Advent Devotion 12.18.17 Long, dark nights. . .

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.17.17 The Unexpected

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.16.17 The Annunciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.15.17 Magic!

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.14.17 Feel the Pain

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.13.17 Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.12.17 Rededicating the Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.11.17 Trees of Integrity

Advent Devotion 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.10.17 Human Rights Day

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.9.17 Waiting –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.8.17 Comfort and Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.7.17 Comfort and Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.6.17 Comfort – Gentle and Strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.5.17 Condos, College, and Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.4.17 Seeking Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.3.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make your voice heard on Sunday at Williams Park.

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The Bible, The Church and #metoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Thanksgiving Sunday 11.19.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon All Saints Sunday 11.5.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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