Sermon 2.4.18 Healing Faith

Scripture Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 12.31.17 Get Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you Jesus?” she asked impatiently.

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve Devotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gulfcoast Legal Services to Receive Christmas Offering

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

Jena Blair of the LUCC church family works at Gulfcoast:

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

Thank you,
Jena

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Advent Devotion 12.23.17 Beyond Giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.22.17 JOY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.21.17 Born of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.20.17 Ponder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.19.17 Reorientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.18.17 Long, dark nights. . .

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.17.17 The Unexpected

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.16.17 The Annunciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.15.17 Magic!

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.14.17 Feel the Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.13.17 Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.12.17 Rededicating the Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.11.17 Trees of Integrity

Advent Devotion 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.10.17 Human Rights Day

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.9.17 Waiting –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.8.17 Comfort and Joy

Each Easter at Lakewood UCC the service opens with several hymns. One of them is always “Joy to the World!” Yes, it is typically sung at Christmas time, but it is fitting at Easter as well especially with all of the nature imagery. And Christian Educators tell us that singing the song at Christmas and Easter helps children and youth understand that both holy days are part of one story.

The Advent is a season to deeply appreciate and experience God’s comfort but with that comfort comes joy. The words joy and rejoice and joyful are used far more by the prophet Isaiah than the word comfort. The ultimate goal is joy! We can say this about Isaiah. We can say this about Jesus. We can say this about the Bible. And we can say this about God. The ultimate message is joy!

What is joy? Gratitude for being alive? Delight in the awe and wonder of creation? Appreciation of others and the loving relationships in our lives? All of that and more. Joy really is an attitude that comes from the inside. It is not dependent on outside circumstances or having certain material things. Joy is an inner orientation.

We often talk of taking comfort in something. This is a way to refer to something that gives us relief from our anxiety and distress.

But what about joy? I had a Christmas book as a child called “Take Joy!” by Tasha Tudor. I always found the title intriguing. We seldom say, “Take joy.” Really, how much do we use the word “joy”? Not much, I fear.

But I like the message of “take joy.” It seems to say – joy is there. Lots of it. Waiting for you to take it. Hoping you will have some.

Maybe if we were taking more joy, in life, in one another, in nature, in relationships, in the arts, we wouldn’t need so much comfort. Maybe our great need for comfort comes in part from a deficit of joy.

This is a season to remember that God desires humanity to live in joy, to be joyful, and to rejoice!

Prayer:
Joy to the world! Heaven and nature are singing! Earth is praising the wonders of Divine love. Let us join the chorus. Take joy. And repeat the sounding joy! Repeat the sounding joy! Repeat, repeat the sounding joy! Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.7.17 Comfort and Hope

Comfort is a word that we associate with this season. The prophet Isaiah offers God’s comfort to people who are in a situation of devastation and perhaps demise.

But God’s comfort is not just to soothe bruised spirits or to pacify sorrow. God’s comfort implies hope for the future: A future that shines with justice and compassion and right relationship. A future of peace and plenty. It’s a future that is hard to imagine when your cities and towns lie in ruins and you have no power of self determination. But God’s comfort comes with hope and promise. It will not always be this way.

There are certainly many who feel, at least some of the time, that we are living in a time of devastation and perhaps demise. I speak with people every day who are in shock over the way our society seems to be going backwards – more racism, more sexism, more income inequality, more intolerance, more violence, less education, less accurate information, less rationality, less faith in the government, less trust. To some it feels like a time warp, like we are going back in time. While much of this regression seems to have its locus in the president, it should be noted that the president is in part reflecting sentiments that originate in certain pockets of the US population. But most people did not expect those pockets to gain such power. We are being shown what was already there. And it is ugly.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are opening ourselves to Divine comfort and to Divine hope. We need our bruised spirits soothed, but much of that solace lies in the promise of a different future. In our Biblical heritage, we are promised a future characterized by justice, generosity, and peace. The birth of Jesus is the foundation of that future. And we must continue to build on that foundation – in hope. Maybe we put just one stone in place, but it is one more in building a beautiful world of peace for all; a world where every form of life is respected and nature is revered as a sacred gift to be enjoyed not exploited.

God’s comfort is an investment in God’s future. It comes with hope attached.

