Sermon Thanksgiving Sunday 11.19.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon All Saints Sunday 11.5.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon World Communion Sunday 10.1.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 8.27.17 The Power of the Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For information about Florence Spearing Randolph, please see:

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

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

 

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Sermon 8.20.17 Living in the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I said, “I did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon UCC Identity 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 5.21.17 Following Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Memorial Day 5.28.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Easter Festival 4.16.17

Love on the Loose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie Foxx is famous for being an actor and comedian.

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

Different people are famous for different things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Easter Sunrise 4.16.17

“From Fear to Courage”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 4.2.17 “Dead Again”

Scripture Lesson: Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 3.12.17 “To Bless the Earth”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 2/26/17 The Mountain Top Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon February 12, 2017 Spiritual Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon – Feb. 5, 2017 Salt and Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what will it be at your place? Turkey roasted? Smoked? Fried? And how about the pie? Amen.

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

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Sermon – Nov. 13, 2016 “People Are People”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Oct. 30, 2016 “The Fear Factor”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition to The Climb, other sources for consulted include:
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
Climbing High: A Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy, Lene Gammelgaard
High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, David B. Breashears and Michael Gross
Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, Beck Weathers and Stephen G. Michaud
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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Sermon Sept. 25, 2016 “Investment Strategies” Jeremiah 32

Date: Sunday Sept. 25, 2016
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Sermon: Investment Strategies
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Many times we’ve heard the song, “I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona, from the front porch you can see the sea. . .” Obviously a bad land deal. Maybe even worse than the land deal that Jeremiah makes in the story we heard this morning.

In a very public display, Jeremiah spends a lot of his own money on a field that will not produce any return for him. No food. No development. No beautification. He will never personally benefit from this transaction. It will not come to fruition of any kind in his lifetime. And he knows it. The land is probably the location for the encampment of the occupying Babylonian army. It is not likely to be under the control of Judah in the foreseeable future. So why is Jeremiah buying this field? He is showing his peers and the authorities and the occupying enemy that despite what they are doing, despite the power they have now, God’s way will prevail. God’s people will live on that land in a way that is just and equitable and compassionate and be a light to the nations. It may take a while, but God will have the last word. Jeremiah would be in agreement with the man in the grocery store checkout line who told me, “Here’s what I know. Good always wins out. Sometimes it’s just a little slow.” So, Jeremiah buys a field but more than that he makes a public display of his investment in God’s dreams for the future.

So what do we see as God’s dreams for the future? For our communities and our country? For humanity and for the Earth? Surely we know God intends for humanity to live in peace. God wants the Earth itself to be clean and healthy and thriving. God desires an end to injustice and poverty and oppression and racism. We can imagine God desiring the flourishing of the human intellect and spirit. Strong relationships and bonds of solidarity in families and communities of mutual support and care. The valuing of each and every life, human and nonhuman as part of a sacred whole. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” We can think of a world where the children of Israelis and Palestinians, North Koreans and South Koreans, ISIL and Westerners, sit down together at a table of peace.

A closer look at the Jeremiah story will help us to see how we can increase our commitment and our investment in God’s dreams for humanity.

First, Jeremiah takes the long view. That is something we see again and again in scripture. Prophets, teachers, leaders, and people of faith take a long view. Moses never saw the promised land. Abraham didn’t know where he was going to end up when he set out as a ninety-something-year-old for a new land or if he would even get there. They take the long view. Sometimes I think that can hold us back from investing in God’s future. We want to see results. We want quantifiable goals that are achievable. We are acculturated to immediacy; we want everything now, or in the next election cycle. That’s as far as our vision goes. Some years ago, the church hosted an intern from Germany. When she got here and people took her out to eat, she was so surprised that the server came to the table right away. The food was brought so quickly. And the check appeared as soon as the food was finished. She thought it was as if they were trying to get rid of you, get you out of the restaurant. She said in Germany, it would be considered rude to have the service be so fast. People went out to eat as a social event, to talk, visit, tell stories, enjoy their time together. They did not want to be rushed.

Jeremiah was never going to personally benefit from the purchase of the field. The documents are put in an earthenware jar, a sign that they are to be preserved for a very long time – think Dead Sea Scrolls. This was clearly an investment, a symbolic gesture to others, of Jeremiah’s trust in God’s future. When we look at Jeremiah taking the long view, we are reminded that a role of the church is to help us look at a bigger picture, not only in scope, taking in all reality and all of Creation but also all of time. “A thousand ages in God’s sight are but an evening gone,” the psalmist declares. Faith involves taking a long view when it comes to investing in God’s future. It is not about immediate pay off. Maybe we aren’t reconciled with someone for years. Maybe the forgiveness we have offered is not received for decades. Maybe the seeds we plant and tend for peace and justice don’t come to full fruit for years and years, maybe not even in our lifetime. We want to think about what future generations will see when they look back on our ministry. How will they benefit from what we have done to invest in God’s dreams? It can be hard to think about making an investment, particularly a significant investment of time, money, and energy, when we may not see any return. It can be much more satisfying to help someone and see the direct result. There is nothing wrong with that unless we let it prevent us from also taking a long view and investing in the long term hopes and dreams of God for Creation.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and one of the most influential American thinkers of the mid 20th century reminds us, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” He knew the story of Jeremiah and the field at Anathoth.

There is a second thing that we learn from the story of Jeremiah and the purchase of the field. And it comes in part from pairing of this story with the verses from 1 Timothy that are assigned for this week in the lectionary, the three year cycle of scripture readings that we use in church each Sunday. From Timothy, we heard that oft quoted line, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

Some may be thinking, they’re always talking about money in church. Well, money, wealth, and economic justice are referenced on practically every page of the Bible. So, a church that takes the Bible seriously is going to be talking about money.

We want to note that the Bible does not say that money is bad, that wealth is bad, that having financial resources is bad. The Good Samaritan had to have money to pay for the care of the man in the ditch as Margaret Thatcher reminded us. But the Bible does say that LOVE of money is a sin. Greed is a sin. Letting yourself be controlled by money prevents you from giving yourself completely to God and God’s will. In another verse in the gospel we are told you can’t serve two masters, God and money.

In the story from Jeremiah, we see the prophet buying a field that is worthless, that will not produce, that he will never materially benefit from. In today’s thinking that seems unwise, wasteful, and stupid. Yet he is doing this to demonstrate to his people and to the establishment that has imprisoned him, that he is not captive to them. He submits only to the authority and will of God. He is banking on God. They can do what they like but he knows that God’s way will triumph in the end. He is showing his faith and trust in God and God alone. Jesus does the same thing especially when he is arrested and crucified. It is a statement that he is not controlled by human authority and power but by the power and authority of God alone.

The Bible helps us to be aware and honest about the power of money and the lure of wealth that may draw us away from God, from trust in God, and from service to God. This is a very real and present threat to our devotion and commitment to the way of Jesus. It can undermine our generosity and service. To be closer to God, to live in a way that is in harmony with all of Creation, to find life and joy in the way of Jesus, we need to be take seriously the role of money in our lives and the power that we give to it. The story from Jeremiah reminds us of this, especially in combination with the verses from Timothy.

Money is a tool and we want to be conscious of how we are using it and what we are doing with it. It is a tool that we can use to invest in God’s hopes and dreams. We can use it to love and serve God. We can use it for our health and well-being. We can use it for the good of the Earth and others. This is what our faith asks of us.

On a societal scale it is much more difficult for us to influence the way that money is perceived and used. We see that love of money and excessive greed can do much harm to people and to the Earth. Some of us watched the movie, “Making A Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” at the Carter Woodson Museum in June. This documentary traces how the love of money drives gun manufacturers to promote gun ownership and laws that protect gun ownership so that they can profit pocketing millions upon millions of dollars. If there were no monetary gain involved in gun ownership, if someone wasn’t profiting financially from gun proliferation, there would be far fewer guns in American homes and cars and trucks. And far fewer gun deaths. Money plays a role in this issue. It is not just about freedom, the Constitution, or self protection. The main factor influencing this issue is money.

The story is similar with energy, oil and coal, specifically, and related industries. If there were not millions of dollars to be made in the fossil fuel energy business we would be off of fossil fuels and on to renewables such as wind and solar in a few years. But those making the millions use their money to buy power over government officials, to support their industry, and to keep alternatives at bay. Instead, they could be investing in alternatives and helping the transition from fossil fuels that might help to preserve the Earth as we know it for future generations. These multinational corporations in the energy industry have the money, resources, and wherewithal to transform the entire US if not the whole world to safe, renewable energy in a short time. But the will is not there. The desire to invest in God’s future is not there. The vision is clouded by greed and love of money. Money is being used as a tool to abuse the Earth rather that to sustain the Earth.

Racism and oppression continue mainly because they have economic implications that benefit some people. Greed and love of money drive much of the suffering in this world. If there was no economic benefit to racism, it would be significantly diminished in short order. I think that is one of the reasons that gay marriage became legal and generally accepted as quickly as it did. It did not have vast economic consequences. It was about rights, legality, and dignity with relatively small financial implications. When vast sums of money are involved things get far more complicated.

Our faith calls us to consider how money can be used to invest in God’s intentions for humanity even though it is very hard to conceive how it might be possible to work for change on a societal level. It is hard enough to think about our own lives, incomes, and roles as investors. We try to be responsible consumers and not let ourselves be overcome by consumerism and debt. Out of a sense of responsibility, we try to foresee what we will need to sustain ourselves in our later years so that we do not become a burden on others or society. We try to be responsible about how we can most effectively use our resources for good in the world. We investigate which organizations have the best track records for using donations effectively. With all of that at a personal level, it can be overwhelming to try think about money issues at the societal level.

Here we are led to a third insight that we are given by the story of the purchase of the field at Anathoth. This buying the field was more than a personal statement or a private investment. Jeremiah was a prophet to the society, and specifically, to the king and the court. His ministry was intended to influence social policy and the government. The same can be said of Jesus. His teachings were not just to help people feel closer to God as individuals. His ministry was about creating the realm of God, the commonwealth of God, the Kingdom of God. It was a communal vision for a social order that was just and compassionate and respectful of the dignity of everyone. So when we think about investing in God’s dreams for humanity, we want to think about the social, communal dimensions of God’s vision as well as the individual and personal aspects of that commitment.

Jeremiah makes a very public display of his purchase of the field. He makes sure the authorities and the community know what he is doing. He makes a display of his trust in God, his investment in God’s future. He is making a very public statement. We are shown that investment in God’s reality involves personal devotion, commitment, and behavior. It also involves having an influence on the society around us, on its values, commitments and policies. There is a very public dimension to our ministry as the church and as individual people of faith.

From this story of Jeremiah, this land deal, we are given guidelines for investing in God’s dreams for humanity. Take the long view. Be intentional about using money as a tool for good. And invest in the wellbeing of humanity on the personal as well as the societal level. This is a significant calling. It may involve changing our attitudes, our behaviors, and our commitments. Sometimes the way we are is well-entrenched and change can be difficult.

This past week, the season shifted, even here in Florida. The Fall equinox occurred marking the separation of Summer and Fall. The cycling of nature continues and brings changes with it though not as drastic here as in some places. When our Florida-raised daughter was in high school, we took a trip to New England in the Fall. The leaves were in full color. Each day, I would point out to her the beauty of the changing leaves. She poo-pooed the whole thing. “Oh mom, do you have to keep bringing that up?” “Yes, I see the leaves.” “What’s the big deal.” Fast forward 7 years and our daughter moved to the Boston area. Her first Fall there, she called me. “Ok, mom. Now I see why you were making such a big deal about the leaves. They are gorgeous.”

The leaves turn their glorious colors and put on a beautiful display of color in the process of dying. From red and yellow and sienna and umber and gold and magenta they will turn to brown and fall to the ground. This makes it possible for the tree to focus its energy in the roots, under the ground, to withstand the winter, so that it can grow new leaves in the Spring. In addition, the dead leaves enrich the soil that feeds the tree. The dying of the leaves sustains the life of the tree.

