through competition, while the world is consumed with commodifying people and goods, Jesus comes and heals. And not for acclamation or fame or wealth. He willingly dies on a cross. Creating no victims. No collateral damage. No revenge.

Jesus heals by dispelling the delusions and fake realities of the day. He teaches people to be enchanted by the world, by reality, by life. Jesus invites us to experience our full humanity. And that means being real about all of our amazing imperfections. Without imperfections, without mistakes, we are not fully human. And our mistakes and imperfections are our teachers. They teach us to love ourselves, to forgive ourselves, and to forgive others. That is the way we are created. We have this in common. There is common ground for compassion among all people. And when we accept our humanity, we see this bond with others and our compassion increases. When we deny our full humanity, we experience dis-ease, sickness, fear, alienation, and pain.

I was recently reading a list of books by presidents of the US. Three books attributed to the current president include, “How to Get Rich,” “Time to Get Tough,” and “Think Like a Billionaire.” Being tough and single minded in the pursuit of money, this is evidence of dis-ease. This is sickness. This is distorting and denying our true humanity. And the election of someone with this orientation to the presidency shows a sickness in the soul of America. The fixation on winning and being rich is the kind of condition that Jesus came to relieve. He came to save us from that kind of folly which only makes our souls and our bodies sick. Jesus offers an alternative kind of life that is focussed not on promoting yourself, but believing in the goodness of humanity, life, and Creation as gifts to be enjoyed and shared.

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is sought out as a healer and performs many healings. But he also teaches and preaches. He shares a vision of a different kind of reality, the commonwealth of God, a reality that doesn’t make you sick, that confronts evil with love. A reality that is based not on domination but transformation. In our world today, sometimes it seems like we just can’t get out of these rip tides of consumerism, individualism, glorification of wealth, selfish egotism, fear, competition, and violence. Jesus invites us to a different way of seeing reality that extricates us from these systems and values that make us sick and result in evil. Jesus doesn’t just heal people and send them on their way. He offers teaching about how to be a healthy human being and how to create healthy communities that promote the well-being of all. The church is blessed to have that treasure to share with the world so in need of healing. We have the teachings of Jesus that invite us to experience our full humanity to share with the world.

With so many competing realities and claims in society and within the church, how can we know what is real? What is authentically of Love? We are given an insight in the lesson we heard this morning. When Simon’s mother in law is healed, what does she immediately do? Does she pay Jesus? Does she tell everyone about her miracle and capitalize on her fame? Does she use her experience to improve her status in the community? No. As soon as she is well, the mother in law takes up her duties serving her guests. She chooses to serve others, to help others. To make a contribution to the community. That is a sign of health. That is evidence of healing. When we are healthy, we take delight in life and in our capacity to serve. We glory in what we can give not in what we will get. May we invite the healing power of love into our lives. May we line up at Jesus’ door with our need. And may we minister to the dis-ease of the world, the people and the systems around us, with the healing 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.

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Sermon 12.31.17 Get Directions

Scripture Lesson: Luke 2:22-40
Sermon: Get Directions
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Like most of you, I imagine, I have come to love the maps program on my phone. Where would we be without GPS or Navi as they all it in Europe? We went to Los Angeles recently and I took a paper map to give me the lay of the land and the big picture, but we loved Apple maps, Google maps, and Waze helping us get around.

To get directions from a maps program you just put in the address that you want to go to, and you can choose walking, driving, biking, or public transport, and your route is laid out for you. Almost. You also have to put in a starting location. The program can’t take you somewhere unless it knows where you are starting from. That may be where you are – the current location of the device. Or you can choose another starting place depending on your plans. But you have to start somewhere to get to where you want to go.

As we come to the end of one year and prepare to begin 2018 [How did it already get to be 2018?] we want to create the space to reflect on where we are and where we would like to be going in the year ahead. The story of the dedication in the Temple and the encounters with Simeon and Anna in the gospel of Luke beautifully inspire such reflection.

We want to note that the story takes place in the Temple with Joseph and Mary fulfilling the ritual obligations of their religious tradition. Simeon and Anna, too, are devout, pious people, completely committed to living out their religious commitment which put them at the right place at the right time to bear witness, to be used by God, to serve, and to be fulfilled in their calling. All of the figures in this story take very seriously their religious observance. There is no “spiritual but not religious” in this story. These figures are all spiritual and religious because the two are meant to go together. When spiritual and religious are separate, when only one is of importance, then the function of each suffers. Spirituality is incomplete without religion. Religion is hollow without spirituality. In this story of this young family and these seasoned elders in the Temple, we see the beautiful partnership, the complementarity of spirituality and religion.

So as this year transitions and we think about where we are, it is a time to assess our devotion to our spiritual journey and to our religious observance. The story reminds us that it is in the context of customary, mundane religious practice that these amazing insights and revelations take place. So when we truly practice our religion, we are creating the space and making room for the Spirit to enter our lives.

Recently, Christy Martin, a young mom in our church, told me about mentioning to some soccer parents that she went to church. They were amazed, saying, “How do you have time for that?” I thought that response was very interesting. They didn’t comment on church being irrelevant or archaic or quaint or superstitious or anachronistic. Why bother? It was about time. How do you have time?

With all of our technology and labor saving devices, we were supposed to have more time – for leisure, for hobbies, for religious practice, and other enriching activities. But it hasn’t happened, has it? We all just seem to feel that we have more to do not less. Used to be families at least worked church into their lives at Christmas, Easter, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Now, not even that happens with many people who label themselves as Christians.