Prayer:
As we open ourselves to God’s comfort this season, comfort we so desperately need, may we recognize that Divine comfort comes with hope. God comforts us so that we can be part of God’s hopes and dreams for the future of Creation. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.6.17 Comfort – Gentle and Strong

When someone takes your hand or puts an arm around you it can be an expression of comfort. Perhaps a call or a card is an expression of comfort. We tend to think of comfort as the soothing of pain and hurt with gentle compassion. And that is something that is very much needed in these times when people feel buffeted and torn apart and scrabbling to hang on.

A woman stopped by the church recently telling of how she had had a car accident. After the accident she missed work. She lost one of her two jobs. She got behind in her rent. Now she is worried about getting evicted. And still trying to do the one job. And trying to recover her health. Where is the net for her? Where is the life line? Where is the helping hand? When this woman came to the church hoping we would help her with her rent, which we did, she mentioned how good it felt to have someone who would listen to her describe her situation and show understanding and compassion. She was very grateful for that. There’s clearly much soothing of pain with gentle compassion needed in today’s world.

But there is more to comfort than a kind word or a sympathetic gesture. The word comfort comes from the word “com” which means with or together. and “fort” which means strength mighty, steadfast, brave, spirited. It’s where we get the word fort as in a military post.

So the concept of comfort has teeth to it. There is an implication of solidarity and resistance. There is the sense that we are stronger together. Together we can be strong.

When God offers comfort to the people, as in Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” [40:1] this implies continued relationship, loyalty, and steadfast love. True comfort is more than just a fleeting gesture, it is a long term commitment which is why I gave the woman who cameo the church for help with her rent some information about the church and invited her to come to church on Sunday. As a church, we truly want to be a community of comfort.

Prayer:
Comfort is so important especially for making it through difficult times. We are grateful for those who offer comfort when it is needed. May we receive the comfort we need expecting to be made stronger and expecting our relationships and connections to strengthen. May we always be able to count on the church for comfort in the fullest sense. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.5.17 Condos, College, and Comfort

An acquaintance was telling me about someone in his condo complex that has three greyhound dogs. Apparently there are rules in the complex about pets, size and number, and the three greyhounds exceed both criteria. But the person is allowed to have the dogs because there is some kind of documentation certifying that they are comfort dogs providing a mental health service to the owner. The person who told me about this volunteers at the Humane Society and was not complaining about the situation only describing it.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess my biases up front. We also have three dogs which provide a goodly share of comfort to our household though they are not designated “comfort” dogs. They are also a lot of work and a lot of fun.

But I have been thinking about those three greyhounds. How is it that a person needs so much comfort from dogs? Is our society so anxiety ridden? While the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” [40:1] are reassuring, we also need to be thinking about why the comfort is needed. Why are people so distressed? The opioid crisis is another manifestation of the distress and anxiety of people today. What are the roots of that dis-ease?

I have heard that anxiety is on the rise among young people but I was still shocked to hear from my son who is in college that students are allowed to have pets in the dorm – dogs and cats and other animals – if the animals are certified as comfort animals. Again, what kind of community and culture is fostering so much stress and worry and anxiety?

Back in the dark ages, the 1980’s, when I was in college, sure it was stressful. And from what I have seen of college requirements today, we worked a lot harder academically. And how did we deal with the stress? We relied on each other, our classmates, for support and solidarity.

The story about the three greyhounds makes me wonder about our level of stress but it also makes me think about where we are getting comfort. Does this person in the condo have three dogs for comfort because she is not getting enough comfort from the people in her life? Does she not know that she can turn to the church for comfort?

When we think about the life and ministry of Jesus, we see that he was engaged in creating communities of justice. A healthy society is just and there is fair treatment of people, and equal access to opportunity, and a safe environment where life’s needs are met. This was the vision Jesus was sharing with his followers. He also showed compassion to all who were excluded or suffering or distressed. So he showed us how to create less stressful communities and how to be present to one another with compassion and comfort.

As we think about the theme “Be Born in Us Today” may Jesus be our guide as we consider the level of stress in our society and how we provide comfort.

