Sermon 8.5.18 Stand Your Ground

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

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 7.29.18 What Good Is Religion?

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

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Update from Creation Justice Task Force

UPDATE from the CREATION JUSTICE TASK FORCE

July 19, 2018 Meeting

Paper Recycling Container

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

Creation of Green Practices CHECKLIST 

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

Raise Awareness of Green Practices at LUCC

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

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

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

Writing of Creation Justice Covenant Statement

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

Greening of church property

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

INCREASING PARTICIPATION AMONG CHURCH MEMBERS AND FRIENDS

1.  Invite individuals to participate in a specific initiative

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

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

Are you interested in attending ?

August 14 – Sustainability Summit

Sept. 8 – Rise Up for Climate Jobs and Justice

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Sermon 7.8.18 Rev. Victoria Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so! 

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

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Sermon 7.22.18 The Racial Divide

Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 7.1.18 Peer Pressure

Scripture Lessons:  Matthew 13:33 and 16:5-12                                                       Pastor:   Rev. Kim P. Wells

We have three dogs.  One of them is new to us.  Stephanie, a 6 year old Newfoundland, came to live with us in March.  We have another 6 year old dog, Andre.  He is small, about 50 pounds, with short black hair.  And our third dog is Nahla, a golden retriever/German Shepherd mix, who is about 15 years old.  So, this spring, Stephanie joined Andre and Nahla in our household.  

Every night when I  take my vitamins I give the dogs a fish oil pill.  Andre and Nahla LOVE them.  They hear the rattle of a bottle of pills and they appear in the bathroom wagging and panting for their fish oil.  When we first got Stephanie, she didn’t know about this ritual so she would remain wherever she was, usually lying like a rug, in the middle of the living room.   Each night, I would find her and offer her a fish oil pill.  She sniffed the thing and left it.  She was not interested.  This went on for about a week.  

Then one night Stephanie appeared in the bathroom with the other dogs when they heard the pill bottles.  She stood and watched as Andre and Nahla eagerly devoured their fish oil.  I offered one to her as I had each night for the previous week expecting her to reject it as usual.  But no.  She gulped the thing down.  And she has appeared in the bathroom every night since for her fish oil pill along with Nahla and Andre.  

To me, this was clear evidence of pack behavior, or what in the human realm we call, peer pressure.  You see others doing something and you join in.  To fit in.  You think that is what you are supposed to be doing.  You follow the lead of those around you.  

We tend to associate issues around peer pressure with children and youth.  We think of a scene, perhaps on the playground, where kids are harassing or taunting someone, and everyone pretty much joins in; even those who would typically not engage in such mean behavior.  Maybe you have been part of such an episode.  I am reading a book with a scene where a group of kids coming home with bats from a ball game, find an injured horse lying on the ground and one kid takes a swing at the horse and, as expected, the other kids join in.  We reflect on such experiences and see how we are taken in by the crowd, allowing ourselves to blindly join in what is going on around us.  This happens partly because in childhood and youth fitting in is so important.  Loving, responsible adults try to teach children to think for themselves, make good choices, and not get taken in by the crowd.  

Then come the teenage years and loving adults hope and pray the message has gotten through because the stakes can be higher.  Teens are at a party and someone brings out alcohol or a joint.  Today, that is tame.  It could be a bowl of pills, mixed.  Or some kind of powder.  Or who knows what.    And then, it could be a sexual situation without mutual consent.   Or a hazing of some kind that turns very violent.  There are limitless possibilities.  So, we parent types, hope the teens we love know that they don’t have to go along.   Though they desperately want to fit in by going along, we hope they have learned that they have choices.  

So many times, we hear stories of people who do bad things, bad for themselves and others, because they followed those around them.  They succumbed to peer pressure.   And people with bad intent know how susceptible we are to peer pressure.  They know if they just start something, and apply little motivation, like shaming those who are resisting, they can pretty much get others to participate.  And it doesn’t stop in childhood or adolescence unfortunately.  Adults, too, are extremely vulnerable to peer pressure.  They, too, want to fit in, to be part of the group, to be accepted.  Especially if they did not feel a part of things growing up.  

Jesus knew about this tendency to want to fit in; to go along with things so that you feel a sense of belonging.  And he knew about our human tendency to want to exploit this to our own advantage.  Numerous times in the gospels we see Jesus accusing religious leaders of manipulating people, exerting peer pressure essentially, toward ends that are not consistent with the intentions of God.  In the verses we heard from Matthew this morning, we hear Jesus lambasting the religious authorities for leading the common people astray for selfish gains:  “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 

In this story, Jesus uses the image of yeast in the typical way.  Yeast had negative connotations in Jewish tradition.  Going back to the story of the Passover and leaving Egypt without time to make leavened bread, the image of yeast was a symbol of corruption.  It was very bad.  It was an image used to show how a little of something bad can have a huge negative influence.  Jesus draws on this tradition in his accusation.  One person or a few people start something bad and it is easy to get others to go along, to get along, to belong.  Very effective means toward harmful ends.  We see this again and again and again throughout history from Nazi Germany to college hazing.

What is surprising from Jesus, what is new and unexpected, is the other verse we listened to this morning; the one about a woman baking bread with yeast.  First I want to let you know that the Jesus Seminar, a group of highly respected brilliant Bible scholars, consider this verse one of the few in the New Testament to be authentic to the voice of Jesus.  The gospels were written well after Jesus’ death.  Much of the teaching associated with Jesus had been passed down over the years.  And, like any oral tradition, there were changes along the way to make the teaching applicable to the circumstances.  The Jesus Seminar was an academic initiative to try to determine what may be actually attributed to the historical Jesus.  The result was a book called The Five Gospels.  It includes Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the gospel of Thomas, a gospel that, for a variety of reasons, was not chosen to be included in the canon, the church-authorized New Testament.  In The Five Gospels, the words attributed to Jesus are printed in different colors.  If the quotes are in black then the scholars pretty much agree that this was not actually spoken by Jesus.  If the words are in gray, there is the possibility that this could have come from Jesus.  If the words are in pink, then there is more of a possibility that they may be attributable to Jesus.  And if the words are in red, then the group of scholars is in close agreement that those words are very likely words that were actually spoken by Jesus.   There is very little red print in the book.  In The Five Gospels, the words, “Heaven’s imperial rule is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened” are in red.  [The Five Gospels:  The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, p. 195]

Part of the reason they are in red is that Jesus was known for taking tradition and twisting it on its head.  Here the commonly used negative image of yeast as a symbol of corruption is turned around and used in a positive way.  That is characteristic of the historical Jesus.  

There are two other features of this teaching that are unexpected.  One is the amount of flour.  Three measures.  About 10 gallons.  Maybe the equivalent of 50 pounds.  Probably enough to make bread for 100-150 people.  So this image of the woman adding yeast to flour and baking bread is a common image but the way the symbol of yeast is used is a turn around.  It only takes a little to have a big influence, that is yeast, but this yeast is having a HUGE influence, and that HUGE influence is positive, it is good, it is of God.  Jesus is imbuing common images with new meanings.

And, there is something else unexpected in this teaching.  It is lost in the New Revised Standard translation and in the Inclusive Language translation we heard this morning.  But the original language tells us that the woman hid the yeast in the flour.  She conceals the yeast in the flour.  This is done surreptitiously.  Not out in plain view.  The realm of God can surprise.  It may not be an attention grabbing spectacle.  It may sneak up on us.  It may sneak into us.  Just a bit.  To huge effect.  Who knows?

This teaching is a beautiful image for the church today, for us, as Christian people.  It reminds us that we can be the yeast.  Just a little.  Making a big difference.  Perhaps without anyone even noticing.  Maybe we ourselves don’t even know the effect we are having.  

But look how easy it is to manipulate people with negative peer pressure.  Just a little shame and the enticement to fit in and you can get people on board.

This teaching of Jesus about the yeast is meant to motivate us to use positive peer pressure.  Do the good.  Quietly.  In the background.  Without a lot of fanfare.  Stand up for justice.  Help others.  Serve the common good.  Wherever you may be involved, in whatever your sphere of influence.  And trust the rest to God.  Trust that what you do will make a difference and may even influence others to make a positive difference.  

This positive modeling is what led to the burgeoning of the early church.  About Christians, people said, “see how they love each other.”  That is how Christians were known.  And people were attracted to that.  They weren’t attracted by the fear of rotting in hell.  They weren’t originally attracted by the glories of heaven.  It wasn’t about money or status.  It was the love.  The care.  The compassion.  The sharing.  The looking out for each other.  And this approach was not limited to just those in the faith community.  The first Christians shared this love with others out in the world who then were attracted in to the church because of what they saw.  Here we see the yeast.  A relatively small group of people, making real the realm of God, in their context.  And it has literally changed the world.  

Friends, I don’t need to tell you that the world is in desperate need of the yeast of the realm of God.  The church is needed to exert a positive example.  We are called to model another way.  We must speak for love in the many circumstances of our lives and trust the rest to God.  Let the love grow how and when it will.  But people need to see love, to feel it, to experience it, even if they don’t know what it is.

You can barely open a newspaper or check social media without seeing something about how uncivil our society has become.  People are confronting others in mean and hostile ways.  People of various political and social perspectives.  It isn’t limited to only one group.

I attended my book club last week and this topic came up.  One woman, an outspoken liberal, and a Catholic, got very heated.  Her complaint was that liberals are too nice.  The Democrats are too nice.  That’s why things are so bad.  That’s why our country is going down hill.  In her view, the people who are right are just being too nice about it.  She feels they need to be more devious and scrappy like their opponents.   I found this view alarming.  Since this was not a church setting, and I was not there in a pastoral role even though the woman saying this is Christian, I didn’t feel I could respond referring to Jesus, like what about “love your enemies.”  So, I turned to another authoritative source.  I said, “So much for Michelle Obama: ‘When they go low, we go high.’”  Well, that quieted things down.  

It’s not that we can’t disagree.  We SHOULD disagree when we see people treated with inequality, with hatred, with degradation, and when we see the Earth abused and harassed.  We should be saying something.  We should be strong and convicted about our values in defense of human life, human rights, human dignity, peace, and care for the Earth.  We should be saying something.  But to do it in a way that is degrading to those with differing opinions, to be mean, uncivil, and demeaning is to do the very thing we decry:  It is to diminish the value of the life of another person.  When confronting someone with differing views, it’s one thing to say, “This is what I think” and explain why.  It’s quite another to say, “You’re a bigot and an idiot.”   

What is needed in America and in the world today are bold people of conscience and principle who are not afraid to be the yeast in a positive way; in content and in style.  We are needed to model service, generosity, and reconciliation.  We are needed to be the people who help someone that is having a difficulty, not laugh at the person or scorn them.  We are needed to be the people who offer comfort to the stranger sitting crying in the waiting room at the doctor’s office instead of sitting as far away as possible because it is embarrassing and we feel uncomfortable.  We are the people who are needed to offer help, to say yes, to reach out in compassion and kindness.  We are the people who are needed to speak up and to speak out for human rights and human dignity.  We are needed to show love for our enemies.  

And then, see what others do.  How do they respond?  It’s likely that other people, seeing the example, are going to join in.  Your example is going to work like positive peer pressure, enticing people to do the right thing.  To join in a good cause.  To lift a finger to help.  To offer a word of comfort.  To change hearts and minds with love.  Use that peer pressure for good.  That’s what we need to be doing.  

And we don’t have to make a big deal about it.  We don’t have to get any credit.  We don’t have to be thanked.  Remember the hidden part of the yeast story.  The woman hid the yeast in the flour.  We just need to do what is right and neighborly and good.  We just need to see that every human being is treated like a human being.  We just need to show that all life is sacred.  But we need to do it.  To involve ourselves.  And with that quiet example, well, we just have to let go of the outcome.  In the Jesus’ teaching a bit of yeast made bread for 100 to 150 people.  That is a ridiculous outcome.  A woman could not manage that much dough at once.  So we have to let go of our expectations around the outcome.  We just have to do what is Jesus-like and let go of the rest.  

I heard a story this weekend about a woman who saw a bored boy outside her church on a summer day.  She had pity on him and invited him inside.  She had one game, Monopoly, so she asked him if he wanted to play.  Then she went to the corner store and got him some snacks.  The next day, he was back with some friends.  And this has turned into a neighborhood youth program that now has 75 students involved.  And they are not only playing games but getting help with homework and getting into college.  And the woman who started this program swore that she would never work in the church, her parents are pastors, and that she would never work with kids.  

And then there is the yeast.  Open yourself to the Love.  Let Jesus live and grow in you.  The world is hungry for your witness.  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 6.24.18 Timeless Faith – Timely Faith

Date:  61st Anniversary of the United Church of Christ  

Scripture Lesson: Mark 2:18-3:6

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

“The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”  Listen to that again.  “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”

These are the words of John Robinson, pastor of a separatist congregation that left England seeking religious freedom.  Having been harassed and scorned in various European locations for their “expression” of Christianity,  Robinson’s congregation decided to send a group to the shores of North America hoping to find a place where they could practice their version of Christianity in peace.  

As those heading to the New World left to join the Mayflower, Robinson gave a farewell speech to his congregants.  It included these words:  “I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Robinson continued:  “The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw.  Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they [Lutherans] will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.”

Robinson encouraged his followers to expect new leadings from God in the way of Christ as they faced new circumstances.  As heirs of the Reformation, Robinson encouraged his flock to keep growing and changing in ways that were consistent with the ministry of Jesus.  He foresaw that new situations would require new responses and he wanted his people to feel free to be completely faithful to Christ and not be limited by certain human teachings of the past.  And so he adjured them, “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”

John Robinson and those who came over on the Mayflower are our forebears in the United Church of Christ.  This is part of our heritage.   And the UCC has taken Robinson’s perspective very seriously in its 61 year history.  Most recently his sentiments have been promoted in the Gracie Allen quote widely used in UCC:  “Never place a period where God has place a comma.”  