Mary, Joseph, Anna, and Simeon make religious expression a priority in their lives. And later in the gospels we see that Jesus, even with all those endless people to heal and save and feed and forgive, still works religious practice into his daily life. He is a fully observant Jew. Religious practices help us know how to look for the Divine in ourselves, in others, and the world. This helps us identity and experience the holiness of life each and every day. Religious practice shows us openings to the transcendent in our lives. It takes us beyond ourselves and our individual concerns and the tyranny of the self. It frames and shapes who we are and how we function and how we experience being alive. Religious observance coupled with sincere spirituality fosters the best of our humanness.

As involvement in religious practice has gone down in our country, we have seen mass shootings, addiction, suicide, and greed go up. Religion helps to feed the spirit in ways that promote wholeness and well-being for the individual and for society. The church needs to be more responsive and open to offering religious practice that is relevant for these days so that religion can have more of a positive impact on the human experience because it is very much needed.

So as 2018 lies ahead, we want to be thinking about our own religious practice and how we can invite others to deepen their experience through religious devotion and participation. Mary, Joseph, Anna, and Simeon, showed up at the Temple. That had to happen for the story to unfold. So we want to think about our commitment to “showing up” when it comes not only to church attendance but religious practice in our day to day lives.

In the story of the dedication in the Temple, we see that in the course of everyday religious practice, the world opens up for all of those involved. Joseph and Mary are given needed counsel about their child and his role in God’s unfolding purposes of liberation for all of humanity and Creation. Such a life will be fraught, as it must be, when power structures are confronted and challenged. Fraught not only for Jesus, but for his family. Simeon has waited his whole life for this moment and now his purpose is fulfilled. He can die in peace. And Anna who has also been patient in her devotion finally has good news to share with all who will listen about the faithfulness and devotion of God. Religion provides the context for good news, joy, and delight, not only for the individuals involved, not only for their faith community, but for everyone, all people, and all the Earth.

As 2018 begins, we are invited to think about where we have been, where we are, but also what is ahead. This story encourages us to think about our roles in the unfolding purposes of Divine Love to create peace in the world. We want to think about how we will position ourselves to be used for the healing of the world; for the restoration of justice and dignity for every person. Our religious observance should help us to see where we fit in, how we are needed, and what our role is. As we see in the story from Luke, there is a place for everyone – an aging widow, an elderly man, young parents, those made poor, even a baby. Wherever we are on our life’s journey, there is a place for us in the Divine drama of redemption and love. And our religious observance will help to make that clearer to us if we are open to it.

Steve Biko was a well-known anti-apartheid leader and a leading proponent of ‘black consciousness’ in South Africa. In 1977, while he was in the custody of the South African police, he was brutally tortured and murdered. His death became the rallying point for many in the freedom struggle.

I remember when my father read Biko the story of his life and his involvement in the freedom movement. My father was so moved I can remember him telling us about this man, Steve Biko. After that, my father was determined to work through the church to help put an end to apartheid. And the United Church of Christ was very involved in that movement.

Alice Biko, Steve’s mother, talked openly about both the anguish and the hope that were part of being the mother of such a son. . . . In one of her last conversations with her son, Alice told him how difficult it was to be always worried about him being arrested and put in jail, how she never slept at night until she knew he was home. He had responded by reminding her that Jesus had come to redeem his people and set them free. The Bikos were well-grounded in their religious observance.

“Are you Jesus?” she asked impatiently.

Steve had gently answered her, “No, I’m not. But I have the same job to do.” [Quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year B, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 32.]

As 2017 comes to an end and 2018 is about to begin, here, in this context of religious ritual and observance we take time for reflection about our role in carrying out the purposes of Divine Love at work for the liberation and restoration of all of humanity and the Creation itself. We are not Jesus, but we, too, have his work to continue. So as the calendar changes and we take stock, we pause to get directions. 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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Christmas Eve Meditation

Title: Be Born in Us Today
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In June, major league umpire John Turpane was walking across the Roberto Clemente bridge over the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, just a few hundred feet past the stadium where he would call a game between the Pirates and the Rays later in the evening. He saw a woman climbing over the railing of the bridge and knew that he had to help. Two other bystanders assisted in restraining the woman.

What followed were chaotic moments of panic, fear and ultimately, grace.

“I couldn’t tell you how long we were waiting for everyone else to get in place,” Tumpane said. “Obviously another power comes into be when you’re hanging on and you know what the alternative is of you letting go and not having other people to help you.”

They were able to keep the woman from jumping until emergency responders arrived. “Not too many times do you call your wife and say you helped save somebody’s life,” he said. “A really special moment.”

Maybe it is hard for us to imagine because our “suicide bridge,” the Skyway, is a driving bridge, not a walking bridge. We are busy keeping our eyes on the road. Would we see someone stopped and poised to jump? It’s hard to say, but on a walking bridge, we can envision Turpane walking, seeing, and stopping. Because at heart, we care. We want to be helpful. We want to have purpose and make a difference, especially in a situation that involves danger or peril.

When Jesus was born, the Jewish people had been waiting hundreds of years for a Messiah. Their geographical location, a small country, with access to the sea, and surrounded by big empires, made them a constant pawn in larger international relations’ dramas. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish homeland had been absorbed into the Roman Empire. This involved the cultic worship of Roman deities going on in Jewish territory which was very much against their religious beliefs and their devotion to one God, Yahweh. The Roman occupation also meant extreme taxation that was strangling the people of Palestine economically. They were also forced to work on Roman construction projects which took them away from self-sustaining labor and forced them to directly assist in the strengthening of their hated captors. Many Jews wanted to pursue armed rebellion against the Romans. Others thought that was folly and cooperated with the Romans. Make the best of a bad situation. Some, religious leaders among them, even colluded with the Romans for personal power and gain. Times were extremely difficult and there was much division and anger. Tensions were building. Something needed to give.

