Sermon 11.18.18 The Darkling Beetle

 

The BIG Event, Stewardship Sunday

Scripture Lessons:  Isaiah 25:  6-9 and Matthew 6:25-33

The Namib Desert is a vast expanse of, well, dry sand, in south western Africa.  This long narrow coastal desert stretches about 1200 miles from Angola through Namibia and into South Africa.  The name, Namib, comes from the Nama word which means “vast place” and indeed the Namib Desert is a vast place covering over 31,000 square miles.  That’s about half the size of the state of Florida.  The Namib Desert is one of the oldest on the planet.  It may be between 55 and 80 million years old!  The landscape includes sand seas with dunes rising up to 1000 feet, gravel plains, and scattered mountain outcroppings.  In some places, the average yearly precipitation is 2 millimeters per year!  The temperature ranges from 140 degrees F to freezing.  Not surprisingly, there is very little human habitation or activity in this desert, though there is mining of diamonds and tungsten. 

Despite the harsh conditions, there is prolific life in the Namib Desert.  It is home to some 3,500 plant species half of which are endemic.  That means they can be found only in this region of the Earth.  One of these plants is the Welwishcia mirabilis.  It has only two long, narrow leaves and it can live for over 1,000 years!

There are also a variety of animal species that live in the Namib Desert including birds, shrews, moles and snakes as well as zebra and even elephants.  There are also lots of beetles and bugs including the amazing darkling beetle.

This beetle is endemic to the Namib Desert.  That means it cannot be found living anywhere else on Earth.  It’s a little beetle about the size of a thumb nail.  And it gets up every morning and climbs up a sand dune which may be up to 1000 feet high.  That’s like twice the height of Mount Everest to a human being.  Then, when this beetle gets to the top of the dune, does it lay down and rest?  No!  It stands still, facing the wind, and does a head stand.  In this position, here’s what happens scientifically – the bumpy elytrons with a pattern of hydrophilic bumps and hydrophobic troughs cause humidity from the morning fog to condense into droplets and roll down the beetle’s back into its mouth.  OK.  That means that the beetle does this head stand and moisture from the fog forms drops on its body which has special bumps and grooves to channel the water down the body right into the beetle’s mouth.  What a design!  In this way, the beetle takes in up to 40% of its body weight in water.  That’s like an adult drinking about 30 liters of water!  (Calculated for a 160 pound adult.)  So, the beetle doesn’t rest at the top of the dune but it sure has a big drink of water!  Then it heads down the dune to conduct the rest of the days activities!  This seemingly crazy water capture procedure keeps the beetle alive even in the harshest conditions.  

Well, I’m going to suggest that coming to church for us is something like heading up the dune for the darkling beetle.  We get up on Sunday morning and get dressed, eat something, drink something, and then we head to church.  Here we find what we need to live.  We find community.  We find love.  We find spiritual sustenance.  We find teachings and values that promise life.  We find a concept of reality to not only sustain us but to help us flourish.  All that we need to live is offered here.  We just have to show up and take it in like the beetle heading up the dune.  Sometimes it may seem like a taxing trek up that dune but the beetle is not disappointed.  It does its headstand and gathers the water it needs to make it through another day.  Some Sundays, it seems like hard work to get to church.  How are we going to fit it in with all that we have to get done?  Maybe we feel weak.  Maybe there are other reasons the effort seems like a stumbling block.  Maybe it’s not as bad as climbing a mountain twice the height of Everest, but it could be as taxing as doing a head stand!  But we make the effort and we get here, and we find just what we need to make it through the day, or through the challenge we are facing, or through the difficult circumstance that has us stressed.  Here, at church, we find that what we need comes pouring in.  We just have to show up.  And then we leave to proceed with the rest of life, prepared, supported, and fortified, even for the harshest conditions.  

So as you make your pledge this morning, offering time, talent, and treasure, think of all that we are receiving from the church and all that the church is offering.  It’s all here.  Everything we need to live with meaning, purpose, joy, and delight.  Let us share the harvest that is being so generously given to us.  Amen.  

Information on the darkling beetle and the Namib Desert is from:

http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/namib_desert/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namib

Planet Earth, “Deserts”

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 10.21.18 “Fact and Faith”

Scripture:  Mark 10:46-52

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

The quintessential American writer and social commentator of the 19th century, Mark Twain, had this to say:  “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”  It doesn’t take much discernment to see that there are many in our country today whose imaginations are way out of focus.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say it, we have guided missiles and misguided men.  Our species has made enormous strides in science and in understanding the world around us and beyond.  We have achieved tremendous technological advances, so much so, that it almost seems as if we are living in a sci-fi movie from the 50’s or 60’s.  