This way of looking at matters of faith is not new to Robinson or the UCC.  It is clearly evident in the Bible.  Many times in scripture, God is portrayed as promising to do something new, a new thing.  The prophets speak for a God that is very willing to try new approaches to help humanity live into the fullness of joy and peace.  [See Jeremiah 31:22, Isaiah 42:4, 43:19, and 48:6]

Jesus is an example of this; of God doing a new thing.  One way we see this is in Jesus’ role in salvation history.  Many people were expecting a king-like, political, military messiah on the order of King David.  There is much to point to this expectation in the Hebrew Bible.  There are also verses in Isaiah about a suffering servant but that was the decidedly “minority” opinion.  [See Isaiah 53]  The more dominant view was that God would send a classic, powerful ruler who would garner the support of all the people and boot out the Roman invaders.  Jesus was not this messiah.  To those who saw Jesus as messiah, they believed that God was doing a new thing through a suffering servant.  

We also see God doing something new in the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus does not establish a new religion.  He does not condemn the heritage of Judaism.  He is born Jewish and remains Jewish, fully and completely.  But he offers new understandings of what had become core assumptions in the Judaism of his day.  In some cases, his teaching is actually going back to the original intentions.  We heard several examples of this in the scripture that was read this morning.  Regarding fasting, the old rules don’t apply.  Jesus is known as a glutton and a drunkard.  There are times to celebrate as well as to fast.  Sometimes you need to let the fasting go.  The story of picking grain on the sabbath and the healing of the withered hand show the humanitarian intent of the law.  Doing good is more important than being legalistic.  Jesus is challenging the current interpretation of the Law.  As one commentary points out:  The Pharisees and Scribes have no concerns for God’s will.  They substitute human traditions for the truth, which comes from God.”  [Pheme Perkins, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7, p, 422]  This is always a temptation in religion.  So Jesus does a new thing.  He rocks the boat.  He is helping people see the truth.  And truth is sometimes upsetting, especially new truth. 

So when John Robinson declared, “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word,” he knew that he was part of a long standing stream of faithfulness in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  He knew that he was standing on solid ground in terms of scripture and tradition within Christianity. 

This idea, that God is doing something new, that faith continues to evolve and emerge, has continued to be an important part of the history and identity of the United Church of Christ.

The UCC was formed in 1957 from two predecessor denominations each of which was formed from two previous denominations.  While both were Protestant, the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church was in some ways an unlikely match and it took many years of discussion to come to the point of actual merger.  One big difference was polity.  The Evangelical and Reformed Church was “connectional.”  That means there was a carefully constructed hierarchy and churches were under the authority of the hierarchy and they were bound to comply with the hierarchy.  The Congregational Christian Church had congregational polity.  Each congregation was responsible for its own affairs.  There was a wider church structure and churches were in fellowship and mission together but the final say was within the congregation.

The denominations differed in another important way.  The Evangelical and Reformed church was a creedal church.  The doctrine of the church was contained in the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Catechism, and the Augsburg Confession.  The Apostle’s Creed was regularly recited in worship.  The creed was the test of faith.  The Congregational Christian Church did not use a creed as a test of faith.  The content of belief was left up to the conscience of the individual believer. 

We can see potential problems with two such differing expressions of Christianity coming together but they had a very strong bond.  As each was a merger of previous denominations, they had already shown their commitment to the unity of the church.  They really did believe that the church was the body of Christ, one body, and not a dismembered body.  They believed that God wanted one church working together for the good of the world.  Thus the motto chosen for the newly formed United Church of Christ was, “That they may all be one,” from Jesus’ prayer for the disciples in the gospel of John.  This was a church that would be united and uniting.  The anticipation was that other Christian communions, like the Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. in the US, would also join the UCC and it would be something like the United Church of Canada today.  

Obviously we know that this did not happen.  But those who were part of creating the UCC in 1957 wanted to create a communion that was open; open to welcoming other churches, open to working together with other churches, and open to God doing a new thing for the good of the world.  

To create this openness, the new United Church of Christ incorporated congregational polity.  Each church was responsible for its own affairs and for discerning its ministry.  You could keep using the same hymnal and financially supporting the same mission projects and using the same curriculum in Church School that you had been using.  You could keep your church organization and structure.  Or you could change it all.  That was up to the congregation.  

While making the UCC open and welcoming to additional communions, congregational polity also gave churches the freedom to adapt and change according to how they felt called to serve.  We see this in the history of Lakewood United Church of Christ.   Through the years this church has functioned in different ways depending on the times.  And we take seriously the responsibility to be always evaluating what we are doing and to adapt so that the way we are organized and how we make decisions facilitates our mission and ministry rather than obstructing it.  We appreciate the freedom to worship and teach and serve in ways that are relevant to our circumstances.  We take seriously the responsibility to discern our calling and to respond with generosity and love.  We have embraced the flexibility and openness that is a hallmark of the UCC.  

Along with this practical openness the UCC has also embraced theological openness.  With the merging of a creedal denomination and a non creedal denomination, the decision was made not to require a creed, a test of faith, for being part of the UCC.  If you look in your hymnal at readings 881-887 you will see the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed.  Churches are welcome to use those creeds if they so choose but they are not required to do so.   

The newly formed UCC decided to create a Statement of Faith for use in churches if they so desired.  We read one version this morning.  The Statement of Faith conveys a way of understanding God and God’s activity in human history and in our lives. It is not a test of faith.

In the original form, as was accepted for the time, God was referred to with male pronouns.  As the church evolved and became aware of the negative  effects of gender specific language for God in the church and in society, a new version of the Statement was created which uses the second person, You, instead of He.   Given the character of the UCC we can expect to have new forms of the statement in the future, or other statements of faith.  In the back of the hymnal, you can see that not only are there several historic creeds and the UCC Statement of Faith, but there are also several other affirmations of faith from other communions.  The idea is that no one statement is the be all and end all for all time.  

And this brings us to LUCC today.  The church has a constitution and by-laws.  Some of the organizational arrangements in the document are no longer fitting for our current situation so the advisors have undertaken conversations about updating this document.   While we may have thought that the discussion was going to revolve around practical arrangements for our life together, the conversation took an unexpected turn.  There was an involved theological discussion, this stemming from the fact that the constitution leads off with the Mission Statement of the church and the statement of the core assumptions of belief associated with the church:   “This church affirms God as Creator, Jesus Christ as Savior, and the Holy Spirit as our strength.  This church recognizes the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith.”   What we discovered is that it is important to the church today to have these foundational statements be truly inclusive of the congregation today and into the future.   These foundational statements in the constitution convey religious and theological language that implies certain understandings of faith.  Given that the church is evolving, today these statements may be perceived as limiting.   Can we say something that includes a broader spectrum of Christian understanding and expression?

The statements in the LUCC constitution specifically portray a traditional theistic view of God.  But some people in the congregation have found themselves growing toward a non-theistic understanding of God.  The desire of the church leadership is to explore ways to describe our faith in the constitution that include the theistic as well as the non-theistic.  Are there ways to state our faith that are inclusive in this way?  Can we open the door wider in our language and portrayal of our faith?  Can we let more light and truth break forth into our church constitution and our church life and language and worship?  Will this help us as a congregation to welcome more people who need the church and who are needed by the church?  Can this help us to grow in ways that increase the love we are sharing in the world?   Is this an extension of our ministry that is needed going forward?  There will be more conversations about this in the weeks to come and the advisors hope that you will want to participate.  

I think this is well worth exploring.  Many people today in our culture feel that Christianity is irrelevant or hypocritical or regressive.  Some of the traditional language and theology is contributing to this.   There are issues around some of our traditional Christian views that are at odds with currently verifiable scientifically proven reality.  Heaven is not “up” there.  Space is out there.  God is not “out there” somewhere.  The Cosmos is out there.  Our universe may be floating in a sea of universes.  The church talks about Jesus as God.  Was Jesus categorically, genetically different than the rest of humanity?  The church talks about Jesus resurrected and ascended into heaven.  Then where is he?  Orbiting in space somewhere?  We already see these ideas ably expressed by the evangelical atheist movement.  When I hear their voices, I agree with much of what is said.  But they are confronting a traditional view of Christianity.  And they are telling us that that expression of Christianity is going extinct.

So, going forward and into the far future (beyond the next election cycle), is Christianity viable with these claims that are at odds with science?  Can there be an expression of Christianity that respects science as it continues to unfold?  And can the understandings and concepts of Christianity continue to function in  figurative and metaphorical ways so that the teachings of Jesus continue to inspire faith communities to offer love and peace to the world?

I hope so.  Because when we look at the world today, at what is going on in our times, it’s clear that the message of Jesus is badly needed.  The world is crying out for his vision of unconditional, universal love which leads to relationships that are just and communities that are anti violent; a world characterized by peace and joy.  Look at the families divided at our southern border.  Look at the treatment of those lost children.  Look at an administration forming a space force, taking the use of military force out into space, beyond the confines of Earth’s atmosphere, spreading the cancer of violence.  We have a president that wants new nuclear weapons that are easier to use.  That is completely at odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Then there is the increasing abuse of the environment and economic arrangements that continue to abuse workers.  The world sorely needs a church loudly proclaiming the values and world view of Jesus.  And the people who share those values need a church, a  community of inspiration and support, that doesn’t require them to suspend their rational intellect when they come through the door.  

The teachings of Jesus remain very attractive to many people who are not part of a church because of some of the archaic ways of talking about things in church.  Yes, there are those who think of God in theistic terms – think of God as a You, or a He, or a Creator, or a something, somewhere, an entity, with power to influence and control human history and individual circumstances.  People with understandings along these lines need to feel welcome in church.  There are also those who are moving toward thinking of God in non theistic terms.  No “You,” no anthropomorphism, no entity somewhere.  Instead, the non theistic believer may think of God as a principle, as an idea, as a concept of unity and love and life and relatedness or as the “ground of being” to quote 20th century theologian Paul Tillich.  Some are thinking about God as a foundational precept.  The core of reality.  And new ways to think about Jesus are emerging.  He may be seen as a manifestation of the full embodiment of universal, unconditional love.  The fullness of humanity.  The journey of faith then is to live in ever greater alignment with these concepts of love and unity and life.  Can we as one congregation embrace all of these views and more in the faith statement of our LUCC constitution?

We can see how these newly emerging theologies and understandings are an extension of those prescient words of John Robinson:  “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy word.”  Robinson well understood, that as humanity evolves and develops and confronts new challenges, new ways of conveying faith will be needed or it will be left behind as anachronistic, archaic, and irrelevant.  It will go extinct.   And what prevents extinction?  Adaptation.  So we are right to hearken back to Robinson.  This is our moment to let more light and truth in; to revision how we speak of our faith, to expect new wine and new wineskins, because the world still desperately needs the healing love of Jesus.  Amen.  

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

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Blog – Pride and Prejudice

This past week, thousands upon thousands of people participated in the annual St. Petersburg Pride Celebration which culminated in a parade and a street festival.  Sleepy St. Pete has the largest Pride extravaganza in the southeastern United States.  This is something for our city to be PROUD of especially since Florida is not a liberal bastion like Massachusetts or California.  

Our church has supported the Pride initiative in St. Petersburg since its inception being one of the few churches to walk in the first Pride Promenade through the streets of Kenwood.  Lakewood UCC voted to become an Open and Affirming Church in 1998 intentionally welcoming people of all sexual identities into the full life of the church.  The UCC has been ordaining gay people since the 1970’s and supported the Supreme Court case which led to the legalization of gay marriage.  As a heterosexual, married woman and a mother, I am exceedingly proud to be part of this church!

As part of the Pride festivities this year, I attended the Interfaith Pride service at the First Presbyterian Church downtown.  The service was well planned and included leaders from differing faith traditions.  The music was lively and uplifting.  The speaker was from the Muslim religion and one of a handful of “out” gay imams in the world.  While there is great vigor for Pride in the Tampa Bay area, this service did not reflect that extensive support.  It was not very well attended.  And, if you think about it, that is really not surprising because there has been much religious condemnation of homosexuality and the diversity of sexual and gender expressions.    At the least, many religious settings have been subtly unwelcoming of sexual diversity.  I am from the Christian tradition and I know this to be true in Christianity.  I doubt if anyone reading this has escaped seeing images of supposed Christians preaching anti gay sentiments sealed with the threat of hell.  From friends and colleagues, I understand that these things also happen in other religious expressions.   

Before the Civil War, there were Christian abolitionists energetically trying to rid the country of the scourge of slavery.  BUT there were also Christians and not only in the South, that adeptly used scripture to defend slavery as God-ordained.  There were sermons upon sermons preached in sanctuaries on Sunday mornings declaring slavery to be the will of God;  a blessing even, not only for the slave owners but for the slaves themselves.  Yes, in churches on Sunday morning, in worship, this was proclaimed in the name of God.  

To Christians in the US who go to church today, that is unimaginable.  It was a heinous misuse of scripture and tradition and authority.  We know that now.  We see it.  The church was wrong.  And many denominations and expressions of Christianity in the US in recent decades have repented of those sins.  There has been acknowledgement that defending slavery in the context of the Christian church was wrong.  The church let human prejudice poison its message.  

Churches that decry homosexuality today, churches that name homosexuality a sin, are wrong about this just like the churches that defended slavery.   And the time will come when this will be acknowledged and recognized and there will be repentance.  The sooner the better!  

Happy PRIDE to one and all of the wonderfully diverse human beings created in the Divine Image!  