And Jesus was born. Some people believed that he was the one sent by God to save the Jewish people from this perilous situation. Jesus offered a path of resistance that was anti-empire and anti-violent. He taught about resisting the Romans by being fiercely devoted to God, to love, to forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation. Don’t hate your enemies and try to kill them. Violence always breeds violence. It will always end up coming back to bite you. No. Love your enemies. Do good to them. Show them kindness. Transform the relationship, don’t just put the shoe on the other foot. Hold nothing back. Love all the way. Don’t retreat from love. Even though this kind of loving led to his death, Jesus did not compromise when it came to love.

In the churning caldron of pressure, violence, anger, and fear that characterized first century Palestine, Jesus was born, the incarnation of Divine, unconditional love. God came to save.

We, too, live in perilous times. Wars persist. For those here who are 16 or younger, the US has continuously been at war since your birth. If you are an American taxpayer, you are helping to pay off a war bill estimated at $4.8 trillion. And new wars seem to hover on the horizon with weaponry that those in the first century could never have imagined. In addition to war, there are economic inequities that cause harm and suffering in our land and around the globe. We know that there is too much power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. And looming over it all is the threat of some kind of environmental cataclysm. Maybe a storm or a tsunami, but maybe a virus or an insect infestation, that takes down the whole fragile web of life as we know it. These are extremely precarious times. We know that we are in a time of major historical transition but we can’t see the other side. It may be a future of peace and harmony and oneness. But we can’t be sure.

Like the Jews of the first century CE, we, too, need the spirit of love, the fearless passion of forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation, to carry us forward. We need love that is stronger than death opening up a new future for humanity. We, too, need to release ourselves from whirlpools of violence that suck us into more and more violence and death. The world needs to see the embodiment of love: Love of enemies. Love of Earth itself. Transforming, resilient, creative love. The love that we see in dear Jesus, born in the manger, crucified on the cross.

How will this love that the world is desperate for, hungering for, aching for, appear today? Will there be another Jesus? Should we be expecting a second coming? The people of the first century, those who were there for the crucifixion of Jesus, thought that Jesus would be back in their lifetime. They expected his quick return. But we know now that was not to happen. Jesus did not come back the way they thought he would, but the light of Christ, the spirit of God, the flame of Love, lived on – in them. The power of the Divine Love that they saw in Jesus, they saw in each other. They found it within themselves. The stories of the book of Acts abound with the remembrances of what the disciples and followers of Jesus did after his death. Jesus is remembered for telling them, You will do even greater things than I. And they did do great things.

This is not a season to look for the coming of another. It is the season to look back at the first coming of Christ Jesus so that we can find the love in ourselves and one another that is so desperately needed in the world today. The same love and power that was in Jesus is in you. And it is in others. If you have a hard time seeing it in yourself, look for it in others. People you know, maybe. People you don’t know. Like John Turpane crossing the Roberto Clemente bridge. “I just happened to be there,” Turpane said. “I think I’ve been a caring person in my life. I saw somebody in need, and it looked like a situation to obviously insert myself and help out.”

Look for the love, the service, the other-centered orientation in others. And they don’t have to go to church. They don’t even have to be Christian. One thing the Bible shows us for sure is that Divine Love can be enfleshed in anyone and everyone. So pay attention. Be aware and alert. You will see it in others. And that will help you find it in yourself.

We don’t know what will be asked of us. We don’t know how we will be needed to serve. But we are the ones to make the difference. This Christmas Eve, know that the spirit of Christ, the unconditional, sacrificial love of the Divine, is seeking to be born in us today. Amen.

For the story of John Turpane and the quotes used see:
https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2017/06/29/safe-at-home-mlb-umpire-tumpane-rescues-woman-on-bridge/103278400/

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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Christmas Eve Devotion

Have you watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” yet this season? How about “A Christmas Carol,” the Dickens classic? Year after year, these and other Christmas favorites are repeatedly enjoyed. What gives these stories such staying power?

I think it is the theme of transformation. We like to see transformation. We like to see the characters turned around. Redirected. We like a story of a someone selfish and crotchety becoming someone kind and generous. This kind of tale gives us hope and lifts our spirits. It reminds us of the reason for the season.

When we look around at the state of things, maybe we can see lots of areas in which we would like to see transformation in our world. How would you like to see those who deny the human influence on global warming transformed into avid environmentalists? I would like to see that! How would you like to see Congress working for the good of ALL people of the US and an end to the warring partisan tribal factions? I would like to see that kind of transformation, too. How would you like to see every person treated equally instead of privilege and favoritism based on money and race and religion and identity? Wow!

This is the season to be inspired by transformation. The religious stories of the season are stories of transformation. Elizabeth transformed by a birth in later life. Mary transformed by her special role. The shepherds recipients of special treatment by the angels instead of being ignored outcasts. And there is the whole concept of incarnation – divinity taking on flesh. This is a season for stories of unexpected twists and turns. So we feel an openness to change. To something new. To possibility. The start of a new year ahead also feeds into those expectations.

So with all of this hope and potential swirling around us (instead of snow, here in sunny Florida) we remember the words of Mohandas Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” We are invited to welcome change, conversion, and transformation into our own hearts and lives. And then to see this change ripple into wider society. This is how societies change – with change in one individual, then another, and another, and another. . . . The world-changing impact of Christianity over centuries and civilizations began with one small baby.

So this Christmas Eve, open yourself to Divine Love, the spirit of Christ, being born in you, transforming you, filling you. Add your story to the stories of transformation that illumine this holy season.

Prayer
Love, light, peace, be born in us today. Transform us, remake us, give us new life for the good of this beloved, beleaguered world! Amen.