Prayer:
May we be grateful for pets and animals that give us comfort and joy. May we remember that we are animals, too, not only with the capacity to be “comfort” animals, but also with the capacity to reduce distress in the world. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.4.17 Seeking Comfort

A look at the ads assaulting us each day indicates that we are a people seeking comfort. We look for shoes that are comfortable. We want a car that offers the comfort of a smooth ride. We like comfortable clothes. We are lured to the comfort of a sleep perfect mattress promising a good night’s rest.

But whatever the mattress and the comfort promised, we may find that we don’t sleep well when we are worried about our finances, about our loved one who has an addiction, about war with North Korea, about the impending environmental collapse. Maybe what we find is that we are tossing and turning on that comfortable mattress.

Comfort is about more than just making the body feel good. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” declares the prophet Isaiah. This comfort is about the spirit as well as the body. It is a comprehensive comfort.

In this season as we explore the theme “Be born in us today” we’re talking about the love and light of God possessing our lives so that we have true comfort in our trust in God. This is so much more than the mere bodily comforts promised by advertisements. It is all well and good to feel bodily comfort but with God so much more is promised. Comfort for the spirit is offered as well. The comprehensive comfort of God, comfort for all aspects of our lives and our being, is a true gift offered to us in this present moment.

May we take the time to wonder about our need for comfort and turn our hearts to the Love that offers comfort. It is that Love that is seeking to be born in us.

Prayer:
May we seek the comprehensive comfort of Divine Love this Advent season. As that Love is born in us, may we offer comfort to others. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.3.17

This is the first day of Advent, the four weeks before Dec. 25, when the church begins preparations for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In times past, Advent was called the Little Lent because is was shorter than the 40 days of Lent but it was still considered a time of penitence. Advent remains a season of quiet watching and waiting. It is a time for pondering, like Mary. And a time of wonder, like the shepherds in the fields who were watching their flocks in the birth stories in the Gospel of Luke.

The theme for Advent this year at Lakewood United Church of Christ is “Be Born in Us Today”; the line from the beloved carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In Jesus, we see the fullest expression of Divine Love in a human life. We are shown the potential that is in every single human being. We all have the capacity to live from a heart center of universal love. We so need that spirit to be born in us today so that we can overcome the many forces that are dividing people and causing conflict in our families, in our communities, in our country, and in the world.

One of the most radical, as well as unique, teachings associated with Jesus is the command to “love your enemies.” In other religious traditions, there are important teachings about love of neighbor and do no harm, but the command to “love your enemies” implies actively seeking the well-being of the enemy. It implies not just don’t kill your enemy, but be kind to your enemy. Do good to your enemy. Help your enemy.

As we focus on the theme “Be Born in Us Today” we are thinking about how we can embody the spirit of Christ in the world. One place to start is with love of enemy. Usually this season, we are busy doing nice things for our families, friends, co-workers, and those we love and enjoy. To extend this in the spirit of Christ, I invite us to think about someone we consider an enemy and then to show love to that person in some way. Do good for that person. Help that person. Offer a gesture of kindness to that person. Maybe you could do something for an “enemy” once each week of Advent. Then see how it effects your feelings. See how it impacts the other person. See how it changes you. Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below this post.

Think you don’t have any “enemies”? Think harder. Is there a neighbor that annoys you? Is there someone in your family that you do your best to avoid? Is there someone in public life that ignites your rage? Is there a co-worker that sets your bells off every time you see them coming?

In thinking about this, I immediately identified someone who has behaved as an enemy of our church. That is where I am going to put my efforts at loving an enemy this Advent season.

Prayer:
We pray for Divine Love to be born in us this season. May we nurture this new life by loving our enemies. Amen.

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Tax Reform Rally Sunday 12/3 at 3 p.m. at Williams Park

Join with others who want to see more money going to the middle class and working people instead of more corporate welfare which doesn’t “trickle down.”

On Sunday Dec. 3 at 3:00 p.m. at Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg an Emergency Tax Reform Rally and Protest will express these sentiments to elected leaders.

Jeff Wells of LUCC was recruited to play the role of George Bush in a skit!

The Biblical prophets had a lot to say about greed at the top of the government, business, and religious classes at the expense of the middle and working classes. Jesus, too, decried exploitation and greed.

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Luke 12:48 There are many wealthy people of conscience in America that are very willing to pay more taxes to benefit the country as a whole.

