Sermon 11.25.18 Dinner’s Ready

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 23:5, and Luke 14:1-24

This was the week for the iconic American Thanksgiving feast.  According to the National Turkey Foundation, 51.6 million turkeys were consumed.  [22% of them were raised in Minnesota.]  That’s about 736 million pounds of turkey eaten!  Along with the turkeys, Americans consumed something like 3.1 billion pounds of sweet potatoes, 859 million pounds of cranberries, 50 million pumpkin pies and 40 million green bean casseroles.  Add to that gravy, corn bread, rolls, apple pie, pecan pie, butternut squash, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and macaroni and cheese, among other sides, and you have a colossal feast!  

According to the American Farm Bureau, a typical Thanksgiving dinner costs $5 per person for the food.  An average of 3,000 calories is consumed at Thanksgiving dinner with the big ticket calorie item being the pecan pie.  I had a large piece of pecan pie!   [Thanksgiving food statistics from:  https://spoonuniversity.com/lifestyle/thanksgiving-day-food-facts and https://us.blastingnews.com/food/2017/11/the-number-of-turkeys-consumed-on-thanksgiving-day-002187613.html]

Thanksgiving is definitely our national feast day.  Countless social service agencies and food banks and churches provide Thanksgiving meals to those made poor.  People who are alone are invited to dinner by neighbors and coworkers.  With the narrative of the Pilgrims and the Indians fading into the background, Americans still sat down to a feast day last Thursday. 

The abundance of food at Thanksgiving is reminiscent of the scene portrayed in the book of Isaiah.  The prophet images God’s intentions for humanity in terms of a feast:  At a meal of rich foods and well-aged wines, all people come together and there is no fear, no sadness, and no scarcity.  Thanksgiving almost seems to be our national enactment of the concept of the commonwealth of God albeit for one meal; no one is hungry or thirsty and everyone has a place at a table.  I hope we never lose that glimmer of heaven even if it is only once a year.  

Given that the feast is a common way of imaging the intentions of Divine Love, it is not surprising that Jesus was famous for feasting.  He enacts the idea that the realm of God is among you through food and eating in story after story.   Jesus is remembered for being at dinner with people to the point of being a glutton and a drunkard.  Think of the last supper, and the meal at which a woman anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, the wedding in Cana, the dinner at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector, to name a few.    Jesus is also remembered for feeding people.  Each of the four gospels includes the story of the feeding of the multitudes and the gospel of Matthew includes it twice.  And in every case, there are leftovers.  Abundance, no scarcity.  And Jesus is remembered not only for eating, but for telling stories about feasts and dinners and eating.  

In the story we heard this morning from Luke, Jesus is at a dinner and he teaches using the imagery of meals.  We are told that this meal is at the home of a Pharisee.  This is someone from the ruling religious class, so someone important, with the status and means to host a banquet.  Jesus begins by healing someone on the Sabbath.  This can be seen as a violation of Sabbath Law.  So this act is a direct challenge to the authority and legalism of the Pharisees who are entrusted with upholding the Law of God.  So, from the get-go, Jesus is enacting the commonwealth of God, embodying the saving, healing power of Divine Love for all people at all times. 

Then Jesus goes on to talk about who gets invited to dinner.  The whole banqueting thing was about the host inviting prominent people to impress them, to impress those below the host with the host’s status, and about getting the guests to then be obligated to the host – to invite the host to a banquet to impress and improve the host’s standing and status.  So a banquet was about promoting status and privilege, and keeping people indebted to you so that you could expect their loyalty and cooperation when needed.  A banquet was an occasion to increase and solidify power and prestige.  And this was very much tied up with who was invited and where they sat.

And in this very setting, absolutely aware of the situation, Jesus talks about taking a seat of lower status, and inviting people to dinner who can’t invite you back:  Those made poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.  Jesus is choosing these categories of people because these are just the people who are denoted in the scriptures for receiving favoritism from God. Jesus is explaining the commonwealth of God in a way that completely undermines what his host is doing, as well as overturning the expectations of all of the guests present.  Think, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  That is essentially what Jesus is saying in a context in which the first are trying to stay first, and those who are not first are trying to get in with those who are first. 

Then Jesus tells another story to those at the Pharisee’s banquet.  It is about someone throwing a banquet and the guests refusing the invitation.  They are too busy.  Caught up with other matters.  So, those made poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are invited.  They come.  The implication is that the “important” people refuse the invitation to be part of the realm of God present here and now.  Those who are the “Establishment”, the structure legitimators, the privileged, those with status, they turn down God’s offer and instead invest in maintaining their own power and place.  And those made poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, those from whom nothing can be expected in return, they accept the invitation to be part of God’s reality.   They are held up as the recipients of Divine Blessing because they accept while the others choose to protect themselves and their power constructs rather than being part of God’s realm.  

Jesus, like Isaiah, envisions a feast for all people.  Those with status and privilege, as well as those on the margins and fringes of society.  All are welcome.  In the scene at the Pharisees dinner, as the stories unfold, the realm of God is welcoming to all, but those with power and property to protect opt out.  To create community based on Divine Love, religious, social, and economic hierarchies that privilege some over others must be dismantled.  There are no haves and have nots.  All are beloved children of God.  

Jesus knew that creating such community, embodying Divine Love, living out the reign of God, would not be accepted by all people.  He knew there were those who would want to protect their power, privilege, and place.  And he encountered their opposition.  Jesus loved those who were threatened by God’s realm.  He offered them a place.  He courted their presence at the table.  But they chose not be part of Divine reality.  

Here we think of that verse that was read from Psalm 23.  We tend to think of this psalm as one of comfort and assurance especially at a time of death and grief.  But there is that indelible verse:  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  This is an image of the banquet of Divine Love where everyone has a place.  We have a place.  Our enemies have a place.  And when we take our place with our enemies, as Jesus did, we experience the overflowing of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  Our cups overflow.  

Given the current polarized political climate in our country, it is inevitable that some of us sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with our enemies.  There were articles and posts and blogs and even a training event at Eckerd College about how to deal with people with whom we disagree at events like Thanksgiving dinner.  Sometimes our first reaction is to avoid the situation.  But that can be very hard at a holiday.  

And we have more holiday gatherings ahead in the coming weeks.  Social events with family, clubs, teams, coworkers, organizations, and other groups.  These gatherings may include people we do not agree with, especially about the current political situation in the United States.  Some of us anticipate these gatherings with dread.  

So let’s remember these scriptures about feasting and banquets and parties as images for the commonwealth of God.  Everyone is welcome. That means even the people we vehemently disagree with.   The image of eating together is a universal image that everyone can relate to.  It is important that people sit down to eat together.  This simple ritual reinforces our common bond as human beings.  We all need to eat.  We all need each other.  And we are all recipients of the bounty of Earth.  With the banquet image we are reminded that there is more than enough for all.  That means even the people we may deem undeserving.   In the feast image, everyone receives from the goodness of God.  It is grace for everyone.  There is no pecking order, or hierarchy, or power to protect.  Think of a round table not a rectangular one.  

In that verse from Psalm 23, there is mention of enemies.  A table set before us in the presence of our enemies.  There is the assumption that we have enemies.  It is not assumed that we are living harmoniously with everyone.  It is assumed that we have enemies.  Maybe those we consider “other.”  Those who are different and seem threatening in some way.  Those whose beliefs and views are abhorrent to us.  

In the season to come, we will likely have to deal with some of these enemies at a holiday gathering.  We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of Divine Love in Jesus, showing us what it is to be a human being, full and free.  These gatherings are an opportunity for us to incarnate Divine Love:  To be present at a table with our enemies.  To have a conversation with someone we don’t like.  To sit near someone we disagree with.  To speak our truth in love.  To enact and incarnate the reality of God.  That is what it’s like in the realm of God.  In the love of God there is room for all at the table.  

And what happens at that table with the enemies?  The psalm tells us, “My head is anointed with oil, my cup overflows.”  As we embody love in these difficult situations, we may find meaning and purpose.  We may experience grace and even peace.  We may grow and learn.  We may feel in some small way more a part of the reality of Love.  That, after all, is the reason for the season before us.  

So, with Thanksgiving behind us, we look to the feasts and parties and gatherings ahead.  The invitations will come.  Jesus spent more time at dinners and banquets and meals than in the synagogue.  It is at the table that beloved community is created.  That is where the gospel is experienced.  May we be willing to be present even in the presence of our enemies.  Especially in the presence of our enemies.  Dinner’s ready.  Are we?  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 11.18.18 The Darkling Beetle

 

The BIG Event, Stewardship Sunday

Scripture Lessons:  Isaiah 25:  6-9 and Matthew 6:25-33

The Namib Desert is a vast expanse of, well, dry sand, in south western Africa.  This long narrow coastal desert stretches about 1200 miles from Angola through Namibia and into South Africa.  The name, Namib, comes from the Nama word which means “vast place” and indeed the Namib Desert is a vast place covering over 31,000 square miles.  That’s about half the size of the state of Florida.  The Namib Desert is one of the oldest on the planet.  It may be between 55 and 80 million years old!  The landscape includes sand seas with dunes rising up to 1000 feet, gravel plains, and scattered mountain outcroppings.  In some places, the average yearly precipitation is 2 millimeters per year!  The temperature ranges from 140 degrees F to freezing.  Not surprisingly, there is very little human habitation or activity in this desert, though there is mining of diamonds and tungsten. 

Despite the harsh conditions, there is prolific life in the Namib Desert.  It is home to some 3,500 plant species half of which are endemic.  That means they can be found only in this region of the Earth.  One of these plants is the Welwishcia mirabilis.  It has only two long, narrow leaves and it can live for over 1,000 years!

There are also a variety of animal species that live in the Namib Desert including birds, shrews, moles and snakes as well as zebra and even elephants.  There are also lots of beetles and bugs including the amazing darkling beetle.

This beetle is endemic to the Namib Desert.  That means it cannot be found living anywhere else on Earth.  It’s a little beetle about the size of a thumb nail.  And it gets up every morning and climbs up a sand dune which may be up to 1000 feet high.  That’s like twice the height of Mount Everest to a human being.  Then, when this beetle gets to the top of the dune, does it lay down and rest?  No!  It stands still, facing the wind, and does a head stand.  In this position, here’s what happens scientifically – the bumpy elytrons with a pattern of hydrophilic bumps and hydrophobic troughs cause humidity from the morning fog to condense into droplets and roll down the beetle’s back into its mouth.  OK.  That means that the beetle does this head stand and moisture from the fog forms drops on its body which has special bumps and grooves to channel the water down the body right into the beetle’s mouth.  What a design!  In this way, the beetle takes in up to 40% of its body weight in water.  That’s like an adult drinking about 30 liters of water!  (Calculated for a 160 pound adult.)  So, the beetle doesn’t rest at the top of the dune but it sure has a big drink of water!  Then it heads down the dune to conduct the rest of the days activities!  This seemingly crazy water capture procedure keeps the beetle alive even in the harshest conditions.  

Well, I’m going to suggest that coming to church for us is something like heading up the dune for the darkling beetle.  We get up on Sunday morning and get dressed, eat something, drink something, and then we head to church.  Here we find what we need to live.  We find community.  We find love.  We find spiritual sustenance.  We find teachings and values that promise life.  We find a concept of reality to not only sustain us but to help us flourish.  All that we need to live is offered here.  We just have to show up and take it in like the beetle heading up the dune.  Sometimes it may seem like a taxing trek up that dune but the beetle is not disappointed.  It does its headstand and gathers the water it needs to make it through another day.  Some Sundays, it seems like hard work to get to church.  How are we going to fit it in with all that we have to get done?  Maybe we feel weak.  Maybe there are other reasons the effort seems like a stumbling block.  Maybe it’s not as bad as climbing a mountain twice the height of Everest, but it could be as taxing as doing a head stand!  But we make the effort and we get here, and we find just what we need to make it through the day, or through the challenge we are facing, or through the difficult circumstance that has us stressed.  Here, at church, we find that what we need comes pouring in.  We just have to show up.  And then we leave to proceed with the rest of life, prepared, supported, and fortified, even for the harshest conditions.  

So as you make your pledge this morning, offering time, talent, and treasure, think of all that we are receiving from the church and all that the church is offering.  It’s all here.  Everything we need to live with meaning, purpose, joy, and delight.  Let us share the harvest that is being so generously given to us.  Amen.  

Information on the darkling beetle and the Namib Desert is from:

http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/namib_desert/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namib

Planet Earth, “Deserts”

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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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.18.18

Where do we get gratitude?

Today at Lakewood Church is The BIG Event: Sharing the Harvest, a celebration of gratitude and generosity. In these weeks leading up to The BIG Event, we have been exploring many facets of gratitude. A gratitude journal was provided to encourage thinking about thankfulness.

The spiritual discipline of gratitude is life shaping, life altering, and life sustaining. Gratitude gives us a lens though which to see our lives. Gratitude inspires generosity. Gratitude is like a microscope that shows us what is really there in our lives. And it is like a telescope that reveals to us where we really are in the scope of things. Gratitude shapes our ideals, our behaviors, and our reality. I think we can see from these weeks of reflection the power of gratitude to inform our worldview, our self concept, and our reality. Gratitude gives us an orientation of generosity and abundance.

And where do we learn gratitude? Not in school. Not from society. From society we are more likely to learn greed. We learn gratitude in church. In church we are taught appreciation, awe, and our capacity for generosity based on gratitude for all that has been given to us by God however we may image or conceive of God.