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Gulfcoast Legal Services to Receive Christmas Offering

The message below shares some of the important work being done by Gulfcoast Legal Services, the organization chosen to receive the Christmas offering from Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Jena Blair of the LUCC church family works at Gulfcoast:

Hi Kim, I just wanted to say thank you for selecting Gulfcoast Legal for the Christmas offering this year. It means so much that Lakewood selected Gulfcoast and to feel the support of the congregation.  Right now, we have been working with “know your rights” presentations and checklist to give in the community and agencies working with immigrant populations. We also are working with human trafficking victims, victims of all crimes and domestic violence victims to obtain lawful immigration status. This means representing clients in immigration court to file and obtain U Visas, T Visas and VAWA petitions. It is a challenging time to do the work we all do and knowing others in the community share these values and support the work of assisting immigrants and vulnerable populations, at Gulfcoast Legal is truly appreciated.

Thank you,
Jena

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Advent Devotion 12.23.17 Beyond Giving

Christmas is a season well known for charitable giving. Many charitable organizations receive generous financial donations at Christmas time. Food banks and meal programs are swamped with food and volunteers. Shelters are given heaps of socks and underwear. Toy collections for those made poor exceed expectations. Christmas giving goes well beyond those presents under the tree to sharing gifts with those who are less fortunate. This is a beautiful dimension of the holiday season.

In the Magnificat, the poetry talks about the hungry being filled with good things. That is a beautiful vision. Everyone having food to eat. This is something we would all love to see especially when you think about how much food gets thrown away and how many people experience food insecurity.

But the Magnificat doesn’t just talk about plenty for the poor. The writer extols the God that has selected Mary to be the mother of Jesus:

“You have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.” [Luke 51b-53]

This portrayal of God goes well beyond promoting charitable giving much of which comes from those who are wealthy and powerful. So what are we to think of these provocative verses?

I think the writer is not looking for punishment for specific individuals who are rich or in positions of power. I think the poetic imagery in the Magnificat is a way of talking about changing the system, the societal arrangements and the economic structures, that create poverty, that make people poor. The Magnificat is envisioning a new social and economic order that does not take advantage of people or make anyone poor or hungry or “less than.” This new reality can be seen in the selection of Mary, a poor, humble, small town girl, for a big important role in God’s plan for justice. And Mary’s son, Jesus, will devote his ministry to making God’s dream of a human community without poverty or oppression a reality.

The kind of reality portrayed in the Magnificat and in the teachings of Jesus, a reality which does not create victims but promotes mutuality and equality is good for everyone. In that kind of world, no one needs to be afraid. Those who were on the bottom don’t have to worry about being taken advantage of. And those who were toward the top don’t have to be afraid of being robbed or attacked for their wealth. It is a reality without fear, or guilt, or twisted justifications and manipulations. It is a reality based in shared experience and truth.

So, maybe we want to look forward to a Christmas season without charitable giving. Not because people are greedy or hard-hearted, but because there is no longer any need. As Divine Love is born in us, may we commit ourselves to creating social and economic arrangements that eliminate poverty and oppression.

Prayer
We are grateful for our many blessings and our material resources. We are grateful that we can share with others. May we be generous with our hearts and minds and creativity working to create a world that is free of poverty and need especially for those who are most vulnerable. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.22.17 JOY!

The word joy doesn’t seem to be used much except around Christmas and in church. Joy was once a common girl’s name. Maybe you know someone named Joy. In the stories leading up to the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Luke we hear of joy. Mary has been told that she is going to have a child. This child is going to be special. He will do great things for his people. That’s a big responsibility for Mary. She must know that it will complicate her life. And she is probably poor and struggling as it is. Yet she and her cousin, Elizabeth, are portrayed as being filled with joy.

Can you think of a time, recently, that you were filled with joy? When your heart was joyful? When you wanted to sing for joy? When you were overcome with joy? Maybe even shedding tears of joy?

Take some time to think this over and reflect on one or more recent experiences of joy. Is it hard to come up with a recent occurrence of joy in your life? That’s something to be aware of. Do memories of joyful moments come easily to mind? That is also something to ponder. Was joy once a common occurrence? Has that changed? Are you feeling more joy? Take some quiet moments to reflect on joy in your life.

If you can think of a recent experience of joy, try to remember what was happening. What were the circumstances? Were others involved? What was going on? This may give some illumination about finding more joy in your life in the days and weeks to come.

While many Christmas ads promise joy, shopping and presents may not be where we actually find joy. Joy may not be in a box under the Christmas tree or in a stocking hung by the chimney with care.

Being part of the life of God, following Jesus, cultivating the image of God within, seeing the sacred in others, these things are associated with a wellspring of joy in the Christian tradition. Or at least they point in the direction of joy. In the gospels Jesus is remembered for coming to bring joy. If we would like to feel more joy in our life, maybe our spiritual life needs more attention. Maybe it’s time to be more regular about church, prayer, and service.

This Christmas may we ready ourselves for JOY to “Be Born in Us Today.”

Prayer
The fullest expression of our deepest humanity is a life of much joy. In these busy, hectic days of holiday preparation may we find our way to making room for more joy in our lives. Amen.

Remember the LUCC Christmas offering for Gulfcoast Legal Services.  Your gifts may help bring joy to others!

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Advent Devotion 12.21.17 Born of the Spirit

The prophet Isaiah reminds people what they are to expect from one who is sent by God. They are to expect a spirit of wisdom and understanding. A spirit of counsel and strength. A spirit of knowledge and reverence for God. They are to expect one who takes delight in obeying God, and doesn’t judge by appearances, or make decisions by hearsay. One who will treat poor people with fairness and uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden. [Adapted from Isaiah 11:1-4a, Inclusive Language Bible, Priests for Equality]

We are celebrating Christmas because we believe that these traits were present in Jesus. In Jesus’ life and ministry we see these characteristics. We feel that Jesus fulfills this description. And he calls his followers to do the same. His followers are not just to glorify who he is. They are not simply to extol how virtuous, and righteous, and good Jesus is. They are not just to praise how Jesus fulfills God’s intentions.