The government has a sacred trust to protect and provide opportunity for ALL citizens not just the ones who can make large campaign donations.

Make your voice heard on Sunday at Williams Park.

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The Bible, The Church and #metoo

I’m wondering about #metoo and women of the Bible. It seems there are many women in the Bible who experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Women in the Bible are grabbed, groped, raped, and murdered. It pretty much starts in Genesis and goes on from there.

This heritage makes it all the more imperative that the church be vocal and visible in confronting sexual misconduct in the church, in the home, and in society today. The church needs to be safe space for all. It needs to be a place where women and men can share their stories and tell their truth, and know they will be treated with respect and compassion.

The church has come to this issue with too little too late. It is past time for the church to get out in front leading the change in our culture so that sexual misconduct is no longer tolerated, overlooked, or worse yet, encouraged.

This involves the church telling the truth about the Biblical stories we have inherited that have directly or indirectly contributed to the acceptance of sexual misconduct in Western culture.

There may be those who would defend the Bible. Those stories refer to ancient times. The culture and values were different. The stories don’t imply that God endorses sexual misconduct today. Ok. Then can’t we say the same about the Biblical perspective on other issues like the equality of women and homosexuality? Those stories refer to ancient times. The culture and values were different. Of course!

The Bible teaches humanity to honor the image of God in every single person. This is what we are shown in Jesus. And this is what everyone should see in the church.

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Sermon Thanksgiving Sunday 11.19.17

Scripture Lesson: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Sermon: First Fruits
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

This week we celebrate the holiday associated with the iconic image of the Pilgrims and the Indians feasting together. It is a day to revel in the abundance of our life and legacy on these shores.

But the beautiful image can overshadow the deprivations and desperation of the Pilgrims as they came to this land. There is an old tradition of starting the meal on Thanksgiving with five kernels of dried corn on each plate at the table. This was to serve as a reminder of the hardships faced by the Pilgrims, including the very real threat of starvation.

The Pilgrims left England in the face of religious conflict which had degenerated into violence, torture, imprisonment, and banishment. Like many immigrants today, they were driven by desperation to emigrate. They thought they could start a new life in Holland, so they headed there even though the language and culture were completely unfamiliar. There were difficulties adjusting to this new homeland, but the younger people began to completely assimilate and the elders realized their community and religious expression was in danger of being swallowed up by Dutch culture, so they determined to head to the New World, new, that is, to Europeans, and start afresh.

The journey to North America was fraught with hardship from the very beginning. The Pilgrims started out in two ships but the smaller one proved not to be seaworthy and had to turn back. On the winter crossing of the ocean, the other ship, the Mayflower, was beset with cross winds and severe weather. Many of the travelers were terribly seasick. When they got to North America, they were initially greeted with snow and rain and a hostile indigenous population. They searched for a safe haven. The mast and rudder of the ship broken, the boat was lost. There was no turning back from these forbidding shores.

The Pilgrims finally arrived at Plymouth on December 11, 1620. Just 4 days before the landing, Dorothy Bradford, spouse of Willam Bradford, drowned. Bradford was soon to become governor after the first governor, John Carver, died, five months into office. During that first winter, half of the Mayflower group died, not of the violence that they faced in England, but from lack of food and water, exposure to the elements and to unknown diseases. They were literally saved by the local indigenous population. The Pilgrims celebrated surviving their first year with a festival of food and games with their native saviors.

No ship for a return voyage. Half the people dead. At the mercy of the local population. It was so bad, that just being alive seemed like a miracle. Now let me ask you, does that sound like a win to you? Hardly. But this week, we will celebrate the persistence of those Pilgrims coming to a new land, depending on the indigenous people, and forming a new society with a religious foundation. We are heirs of their efforts. Heirs as a nation and also as a church since the United Church of Christ traces its roots back to the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims saw themselves as heirs of the tradition of the people of Israel, brought out of slavery in Egypt to settle in a new land. The scripture that we heard this morning from Deuteronomy tells of the beginning of the settled life of the Israelites as they put down roots and establish a new society. Deuteronomy tells of the process of setting up a new community and the customs, rituals, and practices that will shape this new society. As they begin their settled life together, they are commanded by God, the God that has brought them this far on the way, to bring a basket of the first fruits of the land to the temple as part of the annual harvest festival. All of their eating and drinking and harvest festivities are fine, but they are to be sure to bring a basket of produce to the priest for the altar. This is not a request or a recommendation. It is not a suggested donation. This is not a charitable donation or philanthropy or a gift out of the generosity of the heart. It is a requirement. Like taxes. A commandment.

