Advent Devotion Twenty 12.16.16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion Nineteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember your donation for The Micah Center.

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Advent Devotion Eighteen 12.14.16

untitled There is that scene in the movie “The Little Mermaid” in which the mermaid, Ariel, is trying to figure out what a fork is. She finds one under the sea, a metal rod with four sharp, pointed spikes. She runs it through her hair. What is this thing? And what is done with it? We know, of course, but if you haven’t seen western culture on land, how would you know?

This Advent season we are thinking about the theme The Light Still Shines. The light of God helps us know how to interpret, understand, and frame our experience. Things happen. How do we understand the experience? The light of God helps us to know what is loving, just, compassionate, and forgiving. The light shows us what is good and true for us as individuals and as a society. The light of God shows us how to interpret what is going on around us and within us.

There are many things going on around us and it can be difficult to make sense of it. Maybe all the information just seems like random noise. But the light of God which is shown to us through Jesus, helps us to understand what is going on.

When we let the light of God show us what is going on, we can see where we are needed. We can see where change is needed. We can see what is good and just. We can celebrate what is beautiful and generous. Without the light, we lose our way often spiraling into self interest, greed, and fear. At times, we may not like what the light shows us, but it can be trusted.

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

In your journal, you may want to note an example of how your faith has helped you to see something in a new light.

Remember your donation for The Micah Center.

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Advent Devotion Seventeen

untitled Fossil fuels are amazing. They have brought humanity far along in its development. They have made a wonderful contribution to the furthering of civilization. Advances in transportation, electricity, and new materials such as plastic are incredible and have made such a difference to humanity. We are so fortunate that fossil fuels were discovered and put to use in so many helpful ways.

Now we know, however, how damaging fossil fuels are to the environment and how they are significantly contributing to global climate change. We know that the environment is poised at a tipping point in large measure due to the use of fossil fuels. So we are in the midst of a transformation in the energy sector away from fossil fuels and toward renewable, sustainable, clean energies such as wind and solar.

This is a large scale, global transformation, consequently, it will take time, which is of the essence given recent findings provided about carbon emissions. And, as with any transition, there are challenges and difficulties along the way. Some want to go slowly and others are resisting entirely. Some are oblivious. And for some, it can’t happen fast enough. But in a hundred years, we’ll see how things were and how the transition was accomplished, and everyone will be adjusted to the new paradigm without fossil fuels.

Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that there were no airplanes. Now we fly everywhere. There was a time when there were no cars on the road. My grandfather delivered milk with a horse and wagon in New York City. Now the problem is too many cars and too much traffic. Oh how things can change and sometimes just within a lifetime.

Technology is not the only thing that changes. Religion changes, too. Jesus stepped onto the scene and he called for major changes in religion. He challenged some of the foundational assumptions of his religion. Here are just a few examples. People believed that if someone was sick or disabled it was because they had sinned. Jesus challenged that assumption. If a person was hurt or killed, by accident even, it was assumed that this was a punishment from God. Jesus did not support that position. People believed that if you were materially wealthy it was because you had found favor with God. And they thought the opposite was true: If you were poor, it was because you had not found favor with God. Jesus completely rejected that thinking. Jesus challenged things and changed things that no longer served the deeper intentions of his religion. To some, Jesus’ thinking was scandalous.

In terms of religion, we are also in the midst of a great transition. The thinking and assumptions of times past are being challenged. New ideas and theologies are emerging within Christianity. Some of these new ideas preserve the original intentions of Christianity but shed outdated, antiquated thinking that can no longer be accepted given the advances that humanity has made. Some of the new thinking in Christianity is related to new scholarship about the Bible and the context of the original writers. In a hundred years or so, people will look back and see the old ways and how new versions of Christianity emerged. That does not mean that what came before was bad or wrong. What it means is that new ways of thinking are needed to enable Christianity to continue to have a positive impact on the world, to bless the world, to bring love and joy to the world. And, as with other major transitions, there are challenges and difficulties along the way. As with fossil fuels, some want to go back to older modes of Christianity, some are oblivious, some want to proceed slowly, and some can’t move ahead fast enough!

In this Advent season, we are thinking about how The Light Still Shines. New energy means that lights will still shine, they just will not be powered by fossil fuels. In terms of our faith, The Light Still Shines, but it is being conveyed in new ways.

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

In your journal, you may want to note an example of how your concept of Christianity is growing, changing, and evolving.

And don’t forget to put a donation in your box for The Micah Center. Education is about shining the light!

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Advent Devotion Sixteen 12.12.16

untitled Virgin of Guadalupe Day

The Virgin of Guadalupe may be the best known “version” of Mary in the Catholic church. She is the patron saint of Mexico and she is taken very seriously. Practically everywhere you go in Mexico you see Guadalupe: in stores, restaurants, homes, businesses, hotels, banks, offices, and, of course, churches. Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe is not restricted to Mexico. She is revered by Catholics around the world.

To me the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a wonderful example of how the light of Divine Love finds a way to shine and cannot be put out. In the story of Guadalupe, we can see God always somehow finding a way to get through. The light still shines!

When the Spanish came to Mexico, they came to give Christianity and take gold. The first peoples were killed off through war and disease. Their cultures were decimated. The temples of indigenous religions were taken down and the stones were used to build churches on the same sites. Gone were the gods and goddesses related to the seasons, agriculture, and fertility. In came the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and Mary.

The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is about the Virgin Mary appearing to the poor Indian peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531. She tells Juan Diego, in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire, to instruct the archbishop to build a church on a certain hill in her honor. It happens to be on a hill where the Indians had a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods which had been taken down under Spanish orders. Juan Diego tries to persuade the archbishop to build the church but to no avail. The archbishop wants a sign. The Virgin of Guadalupe shows Juan Diego to a bed of Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, blooming in the middle of winter and instructs him to take the roses back to the archbishop as a sign. Juan Diego gathers the roses in his tunic and takes them to the archbishop. When Juan Diego presents the roses to the archbishop on the fabric of the tunic there is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the middle of all of this, the Virgin also heals Juan Diego’s uncle. She does not relent until the archbishop agrees to build the church. And so there is a huge church on the site on the north side of Mexico City and because the old church was no longer structurally sound, a huge modern church was built in the 1970’s. And this Basilica to Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.

There are many things to love about this story. The “little guy” wins. The indigenous people essentially get the monolithic, monotheistic Catholic church to give them a goddess. Mary won’t take no for an answer. Guadalupe is essentially the primary figure in the Mexican expression of Christianity virtually preempting the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, thank you very much.

Even if we can’t relate to much of this story – the context in Mexico, Catholicism with its devotion to Mary and to the various versions of Mary – hopefully we can see that Divine light finds a way to get through. Whatever the circumstances and conditions and context, Love finds a way to beam into our darkness.

Prayer: The light of God is shining. May we look for it and live by it. Amen.

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Advent Devotion Fifteen

untitled There is the spiritual Christmas going on at church and in our life of faith. We’re praying and reading and singing and looking for the light. We are anticipating the celebration of the birth of Jesus and all he brings into the world.

Then we go out the door and there is the cultural Christmas going on full force in the world. The parking lot at the shopping center is full. The traffic is awful. The UPS golf cart is tooling around the neighborhood delivering packages. People are out in public, like in restaurants, wearing Santa hats. The newspaper is stuffed with ads. In my in box, just when the political stuff started to slow down the Christmas deals started flowing in. And what does all this have to do with a story about God coming into the world in a tiny baby demonstrating fierce, uncompromising love? What does this have to do with the inauguration of a whole new world of justice and peace? Seems like Christmas would look more like a farmworker demonstration than a half time show but here we are. And we are drawn into these various dimensions of Christmas.

The movie, “The Infiltrator,” is based on the autobiography of Robert Mazur, a US Customs special agent. The movie, starring Bryan Cranston, takes place in the ’80’s and tells the story of Robert Mazur going undercover and taking on the created identity of Bob Musella to expose the money laundering operations of the world’s largest drug cartel. In real life, Mazur is a loving, caring father and husband who plays games with his kids and adores his wife. For his job, he is dealing with thugs, involved in shoot outs, and matching the macho of these drug lords. Several times in the movie we see the psychic conflict that this causes for Robert/Bob. There is a horrible episode with his wife in a restaurant that leads to their separating. In another scene, we are shown the tension that occurs because Bob has become very involved with the drug lords that he is trying to entrap. It’s almost as if he is betraying his friends.

Having divided loyalties, trying to maintain multiple identities, dealing with conflicting values in different realms of our lives takes its toll. It creates spiritual, emotional, and psychic stress and pain. It can take a lot of lies, rationalizations, and twisted thinking to keep it all together.

Christianity is about wholeness and healing. It is an invitation to be one person with a united heart and spirit. It is about living from one set of values and morals in a unified manner. Our guiding principle is love – love of self, love of neighbor, and love of God however God is defined for you. By the light of Jesus we can come to see the compromises, conflicts, and discontinuities in our lives that are preventing us from living abundantly. May we welcome that light into our lives this holy season so that we receive the promised comfort and joy of Christmas.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world and in my life. Amen.

You may want to note in your journal a time when you felt a conflict of values or interests in your life. How did that make you feel? How was it resolved? What did you learn?