Those who find themselves on the Christian path are to follow Jesus: To emulate his goodness and values and compassion. They are to embody the Divine Love that is seen in him. Jesus shows us what we, too, are made of.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus and all that means, we are also to prepare ourselves to birth the spirit of God in our lives. We are making ready for the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and reverence, to take root in us.

People today are prone to be weak. We often lack self discipline. We make explanations and excuses rather than applying inner strength to curb our baser impulses. People routinely spew venom not just on social media but face to face. We need the spirit of God to be born in us today.

As we prepare for the birth of Jesus, we are to be preparing ourselves for the spirit of the Divine to come upon us so that we might take delight in God’s ways and not judge by appearances or make decisions by hearsay.

Think of it – “not judge by appearances.” How many people of color are being judged not by behavior but by appearances? How many people are being judged not by character but by clothing? How many are being judged not by conduct or compassion but by country of origin or accent or religious affiliation or gender identity?

And think of the significance of not making decisions by hearsay in this era of fake news and false testimony and intentional lying and deceit even from the most powerful officials of our land. We are being called to make decisions based on factual information, on actual experience, verifiable evidence not on hearsay. Not on fake news. Not on lies and distortions.

The human impact on global climate change is a fact. The racism in America is based on verifiable evidence. The sexism in the world can be documented with statistics as well as powerful stories. #metoo is about truth telling not hearsay. Be born in us today.

As we prepare for the birth of Jesus, we are preparing ourselves to treat poor people with fairness and uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden.  We don’t see that spirit in the tax law that was passed by Congress this week because it appears to cater to the interests of the rich and send the poor away empty handed.  Centuries after Isaiah, the writer of the Magnificat will echo the same sentiments:  You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.  [Luke 1:53]

As we pray this season, “Be Born in Us Today” we need the words of Isaiah and the writer of the gospel of Luke to remind us just what that kind of birth looks like. It is a radical departure from much of what we see around us just as it was in the days of the prophet and the gospel writer.

Prayer
May we be open to the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit that does not judge by appearances or make decisions by hearsay. May we treat poor people with fairness and uphold the right’s of the downtrodden. So may the spirit of God “Be Born in Us Today.” Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.20.17 Ponder

In the most hectic season of the year, who gives a thought to pondering???

Ponder? When there are presents to buy? When there are decorations to be put up? When there are parties to go to? When there is wrapping to be done? When there are cookies to be baked? When there are errands to run? When there are so many things to do, who can think of pondering?

And as if that were not enough, the daily assaults in the news continue apace. More revelations of sexual harassment and assault. Is Congress really going to pass that hand-out-to-the-rich tax bill? Then there are the bombings and mass shootings that have become commonplace. Ponder? Who has time to ponder?

Well, in the stories around the birth of Jesus, we are told that Mary pondered. She pondered about the message of the Angel Gabriel in the story of the annunciation. In the story of the shepherds visiting the manger, we are told of Mary pondering these things in her heart. Mary pondered.

People who make strides in science are known for pondering. Darwin was a ponderer. Einstein was a great ponderer. Scientists who ponder make new connections, see things in new ways, come up with new insights to be tested and explored that inform our understanding of the material world.

People who come up with strategies for advancing civilization are often ponderers. They take time to observe things and think about things and analyze things. Then they come up with new ideas for advancing society.

Winter is a good time for pondering. There are the long hours of darkness. In many parts of the world, it is a season of dormancy. Plants and trees look dead. Fields are bare. Yet life is preparing to emerge again after the cyclical period of stillness.

This Advent season, at LUCC we have been focussing on the theme “Be Born in Us Today” from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This is a season to ponder how Divine Love is seeking to be born in each one of us this season. How are we being called to birth more love into the world? How can we help to create a more peaceful world? How are we needed to challenge the power arrangements of society that create poverty and suppress the human spirit? This takes some pondering. And Lakewood Church has been providing the opportunity for doing just that during Sunday morning worship in Advent. The services have been contemplative with time to rest in Love, to think, to stop thinking, to listen, to be. To ponder. For from pondering comes transformation of ourselves and of the world.

Prayer
We are grateful for the tradition of Mary who pondered. She is a reminder to us that we are all part of the great stream of Divine creativity which flows forth from contemplation into action. As we pray for the spirit of Christ to be born in us may we ponder our new birth. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.19.17 Reorientation

At the Florida Conference Annual Meeting in October, keynote speaker, the Rev. Molly Baskette, asked a question of us. “What is your church’s ‘why’?,” she asked, leaving us to answer the question, “What can church still offer that secular culture can’t?” [From FL Conference UCC “Conference Call.” By Rev. John Vertigan, Conference Minister]

What does the church have to offer? This time of year, it is pretty blatant. While the culture around us is focussed on what people will get for Christmas, presents under the tree, making sure that retail spending is high as an indicator of economic health, the church is focussed on the stories leading up to the birth of Jesus which are all about, “What can I give?“ not “What will I get?” And that is one of the main things that the way of Jesus has to offer the world that is unique and different from secular culture.

Our culture creates consumers of us all. What will we consume? What do we want? What material goods will we buy? What convenient services will make our lives easier? It’s all oriented around “What’s in it for me?” What can I get?

The church, when it is faithful, isn’t promoting what it has to give people. It is not promising an easier life, or more comfort, or more money, or a more beautiful, younger looking you. It’s not about “What can I get?” here.