Now why would this be so important? God does not need the food. Yes, it was used to feed the temple servants and the orphans, widows, and resident aliens, but it is not put across as helping the poor, to so speak. There are other commandments about that. This is a basket of the first fruits at harvest demanded of the people of God who live in the land God has given them.

Surely as the people wandered in the wilderness, they knew their dependence on God. And as they were brought into this new land, they knew they needed God. But now that they are getting established and forming a society, things will change. As a community forms a culture, prospers, and grows into a nation, there is always the temptation to grow “fat and sassy.” A thriving nation can grow arrogant and puffed up with self importance. They can see their success as their due.

A thriving society can easily forget about God. Forget about the land and Creation that sustains them. Forget their dependency. Forget that they are not self sufficient.

We know about this proclivity. We know the temptation to become self satisfied and think that our success is purely of our own making. It is easy to adopt the assumption that we are in control.

That one basket of the fruit of the land, brought to the priest to be placed on the altar at the harvest festival, that one simple requirement was an act of resistance against the delusion of self-sufficiency, of self importance, and of independence.

That one simple commandment, to bring an offering of produce, is to be a reminder that all of the success and prosperity of the people is dependent on the gifts that they have been given. Access to: Land. Water. Animals. Life. Creation. Consciousness. Creativity. All of this is received by humanity. We do not create it. We are not responsible for its existence. We are not responsible for our own existence. We are completely dependent on the web of life. We are dependent on each other. We must live in cooperation, mutuality, and respect if we are to survive.

Just the basket of fruit. The produce of the land. The act of making an offering of
thanksgiving. It is demanded because it is a powerful antidote to the venom of pride and the delusion of being self made.

Our Ritual of Thanksgiving this morning, our tithes and offerings brought to the altar each week, are not simply a nice gesture of generosity out of the goodness of our hearts. This is an act of grounding ourselves in a reality that is honest about all that we are given. It is a command that forces us to stay situated in a framework that tells the truth about all that we receive. It is a powerful way of symbolizing that we know we are not self made, we are not self sufficient, we are not independent. We are all beneficiaries of the blessings of Creation. All gifts. Freely bestowed upon us. And which we humbly acknowledge in gratitude.

Governor Bradford of the Pilgrim community knew this command to give first fruits: to acknowledge the source of life and all that sustains it. He knew of the Pilgrims’ dependency. His words remind us of our need to celebrate all that we have been given and to acknowledge all that is made possible for us. Upon arriving in New England, Bradford makes this offering:

“For summer being done, all things stand upon them [the Pilgrims] with a weatherbeaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. . . What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and his grace?” [Cited in At All Times and In All Places, Vincent Wayne Leaver, p. 85]

May our thanksgiving be a radical act of resistance to the selfishness, smug superiority and exclusivism, the self absorption and individualism that plagues our times. May we be joyful in our mutuality and celebrate our dependence on Nature – air, water, soil, plants, animals, beauty consciousness, creativity. Gifts freely offered from the hand of Love. Amen.

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

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Sermon All Saints Sunday 11.5.17

Scripture Lesson: Revelation 7:1-17
Sermon: Saints, All
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

This past week for All Saints Day on Nov. 1, there was a special commemoration at the Catholic School where my husband, Jeff, is a teacher. The priest talked about how saints are people who do God’s will. In the Catholic Church, there are very specific technical criteria for being named a saint. It is a long process that can take centuries and involves proving things the person has done and then an official declaration by the pope. In the course of the service on Wednesday, the priest mentioned that in addition to the canonized saints of the Catholic Church, there are other people, even of other faiths, who are noteworthy for doing God’s will. Here there was mention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, he is noteworthy for doing good, but, of course, he will never officially be named a saint because he is not Catholic.