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Sermon 6.17.18 “Raising Fathers, Boys, and Men”

Scripture Lesson:  Mark 4:26-34                                                                               Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Once there was a farmer who planted a crop of pumpkins.  Walking through the field when the pumpkins were just beginning to develop, the farmer noticed a glass gallon jug that had been tossed onto the field and was unbroken.  As an experiment, the farmer poked a very small pumpkin through the opening of the jug but was careful not to damage the vine.  

Months later, when the pumpkins had grown and were ready for harvesting, the farmer inspected the field and came across the glass jug.  This time, the jug was completely filled with a pumpkin.  The other pumpkins on the same vine were very large and well developed, but the one in the jug had not been able to grow any larger than the jug.  It was smaller than the other pumpkins.  Confined to its glass prison its growth and size were restricted.  [The Sower’s Seeds: 120 Inspiring Stories for  Preaching, Teaching and Public Speaking, Brian Cavanaugh]

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not easy raising fathers, boys, and men today.  For those of you who don’t know my situation, I am married to a man, and I have three children, two of them sons, ages 22 and 33.  Our sons outwardly discuss how they experience their place in society and the contrast between their situation and when their father or their grandfathers were their age.  They feel the losses that many men experience as society continues to change.  So I actually do have some intimate knowledge of this matter even though I am a woman.  

And there is something else I have noticed about the raising of fathers, boys, and men today.  Have you noticed, with all these mass shootings, seldom if ever are they perpetrated by, well, mothers, girls, or women.  Mass shootings are most often carried out by men.  Often young men.  Often white young men.  Have you noticed that?  It’s a hard time for some men these days.  There have been significant shifts in roles, mores, and power over just a generation or two.  And many fathers, boys, and men have been left reeling and some have lost their way.  

As gender roles have changed in recent decades, men have seen doors open to women.  Women have more job opportunities than they did.  They are in positions of greater power and authority than in generations past.  Women successfully pursue careers in business, technology, science, the arts, medicine, and many other areas.  Women now head hospitals and corporations.  And women even run for president.  

Many women see their opportunities increasing and doors opening though there is still gender bias in many forms in our culture.  But things seem to be getting better.  But are they getting better for men?  How do men perceive their situation?

Men’s roles are shifting.  Men have more jobs open to them, without stigma.  Men can be nurses and teachers and secretaries and this has become accepted.  It is even becoming socially acceptable for a man to be a stay-at-home dad.  Fathers regularly change diapers, take a child to school, go to the pediatrician.  This was not the case just a generation ago.  My husband remembers when we went together with one of our children to the pediatrician.  As we drove home, he said, Did you notice that the whole time we were in the examining room, the doctor spoke only to you, looked only at you, addressed himself completely to you as if I was not even in the room?  I hadn’t noticed.  But  I knew what he was talking about.  But that is far less likely to happen at the pediatrician today than 20 years ago.   

For generations, men have been extremely confined by societal expectations.  Men were to be the breadwinners for their families.  They were to take charge in every situation.  They were to hold their emotions in check – even when a child was killed, or a wife died.  Men didn’t cook at home unless it was on the barbecue.  They were to do the driving on a trip.  They were to follow sports and use tools like screwdrivers, drills, wrenches and saws.  They were to fix things.  There was a clear set of expectations for men.  And, for the most part, it did not include cooking, ironing, or doing the laundry.  And it did not include much in the way of caregiving.  It did not include many jobs and professions that were considered women’s work.  I grew up in a fairly liberated household with two working parents, an anomaly in our social milieu where most families had a stay-at-home mom.  My dad was a feminist.  And while he was a great typist, thanks to the army, I’m not sure he knew how to operate the washer though I think he knew how to iron.  

There has been a lot of pressure on men to behave in certain ways, adopt certain attitudes, and achieve certain competencies.   Along with this, they could also expect to receive certain privileges, to assume dominant roles, to be cut certain breaks, to garner a certain measure of respect, and to have certain access to positions of power.  

But in their own way, these societal expectations of men restricted men.  It was as if men were put in the glass jug like the pumpkin, restricting growth.  Women were also put in a jug, a smaller jug, also restricted and confined.

In recent decades, the liberation movement has sought to remove these socially constructed barriers that have limited fathers, boys, and men as well as mothers, girls, and women.  While most women see the benefits of removing the restrictions, this is not always as evident to men.  Many men don’t see the changes in society as doors opening to them.  They don’t see that their options are increasing; that they have more choices, that some of the expectations placed upon men that were burdensome are being lifted.  They may not see that in some significant ways they are under less pressure than in the past.  We don’t see society or the church, really, celebrating the increasing freedom and liberation of men.  Instead of seeing how things are getting better and what they are receiving as society becomes more free, many fathers, boys, and men perceive that they are losing something, that something is being taken away from them.  And it is.  The bottle that was confining them is being taken away.  And for some men, that is producing resentment, fear and anger.  They no longer know where they fit in.  They don’t feel they belong.  They don’t know how to grow freely.  They aren’t prepared for full maturity.  

In the scripture we heard this morning, we see Jesus undermining typically held assumptions.   The story about the mustard seed is about a small seed that grows into a large bush.  But it is also a comment on the Hebrew Bible’s use of the imagery of tall, majestic trees, like the cedars of Lebanon, as an image of God’s favor and blessing.  

In the Hebrew Testament, the image of the towering tree is used for large, flourishing empires.  It is used in reference to strong, dominating kings.  It is used as a way to refer to power arrangements, nations, and rulers that are considered to be blessed by an all-powerful God.  

That’s the kind of greatness people are used to hearing about and used to associating with God in Jesus’ day and often today as well.  And in the parable we heard this morning, Jesus talks about faith using the image of a bush, suggesting the image of a bush as symbol of great faith and favor and blessing from God.  And this bush is not tall and straight and towering (and phallic?).   It is low to the ground and spreading and it provides shade, shelter, and nesting space for birds and other critters.  And this plant is used in cooking not for building great temples and palaces.  The mustard seed produces a plant associated with nurture not dominance, empire, or machismo.  This story involves the intentional subversion of commonly held notions associating God with certain kinds of power.  We still need to hear that today.  

We also heard the story of the sowing of the seed.  After the farmer sows the seed, what does the farmer do?  Nothing.  The farmer sleeps and wakes and sleeps and wakes.  And while the farmer is doing that, the seed is sprouting and growing; “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain” until the harvest is ready.  Then the farmer is back on duty.  Well, no actual agricultural worker will last taking that approach.  But parables are meant to use everyday images to offer new insight, to surprise, to illumine.  In this parable, the seed that is sown is associated with the realm of God, the dreams of God, the intentions of Divine Love.  And these seeds grow.  They progress.  They come to maturity.  And then all enjoy the harvest.

In this story, we can see a way of looking our situation today.  The way of Divine Love has been planted, sown, it is present though at times it may seem inconspicuous.  And that seed is growing.  The greater freedom and dignity of women and men are evidence.  But sometimes we humans do things to limit and restrict that growth.  Still the seed has been sown. It is there.  And the growth proceeds.  It may be mysterious and inexplicable.  We may not see a blueprint.  The growth may challenge us.  But the Divine commonwealth continues to grow, to become more evident, to mature.  It cannot be thwarted.  There will be a vast harvest.

The seeds of Divine Love will grow to full maturity. They will produce a human community characterized by dignity and respect for all life and for the cosmos that sustains life.  The seeds will grow communities of justice, peace, and creativity.  They will grow communities of acceptance, choice, and self-determination .  Essentially, the seeds of the way of Love will produce communities that are truly free – characterized by freedom from want, hunger, poverty, abuse, violence, fear and domination;  communities embracing freedom of expression and self determination.  The seeds that have been sown will yield the way of full humanity.  

Given the past, maybe one message we need to hear is that sometimes we need to get out of the way because well-intentioned as we may be, sometimes we are creating obstacles and restrictions to the growing of seeds of Divine Love even in the church.   Sometimes our humanly conceived machinations and constructs get in the way of growth.

Seeds buried by a squirrel in the Ice Age 32,000 years ago, found 128 feet below the permafrost have germinated and produced flowering plants.  [https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/02/120221-oldest-seeds-regenerated-plants-science/]  On the space station, seeds have grown zinnias in zero gravity.  Seeds are life.  The seeds of Divine love and community that have been planted will grow.  They cannot be stopped.  Wonderful fathers, boys, and men will be raised.  And all of humanity as well as all of Creation will flourish.  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 June 3, 2018 “Mother’s Milk”

Scripture Lesson: Psalm 138
Sermon: Mother’s Milk
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Sure we have a good life. Most of us have plenty of food to eat and a safe place to live. Many of us have adequate access to health care. We have friends and family to love. There is awe and delight in every day for many of us. We have blessings to count and we know it.

But still, these are trying times by most people’s standards. You can hardly have a conversation with anyone without some hot button issue coming up: Rosanne. The Mueller investigation. Gaza. Korea. Trade wars. #metoo. School shootings. Immigration. Puerto Rico. All of this with a backdrop of increasing income inequality, a health care crisis, never-ending wars, and environmental problems. It can seem like we are under assault. Being continuously re-traumatized.

In these times it is important to cultivate and nurture compassion, reconciliation, and courage. This is a time for fierce, tenacious, healing love. Oh Jesus, how we need you now. How we need your model of just that kind of loving. Strong. Honest. Bold. Gentle.

In the past couple of weeks people in the church have expressed gratitude for the ministry of the church; for the support and inspiration they’ve received from this faith community. Twice the expressions of gratitude noted how extraordinary this is. How special. How notable. Really? To me it seems like we are simply doing what we have always done. Trying to be a church. A faithful part of the body of Christ. A supportive, loving community. Why does that seem extraordinary? I think it is because things in the public realm have become so charged. So uncivil. So coarse. So mean-spirited. The “outside” has changed, and so the church, which I think has pretty much stayed the same, seems much more loving and kind. And, of course, that is how the church should be.

We need our religion, our spiritual path, now more than ever to help us to stay grounded in compassion, love, justice, and reconciliation. We need the church to help us to stay kind and courageous. We need our faith community to help us to resist sinking to the ways of many around us, sad to say, the ways of many in leadership in this country. It is a time to band together and stay strong and loving. There is that beautiful verse in the Psalm that we read: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” Oh how we need our faith to help us stay strong and courageous and grounded in love. We need our faith to nourish us, to feed us, to keep us healthy, and to help us grow as we journey through life never knowing what lies ahead.

Now, in the realm of life science and biology, one of the most nourishing, sustaining substances we know about is breast milk. In recent years, studies by evolutionary biologists, dairy scientists, microbiologists, anthropologists, and food chemists have uncovered amazing information about human breast milk. Breast milk has proteins, fats, carbohydrates, nutrients, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, vitamins A, C, and E, and long chain fatty acids that provide omega 3’s. Sounds like a liquid multi vitamin!

And there are microbes in breast milk; it is not sterile and these bacteria aid the baby’s digestion. Breast milk also has 150 oligosaccharides. These are complex sugars unique to breast milk that cannot be digested by the baby. They are to feed the microbes in the baby’s digestive system. So the milk feeds the baby and the good bacteria in the baby’s gut. Pretty amazing!

Breast milk has all the nutrients that a baby needs for the first six months of life and added to that are germ and disease fighting substances that protect the baby from getting sick. Breast milk is amazing for promoting health. And on top of all that, apparently, the taste of the milk changes according to what the mother has eaten. It’s not just the same flavor day after day after day. How perfect is that?

Breast milk also has pluripotent stem cells. These can form more that 200 different kinds of cells found in the human body. So breast milk has huge potential for regenerative medicine.

Now all of that seems pretty incredible, doesn’t it? But here is what I think is the most amazing characteristic of breast milk. The composition of the nutrients and disease fighting elements of the milk change. Daily. Every day the make up of the milk changes to meet the baby’s need at the moment. And the hormones in the milk change during night and daylight hours to promote sleep or activity depending on the time of day. So there is night milk and day milk each with different hormones. Breast milk is constantly changing according to the infant’s needs. How incredible is that?

And how does this happen? Well, here’s where we get a little graphic so bear with me. Apparently, when the baby sucks a vacuum is created. The milk comes out. But it has been discovered that saliva from the baby’s mouth gets sucked into the mother’s nipple. Basically, think back wash. And there are receptors in the mammary glands that adjust the milk depending on what is in the saliva. So if the saliva includes indication of a sickness of some kind, the mother’s body sends the antibodies needed by the baby through the milk. Now that is awesome in my book. You can read all about this in Angela Garbes new book, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, or in the article that she wrote for The Stranger in 2015. [“The More I Learn About Breast Milk, the More Amazed I Am,” https://www.thestranger.com/features/feature/2015/08/26/22755273/the-more-i-learn-about-breast-milk-the-more-amazed-i-am]

Now you may be wondering why in heaven’s name we are discussing human breast milk of all things. Well, we are talking about how we need our faith to stay strong and grounded in love and goodness. How we need our faith to keep us healthy. I think that Christian spirituality, faith, religion, and certainly the way of Jesus, work kind of like breast milk. I think that we can find in our faith whatever it is that we need for any given moment, any circumstance, any issue, any problem, and any challenge. I don’t think ours is a religion that only addresses one problem or issue. I think our faith tradition has lots of teachings and traditions and expressions that meet us where we are and help us to find our way so that we stay rooted in universal, unconditional love for ourselves, for others, and for the world. Our faith gives us the strength to respect the fundamental dignity of every human being – even if they have done something terrible; even if we disagree with them; even if we find them hateful and harmful. Our faith gives us the strength to love. What we need at any given moment to sustain our love, courage, and compassion is offered to us by our faith tradition. Just like an infant, at different times in our lives, we need different things. And the way of Jesus offers us what we need. Whatever that may be. We have but to take it.