As we think about how we are called to invest in God’s dreams this first week of Fall, let us be aware that there are things we need to let go of. There are things we need to let die, things we need to shed, so that we may invest freely, with hope and abandon, in God’s vision. There are activities, assumptions, wants, desires, habits, behaviors, relationships, associations, and maybe actual material possessions, that we need to shed, let drop, and allow to wither and fade so that we can be fully rooted and invested in God’s love for the life of the world. Amen.

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

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Sermon Sept. 18, 2016 “As the Birds Fill the Air” Dedication of Peace Pole

Meditation: As the Birds Fill the Air
Date: Sept. 18, 2016 Charter Sunday and Dedication of the Peace Pole
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:6-9 and Matthew 5:1-10
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Noah Strycker spent a year traveling around the world visiting 41 countries in order to identify 6000 different species of birds to set a Guiness Book of World Record. He travelled over 100,000 miles. Strycher spoke about his year-long quest at Eckerd College last week. We heard about all kinds of birds, beginning with the penguin, and all kinds of habitats. We also heard about all kinds of people in many different circumstances and habitats. Literally around the world, Strycher found people not only willing, but eager to help him and host him.

This little vignette is a reminder that not only are there birds all over the world of infinite variety, on all continents, in vast profusion, but there are people all over the world. People who are good. People who desire to be helpful. People who care about others, nature, and the environment. People who are, essentially, living and working for peace in their day to day lives.

Though climates and cultures may differ drastically, people pretty much all over the world want to live in peace. They want to have what they need to live, help others, and make the world a better place. People of all religions of the world are working to promote peace. People from north to south and east to west value dignity, respect, and self determination. We want to be involved in constructive, meaningful work, have loving relationships, and engage with beauty, nature, and the arts. We want to take joy in life. We are, fundamentally, a peace loving species.

On top of that, there are millions of people the world over, who are very intentionally working for peace through constructively developing nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts between people and nations. There are millions of people working to reduce violence in every day life. There are students being trained every year in schools in peer mediation. There are institutes and foundations dedicated to building a more peaceful world.

There are countless people working, volunteering, and giving millions upon millions of dollars to create more peace in the world by promoting healthcare, education, the arts, environmental protection, and empowerment of those with limited resources. These things are the things that make for peace. Peace is not just about not hitting or not shooting or not bombing anyone. Peace is about making life for all stable and meaningful with opportunities for creativity, self determination, and service.

Are there some people and groups that trust violence, believe in violence, use violence, and promote violence for their own interests? Are there people that work against the cultivation of peace? Yes. Such people and groups exist. But they are the minority; maybe the vocal minority but the minority nonetheless. There are anomalies in every species. But I believe the vast majority of people on this precious planet desire peace and are willing to work for it in ways large and small.

We remember Jesus for saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” We believe that all people are children of God, so all can be peacemakers.

Noah Strycher found wonderful, peaceful people around the world willing to go to great lengths to help him with his birding adventure. This is a reminder that just as there are birds all over the world, there are people of peace in each and every land. Take time to notice the birds around you. They are there each and every day. Chirping and warbling. Flitting and soaring. May they be reminders of the people of every shape and hue the world over who are working for peace: the countless doves of peace that inhabit this holy habitat. Amen.

This meditation was followed by people in the congregation blessing one another as peace makers. Congregants placed their hands on the shoulder of another and said, “Bless you, peacemaker and child of God.”

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Sermon Sept. 11, 2016 “Shaped by Love”

Date: Sunday Sept. 11, 2016
Sermon: Shaped by Love
Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

When I was young, grown ups used to talk about where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the grocery store. At home. At work. The heart-wrenching shock of it. The tears – even in public, because people just couldn’t contain themselves. As that fades to distant memory, today people share stories of where they were on 9/11. How they heard. What is was like. The memories are deeply etched into our psyches.

I remember seeing the World Trade Centers going up. There were articles in the Scholastic Magazines that we were given in school, and my grandmother lived in New York so several times a year when we went there, we would watch the progress of the towers growing higher and higher. A marvel to behold. An architectural triumph. For years, the tallest buildings in the world.

The last time I saw them was in the summer of 2000. We took our kids and walked around the buildings and the plazas looking up, way up!

By then, the World Trade Centers had become a symbol of: Capitalism. Consumerism. Economic disparity where the few succeed on the backs of the many. The power and triumph of the 1%. They were seen as a symbol of American imperialism. American exceptionalism. America’s perceived superiority and domination.

And then the towers came down. And now One World Trade Center has gone back up. With another one to follow once there are tenants to fill it.

I heard someone on the radio this week talk about the address: One World Trade Center. He said it is the most prestigious, recognizable address on the planet. You don’t need to say the city, state, country or zip. Just One World Trade Center. And everyone knows where it is. Period.

To some, this is vindication and triumph. Well, it is, of a kind.

This morning we heard from the prophet Jeremiah about how God established the chosen people of Israel to be a model of justice, compassion, and right relationship among humans, with the Divine, and with Creation. But Israel has fallen short – oppressing foreigners, widows, orphans, and others who are vulnerable. Even killing those who are innocent. Doesn’t this sound timely? The same critique could be made of America today. Then we are given the image in Jeremiah of a potter taking a clay pot, ruining it, and reforming it into something new. God doesn’t just want to toss the whole mess. God wants to remake the community to conform to God’s aesthetic of justice, compassion, and righteousness. The people seem to be in a position with two choices. Be destroyed. Due to their own evil. Or be remade according to God’s vision and dream. Jeremiah’s job is to convince them to pick the second option.

Like every time and culture, there are forces forming and shaping us. We live in a time which I believe is primarily shaped by economic drives. I recently listened to an interview with 87 year old Noam Chomsky, linguist from MIT, premier intellectual of America, and he talked about how those with concentrated wealth and power are intentionally trying to drive our natural human inclinations toward compassion, solidarity, and helping others, out of us, so that we look out for number one, see others as competitors, and live in fear, because this undermines people banding together for the common good against those at the top and thus fuels profits for the already wealthy. [Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky.] This intentional agenda is meeting with great success. Just look at things now compared to 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, and you can see it. Labor unions have lost power and influence, people don’t know their neighbors, and the list goes on. So we live in a society where those with wealth and power are actively working against the basic human values of compassion, solidarity, and helping others.

My son recently told me about a series, “Century of the Self,” which talks about the history of advertising in this country and how the move was intentionally made from commercials that were based on information about a product to commercials that sell a lifestyle. There used to be commercials for laundry soap in which we saw the dirty pants, covered with grime and grass stains, and then they came out of the wash looking like they had just come off the rack at the store. So, you were supposed to be convinced to buy that laundry soap because it does such a good job at getting the clothes clean. Now, commercials try to convince you that by buying a product, you are investing in a way of life, a world view, a version of happiness. Maybe you saw the commercial during the Olympics with Maya Angelou reciting her poem about the common man. I loved hearing the poem with the pictures of the faces every time it came on. But what does that have to do with buying Apple products? What does a feel good poem about the human family have to do with buying a computer, a phone, or a watch? They want you to think that by buying Apple, you are supporting a vision of the human family in which every unique individual is treated with dignity and respect. I wonder how that goes over with the employees of the plants in China where most Apple products are made? At the Pegatron facility where the iPhone is made there are about 50,000 workers. They work 60 hours a week for regular pay and up to 80 hours a month in overtime. It takes about a month’s pay to purchase an iPhone. [http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-behind-the-scenes-apple-china-iphone-factory-20160426-story.html ] I wonder if they have seen the common man commercial? And, I confess, I am guilty of supporting this arrangement as I have an iPhone and an Apple laptop.

But the point is that advertising, using psychology, moved from selling a product to selling happiness, a lifestyle. And we keep buying things to make us happy. The latest. The fastest. The newest. But are we happier? Not really. So we buy something newer and faster. And the cycle continues. And corporate America is laughing all the way to the bank – which is often off-shore. Ha. Ha.

And so we have sweet Marie Kondo from Japan, reminding us that “we’re enticed into the false illusion of happiness through material purchase.” [New York Times Magazine, July 10, 2016, Stuff: Marie Kondo and the ruthless war on clutter, Taffy Brodesser-Akner]

And all of this not only has implications on labor arrangements in this country and around the world, but it also has significant environmental implications. All of this stuff that we are brainwashed to buy to make us happy involves natural resources, energy, transportation, and disposal. That contributes to environmental catastrophe and global warming. It’s no wonder in this election season we are seeing that so many people are angry. There’s good reason to be angry.

The prophet Jeremiah would be mighty busy today with a scathing critique of our culture and economy and he wouldn’t need much of a primer – greed is still greed. Taking advantage of the vulnerable is still taking advantage of the vulnerable. Power abuse is still power abuse. And violence is still violence.

We can well imagine Jeremiah’s God wanting to take our society, like a clay pot, and break it down and reform it. We are reminded in this image that the clay is still good. The materials are still considered worthy. The capacity and potential for a good society is still present. The raw material is still fine and can still be used to form a community of compassion, solidarity, and justice.

And this is just the vision that Jesus is sharing with the crowds and his followers. He is telling them about the realm that God intends for the human community. He is reminding the people of what Israel was originally called to be. He is showing them what it means to live out of Divine justice, mercy, and love. He is showing people that the human community has the capacity to be reformed into a community of mutuality, respect, and equality, with no abuse, no taking advantage, no haves at the expense of have nots. He is showing people a social order where everyone thrives, is cared about, and is valued. A community where all can express themselves, engage, have a constructive role, and be treated fairly and justly. He is modeling a society in which every life is sacred and there is abundant life for all, all creation, not just humanity. Jesus is inviting people to live from this vision, to be part of creating this kind of social order.

But Jesus is a realist, not just some pie in the sky mystic dreamer. He knows that what he is talking about is a dramatic departure from the current circumstances of the people he is addressing. He is fully aware that the vision he is advocating requires a vast reorientation of values and relationships. He is fully conscious of the concept that there is a clay pot that needs to be broken to bits so that it can be reformed into a new vessel for the love of God to thrive and flourish in the human realm. What Jesus is presenting, appealing as it is, involves the transformation of the religious, cultural, economic, and social arrangements of his context. And that kind of change is challenging and it is costly. He pays with his life.

So Jesus is not secretive or shy about communicating the kind of transformation he is talking about and the commitment involved. Just in the few verses we heard this morning, we’re told that committing to the realm of God is going to fracture your family. In Jesus’ setting, the family was the only way to have a place in society. His words were jarring and radical. And the idea of being at odds with your family is not going to go over well here in the US either where the family has become idolized. And family has become code for look out for your own, take care of your own, protect and provide for your own in a way that completely undermines a sense of responsibility for the wider community and for the future beyond your immediate family. So, Jesus is clear. You won’t like it, but to follow me, to be my disciple, will require you to put God’s realm before your family, and that will create divisions in your family. Jesus is straight up about it.

In the verses we heard, Jesus is clear, you are going to have to take up your cross if you want to be part of God’s commonwealth. Cross. Sacrifice. Burden. Hardship. Risk. Personal cost and loss. Again, this is not something that sells well. People don’t want to hear that. In our situation, people want their religion to be something that makes their lives easier not harder. Something that makes them feel good and satisfied with the status quo, not something that makes demands of them. But again, Jesus is forthright. To be part of what God is about involves taking up your cross not just praising Jesus for taking up his cross.

And then there is the really sticky wicket, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Even the ones that bring you joy, sorry, Marie Kondo. The realm of God must be so important, that money, wealth, possessions, fade in significance. Material possessions are to be servants, not masters. To be a disciple, we must be disencumbered, free, even of our precious possessions. That’s hard for someone like me whose house is filled with stuff. This is directly at odds with the consumer capitalism that drives America.