While we Reformed Protestants don’t have official saints, I think we still like to think of saints as special people, different, set apart, beyond the ordinary. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. This kind of perspective keeps sainthood remote, too high a calling for most of us regular folks, which then kind of lets us off the hook from being saints. Sure, we try to be good and do God’s will, but we aren’t concerned with being heroic about it. We don’t expect ourselves to be saints.

Now we come to the Book of Revelation with its vivid images of the end times. It’s a book that we tend to associate with condemnation and a fiery cataclysm of suffering awaiting humanity at the end of days.

But this morning we listened to a beautiful, if surprising, portrayal of the saints of God. First we are shown a God of universal love for all people. Then we hear about the calling forth of the 144,000. These are the 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. The chosen people. The ones called by God to be a model of justice and right relationship. The Jews. The people of Jesus. They are expected to be saints. They are special. But, maybe even to their surprise, they are not the only ones named as saints singing before the throne. There are others. Many others. Too many to be counted. From all nations, tribes, peoples and languages. And they are all praising the God of universal love.

Even the writer of Revelation has his image of the Messiah challenged. In his visions, he expects that Jesus is going to appear as a lion, the classic lion of Judah. He wants the Messiah to appear with a roar. Instead, what John sees in his vision, is a lamb, a young, harmless, gentle creature, and not only that, this lamb has been slain. The depictions in Revelation are not what is expected. They are meant to jolt us out of our normal sensibilities.

So we are given a picture of the masses singing and waving their palm branches before the throne of God and a lamb. This brings to mind the story of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem to a gathered crowd. Jesus is often depicted among the crowds. Crowds of people who are hungry. Crowds who are seeking healing. Crowds eager to learn. Crowds thronging the streets so that a short tax collector, a respectable three piece suit kind of guy, climbs a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. These crowds don’t go through any screening. There are no entrance requirements. There is no ID check. The universal Divine Love in Jesus is for everyone. No exceptions.

The Bible tells us that the saints are not defined by gender, ethnicity, nationality, political party, religion, race, sexual identity, education, class or income. What seems to characterize those in the crowd in Revelation is that they have resisted. They have resisted the forces that oppose Love. And there is that very precious line that we heard this morning, “Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun and its scorching heat will never beat down on them.” This is said because imaged among the crowd gathered at the throne are those who have been hungry, those who have been thirsty, those who have endured harsh heat with no relief. And they are among the saints. Every single person has the capacity to be a channel of Divine Love and healing in resistance to the forces of hatred, greed, and lust for power.

Saints. A vast, wonderful, beautiful, messy, mismatched, unruly mass of humanity. Resisting – revenge, poverty, persecution, discrimination, illiteracy, misogyny, violence, abuse of power, and everything else that diminishes the sacredness of life. A saint is a single mother that works three jobs to support her family resisting the stereotype that poor people are lazy. She is a saint defending her dignity. A saint is the person who takes the time to listen to the problems of someone who is overwrought by the troubles of life. How just that act of listening dignifies another human being! A saint is someone who sees how help is needed and pitches in. Without being asked and maybe without even being thanked. Because that dignifies the humanity of the person who has given the help.

Several years ago, I had to have a medical procedure done on my knee. This involved the doctor inserting a huge needle into the vicinity of the knee cap and extracting several ounces of fluid. I was lying down, so I wasn’t even watching the goings on. But I could feel what was happening. And, evidently, it was quite painful because the nurse who was in attendance stood beside me and took my hand and held it tightly. I thought, How did she know to do that? How did she know that was just what I needed? How did she know the relief she was giving me? Never before have I had someone from the medical profession touch me in that way. I am sure it was not in her training. In fact, she probably was not supposed to do it. But she simply took my hand and held on and I could not have been more grateful. She offered comfort and compassion human to human through her touch. She completely changed that awful experience for me. Now, I don’t remember the pain. What I remember is the kindness of another human being and how much it meant to me. It is one of the most radiant moments of compassion that I have experienced. And I don’t even know the nurse’s name. And I am sure she does not know my name. And I know she has no idea of the ministry that she provided though I did endeavor to thank her at the moment. That nurse was a saint.

Despite our penchant for ID cards, passports, green cards, diplomas, and certificates, Revelation shows us that to be a saint simply involves flowing into the steady stream of love and resistance, unnamed and unnumbered. 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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