And Albert Einstein observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  So, I am wondering about our capacity to imagine humans living in balance with Earth in a way that sustains both.  I am wondering about the will to imagine human communities that are just:  Free of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and all of the other attitudes that judge and therefore diminish people.  I am thinking about our capacity for imagining economic arrangements that profit the common good.  I am wondering about imagining peace.  Many of us joined hundreds of others to do just that yesterday at Circus McGurkis and what a glorious celebration it was! 

It seems there is boundless imagination for schemes of amassing power and wealth at any expense.  There seem to be no limits to the imagination when it comes to inflicting pain and inventing weaponry.  But what about imagination for the good?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, the human mind has used imagination in service to religious expression.  Humanity has used imaginative pictures and stories and rituals and monuments to shape community, consciousness and meaning.  Humans do not live by bread alone, as scripture tells us.  We need stories and images which form narratives that help us to understand and make meaning out of our experience.  Religious expression is part of that.  Religion is a response to mystery, awe, and wonder.  Religion helps us to understand the world around us and the world within us.  Religion invites exploration of our motivations, influences, and values.  It helps us to figure out who we are, why we are here, and what matters.  

Religion, Christianity included, relies largely upon story in this process.  Jesus did not deliver well thought out, well documented treatises about human behavior.  He told stories.  The stories of our religious traditions, folk tales, myths, and lore, these stories all help us to see who we are, shape who we are, and help us to understand ourselves and the world.  Narratives define us.   

In Mexican lore, there is a creation story about people being created from corn.  Corn was growing prolifically.  And a divine figure turns the tall, erect corn stalks into people.  And this is how people came into the world.  Of course this is not science.  But we know that.  We see that this is a story that helps to shape a culture in which corn is the most important food.  Corn makes life possible.  The story gives people a sense of their core connection to the corn, the land, and the love that sustains them. 

Story is an important part of religion.  Stories help us to see who we are and find meaning in our experience.  We see this in the story that we listened to from the gospel of Mark this morning.  We are told that Jesus is walking along through a town called Jericho, accompanied by a large crowd. So this is a public circumstance.  As they are leaving Jericho, on the outskirts of town, they encounter a person who is on the outskirts of society – someone on the fringe, the edge, marginalized.  We’re told about a physically blind person who, when he finds out that Jesus is going by, cries out for mercy.  The blind person, who cannot see, seems to see who Jesus really is and what he is capable of.  And, remember, from stories in the Hebrew Bible, the people knew that that the messiah was supposed to give sight to the blind.  So this blind man’s expectations are in line with the teachings of his religion.  He is giving Jesus the opportunity to show the crowds who he is.  But the crowds, including the disciples, don’t see this.  They are forgetting their stories and they tell the blind man to be quiet; stop making a scene.  But in the story, Jesus sees what is going on.  This is an opportunity for him to fulfill his role as messiah, messiah not only to the respectable people, but messiah to those on the outskirts of society.  So we are told that Jesus calls out to the man.  Well, the crowd immediately responds and calls the man to Jesus.  The man throws off his cloak, perhaps his only possession,  and goes to Jesus.  He gets rid of anything that gets in the way.  He is willing to give up whatever he has to because he sees who Jesus is and values whatever Jesus will give him above all else.  This is in contrast to the disciples who just verses before are wondering why they have left home and family and job to follow Jesus and if it will be worth it.  And there is also the story of the wealthy person who cannot give his wealth to the poor to follow Jesus.  The blind man may only have one possession, but even this he will gladly cast aside for he trusts Jesus. 

Next in the story, Jesus asks this man, “What do you want me to do for you?”  What does he want?  It’s almost like a genie and three wishes.  But you can’t ask for three more wishes.  What do you want me to do for you?  Again, just a few verses earlier, the disciples have come to Jesus with a request:  To sit at his right hand and left hand in the realm of God.  They want favored status, recognition,  and privilege.  This brings to mind the observation of Helen Keller, a person who was physically blind and deaf: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”   What does this blind man want?  “My teacher, let me see again.”  See.  This man wants understanding.  Insight.  Meaning.  That is what he asks for which also tells us what he does not ask for:  wealth, power, status and prestige.  There are lots of things that he does not ask for.  The one thing he wants is sight.  True vision.   

In the story, Jesus tells him, “Your faith has made you well,” or saved you, or made you whole, or cured you, depending on how the word is translated.  But the man’s inner sight, his trust, his awareness, has led him to Jesus, to desiring what is true, to letting nothing stand in the way of his quest.   And he is rewarded. 

And what is the first thing he does once he can see?  Does he look in a mirror?  Does he count the coins he has collected begging?  Does he take a swing at someone nasty in the crowd that has taunted him?  No.  We are told, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”  He sees with validity and the value of this alternative world that Jesus is offering to people.  He sees the commonwealth of God in Jesus and his way.  He sees the truth that our highest good is found in living for others.  