We may be part of other groups and organizations like card clubs, political parties, music groups, environmental organizations, service clubs, book clubs, sports teams, and these experiences may be meaningful and enriching. But it is the church which forms and shapes us as people of gratitude. And gratitude invites us to celebrate the abundance of life and to be generous.

So today we give thanks for the church! We celebrate the church. We offer our generous support of the church. We share our bountiful harvest!

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16   

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.17.18

Jesus

The BIG Event is almost here. On Sunday there will be a festive celebration at church of all that we are grateful for. And as part of that celebration, we will choose to share the harvest with one another and the world by offering our financial support for the ministry of the church in the coming year. It will be an exciting morning!

And behind it all, really, is Jesus. Jesus is our window to Divine Love. He is our image of a fully loving human being. His stories and teachings convey how human life can be lived to the fullest, with meaning, purpose, and wonder. Jesus invites us to find our highest good not in accumulating wealth or power or privilege. Not in fame or comfort. But Jesus calls us to find our highest good in service and solidarity with those who suffering.

Jesus’ life and death show us what it means to love with generosity and abandon. To love truly. Not counting the cost even when the cost is your very life. That is why we are here on earth – to love. Ourselves. The Creation. Each other. Our neighbors. Our enemies. Beauty. Life itself. This moment. The great beyond. The mystery. The wonder. Jesus takes none of it for granted. He is enchanted by all of it and tries to show us how to live in full awareness. And for all of his appreciation and engagement with life, he accepts death, he is not afraid of death. The big problem is not dying, but not fully loving and living in every moment, with every action, in every circumstance. He shows us how to do that: to be fully human. And for that, I am grateful!

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.16.18

For what am I thankful?
 
Originally written by Robert “Coke” Coughenour for the
Westminster Shores Newsletter: Shorelines November 2015
 
For what am I thankful beyond the expected family, friends and food?
I am grateful for the ineffable mystery of life;
for wonder more than “facticity”; 
for a fundamental faith in eternal values;
for compassion given and received; 
for learning Time as qualitative rather than quantitative;
for learning to seek in complexity, simplicity; 
for learning and love; especially, love of God and love of neighbor,
as one friend taught me, “all the rest is commentary.”
“I would not sleep here if I could, except for the little green leaves in the wood, and the wind on the water” (from Archibald MacLeish, J.B.)  
 
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  
1 Thessalonians 5:16   
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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.15.18

Cultivating Change

While I was in California recently, I needed exact change for a bus.  I looked for a business nearby to get change.  There was a coffee shop.  The clerk said that she was not allowed to open the register to give change but she herself was a bus rider, so she got out her purse and made change for me from her own personal money.  How kind is that!

The cost of the bus was $2.25, so I had three quarters left.  Someone else came to the bus stop and she did not have exact change either.  She had two dollars but no quarters.  I offered to give her one of the quarters I had left.  She didn’t want to just take the quarter from me.  She was very hesitant.  Then I told her about the clerk giving me change from her own money.  It was really the clerk’s kindness and generosity that produced the quarters.  So, the fellow bus rider accepted the quarter – with a caveat.  She said that she would make it a point to help someone else when the opportunity came up.  

Gratitude produces generosity which produces more gratitude which produces more generosity and on it goes.  Or is it generosity that produces gratitude which produces more generosity which leads to more gratitude?  All I know is that gratitude and generosity go together.  And cultivating the spiritual discipline of gratitude makes the world a better place and makes us better people.  

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16   

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.14.18

People I don’t like

Maybe it’s not Christian to not like someone.  But to be honest, there are people I just don’t like.  It doesn’t happen often.  And it’s not enough to keep me from doing what I want to do and being who I am trying to be.  I can usually overcome my negative feelings, but sometimes there are people that I just don’t like.  

And I am grateful for these people.  On reflection, I find that if I am open to it, I can learn a lot from people I don’t like.  Why don’t I like someone?  Figuring that out can tell me something about myself and my values and concerns.  Why is this person annoying to me?  What is it about their behavior?  Exploring these questions helps me discover more about who I am and what makes me tick.  

Then there is the idea that what we don’t like in someone else is usually something that we don’t like in ourselves.  So, when I don’t like someone, and I can figure out why, I may learn more about my myself and what I don’t like about myself.

Oh yes and something else about people I don’t like.  They help me to grow as a Christian.  Even if I don’t like someone, I still want treat them with dignity and kindness because that is who I want to be.  Dealing with someone I don’t like helps me to work on treating all people as precious children of God.  It’s a lot easier to do that when you like someone.  With someone we don’t like, it stretches us and helps us grow.

So, today I give thanks for people I don’t like.  

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16   

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.13.18

Lazarus

The story of Jesus summoning Lazarus from the tomb is an assigned lectionary reading for this month.  [See the Gospel of John chapter 11.]  It’s a beautiful story.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are three siblings.  They live in Bethany.  They are friends with Jesus.  You may remember the story of Mary and Martha.  Well, as the story goes, Lazarus is sick.  Mary and Martha have sent for Jesus.  Jesus delays in coming to Bethany.  By the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has died and been put in the tomb.  And the sisters are consumed by grief.  It has been four days since Lazarus died.  It was thought that it took three days for the spirit to leave the body.  So maybe there was a possibility that Lazarus could be restored to life within those three days.  But after four days there is no hope.

As the story relates, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and he appears wrapped with grave clothes.  The impression is that he was really dead.  And now he is really alive.  

I am wondering about what hopes and dreams and desires we put in a tomb.  What kind of things do we let die?  What do we give up on?  What do we abandon?  What do we lock away never to be revisited?   Our faith teaches us to be peace makers.  Have we given up on nuclear disarmament?  On gun sense laws?  Our faith teaches us to value economic arrangements that are just.  Have we given up on economic justice?  Our faith teaches us to cherish the environment.  When we hear about the trends with global warming, do we simply ignore the statistics because we have given up on mitigation?  Our faith teaches to pursue forgiveness.   Have we given up on mending a relationship?  Our faith teaches us to be servants.  Have we given up on being able to make a difference?  Our faith invites us to health and wholeness.  Can we change our habits and face our addictions and dis-eases?  

The story of Lazarus reminds us of the persistence and resilience of the hopes and dreams of our faith.  Maybe they have been shut away but they can be restored.  What dreams have you given up on?  Divine Love can breathe new life into our dreams.

I am grateful that we are part of a religious tradition of hope and promise.  No situation is beyond redemption.  Restoration and healing are always possible.  

 “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16   

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.12.18

Lynching Revisited

Several days ago, I wrote about the poem and song, “Strange Fruit” which describes lynchings in the southern United States. I have recently read Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and An Early Cry for Civil Rights by David Margolick written in 2000. That propelled me to YouTube to watch videos of the song performed by various artists starting with Billie Holiday. Yes, her performance is emotionally wrenching to watch as are the renditions of the song by Nina Simone and other African American artists.

Then I noticed a more recent performance, 2013, by Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa. These people are white. Hm. What would that be like? I was skeptical. I watched the video. And I watched it again. And again. The vocals. The guitar. Haunting? Breathtaking? Tortured beauty? It’s hard to describe.  You can watch it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Qf_aytrlpQ

That performance led me to new thoughts about lynching. Yes, it is horrific to think about what it was like for black people to be the victims of such heinous evil. Again, hard to find human language to talk about something so inhumane. I am white. Can I say I am grateful that I am not black and was not subject to that depravity?

But watching the Hart/Bonamassa video stirred a different perspective within me. Here were these white people putting on such an authentic, pained, gut-wrenching performance. Maybe it is better to be black, to be associated with the victim rather than the perpetrator of such horror. Maybe it is worse to be white and to know that people of your kind did this, lynched people, hung them from a tree. With no semblance of justice involved. Can some say I’m grateful that I’m not white and not associated with behaving with such depravity?

We revisit this topic today, the 104th anniversary of the lynching of John Evans who was lynched in St. Petersburg near MLKing St. and 2nd Ave. S. by a mob of 1500 white people.

Can we be grateful? White and black? Can we be grateful that such a horror would not happen in St. Petersburg today? Can we be grateful that we are making progress in confronting racism? We have not come far enough. There is still a long way to go. But I am grateful that the majority of our society wants to end racism in the United States.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.11.18

Veterans Day

This is a difficult day.  It’s a day to remember all of the suffering and sacrifice of those who have served in the military.  Yes, it is good to thank our veterans and remember their honorable service to our country.  But it is also a day of conflicted perspectives and feelings for me.

Jesus was adamantly anti violent.  He was a pacifist.  Thus he was against armed conflict and war.  So as followers of Jesus, we, too, are to be against war and violence of every kind.  

So to me it feels like there is a tension between the commitment to following Jesus who was against war and expressing gratitude to those who have served in the armed forces on Veterans Day.  

There is also the underlying tension between the view that the armed forces protect our safety and security and the view that the armed forces are used to undermine working for peace in the world.  

So, there is a sense in which Veterans Day is a day fraught with mixed feelings and contradictions.

I am wondering about truly remembering our veterans.  What if we were to commemorate each and every person who has served this country in the armed forces?  What if all those thousands and thousands of people were named and identified?  What if the toll that was taken on their lives and the lives of their families was cataloged?  What if their scars, emotional and physical, were charted?  What if all of their stories were told?   What would that be like?  To know who all of these veterans were, what they did, and how it affected their lives.  What if we spent Veterans Day, a holiday, pouring over the stories of veterans?  Listening to their stories?  Surrounded by published lists of all of their names?  What if we really remembered each and every veteran on Veterans Day instead of shopping, going to the beach, and sleeping in since it is a day off?  

Maybe if were really thought about the human cost of serving in the military as well as the financial cost, we would re-think our military-industrial complex.  

Stanley Baldwin, British statesman and three time Prime Minister, declared, “War would end if the dead could return.”

Maybe the most significant way we can express gratitude to those who have served in the military is by abolishing war.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16   

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.10.18

Finding Gratitude through the Back Door

There is a wishing trees garden within the Arlington Garden in Pasadena, California. This public garden features native and drought tolerant plants. It has tables and chairs and benches for people to sit and enjoy the natural beauty. There is a labyrinth made from stones in the garden. And there are several trees blossoming with ribbons and papers that convey people’s wishes.

 

One post on the tree conveys these wishes:

I wish my husband will stop drinking alcohol and smoking.
I wish I will have job soon
I wish for best of health for my whole family
I wish I win in lotto.
I wish to have house soon.

After seeing that and some of the other wishes, here is my wish:

I wish to be more grateful!

 

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.9.18

Poetry

In 1937, an English teacher at De Witt Clinton High School, Abel Meeropol, wrote the poem Strange Fruit:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Later, Meeropol set the poem to music. It was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.

Why be grateful for such wrenching words? For the portrayal of such a gruesome scene? In words or in song?

Here we are served by George Santayana who observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The poem and song Strange Fruit portray the past in sickeningly stark honesty. Meeropol was Jewish. Could he have been thinking that remembering this harrowing past in America could influence the course of events in Europe? We don’t know.

But may we be grateful for those writers, musicians, scholars, and artists who help us to remember the past so that we are not condemned to repeat it.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thinks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.8.18

Forgiveness

We’ve done something to wrong someone. And we know it. And we feel awful about it. We’re abashed, ashamed. We do what we can. We want to make things right. We ask for forgiveness. And what a relief it is when that forgiveness is granted!

It can be hard to accept such a gift. A relationship is restored and maybe even strengthened. Our guilt is relieved. Forgiveness from someone is something to be very grateful for. Can you think of a time that you have received such forgiveness? How did that feel?

There is also another side to forgiveness. Sometimes we are the ones who have been wronged. Sometimes someone has done something that has caused us harm in some way. We bear the burden of the injury, the hurt, the pain. It may be something fairly minor. It may be devastating. But we carry the weight of having been wronged. It may linger and fester.

When we choose to forgive someone, we lay that weight down. We release that burden. We free ourselves from that load. And we can forgive whether the other party has requested that forgiveness or not. We can choose to forgive regardless of the demeanor of the other person.

Forgiving others restores us and frees us. Maybe you can think of someone who has hurt you. Forgive them in your heart. You don’t even need to tell them you have done so. And you likely will find that you have unburdened your spirit.

In this season of gratitude, may we give thanks for forgiveness – the forgiveness that we receive AND the forgiveness that we give.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thinks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.7.18

The Examen

One year as part of Bible Study, we used the spiritual discipline described in the book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, authors). The book is designed for children and families and is based on the examen, a prayer of St. Ignatius. At each Bible Study session, we would take some time to light a candle, then each person would respond to the question, What am I most grateful for? Then we would respond to a second question, What am I least grateful for? After our sharing and a closing prayer, we blew out the candle and were finished for the evening.

It was a very interesting process. Sometimes we found it very hard to figure out what we were least grateful for. We were often surprised at what we said. And how we felt about it.

One thing that tended to happen again and again was that in the process of examining what we were least grateful for, we found a hidden blessing. We discovered something we had not seen. We realized that something we were not grateful for had helped us or taught us an important lesson.

I have found this to true in my own experience. At one time, we had an older couple in the church and the wife had Alzheimer’s Disease. The situation was very difficult for the husband who was the caregiver. He would call me regularly to come over to their house to try to help when things got dicey. I was glad to go but I don’t think I was of much help. I was “least grateful” because I felt I was ineffective.

A few years later, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. My mother also had the same condition. In those frustrating experiences with parishioners, I had not been of much help to the couple. But later I saw that those experiences were of great help to me in preparing me to care for my parents. Something I was not grateful for at one point turned out to be something that I was very grateful for later.