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Advent Devotion Fourteen

untitledI had dinner with friends recently and we had not seen each other in a long time. In catching up, we got to talking about the election. The friend said he was reticent to discuss it for fear that someone at an adjacent table would overhear the conversation and perhaps threaten us in some way. I said, “I am not giving in to that.” This is a free country and we can say whatever we want to about the election or anything else, for that matter, while we are at dinner. We are entitled to free expression as a human right according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today is International Human Rights Day. On 10 December in 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yes, it’s long and comprehensive, but it is worth reading. [It is included below.] It is an expression of light. I hope that in my lifetime I have the opportunity to live in a country that honors all of the human rights enumerated in this glorious declaration.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world, in others, and in myself. Amen.

Perhaps in your journal you might want to mention how you are helping to ensure basic human rights for all people.

In light of Article 26, consider making a donation to The Micah Center so that all children have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of an education.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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.

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Advent Devotion Thirteen

untitled The Light still shines. Yesterday was Bodhi Day. It is the commemoration of the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under the bodhi tree. He vowed to sit and meditate under the bodhi tree until he had found the root of suffering and how to be liberated from it. That is a big commitment. He could have been sitting there for who knows how long.

That’s the thing about the light. Yes, there is light and it can be found in differing religious traditions, but to experience the light one must look for it and be open to it. The spiritual quest takes commitment, devotion, time, energy, courage, and perseverance.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t need religion or religion doesn’t do anything for them. To see the light, for religion to impact us, we have to embrace it. We have to invest ourselves in our faith and let it work on us. Time and attention to spiritual practice, service, and the faith community lead us to the light. It is when we go deeper in our faith that we find the light.

If we aren’t seeing the light, maybe it is because we are not really open to it. Maybe we are not looking hard enough. Maybe we need to be more devoted to our religious practice.

This holiday season is a busy time of year. But are we busy with the things that reveal the light? Are we setting aside time for prayer, the reading of scripture and devotional writings? Are we attending worship? Are we making time for silence and reflection? Are we finding ways to serve and give that make a difference?

Yes, the light still shines, but we have to make the effort to see it.

Prayer: In these dark days may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world, in others, and in myself. Amen.

In your Advent journal, you could note how you are investing yourself in your spiritual quest for the light. Some people keep track of an exercise regime. What about keeping track of our spiritual regimen?

Your donations to The Micah Center are a sign of commitment to light. They will help individual children to succeed in school. That is shining the light!

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Advent Devotion Twelve 12.8.16

untitled Happy Bodhi Day! Have you put the lights up on the tree yet? Will you light a candle? Bodhi Day is the annual remembrance of the day in 596 BCE that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, sat under the Bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment. While Bodhi Day is celebrated on different days and in different ways depending on the country and culture, it usually includes chanting and meditation, as well as decorating a Bodhi (fig) tree with colored lights and lighting a candle. The remembrance lasts for 30 days. The lights that are used to decorate the home or the tree are multicolored to represent that there are many paths to enlightenment.

For Christians this is a season for lights on the tree and candles as we remember the light of God coming into the world in Jesus. For us, Jesus is a path to enlightenment or awakening. We remember him with the image of light.

For those who are Jewish, the festival of lights is ahead. Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve this year. It is an annual celebration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE following the successful Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy. Candles are lit for eight nights in observance of Hanukkah.

These holy days in various religious traditions all involve light. These observances remind us that Divine Light comes into the world. In many ways. Through many religious traditions. The Light is so intent on shining that it is not just restricted to one way of entering human experience. Humanity is wildly diverse, so it only makes sense that Divine Light would be made manifest in many ways. We don’t want to limit how the light of Divine love and power comes into the world. It will find a way. And if one way is not effective, there will be another.

This season, we join our sisters and brothers of different religions around the world in celebrating Light. The light has come into the world and the darkness has not put it out.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of the Divine shining in the world and in my life. Amen.

Remember to make a donation to The Micah Center. Shine the light in support of increased student achievement!

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Sermon 12.4.16 “Brooding Vipers”

Date: Dec. 4, 2016 Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon: Brooding Vipers
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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Last week we saw a banner depicting John baptizing people at the Jordan River in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Burlington, Massachusetts. The image shows a happy scene. People are dressed in bright colors. Women with covered heads looking like Muslims line the banks of the deep blue river kneeling in prayer. John is waving to Jesus off in the distance headed out to the wilderness. It’s a peaceful, serene, joyous scene.

Yet in the scripture we heard this morning, we are told of John the Baptizer ranting and railing. It hardly seems peaceful or serene. Apparently, the people are coming from nearby cities and towns to be baptized by John for the forgiveness of sins. That is going fine. But then the religious authorities arrive from Jerusalem and that’s when the fireworks start. Religion is supposed to be a comfort and a guide. These leaders should be offering light and hope to people. Instead, they are imposing laws and rules that cannot be followed and are very costly. These imposed requirements reinforce the authority and power of the leaders which fuels their tyranny. Their teachings and directives end up generating income and personal prosperity for the leaders. Instead of offering religion that is a comfort and support to people, especially people that are downtrodden, they are taking advantage of the people for personal gain. This ignites John’s fury!

While people may have expected John to rail against Rome, the Roman Empire, and the oppressive occupation being imposed by the Romans, a tirade against the religious leaders was probably quite unexpected. In his excoriating remarks, we hear John malign the leaders for banking on their relationship to Abraham to save them. They are counting on their privilege to work to their advantage. They are not concerned with truly repenting, changing their ways, reforming their religious practices, and showing forth the fruits of generosity, compassion, and mercy. They are children of Abraham. They do not expect to be held accountable for their deeds. They expect a free pass. Privilege then worked the same way that privilege works today.

But in the story we heard, John tells these people of privilege just what they can expect from the God that shines light for all people, not just some people. There is one coming, one who represents God, who is going to clean things up; get religion back on its proper footing. There is light coming that will shine joy, peace and hope upon all people. There will be no more undue privilege in the name of religion. There will be no more taking advantage of everyday people in the name of religion. There will be no more power abuse and manipulation for self gain in the name of religion. Not the religion of the God of the Jews. No. The light will expose these abuses and will shine in a way that is pure, healing, and restorative.

It is interesting to note that later in the gospels, Jesus, too, has a melt down over the power abuse of the religious authorities in the story of the overturning of the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Religion is to be a source of sustenance, hope, and comfort. It is to help people be morally good and compassionate. Religion is meant to feed the human spirit so that it flourishes and bears the fruits of compassion, justice, mercy, and right relationship. Religion is precious to the vitality of the human soul. Misusing religion for personal gain is heinous and we see that conveyed in the vehement condemnation from John and from Jesus.

I think that if John were to show up at the waterfront today, he would find plenty of brooding vipers. Still many abuse religion as an avenue for personal gain and as a way of validating their cultural values and attitudes. Religion is still used today to keep some people down and to privilege other people. And religion is still used to make some people rich and to give some people power over others. So, I think John would find plenty to rail about today.

We still need to be reminded that there is no room in the intentions of God for some people to benefit from privilege at the expense of others. There is no provision for gender bias in the reality of God. There is no place for racism in God’s domain. There is no tolerance of homophobia in the dreams of God. There is no space for discrimination against “foreigners” for there are no foreigners with God. Everyone is family in the reality of God. And there is no room for hatred of neo Nazis, white supremacists, or fundamentalists. Later, Jesus will tell his followers, Love your enemy. Maybe today it would sound something like, Love the deplorables – whoever they are for you.

In the stories of Jesus, we are told that the first word he utters when he begins his ministry echoes John: Repent. Turn around. Change direction. Reorient your life toward God. Chart a course in the direction of love. Accept grace. Like plants and trees that naturally grow toward the sun, be led by the Light.

Even brooding vipers are welcomed by the open arms of God. No matter what we may have done, all are offered grace. Everyone has a place in God’s realm of love and light. We can all make a new start. No one is doomed to perpetually living at the expense of others. Even well-ingrained habits of abusing power can be broken. The Gospel is good news for all people, including those who have been caught up in systems that abuse and oppress.

There is no one that is beyond the scope of Divine grace. We all, each and every one of us, have the capacity to bear the fruits of repentance – generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and justice. The Light of the world offers joy and peace to all, all upon whom the sun shines.

Brooding vipers. It’s quite an image. Distasteful, gross, scary. Yet the snake is really a quite fascinating creature. The color patterns and markings are quite remarkable. The mobility of snakes is astounding. They are incredibly flexible even able to defy gravity and climb trees! Snakes are also strong and very efficiently designed. When a snake grows, it must shed its skin to accommodate its expanding body. To do this, it rubs its nose against something rough to break the skin. Then through a long, slow, tedious process, the snake maneuvers its way out of the old skin and leaves that behind. Underneath is reveled a new skin. One that will stretch until it is time for other new skin. The old skin is dull and flat in finish. The new skin usually has a glossy shine.

Given their unique traits, snakes have long been a cross cultural religious symbol. In Christianity, the snake, with its shedding of skin, is seen as is a symbol of resurrection – leaving behind an old life and embracing a new life. In the reality of God, everyone is always welcome, even brooding vipers, because in God new life always awaits. 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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Advent Devotion Eleven 12.7.16

untitledDecember 7th. If you are of an age, that date is etched in your mind. You can’t see it or write it on a check or a form without a flash of memory. December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack on a Sunday morning by the Empire of Japan that launched the US into World War 2. Then-President Franklin Roosevelt declared it “a date which will Iive in infamy.” And it should be remembered: 5 out of 8 battleships, 3 destroyers, and 7 other ships were sunk or severely damaged at . Over 200 aircraft were destroyed. Twenty-four hundred Americans were killed and 1200 wounded. In one attack.

