Sermon World Communion Sunday 10.1.17

Scripture Lesson: Psalm 33
Sermon: Come Union!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

There seems to be one thing we can all agree on in this country. We seem to be able to agree that we are divided. Even President Trump sees this. He has said, “In America, we had a totally divided country for eight years and long before that. In all fairness to President Obama, long before President Obama we have had a very divided – I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here.” Though we may disagree on Trump’s role we can all agree that we are divided.

And some think that the nature of the division is changing. Traditionally, there has been division along economic lines. There has been division along racial lines. There has been division along moral grounds on some issues. But even so, there was an underlying awareness of a similar reality for the most part. Today, we seem to be experiencing the divisions of the past along with a sense of less and less common ground. There seems to be growing disagreement about the very reality that we are in. And this all within the United States, interesting that word, united, before we even get to the differences and divisions involving the rest of the world.

I just finished listening to a book entitled Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the most dangerous place on earth. The book examines Cold War divisions and the crisis over Berlin which resulted in the erection of the Berlin Wall. At the time, there were a few leaders that wanted to stay focussed on the reunification of Berlin and Germany and who were looking toward a unified Europe. Most leaders scoffed at such wild eyed idealism and would only concern themselves with what they saw as the matter at hand – not blowing up the world. But now the Berlin Wall is gone, Germany is reunified, and the European Union, while experiencing challenges, is still to be lauded as one of the greatest initiatives for peace in our time. So, while there is great division in our country and in our world, we are not idiotic optimists when we dream of greater unity and work to eliminate destructive divisions.

The psalm that we heard this morning offers a glorious glimpse of the divine intentions for Creation. We are given a poetic vision of the world, as a whole, functioning in harmonious balance. The psalm speaks of the divine design of goodness, mutuality, and unity. In the psalm God’s fidelity and love are affirmed: ALL of God’s work is done in faithfulness, the earth is FULL of God’s steadfast love. The word “all” is used 9 times. God sees “all” humankind, “all” the inhabitants of the earth, and fashions the hearts of them “all.” The psalm intentionally leaves no part of Creation or humanity out of the picture. The psalm itself has 22 verses because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. It expresses God’s design from A to Z, so to speak. The waters, the land, the peoples, the nations, the generations, their hearts, all joined in the unified purposes of a God of steadfast love and faithfulness. We see a great enterprise bursting with diversity yet functioning as a unified whole. The psalm extols a God intimately involved with all of Creation and human history, yet above it – in love, power, and faithfulness. And what is the role of the human in this grand scheme? Gratitude and praise. Sing and rejoice. Who could possibly ask for more than God is giving? That is reality as it should be, as it is intended to be.

As we receive the Lord’s Supper this World Communion Sunday, we are celebrating the all encompassing Divine design. Communion is about sharing in common, being part of a common life, a common reality, a common enterprise. Communion also implies intimacy and solidarity. It is about deep connection, intense sharing, and vulnerability. In the book, In the Beginning Was the Meal, a book about the origins of Christianity around the table, Hal Taussig observes, “Yet many things are generated at meals – ideas, additional relationships, new intentions, more communal fabric.” [p. IX]

This sacrament, this shared experience with a certain framework and pattern, is an embodiment of our commitment, our desire, and our hope for the dreams of God to be our reality. This meal is symbolic of the ideal comprehensive integrated web of Creation in balance and harmony.

The bread and juice before us remind us of our relationship with the earth, the land, the water, the atmosphere, and the sun that all work together so that we can be alive and have food to eat and drink to sustain our bodily lives. We are part of the unity of Creation.

We eat and drink in solidarity with all other animals and plants and life forms that are sustained by nutrition, water, and light. As we eat and drink we experience our oneness with all birds, fish, vines, seaweed, and all other living things that are sustained by Creation. It is a reminder as well that all people eat. We may eat different foods in different ways, but we all eat. Communist or capitalist, democrat or republican, native born or immigrant, we all eat. We are all human beings, one species, amidst a riot of biological diversity within the unity of Creation.

As we taste the bread and the juice, we as humans, with consciousness, and memory, and rationality, know that we did not create this bread. We did not create this juice. We did not create ourselves. We did not design this life sustaining system. We are all heirs, beneficiaries. We are all recipients of gifts untold. Freely given. We cannot sustain ourselves. We are dependent upon Creation and one another. And in our tradition, we acknowledge the gift by celebrating the giver which we name God. For us, Creation is the self-disclosure of God. We know God because we are creatures within the unity of this glorious Creation which reveals God.

As people who have to come to know the story of Jesus, this meal has additional significance. We associate these gifts of bread and cup with Jesus of Galilee, a first century Jew, who we believe is the embodiment of humanness in its fullest expression. The bread reminds us of the generosity of Jesus. We know Jesus as the bread of life. When we live in his spirit and in his way, we are fed and feed others. The bread broken calls forth the need to sacrifice for the good of the whole and the well-being of others and ourselves. In Jesus we see the unity of Creation and our place in it.

The cup in our tradition is a cup of reconciliation and forgiveness. People make mistakes. We are flawed. That is who we are. We cannot be otherwise. So always there is the need for forgiveness of ourselves and others. Our differences create the opportunity for us to pursue reconciliation and so to strengthen our bonds and our understanding of ourselves and others. The juice from grapes reminds us that we are all part of a vine, interconnected, intended to bear fruit.

And we all know from any dinner party or shared meal that eating with others brings us together in ways that often cannot be foreseen or explained. Something more happens when we eat together. There is grace and holiness in our eating together. There is a bonding and a sharing beyond the food. As writer MFK Fisher observes, “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” [Quoted in Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent.]

In this meal, we embody the unity and harmony of a whole with many parts in mutual relationship and balance. This bread and cup remind us that reality is so much more than we may normally be noticing or paying attention to. In this experience we know the sacredness of life, our dependence, and the trust we must have. It is about nurturing and sustaining our common life as part of this sacred Creation. As we eat and drink this day, may our prayer be, “Come, unity.” Amen.

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

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Sermon 9.17.17 Charter Sunday

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 7:24-29
Sermon: Foundation for the Future – The 50th Anniversary
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

This week I heard someone interviewed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook, out of Boston, Massachusetts. The person who called in was from the Tampa Bay area. She said that she and her husband were newly married. They had grown up in St. Petersburg. They had been planning to buy a house and make St. Pete their home. But after this storm, given sea level rise and the increasing temperature of the water which increases the likelihood of more and worse storms, they have decided that they will not be settling here but will be moving to a safer locale. They do not want to create their future in this area any more.

While that sounds drastic, we can also see how it makes good sense. They are talking about building their lives on solid ground, not shifting sands. And we can affirm the importance of this though many of us will continue to live on Florida’s shifting, unsteady sands.

In the scripture that we heard this morning, we hear of Jesus sharing a parable about building a house on an unstable foundation of sand and building a house on solid rock. This image would have spoken volumes to the residents of Palestine at the time. A house built on sand in the dry season would seem secure. Yet when the rains and winds and floods came, the house would be washed away. Better to build on bedrock. The story is figurative yet we can also relate to the literal image of building on sand and rock.