In today’s world, a time of drastic change, including of changing theologies, some Christians embrace the concept of a theistic God, a spirit God, alive and active in the world. Our faith tradition helps us to draw upon that image of God for strength, forgiveness, and love. The teachings of Jesus speak to those rooted in that kind of faith. There is a source of strength for the living of these
challenging days.

Some Christians today embrace a concept of a non-theistic God. This is an image of God as ground of being, love, unity, a concept of cohesion and interconnectedness. And there is much in our tradition to offer strength, wisdom, and guidance, for people rooted in that kind of image of God.

Some Christians don’t really care to concern themselves with doctrine and theology about things like whether Jesus is God and whether there is life after death, etc. They find their roots in the ethical, wisdom teachings of Jesus. Ok. For those Christians, again, there is sustaining food and nourishment for staying rooted in love and facing the many issues of our times and the challenges of life’s journey.

We know that throughout our lives, we need different things from our faith, depending on the times, depending on what is going on in our lives, and we are part of a faith tradition that speaks to us, that meets our needs, that offers us sustenance and health in all circumstances.

The world is changing around us, there are new developments everyday that confront us with racism, sexism, oppression, greed, callousness, and violence. New technologies present new ethical challenges and issues. We face health concerns; physical health concerns, mental health problems, addiction. We must come to terms with our mortality. Our families face problems. Our relationships change. Abilities change. Geography changes. We must deal with life decisions and transitions day after day.

We are in a constant dynamic state. Our lives and the world around us are in continuous flux. And like the breast milk that adjusts to the needs of the infant at the moment, so our faith will speak to us in the ways that we need to stay strong and grounded in compassion and love. We want to be open to receive what we are being given.

The psalmist celebrates, “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” We can count on our faith, on the way of Jesus, on the teachings of the Bible, on the wisdom of the ages, on the messages that come to us from countless sources, to increase our strength of soul wherever we are on the journey so that we might be agents of goodness and compassion in this ever-changing world. The strength we need will come tailored to our situation. It will be just right for our circumstances. Designed to promote our growth as we seek to serve the world. And it may even come in a way that offers pleasure, awe, and delight. Amen.

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

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Sermon 5.27.18 Memorial Day

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon: Looking to the Stars
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It was the last Christmas of the 20th century and the space shuttle was in orbit. At the transition to a new century, Commander Curt Brown delivered this message from the shuttle to Earth:

“The familiar Christmas story reminds us that for millennia people of many faiths and cultures have looked to the skies and studied the stars and planets in their search for a deeper understanding of life and for greater wisdom. We hope and trust that the lessons the universe has to teach us will speak to the yearning that we know is in human hearts everywhere. The yearning for peace on Earth good will among all the human family. As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium we send you all our greetings.” [Quoted in Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly, chapter 12]

From the stars, from the heavens, from space, come messages of peace. It is a universal human longing. We see this in our beloved stories of Christmas. We celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. We revere the story of Jesus as one who is coming to Earth from heaven to bring peace. We have the beautiful story of the magi that was read this morning; these astrologers, philosophers, astronomers, from a distant land, a foreign culture, following a star, in a search for wisdom and understanding, in a quest for peace. These wise ones are led by the heavens in their search. The trek is well worth the cost, the inconvenience, the financial burden, the hardship, because it is in the interests of peace. Peace is worth the price as we will later learn from Jesus as he makes his sacrifice.

But the dearly beloved story of the magi and their journey following the star is not just a romanticized fantasy. In their search for the Prince of Peace, these wise ones encounter Herod. They come face to face with a leader who is filled with “warring madness.” Herod is a violent, tyrannical despot. He has killed his own family members to protect his power and position. Herod will not tolerate any threat and will stop at nothing to maintain his control and authority. Intimidation, fear, violence, and death, these are the tools he uses to reign. We are told that he orders the killing of all young boys in an effort to eradicate this new baby king who is a potential future rival. So the magi are faced with conflict and violence as they make their way to peace.

The magi follow the star, the leading of the heavens, their dreams, and steer their way between love and fear, war and peace, as they navigate past Herod to the Divine peace symbolized in the birth of Jesus. Then they go home another way. They avoid Herod; they steer clear of confrontation and violence. They choose another way; a way of peace.

Memorial Day, as we remember those who have served our country, is a time to think about how we are navigating our way to peace in our time. Those who have served in the military and who have been killed in armed conflict have given their lives in the pursuit of peace – for their families, their communities, our country, and the world. This is the honorable basis for military service.

So the most reverential way we can honor those who have served is by working for the peace. Memorial Day is a time to think about how we navigate to the destination of peace on Earth in a culture that is wracked with violence and pursuing endless wars. It is a time to think about what stars are guiding us, what stars we are following, and where they are leading us.

In today’s world, so many lives and resources are devoted to war and to violent resolution of differences. What other species devotes such resources to destruction, to death? What other species diverts so much energy away from what fosters life to what destroys life?

We mere mortals here on Earth seem so bent on pursuing war. The US is involved in armed conflict in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Pursuing these wars is costing lives and resources; resources that could be used to building up this country and the quality of life for all of its citizens. We are all suffering the effects of these endless wars in many ways though we may not feel directly involved with, say, a loved one serving abroad in the armed services. Still we are involved. And we are being affected by the government’s pursuit of war. This contributes to reduced funding for education, healthcare, sustainable energy, the arts, infrastructure, and so much more. Our society as a whole is suffering the effects of prolonged armed conflict.

In addition, we project destruction, violence and war into space through our entertainment. The Star Wars, get that Star Wars, franchise is one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in existence. There are many instances in which we have projected the concept of war into space in our entertainment. This is a symptom of our captivation and some say addiction to war.

And we project our very real, earthly conflicts onto space. US astronaut Scott Kelly recently spent a year in space on the International Space Station. He recounts his experiences in the book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery. While on the International Space Station, the US astronauts were asked to participate in a hearing with a congressional committee about the funding of the space program. The crew told of bio medical experiments and growing lettuce. Then they were asked about Russia. The US and Russia were in a difficult geo-political situation. Were the American astronauts sharing data with the Russians on the space station? Kelly told the committee that international cooperation was one of the strengths of the space station. He mentioned that when he was the only American on the space station, the counted on the two Russians. “We have a great relationship and I think the international aspect of this program has been one of its highlights.” [Endurance, chapter 17]

While conflicts brew and boil on Earth, astronauts tell us that space is very peaceful. The view of the Bahamas is gorgeous. From space, Earth looks beautiful and peaceful. In addition, the International Space Station involves many people from many countries working together. The countries may not be getting along on Earth but they work together in space. The astronauts all cooperate beautifully in space. They must. They know that their survival depends on their cooperation. I’m wondering when we will learn that lesson on Earth. On the space station, there is commitment to a higher goal, a nobler aim. With the space station there is no room, no literally or figuratively, for disagreement, competition, domination, or hostility. The enterprise can only succeed if the astronauts as well as all of those involved on the ground fully cooperate with each other. And everyone involved knows this.

Though I do not have much interest in space exploration, unlike like my husband who minored in astronomy and teaches physics, I do love the international cooperation that happens on the space station and in conjunction with the space program. It is an encouraging model for what can happen on Earth.

In the story of the magi, they find the baby Jesus, bring him gifts, worship him, and head home. They must decide how they will proceed. Are they going to go back to Herod and risk possible involvement in conflict and violence or will they go home another way, a peaceful way? Will they risk taking a new route, through unfamiliar territory, in pursuit of peace? Yes. That is what they choose.

We, too, have encountered Jesus. We know him through his teachings and the stories of his followers. We know him through our experience and through the church. In Jesus, we see the way of peace. It is a lifestyle of generosity and self giving. It is an orientation of humility and meekness. It is a way of strength through gentleness. It is a way of peace that steers us away from competition, from greed, from conflict, from violence, from domination, and away from the intimidation and fear that lead to armed conflict and war and death. Not peace. Having encountered Jesus, like the star that leads the magi, we are being led to proceed on the path to peace. And, yes, it can be very difficult. And it can require sacrifice.

After spending a full year on the International Space Station, US Astronaut Scott Kelly boarded the Russian Soyuz to return to Earth. His last view of the space station as he departed prompted these reflections:

The International Space Station is “the work of 15 different nations over 18 years. Thousands of people speaking differing languages and using different engineering methods and standards. . . In a world of compromise and uncertainty this space station is a triumph of engineering and cooperation. Putting it into orbit, making it work, and keeping it working is the hardest thing that human beings have ever done. And it stands as proof that when we set our minds to something hard, when we work together, we can do anything including solving our problems here on Earth. I also know that if we want to go to Mars it will be very, very difficult. It will cost a great deal of money. And it may cost human lives. But I know now that if we decide to do it, we can.” This is how Kelly ends his book, Endurance, about his year in space.

May we look to the stars, the stars in space, the stars on our US flag, the stars of our faith tradition, and decide to create peace on Earth. Yes, it will be very, very difficult. It may cost a great deal of money. And it may cost human lives. But if we decide to do it, we can. Amen.

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

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Sermon 5.20.18 Pentecost

Scripture Lesson: Acts 2:1-21
Sermon: Have You Heard the Good News?
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells and congregation

Maybe you were among the hoards that thronged MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for the airshow recently. The newspaper says upwards of 150,000 people attended, or tried to attend, the air show. That’s the equivalent of over half the population of St. Petersburg. Can you imagine that many people all together in one place for one event? Pretty crazy! Yes, there were traffic issues, but otherwise, things seemed to go pretty smoothly.

And why did people go to the airshow? Probably many reasons. I did not personally attend so here I am definitely speculating. I imagine there are folks that celebrate the technology and speed. And folks that glorify the military. And folks that like to see what their tax dollar, actually tax dollars, many, many of them, are doing. There may be people who went to be with their friends that wanted to go. And people who had nothing else to do so went to avoid boredom. Some people just like a parade, so to speak. Along with many reasons for showing up in the MacDill vicinity last weekend, I am sure there were many kinds of people who attended the event. A wide range of people. A diverse population.

In the story of Pentecost, we are told of a festival, a large public event, a harvest festival. And people have come from many places and backgrounds and circumstances to give thanks for the harvest. Well, everyone needs food. . . Among those at this festival are friends and followers of Jesus. They are still confused and scared after the crucifixion. They don’t have a sense of cohesion, direction, or purpose. But they go along with the crowd and participate in the festival. In the course of things, they find themselves filled with boldness and courage, and speaking about Jesus. And we are given this story of the followers of Jesus, mostly Galileans, speaking to the eclectic, multicultural crowd, in various languages so that all could hear and understand the good news of the teachings of Jesus. Everyone heard a message of Divine hopes and dreams for humanity. It was uplifting, transforming, exciting, surprising, inexplicable. But there was good news for all who had ears to hear.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is intended to be good news for all people. Even people of other religions. The values and affirmation and respect and hope of the Jesus way are meant to be good news even to people on other spiritual paths. People who are living the Jesus way are intended to be a force for good in the world for all people whatever their background or religious sensibilities or lack there of.

The church, the on going community of Jesus, the body of Christ, is charged with continuing, in every age, in every circumstance, in every setting and situation, to share that good news, that word of hope and life and meaning and joy. This good news is not just something for people in the church. This is something the church has to give to the world; to feed and nourish the life of Creation. So the Jesus people were given words of hope and love to speak to that wildly diverse crowd gathered at the Pentecost harvest festival. Each hearing in a way they could understand.

I am thinking about that crowd at MacDill, or at the Fourth of July fireworks, or at the Pride Festival, or the Santa Parade, or Gasparilla, a setting where there is a multitude of diverse peoples. Many languages spoken. Different kinds of food being eaten. This is a land that has historically welcomed people from every background and circumstance. This was a land of second chances. So here there are many occasions for the gathering of diverse peoples. What kinds of people are there? What are their needs and concerns? As we think about this, we must ask, what good news does the church have for all of these people? What words of joy and hope and goodness does the church have to offer? What message of comfort and encouragement are we being given to share with others? The church teaches that baptism is recognition of the presence of the Divine spirit of God in the life of the one baptized. So everyone who has been baptized is being given good news to share with the world.

So what good news do we have for the diverse crowd around us – either literally, at
a festival, or around us in our daily lives, on social media, in our communities and
the wider world? What good news do we have to share?

We can imagine people in a crowd, like the Pentecost crowd or MacDill, who are lost and afraid. We can imagine people in the crowd around us who are made poor, facing job insecurity and economic fear. Surely there are people with physical infirmities which diminish their abilities and the stress and grief that come with that. People facing a cancer diagnosis. We can imagine people who because of how they were born face discrimination and disrespect each and every day and the anger and defeat that comes with such treatment. People who have little hope for future prospects because of how they were born. We can think about people who ache inside over what humans are doing to the planet.

What good news to we have for immigrants – legal, illegal, dreamers. refugees, for surely there are immigrants in a crowd. Surely there are people in the crowd from problem schools, teacher and students, who are struggling with a broken education system. What’s the good news for students who are forced to learn in a way that can be reflected on a test but are not encouraged to think or take delight in knowledge? Or celebrate curiosity? And there are young people worrying about succeeding in school, getting into college, and paying for college. In a crowd, surely there are homeless people, people who can’t find a way to live in a safe and secure manner. What good news do we have for rich people who have all this money but still feel hollow inside and are drifting and not satisfied – lost?