There is more to remember. President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war. The Senate voted 82-0 in support of the declaration. The House voted 388-1 in favor of war. What about the one? The one “no” vote was cast by Jeannette Rankin from Montana. She was the first woman elected to Congress; an advocate for women’s suffrage and a strong supporter of social welfare initiatives. And she was a Republican. Rankin, a pacifist, also voted against entering of World War 1. Her rationale: “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”

While December 7 was a dark day even in that darkness a light was shining. Jeannette Rankin was shining the light for peace, for standing by your principles whatever the consequences, and for maintaining your integrity and incorruptibility. In her subsequent comments, she made it clear that she loved and supported her country but also felt compelled to remain true to her convictions. She exercised the precious freedom that we hold so dear here in these United States. On the whole, Rankin was respected for her position. I’m not sure that would be the case today. Pacifism, principles, integrity, and respect seem to be in short supply.

May the darkness of December 7 remind us not to be afraid to shine our light. It is needed today just as much as it was in 1941 and maybe even more.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to remember a time that you were true to your convictions even when that was very unpopular or had significant negative consequences for you.

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Advent Devotion Ten 12.6.16

untitledAdvent is a time for reflection. It was once called “Little Lent.” There is a somber dimension to this season of short, dark days. It is an invitation to reflect on our need for the coming of the Christ Child.

Some years ago, I heard columnist Connie Schulz speak and she mentioned that we often think about religion in terms of helping ourselves and fixing others. Instead, she suggested that the true aim of Christianity is fixing ourselves and helping others. This is a season to consider what kind of fixing we need and what kind of help others need.

Many of the scripture texts for Advent talk about transformation. Valleys lifted up; mountains brought low; the desert blooming; swords turned into plowshares. This invites our consideration of what kind of fixing we need. How do we need to change to be more fully who we were created to be? Can we open our hardened hearts to let the love, forgiveness, and mercy in? Will we let the light shine on our lives with all their grime and glory and let ourselves really see what is there?

It’s easy to criticize others. The faults in others can be so glaring. Surely there are people that annoy you. There must be those whose outlook you find despicable. There’s that co-worker that you dread. And the kid you never want to sit next to in the lunch room. Advent is a time to look for the faults in ourselves. How can we be annoying? Who finds us despicable and why? Is there any validity in that? Are there those who avoid us and maybe for good reason?

When we let the light reveal who we really are, we can work on the fixing that is needed and move toward the healing offered by the light.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world and on my life. Amen.

Thinking about fixing yourself and helping others, remember The Micah Center today and put a donation in your box. Your gift will be a great help to the students who are served by the Center.

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Advent Devotion Nine

untitled This is a season of giving. People are not only thinking about giving gifts to friends and loved ones but are also making donations to charitable causes in the name of someone as a gift, and simply giving to organizations and movements that are making a difference. Year end charitable giving is encouraged for some as a tax advantage. [Please know that LUCC would be happy to receive additional charitable gifts as the year ends.]

Giving is important. Giving of money. Giving of time. Giving of forgiveness. Giving of knowledge. Giving of love. Giving a listening ear. Giving encouragement and support. Giving helps us to know how fortunate we are and how much we have to be grateful for. And it makes a true difference in the lives of others.

But giving is more than that. I got an email recently from a Christian group promoting “Live to Serve.” I think what we see from Jesus might better be described as “Serve to Live.” We think of the teaching that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it remains just a seed. And to save your life you must lose it. The implication here is that serving gives life; the abundant life that Jesus is offering to all people. Serving makes that kind of true life possible. It is the path to joy, community, and wholeness.

In this season at LUCC we are celebrating that The Light Still Shines. This season of giving is a time to remember the light of Jesus’ teaching about giving and serving. It is not just a feel good add on to life when it is convenient. When we follow the light of serving and giving, we find the gifts of joy and peace.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to note something that you did for someone else today and how that felt. You were letting someone know that The Light Still Shines!

And don’t forget your donations to The Micah Center. Jim Andrews mentioned in church today that the need is great. This highly successful program is in dire need of funds.

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Advent Devotion Eight 12.4.16

untitledThe Water Protectors at Standing Rock have been shining a light for all of us to see. They are shining a light on fossil fuels. Yes, fossil fuels have been great and have made a huge contribution to the progress of humanity but it is time to turn to other sources of power. Fossil fuels are no longer feasible to be used as a power source. Standing Rock is shining a light on a new future powered by renewable and sustainable power.

Standing Rock is shining a light on water issues and the importance of protecting the water supply for sustaining human life. This is close to our hearts here in Florida where we have lots of water issues – sewage dumping, Mosaic fouling the water supply, rising sea level, the Sabal Point pipe line, etc. It’s easy to take water for granted as we just turn on the tap and the water flows. Standing Rock is reminding us that water is sacred, it is part of creation, and it is necessary to our survival. We must honor its importance and value.

Standing Rock is also shining a light on respect for First Peoples. After hundreds of years we still do not have a healthy relationship based on mutuality, respect, and dignity between indigenous peoples and Euro Americans in the US. The people gathered at Standing Rock are shining a light on this woeful situation. We need to see what is being exposed by that light.

The Water Protectors at Standing Rock are shining a light of the importance of taking action. It’s easy to sit at home and complain about what is going on in the world. It’s easy to sign an online petition. The people at Standing Rock are reminding us to get involved, stand up and be heard even when it is not convenient or we don’t have the time. The people at Standing Rock have left home, family, jobs, and livelihoods to be part of the encampment. Now they are facing extremely cold temperatures and the discomforts and dangers of winter weather. They are making a huge personal sacrifice for what they care about; for what truly matters. They are shining a light on the need to be directly, personally involved in creating the future we want to see. Someone else is not going to do it for us.

As the days darken this month of December, we give thanks for all the light coming from Standing Rock.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I look for the light of Christ shining in the world. Amen.

NOTE: In the coming weeks, LUCC will be creating a banner for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. This is one of the things that they have asked for on their donation list. They find great encouragement in banners of support and solidarity.

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Advent Devotion Seven 12.3.16

untitled Even though the election was almost a month ago, I still have people telling me that they are “recovering” from the election. They are still “getting over” the election. Instead of it being over and done with and feeling relief, many are still enmeshed in the election and its aftermath.

In this Advent season in thinking about the images of darkness and light there was a lot of darkness that was exposed during the election season. There was plenty of bias and intolerance on all sides. The election exposed a dark underbelly that some hoped wasn’t really there and that others were ignoring and that still others are glorying in.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, a house in our area was “egged.” The home owner thought he might have been targeted because he still had his Trump sign up. Evidently, he thinks there are deplorables in the Clinton camp, too. Plenty of ill will and bitterness to go around – on all sides.

In some ways, the election was like turning a light on. We saw a lot of things that were hidden in the darkness. We could choose our information streams to see what we wanted to see and not see what we didn’t want to see. The election broadened our view – like it or not.

What we see at Christmas is Jesus, the light of the world, shining the light on the world as it is. He shows us the truth of our reality. He exposes what is truly there. But he does not leave it at that. Jesus then shows us how the world could be, how the world is meant to be, and what the Divine intentions are for the world.

The election might have shown us more about how the world really is but as Christians we look to Jesus to show us how the world should be and how we are called to work with God to create that world.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Is there something you would like to write in your Advent journal today about seeing light in dark times? Maybe there is something you want to note that is lingering with you about the election, something you need to let go of.

And don’t forget your donation to The Micah Center to help shine the light for a student in need of support.

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Advent Devotion Six 12.2.16

untitledThis week several people from the church participated in the annual Cities of Light observance shining light on the death penalty and the moral and religious imperative to end capital punishment. The death penalty is certainly a place of darkness in our society. And since this policy is implemented by the government, and “we the people” are the government, this terrible practice implicates all of us.

This past summer when I was in Wisconsin visiting family at their cabin on a lake, we enjoyed catching up on past issues of the New York Times Magazine. There was one issue with an article about the death penalty. The article focussed on the five counties in the US with the worst records relating to the capital punishment. With trepidation, I opened the magazine, and sure enough, out of this whole big country of ours, our county, Pinellas County, was one of the five countries featured in the article. I was afraid of that. So, we here in Pinellas have even more work to do on this.

Will we just turn away from this darkness and ignore it? Is it someone else’s problem? Since we may not have direct involvement with anyone on death row, do we think we can just bury our heads?

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with our 21 year old son, Malcolm, and I told him that when I was young we didn’t have the death penalty. There was a moratorium. It was not being implemented anywhere in the United States. He did not believe me. He actually thought I was lying or mistaken or something. He couldn’t believe that this terrible practice had been abolished in the relatively recent past.

That memory, that knowledge, is our hope. It is our light shining in the darkness. Our society put this practice to an end once and we can do it again. It is possible. We must make sure that the light still shines on the horrors of capital punishment and on the realistic hopes of its abolition once again.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. May that light shine especially for those on death row and those involved with implementing capital punishment. Amen.

Is there something you would like to write in your Advent journal today about seeing light in dark times? Or maybe you want to note something related to capital punishment.