We have touched on just a few of the many meanings and insights in this story that help us to see truth and to see ourselves more clearly.  This story has much to offer in helping us to examine ourselves and better understand ourselves and the nature of the world around us.  

Now, the touchy topic.  Did Jesus heal the man?  Did Jesus actually physically heal this man or anyone?  Is this a miracle?  Is it an occurrence that is beyond the bounds of scientifically provable experience?  Is this story to be looked at literally to show that Jesus is the Messiah?  

If the Bible is taken literally, then there are many claims that are in direct conflict with scientific fact.  Some of these can be accounted for by the less advanced state of knowledge at the time the documents are written.  But some of the stories are specifically intended to contradict scientific fact to show the power of the Divine.  But these stories were not originally taken literally, as we understand that term.  In ancient times, there was not the delineation between scientifically provable fact and fiction that we understand today.  Stories were considered true because of what they conveyed about human experience that resonated with the listeners and their experience.   Strict Biblical literalism as we know it is a relatively recent development, really since the 19th century.  And the problem with this new Biblical literalism is that it puts religion at odds with science and creates a false choice between science and religion.  And a consequence of this false choice is that religion with its potentially powerful influence for good loses much of its authority and validity and respect.  

Our religious tradition is rich in stories that help us to understand ourselves, see our choices, choose our reality, make moral judgments, create community, and pursue justice.  The stories of Jesus have much to offer the world to address the many challenges and problems that we are facing.  And we know that stories have the power to shape our consciousness.  Narrative creates our reality.  The power of our Christian stories is being lost to this blind insistence on literalism.  

We’ll take a moment to look at how this is the case with two important images associated with Christianity.  First, heaven and hell.  Seen as metaphors, symbolic images, the concepts of heaven and hell have much to offer.  On Earth as it is in heaven.  Creating communities, societies and culture that respect the dignity and value of every human being.  That’s heaven.  Living in harmony with the physical creation.  That’s heaven.  Living the path of love and forgiveness and generosity.  That’s heaven.  Living for others and serving others.  That’s heaven.  Creating peace through justice.  That’s heaven.  That’s what we are told about the way of Divine Love in the Bible.  These are visions of God’s way.  And we can image that as heaven.  

And what is hell?  Hell is life that is not lived from the foundation of Divine Love.  Hell is when we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.  When we do not love our enemy.  When we do not see the needs of others.  When we live from our own selfishness and greed.  This creates suffering and separation and pain and violence.  This can be imaged as hell.  

To insist that heaven and hell are only actual places that you go after you die distorts and limits the potential constructive power of these images.  

Another example is the powerful image of resurrection.  The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is a story that tells of the human capacity for evil and violence.  It tells of the power of greed and lust for power and control.  It tells of human resistance to the way of love.  It is also a story of the ultimate triumph of love.  Of resilience.  Of the power for new life that is beyond our wildest imaginings and dreams.  Think of Nelson Mandela becoming the president of South Africa.  Think of the European Union forged from peoples who were at war with each other off and on for hundreds of years.  Think of the parents who keep going, one more day, after the tragic death of a child.  Resurrection is all around us.  It is always possible within us.  To limit this concept only to something literal that happened to Jesus and will happen to us after we die is to rob this symbol of its power.  Symbols and stories by their very nature are not limited in power and scope.  To insist on literalism when it comes to the Bible is to limit its power.  

Now I have a wand here, an exact replica of the wand used by Daniel Ratcliffe in the Harry Potter movies.  This wand was custom made for Malcolm Wells by his father, Jefferson Wells.  Now, if I point the wand at the altar and utter the spell, wingardium leviosa, what will happen?  Will the altar rise?  Levitate?  Of course not.  But that does not diminish the power of the story of Harry Potter in which we see the battle between good and evil.  And we see the extreme loyalty that marks true friendship.  And we see evidence of sacrificial love as a mother places her body between her child and a deadly curse, giving up her life to save the life of her child.

If we ask to have our sight restored, we will see that the perceived conflict between science and religion, between verifiable fact and religious truth, is illusion.  We will see that the way of Jesus, a way of love, service, reconciliation, and valuing the worth of every person and all of Creation, is life-giving.  And we will choose that way.

The blind man in the story threw down his cloak and gave up life as he knew it to embrace a new life following Jesus.  There is a loud cry coming from our society, from our communities, from our neighborhoods, and from ourselves for healing and hope.  Our faith tradition is rich with stories that help us to see our circumstances, the implications of our choices, and the meaning of our lives.  May we be willing to abandon the dogma and theology and tradition that prevent us from following Jesus and finding new life.  May our plea be, “Let me see.”  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 10.7.18 One Is Not the Loneliest Number

Scripture Lessons: Job 1:1, 2:7-10 and Mark 10:13-16                                            Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

This week there was the celebration of the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  You know, the guy who is often pictured talking to the birds and other animals like Dr. Doolittle.  St. Francis is remembered for writing an ode to the sun, the stars, and the moon.  At the end of the service, we’ll sing a hymn based on his verses.  To our ears, it almost sounds, well, Wiccan or Native American.   It is an unusual celebration of the natural world for traditional Christianity which is usually so anthropocentric.   But St. Francis is hardly seen as edgy or provocative.  He seems more eccentric and quaint with his fascination with animals and nature.