To be honest, in those Bible Study prayer sessions, I think we all learned more about ourselves and the spiritual life through the discipline of identifying what we were least grateful for rather than what we were most grateful for. It was very illuminating.

So as we engage in this season of gratitude, may we be open to the possibility that something we are not grateful for may actually hold a blessing for us.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thinks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.6.18

Election Day

It’s Election Day.  Finally!  There’s been quite a lead up to this election.  Ads.  Mailers.  Robo calls.  Yard signs.  Emails.  Texts.  Social media posts.  Radio, TV, and print media coverage.  And it’s finally here – the day of the midterm elections in the United States.  

In the Gratitude Journal provided by the church for this season of preparation for The BIG Event, there is a prompt:  Something I appreciate about living in the United States. . . There are so many things to be grateful for but today, I am thinking about how thankful I am that we have a say so in who our leaders are.  We have the right to vote for our leaders and those who will govern.  And that right was hard won for African Americans and for women.  People were willing to give their lives to get the vote because voting matters.  In the current news there are many stories about voter suppression and gerrymandering.  Why bother to restrict voters or to manipulate district lines if it didn’t matter?  Voting makes a difference.

And here in Florida, voting is not just about who gets elected to govern, but we also vote on amendments to the state constitution.  This gives us the power to directly influence the laws of our state.  Think of it.  With our vote.  In those few minutes filling out a ballot, we have the power to give 1.4 million people in Florida who have paid their debt to society the right to vote and have a constructive impact on their community and their country.  [Vote yes on Amendment 4]  We have the power to stop any further off-shore drilling on the coasts of Florida and to stop fracking in Florida.  [Amendment 9]  

I am grateful that we have the power to influence the life of our communities and our country by voting.  I am thankful that voting gives us a voice in the affairs of our land.  

I am also thankful that the election will be over today.  Whoever wins, whoever loses, there will still be work to do to ensure that there is “liberty and justice for all” in these great United States of America.   

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16    

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.5.18

An Operation

I am thankful that our new dog, Stephanie, had surgery.  Yes, I know, that sounds like a strange thing to be grateful for.  An operation?  But here’s my story.  

First of all, I am thankful that we have Stephanie.  She is a 6 year old, AKC champion, 136 pound black Newfoundland.  She was re-homed to us this spring.  So she is new to our household.  And she is one very big bundle of JOY.  

I am also thankful that Stephanie’s bum leg could be healed through surgery.  In another month, she should be up to snuff as she has not been in some time.  It was a relatively easy fix.

Next, I am grateful that we actually had the money to pay for this extremely costly procedure.  There have been many times in our lives when paying for this surgery would have been impossible.  I don’t know what we would have done.  Maybe we would have given her back to her breeder.  I don’t know.  But I was am so very grateful that we could provide this care for our beloved pet.

I am also thankful that we were able to manage the care that Stephanie needed after her operation.  It has been an inconvenience, to be sure, always taking her out on the leash when needed 24 hours a day, buying a harness to hold up her back end when she stands, not letting her use the doggie door, restricting our other two dogs from using the doggie door, giving medication at 8 and 4 and 8 and midnight for a week, etc.  But I am so grateful that we have been able to allocate the time and manage the scheduling to meet Stephanie’s needs.  And I am also grateful that I have the physical ability to hold her up and help her maneuver.  

Sometimes it is surprising how much you have to be thankful for.  And even more surprising how that is revealed to you. 

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16  

A personal note:  On this, our 35th wedding anniversary, I am thankful for my husband who tolerates my devotion to dogs and my special fondness for Newfs, drool and all! 

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.4.18

Sunday

It’s Sunday.  Yep.  That’s the day that you may go to church if you want to.  I say “you” because I have to go to church – I’m getting paid to go, you might say!  But for others reading this, you have the opportunity to go to church today.  

In some places, people are forced to participate in religion, whether they want to or not.  In other places, people are forbidden to practice their religion.  We have the freedom to choose.

That means that we are free to go to church. Today and every Sunday. There is no one stopping us from being part of the community, enjoying the music, experiencing the prayers, being with the caring people, having our values nurtured, having our spirits fed, and feeling rooted and grounded in love.  This is always available to us.  Each and every week.  And there is no law or authority to prevent us from participating in church.

There is also nothing to stop us from offering our generous support to the ministry of the church as it feeds us and the world.  We can give as much time and money to the church as we choose.  There are no barriers or limitations imposed by an outside authority on our giving to the church.  

There is also no limit placed on our ability and our capacity to serve.  No one can stop us from offering a smile or a kind word.  No one can make us stop praying in our hearts.  No one can prevent us from writing a letter and expressing our views or joining in a demonstration.  Because we know that serving is more than helping one individual person in some way.  It is also about changing the institutional arrangements that create and perpetuate need.  

I am so very thankful that it is Sunday and there is nothing stopping us from fully expressing of our faith today and every day!

Looking ahead, make sure to plan to be in church for The BIG Event on Sunday November 18.  Come and share the harvest!

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.3.18

Scarcity Part Two

This is a second look at scarcity.  Yesterday, I mentioned how the culture around us tries to convince us that we are lacking something, and that something is scarce, so we have to seize the chance to get it.  This kind of cultural ambiance keeps the focus on what we don’t have rather than on what we do have.  So we feel a sense of scarcity.  Intentionally choosing a discipline of gratitude helps to counter that.

But there is another aspect to the scarcity mentality around us.  It is not just that we are lacking some material object.  There is also the perpetuation of the idea that we are not good enough.  We’re not thin enough.  Or tall enough.  Or rich enough.  Or stylish enough.  Or athletic enough.  Or successful enough.  Or charming enough.  Or. . . . enough.  

This creates the impression that we are lacking.  In and of ourselves.  As we are.  This is disempowering.  And can lead us to think, I can’t make a difference.  What I do doesn’t matter.  I don’t count.  

The scarcity mentality tells us that we don’t really count for much. With this outlook, we are less likely to give, to help, to contribute because we think we’re not much and our help doesn’t matter.     

When we choose to be thankful and affirm our gratitude, we see how powerfully gifted and blessed we are.  We see our abundance.  And then we are aware of all that we have to give and share.  And it does matter.  And we can help.  And we do have much to offer.  

As we prepare for The BIG Event, think of all that you have to offer to the life of Lakewood United Church of Christ.  Let your gratitude guide you!

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.2.18

Scarcity Part One

Hurry in and save.

This week only.

Don’t miss it.

This won’t last.

Free.  No cost.  No obligation.  Call today.

Don’t let these deals get away!

We are constantly encouraged to hurry up and buy.  Something.  Anything.  Goods.  And services.  The underlying messaging is: 1) that we are lacking something, and 2) that there isn’t enough of it.   There is the creation and perpetuation of the illusion of scarcity.  

Something we already have is not good enough.  There is something new that we need.  That something is in high demand and we have to be sure to get ours.  Our economic system has to create demand to keep growing.  Demand can be created by making something look really appealing or necessary, and scarce.  It’s a never ending cycle and we get sucked into the whirlpool.   It is very stressful to the spirit, this always trying to keep up and not to miss out.  And it can be stressful to the wallet to feel pressured to spend beyond our means.  

One way to put the brakes on this endless cycle, to reduce the stress, to reframe reality, is to engage in the spiritual discipline of giving thanks.  The conscious choice to give thanks, to look for what we have in our lives to be grateful for, is an intentional rebellion against the mindset of scarcity and consumerism.  The practice of gratitude reorients our reality.   Gratitude and giving thanks induce a change of heart.  Instead of seeing what is lacking, what we don’t have, what we can’t do, we see all that we do have.  Our perception of reality transforms from scarcity to abundance.  

This November as we prepare for Sharing the Harvest at The BIG Event, consider using the Gratitude Journal offered by the church (available at church and on the website) to guide you in the spiritual discipline of giving thanks.  

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sharing the Harvest Devotion 11.1.18

The Magic Words

When I was growing up, the magic words were not “abracadabra” or “wingardium leviosa,” but “please” and “thank you.”  As I child, I could understand why please was a magic word.  It helped you to get what you wanted because it was used in conjunction with a request of some kind.  But thank you?  In my young mind, I saw that as just flat out being extra nice.  

I see thank you quite differently these days.  It is more important than I thought as a child.   Just a simple thank you, especially to a stranger, acknowledges the humanity of the other person and recognizes your interdependence and connection.  I am surprised at how many times I get a heartfelt, “You’re welcome!” from a clerk or a stranger to whom I have simply said, “Thank you.”  

Saying thank you, whenever I have the opportunity, reminds me how much I am receiving from others all of the time.  This helps me to see how much I need other people; in many different ways.  It’s not just all about me and what I do.  Thank you reminds me that I am dependent on others and it helps me get away from being so self-centered.  Thank you undermines the tyranny of the self.  

Thank you makes me realize that I am constantly benefitting from things that I did not do, that I did not create, that I am not responsible for, and that I cannot control.  

So, that simple thank you, is a magic word.  It takes my beyond myself and makes me aware that I am part of a much larger reality that includes other people, known and unknown to me.  That larger reality involves the natural world which supports life.  And it alludes to the mysterious unknown, named God by some, that is at the heart of it all.    

In this season of gratitude at LUCC as we prepare for Sharing the Harvest at The BIG Event on Sunday November 18, I am going to try to say thank you more often and let that simple act work its magic.  Will you join me?  

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16

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Sermon 10.21.18 “Fact and Faith”

Scripture:  Mark 10:46-52

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

The quintessential American writer and social commentator of the 19th century, Mark Twain, had this to say:  “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”  It doesn’t take much discernment to see that there are many in our country today whose imaginations are way out of focus.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say it, we have guided missiles and misguided men.  Our species has made enormous strides in science and in understanding the world around us and beyond.  We have achieved tremendous technological advances, so much so, that it almost seems as if we are living in a sci-fi movie from the 50’s or 60’s.  

And Albert Einstein observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  So, I am wondering about our capacity to imagine humans living in balance with Earth in a way that sustains both.  I am wondering about the will to imagine human communities that are just:  Free of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and all of the other attitudes that judge and therefore diminish people.  I am thinking about our capacity for imagining economic arrangements that profit the common good.  I am wondering about imagining peace.  Many of us joined hundreds of others to do just that yesterday at Circus McGurkis and what a glorious celebration it was! 

It seems there is boundless imagination for schemes of amassing power and wealth at any expense.  There seem to be no limits to the imagination when it comes to inflicting pain and inventing weaponry.  But what about imagination for the good?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, the human mind has used imagination in service to religious expression.  Humanity has used imaginative pictures and stories and rituals and monuments to shape community, consciousness and meaning.  Humans do not live by bread alone, as scripture tells us.  We need stories and images which form narratives that help us to understand and make meaning out of our experience.  Religious expression is part of that.  Religion is a response to mystery, awe, and wonder.  Religion helps us to understand the world around us and the world within us.  Religion invites exploration of our motivations, influences, and values.  It helps us to figure out who we are, why we are here, and what matters.  

Religion, Christianity included, relies largely upon story in this process.  Jesus did not deliver well thought out, well documented treatises about human behavior.  He told stories.  The stories of our religious traditions, folk tales, myths, and lore, these stories all help us to see who we are, shape who we are, and help us to understand ourselves and the world.  Narratives define us.   

In Mexican lore, there is a creation story about people being created from corn.  Corn was growing prolifically.  And a divine figure turns the tall, erect corn stalks into people.  And this is how people came into the world.  Of course this is not science.  But we know that.  We see that this is a story that helps to shape a culture in which corn is the most important food.  Corn makes life possible.  The story gives people a sense of their core connection to the corn, the land, and the love that sustains them. 

Story is an important part of religion.  Stories help us to see who we are and find meaning in our experience.  We see this in the story that we listened to from the gospel of Mark this morning.  We are told that Jesus is walking along through a town called Jericho, accompanied by a large crowd. So this is a public circumstance.  As they are leaving Jericho, on the outskirts of town, they encounter a person who is on the outskirts of society – someone on the fringe, the edge, marginalized.  We’re told about a physically blind person who, when he finds out that Jesus is going by, cries out for mercy.  The blind person, who cannot see, seems to see who Jesus really is and what he is capable of.  And, remember, from stories in the Hebrew Bible, the people knew that that the messiah was supposed to give sight to the blind.  So this blind man’s expectations are in line with the teachings of his religion.  He is giving Jesus the opportunity to show the crowds who he is.  But the crowds, including the disciples, don’t see this.  They are forgetting their stories and they tell the blind man to be quiet; stop making a scene.  But in the story, Jesus sees what is going on.  This is an opportunity for him to fulfill his role as messiah, messiah not only to the respectable people, but messiah to those on the outskirts of society.  So we are told that Jesus calls out to the man.  Well, the crowd immediately responds and calls the man to Jesus.  The man throws off his cloak, perhaps his only possession,  and goes to Jesus.  He gets rid of anything that gets in the way.  He is willing to give up whatever he has to because he sees who Jesus is and values whatever Jesus will give him above all else.  This is in contrast to the disciples who just verses before are wondering why they have left home and family and job to follow Jesus and if it will be worth it.  And there is also the story of the wealthy person who cannot give his wealth to the poor to follow Jesus.  The blind man may only have one possession, but even this he will gladly cast aside for he trusts Jesus. 