And don’t forget your donation to The Micah Center to help shine the light for a student in need of support. People who end up on death row tend to be poorly educated. By supporting the students at The Micah Center we may be helping to keep them out of the criminal justice system.

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Advent Devotion Five 12.1.16

untitled World AIDS Day

36.7 million people were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2015. That’s close to the entire population of California.

Of those 36.7 million people, 25.6 million are living in Sub Saharan Africa. There is no way to fully calculate the devastation that this is causing in that area.

Of the 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS, 1.8 million are children. Most contracted the virus from their mothers.

In 2015, Cuba became the first country to eliminate mother to child transmission of HIV and syphilis. In 2016, Armenia, Belarus, and Thailand also received this designation.

Only 60% of the people with HIV know their status.

2.1 million people were newly infected in 2015.

1.1 million people died of HIV/AIDS in 2015.

35 million people total have died of HIV/AIDS.

While 46% of those with HIV/AIDS are receiving antiretroviral treatment, neither a cure nor a vaccine is available largely due to underfunding of research and development.

And before you glaze over from all of these remote statistics, remember that each and every one of these numbers represents people. With families and friends. Individual human beings. Created in the image of God. Many of whom feel forgotten or stigmatized because of their disease. And several of whom are part of the LUCC church family.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. May the light of comfort and compassion shine brightly for those living with HIV/AIDS. Amen.

Note: Statistics cited in this post are from the World Health Organization. WHO.int

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Advent Devotion Four 11.30.16

untitledApparently yesterday was “Giving Tuesday.” I got many emails from wonderful organizations and causes encouraging me to donate. From what I can gather, Giving Tuesday has now become part of the Thanksgiving aftermath: Black Friday shopping at malls and big box stores, Local Saturday shopping at local one of a kind stores, Cyber Monday shopping on line, and finally Giving Tuesday. It’s a kind of wave. Only, I think the wave is going backwards.

On Thursday, we eat a feast and express our thanks. And what should come after thanks? Giving! Thanks and giving go together. We are grateful so we share. We celebrate our bounty so we are generous. We remember what we care about so we offer our support. It’s a perfect link.

Instead, after three days of shopping, with much gratuitous spending, there’s Giving Tuesday. An afterthought to salve a remorseful conscience? And how generous are people really likely to be after they have just spent three days running up their credit cards?

Advent shines the light on our culturally ingrained consumerism and materialism which in addition to rotting our souls is ruining our planet.

A professor studying environmental issues in China went to one of the largest malls there. There was a waterfront beach inside the mall! It was over the top. He talked with shoppers randomly. One young woman told him, “They have everything you could want and even things you never realized you wanted.” Another young shopper said, “We all want the same thing – a beautiful life.” The implication was that this was to be found at the mall. While the professor was dismayed at the responses, he quickly realized that he would probably hear much the same thing if he spoke with shoppers at a fancy mall in the US.

Our faith teaches us that a beautiful life comes from giving everyday, not just the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. And it comes from giving of ourselves and our core resources, not just our leftovers. Everyday. All day.

This would be a good time to put a donation in that container for The Micah Center and then go on from there!

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Consider for your journal, what have you been given today? What have you given? Where do you see light or darkness in this?

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Advent Devotion Three 11.29.16

untitledLast year about this time my husband and I were visiting some friends when the wife brought out a small lighting device with a cord. She was very excited about this new Christmas light decoration that she had just gotten. She explained it to us with great enthusiasm. Then she plugged in the fixture and turned it on and there were some colored spots to be seen but it really wasn’t very impressive. Well, we were sitting outside on the patio in broad daylight after all.

But evidently this wouldn’t do. We had to get the full effect. So, we were ushered into the house, and after a bit of discussion between the husband and wife, the four of us squeezed into a small closet and the door was closed. It’s good none of us suffers from claustrophobia! Then, inside the dark closet, the light was turned on. Well, wasn’t that a show! The countless spots and the changing color of this laser light device was truly impressive. It was very much worth being crammed into a closet to see! I could see why our friend was so excited about this new addition to their Christmas decor.

The lights of Christmas do truly bring joy, at least to some of us! And, of course, they are most impressive at night, when it is dark.

In this season of Advent, we are preparing ourselves to receive Divine light. We are getting ready to celebrate and give thanks for that light. Spiritual guides throughout the ages and across traditions remind us that sometimes we see the light most boldly in the darkness. In the dark times of our lives, we may feel the healing presence of the Divine in a direct and powerful way. In a time of great discouragement or grief, we may look back and see Love’s hand working all things together for good. In a time of deep desperation a door may open, and we see the light ahead and can proceed onward.

Life brings much darkness and heartache. But that must not stop us from looking for the light. That may be when we see it shining most brightly.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Is there something you would like to write in your Advent journal today about seeing light in dark times?

And don’t forget your donation to The Micah Center to help shine the light for a student in need of support.

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Advent Devotion Two 11.28.16

untitled $110,000. What can you do with $110,000? If you want to build a hospital or start a company in the US, it’s not much to go on. In many cities in the US that amount of money won’t even buy you a small starter home.

I recently heard a post election interview on National Public Radio in which the person being interviewed said that their family income, for a family of four, was about $110,000. She went on to say that each year it was becoming more and more of a struggle to “get by.” And she was really worried about that. Get by? Really? $110,000 is about four times the poverty line for a family of four in this country. For millions of people in America, $110,000 looks like an unimaginable sum. And to the millions of people around the world living on less that a dollar a day, $110,000 looks like winning the lottery.

This Advent season is a time to examine the darkness that surrounds us. Often that darkness is of our own making. Our attitudes and assumptions and perspectives may be leading us to see a bleak picture. And that view may be distorted, skewed, and in need of refocus.

Advent is a time to step back and try to see afresh our context, our circumstances, and our assumptions. It’s a time to recalibrate our reality and get our perspective realigned. Or at least start to admit that we may not be seeing as clearly as we thought we were.

It is also a time to let the light in that may show us what we would rather not see. What does the light of Christ reveal about our incomes and our economic arrangements? While we may not be able to verify many facts about what is in the Bible, we can be sure that Jesus was poor. It seems by choice. And that he never saw the equivalent of $110,000 in the denarii of his day in his entire 33 years.

Examining the darkness and letting the light in may help us to see that we are far more blessed than we realized! And we may have thought we were just “getting by”!

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

Remember to add an entry to your Advent journal about where you have seen darkness and light today. And consider putting a donation in your container for The Micah Center.

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Sermon Nov. 27, 2016 “Seeing in the Dark”

The grotto salamander is a pale, sickly looking thing about 4 to 5 inches long that lives in caves, especially in the vicinity of the Ozark Mountains. In the larvae stage which lasts one to three years, the creatures are brown or purplish gray. They have yellow flecks on the sides. They live outside in brooks and streams. But then they go through a metamorphosis which happens underground. They lose their color and their gills. And their eyelids fuse shut so that they lose their sight. In the blind adult phase, they spend the rest of their lives in caves in the dark. The grotto salamander is the only salamander species to undergo metamorphosis. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotto_salamander and http://amphibiaweb.org/species/4220] Now, what does this have to do with Advent you may be wondering! Well, we’ll see.

In this Advent season, we are thinking about celebrating the birth of Jesus, the light of the world. Many of our hymns, carols, and decorations celebrate light. In these shortest days of the year the importance of light is heightened. Light is significant. It makes a difference. It is visible most noticeably in darkness. A candle doesn’t make much difference in the bright light of day, but in a dark room at night it is transforming. Light truly shines in darkness.

The beautiful vision of peace that we heard from the prophet Isaiah is light shining in the darkness. The people are suffering. They are devastated. Despair has overtaken them. But Isaiah shines a light: A light that reveals a future of peace with all people living together as one. There are no more wars or threats or hostility, but a universal community of mutual respect, dignity, and justice where resources go into sustaining human life not eliminating it. This vision inspires the people to invest in the future with hope. The prophet shines a light in the darkest of times.

It does not take much to make the case that we live in dark times. Yes, it is a time of amazing, unprecedented human potential, especially in terms of technology. But the will and spirit of the times seems to be less promising. There is much going on that is revealing the dark underbelly of the human character. We see people succumbing to fear and abandoning reason, rationality, and compassion. We see people regressing into violence. We see the eruption of alienation and frustration. These trends are in evidence the world over in large ways and in small. Within a week of the election there were over 300 hate crimes committed in the US, and the problems continue. [https://thinkprogress.org/300-hate-incidents-since-election-day-bf9fd91edbd6#.hs9becdqc] People were handing out fake deportation letters on a college campus. An Episcopal church with a Spanish language mass had the sign defaced with the message “Trump Nation Whites Only.” A gay-friendly church like ours was defaced with swastikas and the messages, “Heil Trump” and “Fag Church.” Muslim women have had their hijabs pulled off and been harassed. These are dark times. Bitterness and anger are coming out.

And all the while, people are trying to deal with the day to day. Loosing a job. A baby dying of SIDS. Dealing with health issues. Facing divorce. The death of a loved one. Spiraling addiction which touches every family in some way. All these things keep happening day by day by day. It is easy to be overwhelmed by darkness.