Jesus and Jeremiah are talking about the reshaping of human community – relationships, economics, and religion. Breaking the old apart, destroying oppression, greed, selfishness, and violence, and reshaping, reforming, reconstructing society from a new model, a model of justice, the sacredness of each and every life – human as well as animal and plant – a model that does not rely on wealth or violence for dominance and control. There’s no pay to play politics. There’s no eternal war on terror. There’s no Islamaphobia. No Black Lives Matter. There’s no need. And you never get to peace, you never get to justice through violence, through domination and control. You get there through respect, egalitarian relationships, economic justice, attention to the sacred, and a communitarian orientation, not rugged individualism. Jesus is inviting those who are following him, those who are traveling with him, those who are listening to him, to become disciples. To commit. To make God’s realm their home and family here and now. He is calling us, just as we are, right here, right now, to be part of God’s commonwealth of justice, love and peace for all creation. Jesus is inviting us, like the clay pot in Jeremiah, to be broken apart and reformed, reshaped, and transformed by the goodness of God.

When the World Trade Centers went down on that horrific day 15 years ago, we were stunned. We were aghast. I had to call my parents that morning about something. I didn’t yet know what was going on. My dad answered the phone. He was suffering from dementia, so no longer a reliable source of information. He started to tell me about what he and my mom were seeing on the TV. He seemed a bit befuddled. That was not unusual. He was mentioning New York. The World Trade Centers. Going down. He said he didn’t understand. Maybe I could turn on the TV and see and I would understand. Obviously I thought he was confused, but I turned on the TV, and sure enough, unimaginable as it was, he had the basics pretty well in line.

Here we are 15 years later. A new tower has replaced the old. And another one is going up. Here were the pieces of the pot, and instead of something new, the old pot is being recreated. No transformation even of the symbol. There was the hull of a wooden ship found in the process of digging the foundation of the new tower. [http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/09/new-york-future-flooding-climate-change.html] An omen that the day is not far off when the lower levels of the building will be immersed in water. Already the transportation hub at the site floods regularly on this bit of prime real estate reclaimed from nature which is now being reclaimed by nature. But even so, the symbol stands, for now.

But on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a prayer service here in this sanctuary. About a dozen or so people gathered. We sang. We shared. We lit candles. We cried. We prayed. And Ron Pynn, a member of the church at the time, asked that we pray for those who did this. That we pray for our enemies. That we pray for those who caused this harm. In the raw, glaring gash of our shock and grief, it was as if Jesus was there, asking us, begging us, really, pleading with us, not just to follow him but to be his disciples. To commit.

May we let ourselves be broken, shattered, even destroyed, so that God can do something new with us. Something good. To bless this precious world. Amen.

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Sermon Aug. 28, 2016 “Learning from Lightning”

Sunday August 28, 2016

Scripture Lesson:  Job 37:1-13

Sermon:  Learning from Lightning

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

If you’ve lived in Florida for more than 5 minutes, it won’t surprise you to find out that Florida has more lightning strikes per square mile than any other state in the United States. [July 5, 2013|By Arelis R. Hernández, Orlando Sentinel

http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2013-07-05/news/os-lightning-deaths-florida-20130705_1_lightning-alley-lightning-deaths-john-jensenius ] Our routine thunderstorms bring fantastic theatrical displays of lightning especially upon the backdrop of a night sky. Lightning is a familiar part of our exotic tropical environment. In recent years, our family has had two trees in our yard struck by lightning. It’s no wonder one of our dogs starts to quiver as soon as he hears the thunder which is way before we do!

Kyle Cook of Lakeland knows the power of nature first hand. He has survived a bite from a venomous spider while unloading a truck, an attack from a rattlesnake while he was mowing his lawn, and a lightning strike while he was at work on a construction crew. And he has lived to tell about it all. The lightning knocked him back about 6 feet, left him unconscious for about a minute, and induced a mild heart attack. He still gets nerve pain and loss of feeling on his left side. While he is lucky to be alive, his father says, “He’s a walking Murphy’s law. I walk on the other side of the mall.” [AP August 26, 2016, 11:41 AM, Florida man survives lightning strike, spider, snake bites
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/florida-man-survives-lightning-strike-spider-snake-bites/]

With the profusion of the occurrence of lightning, you would think that we would know exactly how it forms and how it functions. While scientists tell us there are still gaps in our understanding of how lightning works they are clear about its incredible power and frequency. A bolt of lightning is hotter than the surface of the sun! And it occurs 40-50 times per second somewhere on the face of Earth totaling about 1.4 billion flashes per year. It’s amazing we don’t all suffer from astraphobia. That’s the fear of lightning! [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightning]

The formation of lightning is a complex process which involves ground elevation, latitude, wind, humidity, proximity to water, and temperature. Basically, a cloud becomes electrically charged and the charge goes out from the cloud to the Earth. The beautiful streaks of light in the sky are formed by the electrical charge from the cloud following paths of ionized air which have formed between the cloud and the ground. These paths of ionized air are called step leaders. Once these step leaders are formed, the electrical charge from the cloud is released along the path to Earth and we see the bright flash. Exactly how these paths begin to form has yet to be conclusively understood. But somehow paths are created through the air and the electric charge from the cloud follows the step leader path to Earth and lightning strikes bringing incredible heat, power, and energy to Earth’s surface. [John Zavisa “How Lightning Works” 1 April 2000.HowStuffWorks.com. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/lightning.htm> 26 August 2016]

While we can see the amazing power of lightning our faith tradition reminds us that we attribute even more power to God. God’s power, energy, and force for life and good is ultimate. We can think of God as love, the most impactful force known to humanity. And all of this divine power and energy is manifest in creation.

In the verses we listened to from Job, we heard a beautiful portrayal of how the writer sees the power of God displayed on Earth in thunder, snow, wind, cold, ice, clouds, and, of course, lightning: “God loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter God’s lightning.”

When we think of the formation of lightning, it takes the ionized pathways through the air, the step leaders, to conduct the electrical charge from the cloud to the earth. When it comes to God, I believe that we, as human beings, are here to be the channels conducting divine love to the Earth. We are here to be pathways for love in the world. We are to channel God’s love and light to the rest of the human family and to all of creation.

God is a word, a symbol, for unity, goodness, justice, evolving life, love. The power implied in the concept of God is beyond any power we can imagine. That power needs to manifest, to enliven, to support and sustain reality. We are part of channeling that power to the world. That’s what we see in Jesus. He is a conduit, a pathway, for the power of divine love to enter the world in an impactful way that is creative and life- giving; that is reconciling and healing. It is power for individual and social transformation. Jesus channels divine power into the world. And this is why we are here to be like the step leaders that make a pathway for lightening to be conducted from the clouds to the earth.

The movie, “Interstellar,” is about an attempt to find a location in the universe suitable for establishing a home for humanity since Earth has become so compromised that it is loosing the ability to support human life. A crew is sent into space to look for the optimum location for the new colony of humans.

In a moment of crisis, with limited time and resources, the crew is out in space trying to decide which planet to go to that might be the most hospitable to life so that they can save earthly life. Dr. Brandt, an eminent scientist, guided by science, steeped in science, her mind completely formed and shaped by the discipline of science, has this to say about the power of love in a conversation with her colleague, Cooper:

Brandt: Maybe we have spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory.
Cooper: You’re a scientist, Brandt.
Brandt: So listen to me when I say that love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something.
Cooper: Love has meaning, yes, social utility, social bonding, child rearing.
Brandt: We love people who have died. Where is the social utility in that?
Cooper: None.
Brandt: Maybe it means something more. Something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence. Some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it yet.

Here we see a person of science recognizing the power of love, a power that we cannot fully understand, and yet that we perceive and know is at work in our lives, in the world, in the universe, and in all of reality, known and unknown. And we are called to be channels of that power, that force, that reality, into the world. It’s an awesome responsibility, and incredible charge.

Scientists tell us that the average lightning strike has an electric current of 30,000 amperes and transfers 15 coulombs of electric charge and 500 megajoules of energy. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightning] Large bolts of lightning can carry much more electrical charge. If the energy of just an average bolt of lightning were harnessed for electricity, my physics teacher husband tells me that it could power our house for 200 years. And here we are with all this lightning striking all around us all the time. All that power. The time may come when we will learn to harness it and put it to constructive use.

So it is with the power of God. The power of Divine love is all around us, all the time, charged, ready, available, just waiting to be channeled into the world though our frail human forms which have been created for just such a purpose. How mysterious and miraculous! Well beyond our comprehension. Yet here we are meant to conduct goodness, justice, love and compassion into the world. Intended to power life with love. May it be so! 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 Aug. 21, 2016 “Shark Encounters”

Sunday August 21, 2016
Sermon: Shark Encounters
Scripture Lessons: Matthew 5:43-48 and Romans 12:14-21
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Who can forget the pulsing rhythm indicating the presence of the shark in the movie “Jaws”? I haven’t even seen the movie in full and yet I know that cadence. It starkly portrays the presence of danger, threat, and impending doom. In the movie, a shark inflicts two fatalities upon a beachside community during the busy summer tourist season. The mayor, concerned about the economy and the income from the tourists, resists closing the beaches. Finally, the decision is made to go after the shark and eliminate it. The shark is harpooned once, and then again. It is still on the loose. So a plan is hatched to eliminate the shark through lethal injection. This scheme does not succeed either. Finally, the police chief jams a pressurized scuba tank into the jaws of the shark, then climbs the mast of the boat and shoots the tank finally killing the shark. The danger, threat, violence, and evil are vanquished. But our fear of sharks remains.

Of course the spotting of a fin in the water at the beach leads to a chaotic, scrambling out to the dry sand. Yes, the presence of a shark leads us to panic and flee.

When faced with fear, danger, and threat, often our first instinct will be fight or flight. We either attack, confront and eliminate the perceived source of hostility and danger. Or, we get out of harm’s way. We extricate ourselves from a dangerous situation. Flee. Turn tail and run for the hills.

In the presence of a great white shark, doubtless our response is to flee, rather than fight. We know we are no match for the 300 serrated razor sharp teeth and the muscular strength of the two ton fifteen foot body which can swim 15 miles per hour. Fight? That sounds like suicide. Better to flee from this most fearsome predator of the sea.

It turns out, that when confronted with an actual shark, neither fight nor flight is the best option for self- preservation. As thinking people, creatures with rationality and intelligence as well as instinct, it is in our best interests to take a different approach when encountering a shark though it can be very hard to override our instinctual programming.

Neil Hammerschlag is a marine ecologist and director of the Shark Research & Conservation Program at the University of Miami. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, he gives this advice for how to respond when encountering a shark:

. . . if you do find yourself in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable with the shark, the best thing to do is not to run away or swim away. That’s what their food does; their food runs away from them. The best thing to do is actually just approach them, maintain eye contact, and I wouldn’t try to touch them or push them unless they came so close that that’s what they’re going to do to you. If they came to open their mouth, that might be a situation where it would probably be good to push them away. But probably the most important thing is just to maintain very strong eye contact with them and kind of follow them around. Usually they’re going to find that uncomfortable. [A Marine Ecologist On Swimming With Sharks And What ‘Jaws’ Got Wrong July 14, 20162:36 PM ET, http://www.npr.org/2016/07/14/486012072/a-marine-ecologist-on-swimming-with-sharks-and-what-jaws-got-wrong]

So, you come face to face with a shark, you maintain eye contact, approach the shark, follow it around. It will lose interest and swim away. Sounds good in theory. And, apparently, Hammerschlag has found that it works in practice. It certainly makes sense that swimming away in a flurry is prey behavior which could provoke prey attack. So, rather than fight or flight, the best tactic for self- preservation is strategic engagement.

In other situations in life, we know well our instinctually programmed fight and flight reactions. If someone is mean to us, we are mean back. Fight. If someone hurts us, we stay away from them. Flight. If we have a bad experience at a business, we go elsewhere in the future. Flight. If someone does us wrong in some way, we sue. Fight. We choose these options all the time. A coworker refuses to help us with something. When the colleague needs help do we pitch in? Not on your life. Fight. We don’t like what goes on at a relative’s house for a holiday and the next year, we make other plans. Flight.