But St. Francis is also known for pursuing poverty and he made quite a turn around in his life.  He grew up in a context of wealth and privilege.  He was known for living the high life.  He relished military glory.  But as a young adult, he underwent a process of spiritual transformation.  We are told that in the town square, in front of his father, the bishop, and the townspeople, he carefully took off all of the clothes he had on, which his father had given him, and folded them into a neat pile, and then renounced his inheritance, exclaiming that God was his only father, and walking away, singing.  

In this gentle act, a symbolic gesture, Francis was making a statement about his trust in God and his connection with the world.  He saw himself as a child of God, part of God’s Creation, and he did not want to be defined by other biological, cultural, and economic labels.  He wanted to self-identify as a child of God, a creature in God’s world.  He looked at other people and animals in this way as well.  All created, creatures, part of Divine reality: all of it holy and sacred.   Theologians today say that Creation is the self-disclosure of God.  Francis saw that.  All of it.  Of God.  He was part of God’s family, the human family, living in relationship with all of the other creatures with the natural world as a household.  One community of life.   One world.  One reality.   

This is the orientation that we see in the life and ministry of Jesus.  While society was busy trying to establish divisions and classifications and hierarchies, Jesus would have none of it.   Jesus is completely undermining the standards and assumptions of his society and culture.  We see this in the story that we heard this morning with the children.  In Jesus’ day, children were non-persons.  They were owned by their father.  They were completely dependent upon their father for care, inheritance, and life.  They had no status.  They had no power.  They had no rights.   They were nobodies.  The disciples are annoyed with the children for disturbing Jesus.  Children should not be bothering a teacher and his students.  They are not worthy of consideration.  The disciples are not being rude and heartless.  They are expressing accepted cultural norms.   

Though this story has a first century context, we might think about groups that are considered non-persons today in our culture.   Homeless street people?  Refugees?  Farmworkers?   People of color?  People who are made poor?  The disciples are accepting the mindset of society about personhood.  Jesus is rejecting the mindset of society about personhood.

When Jesus welcomes the children and blesses them, he is affirming their personhood. And he does not stop there.   Jesus affirms the personhood of women, the mothers of children, children, Samaritans, Romans, foreigners, the sick, the mentally ill, literally everyone.  There is no one who is of “non-person” status with Jesus.  The male disciples want to shove the children away, but Jesus will shove no one away.  He overturns the accepted notions of society.  His vision is inclusive.  All are part of the one family of God.  And he invites everyone to know their status as dependents on grace, on Divine Love, on God.  Everyone is radically dependent upon a God of universal love. 

Not one of us is responsible for our being here.  For our existence.  For our being alive.  In this place.  At this time.  As this species.  We are not responsible for the fact that we are here or that there are human beings at all.  We are not responsible for the fact that there are dogs or that there are trees or that there are clouds or that there are oceans or that there are mountains.  We did not create this Earth.  We need to remember this as we seek an appropriate understanding of ourselves as part of everything else that exists, that has emerged, that has appeared and formed.  We are part of the created world.  We are not responsible for our existence.  While we have incredible potential for effecting Creation, and for altering Creation, we are ultimately still created.  Like all other creatures.  Like the land, the waters, the planets, and the stars.   Our faith invites us to remember that we are part of something much bigger that we did not originate. We are one with the rest of all that is.  

I experienced this sense of oneness recently when I visited the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.  I am not African American.  My relatives were in Europe until the early 1900’s so were not part of slavery on this continent.  So I have always felt a sense of distance from that part of history.  The Wright Museum changed that.  The exhibitions begin with a description of the geological formation of the African continent.  Then we learn about the emergence of hominids in the Rift Valley.  We are told about the first homo sapiens sapiens evolving in the Rift Valley and of our common human ancestor known as “Eve.”  Then we hear about the migrating of the human species around the planet.  The way the museum tells the story, we are all part of the story because it is not just a story about those we name as being of African heritage or dark-skinned people today but it tells the origin story of all people including me.  It was very compelling.  I really felt that I was learning about my own history which is really our history as one human family.    

Society is always trying to undermine this sense of connection and oneness.  We see it in Jesus’ day.  We see it in the context of Francis of Assisi.  And we see it today.  “Us and them.”  The “other.”  Polarization.  Division.  We live in a time where everything is branded – liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, American or other.  And there is economic division.  The haves and have-nots.  The 99% and the 1%.  Those with capital .  This without capital.  Management.  Labor.  Domestic.  Foreign.  We live in a time beset with divisions and polarization.  And the media around is capitalizing on this and making it more ingrained.  