Next in the story, Jesus asks this man, “What do you want me to do for you?”  What does he want?  It’s almost like a genie and three wishes.  But you can’t ask for three more wishes.  What do you want me to do for you?  Again, just a few verses earlier, the disciples have come to Jesus with a request:  To sit at his right hand and left hand in the realm of God.  They want favored status, recognition,  and privilege.  This brings to mind the observation of Helen Keller, a person who was physically blind and deaf: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”   What does this blind man want?  “My teacher, let me see again.”  See.  This man wants understanding.  Insight.  Meaning.  That is what he asks for which also tells us what he does not ask for:  wealth, power, status and prestige.  There are lots of things that he does not ask for.  The one thing he wants is sight.  True vision.   

In the story, Jesus tells him, “Your faith has made you well,” or saved you, or made you whole, or cured you, depending on how the word is translated.  But the man’s inner sight, his trust, his awareness, has led him to Jesus, to desiring what is true, to letting nothing stand in the way of his quest.   And he is rewarded. 

And what is the first thing he does once he can see?  Does he look in a mirror?  Does he count the coins he has collected begging?  Does he take a swing at someone nasty in the crowd that has taunted him?  No.  We are told, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”  He sees with validity and the value of this alternative world that Jesus is offering to people.  He sees the commonwealth of God in Jesus and his way.  He sees the truth that our highest good is found in living for others.  

We have touched on just a few of the many meanings and insights in this story that help us to see truth and to see ourselves more clearly.  This story has much to offer in helping us to examine ourselves and better understand ourselves and the nature of the world around us.  

Now, the touchy topic.  Did Jesus heal the man?  Did Jesus actually physically heal this man or anyone?  Is this a miracle?  Is it an occurrence that is beyond the bounds of scientifically provable experience?  Is this story to be looked at literally to show that Jesus is the Messiah?  

If the Bible is taken literally, then there are many claims that are in direct conflict with scientific fact.  Some of these can be accounted for by the less advanced state of knowledge at the time the documents are written.  But some of the stories are specifically intended to contradict scientific fact to show the power of the Divine.  But these stories were not originally taken literally, as we understand that term.  In ancient times, there was not the delineation between scientifically provable fact and fiction that we understand today.  Stories were considered true because of what they conveyed about human experience that resonated with the listeners and their experience.   Strict Biblical literalism as we know it is a relatively recent development, really since the 19th century.  And the problem with this new Biblical literalism is that it puts religion at odds with science and creates a false choice between science and religion.  And a consequence of this false choice is that religion with its potentially powerful influence for good loses much of its authority and validity and respect.  

Our religious tradition is rich in stories that help us to understand ourselves, see our choices, choose our reality, make moral judgments, create community, and pursue justice.  The stories of Jesus have much to offer the world to address the many challenges and problems that we are facing.  And we know that stories have the power to shape our consciousness.  Narrative creates our reality.  The power of our Christian stories is being lost to this blind insistence on literalism.  

We’ll take a moment to look at how this is the case with two important images associated with Christianity.  First, heaven and hell.  Seen as metaphors, symbolic images, the concepts of heaven and hell have much to offer.  On Earth as it is in heaven.  Creating communities, societies and culture that respect the dignity and value of every human being.  That’s heaven.  Living in harmony with the physical creation.  That’s heaven.  Living the path of love and forgiveness and generosity.  That’s heaven.  Living for others and serving others.  That’s heaven.  Creating peace through justice.  That’s heaven.  That’s what we are told about the way of Divine Love in the Bible.  These are visions of God’s way.  And we can image that as heaven.  

And what is hell?  Hell is life that is not lived from the foundation of Divine Love.  Hell is when we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.  When we do not love our enemy.  When we do not see the needs of others.  When we live from our own selfishness and greed.  This creates suffering and separation and pain and violence.  This can be imaged as hell.  

To insist that heaven and hell are only actual places that you go after you die distorts and limits the potential constructive power of these images.  

Another example is the powerful image of resurrection.  The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is a story that tells of the human capacity for evil and violence.  It tells of the power of greed and lust for power and control.  It tells of human resistance to the way of love.  It is also a story of the ultimate triumph of love.  Of resilience.  Of the power for new life that is beyond our wildest imaginings and dreams.  Think of Nelson Mandela becoming the president of South Africa.  Think of the European Union forged from peoples who were at war with each other off and on for hundreds of years.  Think of the parents who keep going, one more day, after the tragic death of a child.  Resurrection is all around us.  It is always possible within us.  To limit this concept only to something literal that happened to Jesus and will happen to us after we die is to rob this symbol of its power.  Symbols and stories by their very nature are not limited in power and scope.  To insist on literalism when it comes to the Bible is to limit its power.  

Now I have a wand here, an exact replica of the wand used by Daniel Ratcliffe in the Harry Potter movies.  This wand was custom made for Malcolm Wells by his father, Jefferson Wells.  Now, if I point the wand at the altar and utter the spell, wingardium leviosa, what will happen?  Will the altar rise?  Levitate?  Of course not.  But that does not diminish the power of the story of Harry Potter in which we see the battle between good and evil.  And we see the extreme loyalty that marks true friendship.  And we see evidence of sacrificial love as a mother places her body between her child and a deadly curse, giving up her life to save the life of her child.

If we ask to have our sight restored, we will see that the perceived conflict between science and religion, between verifiable fact and religious truth, is illusion.  We will see that the way of Jesus, a way of love, service, reconciliation, and valuing the worth of every person and all of Creation, is life-giving.  And we will choose that way.

The blind man in the story threw down his cloak and gave up life as he knew it to embrace a new life following Jesus.  There is a loud cry coming from our society, from our communities, from our neighborhoods, and from ourselves for healing and hope.  Our faith tradition is rich with stories that help us to see our circumstances, the implications of our choices, and the meaning of our lives.  May we be willing to abandon the dogma and theology and tradition that prevent us from following Jesus and finding new life.  May our plea be, “Let me see.”  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 10.7.18 One Is Not the Loneliest Number

Scripture Lessons: Job 1:1, 2:7-10 and Mark 10:13-16                                            Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

This week there was the celebration of the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  You know, the guy who is often pictured talking to the birds and other animals like Dr. Doolittle.  St. Francis is remembered for writing an ode to the sun, the stars, and the moon.  At the end of the service, we’ll sing a hymn based on his verses.  To our ears, it almost sounds, well, Wiccan or Native American.   It is an unusual celebration of the natural world for traditional Christianity which is usually so anthropocentric.   But St. Francis is hardly seen as edgy or provocative.  He seems more eccentric and quaint with his fascination with animals and nature.

But St. Francis is also known for pursuing poverty and he made quite a turn around in his life.  He grew up in a context of wealth and privilege.  He was known for living the high life.  He relished military glory.  But as a young adult, he underwent a process of spiritual transformation.  We are told that in the town square, in front of his father, the bishop, and the townspeople, he carefully took off all of the clothes he had on, which his father had given him, and folded them into a neat pile, and then renounced his inheritance, exclaiming that God was his only father, and walking away, singing.  

In this gentle act, a symbolic gesture, Francis was making a statement about his trust in God and his connection with the world.  He saw himself as a child of God, part of God’s Creation, and he did not want to be defined by other biological, cultural, and economic labels.  He wanted to self-identify as a child of God, a creature in God’s world.  He looked at other people and animals in this way as well.  All created, creatures, part of Divine reality: all of it holy and sacred.   Theologians today say that Creation is the self-disclosure of God.  Francis saw that.  All of it.  Of God.  He was part of God’s family, the human family, living in relationship with all of the other creatures with the natural world as a household.  One community of life.   One world.  One reality.   

This is the orientation that we see in the life and ministry of Jesus.  While society was busy trying to establish divisions and classifications and hierarchies, Jesus would have none of it.   Jesus is completely undermining the standards and assumptions of his society and culture.  We see this in the story that we heard this morning with the children.  In Jesus’ day, children were non-persons.  They were owned by their father.  They were completely dependent upon their father for care, inheritance, and life.  They had no status.  They had no power.  They had no rights.   They were nobodies.  The disciples are annoyed with the children for disturbing Jesus.  Children should not be bothering a teacher and his students.  They are not worthy of consideration.  The disciples are not being rude and heartless.  They are expressing accepted cultural norms.   

Though this story has a first century context, we might think about groups that are considered non-persons today in our culture.   Homeless street people?  Refugees?  Farmworkers?   People of color?  People who are made poor?  The disciples are accepting the mindset of society about personhood.  Jesus is rejecting the mindset of society about personhood.

When Jesus welcomes the children and blesses them, he is affirming their personhood. And he does not stop there.   Jesus affirms the personhood of women, the mothers of children, children, Samaritans, Romans, foreigners, the sick, the mentally ill, literally everyone.  There is no one who is of “non-person” status with Jesus.  The male disciples want to shove the children away, but Jesus will shove no one away.  He overturns the accepted notions of society.  His vision is inclusive.  All are part of the one family of God.  And he invites everyone to know their status as dependents on grace, on Divine Love, on God.  Everyone is radically dependent upon a God of universal love. 

Not one of us is responsible for our being here.  For our existence.  For our being alive.  In this place.  At this time.  As this species.  We are not responsible for the fact that we are here or that there are human beings at all.  We are not responsible for the fact that there are dogs or that there are trees or that there are clouds or that there are oceans or that there are mountains.  We did not create this Earth.  We need to remember this as we seek an appropriate understanding of ourselves as part of everything else that exists, that has emerged, that has appeared and formed.  We are part of the created world.  We are not responsible for our existence.  While we have incredible potential for effecting Creation, and for altering Creation, we are ultimately still created.  Like all other creatures.  Like the land, the waters, the planets, and the stars.   Our faith invites us to remember that we are part of something much bigger that we did not originate. We are one with the rest of all that is.  

I experienced this sense of oneness recently when I visited the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.  I am not African American.  My relatives were in Europe until the early 1900’s so were not part of slavery on this continent.  So I have always felt a sense of distance from that part of history.  The Wright Museum changed that.  The exhibitions begin with a description of the geological formation of the African continent.  Then we learn about the emergence of hominids in the Rift Valley.  We are told about the first homo sapiens sapiens evolving in the Rift Valley and of our common human ancestor known as “Eve.”  Then we hear about the migrating of the human species around the planet.  The way the museum tells the story, we are all part of the story because it is not just a story about those we name as being of African heritage or dark-skinned people today but it tells the origin story of all people including me.  It was very compelling.  I really felt that I was learning about my own history which is really our history as one human family.    

Society is always trying to undermine this sense of connection and oneness.  We see it in Jesus’ day.  We see it in the context of Francis of Assisi.  And we see it today.  “Us and them.”  The “other.”  Polarization.  Division.  We live in a time where everything is branded – liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, American or other.  And there is economic division.  The haves and have-nots.  The 99% and the 1%.  Those with capital .  This without capital.  Management.  Labor.  Domestic.  Foreign.  We live in a time beset with divisions and polarization.  And the media around is capitalizing on this and making it more ingrained.  

Division, tribalism, and fear make people easier to control and manipulate.  Christianity is about freedom from this vicious cycle.  

There is no room for divisive, polarized thinking in the way of Jesus.  Jesus rejected the labeling of people which makes them of different value and differing worth in the eyes of society.  He rejected the construct of “us and them.”  He rejected the concept of “other.”  The way of Jesus, of Christianity, is rebellion against all of these divisions and separations, whatever they may be.  There is one human family.  Each person a child of Divine Love.  In God, reality is one.  One enterprise.  One unified interconnected whole.   All sacred and holy.  All a gift.  That is the fundamental, foundational concept of our faith.  We are not one nation under God, we are one Cosmos within God.  

We have to realize that the things that we don’t like in this world, they are part of us.  The people we don’t agree with in this world, they are part of us.  What we see as abhorrent, anathema, and despicable in this world, it is part of us.  We have the capacity for such evil within us.  Also, what is good, what is loving, what is true, that is also part of us.   We have the capacity for incredible resilient love.  And when we see ourselves as part of this oneness, we can have compassion for all of it.  For ourselves.  For others.  And for the Earth itself.  

We saw things go on this past week that I am sure we find disappointing if not horrific and infuriating.  The problem is that people are putting individual self-interest and loyalty to their “tribe” ahead of their commitment to the bigger reality, the greater whole.  So senators were putting their own self-interest, their own re-election, and their own loyalty to their party ahead of the best interests of the whole country and the long-term future.  This happens involving politicians all stripes.  And while we may be upset with them for doing this, in our own ways, closer to home, we may be doing the same thing – putting our own interests or the interests of our group ahead of the interests of the whole.  We may be doing this in the work place.  We may be doing this according to race or class.  We may be doing this in terms of our commitment to environmentalism.  We may even be doing this in our family relationships – putting our self-interest and certain loyalties ahead of the common good.   So we need to look at ourselves and think about transforming ourselves and our own outlook and behavior because in that process we can become agents of transformation in wider human society and in the world.  

Christianity is an antidote for our human proclivity toward tribalism.  Seeing ourselves as part of the whole and affirming this oneness is at the heart of our faith because it is necessary for the flourishing of the realm of God, the commonwealth of God, that Jesus imagines and embodies.   When we function from the perspective that all of Creation and reality is one, we let go of our control and our sense of entitlement.  We live in gratitude for all that is given that we did not make or cause.  We see our unity with others and our connectedness.  We all suffer.  We all want food and shelter.  We all want to live in safety.  Humans and animals, alike.  Internalizing this sense of connectedness and oneness frees our capacity for empathy and love.  We find ourselves being transformed.  And since we are part of the one, as we change, the world is changed.  When we see others as distinct and separate, we cannot effect change.   We can only change ourselves and when we embrace our oneness, and make choices and take actions from that reality, we transform the world. 