While these may not be the most helpful responses, they are certainly commonly used – in interpersonal relationships, in work settings, in business, and in international relations. Fight or flight. Defend or retreat. Attack or withdraw. In the teachings of Jesus, we see that Jesus is not limited to these options. He opens the field of options in ways that are imaginative and creative. Jesus shows alternatives and additional strategies for use in human interactions and relationships. And what he teaches us is that this range of options is actually to our benefit. When we engage with each other in unexpected ways, we may get new outcomes which are better for the community as well as for us as individuals.

We listened to two examples of this kind of teaching this morning. From the Sermon on the Mount we heard one of the most notorious teachings of Christianity – “Love your enemy.” And then, “Pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus encourages us to honor our humanity and the humanity of others by recognizing the image of God in everyone. God does not differentiate between friends and enemies. God’s love encompasses all of humanity. When we focus our intent on loving our enemies, those who wrong us, those who harm us, those we perceive as a threat, we cultivate the image of God within us. We fulfill our own nature. We express the intelligence and consciousness that makes us unique in creation. We have the capacity to transcend instinct – fight or flight. We have been endowed with the capacity to love. Everyone. To seek the highest good for those we like least and perceive as enemy. In this way, we come to transcend our fears and live fully.

In the letter to the Romans the writer follows up on this mandate. Don’t repay evil for evil. In fact, we are advised to reach out in generosity and compassion for those we fear, hate, or perceive as a threat. Do good to those who hate you. This is a way of transforming the relationship. How long can someone hate you when you are good to them? When you help them? When you convey compassion for them? But even if you continue to be hated or threatened, you have maintained your dignity and humanity. You have not demeaned yourself to base self-interest and self-protection. How do we counter evil, hatred, violence? It is not through more evil, hatred and violence. It is goodness and love which conquer evil. That is the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The ultimate example of Jesus employing an alternative strategy based on love and compassion is his response to the threat from the authorities upon his own life. The authorities made it known that they want to kill Jesus. They expect Jesus to flee. Literally head for the hills. Get out of Dodge. Fade into the woodwork of the wilderness and stop causing problems for them. He didn’t do that. Instead, with awareness of the growing threat against his life, Jesus does the opposite. He heads for Jerusalem. The center of power. The locus of authority. The very place where the decisions are being made to pursue him and eliminate him. No flight for Jesus.

The authorities may have expected Jesus to fight. Take up arms. Use violence and attack those who wanted to do him in. Then the authorities could kill Jesus with justification. Eliminate this perceived enemy. There were those among Jesus’ followers who wanted an armed insurrection. They wanted to take out the authorities, Jewish and Roman. Set up a new shop. In the story we have of Jesus’ arrest, one of the disciples takes out a sword and Jesus reprimands him. In the story of the trial of Jesus, there is no defense. No case made to justify his actions. No fighting back in this antagonistic situation.

Fight or flight. Either way, the authorities would put an end to Jesus and his movement. But Jesus does not give them the satisfaction of fight or flight. He does not behave as they expected him to. Jesus choses another way. A way that does not lead to his people becoming the next regime of oppressors. A way that does not undermine the power of all that he has done. A way that is true to his teaching of anti-violence and forgiveness. By engaging, in a way that leads to martyrdom, Jesus gives the ultimate affirmation of the way of non-violence and thus spawns a movement that is strong, life-giving, and still inspiring the imagination in creative ways for the transformation of human community thousands of years later. Our presence this morning attests to that. The authorities did not succeed at getting rid of Jesus. In fact, the result was just the opposite because of Jesus’ commitment to love.

Yes, when confronted with a threat, with pain, with perceived danger, when feeling that we have been wronged, treated unfairly, taken advantage of, yes, our first impulse may very well be fight back – fire with fire. Or it may be flight. Get out of the situation. The relationship. But our faith compels us to explore further. Putting the teachings of Jesus to practical application, it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” And he had plenty of enemies! The gospel frees us from being bound by instinct and spurs us to consider alternatives that are constructive, life-giving, and transformative. Do good to those who hurt you. Help those who hate you. Love your enemy. This completely undermines hatred, violence, and evil.

When our son, Sterling, lived in New York, he was circled by a group of middle schoolers in the daytime in a park. He thought, “They look like my little brother and his friends.” One of the boys drew a knife. Sterling told the kid to put the knife away. He was not armed. He wouldn’t attack them; he would cooperate. What did they want? They wanted his money. He got out his wallet and handed them all of his cash. $8.00. They grabbed the money and let him go on his way. Then they proceeded to argue about what to do with the money. He talked them down and de-escalated the situation. He didn’t choose fight or flight, but constructive, creative non-violent engagement.

We’ve heard about people who find burglars in their home and welcome them, make coffee, and get to know them and they leave. No robbery. No violence.

And there is that beautiful scene in “Les Miserables” when Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing the candlesticks from the church and the priest counters, no, the candlesticks were a gift. They were given to Jean Valjean. He did not steal them.

These inspiring responses show creative imagination fueled by compassion and love, not fear, anger, or hatred.

The gospel invites us to see that our options are not just fight or flight. When that coworker drives you nuts, think of something nice you can do for him or her. That neighbor that annoys you? How can you help them? That relative who grates on you? Invite them for dinner and cook their favorite dish. Is there someone you really don’t like? Get to know them better. Angry about those who free load off society on welfare? Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a shelter. This is the way Jesus went about things. It is not only about changing others, it is about changing us. We can choose to draw forth our better nature, our compassion, the image of God within us.

So, again, it is a shark encounter that reminds us of the creative alternatives presented to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This past week, a man was fishing in shallow water in Ocean City, Maryland. He caught a shark. After reeling the shark in, he removed the hook and let it go. The shark was so tired from resisting the line that it didn’t have the energy to swim out from the shore. The fishermen took hold of the shark in his arms and then transported it to deeper water and set it free. No fight. No flight. Freedom!

In the face of peril, hardship, hurt, and pain, when we are accused, oppressed, ridiculed, or bullied, our only options are not fight or flight. The gospel invites us to live from love and compassion, even for our enemy, and so to save ourselves. May we embrace the way of Jesus which truly sets us free. Amen.

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

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Sermon July 31, 2016 “Christianity and Culture” Romans 14:13-18

Date: July 31, 2016

Sermon Title: Christianity and Culture

Scripture: Romans 14:13-17

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

The last time I visited Gordon Terrell was less than a week before his unexpected death in May. In that conversation, he referred to Narcissa Whitman and asked if I knew about her. I didn’t. Well, he told me, I should. This was near the beginning of our conversation that day. Before I left, he brought it up again. Made sure I had the name right so I could find out more about her. Whitman made a big impression on Gordon and he wanted me to know about her. So, now I know much more about her and soon you will, too.

Narcissa Whitman was born Narcissa Prentiss and lived with her large family in upstate New York in the early 1800’s. She and her mother and siblings went to the Presbyterian Church. It was the time of the Second Great Awakening and there were revivals and inspiring church services firing up believers. At one such service, Narcissa felt compelled to devote her life to God. Eventually she determined that the way she was to do this was by becoming a missionary. She read accounts of other missionaries, since her mother would not let her read novels, and she wanted a life of adventure and service. She made it known that this was her intent and she waited for the occasion to present itself. In the meantime, she was educated and worked as teacher.

As it turns out, one obstacle in her path was the lack of a husband. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Church, only sent married couples out to the mission field. To be a missionary, Narcissa would have to be married, and to someone who shared her passion and calling.

About the same time, Marcus Whitman, a doctor in upstate New York, heard about the initiative to send missionaries to the western region of North America, and he decided that he wanted to pursue that calling. He applied to the mission board, but he was rejected due to health issues. He applied again when his health was stronger and he was an appealing candidate, but, alas, he had no wife. Marcus was told about Narcissa, so he went to meet with her and after two days they determined that they would marry and proceed to the west.

About a year after they met, they were married. At the close of the wedding ceremony, the congregation sang a hymn with the words, “My native land, I love thee, Can I leave thee, far in heathen lands to dwell. . . Glad I bid thee Native land! Farewell! Farewell!” And with that, the Whitmans were married and they left for the west the next day. [http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088]

It was 1836, and the Whitmans traveled 3000 miles in 7 months, by boat, wagon, horseback and foot, over the prairies, deserts, and the mountains to the Oregon Territory. There was a group of missionaries that went in hopes of Christianizing and civilizing the West. Narcissa and her female companions were the first women of European descent to cross the Rocky Mountains. They survived on, yes, buffalo meat, and fed their fires with buffalo dung, both of which were still plenteous in those days.

While the trip began as a great adventure, by the end it had lost its romance. The trek was exhausting and uncomfortable especially since Narcissa had become pregnant along the way. En route, they encountered various Indians who had never seen white women before and found the women to be curiosities. The four couples that arrived in the Oregon Territory as missionaries decided that they would start 4 separate missions hundreds of miles apart. As Cassandra Tate puts it in her essay on the Whitmans, “The same strong-minded idealism that fired people with Christian zeal made it difficult for them to cooperate.” [http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088] The Whitmans started their mission among the Cayuse Indians near what is today Walla Walla, Washington.

Shortly after their arrival, their first and only child was born – on Narcissa’s 29th birthday. The Indians were captivated by the white baby and considered her Cayuse since she was born in their territory. But sadly, the child drowned when she was 2. This left Narcissa bereft and eventually she took in foster children and adopted a number of children some of whom were of mixed race – white and Indian.

At the mission outpost, the Whitmans introduced worship services, religious ceremonies, told Bible stories, started a school, instructed the Indians in white domestic chores and customs, and Dr. Whitman practiced medicine. This combination of religion and medicine made Marcus Whitman seem like a medicine man to the Indians. But Narcissa found it difficult to communicate with the Indians since she never learned their language, Nez Perce. She did not feel that they were making sufficient inroads in Christianizing the Cayuse. The Indians did not adopt white customs. They continued to practice polygamy. They did not take to farming and gardening and other aspects of the lifestyle of white Euro-Americans. Narcissa installed venetian blinds in their home to keep the Indians from looking in the windows. She would only allow the Indians into one room of their home. To Narcissa the Indians continued to be dirty, lazy and sinful. They ignored the standards of privacy and cleanliness that Narcissa was trying to impart.

Word reached the Whitmans that the mission board was going to discontinue supporting the efforts in the Oregon Territory due to lack of results. On behalf of the mission to the Cayuse, and the other 3 missions that had been established, Marcus Whitman went to Washington, D.C. to try to get the board to change its mind. When this was unsuccessful, Whitman returned to the mission with 800 white emigrants in tow. He and Narcissa proceeded to open a hotel and trading post. The next year 1500 more settlers arrived. And the pattern continued. Buildings went up, fences were installed, fields were plowed, walls were built, and the Cayuse looked on in alarm. The tribal leaders tried to express their dismay. They asked the settlers to leave. Their way of life was being destroyed and their land was being taken. Tensions mounted.

By the fall of 1847, over 10 years after the arrival of the Whitmans, there were 4,000 white emigrants living in Cayuse territory. And then there was an outbreak of measles. Dr. Whitman treated the victims, the whites and the Indians. But while half of the Indians died, including most of the children, most of the white children survived due to differences in their immune systems. The Indians felt this was calculated in some way. Why hadn’t their children been cured as the white children were? Had they been poisoned?

Finally, on November 29, 1847, things came to a head and several Cayuse attacked the Whitman outpost. Marcus and Narcissa were killed along with 12 others. 49 people were kept as hostages for a month. The situation escalated into a war between the Cayuse and the white settlers. Eventually, 5 Indians surrendered and were executed. At the execution the chief declared, “Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people.” [http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/whitman.htm]

So, why should we know about this story? Certainly the Whitmans are an inspiration in their devotion and sacrifice. They were well intentioned.   But the story brings up the complex interplay between Christianity and culture. This has been an issue since the first century and will continue to be an issue well beyond the twenty-first century. Where does faith end and culture begin? What is culture and what is Christian?