Sadly, in a crowd there are people who have had loved ones killed, murdered, shot. People who are grieving the natural loss of a loved one. People who feel alienated from society, from the world around them. People who can’t read and write. People disgusted by the dysfunction in the government, all three branches on the federal level, as well as problems at the state and local levels. Kids worrying about their family, safety, the future. Teens worried about the pressures of sex and drugs and lack of meaning in life. People trying to afford healthcare and worrying about paying for needed medications.

In a crowd, there may be people who are worried about going back – to somewhere that is not safe and where there is no way to make a living. People whose lives have been taken over, wracked by addiction and its ravages. People facing an unplanned, perhaps unwanted, pregnancy. People coming to terms with their sexual identity in an environment that can be hostile to difference. People who have lost a sense of meaning, purpose, or wonder.

If we think about the crowd at MacDill, we can imagine people worried about loved ones serving in endless wars; life at risk on a daily basis, and for what? Yes, Jesus taught about laying down your life for others but many people in the military today have a hard time seeing how their sacrifice is helping anyone. Hence the high suicide rate among veterans.

What good news do we have for this crowd? For society? For our friends and family? What good news are we being given to share?

Here the congregation was invited to share the good news that they have to share with the world. There were several written suggestions submitted by the children of the Church School:
The church helps people who need it.
The church teaches peace.
The church teaches us not to litter and to keep the world clean.
The church is a community where we care about our moms and ourselves and everybody.

Some years ago, Vita Uth, a charter member of the congregation called me and requested that people in the church bring dinner for her and her husband each night for two weeks. This request stemmed from the stresses of health issues and care giving. People from the church all signed up on a schedule that was passed around on a clipboard on a Sunday morning. One evening our family brought food and had dinner with Vita and Knud. Recently, we were talking about that dinner many years ago. Our son, Malcolm, 22 years old, reflected that it was great that Vita knew what she needed and the church stepped up. He said, People my age don’t understand that that is what church is about. It is about the community. They just don’t understand it. And he thinks they are missing out.

Thinking about our situation today, it is not enough for just the pastor to talk to the congregation. We have to be taking the good news we have out into the world and sharing it with people. And in today’s world, we not only have many languages and Google translate, we have social media to help share that good news. What an amazing tool! And if people want more they can come to church. But if not, we are still giving them good news whoever they are, wherever they are, in their context. Because there is always good news in the reality of God and the Jesus way of life. Amen.

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

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Sermon 5.13.18 Mother’s Day “Why Women Voted for Trump”

Scripture Lesson: 1 John 4: 7-21
Sermon: Why Women Voted for Trump
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Note: There were certain background comments made before the sermon.

The topic for this sermon was requested by someone in the congregation.

LUCC supports the constitutional concept of separation of church and state. Regarding implementation, the church seeks to follow the guidelines of the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. So this sermon is not intended to be political or partisan.

The pastor is trained as an historian and knows that everyone speaks from their own perspective and experience. Here are some of my biases upfront:
I was born into a church that is not fear-based but justice oriented. The United Church of Christ.
I was born to parents who were feminists. They believed men and women are equal and deserve equal rights. They encouraged my brother and I to follow our dreams whatever they may be.
I was born into a family that was, relatively speaking, financially advantaged. My parents could pay for whatever was needed for me to follow my dreams.
I am a graduate of Wellesley College, the alma mater of Hillary Clinton.

Several people in the congregation have made it known that they do not speak the name of the current president and they do not want to hear the name of the current president. So, here is the trigger warning. The word Trump is used 6 times in this sermon.

In the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Harari, a professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and best-selling author, talks about the importance of the mother-child bond: “We can argue about other emotions but since mammal youngsters cannot survive without motherly care it is evident that motherly love and a strong mother-infant bond characterize all mammals.“ He adds, “It took scientists many years to acknowledge this.” Well, I don’t think it would take any of us many years to acknowledge this. From time immemorial we know the bond between a mother and child. It is fundamental. It is instinctual.

A human mother will innately provide for and protect her children. She will fiercely defend them. Yes, there are exceptions, in cases involving mental illness or addiction for instance, but basically, a human mother will care for her young, regardless. She will deprive herself of food to feed her children. She will endure any hardship to protect her children. She will resort to whatever it takes to ensure their health and well-being.

Sadly, we live in a climate of fear even though statistically things are better now than ever for people in the US any way. Life is safer and healthier and material comforts exceed those known by generations past. Medical science has made incredible advances. We are living longer. Worldwide, war, famine, and disease account for fewer deaths than in the past. Think about it – In the US, even a no income homeless person has a cell phone. That would have been unimaginable even 30 years ago.

Yet there is fear. Fear of your neighbor. Fear of someone who does not look like you. Fear of someone you do not know. Fear of robbers and murderers. There is fear around money, jobs, and the economy. Fear of dishonest business people. There is fear of war and terrorist attacks. There is fear of random mass shootings. These things happen. It is horrific when they do. The grief and suffering is immense and tragic. I am not trying to paint a rosy picture, but you can ask our resident award-winning statistician, Charlie Lewis, or consult Yuval Harari, we’re better off, safer and healthier than any previous generation.

Nonetheless, the fear continues to increase. There are people that work at increasing the fear in our society so that they can have more control over others. And they are succeeding. So in today’s climate of induced fear, many mothers are afraid for their children. They feel their children are under direct threat. They feel their way of life, economic opportunity, values, and culture are being taken away. And they feel desperation about the future of their families and their children and their property.

And what do mothers do when they feel their children are threatened? They protect them. They will fiercely fight for their children. For their future. For their well-being. In the face of all of this fear, unfounded for the most part, but experienced by the majority of people nonetheless, mothers will feel instinctually led to protect their children whatever the cost.

In the last presidential election, I suspect many mothers who voted for President Trump, whether they know it or not, voted out of fear. The statements about I will protect you, I will make you safe again, I will make sure your children are taken care of, I will defend you, etc. I think these kinds of statements provided security and comfort to mothers who are frightened for their children’s future. And this influenced their vote. As I said, whether they know it or not.

Let’s zero in for a moment on economic issues. We live in a time of great economic fear and anxiety despite the low unemployment rate, the high stock market, and the growth rate of the economy. And this fear, this anxiety, is actually well-founded though not in the ways some may expect. Following the economic policies begun in the 1980’s, CEO compensation has skyrocketed, corporate taxes have been lowered, real worker wages and benefits have decreased, and the government tax base is shrinking due to corporate tax cuts and loop holes, and lowered taxes for the most wealthy. People, mothers, are and should be afraid for the economic future of their children. And with the growing wage gap, social instability is increasing. The poor and disinherited are not going to stay silent forever nor should we. That is why the Lakewood UCC advisors chose for the church to support the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We want to work for positive, constructive economic justice through institutions and channels in our democratic republic. Better for change to happen that way than through violent revolution or civil war as we see in some societies today.

Mothers are concerned about their children’s future. In the face of economic anxiety and financial fear maybe many of the mothers who chose to vote for the current president did so because they thought a millionaire would know how to create an economic climate that works for everyone; in which everyone has a chance to at least be economically successful if not become extremely wealthy. Surely a millionaire could do this. Was this something up front and conscious among most of the women who voted for President Trump? I don’t know. But we can see that there could be a motivation here even if it was subliminal.

Yes, we live in a culture imbued with fear. It is also imbued with oppression on many fronts including oppression against women. We know that women’s pay lags behind that of men for the same job. We know of the inequities in the IT sector, in the math and science sectors, in the visual art sector and the entertainment sector as well as many other fields.

Here is a recent Facebook post from a book store in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s not the US, but I imagine we have the same issues. Here’s the post:

Nothing like a count of Oxford University Press catalogue to let you know casual sexism & racism are alive and kicking in academic publishing! Leading academic publisher in uk? We’ll just leave the numbers here…
July-Dec books:
105 (white) men
26 (white) women
6 writers of colour

As I said, it is not the US, but I don’t think things are 50-50 here by any means.

There are multitudes of ways that women are not only not equal to men in the US but they are blatantly taken advantage of, disrespected, and demeaned. And it really pains me to have to point out that this happens in church settings. In the body of Christ. All the time. In fact, I think that a case could be made that the church brought the oppression of women to this continent and has perpetuated it.

Several years ago, I had a prominent, local politician, a woman, a Catholic, tell me that she thought only men should be priests because if a parishioner needed the priest in the middle of the night to go to the hospital, say, and the priest was a woman, she would have to ask her husband for permission to go. Again, this is from a woman elected to office and serving the public good in Pinellas County. And, in case you are wondering, she happens to be a Democrat. I was dumbfounded when she said that. I didn’t even know where to begin to refute her remark. I think I said something like, “If I need to go to the hospital for a parishioner in the middle of the night, I do not need to ask my husband for permission.” Actually, I don’t know if I have ever asked my husband for permission to do anything.

The point is, we live in a very sexist culture, and women, whether they know it or not, are oppressed. And if you are a woman of color, it is a double whammy. And this oppression is largely internalized by women. They don’t see it. They don’t notice it. They are not aware of it. They don’t realize that it exists. It is just part of who they are. It can be very subtle and it is ingrained in many of the attitudes and assumptions that are part of our culture. And it is very present in the church, from male priests, to few women pastors of tall steeple churches, to women passed over for lay leadership in the church, to the church teachings that draw from the sexist cultures of Bible times. And there is plenty to work with there.

We can readily see the sexism in the culture of Jesus’ day. There are many stories in the gospels where men cry out to Jesus to be healed or they come to Jesus asking for something. But how often do women come to Jesus asking for help? Begging for healing? Of the many healing encounters portrayed in the gospels, sometimes Jesus initiates those encounters with men and with women. In one story, Jesus approaches a man with the withered hand. In another story, Jesus approaches a woman with a bent back. In some stories, people bring their friends to Jesus to be healed. While the gender of those involved in these references is not always specified, when it is, they are male. For example the paralytic that is lowered through the roof of the house. In addition, there are stories of some men who come to Jesus seeking healing for their loved ones – a daughter, a slave. But in many stories, men come to Jesus for help and healing for themselves. In one gospel, even a thief crucified with Jesus begs Jesus for mercy.

Now let’s think about the stories in which a woman comes to Jesus begging for help or healing. There is the story of the woman with a hemorrhage who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. She takes the initiative but she doesn’t plead or beg. Her intention is to remain unnoticed. Where are we told of women begging? Pleading? Where do we see that? There is a mother who begs for healing – for her daughter. There is Martha who begs for help – for Lazarus, her brother, who has died. There is the mother of the sons of Zebedee who begs Jesus for a favor – for her sons, that they might have a place of honor in Jesus’ realm. Each time a woman comes to Jesus to beg or plead – it’s for someone else. Of course, because women are caregivers. They see to the needs of others. Not themselves. These women will brazenly approach a man, a holy man, a prominent man, pleading and begging, violating religious law and social convention. They will risk being criticized, derided, and berated. For others. Not for themselves. If a woman is healed, it is because a man took the initiative. While there is story after story in the Gospels of men seeking healing for themselves, there is not one story about a woman begging Jesus for healing for herself. Not one. This sends the message that women are not worthy of seeking their own healing from Jesus. So women never hear a story from the gospels that tells them that they have the agency, the value, and the worthiness to seek healing for themselves from Jesus. So is it any wonder that women of today, especially, sadly, Christian women, live with internalized oppression?

So part of the internalized oppression of women, mothers, in our time, is that from stories and movies and TV and entertainment and religion, we absorb the idea that when women are in trouble or in need, it will take a man to rescue them. Noble and chivalrous, maybe, but a man will need to come to the rescue. Women will be saved by a man. From Little Red Riding Hood to Jesus Christ, we all hear it again and again and again and again. Stories of a girl or woman being rescued by a man. And we internalize that narrative as men and as women.

So, the women of today, mothers who are afraid and desperately trying to protect their children, are pre-programmed to be looking for a man to save them and their kids. And whether they know it or not, I imagine that this also contributed to the election of the current president because he certainly seems to portray himself as a male savior.

While Hillary Clinton talked about our working together to create a better future, Donald Trump personally promised to make things better himself. As I said, whether the women voters are aware or not, that narrative ties right into the socialization of women in our culture.

There are other signs of internalized oppression in the election results. I am sure there are women who voted for the current president because, whether they know it or not, they do not believe that a woman is capable of doing that job; it is a man’s job. I am sure there are women who believed all the negative things that were said about the woman candidate while they minimized, ignored, or overlooked the negative things that were said about the man candidate. There are women who voted for the current president because their husbands told them to and they are used to doing what their husbands tell them. I expect there are women who voted with their party and always vote with their party, whichever one it is, because they don’t have confidence in their own ability to think for themselves. They don’t trust themselves to analyze information. They don’t feel capable of sorting through the facts. So they choose to rely on an outside organization, in this case, a political party, to do that for them. There are all kinds of ways that internalized oppression could have influenced the way women voted in the election.

But those kinds of explanations may be subliminal, unconscious; not matters of conscious choice. So, why did women vote for Trump? I think in a fundamental way, it was out of concern and love for their children. They have allowed themselves to be made afraid. They feel they are in a perilous situation. They are desperate. So they chose to overlook a lot because they believed what they were doing was in the best interests of their kids, their families, and their future. So I can even imagine some women holding their noses while voting for Trump.

While this may explain some things, it does not reflect an approach that is consistent with the core character of the teachings of Jesus, despite the fact that many women who voted for Trump go to church or at least consider themselves Christian. They may be part of expressions of Christianity that reinforce the cultural biases of patriarchy and contribute to the second class status of women. This is usually done in the name of Bible-believing Christianity either by people who are ignorant or people who want to perpetuate male dominance and so attribute their desires to the scriptures.