Communion has always been symbolically about being one with Divine Love in its fullest manifestation.  We can think about how the bread and the juice come from the Earth from plants that are grown by the sunlight and the water.   We can think about the animals and the birds that spread the seeds so that plants flourish and grow, and the bees that pollenate the plants so that they spread and bear fruit.  We enact and hallow our oneness with all of Creation as we eat the bread and cup.

And we embody our connection to each other as human beings and to Jesus the Christ in this offering of bread and cup.  There is the idea that Jesus as the Christ, is showing us the capacity and the potential that is in each and every human being.  It is not that he was one different, special, “other,” exceptional human being.  It’s that he, as a human being, shows us the possibilities of our nature as a species.  The love and trust and oneness that we see in Jesus is not just in him.  The possibility is in each and every person.  It is our oneness.

There was a song made popular in the ’60’s by the band Three Dog Night called “One is the Loneliest Number.”  Again and again and again, the phrase is repeated, “one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”  

No, one is not a lonely number.  One is about being part of a vast, awe-inspiring, incredible reality connected to and in relationship with all other creatures as well as all that exists on this Earth, in this solar system, in the Cosmos, and on beyond in the infinite expanse of galaxies that our minds do not have the capacity to comprehend.  We are woven into the sacred pattern of life, of reality.  With everything that is.  We are not alone.  We are always one.  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 9.2.18 Labor and Love

Scripture Lesson: Song of Songs 2:8-14                                                                   Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

According to ABC News, Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world.  More than the English, more than the French, way more than the Germans or Norwegians. Even, recently, more than the Japanese.  And Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, too.  

According to Gallup, it is estimated that the average full-time American worker works 47 hours a week. That one of the longest work weeks in the world, and certainly higher than Europe where the average is more like 35 hours a week.  In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.

I had no idea there was such a thing, but apparently 134 countries in the world have laws limiting the maximum work hours per week.  Not the  United States.  

Then there is vacation.  Many jobs in the US offer 2 weeks paid vacation.  54% of workers do not take all of their paid vacation.  Compare this with many European countries where standard vacation time is one month.  In Sweden, it’s 5 weeks paid vacation per year.  And I bet they take it!

And what about family leave.  The average outside of Europe is 12 weeks paid parental leave.  In Europe the average is over 20 weeks.  Yes.  Paid.  Parental.  Leave.  In Finland, women can take 7 weeks of paid leave before a child is born and 16 weeks after.  And the men get 8 weeks paid leave.  The US is the only country in the Americas without a family leave policy.

Then there are the American work habits of eating lunch at the desk and working through lunch.  Not the norm in other countries.  And responding to work email on the weekend.  Again, not expected or accepted in other developed countries.  No matter how you slice it, Americans work A LOT.  

In the article “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World” posted at the website 20 something Finance, G. E Miller concludes:  “Using data by the U.S. BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics], the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.

[Labor trends and statistics cited come from:  https://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/ and https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/american-work-habits-us-countries-job-styles-hours-hoilday-a8060616.html  and https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364&page=1]

Yes, we live up to our national image of being hard working, and we fulfill our cultural narrative of the importance of working hard.  We have been wellformed by the founders of our culture such as Ben Franklin who said:  “It is the working man who is the happy man.  It is the idle man who is the miserable man.”  I am in there with the best of them.  I had two parents who were always working.  It’s part of being first generation immigrants.  They had the incentive to work hard and make a life in this country.  And I have inherited that tendency.  So has my brother.   We have absorbed the cultural message that hard work is important – not only for productivity and income, but for character and service.  

But work is not all there is to life which is why we have Labor Day.  A day off from work.  Labor Day was originally created as a celebration of the labor movement and trade unions.  These are groups that fought for fair, safe, working conditions, workers rights, the 40 hour work week, minimum wage, and benefits such as healthcare, pensions, and sick leave.  The labor movement was about protecting workers from unsafe, inhumane conditions.  It was about making sure that laborers were given the just fruits of their labor instead of the fruits of their productivity going predominantly to those with capital, the owners, and the boards of directors of a corporation or business.  Unfortunately, the labor movement has fallen out of favor in this country and workers are paying the price with the result that more money stays on top and income inequality is increasing.

We heard beautiful words this morning from Song of Songs.  And they are not about work.  They are about love.  The verses burst with ardor, desire, and yearning.  In these words we hear of the strength, agility, abundance, beauty, joy, and play that go with love and desire.   The writer uses the image of spring time, with its exuberance, bursting with life, irrepressible, to convey the ardor of love.  

Is this passage about two lovers and romantic love?  Is it about God and the Jewish community?  God having such desire and passion for the faith community?  Is it about Christ and the church?  Christ with such passion and devotion for the church?  We don’t know.  And we don’t need to know.  Whether this is about romantic love or the spiritual life or both, because they are connected, don’t we envy such intense passion?  What we need to know is that this passage conveys to us the energy and boundlessness of love.  And we are people born to love.  We are born for passionate, energetic loving – of life, of nature, of others, of the spiritual life.  We are to nurture and cultivate our human ability to feel such devotion and commitment and desire.  We are to safeguard, cherish, and protect our capacity to love.  The church is about encouraging us to feel – to feel the exuberant intensity of love.  

We are not here to just be cogs in a wheel.  To be labor units.  To be figures in an economic equation to maximize profits for someone else.  We are not here just to consume, to buy, to be taken in by the lie that by purchasing things and increasing profits we’re helping working people.  Sure, hard work is important, but MORE important, our faith teaches, is hard love.  We are here to love with vigor, intensity, and dedication.  But when you are working all the time, especially just to stay even, it’s hard to have energy or passion for anything even love.

Love takes time and attention.  If we are working so much, as the statistics say we are, then we are not making room in our lives for love.  This is yet another reason to pursue economic justice in this country – so that people have energy and time and attention to devote to our real job on this planet – love. 

Unlike the culture and economy around us, the church reminds us that our primary purpose is to be lovers. To love people.  Music.  Beauty.  Nature.  Ourselves.  God, however you imagine God.  We are here to feel that ardor and passion.  That irrepressible energetic excitement and devotion.  

It’s hard in a culture in which we are defined by our job; where our identity is created by our work.  Think about it.  When someone asks about what work you do, what do we say?  “I am a teacher.”  “I am a plumber.”  “I am a pastor.”  We don’t say, I do teaching or I work in a school.  Or I do plumbing.  Or I serve as clergy in the church.  No we say, “I am.”  I am a secretary.  I am   housecleaner.  I am a garbage collector.  Not I do this kind of work.  We define ourselves not by our humanity or our love interests but by our job.  In recent years, I have been to Europe several times and it has involved a fair amount of interacting with every day people.  I’ve noticed that in Europe, it’s not like that.  You talk with people and get to know them and you still have no idea where they work or what they do.  You might hear about their political views.  Their children.  Their tastes in food or drink.  Where they went on vacation.  What music they like.  A favorite book or museum.  All this with no mention of where they work or what they do for work.  It doesn’t define who they are the way it does here.  In the US, one of the first things that comes out when you meet someone is where you work and what you do for a job because we are socialized to create our identity around our job.

Yes, tomorrow is Labor Day.  It is a holiday intended to remind people, with a day off, that we are not meant to work all of the time.  Work should be fair so that we don’t need to work all the time just to live.  Yet many will be working tomorrow – in stores and restaurants and gas stations, etc.  It’s often the biggest sales day of the year after Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Instead of spending the fruits of your labors, instead of shopping which requires that others work, I invite you to not work tomorrow.  To not shop tomorrow.  To not go out to eat tomorrow.  To not use the labor of others tomorrow as best you are able.  Just for one day.  And honor the desire to make more space and time in your life and in this world for love.  Hunger for that desire.  Pursue that ardor.  In some way, capture your calling to 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 8.12.18 To Dream

Scripture Lessons:  Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6: 24-35

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Edward Curtis died on October 19, 1952 in a postage stamp sized apartment in Beverly Hills.  He was 84 years old.  He died virtually penniless.  His daughter, Beth, commented that, “her father had left this world as he’d entered it, without a single possession to his name.”  [Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Timothy Egan, 2012, p. 314]  Many people die in obscurity.  That is not unusual.  But Curtis, a Seattle photographer, had at one time been a nationally renowned figure.  He was personally acquainted with J. P.  Morgan, one of the richest men in America.  He had a close friendship with Teddy Roosevelt.  Despite having only gone to school until age 11, what led Curtis to the hallowed precincts of power?  What drove Curtis to spend months each year sleeping in tents, outside, battling the elements and enduring the discomforts of outdoor life when he had a successful business and a comfortable home with a wife and 3 children in Seattle?  

As a successful photographer, Curtis was selected by C. Hart Merriam, the cofounder of the National Geographic Society, to join a scientific expedition to Alaska to document the landscape and the people of the region.  Curtis agreed.  On that expedition, Curtis became aware that the indigenous peoples and cultures were dying out and would soon be gone.  The seed was planted in Curtis.  He would spend the next 30 years of his life documenting for posterity the native cultures of North America.  

Armed with photography equipment, notebooks, tent, bedroll, and a wax cylinder recorder for audio, Curtis and a skeletal staff, roamed the western north american content recording the culture and people who were being driven to extinction by Euro-American expansion.  And they did so at a feverish pace.  Because, as Curtis explained, his subject was dying.  [Egan, p. 52]  

While Curtis was dismissed by eastern academicians who wrote and taught about native Americans but had never been out west he gained the trust of the indigenous peoples and joined in their rituals and ceremonies and lived among them for many months each year.  But his biggest struggle wasn’t acceptance by the Indians, or the trials of outdoor life, but funding. The expenses were sizable – for assistants,equip- ment, supplies, and the printing of the actual books.  While Curtis was consumed by his work in the field, he had to repeatedly leave the work to travel to the east coast to seek funding from the wealthy elite.  Much more comfortable in his tent in the desert than in the posh parlor of a New York City mansion, he eventually gained the support of J. P. Morgan.  And he sought the support of the US government through then President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt.  Curtis became friends with Roosevelt and even photographed Roosevelt and his family.  

Curtis’s dream took its toll on his finances since he essentially earned no money from the project and spent his fortune on its completion.  And the project took its toll on Curtis’s family.  His marriage ended in divorce. 

But Curtis persisted.  Volume by volume the encyclopedia emerged.  Three decades later, in 1929, when Curtis was 61, the last volume was completed.  But with the stock market crash, the funding to purchase such an extravagant resource dried up and there was little room in the national psyche to pay attention to his work.  Even institutions of higher learning with extensive libraries largely ignored Curtis’s voluminous tomes.  So Curtis’s lifelong project ended with no fanfare or notoriety.  And he, and his encyclopedias, fell into obscurity. 

Curtis completed The North American Indian, a 20 volume ethnographic encyclopedia, documenting the cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America.  The idea of creating this record of the native peoples had sprouted within him and drove the rest of his life.  All of his decisions, activities, resources, his being, were devoted to this project. While the project consumed him, he fulfilled it with no acclaim or recognition.  It was his dream.  And he gave his life to his dream.  And that was what mattered.

Reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan made me wonder, what am I giving my life to?  What is my dream?  We live, day to day.  Many of us very busy with many involvements and activities.  But what are we really doing?  What end is all of our busyness serving?  What dream are we chasing?  We work.  To make a living.  That is, money to live.  Money to spend.  Which fulfills the dreams of others to be rich.  But what about making a life?  What are our dreams and what are we doing to fulfill them?  

We may not have one big overarching ambitious project, like Curtis, but we are each surely called to devote ourselves to living out our dreams.  How are we doing with that?  We show kids inspirational sayings like “Shoot for the stars” and “Dream big” but what do they see among the adults around them?  How are we doing showing those who are coming after us about living our dreams?  

This kind of issue concerned Jesus, too.  Threading we heard this morning follows the story of the feeding of the multitudes.  The people have just been fed bread and fish.  Now the conversation continues in the aftermath of that story and the people remain focussed on the food.  The literal food.  What is eaten.  Jesus is trying to use the story to get to deeper meanings but the conversation remains on two levels with Jesus trying to go deeper and the crowd stuck at the level of bread to put in their mouths.  So there is that beautiful, telling line, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  [John 6:27]  Jesus is encouraging the listeners to live deeper; to follow him in giving their lives to something more than just bread for the stomach.  In devoting themselves to the commonwealth of God and not simply procuring food to eat, they will find the food that truly satisfies.  We are created to do more than simply see that our bodily needs are met.  It is our nature to invest our lives in the common good.   We need that to live.  Our dreams feed us.  

The reading from Ephesians picks up on this theme.  The writer is encouraging spiritual maturity.  Jesus followers are to pursue the virtues of which the human spirit is capable though not always inclined:  humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, peace.  In addition, those in the community have been given gifts.  And what is the purpose of those gifts?  To make money?  To create jobs? To start a business?  That’s what our culture tells us to do with our assets.  But Ephesians tells us that these gifts are for ministry.  For serving others.  For building up the body of Christ.  Believers are not to be fooled.  We are told:  “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  [Epheisans 4:14]  Yes, think Q Anon.  Think fake news.  Think advertising propaganda.  And, yes, think religious manipulation.  There are all kinds of influences, subtle and not, that are trying to shape our thinking, our values, our character.  And Ephesians is encouraging us to be thoughtful and discerning.  To think deeply.  Don’t just take things at the sur-face.  Don’t just accept the cultural milk around you like a baby taking its mother’s milk.  That is fine for a child, but as adults seeking spiritual maturity, we are to seek the truth in love and grow into the likeness of Christ as we see it in Jesus.  