At issue in this story is the response of those who hear the word of God. There are those who listen and don’t act. And those who listen and do act. They are the ones who build on the rock. The issue is not knowing. The presumption is that those listening know the will of God. At issue is the doing of the will of God.

The verses we heard this morning are the conclusion of what is know as the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. It includes some of the most well-known teachings associated with Jesus such as:

Love your neighbor.
Turn the other cheek.
Blessed are the peace makers.
Love your enemy.
You are the light of the world.
You are the salt of the earth.
Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
No one can serve two masters.
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

These teachings and many others are known well by those who are part of the church. But at issue is not knowing these teachings, it is putting them into practice. The one who builds on rock is the one that puts them into practice. The one who knows about them but does not act accordingly is the one who builds on sand.

When we think of churches building on sand today, we are not talking about churches that don’t know these teachings of Jesus which convey the will of God. We are talking about churches that know the sayings but do not put them into practice. Churches building on the sand are churches that are basing decisions and behavior on greed and economic gain. They are churches that are denying human influence on climate change. They are churches reinforcing racism, white privilege, and fascism. They are churches that promote American exceptionalism. They are churches that exclude certain kinds of people. They are churches that promote division and violence. They are churches that in some way deny the humanity of others. Churches that are ignoring or acting in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus are churches that are building on the sand. And this includes each and every church at one time or another including this one.

Through Jesus we are encouraged to build our ministry and our lives as disciples on solid rock. On a firm foundation. This means putting into practice the teachings that Jesus gives us which show us the will and way of God for the good of all Creation. What does that mean for us? Well, for one thing, it means being shaped by the goodness and generosity of a loving God. It means accepting a foundational belief in the sacredness not only of every single human being, but in the sacredness of every life and all of Creation that sustains life. To build on the rock in gospel terms means to define the worth of a person based on their value to God, not based on economic output, or class, or ethnicity, or sexual identity. It means doing good, not just not doing bad. It means working for peace and reconciliation and seeking the well being of those you consider enemy.

To build on the rock means to build on the teachings of Jesus and to choose behaviors and actions which reflect that. It means allowing yourself and the faith community to be formed, shaped, and designed by the way of Jesus. As the New Testament shows us, this can be a significant challenge when there are forces around us that are pushing in other directions. It can be hard to build on the rock of generosity and love when the community around you is focussed on greed and gain. It can be hard to build a community of justice, equality and mutuality when the societal context reinforces racism and classism. It can be hard to build a community that reverences the Earth and Creation in a context that is rooted in ravaging the environment through the acceptance of toxic energy, chemicals, waste, and over consumption. In the story we heard, Jesus knows that he is directly assaulting the foundation of his religion and his culture by accusing them of being built on sand. It is a verbal attack on accepted values and behavior.

As we begin this 50th anniversary year at Lakewood United Church of Christ, we are dealing with a nexus of issues. Yes, the church needs a new roof and we are looking at other issues that need attention to maintain the structural integrity of the building. We are looking at the importance of Creation Justice and thinking about what we can do to manifest our reverence for the environment examining options like solar energy. We are also thinking about climate change and sea level rise. Will it be feasible to do ministry in this location for another 50 years? We are examining that. Given these realities as best we can determine them, what do we need to be doing as a congregation regarding our buildings and grounds? What is the best use of our resources? How do we build on the rock? How do we take action based on the way of Jesus?

There are other challenges in our context that we are thinking about as we launch into the next 50 years and beyond. We are living in a time of more and more and more information but of less and less intimacy. The teachings of Jesus encourage authentic connection and relationship. People are deeply yearning for such connection and belonging. And the church built on the rock offers this. How can we implement the way of Jesus in the next 50 years in terms of encouraging healthy relationships?

As we assess our context and think of building on the rock, we are mindful that we live in a time when life is safer perhaps than at any other time in the past. And yet there is increasing fear. Why is there so much fear when there is quite literally less to be afraid of? We live with more access to information than any other time in the past, we know so much more about the world and about other people. Yet instead of this information leading to harmony and understanding, it is producing threat, hostility and hatred. How can we bring the teachings of Jesus to bear on these realities?

The intersection and the nexus of these many issues, and challenges, and circumstances make it a very exciting time to be part of the church and to be celebrating an anniversary that invites us to look back and to look ahead. In the next fifty years, what is the ministry that will be needed from this church and how are we positioning ourselves to build on the rock and to provide a solid foundation for those who will come after us? How are we making sure that we are building on the rock so that this church will be faithful in sharing God’s love for the good of the world entire?

Looking back, we can see how those in the past built on the rock giving us a solid foundation. In many ways the teachings of Jesus were taken very seriously and were borne out in the actions of the church. There was a commitment to racial integration in the 1960’s even when it meant that members left the church. The church has built on the rock hastening the end of the Cold War through a relationship with a sister church in the Soviet Union. The church chose to embrace the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the 90’s. Again, something which led to losing members. The church has confronted poverty through Operation Attack, being a founding partner of Pinellas Habitat for Humanity, and Family Promise. The church has built on the rock working for justice for the farmworkers and for all workers. The church has built on the rock confronting violence in its many forms from nuclear weapons to handguns.

Jesus teaches us that a faith community built on the rock of the gospel can have a constructive, creative influence on a world that is desperately in need of the love and compassion that is at the heart of our faith. Our voice is needed in the public square and in personal relationships.

Those who have been part of the ministry of this church for the past 50 years have given themselves to building on the rock; to being true and faithful to the way of Jesus no matter which way the wind is blowing. The goal has been to see that the ministry of the church is promoting transformed lives that put the values of Jesus into concrete action in the world. It has not always been easy. There has certainly been conflict between the dreams of the gospel and the reality of the society in which we live. There has also been contention within the church from time to time.

In looking back on my tenure at Lakewood, I tried to identify what I remember as the most contentious issue that was confronted. Many years ago, in the mid ’90’s I believe, the church council spent several months discussing what to do about the American flag that had been displayed in the sanctuary. Apparently at one time, there was an American flag and a Christian flag in the sanctuary. That was standard practice in churches then and it still is in many places today. For some reason the flags had been removed – maybe when some repair work was done or something like that. And, inadvertently, they were not put back. After a long interval, this was noticed. So it was requested that the flags be put back out. This issue came before the church council. Opinions were sought from the congregation. Many people weighed in. Consensus did not emerge. It finally came down to a vote at a church council meeting. Well, you know the result of the vote because you don’t see the flags here in the sanctuary this morning. But the way that it was resolved is interesting. When it came time for the vote, the moderator called the question. Those on the council voted. And the vote was split. Half for putting the flags back out. Half against. It was the one time in my 25 years here that the moderator had to cast the deciding vote. The council members were commenting about which group she was going to side with, and who she would make happy. Was she going to keep the group happy that wanted the flags in the sanctuary or the group that wanted the flags displayed in the Fellowship Hall? Who was she going to keep happy? The moderator, Kristin Andes, announced that her intention was not to please one group or the other, but to please God. There you go. Build on the rock. Trying to the best of our limited ability, to side with the gospel. And you know how she voted.