The church is promising wholeness, a world that is welcoming and friendly to all people. It is focussed on the healing of the spirit and body; healing society and the very Creation itself. And how does this happen? Through GIVING. The church is here to help us see the needs of others and the world, and to ask ourselves how we are being called to respond to those needs. The church is here to help us and others find ways to contribute to the greater good.

In the final frenzy of Christmas shopping this week, with offers of free shipping and guaranteed Christmas delivery, keep in mind Mary. The story of the annunciation was read in church on Sunday. It is a story of active, initiative in response to the needs of the world. Mary gives up whatever her expectations of the future may have been. She gives up an easy, anonymous life. She gives up a “normal” life. For a life that is for the greater good AND that will involve the horrible, tortured death of her beloved child. That is what the church has to offer: Finding your truest life, in service to the greater good regardless of the sacrifice involved. Jesus learned this from Mary. We celebrate Christmas because Jesus was killed for undermining and threatening the power structure of the culture around him. He was not killed for promising to make people rich, or happy, or pretty.

Prayer
May we keep our eyes wide for how we are needed to contribute to the greater good. May Divine dreams of justice, community, and plenty for all fill these long winter nights. We will find our highest good as we create Peace on Earth. Amen.

Reminder: Don’t forget to drop a contribution into the giving can for Gulfcoast Legal Services which provides legal help to immigrants. Please bring the can with your offering to church on Christmas Eve.

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Advent Devotion 12.18.17 Long, dark nights. . .

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

John 1.5 reminds, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome.” In this part of the country Advent is experienced in Day Light Savings time. The sun rises later each day and is sooner to set. The winter solstice is here (even in Florida!) the beginning of longer days and the ending of shorter nights.

This season has felt darker than usual. The events that continue to unfold serve to make this writer doubt the possibility of a miracle this year. Who will feed the hungry? What will become of the poor? How can those who have so much feel the need to accumulate more? Where is the voice of reason that will make sense of this insanity?

I wonder if this is how Joseph felt. So many moving pieces! Way beyond one’s ability to to understand, to deconstruct, to remain faithful in the call you had been given. A deep trust in the promise given. Not a faith without doubt and an abundance of questions, but a faith that sets a life in a new and uncharted direction.

My prayer on this day is help me to be a light in the darkness. Today, give me the courage to do the one thing I can do. Allow me to not loose sight of how much my one small action can impact another. My challenge is not to understand all that is occurring, but to respond to what I am a witness to.

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Advent Devotion 12.17.17 The Unexpected

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
Isaiah 11.1

Fourth century preacher and teacher John Chrysostom wrote,
“What shall I say! And how shall I describe this birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant…”

The Advent season is a time of watching, waiting and preparing to bear witness to the coming of God’s presence. Year after year many remain surprised by the form it appears. Our salvation comes in a most unexpected package. It is small and fragile, weak and vulnerable, tender and soft.

The world applauds loud and aggressive entrances. This story serves to remind those willing to slow down, to sit down, to listen, that spectacles of power and grandiose announcements are more the nature of humans than YHWH.

There is something comforting about a God who operates like this. It reminds me to stop living my life anticipating the “what’s next.” Moving from my list of things that must be done, to collapsing from the energy it took to complete the tasks. I might indeed check all the boxes, but where was I truly present?

Henri J.M. Nouwen offered, “Our temptation is to be distracted and be made blind to the ‘shoot that shall sprout from the stump.'” He went on to say, “When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence-the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends- I will always remain tempted to despair.”

Let my prayer today be one that invites the small and the ordinary to garner my attention. May I seek to find the sacred in my daily encounters. May I be wise enough to recognize the Divine in the places no one else thought to look. AMEN.

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Advent Devotion 12.16.17 The Annunciation

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long
Luke 1.26-35

The opening line from Denise Levertov’s poem “Consent” dares us to enter the story at the moment Mary was asked to say yes to a life changing invitation.

“This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.”

Advent, offers much to unwrap, as we re engage with the perineal story that leads to a birth. This Luke narrative, has frequently caused some to ponder the question, “but…what about Mary?” Placed in the context of the hashtag movement of “me too,” the quest for reconciliation becomes even more timely.

Each of us must make meaning for our own selves, as our sacred stories are seldom as simple as we may have hoped. There are layers upon layers of possible truths. There are consequences for our responses. Our yeses and our nos.

Theologian Cynthia L. RIgby suggests, “Gabriel, reminds Mary that to be incapable of conceiving in and of ourselves is not the end of the story, that ‘nothing [is] impossible with God’. The best discussions of Mary’s response recognize the pitfalls inherent in rendering Mary either a passive participant, who has no choice but to submit to God’s will, or an autonomous individual, who can choose differently than to bear God to the world….Mary’s obedience is neither optional nor forced. Mary acts freely when she offer’s herself as a servant of the Lord. To embrace her identity as the mother of God is the only choice that is true to her calling, because it is consistent with who she actually is.”

Each of us encounter those places that require a yes or no. Mathew 5.37 challenges us to let our yes be yes and our no be no. We then must live into the consequences of those responses. What is being born within your own life by the answers you give to the questions presented to you? Are your responses leading you to the places you want to be? Are you equipped for the adventure?

Consent
This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
Spirit,
suspended,
waiting.
She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her.
Denise Levertov

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Advent Devotion 12.15.17 Magic!

Disney promises magic. Displays of Christmas lights promise magic. Ads try to convince us that a certain gift will deliver magic at Christmas. Many of us have a soft spot for the “magic.” That something special. That over the top feeling. That reaction that just could not have been scripted. That eruption of delight.

The Christmas story is filled with magic. Elizabeth getting pregnant in her later years. The child leaping in her womb. A young small town girl becoming the mother of one who will offer a path of salvation to humanity. Joseph choosing to submit himself to a greater purpose than protecting his reputation. Lowly shepherds confronted by angels in the night. A star leading learned astronomers to a remote, far off town and a child of another culture and religion who will be important to all of humankind. The Christmas story is filled with magic before you even get to the more recent Santa and flying reindeer and visits via the chimney.