And here’s where the salamander comes in. In our youth, we may be idealistic. We may be led by our hopes and dreams. Eyes wide to the world like that young salamander. But the steady onslaught of life, day to day, and the wider influences in society and in the world can work on us. Change us. To cope, we may learn not to look. We may become hardened. Oblivious. Numbed to the darkness. Like the salamander, we, too, may lose our sight. Close our eyes. Narrow our focus. Block out the feelings, the events, and the horror that seem too unthinkable to incorporate into our reality. So we may find ourselves fabricating our reality. Making it smaller and narrower and blurred. We may choose to blind ourselves to what is going on because we don’t know how to respond; what to do. It’s too ugly.

It’s hard to know how to incorporate the harshness, the violence, the evil of reality into our worldview. I mean, what do we do with the fact that so far in 2016 in the United States, there have been 438 mass shootings involving 4 or more people shot in one episode? [https://www.massshootingtracker.org/about] That’s more than one mass shooting a day. What kind of world is this? So, we may just resort to closing our eyes. Burrowing into our individual silos of information. Blind to what is actually going on around us.

Advent reminds us that Jesus came into the world in dark times. He didn’t come when all was well, and people were all getting along, and everybody was living with dignity and self-determination. No. He was born in very dark times. The Roman Empire was oppressing its subjects. The Jews were living under the thumb of Rome with severe economic restrictions and extreme taxation. People were poor and had little means of empowerment or self-determination. And the religious community had pretty much resigned itself to cooperating so that things didn’t get worse. Times were dark. And that is when the light comes. When it is needed most. In the dark. The gospel of John tells us the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Jesus is light in darkness. It’s no accident that Jesus’ birthday is celebrated in December. It is symbolic of his coming as light into dark times.

So, to truly appreciate Jesus and all that he can mean to us, we need to recognize the darkness in which we live. We need to name that darkness. And our need for the light.

The grotto salamander thrives in the darkness. Blindness is conducive to it’s survival in dark caves. The salamander does not need light to flourish. But it is not so with us. We are made to have our eyes open. To see. To understand. To be aware. We need light. Light which shines in the darkness. So, I invite us to embrace this season of darkness. To open our eyes to the darkness that is around us and within us. May we be willing to look with honesty. Fearless. True. Yes, the light still shines. But it shines in the darkness. And if we can’t see the darkness, we will likely be blind to the light as well. Amen.

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Romans 13:11-14
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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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Advent Devotion One 11.27.16

untitledWith all the craziness that is going on in the world where can we turn? So many things have happened that have left us reeling. Wracked by the Pulse shooting earlier this year and what St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman referred to as the “crazy and disgusting” election of this fall where can we turn? For grounding? For sanity? For another way? For a new vision? How do we access a future that is anti-violent? Can we imagine a reality that includes respect for all people regardless of identity? Where do we look for economic arrangements that are equitable and fair? How can we envision a sustainable relationship with Earth? What can heal the alienation, violence, ignorance, greed, and self-centered myopia that pervades society?

Basically good, well-intentioned, caring people seem at a loss about how to make a difference and how to respond.

Although he was born over 2,000 years ago, and his time and culture seem distant, remote, and foreign, Jesus still speaks to today’s passionate desire for a different world. Jesus challenged the assumptions, power arrangements, ingrained habits, religious authority, and cultural mores of his day and his message is still challenging today. He is a light for the path to peace, justice, healing, and reconciliation.

“The Light Still Shines” is the theme that was selected for the Advent Season at Lakewood United Church of Christ. The season will be an exploration of how Jesus is still light for the world. These daily devotions will reflect that theme.

As part of your Advent journey, you are invited to journal or jot down a few notes each day on the themes of light and darkness. For this first week, you are invited to think about where you see darkness in the world and where you see light piercing the darkness.

You are also invited to set aside an offering each day for the Micah Center which offers an after school program with homework help, literacy, math development and mentoring free of charge for children on the free/reduced lunch program in Pinellas County schools. If you don’t live in the St. Pete area, perhaps you will want to find a program or movement close to your heart that is shining the light and set aside a donation each day during the Advent season. Then on Christmas, you will have a gift for the baby Jesus that reflects his light into the world.

Prayer: In these dark days, may I trust that the light of Christ still shines. Amen.

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Sermon Nov. 20, 2016 “The Consequences of Gratitude”

Date: Nov. 20, 2016 Thanksgiving Sunday
Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
Sermon: The Consequences of Gratitude
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Besides turkey, what will be on the Thanksgiving menu at your house? If you live in New England, squash will probably be served. In the west, expect salad. And in the south, yes, it’s macaroni and cheese. Now for the pies. There is the preeminent pumpkin. And here in the south, pecan and sweet potato. But in the northeast and mid atlantic regions, the number two pick is apple. And if you live in the west, it’s cherry. So, we have our preferences and we make our choices accordingly.

Now in the story we heard today about the ten people with leprosy who are healed, it appears there is also a choice to make. Give thanks. Or don’t give thanks. There is the one, the wrong one, by the way, the one who was hated and an enemy, who opts to return to Jesus and give thanks for his healing. And then there are the other nine who go on their way. So, what would we choose? Would we choose to go with the one or the nine? Let’s take a few minutes to think about that.

To give thanks or not to give thanks. Hm. What might be the consequences of our decision?

The one who gives thanks runs back to Jesus, throws himself on the ground, and pours forth his gratitude. The story ends with Jesus affirming that the man is not only cured, but he is saved, he is made whole. This man is not only free of his leprosy, but he is experiencing a whole change of life. He has a new orientation. He has been transformed by gratitude.

When we are grateful, when we give thanks, we are engaging in a powerful spiritual practice. To give thanks is to give up the illusion of self sufficiency. If we are thankful for our food, for instance,then we are led to think about those who have grown it, those who have harvested it, those who have transported it, those who have built the roads and trucks that carry it, those who work in the stores that sell the food, and of course, Earth itself that provides the food. So we see that we are dependent on lots of people and upon creation to sustain us. We don’t sustain ourselves. We are not self sufficient. We don’t take care of ourselves. We don’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Gratitude helps us to see we are linked to the wider community, society, and Earth in a web of mutuality and interdependence.

When we give thanks we are acknowledging all that we are receiving and it is astounding. Each day, things happen, people help us, Earth nourishes us, and we receive and receive and receive. Gratitude helps us to see how gifted we are – by others and by creation. We see blessings abound. We see grace infiltrating our lives at every turn.

Being thankful helps us to see all that we are being given. Wow! Food, friendship, beauty, sunshine, work, play, so many things to be thankful for. Just think of all that we expressed in the Ritual of Thanksgiving. Such riches!

And when we affirm the abundance of life through gratitude, we move away from the illusion that we are wanting, that we don’t have what we need, an d that we are being shorted. Our reality shifts from one of scarcity to one of abundance. That’s what giving thanks does.

And then what happens? Seeing all that we have, and all that comes our way, we realize that we don’t have to hold on so tightly. We can open our hearts and our hands, and share with others. We uncover the generosity that is part of the image of God within us. We find ourselves giving and sharing and helping, and no longer afraid of what we are giving up or what we don’t have. Gratitude shifts our world view. We move from being self centered to being other centered. From a place of scarcity to a place of abundance. From individualism to the common good. From isolation to interdependence. Thanksgiving leads to a radical reorientation of life.

So, we think back to the story of the one with leprosy who came back to Jesus and the other nine who don’t. Perhaps the nine sense the power of gratitude. And they walk away because they don’t want to have their lives changed. They don’t want to see things in a new way. They just want to take their cure and go back to life as they knew it. But the one, the Samaritan, he doesn’t just want to be free of his disease. He is ready for a whole new life. For the faith that makes us whole. For the transformation that leads to our salvation.

Thanksgiving reminds us that we, too, have a choice to make. Will we align ourselves with the one, or will we stay with the nine? Each choice has consequences about who we will be and how we will live. Thanks or no thanks?

So, what will it be at your place? Turkey roasted? Smoked? Fried? And how about the pie? 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 – Nov. 13, 2016 “People Are People”

Date: Sunday Nov. 13, 2016
Scripture: Psalm 146
Sermon: People Are People
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Do not put your trust in kings and princes. Do not trust rulers. [Psalm 146] Do not trust mortals in whom there is no salvation. An interesting idea coming from a people that demanded that God give them a king. The Hebrew people were governed by a group of judges. But the neighboring peoples had kings. The Hebrews decided they wanted a king. And they wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, finally God gave in and gave the Hebrew people a king. Years later, after Saul, and Solomon, and David, and various other kings, the writer of the Psalms tells us, Do not put your trust in kings or princes or rulers.

It’s easy to want a leader that will take care of you, make everything right, and set things straight. Let that leader be responsible for everything. Let the leader save you. Then you know who to expect to get things done. And you know who to blame when things aren’t the way you think they should be. A leader is very convenient.

Have the right king and all will be well.
Get the right boss and everything will be fine.
Call the right pastor and your church will thrive.
Elect the right president and your troubles are over.

Get the right guy, and it’s usually a guy, on top, and everything else falls into place. We expect the leader to take care of everything so that we don’t have to. And when things are not as we would like them to be, then it must be the leader’s fault. So, time for a new leader. And then we impose the same unrealistic expectations upon that person.

But the Psalmist tells us not to put our trust in kings and princes because, of course, kings, princes, bosses, pastors, leaders, are people. And, well, people are people. Susceptible to temptation. Weak. Falling short. Rising to the occasion. Making mistakes. Vulnerable. Amazing. Imperfect. Every leader is a person and every person is a fickle mix with great potential for good and not-so-good.