May we continue in our commitment and intention to build on the rock; to be designed, formed, and shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ so that our actions are part of building a more just and loving world for all. For at least the next 50 years!  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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Free Meals Available Thursday and Friday

Free hot meals, free canned food, and free water will be offered to those affected by Hurricane Irma at the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S., St. Petersburg, from noon until 7:00 p.m. on Thursday and Friday Sept. 14 and 15.

This service is being provided by the Women’s March Pinellas and the City of St. Petersburg.

Please spread this information to those whom it would benefit.

 

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Sermon 8.27.17 The Power of the Mouth

Date: August 27, 2017
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 15:10-28
Sermon: The Power of the Mouth
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

So, a man was seen fleeing down the hall of the hospital just before his operation. “What’s the matter,” he was asked.

He replied, “I heard the nurse say, ‘It’s a very simple operation, don’t worry, I’m sure it will be all right.’”

“She was just trying to comfort you. What’s so frightening about that?” he was asked.

“She wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to the doctor.”

Even when we may have the best of intentions, our mouths can get us in trouble; at least I know that mine does. And it’s usually with my kids. . . Do you ever have that problem? Something is said. The impact was not anticipated. And we’re mired in a mess. What comes out of our mouths can be a problem. Our words can get us into trouble as the president keeps reminding us!

And, surprisingly, Jesus shows us this, too. The writer of Matthew shares the story of Jesus teaching about the power of what comes out of the mouth. The religious legalists were worrying about what was going into the mouth – eating certain foods and not eating other foods. Ok. But they were not worrying about what comes out of the mouth. Jesus reminds us that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart which generates evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. Whew! All these things lurk in the heart and come out of the mouth. Jesus teaches that this is what people should really be worrying about. Fixing what is in the heart and what comes out of the mouth is what brings us closer to God.

Then, in the next story, we are told of Jesus’ mouth getting him into trouble. It’s quite ironic, actually. A woman comes to Jesus begging for healing for her daughter. And first he does not respond at all. Nothing comes out of his mouth. Then the story has Jesus saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This person pleading for her daughter is not from the house of Israel. She is a Canaanite. An indigenous person. A Gentile. And a woman. She has several strikes against her from the first century Jewish perspective. Jesus ignores her and then refuses her. Then, he insults her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yup, in the story Jesus calls her a dog. In terms of what is coming out of the mouth, this story goes from bad to worse.

The encounter in this story echoes with the racism that we have seen in this country. Can’t you hear a traditional, respectable white man telling a black woman that he isn’t going to help black trash like her? Even a white doctor, years ago, saying that to someone black in need of medical treatment? Sorry. Can’t treat blacks. And probably putting the message across in far less civil terms? Jesus basically tells this woman, I was not sent to help the likes of you. The way this story is written, Jesus’ mouth is getting him in trouble. And in the story just before it, the writer has Jesus telling people to be careful about what comes out of their mouths. Interesting.

The mouth can get us into trouble. By ignoring someone’s pleas, we ignore their humanity. We degrade them. We demean them. Does that make the pleading go away? Usually it just gets louder and more persistent. Think of all the people who are begging for help today. People in areas affected by sea level rise begging to be heard. People who are starving and have no access to food, perhaps because of drought or war. And they are pleading for food. For a place to live. For access to basic human necessities. There are people begging for the recognition of their full humanity. People pleading for access to economic self sufficiency. People begging for the freedom of self expression. Pleading to live in violence free communities. Begging to have access to health care. There are many voices imploring in the world.

Sometimes these needs are met with silence; just ignored which is a message in itself. You are not worth listening to, hearing, or paying attention to. You are worthless. Insignificant. Sometimes nothing comes out of the mouth but a message is still sent.

Sometimes our mouths deliver outright insult and injury. I was sent to the lost house of Israel. Not for you, you dog. You’re not my problem. Go home. Get a job. Even when we try to contain it and be more diplomatic, sometimes our mouths just let loose revealing what is truly in our hearts. And we find ourselves a long way from the compassion and justice that we are aiming for.

The mouth is a tricky thing and very hard to control. Words can wound. Our mouths can get us into trouble we did not expect or foresee.

Some years ago I was working part time for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ and I was assigned to help a church that was seeking a new pastor. As part of the process, the search committee creates a list of the ten characteristics that it feels are important in their next pastor. Then the committee rates each candidate on the list of ten characteristics. To practice, the committee reads a “dummy” profile, a dossier, and then uses the list of 10 characteristics and the rating system. So the committee did the reading and the rating and then we had a discussion of the process. An older gentleman on the committee asked, in all seriousness, “Well, that’s ok for the pastor, but how do we go about rating the wife?” The best I could do at the time was use every ounce of my will to keep my mouth shut. I was so stunned by the many insinuations of the question that I was afraid of what I might say, so I remember sitting there intently telling myself, Don’t open your mouth. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t open your mouth. Finally, I felt calm enough to begin to respond. I didn’t have to say much. Some of the women on the committee took over and set the man straight – about assuming the candidate would be a man, assuming “he” would have a wife, assuming the wife would be involved in the church, and so on. . . Whew!

It was a vivid reminder of how powerful the mouth can be. We see this from the Canaanite woman in the story of the encounter with Jesus. In the story, Jesus ignores her and then insults her. But she is undeterred. She continues to use her mouth to pursue her goal: healing for her child. We had a colleague in seminary who preached in chapel one day and I’ll never forget Ada Maria Isasi Diaz telling us that no matter your circumstances you are never powerless as long as you have a mouth. That Canaanite woman absorbed insult and injury and kept using her power, her mouth, to get the response she so desperately sought. Ok, we’re dogs, but don’t even dogs deserve crumbs? She will still take a crumb. She will do whatever it takes to get healing for her precious child.

The closing of the story again shows the power of words. We are told that Jesus does not go back on his commitment to address himself only to house of Israel. He doesn’t back peddle on ignoring the woman or insulting her. He attributes the result of the encounter to the woman herself: “Woman great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the daughter is healed. The healing is attributed to the woman’s faith not to Jesus. He saves face and she gets her healing. Ah, the power of words.

Words can cause incredible harm. Can you think of a time something has been said to you that has cut you to the core? Just pierced you? Words, sharp as a knife. And maybe closer to our hearts, more to the fore of our memories, are the times we have caused harm with our words. Can you remember something you have said that was hurtful or harmful? That you regret? That you would instantly take back if you could? We know that the ditty, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,’ is simply not true. Words can hurt.

But words can also heal. Yes, words are powerful, and that power can be positive. It can be constructive. It can be loving and healing. Words can do harm but they can also do good. Think of the times you have heard words that gave you relief and peace. Think of words shared that have led to understanding and reconciliation. “I’m sorry.” “I didn’t mean that.” “I did not understand how you felt.”