But the magic of the Christmas story is not the message of Christmas. The magic points to the message. Divinity taking up residence in humanity. The incarnation of Divine Love. God enfleshed. In one baby, one person. So that we know the nature of every person. Sacred. Divine. With the capacity for universal love that is very personal, intimate, and specific. So as we make our way through this Advent season, let’s not settle for the magic but look deeper for the message and the meaning.

Prayer
Amidst glittering lights and nativity scenes and Santaland, may we look for the incarnation in Jesus, in ourselves, in each other, and, maybe most importantly, where it is least expected. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.14.17 Feel the Pain

When Jesus begins his ministry in the Gospel of Luke , we are told that he quotes the passage from Isaiah: “The Spirit of Our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison – to proclaim the year of Our God’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19]

So from the beginning, Jesus lets it be known that he is committed to fulfilling God’s dreams. He is not concerned with image or gain. He is not trying to amass power or popularity. He is going to concern himself with the pain of the world.

This Advent season, we are thinking about how Divine Love is seeking to be born in us today. Part of discerning this calling is to reflect on the pain in the world around us. Who does your heart break for? What story in the news just riles you up? Where do you want to offer comfort? Is it the women responding to #metoo? Is it the people of Korea, north and south? Is it kids that are going through school and not learning to read or add or tell time or write a paragraph? Is it those who have sought to relieve their despair in ways that have resulted in addiction? Is it the neighbor who must decide between buying food and buying prescription medication? Is the pain which moves you the pain of Earth – the land, the waters, the animals, the air?

Try to pay attention to how you are moved by the pain you encounter. This will help you to know how God is seeking to birth Divine Love in you, love that is healing and restoring and joyful.

Prayer
May we pay attention to what moves us. May we slow down and be aware and feel. In this process of discernment and discovery, may we get a better glimpse of how we are to be Good News for the world. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.13.17 Restoration

Powerful leaders make many promises. Politicians make many promises. We are used to hearing how they want to please everybody all the time, which, of course, is impossible.

There are promises to improve the economy, and education, and healthcare, and public safety, and the environment, and care for seniors, and care for veterans, and care for children, etc. etc. etc.

In the scripture that we heard Sunday from Isaiah, promises are made. These promises are made to people whose homeland has been reduced to rubble by war. Ancient ruins will be restored. Sites long devastated will be rebuilt. Ruined cities which have been neglected for generations will be repaired. [Isaiah 62:4]

Who makes these promises? Not a politician. Not a king. Not a prophet. These promises are made by God. But who will do the work? Will God enlist kings and princes and priests? We are told that the dreams of God will come to fruition through the efforts of those who are made poor, and those who have had their hearts broken, and those who have been in prison, and those who have been in debt, and those who have been in mourning. These are the people whom God will use to create a new community, a new city, a new society, out of the rubble.

This Advent season is a time to be reminded that God includes everyone. There is no one so lowly, or so disadvantaged, or so stigmatized that they cannot be part of making God’s dreams for humanity come true. Think Mary from a small backwater town, Joseph, a carpenter, and the shepherds who had the status of an undocumented farm worker. And then, there is the image of God coming as a baby to save humankind.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, there is a place for you with God and in the faith community.

Prayer
Society may tell us that what we are really good for is shopping and spending money and fueling the economy. May we listen for another voice. A voice calling us, insignificant as we may feel we are, to be part of brining the Divine visions for Creation to fruition. We have gifts to give that can’t be bought and sold. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.12.17 Rededicating the Temple

The Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt which was completed in 165 BCE. Since the Temple had been been repurposed to honor Zeus, it had to be cleansed. A new altar was constructed and new holy vessels were crafted. It was once again the center of Jewish cultic life.

Today Jews the world over will be lighting candles and will continue this tradition for seven nights remembering the stories of their faith tradition and the reclaiming of the Temple.

This year at LUCC we are reflecting on the theme “Be Born in Us Today” from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We are thinking about how Divine Love was not only born in Jesus but it is born in us. Each person is an incarnation of the Divine, created in God’s image.

This concept is expressed in I Corinthians 6:19: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” This Advent season we are thinking about how we are vessels for the Spirit of God; for Divine Love. Advent is a time for us to prepare ourselves for the Divine to be born in us once again. In a way, we are working on re-dedicating ourselves, as temples, to the purposes of God.

So as our Jewish friends celebrate Hanukkah and the rededication of the Temple, we are reminded of our spiritual journey to rededicate ourselves once more so that Love may live in us and bear fruit for the world.

Prayer
We are grateful for Holy Days that invite us to reflect on and deepen our faith commitment. These celebrations connect us to one another and to those who have gone before us. May the light of the candles of this season remind us of the light within us seeking to shine Love in the world. May the light of Christ be born anew in us. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.11.17 Trees of Integrity

Advent Devotion 9

Some time ago, I saw a friend from childhood. Our parents had been best friends. Our families spent lots of time together when we were children. When I saw my friend, as an adult, we were talking about our parents, who they were and what they did. We both agreed that what we and our siblings were doing paled in comparison. She referred to our parents as tall trees. “They were tall trees,” she said. We felt more like scrub shrubs.

Tall trees. This image comes up in the verses that were read from Isaiah in church on Sunday. “They will be known as trees of integrity, planted by Yahweh to display God’s glory.” Trees of integrity. What kind of image is this for people favored by God?