True Christ-like love has no room for such biases. As we noted above, Jesus chose to heal many women. He took the initiative. He demonstrated their worth, equal to men, in the economy of God. The universal, comprehensive nature of Divine Love leaves no room for oppression or fear. As we heard this morning from the First Letter of John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect [or complete] love drives out fear. To fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect [incomplete] in love.” [1 John 4:18]

Jesus showed love for everyone which was evidence of his lack of fear. When we let ourselves be filled with love the fear is driven out. When we let the fear in the love is driven out. The potential for the love is always within us. It is our choice whether we function from the fear or the love. It is the business of the church to admonish people to choose love and cast out the fear. The church needs to encourage people to trust the power of love to transform.

Jesus chose love over fear. He chose love over self interest. He chose love over self protection. He chose love over greed and economic interest. He chose love over social conditioning. He chose love over twisted religious teachings. Jesus lived by the power of love. From a Jesus perspective, the best way we can protect children and provide for their future is to teach LOVE, love for all people, love for Creation, and reverence for all forms of life. That’s how you get a better, safer, more vibrant future for your beloved offspring.

If this was a love-based society where the glue that held us together was our commitment to the common good, we would not have the problems we do. We would not be such easy prey for fear. And we would not have the president that we have. But fearful people are often consumed with their own well-being, their own safety, and their own survival. It’s a higher level of moral development to be able to choose love, not just for yourself, not just for your family, not just for your tribe or even your country, but to choose love for the stranger and the enemy as well. Love is what will create a more just, more stable, and more creative society. Science may never prove it but love is the strongest force in the universe. Just ask a mother. Amen.

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

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Sermon 5.6.18 Open Borders

Scripture Lesson: Acts 8:26-40
Sermon: Open Borders
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I love this story of Philip and a treasurer from a far off land. I love it because it challenges our assumptions and our complacency. Philip, an evangelist, gets dropped here and there into unfamiliar, and perhaps unwanted, situations and is expected to deliver good news, the gospel. Whether he wants to or not. Whether it is wanted or not. And in this story, after all of the stories of Jesus and people who are poor, and sick, and forgotten, and outcast, here is the Ethiopian eunuch. About as far out as we can imagine. Stranger. Alien. Foreigner. Outlier. Not the typical down-on-her-luck type we are used to hearing about in the gospels. No. So, again, our expectations, our assumptions, are jarred.

First, Ethiopia. Where was Ethiopia? What scholars seem to agree about is that it was south of Palestine and probably south of Egypt. But since this is before the days of Google Earth, Ethiopia is really a way of saying the end of the known world. The edge. The fringe. The margin. This person was as far out as you could get, geographically, ethnically, and religiously from the mainline Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.

And as if that was not enough, we are told that the person is a eunuch. His body has been altered. He is not “normal.” He cannot function as a man in the biological, procreative sense. So, in yet another way, he is beyond, outside, over the edge.

And before we pigeonhole him as a forlorn pathetic outcast, we must remember that we are told that he is the keeper of the treasury for the queen of his country. He is a person of high esteem, great authority, important responsibility, and, yes, probably very, very rich. Think the 1%. Again, not a characteristic of the typical Jesus follower. So, again, he defies anything that could be considered “normal.”

And, perhaps as we might expect by this point, we are told that the setting for this encounter is the wilderness. Of course. A wild place. Away from typical conventions. Untamed. Unregulated. Because this story ventures into completely new territory for the Jesus movement.

We are told that this Ethiopian man is on his way back from worshipping in Jerusalem. This tells us that he is drawn to the Jewish religion. But because of his physical alteration he cannot enter the precincts of the Temple. He must remain outside and express his devotion among the other “unclean” people who must remain outside the gates of the Temple. He has made a very long journey to have this second hand spiritual experience. So we get the impression he is quite devout; a seeker.

We are also told that he is reading the prophet Isaiah about a lamb led to the slaughter. How would this sound to one who has been altered by a knife? Of course this attracts his attention. He is drawn to a religion that lifts up someone who has been killed as symbol of faithfulness and godliness for he knows what it is to be a suffering servant.

When Philip talks about Jesus, the suffering servant, who has been recently killed, we can see how this Ethiopian would be drawn to a religious figure who has known suffering and yet has stayed true to Divine Love. So he wants to be baptized, to be claimed by this Jesus, as soon as he sees the water.

And so we are told that Philip baptizes this Ethiopian eunuch. Baptizes him into the community of Jesus. He is no longer outside the gate looking in. This foreigner. This one who is unclean. This one who is not normal. This one who is rich. This one with a different language. And a different color of skin and texture of hair. This upscale outsider is accepted and welcomed fully as a follower of Jesus. He is overjoyed!

Now at a UCC church in another part of the country, the people painted 5 doors, rainbow colors, displaying the words “God’s doors open to all,” and installed the doors out in front of the church. Our church is planning on making a similar witness. And I hope we can live up to it.

The church, every church, including this church, is made up of people. And people bring their assumptions and customs and attitudes to church with them. And so in church there are often both blatant and subtle barriers to welcome and inclusion. When this church was going through the Open and Affirming process in the ’90’s, we heard from gay people who were denied communion in the church because they were gay. The clergy would not visit in them in the hospital because they were gay. And these examples were from the Episcopal church not a conservative fundamentalist church. The church creates barriers to Divine Love.

We know about churches that only let baptized members take communion. And sometimes only if they have been baptized in a certain way. We know about churches that put economic stipulations on church membership. We know about churches that restrict full participation based on gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And, again, not just fringe fundamentalists, but think mainstream Catholics, Methodists, and others.

And then there are the churches that insist that Christianity is the only right way to God. The only true religion superseding not only Judaism but all other religions. How does that work for someone who has friends and family of another religion? These attitudes are barriers the church puts up restricting the message of Divine Love encompassing all.

There are also perceived barriers that have to do with means. We regularly have people come to our church during the week to ask for financial help with rent or transportation or other necessities. We invite them to come to church on Sunday. They almost never do. Some have said, I don’t have the right clothes for church. Some have mentioned transportation. They have no car and can’t waste a bus fare. Some worry about the offering. What will they be expected to put in the plate? There are all kinds of perceived potential barriers that keep people out of church.

There are issues around race. After all, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. There are issues around gender and sexual identity. There are issues around financial assumptions and expectations. There are concerns around dress and hygiene. There are all kinds of things that may keep people from taking the risk of entering a church and thus keep them from receiving the spiritual sustenance of the church and from being nurtured by a supportive faith community.

This is a problem that has been created by the church. If the church had always and forever been as welcoming as the church of the New Testament, these impressions would not exist. But the church has done things throughout the centuries, subtle and blatant, to create barriers, borders, and boundaries that try to wall off, manage, and control Divine Love. This is wrong. It is not of God. It is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. It is sin.

Some years ago, I was invited to a breakfast for ministers that was supposed to be about working on racial harmony among various religious groups. I got a letter about the breakfast. I had the church office manager call in my reservation. I appeared on a Saturday morning at the breakfast. As I went in I greeted several people that I knew. When I went to the sign in table I sensed some hesitation. I made a name tag. I introduced myself to people I did not know. But I still had a strange feeling. There were whites and blacks there. There were pastors I knew. But then I saw what was going on. There were no other women there. No one else of the female persuasion. Finally, a colleague I knew well told me that this was a breakfast for men only. But I got an invitation. Well, the person sending out the invitations made a mistake. Must not have known that I was a woman. Basically, I was not welcome. I did not fit in. Like the eunuch, I did not have the right parts. I was not supposed to be there. The men felt uncomfortable and did not know what do to with me. But I did not leave. I stayed for the whole thing. And listened to their plans for their male movement to work on breaking down racial barriers. They needed to work on gender barriers, too, but they couldn’t see that. I was not wanted and I knew it.

So even though I am white and carry my white privilege, even though I am of secure financial means and can dress appropriately, even though I am well-educated and well-spoken, even though I am a married heterosexual mother of three, I still know what it is to feel that I do not belong, that I do not fit in, that I am not accepted, that I am not welcome. And people are made to feel that way all day, every day in countless settings.

NO ONE SHOULD EVER FEEL THAT WAY IN CHURCH. EVER. Period. Even if you are a white supremacist neo nazi rapist and child molester, you should still feel that this is a place where the people will love you and open their hearts to you and treat you in a way that is compassionate. NO EXCEPTIONS. And that is the message that the world needs to hear loud and clear from the church today.

Peoples’ lives depend on it. Peace in homes, communities, and between nations depends on it. Our US democracy depends on it. The well-being of the planet itself depends on it. This is not feel-good blather. This is core to the harmonious functioning of civilization.

Jesus goes beyond the borders of his religious tradition in so many ways to make this message known: God’s love includes everyone. Every single person is created in the image of God. And Philip is dropped down in Samaria, and then in the wilderness, and then in Azotus, another foreign territory, to make the same point. Whether the people want to hear it or not. The love of God encompasses everyone.

We, too, are called to proclaim this message. Now, it’s pretty easy here where we mostly agree about this. And with our friends and family that mostly feel this way. But, like Philip, we are called to be snatched up and plunked down in situations that feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and maybe even unwelcoming and unreceptive, and to proclaim the bold and daring all-encompassing love of God. Maybe we even need to be seeking out these situations. We can proclaim the open borders of Divine Love with gentleness. We can do it with love. We can do it with compassion. But we MUST do it, and we must do it with strength and conviction. Whether the message is welcome or not. Whether we feel comfortable or not. Whether it is safe or not. The church, you and I, need to dismantle every border and boundary and barrier to the full humanity of every single homo sapiens sapiens. We must be a people of open borders. 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 Earth Sunday 4.22.18

Scripture Lesson: Acts 3:1-20a
Sermon: A Season of Refreshment
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In the Harry Potter books, there are three unforgivable curses. One is the cruciatus curse. This involves inflicting extreme torture. A second one is the imperious curse. This curse controls the actions of another person. And the third unforgivable curse is avada kedavra, the killing curse. In the world of Harry Potter, these three curses cannot be forgiven.

When we think of the world of Christianity, what are the things that cannot be forgiven? Certainly real live people, in the actual world, do horrific things, cause unimaginable pain and death, and devise schemes of extreme evil. We humans are quite capable of torture, control and slavery, and, yes, death, even grand killing schemes responsible for the deaths of millions. Yet, in the world of Christianity, in the teachings of Jesus, in the tradition of the Bible, what is unforgivable?

Peter and John are part of the community of followers of Jesus staying in Jerusalem. After the crucifixion they remain in Jerusalem first afraid and then emboldened by their experiences of Jesus. They are confirmed in their conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. And as we heard today they are still devout Jews going to the Temple for services. They have not abandoned their religious tradition. They have not founded a new religion. They are functioning very much within Judaism trying to extend its influence and inviting others to experience the saving love of Jesus as they have.

So Peter and John go to the Temple and encounter a lame person who is put just outside the Temple gate each afternoon before services begin so that the worshippers will pass by and give him alms. Peter and John have no money for him, so instead they offer him healing. And the man gets up and not only walks, but leaps and dances, through the gate and into the Temple. His infirmity marked him as a sinner and so he was not permitted into the Temple precincts, but now, healed, he may enter the Temple, he is restored not only in body, but he is restored to full participation in the faith community.

And what accounts for this healing? Peter and John take no credit. It is not because of them. It is because of Jesus. It is the power of the name of Jesus that is responsible for the healing of this man. The power of Jesus’ love is so great it restores health, wholeness, and relationship. Jesus, the Just One, the Holy One, the Author of Life, Jesus is the one responsible for this healing.

In light of this extravagant display of the great power and love of Jesus, Peter reminds those present that they are responsible for the killing of Jesus. It’s almost like he is rubbing salt in the wound. Yeah, ya know, the guy you killed, he healed this man. Yeah, he’s that good. He’s that “of God.” And you killed him. Peter sees that some may have been party to Jesus’ death unknowingly. He acknowledges ignorance. But still, many of those to whom he speaks had a hand in the killing of Jesus; were perhaps part of the crowd that yelled, “Crucify him!” But Peter doesn’t stop with an accusation, with pointing the finger, with guilt. He goes on to offer forgiveness. Just as the lame man has been healed and restored to the community, forgiveness and restoration is offered to those who are responsible for the death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus, this worst thing imaginable, even this is forgivable. With God, in Divine Grace, nothing is unforgivable. There are no unforgivable sins. Not even one.

This Sunday is Earth Day. And yes, we all give thanks for the beauty of Creation. We know our dependence upon the Earth for life. We cherish nature. We marvel and awe at the ever expanding cosmos. We see the goodness and holiness of Creation ever before us. But this is also a Sunday to be reminded that we are in part responsible for the abuse, the degradation, and perhaps the collapse of the life-sustaining environment on Earth as we know it. Humans have known of their effect for good and ill on the environment and on the climate for centuries. Humans have known the negative impact of fossil fuels for decades. And if we may not feel personally responsible, we may at least acknowledge ignorance. We didn’t know. And we didn’t know what to do about it.

But now we do know much more about what is happening. And we do know much more about what to do about it. Fossil fuel usage contributed much to human advancement, but humanity has developed the capacity to progress even further using sustainable energy sources, and yet we are resisting the transition, the change, to this new future. We have been holding on to the past and now, yes, it is killing us.

I have a friend and colleague who is black and is rightly concerned about the killing of black people in America; the deaths attributable to racism from violence and poverty. It is unacceptable for unarmed black children to be shot dead especially by police who are committed to protect and to serve. I get that. It horrifies me as well.

But when I mention that even more black people are dying of toxins in the air, water, and land, that is dismissed as irrelevant. My friend sees environmentalism as a cushy concern of people like me with white privilege. I can worry about plastic straws and solar panels because my kids aren’t being killed. But restoring the environment is as least as important as other concerns because the first people suffering the negative effects of climate change and pollution are often, well, people of color. Usually poor and brown. In America, in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Asia. Climate change is contributing to conflicts around the world, including the civil war in Syria, and exacerbating the refugee crisis which is fueling the white supremacist movement worldwide which brings us right back to an unarmed black child being shot asking for directions about how to get to school right here in America.