Recently my husband, Jeff, confronted a comment that was made to him using words to convey a powerful message. While he was cleaning up after a meeting, another white man said to him, “You do a pretty good job for a white guy.” Jeff responded with civility and candor and challenged the racism laden in that comment. After a calm, thorough exchange, the other man held his ground claiming his comment was not racially charged at all. Well, you can take the horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

Words are very powerful. Look at all the attention the words and signs have been getting at recent demonstrations. Some of the words are shocking and offensive. But many of the words are words of healing and hope. And as people of faith, and people with mouths that can speak words, we have the power to use our words for good.

When we went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. in January, we had the opportunity to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. I snapped a picture of this quotation: “If I were white and believed in God. . . I would speak in no uncertain words against Race Prejudice, Hate, Oppression, and Injustice.” These are the words of Florence Spearing Randolph, spoken in 1941. Randolph had a long career of using words for healing and transformation. She was the first woman ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church of New Jersey. Randolph was born in Charleston, South Carolina into a family of free blacks. She was trained as a dressmaker and moved to the New York area to pursue her trade. She was involved at her church but had no inclination toward the ministry. It was her pastor that encouraged her. The authorization of a woman for ministry was extremely controversial and the source of much bitter debate. But in 1897, Randolph was licensed to preach and in 1900 she was ordained a deacon and then an elder. She was tutored by Dr. E. George Biddle, a graduate of Yale University, and a scholar of Greek and Hebrew. She studied at Drew University where a prize is given each year that is named for her – to a woman demonstrating powerful preaching and potential for outstanding pastoral leadership. In Randolph’s first 12 years of ministry, she served 5 churches, all small and poor and struggling, for, of course, no pay. She represented the AME Zion church at a conference in London and traveled to Scotland, Belgium, and France giving lectures and preaching. Randolph served on the mission field in Liberia and Ghana. She brought a young woman back from Africa and saw that she was educated in America. Then the woman went back to Africa to be a teacher.

In 1925 Randolph was called to Wallace Chapel AME Zion church on a temporary basis which then lasted for 21 years.

Randolph founded the New Jersey State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Through this initiative, she organized people to address issues of race, gender, social inequality, and colonialism. She fought lynching and real estate laws that prevented blacks and Jews from living in certain neighborhoods. She promoted scholarships, health programs, and the inclusion of African American issues in the state and national press. She was an active suffragist seeking the vote for women, all women. She was active in the temperance movement. She promoted the celebration of what was then Negro History Week. She was recruited to work on the presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding and in the 1930’s ran for assemblywoman in New Jersey.

Randolph used her mouth in the church and beyond as voice for the healing and transformation of society and left a long, noteworthy legacy of her efforts for the benefit of the individual as well as society as a whole. But she knew that her power was limited as a black woman, and so she encouraged white people of faith to use their mouths for good in the world. In 1941, at 75 years old, at her church in Summit, New Jersey, she preached a sermon, “If I Were White.” And she told the congregation, “If I were white and believed in God. . . I would speak in no uncertain words against Race Prejudice, Hate, Oppression, and Injustice..In the city of Summit, I would speak of the unjust housing problems affecting Negroes, the school problem…the lack of Negro books in the library, the ignorance of Negro history because it is not taught in schools.” Personally, I think that she deserves a statue.

Can’t you see the spirit of the Canaanite woman in Randolph? The persistence? The clarity? The faith?

Each one of us has a mouth. And, yes, sometimes that mouth is going to get us into trouble. We’re going to say the wrong thing. The negative sentiments of our hearts are going to slip out of the mouth. But we also have love in our hearts. We have the deep desire and yearning for justice and compassion in our hearts. Think of that Canaanite woman so intent on the healing of her daughter. We, too, are desperate for the healing of our lives and our world. We must be sure that we are letting that out of our mouths. We can speak words that are poignant and savvy. We can utter words of honesty and integrity. Our mouths can form words that convey the sentiments of those who are ignored. Like the Canaanite woman and Florence Spearing Randolph we must intentionally form words of healing and love with our mouths. Amen.

For information about Florence Spearing Randolph, please see:

http://blog.nj.com/ledgerarchives/2008/01/black_history_month_a_look_for.html
https://bestofnj.com/black-history-nj-florence-spearing-randolph
http://www.summithistoricalsociety.org/historian/2016/3/26/the-rev-florence-randolph-pastor-of-wallace-chapel-helped-spearhead-womens-suffrage

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

 

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Sermon 8.20.17 Living in the Light

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 5:43-48
Sermon: Living in the Light
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Are you all ready to watch the eclipse tomorrow? Do you have your protective glasses? Have you picked your watch site? Will you join others or watch from home?

Jon and Susan Brewster of Monmouth, OR have been planning for this solar eclipse for about half their lives. They bought the property for their home in the early 1990’s at a location which they believed would be absolutely ideal for observing the solar eclipse of 2017. They built their house to insure perfect viewing of this 2 minutes of totality.

Jon Brewster says, “This thing is coming at us like a freight train. It’s been decades, and then it was years, and then it was months, and now it’s weeks.”

“We’re testing things, we’re doing trial runs, we’re amping up the logistics, because everybody wants to come,” he says.

Looking to Monday, Brewster concedes, “All of this work, all of this time, all of this effort, and it’s cloudy that day — it’s Oregon, it could be cloudy. It’s part of the game. It’s not a problem. We’re going to get two minutes of darkness followed by hamburgers.” [https://www.circa.com/story/2017/07/19/scitech/jon-brewster-susan-brewster-of-salem-oregon-engineer-house-for-solar-eclipse]

12.2 million people in the US live in the path of totality. Between 1.85 and 7.4
million people are expected to visit the path of totality tomorrow. Hotels are full
and highways are expected to be jammed. We can hear more about that next week
from Charlie and Mary Beth Lewis, and Grace Lewis and Sarah who have gone to South Carolina to see the eclipse.

Michael Zeller, of Santa Fe, New Mexico works in geographic information systems. I think that means that he makes maps. He is also a devotee of eclipses. Zeller has done a thorough statistical analysis of populations and highways and the path of the eclipse. And he gives 5 reasons that he believes account for the high numbers of people that will be experiencing the totality of the eclipse tomorrow. He says:
• The path of totality cuts a diagonal path across the nation from Oregon to South Carolina and most Americans live within a day’s drive to the path of totality.
• The United States has an excellent highway system and most American families have it within their means to take a short driving vacation.
• August is an ideal month for a vacation; the weather is warm and the chance of summer storms has diminished in much of the nation.
• Most schools have not yet begun their fall session by August 21st and some schools near the path of totality are scheduling a late start.
• Social media will have a huge impact on motivating eclipse visitors. The eclipse is exactly the type of event guaranteed to go viral on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms. We expect that many people will only make plans to go in the week before eclipse day.
[Eclipse information comes from Zeller’s website, GreatAmericanEclipse.com,
https://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/statistics/]

Well, Zeller and his practicalities aside, this solar eclipse, this one of a life time for many, has captured our imaginations. We have become fascinated by this heavenly event. And this fascination with the skies may be motivated in part by the mess that is taking place here on the ground in the US. Our spirits need a lift. Something to look up to for a change! And here comes this eclipse.