Trickery, craftiness, deception.  There are those who will use these tactics to entice us to follow and to form our dreams around self serving aims rather than the common good.  To give our lives to personal gain and the lure of wealth instead of bettering the lives of others.  These are the things which do not ultimately satisfy.  The food that perishes.  And it is all around us. 

Our faith tradition invites us to choose the food that satisfies.   To choose service and other centered living.  To choose the health of the community and the earth.  To choose to dream big.  Of course, we want to be healthy.  But what about creating a society that fosters the health of all people?  Sure, we want meaningful work.  But what about investing in a community that encourages everyone to be engaged in useful, meaningful labor?  Yes, we want to enjoy a day at the beach.  But what about protecting the environment so that everyone can enjoy the beautiful outdoors.  I love to read a good book.  But what about making sure that everyone can read and has access to books?  We have been given gifts, skills, graces, time, voices, money, access, and power.  What are we doing with all that we have been given?  What dreams are we serving?  Are they in keeping with our faith?  Are they worthy of our calling?  Are they big enough?  Are they dreams that will satisfy?   

I don’t normally read the obituaries.  Maybe a couple of times a year, I glance at that page in the newspaper.  Well, I happened to look at the obits on Thursday August 2.  For some reason I found myself reading the obituary for David Allen Palmer.  And I was stopped by the first line.  “David Allen Palmer, 63, a new resident of Pensacola, FL, passed away July 31, 2019.”  Yes, the date said, 2019.  But it’s only 2018.  Yes, a typo.  Surprising.  But what if you knew about your death a year ahead?  What if you knew that you had a year to live?  A year to live out your dreams.  What would you be doing?  How would you spend your time and money?  What would you do with all of your resources and assets and gifts and graces?  How would you chase that food that does not perish?  

Maybe that is what impressed me so much about the photographer and ethnographer Edward Curtis.  If you had told him he had a year to live, I don’t think he would have changed anything about what he did.  He gave all he had to the encyclopedia of The North American Indian.  And when he wasn’t out actually documenting the Indians, he was chasing after funding so the project could go on.  He could not have done anything to be more devoted to his dream.  He could not have accomplished any more in achieving his dream.  He gave it everything.  

The last volume of the The North American Indian was about the native peoples of Alaska.  Curtis told of “how they made parkas from bird or fish skins, and heavier coats of caribou and bear hide.  Their socks were woven grass; a rain slicker was fashioned from seal intestine.  The people were tattooed and pierced and handsome. . .”  Curtis’ assessment of those very northern North American Indians?  “In all the author’s experience among Indians and Eskimos, he never knew a happier and more thoroughly honest and self-reliant people.”  [Egan, p. 296-297]  It was good to return to Alaska where his dream had begun and to have a positive experience when the overall story of the indigenous peoples was a tragic one.  

In this last volume of his encyclopedia, Curtis thanked those who had helped him with the project through the years and there were many.  The people “who never lost faith.”  Who encouraged him.  We need others to help us pursue our dreams and to support us along the way.  Curtis recognized this as he concluded his herculean project saying, “Mere thanks seem hollow in comparison with such loyal cooperation; but great is the satisfaction the writer enjoys when he can at last say to all those whose faith has been unbounded, ‘It is finished.’”  [Egan,p. 297]  Curtis knew the food that does not perish.  The bread of life.  May we taste that bread!  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 8.5.18 Stand Your Ground

Scripture Lessons:  John 6:1-21, Ephesians 3:14-21

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Stand your ground.  We are hearing a lot about this lately. The phrase has come to refer to laws that protect those who use violence in self defense when they feel their lives are in danger.  So, if I am afraid of you and think that you are threatening my life, then I have the legal right to kill you.  And to be immune from prosecution.

Stand your ground is a reference to Florida Statutes chapter 776 entitled “Justifiable use of force.”  The statute says in part:  

Home protection; use or threatened use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—

(1) A person who is in a dwelling or residence in which the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use or threaten to use:

(a) Nondeadly force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force; or

(b) Deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

There is that phrase, “has the right to stand his or her ground.”   While there may be a logic to this, there are also problems.  Like when a black person feels threatened by a white person.  If the black person kills the white person, they are much less likely to be protected by stand your ground than if a white person does the killing.  And people are already protected under the law if they kill in self defense.  And stand your ground has led to increased killings.  Some people with guns feel this law compels them to use their guns in self defense rather than simply walking away from a volatile situation.  Even in active shooter training, they tell you to run and hide.  The last resort, if you can’t run or hide, is to confront the shooter.  One on one, the same advice should apply.  Walk away.  Drive away.  Leave.  Get out of the situation.  That should end whatever the conflict is right there.  With stand your ground, people feel emboldened to confront.  To engage.  To shoot.  Some critics call it the “shoot first” law.  Florida was the first state to enact this legislation in 2005.  Since then, at least 34 states have followed suit.  We started a trend though not a good one.

The phrase “stand your ground” used to have more nobility to it.  It was about standing up for your principles.  Not backing down from your moral commitments.  Being firm in your righteous convictions.  

As Christians, we are called to stand our ground.  We are to stand our ground as we see it in Jesus.  Jesus shows us a reality in which everyone is fed with food and with love.  He shows us a reality in which people work together and all have a contribution to make.  In the story we heard this morning, it is a child that has the bread and fish that feed the multitudes.  Jesus shows us a world of simplicity, generosity, and abundance.  Just bread and fish.  Nothing fancy.  But more than enough for all.   This is our ground.   This is the ground we are to stand on.  This is what we are to claim and protect and foster.  This reality that we see in Jesus.  

Yes, standing our ground as followers of Jesus means committing ourselves to living by his values and promoting those values in society.  It means being in solidarity with those who are being oppressed and abused like the farmworkers.  I hope some of you will be at the rally this afternoon here in St. Petersburg in support of farmworker justice.  Yes, stand your ground for us means defending the people who are trying to immigrate into this country and protecting their children.  Jesus also shows us that standing our ground means being against the use of violence especially when used to serve what theologian Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence.”  Our society promotes the use of violence to achieve peace.  This approach is rejected by Jesus.  We know that our faith does not stand behind a law that increases violence and promotes racial bias.  We are the people of “blessed are the peacemakers.”  We are the people of every person “made in God’s image” not some people “made in God’s image.”

We are called to stand our ground for love and justice.  If you see something, say something.  If you see racism, say something.  If you see abuse, say something.  If you see people treated unfairly, say something.  Whether it be one on one or society at large, we are called to stand our ground with love like Jesus.   And in today’s world, there are many ways that we are called to stand our ground.

This morning, we also want to notice that oft over looked verse in today’s scripture:  “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  While this may not be historically factual, the writer of the gospel felt it was important to say this.  The people, the people who had been fed on the mountain, wanted to make Jesus their king.  They wanted to define his role and his power.  They were coming to take him by force.  Notice, he does not “stand his ground” Florida style and fight back.  He retreats.  Run.  Hide.  But still he stands his ground.  He will not let even his beloved followers impose a power arrangement upon him that is at odds with his values and calling.  He will not accept a label that is laden with the potential for abuse of power – remember David last week?  Jesus will not allow himself to be the king of just one people, one geographical region.  His message is universal.  By refusing to be king, he is refusing to accept this power structure, this power arrangement.  You see, other people are standing other ground:  they are hungry for power, or looking for economic profit, or seeking revenge.  There are many other things that people are seeking to defend and protect.  Jesus will stay true to Divine love and will stand his ground so that his influence is not limited by the desires of others hungry for what would be a false sense of security.  In the next scene we see Jesus portrayed as exerting power not only over people but over the sea and the wind and the storm.  That is more than any king could do.  Jesus will stand his ground for the good of all of creation.  And he will not be manipulated or capitulate.  

Yes, we are called to stand our ground with Jesus, working for a world of goodness, abundance, and peace.  And we do that in many, many ways.  We do that on an individual level, in our relationships and behavior toward others.  We also do it in our efforts to influence society, the government, and our life together.   This is who we are as Christians.  We stand our ground with Jesus.  But this work can take its toll.  There are many initiatives on many fronts that seem to call out for our attention.  Trying to stand our ground and make a difference can seem overwhelming, exhausting, and futile.  Where are the wins?  The present federal administration seems bent on wearing us down through repeated traumatization.  Some days you just don’t want to turn on the TV or the radio or check social media.  Like Jesus withdrawing up the mountain by himself, you just want a break from it all!

But let’s remember those beautiful words that we heard from Ephesians.  The writer is addressing second generation followers of Jesus.  They have seen the killing of the apostles and the martyrs.  They are a small group gathered in a home.  No large fancy temple.  In fact, the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.  What is the future of their religion?  What is the future of the church?  What is their future?  These people are unsteady; in a fragile state.  Maybe feeling overwrought and under stress.  And the writer offers a prayer of soaring sentiments: 

 “I bow my knees before the God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  Their numbers may be small but they are part of God’s great human family.   “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Divine Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”    They are not dismissed or denigrated for their fragile state.  They are offered empowerment to stay strong.  Rooted and grounded in love.  They will be equipped to stand their ground in love.  “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  This is an expansive, all encompassing vision.  They are part of a much larger reality.  Let that incomprehensible love work in you.  

These are words of hope and encouragement for us in these challenging days as we seek to stand our ground – in the way of Jesus, rooted in love.  Together, in God, there is more than what is needed for the living of our days and the standing of our ground.

This past week, I went to the Trump rally in Tampa.  I was asked, Why?  I have thought about that.  Trained as an historian, I like firsthand knowledge, when possible.  And I like facts.  So much is said about the president, good and bad, I wanted to see for myself.  I was also very interested in seeing first hand those who support Trump in a crowd setting.  What are the people like?  Again, firsthand.  Not filtered; even through an ethical, professional journalist.  I also went in my own little way, to stand my ground.  We say we believe in one human family.  We say the divine image is in everyone.   We say we are working for justice and peace for all people.  We say we believe in reconciliation.  Jesus interacted with all kinds of people, even those who were considered enemies and hated by others.  By going, by being there, by taking an interest, by listening, by being present, I wanted, in some small way, to be part of building a bridge and not a wall.  

It was an unforgettable experience.  I will be thinking about it for a long time.  I saw thousands of people who are angry and hostile.  They were yelling at each other in line to get in.  They were giving the finger and heckling the press.  There was a lot of rage.  And they were glorying in venting those feelings.  I felt sadness and compassion.  As a church, how can we stand our ground in love that reaches out to everyone, including these angry, hostile people?  Especially these angry, hostile people?  I don’t know.    

The writer of Ephesians ends the prayer for the struggling congregation, saying, “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.”  Here we are assured that the power at work within us, together, as a congregation, as a church, can do more than all we can “ask or imagine.” Just like the loaves and fish.  With faith we trust that together we can stand our ground.  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 7.29.18 What Good Is Religion?

Scripture Lesson: 2 Samuel 11:1-12:14a

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

What good is religion?  It’s not just a question for a skeptic or an atheist.  Considering the number of churches and religious institutions and faith communities in the US anyway, it seems like a good question.  What good is religion?  There’s a lot of it around us, but what good is it?

I think a major function of most religions, certainly Christianity, is to bring out the best in people; it is to encourage our goodness.  Religion is a way of dealing with life that fosters hope and joy and community.   A purpose is to help people be loving – of themselves, others, and Creation.  I think religion is to help people be good and have a good life.  

After a yoga class I went to recently, one of the participants mentioned that they were going to a steakhouse for dinner after class.  She glanced at the teacher and said, “I know that would not interest you,” because the teacher is vegetarian.  The teacher explained that she doesn’t eat meat because her spiritual practice involves “do no harm” so she doesn’t eat animals.  As an aside to the teacher, who knows I am a Christian pastor, I said, “I’m vegan out of reverence for the Earth.”  Then the teacher mentioned to all that she doesn’t kill bugs in her house either – at least not many.  She takes them outside.  Again, as an aside, I told her that we often take them outside, too, because we believe life is sacred.  So while the yoga teacher and I have very different religious leanings, our religious commitment is bringing out the good in us in similar ways.  

That is what religion is really all about:  bringing out the good in us, in life, in relationships, and all the good around us.  

This morning we heard a portion of the story of King David.  Now here is a figure absolutely steeped, from birth, in religion.  He is part of a devout Jewish family from the tribe of Benjamin.  His family is making sacrifices and following all the necessary observances.  Things are not going well with Saul’s reign and a new king is needed who will get things back on track.  Get Israel back in tune with God.  Clean out the corruption and violence and problems that have arisen and get the people back to living in a wholesome and righteous manner.  As the story is told, Jesse’s family is pegged to provide the next king for Israel.   And who gets picked to do this?  Not Jesse’s son, Eliab.  Or Abinadab.  Not Shammah.  None of the seven sons.  But the youngest son, who was keeping the sheep, David, he is the one who is fingered by God through the prophet Samuel.  A humble, unassuming figure because “God looks on the heart.”  [1 Sam. 16:5]  David is chosen because he is someone who will depend on God and someone God can trust. 

And it goes really well for a while with David.  He is sound through the challenging transition ending Saul’s reign.  When David is anointed king he brings people together.  He is successful militarily against Israel’s foes.  He establishes the city of Jerusalem known as the city of David.  And he is talking about building a Temple for God.  Things seem to be on track.  We’re told that, “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”  [2 Samuel 5:10]  He is a shining star just as was hoped.  