When I heard the story of Narcissa Whitman, I heard a story of the clash of cultures and a story of imposed colonization. I heard a story of power struggle and domination. To me, there didn’t seem to be much Christianity in the story. Yet the Whitmans were undoubtedly motivated by their faith and devotion to God. Narcissa Whitman was devout. She committed to giving her life to God. She faced peril and hardship to do so. She lived out of faith not fear. Her intentions were good and pure. But she really did not know how to separate faith and culture. To her, the Christian faith involved installing venetian blinds and keeping the Indians out of her home. It meant putting a fence around her house to keep her distance. It meant giving things to white people but not to Indians. It meant running a school for white children that Indians were not allowed to attend. Narcissa could not see that colonization was fraught with injustice and arrogance that is at odds with the message of the gospel. As a good Christian, she would have found the idea of stealing anathema. But she could not see how to the Indians, what the white people were doing was stealing their land and life. Her immersion in her cultural context made her blind to how her behavior was perceived by others and how she was betraying the very gospel she had given her life to.

Jesus was imbued with his culture AND his religious tradition. He was not outside of culture or beyond culture. In fact, what we see in Jesus is how to apply eternal spiritual truths and values within culture. We look at Jesus and see how he takes the theoretical concept of, say, universal love, and puts it into action within his cultural setting. Then we are inspired to think about how we are called to put universal love into action in our cultural setting. How does Jesus honor the image of God, the divine, within each and every person in his cultural context? We see the conflicts, the challenges, the consequences of that. This helps inform our understanding of what it means for us to honor the image of God in each and every person in our context. And it may very well be that when we are involved with someone of a different religion or culture than our own, we need to be even more thoughtful about what we say and our behavior so that we don’t undermine our own intent and betray our faith. There is no place in Christianity for arrogance, disdain, superiority, or condescension toward another person or culture or religion. Each and every person is to be treated as a manifestation of the image of God.

We see this message in the verses that we heard today from Romans. The writer is talking to this new faith community about how to deal with the cultural diversity around them and within their faith community. The writer advises don’t be judgmental. In other words, try to understand those who are different. Don’t assume the worst. Don’t put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of new believers. The message is don’t let culture get in the way of the gospel. In those days, the Jews were very concerned about food that was clean and unclean according to the dictates of the Torah. This created problems when Jesus followers from the Jewish tradition blended with Jesus followers who were not of Jewish heritage because the non-Jews did not have the same dietary guidelines. So what can and cannot be eaten? Paul tells the Christians in Rome that no food is bad, sinful, or immoral, in and of itself. To make things clear, Paul says that if what you are doing is injurious to someone else, then you are not walking in love. The gospel should bring peace and be mutually up-building. Well, we don’t see the Whitmans adhering to the teachings of Paul that we heard today because they were blinded by their cultural context. They were not able to separate out what was Christianity and what was culture, and to approach the Indians without judgment, in love, seeking peace and mutual up-building.

One historian, Michael Schaubs, assesses the Whitman mission this way:

The Whitmans early on made the mistake of being unable to separate the differences between faith and culture.  They quickly defined many tribal customs and traditions as “sins” and barriers to salvation.  The Indians must give up their songs, dances, gambling, horse racing, and everything else that Indian people found enjoyable.  The Indians felt that they were being told that to avoid Hell in the afterlife, they must exist in a living Hell in the here and now.  This message was not well received.

In 1843 he [Marcus] wrote Narcissa’s parents ‘It does not concern me so much what is to become of any particular set of Indians, as to give them the offer of salvation… I have no doubt our greatest work is to aid the white settlement of this country.’  Although doubtless Marcus never expressed this to the Cayuse, the fact that provisions, goods and services were freely supplied to emigrants as gifts, and the white travelers were openly invited into the home of the missionaries (a place which was generally off limits to the Indians), the Cayuse could only have interpreted to show that the Whitmans were working to displace them from their own country.  [http://www.mman.us/whitmanmassacre.htm]

The Whitmans simply were not aware of the clash between Christianity and culture in what they were doing. They could not see how their behavior was perceived by the Cayuse. We do not want to ignore culture or discount culture. It is part of our identity as human beings. It is part of the grand diversity of our species. What we need to do is be aware of culture. Of our own culture. The messages and rituals and assumptions and behaviors that form and shape us. We need to be very conscious of our cultural milieu. It can seem invisible, like the air we breathe, and yet we know it is there. We need to be aware of that. Examining and acknowledging our culture. And we need to be aware of our faith. We need to understand the values and commitments that are part of the Christian path. We need to study the example of Jesus. Reflect on the stories we have from his teachings. And look for the deeper meanings. Then we need to have that awareness be in conversation with our awareness of our cultural context. Where are the conflicts? Where are the consistencies? Where is the influence flowing from faith to culture? When is the influence flowing from culture to faith? How are our choices and behaviors influenced by culture? How are they shaped by faith? This kind of examination is an ongoing process. It is how we figure out how to live our faith in a way that is constructive and healing for us and for the world.

The story of the Whitmans reveals a toxic mix of Christianity and culture. And this is a common occurrence. We know the human propensity to use religion to further economic, political, and social goals. We can see it in the European colonization of the Americas.   We can see it in ISIS and the other expressions of extremist Islamic fundamentalism. We can see it in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Congo. It happens again and again.

But can we see it in our own culture and in our own religion? There are those who defend the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States that protects the right to bear arms as Christian. They see the Constitution as divinely ordained. So the right to bear arms takes on authority akin to the 10 Commandments. And this becomes a way of saying that God wants people in the United States to have guns. They are needed to defend our families and communities and churches. This is God’s way of protecting his own.   I say ‘his’ because this expression of God is always and exclusively male. So churches hire armed guards and offer training classes in how to use guns. And all this is seen as consistent with, even inspired by, the Christian faith.

Where does that leave the teachings of Jesus – Love your enemy. Do good to those who persecute you. The one who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Turn the other cheek. Well, that was for that time. That was for those circumstances. That was so that nothing would interfere with Jesus being killed by the authorities because that was God’s plan. Those teachings were for that cultural context, not ours, so the thinking goes.

Now, I specifically picked an example that most of us would find glaring and clear cut. But there are plenty of examples of things that you and I, who are probably not gun owners, do each and every day that are at odds with the values of Christianity but fully accepted in our culture.

We look back at Narcissa, we look at the second amendment defenders, not to point the finger at them, but so that they help us point the finger at our own inconsistencies. We examine the interplay of faith and culture so that we can learn to be more discerning about our lives and our choices. We look at the context of culture and Christianity so that we can critically examine how our culture, our economy, our fossil fuel dependent life-style, our diet, and our politics and all the rest stack up against the teachings of Jesus. The political conventions of the last two weeks and the election at hand give us plenty of food for thought.

Our religious identity always exists in a cultural context that should and does influence our practice of our religion. There is interplay, there is cohesion, there is consistency and there is conflict.   There has always been the allure of ignoring the tension. Some Christians have convinced themselves that they are purely Christian and that they are abstaining from participation in the culture. They think they have immersed themselves fully in the Christian life, in the church, and that there is no cultural influence. They go to Christian schools, Christian movies, Christian gyms, listen to Christian music, play on sports teams with Christians, etc. etc. etc. They think they have successfully eliminated the influence of culture and that they are living a purely Christian life. This also happens with other religions and it is not exclusive to the US.

Another way of dealing with the fraught interplay of religion and culture is to decide that your culture is reflective of your religion. You see the culture you are living in as Christian, or Islamic, or Jewish, or whatever religion you subscribe to. So, you believe that your religion and culture are fully in sync and so there is no conflict or compromise. Some people choose to believe that the US is a Christian country meaning that our culture is consistent with the teachings of Christianity. When there is something that seems amiss, the solution is to implement a Christian policy or solution. This seems simple but what version of Christianity is applied? What expression of Christianity has authority? What teachings of Jesus hold sway? Who decides?

What happens with both of these scenarios is that the heart of the religion, the deep teaching, the power of the spiritual path is compromised. Christianity at its most faithful is always in dialogue with culture. The way of Jesus always presents challenges because it confronts our innate sinful self-aggrandizing tendencies with pure goodness and love, honestly, without deception. Which is why it is a religion of love, forgiveness and grace.   To experience that love, healing, and grace, we need to be honest in our examination of the relationship between our faith and our cultural context.

Gordon Terrell, a wise elder of this congregation, thought that we should know something about Narcissa Whitman and I think he is right. We should know about Narcissa Whitman. Her story helps us to understand the intricate complexity of the relationship between Christianity and culture.

In one of her rare moments of self-reflection, Narcissa Whitman, who was a prolific writer and has left many letters and diaries, revealed to her family that she questioned her own motives for becoming a missionary. Had she done it “with a single eye for the glory of God or from some selfish principle”? She insisted she didn’t regret the decision to come to Oregon, but added: “I find one of my most difficult studies is to know my own heart.” (October 6, 1841). [A biographical article about Narcissa Prentiss Whitman by Cassandra Tate, April 13, 2012, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088

] I think the same can be said for us and for our country. One of our most difficult studies is to know our own heart. May we invite Jesus to show us our hearts and then to heal them. Amen.

The following sources about Narcissa Whitman were used in the preparation of this sermon:

Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss (1808-1847) by Cassandra Tate, April 13, 2012 at http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=10088

Marcus Whitman (1802-1847)

Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847)

at http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/whitman.htm

Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky Mountain West, Malachite’s Big Hole, The Whitman Massacre at http://www.mman.us/whitmanmassacre.htm

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 July 24, 2016 “Intelligent Life” Luke 10:25-37

Date: July 24, 2016
Sermon Title: Intelligent Life
Scripture: Luke 10: 25-37
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Are plants intelligent? Are they an intelligent form of life? There is an active, intense debate going on about this issue among biologists, botanists, and others that work with plants. This debate necessitates defining “intelligent life.” One of the factors that is considered in defining intelligent life is communication. That is considered a feature of intelligent life. As it turns out, it has been determined that plants actually do communicate with each other. They share information about various things like the presence of threatening insects. They do this by emitting chemical signals that other plants detect and react to. It has also been discovered that plants share information about water and nutrients in the soil. One plant will convey to another plant where to get the sustenance it needs.

An experiment documenting this process is outlined in the article, “The Intelligent Plant,” by Michael Pollan, in The New Yorker, Dec. 2013. Pollan discusses a study done by Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia and her colleagues. Simard’s research documents how “trees in a forest organize themselves into far-flung networks using the underground web of mycorrhizal fungi which connects their roots to exchange information and even goods.” Here is a description of one of the experiments Simard and her co-workers carried out:

. . . They injected fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes, then followed the spread of the isotopes through the forest community using a variety of sensing methods, including a Geiger counter. Within a few days, stores of radioactive carbon had been routed from tree to tree. Every tree in a plot thirty meters square was connected to the network; the oldest trees functioned as hubs, some with as many as forty-seven connections. The diagram of the network resembled an airline route map.

The pattern of nutrient traffic showed how ‘mother trees’ were using the network to nourish shaded seedlings, including their offspring – which the trees can apparently recognize as kin – until they’re tall enough to reach the light. And, in a striking example of interspecies cooperation, Simard found that fir trees were using the fungal web to trade nutrients with paper-bark birch trees over the course of the season. The evergreen species will tide over the deciduous ones when it has sugars to spare, and then call in the debt later in the season. For the forest community, the value of this cooperative underground economy appears to be better over-all health, more total photosynthesis, and greater resilience in the face of disturbance. [The New Yorker, Dec. 23 and 30, 2013]

What this research tells us is that the fir trees take care of their own, and then they reach out and take care of other species of trees in their vicinity. It sounds pretty intelligent to me. Imagine how much better things would be in the world if the human species were able to master the same skills! Take care of our own, especially our offspring, and then reach out to others and beyond our own kind.