Throughout human history, we have looked to the sun in awe and reverence. Even before we could know that the sun was essential to supporting life, to growth, to fertility, and as an essential power source. We have been devoted to its rising and setting. The shortening and lengthening of daylight through the year. Humans have always been drawn to the sun.

The sun has been of religious significance since prehistoric times. Stonehenge is a marvel of engineering, miraculously constructed over 4000 years ago by people with limited resources and technological abilities. While its role and function is not fully understood, the positioning of the stones relates to the sunset at the winter solstice and the sunrise at the summer solstice. So the erection of those stones, some up to 50 tons in weight, some having been transported up to 150 miles, is related in some way to the sun. [From Wikipedia, “Stonehenge”]

The Mayan Temple at Chichen Itza in Mexico, important from 600-1200 CE, is positioned for the fall and spring equinoxes. In the late afternoon the sun falls just so on the steps of the pyramid casting triangular shadows that look like a slithering snake, a symbol of one of the Mayan gods. Amazing the significance we have given to the sun throughout history.

We also see the importance of the symbolism of the sun and its association with the Divine in our own religious tradition. In the Genesis story of Creation, the sun is cast as a light for the Earth, for the land and waters, for the activities of the life forms, for the doings of earthlings. The sun is associated with the presence of God. When people were afraid and anticipating the end times, they expected the sun to go out. The prophet Ezekiel tells us: “When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light.” [32:7]  From the prophet Joel, we hear: “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth. . . The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of God comes.” [2:31] And from the prophet Amos: “‘On that day,’ says God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” [8:9]  So we see that in the Bible, the darkening of the sun is associated with the judgment of God. No sun. No light. No enlightenment. No power of love. No Divine presence. The end.

We see this symbolism powerfully used in the stories of the crucifixion of Jesus.
In three of the gospels we are told that at noon on the day that Jesus was crucified
on the cross the sky became dark. There was no sun, no light. This is a drastic portrayal of the crucifixion as a traumatic event of cataclysmic proportions. The presence of God is not seen. The sky turning dark, the absence of the sun, is the most compelling way to convey that God’s presence is not experienced.

The sun continues to attract our attention and our imagination as this upcoming eclipse reminds us. Fundamentally, existentially, viscerally, we are drawn to the sun. It is our life line – physically and spiritually. I think the sun, this crucial image of human dependence on the Divine, is very intentionally and effectively used in the verses that we listened to this morning: God makes the sun rise on the good and the bad, and sends rain on the just and unjust. It is the Creator’s intention to sustain all of life. God’s presence and love is given to all. No exceptions.

How would this have gone over in Jesus’ day? Well, Jesus was Jewish, and was a teacher in the Jewish tradition. The Jews were living under the occupation of the Roman Empire. Rome was their enemy. Then there were all the Gentiles, non Jews, who were not all considered enemy, but were certainly not considered to have the same favored status with God that many Jews thought they had. And there were the Samaritans, considered enemies of the Jews for their deviance from mainstream Judaism. And there were various groups within Judaism that did not exactly agree about matters of faith and practice. So, there were plenty of divisions and factions among the people of Jesus’ day. Not surprisingly, this gave rise to what we would name as prejudice and bigotry and supremacy issues probably as intense if not more intense than we are experiencing today.

So these words associated with Jesus, God makes the sun rise on the good and the bad, and sends rain on the just and unjust, far from being pacifying pablum or spiritual sentimentalism would have been heard as extremist, harsh, jarring, and very controversial. Love your enemy? Never. The sun rises and sets on those who are evil? The rain falls for them? God is blessing ALL? No way. Not the people we hate. Not the people who hate us. But that is the message that was given. God loves all and as children of God, that love is in all of us, too. Yup. Love for the neo-Nazis. Love for the Jews. Love for the white supremacists. Love for the African Americans. Love for the transgendered. Love for the whites. Love for the homophobes. Love for the beneficiaries of white privilege. Love for the immigrants. Love for the haters. Love for terrorists. Love for those who vote red and for those who vote blue and even for those who don’t vote. Love – for all those upon whom the sun shines and the rain falls.

In a phone conference this week among people from the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, a pillar of the human rights movement, schooled by, among others, Desmond Tutu, reminded us, “People have a romanticized understanding of love.” Exactly. The love we see in Jesus is not romanticized or sentimental or sweet. It is love that is harsh. It is severe. As the sun can be.

Jesus shows us that Divine love encompasses all. And like the sun, it doesn’t cover things up. It shines the light like our sunshine laws in our government here in Florida are supposed to do. Divine love exposes. Reveals. It tells the truth. It fosters growth. And the truth is that we learn to hate. We learn to discriminate. We learn to show bias. We learn to differently value the lives of people who are not like we are whatever our race or identity or gender or culture or economic status. We learn these things. The song from the musical “South Pacific” reminds us that you’ve got to be “Carefully Taught” and we are. Divine Light shows us that all hatred is wrong. And that prejudice and bigotry are not morally justifiable. The light reveals the evil of fascism, white supremacy, and racist ideology. The light shows us that just as we learn prejudice and bias and greed, we can learn love. We can learn to value all lives like the God we see in Jesus. We can learn to find goodness in ourselves and in all others. We can learn equality. We can learn justice. Like the power of the sun, with its transforming light, heat, and energy, love can transform us, heal us, and help us grow more completely into the image of God within and enable us to see that image more clearly in others. Love has that power.

There are many protests going on in our country. As Christians, we are called to be on the side of love and anti violence of every kind – physical, verbal, legal, economic. Every kind of violence is wrong in the eyes of Christ. We must stand for the kind of radical love that we see in Jesus. It is important to be part of these demonstrations. It gives us a constructive, needed avenue for expressing ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to show our support for one another, and to sustain one another on the journey. It helps show the wider public the voice of justice and a moral compass. There are many important reasons to be part of demonstrations and protests. But will these events actually help those who have been taught hatred and bigotry to change? To be transformed? To see another way? I don’t think so. I don’t think that happens through competing demonstrations. I think the best hope for transformation is one on one engagement in a context of mutual respect. I think listening is important. I think seeking understanding is important. I think empathy is needed. This kind of love, shared in what may be difficult interpersonal interactions, has the power to create change.

My daughter once reminded me, “Mom, you told us what needs to happen to get rid of homophobia in America.”

And I said, “I did?”