And then we hear of David and Bathsheba.  Such a promising start goes so awry.  And even that awesome, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of Israel doesn’t seem able to keep David and his regime in line.  What good is religion?  It didn’t stop David from lusting after Bathsheba.  It didn’t stop him from summoning her.  What could she say, no, she would not come when called by the king?  Religion did not stop David from “taking” Bathsheba as it is stated in the text.  

Seemingly unable to control himself, David is also unable to control the consequences of his actions.  Bathsheba becomes pregnant.  Now there is a problem.  At least for David.  He has taken another man’s wife.  He has violated the ownership rights of another man.  And so he is looking for a cover up.  There has already been a problem for Bathsheba.  She has been raped;  but that is not the main issue here.  Women’s problems are seldom the main issue in a patriarchal society, but more on that in a moment.  So, in light of this pregnancy, David digs his hole deeper by pursuing a coverup.  He calls Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, home from the battlefront.  Uriah comes when called, just like Bathsheba, just like anyone summoned by the king.  But, again, things are out of David’s control.  Uriah is supremely noble.  One of David’s elite 30 soldiers among thousands.  His name means “God is my light.”  For Uriah, religion is bringing out his best.  He will not have a conjugal visit with his spouse when the ark of God is still out on the battlefield along with the other soldiers.  This would be disrespectful, dishonorable, disgraceful.  He is calm and principled.  So Uriah sleeps out in the yard, not inside in his soft, comfortable bed, with his soft comfortable wife.  

Now what will David do?  Something righteous?  Something good?  Come clean?  Nope.  David arranges for Uriah to return to the front and be killed in battle.  Then he takes Bathsheba as his wife. 

This whole sordid episode is a turning point in David’s monarchy and in his life.  After this, David’s life is wracked by problems and tragedy.  Bathsheba’s baby dies, though she becomes the mother of Solomon, the next king.  David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped by her brother who is killed by another brother out of revenge.  David’s son, Absalom then stages a take over, including raping 10 of David’s wives, and is killed.  Pestilence invades the land.  It’s simply downhill after Bathsheba. 

Now, back to patriarchy.  There are scholars, white, male, who, through the centuries, have blamed the whole Bathsheba saga, the beginning of David’s downfall, not on the glorious, victorious king, but on Bathsheba.  She lured the king.  She enticed the king.  She asked for this.  She brought David down.  Here’s a sample of this view from a commentary:  “No one of good moral character could have acted as she did in her seduction and conquest of David.  She doubtless exposed herself that the king might be tempted; she willingly came to the palace when she was sent for; and conspired with David for the murder of her husband.”  [Cited in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 2. p. 565]  Talk about blaming the victim!  That is not religion bringing out the good in people, but religion with a twisted imagination fueled by patriarchy.  (And there’s a lot of that. . .)

So, how will this whole mess be resolved?  Uriah is dead.  Bathsheba is pregnant.  Religion doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in King David.  What now?  We are told that God sends Nathan the prophet to David.  Nathan is to help David see the error of his ways.  Nathan is to expose the truth to David.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t envy Nathan.  I would not have wanted that assignment!  But Nathan proceeds.  He shows us religion bringing out the truth.   The stark honesty that is needed.  Nathan shows us religion bringing out the truth of the abomination that David has committed.   But it is about more than exposure.  Nathan also leads David to admission of guilt.  To repentance.  To redemption and restoration.

Yes, religion is about bringing out the good in us, about helping us to be our best selves.  But it is also about finding our way back when we have erred.   In Judaism and Christianity, religion is about restoration after we have strayed.  It is about an on ramp back to goodness when we have hurt ourselves, others, and our relationships.  It is about healing when we have caused or contributed to pain and suffering.  In some ancient versions of 2 Samuel, the scribes left a gap in the text after David’s confession.  There was an indication that Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance, was to be read there.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.  . . .”  After the reading of Psalm 51, the text of 2 Samuel resumed.  

What good is religion?  Yes, it inspires the good, but it also provides a way back.  Our faith tradition provides a path of restoration.  And that may be its most important function.  In today’s world, we seem bent on punishment, retribution, and revenge.  Think of that ubiquitous question on most job applications:  Have you ever been convicted of a felony?  That seals it.  Yes or no.  And if the answer is yes, there is little chance of a way back; of being fully restored to a constructive role in society.  Your personhood is not restored even after you have served your sentence because you are still not allowed to vote.  There is no way back to full humanity, healing, and wholeness.  But our religion does provide that way back.  Our faith helps us find a way to healing and wholeness even after the most painful experiences.  We are part of a religion of forgiveness which can lead to the restoration of our full humanity.  We can once more see the image of God within ourselves after we err, and in others who have done heinous things.  In Christianity, our only permanent label is child of God created in the image of God.  And our faith always provides a way for us to see that in ourselves and in others.  The scene of Jesus on the cross is definitive:  Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.  David asks for forgiveness because he didn’t know what he was doing.   And he receives the forgiveness he needs.  He finds a way to go on, with Bathsheba, no less, after arranging the murder of her husband.  And, we can imagine that Bathsheba, too, must in some way forgive David, for she somehow finds a way to go on as one of his wives.  

What good is religion?  Yes, it encourages and fosters the good.  But it is also about finding a way to go on, a path of restoration, when we are less than our best selves.  And we know that humanity is capable of great evil.  And it can be that the more power we have, the more harm we do.  We remember the words of British historian, Lord Acton, in 1887:  “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  David is a case in point.  We can also see this among the wealthy, dominant, white, elite portion of the US population.  Often the power carried by that status leads such people to think they are subject to different rules, different standards, different morals.  How is it that our government thought it was ok to take children away from their parents – babies, toddlers, kids, teens?  They expected a “pass” because they are the government.  But the courts and people of this country are seeking to rectify this immoral policy.  Power corrupts and we can succumb to doing great wrong.  Whatever our transgressions as individuals or as a society, there is a way back.  Our faith tradition gives us a way of reconciliation and healing.  

Recently a friend, who is agnostic and not religious, told me the story of her cousin’s murder here in Florida many years ago.  Her cousin and his girlfriend were college age.  They were out on a date.  They were abducted and taken to the woods.  The woman was raped and then killed.  And the man was then killed as well.  It was a horrific, random act of violence.  The murderer did not know these people.  It was an act of pure evil.  The families of the two young people were wrought with unimaginable grief.  My friend told me that she noticed that the two families handled things differently.  And that has remained notable to her.  The woman’s family was angry and wanted revenge.  They wanted the killer to get the death penalty.  They remained broken and hostile.  They never seemed to heal after this experience.  The man’s family, his parents, my friend’s aunt and uncle, were part of the Salvation Army.  They were very involved in the church.  They were people of faith.  Yes, they were devastated by the murder of their son and his girlfriend.  But they sought healing in their faith.  They prayed.  They offered forgiveness to the killer.  They told the judge that they did not want him to receive the death penalty.  It would only mean another death and it wouldn’t bring their son or the girlfriend back.  They also started a support group for others who had family members that had been murdered or had been victims of violence.  This work helped them to heal.  They found solidarity with others.  They were able to express their grief and seek the solace of forgiveness with others.  They were able to go on with their lives and find the good in themselves and others again.  Sadly, there was little reconciliation between the families of the two victims.  The parents of the woman could not understand the attitude of the parents of the man.  They could not see the value in forgiveness.  They could not let go of their hatred and anger.  

So, what good is religion?  As the story of David, Jesus, and the stories of those around us continue to reveal, religion gives us a way back to life.  It gives us a way forward after devastation.  It is a path of restoration and renewal because we are going to do things that are wrong, that cause pain, that separate us from our best selves and from others.  This is inevitable.  It is the consequence of freewill.  It is our nature.  Our religion gives us a way back through forgiveness of ourselves and others so that we may once again know love, goodness, and joy.   That is good religion.  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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Update from Creation Justice Task Force

UPDATE from the CREATION JUSTICE TASK FORCE

July 19, 2018 Meeting

Paper Recycling Container

PAINT CONTAINER AND CREATE ENVIRONMENTAL FRIENDLY MESSAGE ON IT!  Will recruit church members to help.

Creation of Green Practices CHECKLIST 

REMINDERS WHEN USING FELLOWSHIP HALL AND CHURCH PROPERTY OR EVENTS – Coming Soon

Raise Awareness of Green Practices at LUCC

WALLY – Presentation on “Wasteful Society” at Sunday Celebrations on SEPTEMBER 30TH 

PLACE STICKERS “LANDFILL” ON ALL REGULAR GARBAGE CANS IN CHURCH AND FELLOWSHIP HALL.

PLACE ENVIRONMENTAL QUOTE IN BULLETIN ON A REGULAR BASIS – All are welcome to submit quotes via email or in writing to Pastor Kim

Writing of Creation Justice Covenant Statement

DANA COSPER AND CLAIRE STILES WILL WORK ON THIS STATEMENT in early August  – Review by Advisors and then will come to congregation for discussion and approval this fall

Greening of church property

PLANTING OF LOW GROWING TREES ON FRONT LAWN NEAR CROSS AREA.  NOT TOO NEAR BUILDING.  Task Force is looking into possible choices of plants and trees.

INCREASING PARTICIPATION AMONG CHURCH MEMBERS AND FRIENDS

1.  Invite individuals to participate in a specific initiative

2.  Speak to groups like choir, church school, book club, etc. for ideas 

3.  Ask for help and update congregation via LUCC Weekly Update 

Are you interested in attending ?

August 14 – Sustainability Summit

Sept. 8 – Rise Up for Climate Jobs and Justice

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Sermon 7.8.18 Rev. Victoria Long

Scripture Lessons:  Deuteronomy 10:17-21 and Matthew 5:43-48                          Sermon:  After the Fireworks                                                                                     Pastor: Rev. Victoria V. Long

I suspect many of you had a wonderful 4th of July celebration this past week. Let me confess, I am always confused as to is it better to take the two days before or the two days after a holiday that falls on a Wednesday? I guess it depends on your level of celebration.

This celebrating the birth of our nation caused me to go back to readings, writings  and songs, to revisit much that is attached to this day.  One spoke to me in new and deeper ways than it did when I first encountered it some four years ago. A blog offering by Mary Luti, in which she spoke about each nation’s story gives you insight into who they are.  This thought became the seeds for this homily today.

Our Deuteronomy text tells of a people, a yet to be formed nation. It reminds them they had been saved from oppression so it will be central to who they are to become:  A people who care for the least of these.

What I remembered most about Mary’s writings was a story I had never heard before.  This is an American founding story.  Let me share it with you from the installation of Nancy Taylor, pastor of Old South Church in Boston.  Old South is a church steeped in early American  history.  And this is the story Nancy told…

“As you know, the Pilgrims were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.”

Nancy goes on to say,  “I didn’t learn that beer-run story in school. I learned another story, that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. Here they built a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope to the world that became a nation of unique and superior virtue with a sacred responsibility to extend our aspirations to other nations. The story I learned set our country apart from other countries. It conveyed the conviction that America was exceptional.”

The America I have lived in for some 60 years certainly seemed to lead with those values.  I believed, even when we came up short, we were “trying” to be civilized. This was a country people were trying to be a part of, one seldom heard of “Americans” wanting to forgo their citizenship and move somewhere else.  Sure, I was always aware we had problems, but I still believed this was the BEST place on earth to live.

As a child I remember memorizing and singing anthems in school with words that shout, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee…” Or “God bless America, my home sweet home…”  And the pledge of Allegiance with a flag that hung in the sanctuary across from or next to the Christian flag with words that said, “One nation under God.”  All this intertwining of God and Nation, when one is just forming ideas, concepts and attaching meaning to a world.  Not a surprise that many Christians think America was “ordained” by God to be THE nation.  God’s presence in the world.  Patriotism and love of God intertwined in some sacred covenant.

As I wrestled with celebrating this Fourth of July, I remembered that our founders were agitators, treasonously so, from the perspective of Britain’s king (and many of their fellow country persons). Passion and provocation fashioned this country. Folks with an attitude and called by God; surely nothing can go side ways with a people holding these truths.

I discovered in my readings the word “nation” comes from a Latin word meaning “to be born.” It is used as away to describe a grouping based on tangibles like race and/or folks who are related by blood.   People who join because they are like one another.  It is this understanding of nationhood that Hitler reflected when he reputedly claimed that the United States was “not a nation (Volk), but a hodgepodge (mischung).” 

But, it is the Declaration, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood.  We began this journey as an “us.”  

Many churches on these national holidays sing our anthems instead of hymns.  Others have members of the congregation wave flags that are given out as one enters the sanctuary.  Sermons that weave in the themes of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and the debt we each owe to this nation.  We have been taught to love our country and our God.  To pledge our allegiance to our flag somehow has become intertwined with our allegiance to Jesus.  This integration of our patriotic feeling mingled with our Christian faith makes it very easy to conflate those two and wrap the cross with the American flag.  Many of our country’s folk feel God surely is an American.  I have friends, family members, who may not be able to articulate that, but make no mistake, this is their belief.

I know I am preaching to the choir when I speak of a Jesus who held an allegiance to the God of his understanding.  This commitment placed him squarely in the midst of the least of these.  His understanding of what it means to live into the Micah command…  “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what is required of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  

This example of “how to be” requires relationship.   Jesus hung out with all the folks you’re not supposed to. He sat down and ate with the poor, the sick, the orphans, and the widowed. The thief, the tax collector, those in prison and those not invited in the temple.

Think about this man, Jesus, who lives,  believing he IS the son of God.  Talk about privilege.  Talk about a brand recognition.  And what did he do with it?