Our tradition teaches that Creation, the Earth, the environment is holy and sacred. A gift to be revered and cherished – like Jesus. And we are killing it, as we did Jesus. But we, too, can be forgiven, restored, and given new life with the power to transform ourselves and the world to our intended health and wholeness. Just like those who are responsible for the death of Jesus, like the disciples who deserted Jesus, fled, and denied him, and were restored and forgiven, we too are offered new life with the boldness and courage to proclaim the sacredness of Earth and the entire cosmos.

Part of that transformation process is forgiveness. Forgiveness can relieve us of making excuses for the past. It can free us from defending past choices. Forgiveness can unburden us and allow grace to flow freely and infuse us with the power and energy for change. Humanity has the know-how and the resources to reverse climate change and to renew the natural world. What is needed is the will, the commitment, and the desire. Through repentance and forgiveness may we find new life in the name of the Just One, the Holy One, the Author of Life, the one who unjustly died a horrific death. Because in our reality, in the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there are no unforgivable sins and the power of healing and new life is never dead to us. 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.

After the sermon, there was a litany of confession:

VIDUI FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY from the Jewish tradition

ALL:
We confess our sins against the earth.
We commit ourselves to saving it.

We have assaulted our planet in countless ways
We have blamed others for the spiraling, deepening crisis
We have consumed thoughtlessly and irresponsibly
We have driven myriad species to the point of extinction
We have exhausted irreplaceable resources
We have failed to transcend borders and act unselfishly
We have given in to our many appetites and our gluttony
We have harmed beyond repair the habitats of living beings
We have ignored the signs of change in our climate and our seasons
We have jeopardized the well-being of future generations
We have known the problem but left problem-solving to others
We have lost sight of our role as God’s partners in creation
We have mocked, cynically, those who love creatures great and small
We have neglected the environment, most of all, in places of poverty
We had over-populated our cities and over-fished our oceans
We have polluted seashore and sky, fertile soil and freshwater springs
We have questioned and doubted solid evidence of danger
We have ravaged the old growth forests – ecosystems created over centuries
We have spewed poison into the bloodstream of our land: its rivers, lakes, and estuaries
We have transformed dazzling beauty into industrial ugliness
We have used shared resources for personal gain and corporate profit
We have violated the commandment “Do not destroy”
We have wasted precious treasures, our God-given gifts
We have exploited the weakest and most vulnerable in our midst

ALL:
And yet we yearn to be better guardians of this earth and the fullness thereof
Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos, this planet – our sacred home.

After the litany, the congregation was invited outside for a special Ritual of Healing.

RITUAL OF HEALING

Reflections on air.

You are invited to breathe in – breathe out. Take several deep breaths.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing of the air.

Reflections on water.

You are invited to come to the fountain and dip your hand in the water, feel the sensation, so natural and yet so unique. Life-giving. Life- sustaining. As the touch of water led to understanding for Helen Keller, may the touch of water help us to understand that we are water, we come from water, water is our life.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing of the waters.

Reflections on plants.

You are invited to raise your arms and spread them, wave them, like the limbs of a great tree. May our upraised arms remind us to branch out in faith and service!

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing of forests, trees, and plants.

Reflections on animals.

You are invited to look for an animal, a sign of animal life – right here, right now. And be reminded that we have been entrusted with the care orc each and every creature.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos –
We commit ourselves to the healing and restoration of animal life.

Reflections on earth, soil.

You are invited to touch the ground, the earth. Maybe take your shoes off and feel the ground under your feet.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos,
We commit ourselves to the healing of earth.

Reflections on humanity.

You are invited to touch someone, someone near you, in a way that is mutually agreeable. Notice the person you are touching. Feel the hand of the person who is touching you, the sensation on your flesh. The laying on of hands has long been a powerful symbol of healing and authority. As we touch each other, we claim our authority as healers of humanity and of creation.

Let us be zealous now to care for this unique corner of the cosmos,
We commit ourselves to the healing of humanity.

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Sermon 4.29.18 Love Is Kind of Crazy

Scripture Lesson: 1 John 3:16-24
Sermon: Love Is Kind of Crazy
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Barely 30 years old, divorced for the second time, and the mother of 7 children, Dolores Huerta left her home in Stockton, CA where she was working as a teacher and community organizer to work on forming a labor organization for farmworkers. There was no promise of an income, a salary, health insurance, nothing. But as she puts it, “I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolores_Huerta] So she left home and job to take on this problem. Now why does someone do something like that? If Huerta was poor and suffering from the horrific working conditions of farm workers, she would be doing it to help herself as well as others. But Huerta was not a farm worker. As she told the audience at Eckerd College this week, she is a 6th generation American. Her mother was a successful business woman running a hotel and a restaurant. Huerta grew up with piano lessons and season tickets to the symphony. She was a majorette and a Girl Scout. [http://doloreshuerta.org/dolores-huerta/] And as an adult, she was working as a teacher and in a community service center. She was a professional. And yet she left all of this, a single mother with her children to care for, and moved to a distant community to work for human rights for farm workers because she was alarmed by the awful living and working conditions that the farm workers were forced to endure. In 1988, Huerta was severely beaten by police during a non violent demonstration. Her injuries were extreme. She was truly putting her life on the line to end injustice.

How do we explain something like this? Making such a radical choice? Enduring such suffering? After hearing the New Testament reading this morning, we know what this drastic, self sacrificing action is. It is love. In her own way, Huerta was laying down her life for the lives of others. I have to tell you, Huerta is an inspiration. At 88 years old, she has the vigor – intellectual and verbal – of someone half her age, and she has passion to match the room full of college students that gathered to hear her speak. Today she addresses her efforts to far more than farm workers. She supports full human rights for every single person. No matter what. She is committed to social change on every front and she believes this can only happen through non violent organizing. Divine Love was definitely present in Fox Hall at Eckerd College Thursday night.

Yes, packing up your kids and heading into an unknown future with little promise of security of any kind, that’s crazy. It’s also love. And love is kind of crazy.

Many songs explore the inanity and insanity of romantic love and I’m sure we can think of many examples. People do all kinds of crazy things for their romantic partner. Parents do crazy things out of love for their children. But the craziness of love extends beyond familial love to Divine Love, the love we see in Jesus. As we heard today, Jesus, out of love, laid down his life. Gave it up. How crazy is that? Think about it. If he had done it differently, he could have kept preaching and teaching and healing for decades. Think of all the good he could have done if his ministry had been so much longer. There could have been many volumes of his sermons and teachings to inspire future generations. But no. After 3 years, he laid down his life. He chose to give up his life. He opted for self sacrifice, for martyrdom, rather than self protection. Why? Love.

Jesus’ love, his full and free love of all people put him at odds with people who wanted to protect their power. The more he loved the more threatened they felt and the more hostile they became. But Jesus would not relent in his loving. And the antagonism grew to fatal proportions. The only way to avoid death was to hold back on the love. And he couldn’t do that. So Jesus chose death. He laid down his life. Yes, it’s crazy.

And there is a back side or underbelly to this laying down your life, choosing to face death. Those committed to the way of Jesus will lay down their lives, but they will not take a life. Ever. The Jesus followers of the first century were persecuted, tortured, and killed. But they did not take a life. They did not engage in violent activity of any kind. They emulated the pacifism of Jesus. We see this, too, in Dolores Huerta and in the farm worker movement. No violence. Of any kind. Under any circumstances.

The Jesus way of love is extreme. We read in the New Testament of people leaving home and family and job essentially for love. We are told of people selling land and possessions and all that they have and living in common out of love. We are told of people being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for love. To our thinking in our culture these things seem irrational, unreasonable, not prudent, even irresponsible. Yes, love is kind of crazy.

And the message of the New Testament is that those who follow Jesus, those who have been called to life in his name, are to do the same and commit to this extreme kind of love. They are to love one another to the point of laying down their lives for one another. Radical? Fanatic? Yes, pretty crazy.

A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon about the importance of factuality and reason- based religion in this age of fake news and personally constructed realities. I talked about the need for rationality in religion. Yes, facts and reason are important. But love is the complement. It is the completion. It is the both/and of faith. Divine Love, with its seeming irrationality and imprudence and extremism, challenges us to put our intellect and reason and our moral vision to work at the highest level. With full commitment. In the extreme. So, yes, Divine Love can look kind of crazy!

This crazy kind of love is needed today as much if not more than it was in the first century. And it was as crazy then as it is now. The words we heard from the New Testament remind us that our faith is about more than just saying something or praying something. It is about taking action. Action that may be drastic. Extreme. Even laying down our lives.

Now, such opportunities for heroism, giving up your life for someone else, may be rare. So the writer of 1 John extends the expression of love from the extreme of giving up your life out of love to offering help to those who are in need in some way. First John asks: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

So even if we can’t see how we would lay down our lives we can see that there is great need in our families, in our communities, and in the world. So there is no lack of opportunity to address ourselves to the needs of the world in ways that are seemingly extreme and radical as Dolores Huerta did. So when you feel some kind of urge to do something wild, seemingly irrational, outrageous, pay attention. It might be Divine Love seeking expression in you!

When you think about it, people in our culture appear to be making sacrifices all of time. But are they self giving sacrifices made from a place of love? Or are they ultimately self serving? Made to comply with cultural norms especially around economic and material gain? Are the sacrifices made out of self interest and self protection?

The love we heard about this morning, the love that Jesus commands, is love for others, all others. It is love that sacrifices for the well being of others especially those who are in the most need. It is love that takes risks for those who are in need and who are suffering; stranger as well as friend and family.

I read some years back about a child rescued after an earthquake. [I don’t know remember the origin of this story.] There were many people buried and many who had come to help. A reporter watched as a man dug a child out from a very dangerous location. The man was clearly risking his life to save the child. He got the boy out and then carried the injured child to a taxi that would take them to the hospital. The boy’s life was in peril. The reporter got in the cab with the man and the boy. She watched as the man cradled the boy and kissed him and said soothing things to him. As they rode to the hospital, the reporter wanted to complete her notes for the article she would write. She asked the man his name. He replied. Then she asked the man the name of the boy. He looked at her. Confused. He explained to the reporter, I do not know the boy. I have never seen him before today.

“We know love by this – that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. . . Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Love. It is kind of crazy. 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 50th Anniversary – Rev. Angela V. Wells

Scripture Lesson: Colossians 3:12-17
Sermon: A Third Way
Pastor: Rev. Angela V. Wells

I went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City for graduate school from 2009-2012. My entering class had probably 150 or so people in it. The first-year Master of Divinity students took a lot of classes together, including Introduction to the Old Testament, Introduction to the New Testament, Systematic Theology, Church History, and so on and so forth.

During our class discussions, and in the library, and other informal gatherings around campus, I could see that my classmates were struggling in a way that I was not. Now, I was no expert, I was one of the youngest in our class, fresh out of college. I had less life experience and formal education than many of the people in our entering class, so I tried to figure out what in the world these people were grappling with that I… wasn’t.

It turned out that many of my classmates were raised in Christian traditions that were, well, suffice it to say, different from the context in which I was raised. They were from the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the American Baptist church, the Episcopal church, the Methodist church, the African Methodist Episcopal church and the list went on. What I eventually came to understand was that my classmates were struggling with trying to reconcile what they’d been taught in their home churches with what they were learning in seminary.

At home, they had either implicitly or explicitly been taught that Christianity was the only right way, now in seminary, we were being taught classes by a man named Paul Knitter, who wrote a book entitled, Without Buddha, I Could Not Be a Christian. At home, they’d been taught that the Gospel stories about Jesus’ life were historically accurate, that these events, these miracles literally took place.

In seminary, we were being taught that the different Gospel accounts of the same stories were written at different times, by different people, with different political motivations. So these facts made it really hard for anyone to know what literally took place, what didn’t, and how Jesus’ life actually played out. Not to mention the fact that in our language classes, we were learning that one Hebrew or Greek word could have upwards of 10 or more English equivalents, and the English word that the biblical translator chose could significantly affect the meaning of the whole sentence or larger story. AND, remember that the first texts written down, Paul’s writings, were written starting about 30 years after Jesus died, so we can be pretty sure that none of the Gospel accounts were written by first-hand witnesses because they were all long dead by the time any of this was put on paper.

I was fine with all this information. I absorbed it, with varying levels of enthusiasm or interest, but I certainly wasn’t bothered by any of it, I wasn’t struggling with this new information. But my classmates were another story. Some of them were even having crises of faith, questioning all that they’d been taught in their churches up to that point, questioning so many of the sermons they’d heard, Bible studies they’d sat through, and so on. They were trying to figure out whether what they’d been taught by beloved pastors, mentors, parents, friends, and Sunday School teachers was “right,” or what they were learning in seminary was “right,” because they couldn’t reconcile the two.

My experience was vastly different. What I was learning in seminary completely aligned with all that I had been raised with. It resonated with the sermons I heard, the family discussions we had around the dinner table. All the puzzle pieces fit together for me.

For example, one day, in our Preaching and Worship class, our professor spent the day talking about the hymnal that we used in our chapel at seminary, also the hymnal that you all use, the New Century Hymnal. She talked about the controversy over changing the words to hymns. She talked about the theological reasoning behind removing militaristic imagery and regal imagery like king and kingdom. She talked about why they removed the word Lord and didn’t use the male pronoun for God in any of the hymns, unless the female pronoun was used as well. Some of my classmates were aghast, they thought this was sacrilegious. The editors had butchered their beloved hymns that they had memorized from childhood.