She said, “Yes. You said that everybody needs a gay friend and that will take care of it.” See its that personal one to one relationship. And the church is perfectly positioned to do this kind of work; to embody this kind of difficult love all the while bearing witness to our own faults, injustices, and biases including our complicity in the wider systems of society that keep people down and shut them out. There are groups that are well situated to change policy, laws, regulations, habits, etc. but the church is in a prime position to change the heart, which can then lead to changed policy and action. The love that Jesus talks about is just as challenging and transforming today as it was 2000 years ago. And we are here, because like those before us, we are being drawn to the light and called to shine that light, not just on Sunday, not just on the day of an eclipse, but everyday. Everyday, we are to be witnesses to the power of love.

Remember that eclipse is coming tomorrow. Asmo Wiyono is a native of Patuk, Java, Indonesia. This is what he learned about eclipses when he was growing up: “My grandmother and my father have told me this story of eclipses. They are caused by Betara Kala, an ugly, giant son of god who was thrown out of heaven. He is trying to eat the sun in his vengeful anger. I know this is not modern thinking. But we think if we make enough noise, we can scare the giant away.” [From Simply Living: The Spirit of the Indigenous People, edited by Shirley Ann Jones.]

There are enemies of the light. We know that. Sometimes even we are enemies of the light. Of love. Of goodness. But Jesus reminds us that we are created to be drawn to the light of love. To overcome our fears and our prejudices and our preconceptions. To let ourselves be in a continual process of transformation. To live in the light. And to raise our voices on behalf of love. To make some noise!

Tomorrow there is going to be a solar eclipse. Come rain or shine. The eclipse is going to happen tomorrow. Cloudy or clear. The eclipse is going to happen tomorrow. There may be another terrorist attack but the eclipse is still going to happen tomorrow. More police may be killed. And the eclipse is going to take place tomorrow. More statues may or may not come down. And the eclipse is going to happen tomorrow. There may be another change in the White House staff. But guess what? Tomorrow there is going to be an eclipse. We do not control the sun. We do not control the eclipse.

And just like we cannot stop the eclipse, we cannot stop the power of Divine Love: Shining sun on the good and the bad, falling rain on the just and unjust alike. As Unitarian Minister Theodor Parker so beautifully observed, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” We cannot stop the light of love from shining. So, don’t miss the eclipse tomorrow. And make sure to shine the searing, revealing, healing light of love each and every day. 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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Reflections on the Peace Festival in Williams Park

LUCC sponsored a “free” table at the “Disturbing the Peace Festival” in Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg on Sunday August 20. Williams Park is known for being a comfortable green space where homeless people gather. The Festival included a focus on the inequities in society and increasing the compassion of our community. There were about 10 organizations with booths at the Festival. The day included a steady stream of music, poetry, and speeches calling for a more peaceful and just world.

The church had a tent and four tables covered with donated goods from the congregation. There were clothes, household items, and books. Lots of books! Many thanks to the congregation for the many donations. At the end of the day, just three small boxes of books and a few items of clothing were left. Those were donated to a thrift store.

The booth was staffed by several volunteers from the church. Here are their reflections on the experience last Sunday:

From Bob Bell

When we were setting up I was wondering what we going to do with all those books. To my surprise they were a very popular item.  Thought about it and for some of the people in the park their time is not spent watching big screen T.V.’s sitting in an air-conditioned house.  Some spend day and night there. (It’s home.)  Perhaps books are a welcome retreat from the daily effort to make the most out of what little they possess.  When I was able to tell people looking at the items on our booth’s tables and say to them, “Yes, it’s free, take all you want,” I realized just how much our church and all the other groups set-up there in the park do to serve and help those with less.  It was a day of peace, love and caring in the park.  Especially good way for me personally to spend a Sunday afternoon.  I needed that!

From Yoko Nogami

Hello Kim,
I want to thank you for the opportunity you have created for us to serve at the LUCC table for the Peace Festival.  I have now remembered why these things are so important to all of us.  As in the sermon you gave, love all sides of everything, without being in personal contact with a group of people who you are not associated with, you only have a “notion” of who these people are.  I learned this long time ago when I worked with people with disabilities at Creative Clay.  I jumped into a world I knew nothing about, the only common denominator being art.  Would I have ever imagined that this population could teach me more than I could teach them.  While I have worked with economically less privileged group and spent time with homeless folks at Williams Park on 2 art projects before, I had forgotten the spirit of love support and community they have for each other.  Some are incredibly educated and sober.  Just hit super bad times.

As soon as we started to set up, people were flocking, not just to receive things from us but to help set up and bring things from the car.  People spoke so honestly, when you are in such situations, we become humble and honest, much less pretense.  So many books I did not expect that they would want, people were not only hungry for food but for knowledge and growth.  Why would I think otherwise?  These are all good things for self reflections and my own prejudices I did not realize I had.  Aside from the people experience, the heat!  People are enduring this weather daily without shelter and air conditioning!  We are wimps!  So many stories and so much to learn from one another.

As a teacher, these are the places I felt I needed my students to come and experience.  Like you told Angela, if everyone had one day to spend in the crazy Florida heat, or one homeless folk as their friend, we could all be compassionate and empathize with others not from your neighborhood or kin.  There is less room for hate or ignorance.

And as a church located so remotely from the urban situation, we have to go to these things and not wait for things to come to us.

That’s my take.  And God willing I will find time somewhere to make it all fit.  Lol.

From Patti Cooksey

Like Yoko, I was extremely impressed to see so many drawn to the collection of books and to receive them as gifts.  As a teacher, this was a humbling and inspiring experience as I thought of all the needs that are not available to some of those who visited our table.  I sensed peace in their hearts as we shared our presence and gifts of love.  I think we also need to recognize how our church family can quickly respond to opportunities that provide love and support in our community.  Lastly I think we should be grateful to have a strong pastor who not only has the strength and passion to plan and take on such projects, but who also has the strength to tackle assembling large tents and transport heavy boxes of books!

From Denise Williams

I’m so glad I was able to be a small part of the peace festival.  The most wonderful thing for me was all the smiles surrounding our tent. I loved saying “everything is free” – just like the love of Jesus – no strings attached.  It was a pleasure, heat and all, to share love and laughter with one another.  I was humbled to see the joy our presence made in the day of our sisters and brothers.  I hope our tent visitors realized how much joy we received from them as well. I look forward to other events where LUCC folk can share their multitude of blessings – for free, once again…

From Emily Bell

I, too, thank Pastor Kim and Lakewood for the precious opportunity at William’s Park on Sunday afternoon.

A story I am left with involves a man who showed up from the park and began helping to arrange books on one of Lakewood’s “free tables.”

It happened to be the table where I was starting to unload books.  We said “hello” and began to work together.  No more words were spoken.  I wish I could tell you his name and something about his journey.  I cannot emphasize enough how carefully he handled each book.  At some point I decided to leave that table and move to a different table to unload household items.  The man’s presence captured my attention.  It soon became clear to me that he was an artist building a display of treasures.  Silence surrounded him.  He arranged and rearranged.  He was lost in his art. Nothing distracted him.