This morning we listened to a story that is very familiar to people of faith. It is a story about someone who is in desperate need of assistance after being a victim of a crime. The people we would expect to help, religious people, responsible people, community leaders, they walk by and do not help. Then a person who is considered “other,” enemy, sees the victim and helps. Maybe we can think about a young black male helping an older white woman who has been left under a bush after being mugged. Or an illegal, non-English speaking Mexican helping an old gent who was beat up waiting for a bus. And what about those we may think of as decent, white middle class working people who walked on by? The story is edgy. But it begins with the basics. A religious seeker is asking what to do be faithful, to be part of the life of God in the world. He already knows: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, love your neighbor as yourself. But this seeker still yearns for some pearl of religious wisdom from this esteemed teacher. So, we are given the story of the Good Samaritan, defining neighbor as anyone in need – no exceptions. And there is the twist that the one who shows the proper understanding of neighbor is an outcast, an alien, an enemy. But the heart of the matter is very simple: Love God, love yourself, and love everyone else. You don’t need a big rule book, a degree, a large bank account, or access to the Internet to do this. To be part of the life of God in the world love God and love your neighbor as yourself. No creed, no doctrine, no dogma required.

When we think about this story, we may tend to see the extreme. My neighbor is anyone on the planet, so I need to be concerned about the people on the other side of the world. And yes, we do want to feel empathy for the situation of someone on the other side of the globe, like the people in Beijing that are dealing with the terrible condition of the air and the effect it has on children and lifestyle and health. But the person who helps in the story just happens to be going down the road and sees the person who needs medical care. What about our neighbors, our neighborhoods? What about the person down the street? Who needs to get to the doctor. Or who doesn’t have enough food. Or who is struggling with an addiction. Or who hasn’t spoken to their son in 10 years. What about these neighbors right here on our path?

And then there are our family and friends. We have so many people who come to the church for help who have no family and no friends to turn to for help. That can happen when those relationships are abused. And some do not want their family and friends to know that they are in desperate circumstances. It is so sad. What if we were taking care of our family and friends? This loving your neighbor as yourself can start with our own households, our families, our friends, neighbors and communities.

Some years ago, the church sponsored a mission trip to Miami to do volunteer work for a week. Someone from the church asked me why we were going to Miami when there was plenty of need right here in Pinellas County. Why raise money for this trip when we could do mission work and stay right here at home and give all the money where it is needed? These are good questions. A mission trip has focus and other distractions are eliminated. We can be open to new experiences and growth when we are out of our normal context. There is a sense of community that develops among those who go away together. Bonds are strengthened. And sometimes seeing the need elsewhere can open your eyes to the needs in our own context.

But fundamentally, I think the person who questioned the Miami trip has a point and is further along the spiritual path than some of us. Think about it. What would the world be like, or let’s just say the United States be like, if every family and close circle of friends looked out for each other, helped each other, took care of each other, and supported one another? What if this extended to neighborhoods, schools, and faith communities? People helping each other. Encouraging each other. Listening to each other. Working together for the common good. Just this, seemingly simple as it is, would make a vast difference in our society. It would drastically reduce poverty, disadvantage, and suffering. It would also dramatically decrease violence, crime, anti social behavior, and fear. And as we learn to live this way close to home, I believe it increases our empathy toward others further away – either literally further away geographically or figuratively further away separated from us by race, class, ethnicity, sexual identity, nationality, or other differences. As the saying goes, charity begins at home but it doesn’t stay there.

Think about the case of the Good Samaritan. The person needing help was right in the path of the Samaritan. He didn’t go out of his way to find the injured traveler. But the others who passed by did go out of their way, crossed the road, to avoid helping the man. They felt they had valid religious and social reasons for doing so. They would stand by their excuses and their choices. But Jesus sees things a different way. He sees religion drawing forth compassion and help regardless of separation. He sees religion as a bond cementing our common humanity regardless of the religion of the “other.” We can move in this direction by starting close to home.

I know that many of you have read the telling best seller, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title comes from James Baldwin’s book, The Fire Next Time, which was written in 1962. While I was waiting to get Between the World and Me from the library, I read the copy of The Fire Next Time that I had inherited from my parents. In my opinion, Baldwin, too, should be on the best seller list. Not only does Baldwin address race relations but he talks about the evil that white people perpetrate against each other, citing, as an example, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. That was “white on white.” We can cite many other horrors that are white on white. White people do not reserve their hatred and evil only for people who have skin of another color. There is plenty of white on white abuse, oppression, and violence. And so, Baldwin observes, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

To me, this observation echoes the words we heard this morning, – love your neighbor as yourself. When we learn to love ourselves and our neighbors, the person next door and down the block, when we teach ourselves to truly love, to look out for the well-being of ourselves and those around us, we will be solving the race problem and many other problems facing humanity.

If we truly learn to love ourselves and our neighbor, then we will not only see that there is access to health care, and a safe place to live, we will also want to have clean air to breath, and a healthy environment to live in. So we will eliminate the use of fossil fuels, we will embrace conservation and environmentalism whole-heartedly. We will not only have great schools but convenient, affordable, pollution neutral public transport for all ages. The lifestyle we are living now is ultimately harming us, our children, and our neighbors near and far. We are not providing a sustainable future for the next generations. We are not loving our neighbors, near or far, or ourselves, when we continue to destroy the ecology of the planet.

So, this loving your neighbor as yourself is accessible to all of us, right here at home, in our own context whatever it may be, and you don’t have to be a philanthropist to do it. We don’t have to go out and look for a foreigner who is in need of attention. The glaring needs of our communities and of the earth itself are right on our doorstep. And we have the capacity to embody divine love for ourselves and for our neighbors. Right here. Right now. Not in some other reality, some altered consciousness, some heightened state of enlightenment.

Science tells us of plants networking to help each other. First the mother fir trees help their offspring, then the other fir trees around them, but they do not stop there. They go on to send life-sustaining messages to the birch trees around them. They extend their network beyond their own kind. This impulse to reach out and connect to help is part of their genetic imprint. They are created with this ability and they use it. Is that intelligent life? We, too, have the capacity to support each other and promote the health of the community especially the next generations. Certainly we consider humanity to be a form of intelligent life. May we put our intelligence to use. 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 July 17, 2016 “The Harvest” Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Date: Sunday July 17, 2016
Scripture: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Sermon: The Harvest
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I grew up in Minnesota and though I lived in an urban setting I had friends, through church camp, that lived on the farm. In the summer I would go to visit them. It was eye-opening. Basically what I took from the experience was that the farm controlled the family. Livestock HAD to be cared for daily – there was no, I’m too busy, I have to see my boyfriend, I have an assignment due for school, I have play practice, I’ll be at volleyball. And when there was other work that needed to be done, everyone was expected to pitch in. Period. This was especially true at harvest time. And when would that be? Well, it depended on the weather, the growing conditions, and many other factors. But when the crop was ready, it was harvested. There was no postponing or delaying. To harvest too early could mean the crop was not fully ready and then would sell for less. Waiting could mean risking rot, or past peak produce, or ruining rains, or bird or insect infestation. The timing was very tricky with everything hanging in the balance. To lose a crop could mean extremely lean times for a family or worse yet, bankruptcy. This harvesting business was life or death. For my teen friends, things like going to the Twin Cities for the holidays, a new prom dress, a car, and much more that was important to them, were at risk – all depending on the harvest.

In the story we heard this morning from the gospel of Luke, we are told that Jesus senses that the time is right for the harvest. It is time to reap. So he sends his followers out in twos, to villages and towns, to spread the gospel. There were 12 disciples to account for the gospel being shared with the 12 tribes of Israel. Now Jesus sends out 70. Seventy represents the multitude of nations beyond Israel. Jesus sends these followers out to share the good news of God’s love and peace with the whole world. No one is to be left out. With no provisions, demonstrating their dependence on God, without distraction, these pairs head out into the world bringing God’s peace to those who were ready to receive it. Jesus senses that the time is ripe – people are ready, hungry, for the realm of God.

It was hard work, this harvest, as is any harvest. My high school friends had to work long days at harvest time; from before sun up to well after sundown, day after day. And the daylight hours are long that far north. Harvest takes everything you have and more. Jesus sends these pairs out on what he knows is a difficult mission. They are to take little with them. They are not to move around among households, looking for better quarters. They are to accept what they are given to eat, whatever it may be, kosher or not in this case. They are to stay focussed. And they are to expect rejection along the way. If you are not welcome, shake the dust off of your feet and leave. “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” That is pretty telling. But the harvest is of absolute importance. It is consuming. Everything depends on the harvest. Jesus knows this. So he must send his friends. The life of the world depends on it.

We look at the world around us, and we see many signs. I’m almost afraid to go out in the morning and pick up the newspaper off of the driveway fearing another calamity has occurred since I went to bed the night before. Falcon Heights. Baton Rouge. Dallas. Nice. Baghdad. The attacks, the murders, the social upheaval and strife are fearsome. There are racial tensions. Ethnic tensions. Religious tensions. We hear less about it, but there is also the simmering of economic inequity and labor abuse in this country and around the world. And there are environmental issues that are boiling slowly creating tension and conflict. The world seems to be seething with conflicts and animosities and stresses. We live in a culture of fear. I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to hear the president deliver another eulogy.

Some want to dial back the clock – to when things were “better.” But when were they really better? Maybe better for some. But certainly not better for many. Today the targets may be Muslims and Mexicans. It wasn’t long ago that the targets were Irish and Italian. Some of us, speaking as a woman of Italian descent, are not so much for going back.

But what we see around us is a world that is ripe, ready, prime for harvest. The world is desperately longing for peace, for reconciliation, for a way forward that is based on compassion not conflict. And in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have what the world is longing for. The time is ripe for us to be spreading the gospel just as we heard about the 70 who went out to share the good news. The world is desperate to receive peace, to witness universal love and to feel the realm of God come close. The world needs what the church has to offer.

Now, I know that in the UCC we don’t talk much about evangelism because that has connotations that we aren’t keen on. Historically the church is known for evangelism that includes convincing people they are sinners and that Jesus died for their sins, and by accepting him, they will be forgiven and given eternal life in heaven after they die. The church is known for “selling” a belief system about a first century Palestinian Jewish rabbi being the son of God sent to die for our sins.

But let’s think about the story we heard this morning. Jesus sends the 70 out with a message. That message is not Jesus is the son of God come to die for your sins so that you can go to heaven. No. These followers are sent out into the world offering peace. Embodying peace. Demonstrating peace by their behavior – material simplicity, acceptance, sharing, working together. By embodying peace, justice, respect, compassion, and generosity they are showing people what the realm of God is like. They are offering people a new world view. A way to be in right relationship with others, even those considered enemy. Even under Roman occupation. Even in times of desperation and fear. They are demonstrating reverence for God, for nature, and for all of humankind. They are staying on with the people and helping them to create communities bonded by this vision of life as God intends it. They are bringing peace to the world at a time when it is desperately needed.

This is what the world needs from the church today. We need to be bringing peace to the world. We need to be flagrantly exhibiting our commitment to the realm of God where all people are sisters and brothers, sharing the light of one sun and one moon. One human family. With one home – planet Earth. People need to hear and see that there are ways for us to come back from the brink; that we can be guided by a different vision. We can move forward not with might but with mutual respect and understanding. We can show that success lies in service not in self-interest. Some people will see this as deranged. But just as evil is getting louder in this world good must come out from behind the rock and stand up and be counted. The time is ripe. We must not wait. The stakes are too high.

This week I heard about a local meeting of ministers in which one of the clergy present used a derogatory epithet for gay people. This person is a prominent, prestigious minister in the community. Apparently this was considered normal and accepted. Except that there was a new guy there. And he called this patriarch out. Let him know that that language and that attitude had no place among a group of Christian clergy, thank you very much. That new pastor is busy with the harvest.

We heard the story of the missionaries going out into the world for the harvest, but let’s attend to their return. Do they come back discouraged, defeated, and depressed? No! We are told that they return to Jesus filled with JOY. They are amazed at the harvest! And it’s interesting that we aren’t told that the people they visited all became so good, so loving, so generous, and so compassionate. We are told, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Then Jesus comments, “ . . . See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. . .” So the joy, the victory, the accomplishment, is in confronting evil. Think about it. If we see a scorpion or a snake we try to get away from it. We avoid it. We go around it or back off from it. But what we hear in this story is not avoid evil, but confront it. Address it head on. Don’t back off. This is important for us to hear. We can seem silly talking about peace, love, dove in today’s scary world. But this story reminds us that our commitment to God’s way of love involves calling out evil, wrong, and injustice in a spirit of love.