I sheepishly raised my hand and offered another perspective. I told them that I was raised with this hymnal. That my home church didn’t use male pronouns for God and I liked that our hymnal’s vocabulary matched the language we used in the rest of the service. I said that the words to the beloved hymns that I had memorized were the words of the New Century Hymnal. They were my “original” version of the hymns. The new way, the new vocabulary, it wasn’t new to me, because it was all I knew.

They say that you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, and I can admit that I didn’t fully appreciate Lakewood until I was exposed to the wider world of churches and Christianity. You see, this church is a gift to Christianity because in a black and white world of dichotomies and either/ors, Lakewood presents a third way. I didn’t know it was a third way until much later in life, because, during my childhood it as all I knew, I thought it was just how church was done. But most Christians in the world know of two ways, and the problem is that an increasing number of people can’t see themselves in either of those two ways. The third way is a lifeline for people who are seeking something, who want to be part of a Christian community, but can’t find belonging in either of the two ways our society offers. So, what are these two ways?

The first way is dogmatic Christianity as we hear about it in the news and from traditional/conservative preachers and public speakers. It’s the Christianity, which professes that Jesus is God-incarnate and rose from the dead on the third day. This Christianity professes the doctrinal truth of the trinity, that God is 3-in-one, Father, Holy Spirit, and Son. This Christianity subscribes to substitutionary atonement, or the belief that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world, to atone for the original sin that Adam and Eve committed. This Christianity teaches that God loved the world so much that God sent his only son to die for us. This Christianity usually takes the Bible literally, lifting it up as the inerrant word of God. This Christianity professes that God is a theistic being which created the world and still has control over something so vast as the cosmos and something so minute as our individual lives. This Christianity teaches that prayer is a way to appeal to, or talk to this God. We ask for what we want and if we don’t get it, it’s because we are not faithful enough, didn’t pray hard enough, or it’s just not God’s will for us.

I can understand if some of this is making you bristle or cringe, which is why you feel at home at Lakewood and not any of the other thousands of churches in our country. Lots of people who are looking for a community of faith can’t get on board with most of this, regardless of whether they were raised Christian. They can’t subscribe to the magical thinking, suspension of reason and logic, ignorance of historical and scientific truths, not to mention the exclusiveness of it, because in this first way, Christianity is the only way. So, people who just can’t be part of this faith tradition, they either cobble together something on their own such as “spiritual but not religious,” or they do away with all of it and call themselves an Atheist.

This is the second way. Such people back up their argument with all the statistics about how many wars have been fought in the name of religion, and that we’d be better off not having any organized religion at all. They might tell you how religious people meddle in politics to the detriment of society and, by the way, there is no God, so let’s stop pretending there is and just get rid of all houses of worship.

I can understand if this second way also makes you cringe because, since you are part of a faith community, I presume you see the value in it. You see the importance of coming together with people that have the same values to celebrate all that is good in the world, lament when things aren’t good, and work together to change them. We happen to do all this in the name of Jesus, whom we follow.

This is the third way that Lakewood is following, which is a lifeline to people who want to be part of a faith tradition, who want to be part of a community that recognizes all that around us is sacred and so we’re committed to protecting it for the sake of all life.

You all engage our Holy Scriptures, but you don’t believe that critiquing them, questioning them, or learning about their origins is somehow threatening to their inherent worth. The fact that you all can say that the Bible is valuable because of all that it teaches us through its stories, not because it’s historically accurate or because it was written by God through men, is revolutionary.

The fact that you all engage scientific advancements as being amazing and awe-inspiring because they reveal more and more to us about the vast, unknown universe, and that science isn’t threatening to our beliefs but reinforces what we know to be true, that we are not the center of the universe, is reassuring and humbling.

The fact that you all don’t ask people to check their critical thinking skills or their rationality at the door, and that you all put on your shoes and use your hands and turn your “thoughts and prayers” into action, you all are what Christianity needs.

If the church continues to insist that people buy into the first way, well, Christianity might continue to exist in some form, but it’ll be small and irrelevant because most people won’t buy into the that myth anymore. But if we continue to expand the third way, that people can have a faith practice that aligns with their worldview and encourages their political participation, in the name of following Jesus, then the church will thrive in the future.

Lakewood is so needed at this moment in time, because you all, church and pastor, encourage engaging our faith with our lived reality. As the famous theologian Karl Barth said that, “one must do theology with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.”

Now, I know that Lakewood is a small church, always has been for as long as I have been around. But I lovingly call it “the little church that could.” Because I know you all worry about finances and getting a new roof and paying bills and staff salaries, and maybe there have been times when you’ve wondered whether Lakewood could stay solvent long enough to have a future.

Well let me tell you, it’s lonely at the front. You are at the forefront of a religious sea change, the rest of us just haven’t caught up yet. The third way that this congregation offers is life-giving to people who are longing for community, critical thinking and social justice through following Jesus Christ.
Don’t tell my church this, but you’re also having an impact up north because a lot of what I do, and much of the information that I share with my colleagues in the Boston area, is inspired by what you all are doing, down here. So your influence extends far and wide beyond St. Pete.

Sometimes the future might seem bleak, and the road ahead won’t always be easy, but it is necessary for the future of our faith. So please, keep being you, keep being trail-blazers, because the rest of us, who also are seeking a 3rd way, we are looking to you all to set the pace.

Thanks be to God for this community of faith, Lakewood United Church of Christ, as it was, as it is, and as it is yet to be. Amen.

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Sermon Easter Sunrise – Fully Known, Fully Loved

Easter Sunday April 1, 2018
Scripture Lesson: John 20:1-18
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It is painted, sung about, and immortalized. That moment in the Easter story from the Gospel of John when Mary meets Jesus in the graveyard. She does not recognize him until he says her name. Mary. In the name is the knowing. It just takes the name and we know that this is a reference to the identity of the person, the history, the experiences, the inner feelings, the relationships, the habits, the quirks, the foibles, the full sense of Mary’s being. In that moment, Mary is made aware that she is fully known.

Jesus is known for fully knowing. He is known for knowing people as they truly are, not as they may perceive themselves nor as they may be perceived by others. His is a true knowing. A knowing in full not in part.

We see this in story after story in the New Testament. In the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, he mentions that she has had five husbands. That is not something that she would have been advertising about herself. Yet he knew. Probably everyone else in her town was spreading the word. And we are shown a Jesus who knows this. And he still asks her for water. And he still gives her living water. And she goes to offer this saving gift to the people of her town who have doubtless tormented her. Fully known.

The gospels share a story of Jesus finding a group of men ready to stone a woman for adultery. She makes no plea of innocence. Fully known. But in the story, Jesus turns to those with the rocks at the ready, arms drawn back, and says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” They, too, are fully known.

In another story, Zacchaeus, a notorious hated upper crust financial functionary, climbs a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. And Jesus stops and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus knows all about Zacchaeus and his cheating and his greed. Zacchaeus is fully known.

And there is the story of a rich young ruler. He comes to Jesus desperately seeking life in God. Jesus knows this man. He knows there is just one thing. And the rich young man cannot accept Jesus’ offer. And Jesus is sad, so sad, for he knows this man.

We are told that Jesus knows those who initiate his execution. He knows those who adjudicate his trial. He knows the governor who can stay his execution, but does not. He knows the thieves that are crucified with him. Jesus knows them all. They are fully know.

Just that one word, in the cemetery, “Mary.” She is fully known. As are so many others. Nothing is hidden.

And what of these people who are fully known? With their past. With the evil intentions of their hearts. With their cheating and stealing. With their self absorption and greed. With their lust for power. With their self protectionist proclivities. What of this sorry lot? We are shown a Jesus who knows it all. They are fully known. Not in a clairvoyant, woo woo, supernatural way. But in a sincere, insightful, honest way that comes from paying attention and listening and caring.

We are also shown something else about Jesus. All of these people, all of the people healed and forgiven. The crowds. The women. The townspeople. The corrupt leaders. The hypocritical priests. The executioners. The disciples. All of them are fully known. And they are also fully loved. Loved for their full humanity and all of its imperfections. Loved for all of their misguided schemes. Loved for all of their hopes and dreams. Loved for all of their pain, grief, and guilt. Loved because of who they are. Loved in spite of who
they are. Fully known. Fully loved.

We may not know all about Jesus. We may hardly know his story. But all we really need to know is about the love. For each and every person. Because at the core, each and every one of us is holy and sacred. And because of that, we are worthy to be loved. Before anything we do or say, we are beloved. Because of everything we do and say, we are beloved. In spite what we do and say, we are beloved. And there’s nothing we can do about it. We are fully known and fully loved in the reality of God.

In the book, The Song of the Bird, Anthony De Mello shares this story:

I was a neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. And everyone kept telling me to change. And everyone kept telling me how neurotic I was. And I resented them, and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but I just couldn’t bring myself to change, no matter how hard I tried.
What hurt the most was that my best friend also kept telling me how neurotic I was. He too kept insisting that I change. And I agreed with him too, though I couldn’t bring myself to resent him. And I felt so powerless and so trapped.
Then one day he said to me, “Don’t change. Stay as you are. It really doesn’t matter whether you change or not. I love you just as you are; I cannot help loving you.”
These words sounded like music to my ears: “Don’t change. Don’t change. Don’t change. I love you.”
And I relaxed. And I came alive. And, oh wondrous marvel, I changed.

[Quoted in 25 Windows into the Soul: Praying with the Psalms, from the writings of Joan Chittister, p. 78]

Yes, the story of the encounter between Jesus and Mary in the garden is famous for that one word, “Mary,” showing us that we are fully known and fully loved. But there is another phrase in that story that is also well-remembered. Jesus asks Mary, “Why are you weeping?” Why are you weeping?

Do we weep because of this great love? We are fully known and fully loved. Does the enormity of it bring us to tears? Why are we weeping? Are we weeping in repentance? Seeking the healing of forgiving love? Why are we weeping? Are we weeping because the awareness that we are fully known and fully loved makes our compassion for ourselves, others and the world well up? Why are we weeping? Is it because in spite of this love, we will continue to hurt ourselves and others? Why are we weeping? Is it because we have not been able to say yes to this belovedness?

Why are we weeping? This Easter, may we know that we are fully known and fully loved and may we weep tears of joy. 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 Palm Sunday – Ashes to Ashes: Life Before Death

Sunday March 25, 2018

Rev. Kim P. Wells

We began the Lenten season with ashes on Ash Wednesday. We reminded ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Death is the great fact of life. Real. True. Undisputed. No fake news, here. Death is democratic and egalitarian and inclusive. If you’re alive, there is one thing you can be sure of. You will die. Everyone dies.

This week, we remember one particular death. One very specific, cruel death. And this, too, is real. Factual. No fake news. While there is not much that can be historically verified about the life of Jesus, about his death, there is agreement. He was put to death on a cross. This was the Roman punishment for traitors, insurrectionists, and people who were thought to be threats to the Empire. Apparently, Jesus’ influence had become so great, that the Roman authorities could be convinced that he was a threat to their power in the territory of Palestine, already known for being rebellious.

So this week, we remember the death of Jesus. His death on the cross. But his death only really matters, only really is remembered, only really has meaning for us today, because of his life. Jesus lived his life in the reality of God. He breathed in and out unconditional, universal love. When he looked at a person, any person, he could only see a beloved, sacred, Divine being. And he, himself, was the most fully human human being.

Jesus knew that he was a wanted man by the authorities in Jerusalem. He knew they wanted him dead. We know from books and movies and TV that when there is a death threat, the person heads the other way, hides out, steers clear of the source of the threat. Not Jesus. He knew the threat was in Jerusalem. The capital. Where there was a concentration of religious power and political power. In collusion. Which typically results in corruption. And that is where he goes. And he doesn’t sneak in. We’re told he makes an entrance. In a parade. Not military style on a strapping steed with armaments in tow but on a donkey, the way strewn cloaks and with branches from nearby trees. Jesus imbues a traditional image, the military procession, with new meaning. He is not coming from having killed others in defense of the Empire. He is coming to be killed, to face his own death, because he is perceived as a threat to the Empire.

When we think of facing fear or a threat with our natural human instincts our response is typically fight or flight. Jesus chooses another way. He chooses the way of sacrificial love. He proceeds to his death not with resignation, but with strength, courage, and defiance, infused with compassion, meekness, and humility. It a rare and beautiful combination. Because of the way Jesus lived, because of the way he faces his death, because in him we see love conquering fear, the death penalty, the crucifixion, will not silence his voice, as his killers hope, but will amplify it so that his message is still powerfully heard today.

According to the gospel of John, in his last evening with his friends, his last opportunity to get across the main point, the big picture, the core concept, Jesus washes the feet of his friends. A humble, servile act. And he gives a new commandment – to “love one another as I have loved you.” Love and serve. That’s what he did. He didn’t just talk about it. He did it.

And he did this up to the very last moment of his life. We are given the tradition of Jesus forgiving even those responsible for his execution. We remember his death because of the way he lived his life.

The way you live is the way you die. Jesus shows us Divine Love that is not intimidated by fear or violence or hatred. When we live in that love, we need have no fear. Not even of death. Amen.

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Sermon 2.4.18 Healing Faith

Scripture Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 12.31.17 Get Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you Jesus?” she asked impatiently.

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve Devotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gulfcoast Legal Services to Receive Christmas Offering

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

Jena Blair of the LUCC church family works at Gulfcoast:

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

Thank you,
Jena

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Advent Devotion 12.23.17 Beyond Giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.22.17 JOY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.21.17 Born of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.20.17 Ponder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.19.17 Reorientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advent Devotion 12.18.17 Long, dark nights. . .

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

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

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

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

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

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