As I reflect on this man and the books I realize that his artistry reminded me of a sacred altar where the elements are handled with love, care and respect.

This was indeed holy ground.  At this “free table” I was nourished and taught.
God was here.
It was REAL!

 

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Execution Vigil in Pinellas County

Pinellas anti-death penalty demonstration: Pax Christi Tampa Bay, Peace
First, Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and other death
penalty opponents will gather from 5:00-6:00 PM on Thursday, August 24 at an
anti-death penalty demonstration at the intersection of Ulmerton Road and
49th Street N. in mid-Pinellas County.  Park in the lot behind Checkers and
the bank on the northwest corner of the intersection. Signs and banners
will be provided, or you can bring your own. Since execution dates often
change, please check the media for updates and changes. The demonstration
occurs during the execution; if the execution is re-scheduled, the
demonstration will be rescheduled.

Other action to take:
Contact Gov. Rick Scott and ask him to suspend this and ALL executions.
Phone: (850) 488-7146
Email: Rick.Scott@eog.myflorida.com

Many thanks to Lucille Ruga for announcing this last Sunday in church and for providing this information.

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America – A Poem for July 4

This is the text of the original poem written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 that became the basis for the song, “America the Beautiful.”   Happy Fourth of July!

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife,
When once or twice, for man’s avail,
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

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Sermon UCC Identity 2014

Date: June 22, 2014
Scripture Lesson: Genesis 21:8-21
Sermon: Faith and Freedom
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In 1839, a group of Africans who had been brought to Havana by Spanish slave traders were sold at auction. They were being transported down the coast of Cuba when they revolted. The boat they were on, the Amistad, eventually ended up off the shores of Connecticut. The saga of the capture, imprisonment, and legal battles went on for years. Former President John Quincy Adams argued the case before the Supreme Court. The Amistad was constantly in the papers, trinkets were sold, masks of the Africans were on display, people came out to see them and were charged a fee to do so. Members of the Congregational Church, a predecessor to the United Church of Christ, became involved helping the Africans to ultimately attain their freedom and return to Africa. This case provided a great deal of publicity and inspiration for the abolitionist movement in the US which ultimately succeeded in dismantling the slave system in this country.

The United Church of Christ formed in 1957 and its 4 predecessor denominations have deep roots in this country and in Europe linking faith and freedom. Yes, there was support of the abolitionist movement. There was empowerment of former slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. Over 500 primary and secondary schools were started by the UCC ancestors as well as numerous colleges including Tougaloo, Talledega, LeMoyne-Owen, Fisk, Dillard, and Houston-Tillotson. The focus was on education because of the belief that knowledge sets you free.

The UCC and its predecessors have worked for freedom for women supporting voting rights, reproductive rights, ordination, and equal pay for women.

The UCC has worked for freedom of the airwaves. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the UCC and asked that we come up with a strategy for getting black people and the civil rights movement on the news and on TV. The UCC took the issue to the courts and won. The airwaves were public property and had to reflect the diversity of the population.

The UCC has promoted freedom for sexual minorities supporting civil rights, social rights, and the freedom to marry. The UCC was the first mainline denomination to support equal rights in marriage for same gender couples and continues that ministry through the court case in North Carolina today.

The UCC and its predecessors have worked for freedom for Native American Indians, Asians and Pacific Islanders, as well as other ethnic groups and cultures.

Why is freedom so important to our faith and specifically to the UCC faith tradition? Again and again, our scriptures show us a God committed to freedom. Judeo/Christian creation myths tell of a God that gives the human species free will. There you have it. Freedom from the beginning. God chooses in freedom to give free will to the people. We are intended to be free. Again and again in scripture we see the freedom of God. God freely choosing to forgive. God choosing to change God’s mind. God choosing to share in human life and human history. God liberating people from limiting circumstances and social constructs that deny dignity, take advantage, and abuse. Our faith tradition shows us a God that freely chooses involvement with humanity in ways that promote freedom. And we, the human species, are created in the image of that free and freeing God.

We listened to a beautiful and awful story of God and freedom this morning. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are in an untenable situation. God chooses Abraham and Sarah to be the forebears of many nations. But no babies come. Sarah, getting up in years, gives her personal maid to Abraham as a surrogate mother. Thus Ishmael is born. He is the apple of his father’s eye. Until, years later, Sarah does have a child, Isaac. Then Isaac is the favored one. And Sarah wants to protect Isaac’s interests, his inheritance, and his position. So she treats Hagar and Ishmael miserably. While all that goes on is well within the social constructs of the day, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Finally, Sarah demands that Abraham put them out – of the home, of the family, of the clan, of the future. And Hagar and Ishmael are abandoned to the wilderness.

There, Hagar laments the impending death of her teen age son, Ishmael. But a well of water appears, a sign that they will not die. Hagar cares for Ishmael, finds him a wife from her home country of Egypt, and Ishmael becomes an expert hunter. They not only survive, but they are able to thrive. Tradition holds that they become the forebears of a great nation. From Hagar and Ishmael come Islam and the Muslim tradition.

Yes, Hagar and Ishmael are banished into the threatening wilderness. But the Hebrew verb used for their situation is also the same verb used in reference to the Exodus and the Hebrews leaving slavery in Egypt. As Pharaoh sent away the Hebrew slaves, so Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. They too, will wander in the wilderness and be sustained by God. In other words, they are banished but they are also freed. For one thing, they are freed from the painful, abusive family context they were in. They are freed from being slaves to Sarah and Abraham. They are freed from being cheated by the favoritism shown to Isaac. They are freed to create a new future for themselves. They are freed to become the ancestors of a great people. God’s hopes and dreams are realized through Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael as well as through Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Both families are blessed. Abraham does indeed become the parent of many nations, the 12 tribes of Israel, the Christian community which emerges from Judaism, and the multitudes of Arabs and others who embrace Islam. God freely fulfills God’s promises to Abraham through Isaac and Ishmael. God is not confined by national or tribal boundaries. God blesses not only one stream of people, but many streams of people, religions, traditions, and cultures. God is a god of all, all people and all creation. God is free to love all and is not limited to caring for one people or one group or one place. In freedom, God acts in new, unexpected ways that outpace our imaginations.

In the gospel of John, we are told that Jesus teaches, “The Holy Spirit blows where it wills.” That unpredictable, uncontrollable Spirit is at work in the world. Doing new things. Fanning the flames of justice, integrity, dignity, peace, and compassion. In seeking to be open to that Spirit, the United Church of Christ desires to be a church that is free, open to the future, ready to act, responding to the needs of the world. It is a church seeking to be receptive to the magnificent scope and creativity of God’s blessing.

While we are a relatively new denomination, a mere 57 years old this week, our commitment to freedom lies deeply in the predecessor churches from which the United Church of Christ was formed. Our ancestors in the United Church of Christ were committed to freedom – of belief, of conviction, and of conscience.