Division, tribalism, and fear make people easier to control and manipulate.  Christianity is about freedom from this vicious cycle.  

There is no room for divisive, polarized thinking in the way of Jesus.  Jesus rejected the labeling of people which makes them of different value and differing worth in the eyes of society.  He rejected the construct of “us and them.”  He rejected the concept of “other.”  The way of Jesus, of Christianity, is rebellion against all of these divisions and separations, whatever they may be.  There is one human family.  Each person a child of Divine Love.  In God, reality is one.  One enterprise.  One unified interconnected whole.   All sacred and holy.  All a gift.  That is the fundamental, foundational concept of our faith.  We are not one nation under God, we are one Cosmos within God.  

We have to realize that the things that we don’t like in this world, they are part of us.  The people we don’t agree with in this world, they are part of us.  What we see as abhorrent, anathema, and despicable in this world, it is part of us.  We have the capacity for such evil within us.  Also, what is good, what is loving, what is true, that is also part of us.   We have the capacity for incredible resilient love.  And when we see ourselves as part of this oneness, we can have compassion for all of it.  For ourselves.  For others.  And for the Earth itself.  

We saw things go on this past week that I am sure we find disappointing if not horrific and infuriating.  The problem is that people are putting individual self-interest and loyalty to their “tribe” ahead of their commitment to the bigger reality, the greater whole.  So senators were putting their own self-interest, their own re-election, and their own loyalty to their party ahead of the best interests of the whole country and the long-term future.  This happens involving politicians all stripes.  And while we may be upset with them for doing this, in our own ways, closer to home, we may be doing the same thing – putting our own interests or the interests of our group ahead of the interests of the whole.  We may be doing this in the work place.  We may be doing this according to race or class.  We may be doing this in terms of our commitment to environmentalism.  We may even be doing this in our family relationships – putting our self-interest and certain loyalties ahead of the common good.   So we need to look at ourselves and think about transforming ourselves and our own outlook and behavior because in that process we can become agents of transformation in wider human society and in the world.  

Christianity is an antidote for our human proclivity toward tribalism.  Seeing ourselves as part of the whole and affirming this oneness is at the heart of our faith because it is necessary for the flourishing of the realm of God, the commonwealth of God, that Jesus imagines and embodies.   When we function from the perspective that all of Creation and reality is one, we let go of our control and our sense of entitlement.  We live in gratitude for all that is given that we did not make or cause.  We see our unity with others and our connectedness.  We all suffer.  We all want food and shelter.  We all want to live in safety.  Humans and animals, alike.  Internalizing this sense of connectedness and oneness frees our capacity for empathy and love.  We find ourselves being transformed.  And since we are part of the one, as we change, the world is changed.  When we see others as distinct and separate, we cannot effect change.   We can only change ourselves and when we embrace our oneness, and make choices and take actions from that reality, we transform the world. 

Communion has always been symbolically about being one with Divine Love in its fullest manifestation.  We can think about how the bread and the juice come from the Earth from plants that are grown by the sunlight and the water.   We can think about the animals and the birds that spread the seeds so that plants flourish and grow, and the bees that pollenate the plants so that they spread and bear fruit.  We enact and hallow our oneness with all of Creation as we eat the bread and cup.

And we embody our connection to each other as human beings and to Jesus the Christ in this offering of bread and cup.  There is the idea that Jesus as the Christ, is showing us the capacity and the potential that is in each and every human being.  It is not that he was one different, special, “other,” exceptional human being.  It’s that he, as a human being, shows us the possibilities of our nature as a species.  The love and trust and oneness that we see in Jesus is not just in him.  The possibility is in each and every person.  It is our oneness.

There was a song made popular in the ’60’s by the band Three Dog Night called “One is the Loneliest Number.”  Again and again and again, the phrase is repeated, “one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”  

No, one is not a lonely number.  One is about being part of a vast, awe-inspiring, incredible reality connected to and in relationship with all other creatures as well as all that exists on this Earth, in this solar system, in the Cosmos, and on beyond in the infinite expanse of galaxies that our minds do not have the capacity to comprehend.  We are woven into the sacred pattern of life, of reality.  With everything that is.  We are not alone.  We are always one.  Amen.  

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

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Sermon 9.2.18 Labor and Love

Scripture Lesson: Song of Songs 2:8-14                                                                   Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

According to ABC News, Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world.  More than the English, more than the French, way more than the Germans or Norwegians. Even, recently, more than the Japanese.  And Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, too.  

According to Gallup, it is estimated that the average full-time American worker works 47 hours a week. That one of the longest work weeks in the world, and certainly higher than Europe where the average is more like 35 hours a week.  In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.