Leaders are all too human and when we expect them to fix things for us and create a just, peaceful society for us, we are abdicating our responsibility as part of the community. Yes, we want to encourage our leaders to pursue justice, peace, and the common good. But our faith does not teach us to rely on one person to save us. It teaches us to join in taking responsibility for the health and well-being of ourselves, the community, and society. Every person is created in the image of God, so we are all co-creators with God of a world that is hospitable and sustaining for all.

This idea of the importance of the community is shown to us by Jesus. At the beginning of his ministry, he calls people to follow him. They form a group. And he shares his vision and power with the group. He gives them authority to do all that he does. He holds nothing back from them. In the story of the feeding of the multitudes, the disciples are worried that there is no food for the throngs of people. Jesus tells the disciples, you give the people food. He has faith in their power to feed the crowd. They resist. After coming down from the mountain after the Transfiguration, a crowd confronts Jesus. We wanted your disciples to heal our sick. They didn’t do it. Jesus is frustrated and annoyed. In his eyes, they have the capability to meet the needs of the people but they don’t use it. So, he does the healing. In the gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that they will do greater things than he has done. Jesus fully expects his followers, as a group, as a community, to change the world. That is the reason for the existence of the church, the body of Christ. The church exists to transform the world by bringing the love, healing, and compassion of God to all. And Jesus has taught us all we need to know to do so.

The tradition of Jesus is one of shared responsibility and power. It is not a personality cult. It is not a group run by a demigogue. It is not an authoritarian dictatorship. What Jesus shows us was later expressed by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

So often people want to make Jesus the ruler who does everything for them. Jesus will do this for you. Jesus will do that for you. I met a man who told me that Jesus got his job for him. Really? Well, then why doesn’t Jesus get a job for the single mother who can’t feed her kids? Why doesn’t Jesus get a job for the felon who is out of jail and trying to start anew? Jesus is not going to do anything for you, but he will show you how to help yourself and others.

Jesus shows us how to be in community, holding one another accountable, supporting each other, passing on values from generation to generation, working together for the good of the whole. He does not show us how to abdicate our personal agency to a leader. He does not show us how to shirk our responsibility and expect a leader to do things for us. He does not show us how to revere a human leader so that we are absolved of expectations and consequences.

Now we have just had an election this past week. And some people wanted to elect Hillary Clinton so that she could solve all our problems for us. And some people wanted to elect Donald Trump so that he could solve all our problems for us. Some wanted to elect Gary Johnson, or Darrell Castle, or Jill Stein, or Rocky De La Fuente so that they could solve all our problems for us. But we are reminded of the words of the Psalm. Do not put your trust in kings or princes, and we can add, presidents. They are not going to solve all of our problems. They are not going to save us.

This was very directly expressed in a letter to the editor on election day. Charles Brusovich, Jr. of Lutz wrote this:

 No matter who wins the election, I wonder how many people feel they have a personal responsibility as free citizens to promote the overall welfare of the country.
Does it bother anyone that we continually spend more than we pay in taxes by a substantial amount, and do we as citizens have a responsibility to curtail it?
Does it bother anyone that we complain about illegal aliens, but the only way they can stay here is because they are employed illegally by U.S. businesses and citizens? Do we have a responsibility to stop it?
Does it bother anyone that we send volunteers to fight “terror” when our own intrusive actions into other countries inspire it? Do we have a responsibility to vigorously object to ill-advised invasions?
Do we have a responsibility to each other to base our opinions in facts that promote the general welfare of the people? And to help each other by insisting on equitable wages, benefits and justice to all people?
Do we really think one elected person will change this? Or should we be looking in the mirror and asking ourselves if we are serving the country or ourselves? And, in the end, does one person make the country great, or do we make it great?   [Tampa Bay Times, 11/8/16]

You and I may have different concerns and issues than Mr. Brusovich, but we can identify with his point about responsibility and accountability. The outcome of the election does not change the fact that we have much work to do. The whole election process showed us that our society is in great need and we can’t expect one person to make it right. Our faith calls all of us to work to make sure that every person in this country and the world is treated with dignity and respect. We believe each and every person is sacred and valued. And we need to make sure that the laws and conduct of our country reflect that. We need to address ourselves to caring for the environment which we believe to be God’s self-disclosure and gift. It is past time for us to insist on health care for the Earth which feeds our bodies and spirits. And we must redouble our efforts at creating a culture of peace. The election itself was fraught with contention, attacks, and hostility. We need to cultivate a culture of civility, kindness, respect and peace. And this includes speaking out with gentle strength against violence of every kind including verbal violence, sexual violence, economic violence, religious violence, gun violence, and war as a tool of foreign policy.

No leader is going to do this for us: this is our job. This is the calling of the church. This is what Jesus gathered people together to do. It is our responsibility to create the country and the world that we want to live in. And we need each other to fulfill our calling. We cannot do it alone. 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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The Day After

Posted by Rev. Kim Wells

As I woke up this morning, I asked myself, “How does our faith speak to us in the aftermath of the election?”

The story that immediately came to mind was the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan? Yes.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, it is the most unlikely person who does what is compassionate. For anyone originally hearing the story, the Samaritan was the absolute last person who would be expected to help the victim beaten and lying by the side of the road. For us, it might be like someone from ISIS stopping to help. Yet in the story, something good comes from an extremely unlikely source. But, the Bible is like that.

Also in the story of the Good Samaritan, the responsible people of status and authority do not stop to help the person suffering in the ditch. And that person who was beaten had to accept help from one who was abhorrent. Evidently, today, too, there are many people who feel they are being passed by.

This day after the election many feel ignored, devalued, and alienated. As citizens of one country, sharing this our common home, may we be open to reaching out to one another with compassion and understanding.

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Sermon Oct. 30, 2016 “The Fear Factor”

Date: October 30, 2016
Scripture Lesson: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Sermon: The Fear Factor
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Are you scared yet? All the spooky decorations are up for Halloween. The ghosts, spiders, witches, and graveyards, complete with ax murderers, are out in full force threatening all their Halloween fright. Well, are you afraid yet? Part of the origins of Halloween include scoffing at death and bringing out all the scary stuff to disempower our fears around evil spirits, ghouls, and all the rest. We put on costumes and put out scary decorations to make a mockery of death and evil.

And if you are not spooked by Halloween, maybe the upcoming election has you quivering. Today candidates for every office seem to want to make us afraid and then promise that they will fix things. And you should certainly fear the opponent getting elected; whatever the office and whoever the opponent. So, fear seems to be driving the election. I get several emails every day that this race will be lost or that race will be lost, and these dire consequences will occur, if I don’t send in my donation today. Right
now. The future depends on it. . .

This same scare tactic is recommended for church finances. Want to increase your church’s financial giving? Create a crisis and they will give. Paint a dire scenario and the money will flow in. I have gone to church finance seminars that promote this strategy for increasing giving in the church. It’s hardly the approach we use here at LUCC as all who were part of the The BIG Event last week can attest.

Traditionally, churches have been big into the fear factor. After all, there’s hell. Burning in fiery torment for eternity. Try to outdo that! That has been one of the most powerful perpetrations of fear ever inflicted. Yes, the church is really good with fear.

One example is the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and specifically Salem, in 1692. Fourteen women, five men, and two dogs, yes, two dogs, were executed for witchcraft. The youngest person was 5 and the oldest almost 80. [Schiff, p. 3] Salem’s senior minister was related to no less than 20 of the accused. The testimony even included sightings of people riding on brooms. There were forced confessions. Those at the time tell us, “most would have chosen to have fallen into the hands of the barbarous enemy than. . . the hands of their brethren in the church fellowship.” [Schiff, p. 336] Over the course of nine months, the colony was gripped by fear. And silence. Diaries were blank for the months of the witch hunts. Very little was written. People who were inveterate record keepers left very few written documents pertaining to this intense period when they were besieged by fear.

Religion, politics, gender, governance, and adolescence mixed into a noxious cocktail. Families were torn apart. The colony was in a state of total disruption. As one observer put it, “political considerations had grossly disfigured moral ones.” [Schiff, p. 379] We certainly know what that looks like. It took years, generations, for the families and for the colony to recover. In the fall of 1992, three hundred years after the terror, there was a ceremony exonerating all those accused and executed in 1692.

How did this whole thing happen? How did people become so overcome with fear? And how did it happen among the Puritans of all people? Writer and historian Stacy Schiff tells us: “They were ardent, anxious, unbashful, incurably logical, not quite Americans, of as homogeneous a culture as has ever existed on this continent.” [Schiff, p. 6] How, in such a community, did such fear take hold and to such destructive ends? This was fear rearing its ugly head from within the community not even involving an outside threat such as Indians, Blacks, or the French. It was purely internal within small communities, people accused by known accusers, often from within the same family. Fear overcame logic. Logic was out the window. Nowhere to be found. There have been many speculations but there is no real, believable explanation for the magnitude of the hysteria in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. This scourge in our nation’s history remains largely inexplicable. It reminds us, hundreds of years later, that for all our technological, intellectual, and medical advances, we are still human beings capable of being radicalized by fear. We see it each and every day.

What hope can we have then? This morning we heard from Daniel, a fearful vision. Beasts. Horns. Evil kingdoms bent on devouring the whole Earth, trampling it down, and breaking it to pieces. You can’t get much scarier than that. Daniel is terrified. But he receives reassurance. All these terrible threats, yes. But the realm of God’s love and light will be eternal reality for the holy ones of the Most High. Those who trust God and remain faithful to God do not need to be afraid. For the ones who choose love over fear life can and will go on. God will prevail.