The UCC has its roots in several reformation and separatist movements that were seeking greater freedom in the expression of their faith. Among them the Protestants of Germany and Switzerland who came to this country bringing their versions of Christianity including the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church. There were also the Pilgrims and Puritans of England seeking a context in which to practice their faith freely. We all learn in school of the Pilgrims traveling from England to Holland where they were targeted by the Dutch. Then they determined to come to this continent, this wilderness, self exiled from the confines of their former culture, seeking the freedom to live out their faith. We learn of the trials and hardships they faced. And yet they were sustained on their journey. God provided through the help of the Indians who taught these refugees, these immigrants, to hunt and fish and farm. We have our roots among those who have been seeking to embrace the liberating spirit of God.

As a blend of four different denominations and many cultures and ethnicities, the United Church of Christ offers an expression of Christianity that reflects the freedom of God to bless in many ways. An important part of the freedom embedded in the UCC is theological freedom. When the UCC was formed in 1957 from its several streams the decision was made not to insist on a creed for this new communion. Instead, there would be a statement of faith; an affirmation of belief without insisting on personal commitment to a specific set of theological tenets which would include some people and not others. There would not be insistence on only one right way to believe. So, in the UCC we have the Statement of Faith that shares a version of how God is known. This Statement was originally written with masculine language for God. That was customary in the 1950‘s and early 60‘s when it was written. But as the awareness of God’s freedom increased the church moved away from exclusively male language for God in the 1970’s. A new version of the Statement of Faith was prepared that is in the form of a hymn of praise in which God is referred to as “you”, in the second person – no gender specific pronoun necessary! Again, this is an example of the UCC embracing the Spirit and the new things God is doing to promote freedom and blessing.

In the spirit of freedom, the UCC promotes debate and encourages inquiry and exploration. We are a church seeking to integrate the many new developments in science and technology as well as in theology and culture.

At a local UCC clergy gathering several years ago, someone asked who believed in the resurrection of the body of Jesus. Guess what? The group was split about 50-50. So not only do we have diversity in terms of ethnicity and culture, we also have theological diversity as an expression of our freedom.

In the UCC, our commitment to freedom extends to every congregation in the form of congregational polity. Each congregation is responsible for its own affairs. The wider church does not tell the congregation what to do, how to worship, how to be organized, what to do with its money, what curriculum or hymnals to use. None of that is dictated to the local church. The local church is responsible for listening and discerning its calling and fulfilling God’s dreams for that church in its service to the world. The local congregation has the freedom to fulfill God’s intentions for that congregation.

At our recent orientation for new members, we noted certain things are customary in the UCC overall but are done differently at LUCC. For instance, it is customary in the UCC for communion to be open to any and all baptized Christians. Here at LUCC, we welcome everyone to participate who would like to. We don’t draw a line at baptized Christians. That is our choice as we feel led to embody the universal love of God in Christ Jesus. And we are free in our tradition to do this. There is a UCC church in Oregon with an ordained UCC pastor that meets weekly for worship on Monday nights for a drum circle and Reiki for those who would like it. In the UCC we have this freedom because our wider church family has entrusted to us the responsibility to be who God calls us to be. So we encourage freedom – in our social ministry as well as our theological orientation and our practical engagement.

The prophet Jeremiah gives us the image of clay being shaped and used by God. Our tradition seeks to be an expression of flexibility and adaptability in changing times. A church willing and receptive to integrating the sciences as well as the arts with faith is a free church ready to respond and grow and carry the gospel into the uncharted territory of the future while learning from the past. A church willing to listen to many differing voices is a church ready to serve the world in whatever ways God intends. We seek to be malleable, open to God’s leading and shaping of us as individuals, as congregations, and as a wider church so that we may be used by God to meet the needs of the world in each and every age and location.

Hagar and Ishmael, were trapped in a bad situation. They saw no hope in their future. There are many people, the world over today, who feel trapped in a society and cultural context that is hopeless. There are many, even in our communities and neighborhoods who feel they have been abandoned in the wilderness. We are being strangled by greed, consumerism, self absorption, poverty, and violence. We are trapped by economic systems, social attitudes, and even religious beliefs that are outmoded and outdated for our time. We are overwhelmed with information and yet unable to apply our morals and principles to our decisions as individuals or as a country. The speed of change in our society makes us feel like aliens and strangers in our own context because we cannot keep up. We are trapped by the confines of hierarchy and patriarchy. Outmoded thinking does not keep up with new developments in and out of the church. Many, many people today are untethered, wandering, and feeling disconnected despite ubiquitous access to the Internet. This is not freedom. This is abandonment and alienation.

Yet in this situation, as God provided for Hagar and Ishmael, God provides the church to sustain people on their journey. As God provided water for the Hebrews in the wilderness, for Hagar and Ishmael, and for the Samaritans of Jesus’ day, God is sustaining us today. Through the church, God provides us a home, a place to belong, an oasis, a foundation, direction for our lives. In freedom, God chooses to offer the church as a place to feel rooted and yet to grow. The church liberates us from the confines of social and economic systems that promote abuse and harm. The church has good news for the world.

My brother is a UCC pastor, and at a recent conference, he was in conversation with a theologian and church leader with extensive knowledge of the church in the US and world wide. This expert, who is not UCC, told him, that among Protestant churches, the denominations that would have staying power for the future were the Episcopal church and the UCC. The Episcopal because there are people who simply love the liturgy. And the UCC because of the horizontal, egalitarian, democratic character of the church that makes the church nimble, flexible, and able to offer the gospel in ways that have authenticity for a specific setting.

And guess what? In the latest Still Speaking Magazine put out by the UCC, I read: “More new congregations have been welcomed into the United Church of Christ in the last 7 years than at any time since the 1960’s.” [Still Speaking Magazine Spring/Summer 2014]

Faith is that living water, that water of blessing we celebrate at baptism, that pool of refreshment that sustains us in the freedom to co-create a world in which all can enjoy the blessings God is giving to the whole world in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. The well is deep. The water is free. Happy anniversary UCC. May there be many more good years ahead. Amen.

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

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Sermon 5.21.17 Following Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Memorial Day 5.28.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Easter Festival 4.16.17

Love on the Loose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie Foxx is famous for being an actor and comedian.

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

Different people are famous for different things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Easter Sunrise 4.16.17

“From Fear to Courage”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 4.2.17 “Dead Again”

Scripture Lesson: Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 3.12.17 “To Bless the Earth”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 2/26/17 The Mountain Top Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon February 12, 2017 Spiritual Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lincoln Speaks Today

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

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

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

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

To Congress, December 1, 1862

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

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Sermon – Feb. 5, 2017 Salt and Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commitment Card

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

Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:

Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

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

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

Name______________________________________

Address____________________________________

Phone_____________________________________

Nearest Relative_____________________________

Address____________________________________

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

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

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Advent Devotion Christmas Eve 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Seven 12.23.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Six 12.22.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Five 12.21.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Four 12.20.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty Three 12.19.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Two 12.18.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty-One 12.17.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Twenty 12.16.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Nineteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember your donation for The Micah Center.

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