I think this is a very good image, especially considering the writer of the passage didn’t even know all that we know about trees today. But to call those who display God’s glory “trees of integrity” is actually quite fitting, even if it is likening a person to a plant. Think of all that trees do and provide. They provide shelter to people and animals. Their wood can be used to construct shelter and many other things. Trees provide homes to many creatures: bugs, beetles, bats, birds, apes, snakes, lizards, sloths, squirrels, and many other animals. What a welcoming, diverse environment trees provide!

Trees provide shade and comfort. They bear fruit, seeds, nuts, and berries which are a food source to many animals including humans. An apple, anyone? Trees provide broken branches which decompose and enrich the soil. Their roots hold the dirt in place and help to prevent erosion.

There are also things trees do that the people of the Isaiah’s day could not have known. Trees consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen enabling animals to live on earth. Trees affect weather patterns and temperature and help to reduce global warming. Trees communicate with each other passing on helpful information for their survival. Whoever penned the line “trees of integrity,” in Hebrew, could never have known these important properties of trees.

The writer of Isaiah did know that trees provide beauty to the world. Beauty perhaps only appreciated by the human species.

“They will be known as trees of integrity.” Who are “they”? Who are those who are associated with such lofty function and importance? Those who are made poor, those with broken hearts, those who are captive, those in debt, those who are mourning. People who are suffering, weak, and disadvantaged. These are the people who are referred to as trees of integrity. These are the people chosen by God to display God’s glory.

This Advent season, may we spiritually prepare ourselves to be numbered in their ranks and to take our place as “trees of integrity” planted to display Divine glory.

Prayer
Shelter, food, protection, community, beauty. All of these things are vital to flourishing life. May we offer these things to one another, to the human family, and to Creation. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.10.17 Human Rights Day

 

December 10 is International Human Rights Day declared by the United Nations in honor of the passage of the International Declaration of Human Rights by the UN on December 10, 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt was the chair of the committee that developed the Declaration.  It is long but well worth reading reminding us of what a sane, peaceful world looks like.  And it is heartening to think that this statement won widespread approval in 1948.  I’m not sure it would be passed by the United Nations today.  I’m not even sure the United States would vote for it.  This is the text of the Declaration:

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.

To me this Declaration echoes with core teachings of Christianity like all people are created in the Divine image. ALL people. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemy.” It also echoes the scripture lesson from Isaiah that was read in church this morning:

“The Spirit of Exalted Yahweh is upon me, for Yahweh has anointed me: God has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison; to announce a year of favor from Yahweh. . .”

This Advent season we are reflecting on the theme “Be Born in Us Today.” For the Declaration of Human Rights to have power in the world, individuals must commit to its implementation. It must be born in us, we cannot expect others to support and implement these rights for all people. We must do it and we must insist that our government respect these rights.

When the Declaration was passed, Eleanor Roosevelt said as much: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. . . Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

If we want to see a world at peace, a world that respects the dignity and self-determination of every person, a world where everyone has access to needed food, shelter, education, and healthcare, if we want to see world where there is freedom of religion and of expression, we have to create that world starting in our homes and our communities.

Prayer
This is a season of preparing for a birth, the birth of Jesus. May his birth remind us of the sacredness of every child that is born. May his birth remind us of a world safe for all babies. May his birth remind us that all children deserve nurture, education, food, shelter, self expression, and play. A world healthy for children is a world healthy for adults, as well. May the birth of Jesus remind us of the awesome holiness of every birth including yours and mine. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.9.17 Waiting –

Advent is a season of hope, joy, and big promises. A world set right. Dignity and self-determination restored. Justice and peace. So, it is almost inevitable that Advent leading to Christmas will be a disappointment. From the beginning, we know that the world will not be at peace on Dec. 25, 2017. Economic injustice will not be rectified by Dec. 25, 2017. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape will not end on Dec. 25, 2017.

Maybe the Christmas trees, the lights, the presents, and the stockings help to ease our disappointment with merriment.

This week I joined about 50 other clergy from the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ for a day with the farm workers in Immokalee, FL. We heard from the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and from the Fair Food Campaign. We also visited a grower and heard the story of his involvement with the Coalition.

Apparently, the Coalition approached this grower asking to have a conversation about the Fair Food agreement. The farm workers wanted to explain the issues that were important to them. The grower was not interested. And things stayed as they were. The farm workers asked again. No interest on the part of the grower. And again. No.

Twenty years after the first request, the grower came to the Coalition asking to hear about the issues that the farm workers were concerned about. And the grower eventually signed the Fair Food agreement and is a model grower working with the Coalition to get others on board.

Twenty years. The leaders of the Coalition waited twenty years. They told us that when the grower finally came, they were angry and frustrated that it had taken so long. They had to recognize their anger and hostility and put it aside so that they could work with the grower. And the results have been mutually beneficial.

Twenty years is a long time. But the promises of God for restoration and renewal may not come for a long time. People waited hundreds of years for the messiah. Some people today are still waiting for a messiah. Things like peace can take a long time to unfold. And we must not lose hope even though we may not live to see the fulfillment of the promises of God.

We also want to remember that when the promises of God do come true, especially if has taken a while, we may need to make the conscious effort to put our negative feelings about the delay on the shelf. Whatever may be holding us back from receiving the fulfillment of the Divine promises, whatever may be blocking our participation in the Divine justice and peace that is emerging, we must overcome it. And take part in birthing God’s intentions for humanity to live in peace and mutual respect.

Prayer
Sometimes things to take so much longer than we would like. We wonder why a dove doesn’t just swoop down and eradicate violence from the face of Earth. But God’s time may not be our time. We must learn to wait and maintain hope lest we miss the wonderful things that are happening to create a more just and peaceful world. We may get so caught up in our impatience that we miss what is happening and the dreams that are coming to fruition. May we stay attentive and alert to ourselves and what is going on around us. Amen.

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