I had no idea there was such a thing, but apparently 134 countries in the world have laws limiting the maximum work hours per week.  Not the  United States.  

Then there is vacation.  Many jobs in the US offer 2 weeks paid vacation.  54% of workers do not take all of their paid vacation.  Compare this with many European countries where standard vacation time is one month.  In Sweden, it’s 5 weeks paid vacation per year.  And I bet they take it!

And what about family leave.  The average outside of Europe is 12 weeks paid parental leave.  In Europe the average is over 20 weeks.  Yes.  Paid.  Parental.  Leave.  In Finland, women can take 7 weeks of paid leave before a child is born and 16 weeks after.  And the men get 8 weeks paid leave.  The US is the only country in the Americas without a family leave policy.

Then there are the American work habits of eating lunch at the desk and working through lunch.  Not the norm in other countries.  And responding to work email on the weekend.  Again, not expected or accepted in other developed countries.  No matter how you slice it, Americans work A LOT.  

In the article “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World” posted at the website 20 something Finance, G. E Miller concludes:  “Using data by the U.S. BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics], the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.

[Labor trends and statistics cited come from:  https://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/ and https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/american-work-habits-us-countries-job-styles-hours-hoilday-a8060616.html  and https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364&page=1]

Yes, we live up to our national image of being hard working, and we fulfill our cultural narrative of the importance of working hard.  We have been wellformed by the founders of our culture such as Ben Franklin who said:  “It is the working man who is the happy man.  It is the idle man who is the miserable man.”  I am in there with the best of them.  I had two parents who were always working.  It’s part of being first generation immigrants.  They had the incentive to work hard and make a life in this country.  And I have inherited that tendency.  So has my brother.   We have absorbed the cultural message that hard work is important – not only for productivity and income, but for character and service.  

But work is not all there is to life which is why we have Labor Day.  A day off from work.  Labor Day was originally created as a celebration of the labor movement and trade unions.  These are groups that fought for fair, safe, working conditions, workers rights, the 40 hour work week, minimum wage, and benefits such as healthcare, pensions, and sick leave.  The labor movement was about protecting workers from unsafe, inhumane conditions.  It was about making sure that laborers were given the just fruits of their labor instead of the fruits of their productivity going predominantly to those with capital, the owners, and the boards of directors of a corporation or business.  Unfortunately, the labor movement has fallen out of favor in this country and workers are paying the price with the result that more money stays on top and income inequality is increasing.

We heard beautiful words this morning from Song of Songs.  And they are not about work.  They are about love.  The verses burst with ardor, desire, and yearning.  In these words we hear of the strength, agility, abundance, beauty, joy, and play that go with love and desire.   The writer uses the image of spring time, with its exuberance, bursting with life, irrepressible, to convey the ardor of love.  

Is this passage about two lovers and romantic love?  Is it about God and the Jewish community?  God having such desire and passion for the faith community?  Is it about Christ and the church?  Christ with such passion and devotion for the church?  We don’t know.  And we don’t need to know.  Whether this is about romantic love or the spiritual life or both, because they are connected, don’t we envy such intense passion?  What we need to know is that this passage conveys to us the energy and boundlessness of love.  And we are people born to love.  We are born for passionate, energetic loving – of life, of nature, of others, of the spiritual life.  We are to nurture and cultivate our human ability to feel such devotion and commitment and desire.  We are to safeguard, cherish, and protect our capacity to love.  The church is about encouraging us to feel – to feel the exuberant intensity of love.  

We are not here to just be cogs in a wheel.  To be labor units.  To be figures in an economic equation to maximize profits for someone else.  We are not here just to consume, to buy, to be taken in by the lie that by purchasing things and increasing profits we’re helping working people.  Sure, hard work is important, but MORE important, our faith teaches, is hard love.  We are here to love with vigor, intensity, and dedication.  But when you are working all the time, especially just to stay even, it’s hard to have energy or passion for anything even love.

Love takes time and attention.  If we are working so much, as the statistics say we are, then we are not making room in our lives for love.  This is yet another reason to pursue economic justice in this country – so that people have energy and time and attention to devote to our real job on this planet – love. 

Unlike the culture and economy around us, the church reminds us that our primary purpose is to be lovers. To love people.  Music.  Beauty.  Nature.  Ourselves.  God, however you imagine God.  We are here to feel that ardor and passion.  That irrepressible energetic excitement and devotion.  