We don’t want to be put off by the language about demons. Of course, we don’t believe in little creatures taking people over and making them evil. But we see the evidence of evil around us – we see the demonic effects of greed, revenge, racism, self interest, privilege, violence, ecocide, fear, and arrogance. We see the power of these forces that destroy human community and subvert God’s purposes for creation. It’s not enough to just tell people to be good and do the right thing. To share God’s vision, to convey the reality of the realm of God, we also need to call out the behaviors and systems and assumptions and actions and attitudes that are undermining the realm of God. We need to convey the realm of God as a decided alternative to the current reality.

I heard a discussion about student debt on “On Point” with Tom Ashcroft this week. There was information about the enormity of student debt but Ashcroft also asked why we have this system that requires so many people to go so deeply into debt to get an education. And part of the answer is that public higher education is really becoming privatized, and there are people making millions of dollars on that education and on those student loans. Education debt is making some people rich. So, the bottom line is really greed. People don’t want to fully fund education through taxes, and some in higher education and the finance industry are making a killing on the loans. So, there it is. Greed. A demon to be confronted. Called out. And disempowered.

Taking the realm of God to the world, working on the desperately needed harvest, is more than raking in the good, spreading positive values, and being kind. It is also being bold in our analysis of the powers that are undermining the realm of God and confronting those forces. We say that love conquers all. We are being called to put love to work; to use love to defeat evil. Those teams in Luke were most impressed with how they were able to confront and disarm evil. We need to take that to heart even though some of us don’t like to be negative or condemnatory or critical.

Traditionally, the church has thought of the harvest as bringing people in, into the church, to maintain the church, to prosper the institution. In this story we see the faithful taking the gospel out. When others are attracted by who we are and how we live and what we do and what we say, we can tell them about our Christian commitment and invite them to experience a taste of heaven in the church. To experience the realm of God in the faith community.

I spoke with someone recently who said that in my job, I was lucky, I got to see miracles, positive transformation, and the good in people, on a regular basis, because I was part of the church. I told her, it’s not just clergy that have that experience. It’s everyone in our church. And she could come to church, too, if she wanted more of that in her life. The realm of God come close. It is here for all of us.

When you are part of a faith community, taking the gospel out into the world and coming back, you experience the joy. Not from your own power and accomplishments but because you feel you are partnering with God, with the Divine intention for the world, in lessening the destructive forces at work in the world and fostering the good. We are part of something far greater than ourselves and we are not alone.

The world desperately needs peace. In every city and town. In every land and country. In every culture and climate. Peace. As followers of Jesus, we are being sent out to meet this need. We are being called to the harvest. There is the sense of urgency. The critical moment that requires us to focus turning away from distractions and making this our priority. No postponing or delaying. The world is waiting; ripe for this ministry. The world is hungry for the way of life, not death, violence, and destruction. We are being called to bring peace to the world just like the 70 in the story. Today. As we are. No elaborate preparations necessary. Go and bring peace. Call out evil. Let people know that there is another way. The realm of God has come near. Is at hand. We will not return empty for the power of God is at work in us. God’s work may be strenuous and demanding but it is ultimately meaningful and satisfying.

Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore reminds us of the reward:

I slept and dreamt life was joy.
I awoke and saw life was service.
I acted and behold service was joy.

The harvest is ready. May our joy be full. 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 July 10, 2017 “Remembering” Genesis 6:5-9:17

Date: Sunday July 10, 2016
Scripture: Genesis 6:5-9:17
Sermon: Remembering
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Sea turtles go back to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. Salmon go back up the stream they came from to spawn. Butterflies repeat migration patterns year after year after year as do birds. These impulses in nature come from some kind of mixture of instinct and memory.

The animal we associate most strongly with remembering is the elephant. We say, “An elephant never forgets.” As it turns out, the elephant actually does have an amazing memory.

Jenny was a resident elephant at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. When a new elephant, Shirley, arrived, Jenny became anxious and excited. Shirley, too, showed signs of excitement. The two elephants could hardly be contained.

As the animals investigated each other with their trunks, they became more and more animated. Carol Buckley, founder of the sanctuary, says, “Shirley started bellowing, and then Jenny did, too. Both trunks were checking out each other’s scars. I’ve never experienced anything that intense without it being aggression.” It turns out, the meeting was an emotional reunion. Buckley knew that Jenny had been part of the Carson and Barnes Circus before coming to the sanctuary. But she didn’t know much about Shirley. She did some investigating and found out that Shirley had been with the same circus for a few months – 23 years earlier! So the elephants had crossed paths. And they remembered each other even after all of those years! [Fact or Fiction: Elephants Never Forget: Do elephants really have steel-trap memories? Scientific American, James Ritchie, January 12, 2009 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/elephants-never-forget/]

In thinking about the memory power of animals, we are reminded of how important memory is. It is important to relationships – don’t forget to pick your child up after school or they will never let you forget it! Memory is important to survival to being safe and healthy. For instance, we need to remember to brush our teeth and be careful with electricity around water. And memory is important to human development for us as individuals as well as communities and as a species. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. [Attributed to George Santayana and others]

Our ability to remember is key to our development as individuals and as a species. As a history major in college, I am astounded by the lack of a sense of history that I see in many younger people today. There seems to be less of a focus on history in the public education system. Maybe history has been pushed out by the concentration on STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. I am not against those subjects. I am married to a physics teacher. But without a good foundation in history there is no context for understanding life as it is today. Looking at history we can see our place in the wider scheme of things. We can see how relationships between countries stem from many past experiences. One example is the Middle East. We see the problems there and we look back, and back, and back, to ancient times, to Bible times, and we see the roots of the problems and the complexities which still influence today’s situations. In many areas of the world, for instance, the Balkans, what happened hundreds of years ago is still directly influencing what is going on today.

In a book I am reading, the writer is discussing certain religious figures in India. One chapter focuses on a Buddhist monk and it shows the importance of history. The monk reflects: “We Buddhists believe in karma, and in cause and effect. An action has consequences; we are the consequences of our acts. Perhaps because there was a time in the seventh century when we Tibetans invaded China and tortured the Chinese, so we are suffering this torture now. It is our turn to suffer for what we did in previous lives.” [Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple, p. 163] While we may not resonate with the theology we can relate to the need to think about how history is influencing events that are taking place today.

Remembering, a sense of the past, can help us to find understanding and healing. As people grow older, there is an important process of remembering that takes place. There is much to look back on. I often hear from older people about the past. As they talk about the past, the experiences often take on a different meaning looking back. Patterns emerge that could not have been seen earlier. Additional factors come to light over the years and things take on new meaning. It is very important to attend to that kind of reflection to come to terms with one’s life as well as to learn and grow wise and share that wisdom with others. A long life gives the opportunity to glean a rich harvest from the past.

Memory gives us context. It is a resource. It facilitates our survival and our growth. To me, the past is like a mirror, an encyclopedia, a self help book, a Bible, really. And, actually when we think about the Bible, it is a book of stories and teachings that convey how people experienced the presence of God in their lives and in their world. They wrote the stories down to remember. This helps us to know how to look for God in our lives and our world.

The story that we heard this morning is well known to most people in and out of the church. The animals and the ark. The catastrophic flood. And a new beginning from the remnants of the old. This basic schema has been used for many post apocalyptic movies which shows that the themes continue to resonate today. In the story of Noah, we think of the ark, the animals, the rains and flooding, then the dove, and finally dry land, the rainbow, and a new beginning. It makes for a great children’s book with pictures of all the animals though it is hard to get around explaining why all the other animals and people die. How do you explain to children that the world was being destroyed because the people were violent without planting seeds of fear in the child? But tucked into the story is a lesson about remembering. The ark is built and Noah and company are on board. The rains persist until the water has risen higher than the mountains. All the animals and people not on the ark are dead. “Every living thing that was on the face of the ground.” And the waters keep rising for 150 days. The way the story is told, God sets things in motion and the rains come, and the mission is accomplished in terms of destroying almost all life.

Then there is this verse: “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark.” God remembered Noah. What? God could have forgotten Noah? God may not have remembered Noah? From our human perspective, Noah and the people and animals on the boat are unforgettable. Noah is the main event. But maybe for the God of the story, the God of creation, the God of all the planets and galaxies, the God of the cosmos, there were many other pressing concerns. Or maybe God was tired and worn down after finding Noah, seeing to the ark, and sending the flood. Maybe God was taking a good long nap. But – God remembered Noah. That one little phrase reminds us that the story could have gone another way. God could have forgotten Noah. But God remembered. The God of the story did not forget. And that makes all the difference.

Then once the ark perches on dry ground, we have the ending of the tale with rainbow. And what is the rainbow? It’s a reminder. The rainbow is intended to remind God of the covenant God has made with humanity never to destroy the earth again. In the story, God tells Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” The rainbow is God’s reminder. It’s like tying a string on your finger to remember something. The rainbow will remind God not to abandon humanity and the earth.

This story implies a God that has the capacity to remember and to forget, just like people. God has memory and remembering helps God to do the right thing, just like with people.

We need to remember. We need to remember the bad things that happen: The evil of which we are capable. The horrors of history. So that we do not repeat them. This was the life mission of Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who died recently. Apparently that message was truly taken to heart in Germany. I’ve read that most cities and towns have some kind of holocaust memorial. They want to make sure that everyone knows about the holocaust and that it is remembered so that it will never be repeated.

I wonder if things would be different here in the US if every city and town had a memorial to the Indians who lived here before the coming of the Europeans? What if every city and town had a memorial to slavery to help us to remember the horrors that occurred?

Remembering the past, and the awful things that have occurred, is important, not so we wallow in it, but so we learn from it and move forward in a different direction.

This is part of the recovery process for those who are addicts. They remember how awful it is to be active in an addiction to help prevent them from going back there and to help motivate them toward a more positive future.

Remembering is also important when it comes to the good that people do. We need to remember the wonderful accomplishments of humanity. It is important to recognize those who have done great things, helped others in important ways, engaged in acts of selfless heroism and justice. It is important to remind ourselves that we are capable of great good. We have the potential to be noble. We can accomplish great things. Remembering the eradication of polio, or the mission to the moon, or the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa remind us to aim high. When we remember our finest accomplishments we are inspired to bring forth our best.

Remembering also helps us to see what is and isn’t working and what change is needed. When we look back we see, for instance, that the US economy really isn’t improving. Things really aren’t getting better for most people. There is still a huge underclass at the bottom and an inordinately high concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. When we look back, we see that this goes on year after year, decade after decade. This shows us that major change is needed. This tells us that a new economic vision, a new model for doing business, a new set of goals for the economy is needed. Leaving things as they are is going to perpetuate the same result. But if we don’t look back and see the continued failure of the current system then we will keep doing what we are doing hoping for change. Maybe there’s a reason why the government wants education to focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Maybe they don’t want people to study history and see the patterns and demand change. Who knows? Are the politicians that smart? Many certainly are that self-interested, I know that.

Remembering is powerful. By remembering, God saves Noah, his family, the animals, and the world. By remembering, God has not destroyed the earth again. We may destroy the earth as we know it, but it won’t be God.

Remember. As Jesus comes to the end of his life, what does he tell his disciples? Remember. As they eat the Passover meal, a meal instituted so that the Jews remember God delivering them from slavery in Egypt, Jesus tells his friends to remember. When they drink the wine and eat the bread, they are to remember him.

If we truly remember Jesus, what will we remember? Was Jesus known for hate? Was he known for violence? Was he known for greed? Was he known for treating some people as less than? Was he known for revenge? Was he known for being mean and selfish? Let’s remember. No. He was not known for any of these things.