He found individuals, sometimes small groups and sat down and had conversations.  He asked questions of his new acquaintances and listened to theirs.  Broke bread, drank a little wine. Entered into relationships.  Confronted systems of power one conversation at a time.

Which brings me back to the 4th.  This year I worked, so my celebration was limited.  Hotdogs and baked beans were shared with others who were working on this holiday.  Fire works and a beer at the end of the day.  Fireworks, that by and large made a less than expected impact.  Folks went expecting big and impressive but, due to weather or product, they failed to live up to what was hoped for.  Individuals, couples or families left the event  and returned to their lives.  The parallels with all that and our political environment were not lost. 

And a deepening of an awareness that this country is on the edge of something. What?  That is something I wrestle with daily.   Who we are as a people?  Who we used to be and who are we becoming?  Where we are going?

And the nagging never answered to my satisfaction question rises – what can I do to make some kind of difference?

My job allows that I spend a great deal of the day driving from facility to facility which gives me time to mull things over.  Such as, what if the primary story about the beginnings of our nation’s narrative started with a beer run?  That we entered this story at a place where individuals worked together to solve a problem.  

An ordinary story, about ordinary people, about to embark on an extraordinary adventure.

What if we had shared the story of running out of beer rather than the creators of “a city on a hill.”  A mythic tale that places us above everyone else.  Apart from, different, better, blessed, ordained by God.  Maybe, what is exceptional is not what makes us different but all those things we hold in common?

What if, from our earliest learnings, we had been taught, that because of our shared needs we pulled together so that every one’s needs were met?  What if, we, too, attempted, in real and intentional ways, to find what we hold in common as a place to start.   This only changes if individuals become present to one another.  This is what Jesus exampled to us.  There is a time and place for outburst, but one does not need to lead with that response at every turn.

I have two folks whose leanings are polar opposite to mine.  One, I see weekly and the other is a person, from my distant past who I engage with on social media.  I have committed to being more intentional in our conversations around the things that divide us.  Not in confrontational ways, but in ways that offer opportunity for further dialogue.

Let me be frank. I am much more skilled at releasing my anger and informing you of just how foolish your point of view is, but that response does nothing to nurture fragile friendships.  I have committed to listen and hear what is at the core of their anger, their fear or their dis-satisfaction.  It is my hope they will hear me as well.

This is where change can happen; the uniting of individuals offers a chance for healing.  What if each of you reached out to “that” person in your life-friend, family member, neighbor and began your own response.

The UCC likes to say “we have a freedom for, not a freedom  from.”  We like to think we are a people  of  “soft verbs.”  We like to describe ourselves as “how to be”  folks, and not a people who tell another “what to do.”   One of the most powerful explanations of how we are to be in relationship with one another, individually as well as corporately, and at our center is that we seek to live in covenant with one another.  Covenantal language is a language of us and not me; it is a language of implied sacredness, for it is both vertical and horizontal.  It is our intention to “seek to walk together,” it examples how and not what to do! 

I still have hope in this nation of ours. My patriotism remains but it must be a compassionate patriotism, an empathetic patriotism, a patriotism that loves all this country offers and a willingness to be open to all those who seek to call it home. 

GMA reported this is the top beer drinking holiday week of the year.  So, armed with this data, my plans include finding something cold to drink and listening  to one of my favorite country music songs,  “God is Great, Beer is Good, and People are Crazy.”  Then pulling up that friend on Face Book try to find the right invitation when instant messaging him. 

So, now you know… this is what I see happening, after the fire works – maybe, just maybe a conversation begins.

May it be so! 

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 7.22.18 The Racial Divide

Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Last Labor Day I went over to Tampa to see a Lego art exhibit on its last day.  Surprisingly, there was a long line; down the block and around the corner.  I got in line.  In front of me was a younger man and woman.  They were white.  Behind me was a middle aged woman, I would say in her 50’s, with a young boy about 10.  They were well- dressed, the boy in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, clean and neat.  The woman in a skirt and blouse with a purse over her shoulder.  Her hair was combed.  She, too, was clean and neat.  The woman and the boy were black.  We spoke briefly, about the heat, about the wait, and about Legos.  Behind the woman and the boy was another white young woman and man.  So, as we stood in line, someone with a clipboard came down the line, approaching each person, asking if the person was a registered voter and if they wanted to sign the petition to get voting rights for felons on the ballot.  The woman with the clipboard made her way down the line, person by person, trying to get signatures.  She came to me.  I told her I had already signed.  Then she went to the young white man and woman behind the black woman with the young boy.  Then she went to the person behind them and on down the line.  Yes, she went past the black woman as if she wasn’t there.  As if she were invisible.  Non existent.  I watched and it took me a bit to take this in.  Had that really happened?  The black woman said to me, “I guess she doesn’t think I’m a registered voter.”  I was too stunned to say much.  The more I thought about it, the more horrified I was.  

The woman with the clipboard hadn’t said anything.  She hadn’t made an unkind gesture.  She had not given a nasty look.  She didn’t do anything racist and yet passing the black woman and ignoring her completely was clearly racist.  I have continued to think about the woman with the clipboard.  If someone showed her a video of what happened what would she have thought?  Did she even know she passed the woman?  Did she know that this came across as a racist act?  Does she think of herself as a racist?  Is she a member of a white supremacist group?  Or is she just a regular person trying to be good and do the right thing?  

My surmise is that the woman with the clipboard has no clue about what happened.  She would have no recollection of the occurrence.  And that she does not consider herself a racist.  I think she would see this as just some kind of unintentional oversight.  It was hot, she was tired, it was a long day.  She just inadvertently missed someone. . . 

For the most part, I believe people don’t want to be racist.  They don’t want to perpetuate the discrimination and bias that has caused so much pain to individual people and to society as a whole.  Who here wants to be racist?  No one.  Of course.  And I think that’s the majority of people.  The legacy of slavery makes us feel sick.  We wince at the statistics that show the continuing disadvantage of black people in America today.  

We don’t want to be racist.  But we live in a racist culture and we are part of it.  There are a host of reasons for that and they go back centuries.  Much of the impetus for racism has been and is economic.  As philosopher and social activist Cornel West tells us, racism is based on economic exploitation.  If there was no economic advantage to racism, it would virtually disappear.  

And racism in our culture is maintained and passed on from generation to generation in countless subtle and not so subtle ways.  It’s part of the air we breathe and not only here in the south.  Racism and its ill effects have been part of American identity since the Europeans came to these shores.  For hundreds of years it has been ingrained in US identity.  It is woven into the fabric of US culture.  

TV personality Rosanne Barr was recently fired for making a racist comment.  She explained it was in part due to the medication she was taking.   Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, the drug Roseanne had taken, responded:  “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

No, racism does not come from a pill.  It comes from conditioning.  From subtle and not so subtle messaging received everyday in countless situations much of it unnoticed and seemingly innocuous.  Like at school.  One day we watched as a little black girl was taking her time getting to the school bus to go home.  The driver was yelling at her in front of the other kids to hurry up, they didn’t have all day, etc.  And then to a white girl, nicely asking her to hurry so they could leave.  Or the Tampa Bay Times recently.  On one page, a picture of all the pretty white debutantes for this season.  Turn the page and there is a picture of a group of black girls huddled around a table attending remedial summer school.  As Rogers and Hammerstein put it, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”  And all of us in this country are very carefully taught to accept racism as normal; so normal that often we don’t even see it, around us or within us. 

Two weeks ago when I was visiting in New England, our daughter, Angela, and I spent a day sightseeing.  We went to Louisa May Alcott’s house, Nathanial Hawthorne’s house, and the old North Bridge where the Revolutionary War started.  This was all in Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts.  Angela’s fiance is going to be working at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington.  So while we were out there, I asked to see the church.  She drove there and we parked.  It was after 5:00 and the church was closed.  No one was around to let us see the inside.  The windows of the sanctuary were above my sight line so I looked around and found an old bench laying in a pile of debris.  I pulled the bench over to the sanctuary window and got up on the bench to look in.  Some of you may have seen this image as I understand Angela posted it on Facebook.  I saw the inside of the sanctuary.    Then I got down and put the bench back where I had found it.  In reflecting on this, I wonder if I would have had this same experience if I was black.  Lexington is one of the richest small towns in America and the population is 1.5% black.  If I was black and I got the bench and climbed up and looked in the window would my picture have been a cute image on Facebook or a police mug shot?  I don’t know.  Frankly, if I was black, I probably would not have ventured on to the bench.  

This situation in our country has evolved over many centuries and we all suffer for it.  We all pay the price.  We are all victims of the ill effects of prejudice and discrimination; each one of us individually and our society as a whole.  Some people think it lifts them up to not be at the bottom, to have someone under them.  But actually that only brings everybody down and it brings no one up.  The ill effects of racism make us less than we can be, less than we should be, less than we want to be.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We are all under threat from racism.  It is having ill effects, social and economic, on all of us and on our culture as a whole.  And it is depriving our society of the full contribution of people of color.

Is there any hope of overcoming this ill which plagues our life?  There is a word for us from Ephesians.  To this new community of faith, the writer has a word that speaks to us today.    The newly emerging church is gathered around Jesus as the embodiment of the universal love of God.  Jesus has captured hearts and minds with his love for all people.  No exceptions.  That is the foundation of community life for these new communities of Jesus followers.  So, they have gathered; drawn by this message.  And they are in a situation of deep division.  They are in a setting characterized by entrenched polarization.  There are deep seated religious and ethnic tensions.  Between Jews and Gentiles.  Jews and non-Jews.  The circumcised and the uncircumcised.   We don’t tend to think in these categories today, so the depth of the hostility and rancor between the two groups may not come across to us.  But we heard the words:  aliens, strangers, no hope, far off, hostility. The writer of Ephesians doesn’t have to go into a long explanation of the situation.  Just reference the division and everyone at the time knew about it.  It’s like saying Hutu and Tutsi, or Palestinian and Israeli, or, before last week, Russia and America.  Jew and Gentile.  Sure some Jews and Gentiles got along but there was a deep-seated division between the groups.  But the writer of this letter emphasizes that the faith community gathered around the witness of Jesus is not subject to this division.  This new community is fully open to both groups with no favoritism or status difference.  In fact, the writer tells us that the point of this faith expression is to be part of forming a new creation.  In this new reality, there are no longer Jews and Gentiles; people from separate antagonistic groups who perhaps tolerate each other.  No.  The people gathered around the Jesus way are part of a new creation, a community where whoever you are, you are brother and sister, family to one another.  Commitment to Jesus takes down the walls that separate, divide, and define.  There are no longer two or more hostile factions.  There is one community overcoming social, religious, and cultural conditioning meant to reinforce bias and prejudice.  This new community is about religious conditioning reinforcing that all are one.  There is one human family.  All are brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins.  And the Jesus community has the power to create this new reality.  

The writer of Ephesians uses building imagery.  The household of God.  Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  With Christ Jesus as cornerstone.  The whole structure joined together grows into a holy temple.  Built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.  This building imagery reminds us that such an endeavor takes time.  It is a process.  It takes skill, intention, and resources.  People must choose to create this structure.  This new creation.  This new reality.  Of reconciliation and peace.  It is not something that is easy or fast.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Like racism, this alternative has to be carefully taught and conditioned.  

This past week, we saw the marking of the fifth anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement.  We saw the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s hundredth anniversary and a soaring speech by former President Obama; all of these things reminding us of the building that is still in progress, the work that still needs to be done.  While we may be tempted to to see homogenization under the dominant culture as a cessation of hostility, these visionary movements remind us that we are about a new creation.  Not just no violence, but a new creation built on reconciliation, and community, and mutual service.  

The building of a new creation, a new reality, that is free of racism, is consuming work.  Remember how pervasive racism is in our culture.  It has been ingrained into most of what we know.   Therefore,  we must be thorough in our efforts to confront racism in ourselves and in the world around us.   We can think of statuary, language, political tactics, educational strategies and materials, and yes, police training.  Building this new creation, this truly free society, involves examination, repentance, reflection, listening, understanding, and engagement.  Continuously.  Courageously.  It won’t happen by taking a pill.  Remember how Ephesians mentions that we are the temple, we are the vessel, the dwelling place for the universal love of God.  That is how we can do this work.  It is not our work alone.  It is the power of love working in us.  And it is a big building project!  It’s not like these high rises that pop up downtown every time you turn around.  No.  Think medieval European cathedral.  Buildings that took centuries to construct and are under constant renovation.  

But we are made for this.  We are animals, part of the biological realm.  And we know that biological adaptation happens slowly, gradually.  As we intricately examine our lives, communities, economy, institutions, and culture, we will root out racism, ethnocentrism and prejudice.  We will dismantle the walls that divide and separate us and prevent us from being one human family.  And we will build a culture that celebrates diversity, respects all life, welcomes difference, and affirms our common humanity as part of the web of creation.  Our future depends on it.  

We know how to do this work.  It is part of our heritage.  It is in our DNA, though it appears to be recessive!  The Christian church started out as a sect within Judaism.  The first Jesus followers were Jewish.  It was a huge transformation to expand the community to include Gentiles, non Jews.  There was a wall that had to come down, of separation, of division, of hostility.   So, let me ask you, How many of you, here in the church today, are of Jewish heritage?  How many are of non Jewish heritage?  See?  The wall came down.  The reconciling work was done.  We are the evidence of the new creation that is possible.  Let us take up our tools, whatever they may be, and recommit to continuing to build one household of love; a dwelling for all people.  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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