In the Christian testament, we are told that complete love casts out all fear. Fear and love do not coexist well. Love is a threat to fear. Jesus shows us a God of love; love for all people, love for all Creation. When love takes over, there is no room for fear. When our faith, devotion, and trust are placed in love, then fear has no power over us. We cannot be manipulated or badgered or hoodwinked by fear. We don’t fall for lies and threats because we know the power of Divine Love is greater than any evil humanity can devise. After the witch trials, Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony mended and healed. Families reconciled and carried on. Love eventually carried the day.

One of the most famous sentiments about fear was expressed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his first inaugural address, in 1933, the nation paralyzed by the Great Depression, Roosevelt announced at the beginning of the address: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Roosevelt recognized that fear is an incredibly powerful weapon of manipulation. Faith calls us to overcome fear with love – love for our neighbors, love for ourselves, love for our enemies, and love for the whole world. Grounded in love, inspired by love, motivated by love, there is no room left for fear.

Ghosts, goblins, witches, devils, evil creatures and villains all get their due at Halloween. They parade around threatening tricks if there are no treats. All of our fascination with evil and fear and death comes out to play on Halloween. This is a time to have fun and laugh at evil and death for we know that it is a sham; like all the lies that we are told to scare us, manipulate us, and intimidate us, it has no real power over us.

We have aligned ourselves with the God of Love, love which evaporates fear – dries it up and blows it away. We are committed to the way of Jesus who shows us that love is the most powerful force known to humanity and love, not fear, always has the final say. Amen.

The information about Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 comes from the book The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff.

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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Standing Rock and Baseball

by Rev. Kim Wells

Images matter. Yesterday in my daily news feed, I saw a stunning picture of a Native American man at Standing Rock. Tall. Upright. Principled. Visionary. Strong. Determined. Peaceful. These impressions were emanating from the image.

Later in the day, I was exposed to another image. My husband’s family is from Cleveland. This motivated us to take in interest in the World Series Baseball Championship between Cleveland and Chicago. As we watched the ending of the series, I felt continually assaulted by the Cleveland logo of Chief Wahoo, an offensive caricature of a Native American. The red color and the insulting cartoonish grin disgusted me.

The United Church of Christ along with other groups have been advocating for decades for the Cleveland Indians to change this horrific logo to no avail. The UCC headquarters are in Cleveland which gives the church added interest in this matter.

Seeing the juxtaposition of the person at Standing Rock and the crude Cleveland Indians logo helped me to see how truly awful the logo is. To me, it is not just entertainment, historic, and well-intentioned. Seeing the Chief Wahoo image flashed across the screen again and again and again last night gave me a feeling of revulsion. It is so disrespectful and demeaning and not just to those of Native American heritage. It is an insult to humanity in all its rich and beautiful diversity.

Today clergy from around the continent gather at Standing Rock in solidarity, respect and reverence for Native Peoples and for the Earth. This is recognition of the image of God in all people and the sacredness of Earth. It is also a reminder that Native Peoples are not treated equally in this supposed land of “liberty and justice for all.” This needs to change along with the logo of the Cleveland baseball team.

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Who She Is

Near the end of his speech to the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016, Bill Clinton had this to say about his spouse, Hillary: “You could drop her into any trouble spot, pick one, come back in a month and somehow, some way she will have made it better. That is just who she is.” As I heard this, I found myself thinking about my mother. You could drop her down and come back a month later and, yes, things would be better. Much better, probably. Then I started thinking about the women at Lakewood UCC Church. One by one.  And as I thought about each one, I thought, yes, leave her for a month and things would be better.  And if you are a regular attender at the church, yes, I thought about you.

Now, this is NOT to say that if you dropped a man down in a trouble spot and came back in a month it would not be better. Sure, men are capable, too.

Is this statement of Bill Clinton’s an apt description of Hillary Clinton? Well, it pretty much describes every other woman I know, which just makes me wonder why the US has never had a woman president.

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Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Who could have foreseen what a bizarre, nasty, and divided election season this would be? Not only are we bombarded with constant trash about the candidates, here in Florida  there are also persistent lies about the amendments to the Florida State Constitution especially Amendment One relating to solar energy. And even if you try to avoid it all by ignoring the paper, the radio, and the newsfeed on the internet, they are dishing it up to you on your phone with incessant robo calls.

As Christians, much as this election season may disgust us, we know that it is an opportunity to vote our values and to express our faith in a way that matters and can make a difference. And so we suppress the urge to stay home and not even bother voting.

Let’s take a moment to examine how Jesus might vote if he were an American citizen today. Jesus was devoted to a God of love for all of Creation. He showed people a God of love and care for all with no prejudice based on religion, ethnicity, or sexual identity. With that God at his center, Jesus took action on a day to day basis. He showed us how to embody the universal love of God for all by acting with compassion and mercy for individual people. This exposed the injustices of the society of his day. Jesus disrupted the social, political, religious, and economic arrangements of his time because all of those systems were set up to protect some at the expense of others. It’s no wonder he was killed.

In thinking about how to make our voting decisions, we can think about Jesus taking into consideration the big picture: All of Creation is beloved by God. So, how will our vote affect all of Creation? How will our vote impact the besieged people of Aleppo? How will our vote make a difference to the melting polar ice caps and glaciers? How will our vote influence the child who is sent on to Middle School but still cannot read? What will our vote do for the people of all the nations of the world who are all made in God’s image and beloved? I think this is how Jesus would think about who to vote for.

In the Tampa Bay Times, there was a letter to the editor this morning in which the writer shares how he will decide who to vote for: “Both presidential candidates are flawed human beings. But we must vote for one. So, which might benefit us and our families the best?” That is how Leonard Mead of Apollo Beach will decide who to vote for. To me, this perspective is not consistent with the universal vision of Jesus. To limit our concern to “us and our families” in voting is not in keeping with Jesus’ concern for all of Creation. This is far too limited a perspective for someone committed to the way of Jesus.

In another letter to the editor today, R. B. Johnson of Indian Rocks Beach gives this advice for selecting who to vote for: “Instead of obsequiously marching in lockstep to the siren blandishments of party solidarity, we should be considering ourselves human beings first, Americans second, and members of political parties a distant third.” This perspective is much closer to the vision of Jesus. The writer is encouraging us to broader horizons, to consider the well-being of the whole human family, not just our own family. This is much more in keeping with the way of Jesus.

All of Creation is the self disclosure of God. All of life is sacred. Every person is created in God’s image. Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity are about a grand vision of the common good. And that is what should guide our voting as followers of Jesus.

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Sermon Oct. 16, 2016 “Base Camp: Mission Support”

Date: October 16, 2016
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 14:13-36
Sermon: Base Camp: Mission Support
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

The challenges of climbing at high altitude are very much related to the thin air and its effects on the body. But there are other challenges as well. There is the terrain which is often rocky, uneven, steep, and perilous. But that’s not even the end of it. There is the danger of avalanche even in areas that may seem to be stable. It’s hard to know what may lead to just the right conditions for an avalanche to terrorize a mountain slope and anyone on it. And there is the weather. Snow. Clouds. White out. And wind; wind that is severe even to people from Florida used to tropical storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The wind in the mountains can be extreme because it is blowing the snow and the air pressure is so low.

A climber on one Everest expedition tells of being rocked by the wind at base camp: “I got back to camp about four-thirty or five and I just collapsed in my sleeping bag from exhaustion. . . I don’t think I had a molecule of energy left in me. Later [I] awoke or regained consciousness. . . and it was a terrifying experience for me. Actually, it was the wind that woke me up. It was just pushing me around inside of my tent. It was actually getting under the floor of the tent, picking me right up in my sleeping bag and slamming me back down and pushing me around. . .” [The Climb, Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt, p. 194] Winds of up to 200 miles per hour are known on Mount Everest. So, wind and weather definitely add to the hazards of high altitude climbing.

In addition, the altitude itself is a hazard. The air pressure is one-third the pressure at sea level, and this means the level of oxygen is one third what it is at sea level. The wind can further decrease the oxygen level by 14%. Experts predict that, “A sea-level dweller exposed to the atmospheric conditions at the altitude above 8,500 m (27,900 ft) without acclimatization would likely lose consciousness within 2 to 3 minutes.” [Wikipedia, “Mount Everest”] To avoid this kind of death, climbers acclimatize, a process that takes 40-60 days. They slowly move to higher altitudes helping the body become accustomed to the thinner air. But the low oxygen has many physical effects. The breathing rate increases from the typical 20-30 breaths per minute to 80-90 breaths. It’s like panting. The thin air leads to a constant state of exhaustion. It can cause dementia and brain damage. People experience a mental fog, they have difficulty making decisions, memory is poor, thought is slow, and even hallucinations can occur.

The atmospheric conditions slow down not only the brain but the body. It usually takes climbers 12 hours to climb about one mile on summit day on Everest. There is the constant danger of frost bite. And some people are afflicted with retinal hemorrhages which damage eyesight and can cause blindness.

With all of this, we may wonder why anyone wants to even attempt to climb Mount Everest or other peaks of such altitude! Yet, climb they do. This year, 456 people have summited Everest as of June. And, on case you are wondering, the oldest person to climb to the top of Everest was an 80 year old in 2013. The youngest was a thirteen year old in 2010.