When we remember Jesus, and we have the gospels and the New Testament to help us, what do we see? We see love. We see generosity. We see empathy. We see forgiveness. We see community. We see peace. We see healing. We see equality. This is what we are to remember. I think it is very important for us to remember Jesus, the historical Jesus, his context, and the stories that were told about him because that shows us what we are to remember. That shows us the good, the highest good, of which humanity is capable. That is what we are to remember so that we can call that good forth from ourselves, one another, and the world.

In recent days, we have heard about how certain individuals have done awful things – killing 49 people in a night club, killing a man during a traffic stop with his girlfriend and child in the car, killing 5 police officers. These things and many more heinous actions should be remembered so that we name them as unacceptable, despicable, and wrong. By remembering, we can work together to make sure that these kinds of acts are not repeated. Never again.

But it is not enough to simply decry evil. We must also call forth the good, the best, the most noble impulses of which we are capable. We must call forth the highest good, from ourselves, from one another, and from the community around us. To do this, we must remember the good of those have gone before us. We must look to leaders, activists, and artists, who serve the public good with the highest moral intentions. And for us, as Christians, we must look to and remember Jesus. He is our best model, our deepest inspiration, the clearest embodiment of what is good and true. We must do all that we can to remember him.

Now in olden days, when people went on a religious pilgrimage, they put a sprig of rosemary in their shoe for remembrance. Rosemary was used at funerals to help people remember the one who had died. Rosemary for remembrance is mentioned in Ophelia’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Well, in recent years, scientists have been doing studies of rosemary. They have found that the scent of rosemary actually does help to improve the memory. So we have rosemary on the altar and you are welcome to take a sprig home with you to help you remember Jesus so that you will be inspired by him. [What does rosemary do to the brain? http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33519453]

And let’s not sell our memory capacity short. As a species, we have amazing memory powers. And in this day of memory cards and chips and drives and disks, scientists tell us that the best way to store the most information is on a strand of DNA. It is the perfect medium for copious data storage. So volumes of human knowledge and history are being downloaded onto DNA, the most efficient and effective way to store our collective memory. [Jacob Aron, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530084-300-glassed-in-dna-makes-the-ultimate-time-capsule/#.VOK6M7DLdA8?ref=curiositydotcom]

God remembered Noah. God did not forget. Created in God’s image, humans have an extraordinary capability to remember and when we don’t use it we suffer for it. With our incredible capacity for memory, may we always and constantly remember Jesus, the 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 July 3, 2016 “Learning from the Bison”

Screenshot 2016-07-06 16.50.34Date: July 3, 2016
Scripture: Job Chapter 12
Sermon: Learning from the Bison
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

For over 12,000 years, tens of millions of bison roamed the entire North American continent from Alaska to Mexico. The largest mammal of North America could be found in every state of the union. In describing the prolific bison, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge recalled in 1871, that the animals moved in herds “as irresistible as an avalanche.” [“Bison Bison Bison” by Elif Batuman, “The New Yorker,” May 13, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/bison-bison-bison-americas-new-national-mammal]

This one species supported the lifestyle of the native peoples of this continent providing food, tools made from the bones and sinews, clothing, hides and skins for dwellings. Even the dried manure was used for fuel. The bison was the foundation that supported the lives of indigenous people of North America for some 12,000 years. Life depended on the bison. John McDougall, a missionary to the Stoney Indians, observed in 1865, “Without the buffalo they would be helpless.” [Bison Bison Bison, “The New Yorker”]

That was life in North America into the 19th century. And then, within 100 years, the bison was almost driven to extinction. The introduction of horses, improved weaponry, and the railroad contributed to the decline of the bison from tens of millions to far fewer than a thousand. We’ve all seen the pictures of people shooting bison from trains for sport.

But all this killing of the buffalo, another name for the same species as bison, was not just done in sport. The elimination of the bison was a policy pursued by the government to ensure the elimination of the Native American Indians. Government officials knew that Indians were dependent upon the bison, and getting rid of the bison would mean getting rid of Indian culture. It would make it easier for the government to coerce the Indians into doing what they wanted them to.

In 1873, Columbus Delano, who was the US Secretary of the Interior, wrote: “I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians.” [“It’s official: America’s first national mammal is the bison,” Elahe Izadi, May 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/04/27/how-the-bison-once-nearing-extinction-lived-to-become-americas-national-mammal/] And this strategy worked. As the bison disappeared, the Indian cultures were weakened and inducing capitulation was all the easier.

Decimating the bison population did not just have the unintended consequence of bringing the Indians to their knees. The bison population was intentionally pushed to collapse to push the Indian population to collapse. Nature was used as a weapon against an enemy; as a tool of extermination.

The demise of the bison was furthered by industrial development in the US in the late 19th century. The hides were used to make elastic leather drive belts for textile mills. The bones were used in pigments, fertilizer, and sugar refining. In one year, the Michigan Carbon Works in Detroit processed 8 million pounds of bison bone ash, and 10 million pounds of black bone – all delivered via railroad. [Bison Bison Bison, “The New Yorker”]

While there were many factors that contributed to the decimation of the bison population, the survival of the species can be attributed to the efforts of just a few men. In The New Yorker article, “Bison Bison Bison,” Elif Batuman tells of the movement to save the species:

Luckily for the species, it had friends in high places. In 1905, the American Bison Society (A.B.S.) was founded by a group of wealthy New York-based zoologists and philanthropists, including William Hornaday, Andrew Carnegie, and Teddy Roosevelt, an avid buffalo hunter who felt, according to the author Steven Rinella, that ‘the total annihilation of the buffalo would do irreparable damage to the manly mystique of the West.’ In 1907, the A.B.S. set out to reinvigorate the bison . . . population by sending fifteen bison from the Bronx Zoo, by train, to the Wichita Reserve Bison Refuge. As Rinella observes in his book American Buffalo, ‘One of America’s great ironies is that not only did New York’s aristocrats help save the West’s buffalo from extinction, but they used New York’s buffalo to do it.’

Batuman goes on to tell us that, “A group of Comanche came up to the train once it reached Oklahoma; the adults remembered what bison looked like, but the children didn’t.”

Thanks to the American Bison Society and the efforts of Hornaday who was director of the Bronx Zoo, the species has survived. Once numbering in the tens of millions, the population sank to a few dozen. Today, there are about half a million bison in North America and most of them are in captivity. Apparently the biggest herd belongs to media mogul Ted Turner. They are served in his 45 Montana Grill restaurants which offer bison nachos, bison chili, bison pot roast, bison short ribs, bison meatloaf, bison steak, and bison burgers. [Bison Bison Bison, “The New Yorker”]

There is also a herd of nearly 5,000 bison roaming free in Yellowstone National Park.

While the bison is no longer in danger of extinction, the thundering herds no longer survive. What remains is a shadow of the massive presence that dominated North America for 12,000 years. Yet, the species remains and just recently received due recognition when it was named the official mammal of the United States. This recognition came as a result of an unlikely coalition of ranchers, conservationists, and tribal groups. In response to the efforts of this coalition, Congress actually banded together and took bipartisan action making the bison the official mammal of our country.

In the reading we heard from the story of Job, Job is getting lots of advice and counsel from his friends which he feels is basically useless and misguided. He thinks they are way off target in their understanding of his situation and God’s role in it. So in the speech we heard, Job responds to his friends, saying, “But ask the animals and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” [12:7-8]  So on this 4th of July Sunday, we will see what we can learn from the newly designated official mammal of the United States, the bison.

Some would say that the church in the US in our time is being decimated and is in danger of becoming extinct. Church membership is down. The percentage of the population self-identifying as Christian is diminishing. The influence of the church in the culture is decreasing.

While the demise of the bison and its salvation were due to outside intervention from humans, from what I have observed, the situation with the church is due not so much to an outside threat, but is more a result of internal issues. Some Christians like to blame secularists, the government which they believe is hostile to the church, and the increase in immigrants that are not Christian as some of the causes of the decline of the church. I myself think that the church has mainly itself to blame for its decline.

The church is to be the body of Christ, a witness to the love and healing that we see in Jesus, freely offered to all people for the good of the world. But this is not what the church is known for, really. What is the church known for? There could be many answers to that question. I’ll give you a few of mine. I think the church is known for worrying about getting people into heaven after they die. And along with this, less of a concern for the quality of life while people, all people, are here on earth. I think the church is known for its big fancy buildings and comfortable clergy even in the face of glaring poverty and need. I think the church is known for unequal treatment of blacks and women and sexual minorities. That hardly speaks to Jesus’ healing love freely bestowed upon all people. I think the church is known for promoting hell and the fear of hell to motivate obedience. I think the church is known for demeaning and criticizing other religions and promoting Christianity as the only true religious path. This is seen as insulting and disrespectful to people of other religions.

I also think the church is seen as irrelevant. What are the big issues facing the world? Environmental collapse. Violence: from handgun violence to nuclear war. Economic injustice which is continually decreasing people’s access to the needed economic resources. As my son told me recently, “Mom, there are no jobs.” Then I heard it again from someone on NPR this week: “There are no jobs.” Jobs that pay a living wage. Then there is still the issue of equality: equality for women and people of color, and similar pressing concerns. But the church is not known for being outspoken about this unless it is for being anti-gay.

While the church as a whole may not be known for a high level of concern about these issues, there does seem to be one ray of light, in an international sense, and that is Pope Francis. He actually is addressing himself to these issues, even if the Catholic Church is not stampeding in support of his positions. He seems more concerned with being faithful to the gospel of Jesus than pleasing his subjects.

In terms of the decline of the church, another contributing factor as I see it is the archaic, magical, superstitious thinking that is associated with the church. It’s one thing to appreciate ancient rituals and the symbolism of archaic language. It is quite another to expect people to accept religious tradition as factual truth and to follow the Bible literally. For the post modern, educated mind, much of what is associated with the church simply cannot be accepted with integrity and authenticity because it conflicts with reason and science. So the church, in my opinion, largely makes itself obsolete and irrelevant.

For the most part, I see the declining trend in the size and power of the church as the result of the internal life of the church, not as coming from external threats. And this is due, in my view, to the church straying from the core teachings, message, and witness of Jesus. The New Testament shows us a church that is an all-embracing community of compassion characterized by radical diversity, acceptance, and love. Church was not something you did on Sunday morning. It wasn’t an extracurricular activity, a hobby, or a club. It was a person’s core identity, utterly defining their self concept. It was the air they breathed, the skin that covered their bodies, the blood rushing through their veins. The church was filled with Jesus-followers who were fearless and had radically departed from the society around them. They were imbued with the sacred and they knew it. They found God in every person and took delight in the relationships they formed. They were awed by life and the world around them infused with the Divine. That is the church in its glory, like the bison in their glory thundering in endless herds across the plains.

The bison have survived and can now be designated the national mammal because a core of people believed in their grandeur, their magnificence, and their symbolic importance. It was believed by some who went to great extremes that the bison was worth saving. And so, I believe it is with the church. While the church overall in the US may be in decline, I believe there are core groups that believe in the kind of radical, all-embracing community imbued with divinity that we see in the stories of Jesus. There are those who are committed to the survival of the message of compassion and justice that we have from Jesus. I believe there are still true Jesus-followers who are keeping the gospel alive in the world today. And this is not about self preservation. It is not for personal pleasure. It is not to hold on to power. It’s not to get into heaven. It is not a quaint obsession with antiquity, like Civil War re-enactors. There can be only one valid reason for perpetuating the way of Jesus, for being his follower, for living by the gospel, for committing to universal love, justice, and forgiveness, and that reason is the good of the world. The church exists for the world, to serve the world, to heal the world, to help the world survive. This precious world that is the self-disclosure of God. I’m not so sure it is a bad thing if a church that exists for the self-interest of its members diminishes, declines, and dies.

The story of the survival of the bison shows us that even a small core of the church can be responsible for perpetuating the desperately needed gospel of Jesus Christ as a blessing to the world. My prayer is that we, who have the freedom to do so in our land of the free and home of the brave, may be part of protecting and saving the gospel for the good of the world. Amen.

Note: After the sermon, the congregation joined in singing 3 verses of “Home on the Range.”

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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