Until the spring of 2014 when16 people were killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest, the climbing season of the spring of 1996 was one of the deadliest. Fifteen people died that year. A movie as well as several books and articles tell about the events of May 10 when several preventable problems, like too many people on the trail and an oxygen shortage, became deadly when the weather turned violent leaving 8 climbers dead. Apparently, the storm was awful. As one person tells is, “I mean, it was just like a hundred freight trains running on top of you, and I was screaming, but you know, a person five feet away couldn’t hear anything.” [The Climb, p. 194] The conditions were so extreme, that the support staff at the base camp did not feel they could venture out to help those who were in trouble.

Going down the mountain late in the day as it was getting dark with the storm making it impossible to see the way, a group of climbers that was close to base camp got lost. They formed a huddle trying to keep alive as they ran out of bottled oxygen and were in danger of freezing to death. One of those who was in the huddle described what it was like: “We did decide to huddle up. We got into a big dogpile with our backs to the wind. People laid on people’s laps. We screamed at each other. We beat on each other’s backs. We checked on each other. Everybody participated in a very heroic way to try to stay warm and to keep each other awake and warm. This continued for some period of time – I don’t know how long. Time is very warped, but it must have been awhile because I was extremely cold pretty shortly after that. We were checking fingers. We were checking each other’s consciousness. We just tried to keep moving. It was something of an experience that I’ve never really had before, being what I felt was so close to falling asleep and never waking up. I had rushes of warmth come up and down through my body – whether it was hypothermia or hypoxia I don’t know – a combination of both. I just remember screaming into the wind, all of us yelling, moving, kicking, trying to stay alive. I kept looking at my watch. . . hoping that the weather would clear.” [The Climb, p. 202] This huddle of climbers was about a 15 minute walk from camp, in good weather.

A guide for one of the expeditions, Anatoli Boukreev, had helped his clients to the summit earlier in the day. Then the expedition leader agreed that he should descend and be prepared to help the climbers as they returned to base camp. So, he went down, recovered himself, and prepared to help the other climbers as they got back. But the storm blew in and the others did not return. Finally two drifted in and told of the others, in the huddle, trying to stay alive. Boukreev went out into the raging storm and searched in the fierce wind and snow for the huddle. He could not find them. He returned to camp to warm up and regroup. He spoke with those who had returned. He went out again. This time, he found them. Some of the people could still walk and follow him back to camp, but some could not. Boukreev only had the strength to help one person at a time. He got one back to camp. Then he rested again. Restored himself. He tried to get others at base camp to help him go back to the huddle. They could not or would not help, feeling it was just too dangerous. Boukreev went out alone again and brought back another client. Again, he drank tea, rested, caught his breath, and tried to get others to help him. He went out alone a third time and brought back another climber. In all, he was able to save three of the five people who were lost in the huddle. He felt very guilty that he was not able to rescue them all.

After this awful tragedy, Boukreev was criticized by some, notably Jon Krakauer in his article and book, Into Thin Air, for going down the mountain ahead of his group and being at camp resting while the others ended up needing help on their way down. But the leader of the expedition had specifically agreed that Boukreev should be waiting at the camp so that he could go back up the mountain to help if needed.

In December of 1997, a year and a half after the tragedy, the American Alpine Club gave Anatoli Boukreev the David A. Sowles Memorial Award. This is one of the highest awards that a mountain climber can receive. It is given to those who have “distinguished themselves, with unselfish devotion, at personal risk, or at sacrifice of a major objective, in going to the assistance of fellow climbers.” Boukreev was a hero because he “repeated extraordinary efforts in searching for, then saving, the lives of three exhausted teammates trapped by a storm on the South Col of Mount Everest,” and made a “valiant attempt, at great personal risk, in going out into the renewed storm in one last-ditch effort to save his friend and expedition leader Scott Fischer.” [The Climb, pp. 292-293]

As a sidebar, Boukreev could not be at the ceremony to receive the award because he was back in the Himalaya mountains making a winter climb up Anapurna, a neighboring peak to Everest. Boukreev and one of his companions were killed in an avalanche on Annapurna on Christmas day.

In the story of the events on Everest in 1996, we see Boukreev keeping his strength in reserve so that he can help others. We see him going back to camp after each rescue to recover before his next effort. We see the rhythm of helping and recovering, helping and recovering. Without the recovery time at base camp, he would not have been able to save his companions.

We see this same kind of rhythm in the ministry of Jesus. He spends time staying centered and focussed and then he serves. Then, he recovers again and he is able to respond to the needs of the people. Then, he takes time away to connect with God, and he is restored so that he can respond to those around him once again. Jesus’ ministry begins this way. We are told that he is baptized but he does not immediately begin to teach and heal. He is baptized and then he goes into the wilderness centering and strengthening his heart. After that he returns to the people ready to teach and heal.

We saw this rhythm in motion in the scripture lesson that was read this morning. In the reading we are told that Jesus learns of the death of John the Baptizer, his cousin, who had prepared the way for him. John’s ministry of preparing is over. Jesus’ ministry can now come into its fullness. In this time of grief and transition, Jesus goes off to a deserted place by himself. He needs to recover and reflect. But when the crowds find out where he is, they follow. He has compassion on them and heals the sick. Then we have the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Serving. Meeting the needs of the world. Following that, we are told of Jesus sending the disciples off in a boat, dismissing the crowds, and going up by himself on a mountain to pray. Again, Jesus is recentering himself, restoring himself, so that he can serve. Then, we hear how the disciples in the boat get caught in a storm. They are afraid they will drown. Jesus comes to them and calms the storm. Then the boat gets to shore, we are told that the people come from all around bringing the sick to be healed.

In Jesus we see the wisdom of the rhythm of contemplation and action, prayer and serving, reflection and engagement. It is like Boukreev going back again to base camp to revive himself so that he could go back out to try to help others. For us, the church provides the setting for our contemplation, our restoration, our re-centering, our reflection, and our recovery. In the world, we are busy with trying to help others and be a healing presence. Then the church provides space for renewal. Here we find support and refreshment. Here we are nurtured. Here we are encouraged to think about our service and our calling and the needs around us so that we can figure out how to be an expression of love and compassion in the world. Here we sort things out and refocus. Here we assess the situation around us and within us and look to God for light. Buffeted, baffled, and blinded by the world around us, the church sustains us with the hopes and dreams of God. The ministry of Jesus gives us a lens for viewing our situation and the needs around us and within us.

The church provides the community that reminds us of the importance of the rhythm of engagement and reflection. Prayer and action. When we devote ourselves to serving without our grounding in the faith community, we may very well find ourselves burning out. Who should we serve? How should we serve? What are our gifts and skills for serving? The needs are so great. We may respond but then find ourselves spent, disillusioned, and without hope. We may be so overwhelmed we give up in defeat. The church as a community of support helps us to maintain our hope and our commitment to serve.

But prayer and worship and church without service also leads us into a condition that is not sustainable. The pretending and denying create a heavy burden. It’s hard to maintain a lie. We don’t find the wholeness and joy and peace promised by our faith without compassionate service. The book of James tells us faith without works is dead. Faith without works may also kill us.

For our faith to be vital, to find meaning, to be made whole, brought together from the fragments of our lives and the world, we look to Jesus, the mystic and the prophet. We see the way he paces his life to the rhythm of restoration, reconnection, and renewal balanced with healing, feeding, and teaching. In this way, his ministry is sustainable.

Next Sunday is The BIG Event, an annual celebration of the ministry of this church. This year, we will hear from several people in the congregation about how the church functions as base camp for them on their journey of discipleship. We will hear how the church grounds them in their service, nurtures them for responding to the needs of the world, and offers support when doing the right thing leaves us feeling sick and tired.

As part of The BIG Event, we will consider how we will support this church in its mission of sustaining the congregation in ministering to the world. The church is here for us as we seek direction and support for our lives. The church is here as a community of discernment and celebration to revive and refresh us. How will we offer our time, talent, and treasure to this community of faith which grounds us?

On that fateful day in May 1996 on Mount Everest, expedition leader Scott Fischer and guide Anatoli Boukreev had a conversation about the game plan for getting all of the clients down the mountain safely. Boukreev tells us about this conversation: “When I met Scott, my intuition was telling me that the most logical thing for me to do was to descend to Camp IV as quickly as possible, to stand by in case our descending climbers needed to be resupplied with oxygen, and also, to prepare hot tea and warm drinks. Again, I felt confident of my strength and knew that if I descended rapidly, I could do this if necessary. From Camp IV I would have a clear view of the climbing route to the South Col and could observe developing problems.

“This intuition I expressed to Scott, and he listened to my ideas. He saw our situation in the same way and we agreed that I should go down. Again, I surveyed the weather, and I saw no immediate cause for concern.” [The Climb, p. 178]

This was a very good plan. This provided the balance needed to support the climbers. Base camp was the setting for recovery and outreach. If Boukreev had not gone down and had been on the mountain with the others, it is likely that he himself would have died. Then he could not have helped the three people that he did save.

May the wisdom of Jesus lead and guide us as we think about how we are called to support this faith community which in turn sustains us. Amen.

In addition to The Climb, other sources for consulted include:
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
Climbing High: A Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy, Lene Gammelgaard
High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, David B. Breashears and Michael Gross
Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, Beck Weathers and Stephen G. Michaud
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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