It’s hard in a culture in which we are defined by our job; where our identity is created by our work.  Think about it.  When someone asks about what work you do, what do we say?  “I am a teacher.”  “I am a plumber.”  “I am a pastor.”  We don’t say, I do teaching or I work in a school.  Or I do plumbing.  Or I serve as clergy in the church.  No we say, “I am.”  I am a secretary.  I am   housecleaner.  I am a garbage collector.  Not I do this kind of work.  We define ourselves not by our humanity or our love interests but by our job.  In recent years, I have been to Europe several times and it has involved a fair amount of interacting with every day people.  I’ve noticed that in Europe, it’s not like that.  You talk with people and get to know them and you still have no idea where they work or what they do.  You might hear about their political views.  Their children.  Their tastes in food or drink.  Where they went on vacation.  What music they like.  A favorite book or museum.  All this with no mention of where they work or what they do for work.  It doesn’t define who they are the way it does here.  In the US, one of the first things that comes out when you meet someone is where you work and what you do for a job because we are socialized to create our identity around our job.

Yes, tomorrow is Labor Day.  It is a holiday intended to remind people, with a day off, that we are not meant to work all of the time.  Work should be fair so that we don’t need to work all the time just to live.  Yet many will be working tomorrow – in stores and restaurants and gas stations, etc.  It’s often the biggest sales day of the year after Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Instead of spending the fruits of your labors, instead of shopping which requires that others work, I invite you to not work tomorrow.  To not shop tomorrow.  To not go out to eat tomorrow.  To not use the labor of others tomorrow as best you are able.  Just for one day.  And honor the desire to make more space and time in your life and in this world for love.  Hunger for that desire.  Pursue that ardor.  In some way, capture your calling to 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 8.12.18 To Dream

Scripture Lessons:  Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6: 24-35

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Edward Curtis died on October 19, 1952 in a postage stamp sized apartment in Beverly Hills.  He was 84 years old.  He died virtually penniless.  His daughter, Beth, commented that, “her father had left this world as he’d entered it, without a single possession to his name.”  [Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Timothy Egan, 2012, p. 314]  Many people die in obscurity.  That is not unusual.  But Curtis, a Seattle photographer, had at one time been a nationally renowned figure.  He was personally acquainted with J. P.  Morgan, one of the richest men in America.  He had a close friendship with Teddy Roosevelt.  Despite having only gone to school until age 11, what led Curtis to the hallowed precincts of power?  What drove Curtis to spend months each year sleeping in tents, outside, battling the elements and enduring the discomforts of outdoor life when he had a successful business and a comfortable home with a wife and 3 children in Seattle?  

As a successful photographer, Curtis was selected by C. Hart Merriam, the cofounder of the National Geographic Society, to join a scientific expedition to Alaska to document the landscape and the people of the region.  Curtis agreed.  On that expedition, Curtis became aware that the indigenous peoples and cultures were dying out and would soon be gone.  The seed was planted in Curtis.  He would spend the next 30 years of his life documenting for posterity the native cultures of North America.  

Armed with photography equipment, notebooks, tent, bedroll, and a wax cylinder recorder for audio, Curtis and a skeletal staff, roamed the western north american content recording the culture and people who were being driven to extinction by Euro-American expansion.  And they did so at a feverish pace.  Because, as Curtis explained, his subject was dying.  [Egan, p. 52]  

While Curtis was dismissed by eastern academicians who wrote and taught about native Americans but had never been out west he gained the trust of the indigenous peoples and joined in their rituals and ceremonies and lived among them for many months each year.  But his biggest struggle wasn’t acceptance by the Indians, or the trials of outdoor life, but funding. The expenses were sizable – for assistants,equip- ment, supplies, and the printing of the actual books.  While Curtis was consumed by his work in the field, he had to repeatedly leave the work to travel to the east coast to seek funding from the wealthy elite.  Much more comfortable in his tent in the desert than in the posh parlor of a New York City mansion, he eventually gained the support of J. P. Morgan.  And he sought the support of the US government through then President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt.  Curtis became friends with Roosevelt and even photographed Roosevelt and his family.  

Curtis’s dream took its toll on his finances since he essentially earned no money from the project and spent his fortune on its completion.  And the project took its toll on Curtis’s family.  His marriage ended in divorce. 

But Curtis persisted.  Volume by volume the encyclopedia emerged.  Three decades later, in 1929, when Curtis was 61, the last volume was completed.  But with the stock market crash, the funding to purchase such an extravagant resource dried up and there was little room in the national psyche to pay attention to his work.  Even institutions of higher learning with extensive libraries largely ignored Curtis’s voluminous tomes.  So Curtis’s lifelong project ended with no fanfare or notoriety.  And he, and his encyclopedias, fell into obscurity. 

Curtis completed The North American Indian, a 20 volume ethnographic encyclopedia, documenting the cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America.  The idea of creating this record of the native peoples had sprouted within him and drove the rest of his life.  All of his decisions, activities, resources, his being, were devoted to this project. While the project consumed him, he fulfilled it with no acclaim or recognition.  It was his dream.  And he gave his life to his dream.  And that was what mattered.

Reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan made me wonder, what am I giving my life to?  What is my dream?  We live, day to day.  Many of us very busy with many involvements and activities.  But what are we really doing?  What end is all of our busyness serving?  What dream are we chasing?  We work.  To make a living.  That is, money to live.  Money to spend.  Which fulfills the dreams of others to be rich.  But what about making a life?  What are our dreams and what are we doing to fulfill them?  

We may not have one big overarching ambitious project, like Curtis, but we are each surely called to devote ourselves to living out our dreams.  How are we doing with that?  We show kids inspirational sayings like “Shoot for the stars” and “Dream big” but what do they see among the adults around them?  How are we doing showing those who are coming after us about living our dreams?  

This kind of issue concerned Jesus, too.  Threading we heard this morning follows the story of the feeding of the multitudes.  The people have just been fed bread and fish.  Now the conversation continues in the aftermath of that story and the people remain focussed on the food.  The literal food.  What is eaten.  Jesus is trying to use the story to get to deeper meanings but the conversation remains on two levels with Jesus trying to go deeper and the crowd stuck at the level of bread to put in their mouths.  So there is that beautiful, telling line, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  [John 6:27]  Jesus is encouraging the listeners to live deeper; to follow him in giving their lives to something more than just bread for the stomach.  In devoting themselves to the commonwealth of God and not simply procuring food to eat, they will find the food that truly satisfies.  We are created to do more than simply see that our bodily needs are met.  It is our nature to invest our lives in the common good.   We need that to live.  Our dreams feed us.  

The reading from Ephesians picks up on this theme.  The writer is encouraging spiritual maturity.  Jesus followers are to pursue the virtues of which the human spirit is capable though not always inclined:  humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, peace.  In addition, those in the community have been given gifts.  And what is the purpose of those gifts?  To make money?  To create jobs? To start a business?  That’s what our culture tells us to do with our assets.  But Ephesians tells us that these gifts are for ministry.  For serving others.  For building up the body of Christ.  Believers are not to be fooled.  We are told:  “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  [Epheisans 4:14]  Yes, think Q Anon.  Think fake news.  Think advertising propaganda.  And, yes, think religious manipulation.  There are all kinds of influences, subtle and not, that are trying to shape our thinking, our values, our character.  And Ephesians is encouraging us to be thoughtful and discerning.  To think deeply.  Don’t just take things at the sur-face.  Don’t just accept the cultural milk around you like a baby taking its mother’s milk.  That is fine for a child, but as adults seeking spiritual maturity, we are to seek the truth in love and grow into the likeness of Christ as we see it in Jesus.  

Trickery, craftiness, deception.  There are those who will use these tactics to entice us to follow and to form our dreams around self serving aims rather than the common good.  To give our lives to personal gain and the lure of wealth instead of bettering the lives of others.  These are the things which do not ultimately satisfy.  The food that perishes.  And it is all around us. 

Our faith tradition invites us to choose the food that satisfies.   To choose service and other centered living.  To choose the health of the community and the earth.  To choose to dream big.  Of course, we want to be healthy.  But what about creating a society that fosters the health of all people?  Sure, we want meaningful work.  But what about investing in a community that encourages everyone to be engaged in useful, meaningful labor?  Yes, we want to enjoy a day at the beach.  But what about protecting the environment so that everyone can enjoy the beautiful outdoors.  I love to read a good book.  But what about making sure that everyone can read and has access to books?  We have been given gifts, skills, graces, time, voices, money, access, and power.  What are we doing with all that we have been given?  What dreams are we serving?  Are they in keeping with our faith?  Are they worthy of our calling?  Are they big enough?  Are they dreams that will satisfy?   

I don’t normally read the obituaries.  Maybe a couple of times a year, I glance at that page in the newspaper.  Well, I happened to look at the obits on Thursday August 2.  For some reason I found myself reading the obituary for David Allen Palmer.  And I was stopped by the first line.  “David Allen Palmer, 63, a new resident of Pensacola, FL, passed away July 31, 2019.”  Yes, the date said, 2019.  But it’s only 2018.  Yes, a typo.  Surprising.  But what if you knew about your death a year ahead?  What if you knew that you had a year to live?  A year to live out your dreams.  What would you be doing?  How would you spend your time and money?  What would you do with all of your resources and assets and gifts and graces?  How would you chase that food that does not perish?  

Maybe that is what impressed me so much about the photographer and ethnographer Edward Curtis.  If you had told him he had a year to live, I don’t think he would have changed anything about what he did.  He gave all he had to the encyclopedia of The North American Indian.  And when he wasn’t out actually documenting the Indians, he was chasing after funding so the project could go on.  He could not have done anything to be more devoted to his dream.  He could not have accomplished any more in achieving his dream.  He gave it everything.  

The last volume of the The North American Indian was about the native peoples of Alaska.  Curtis told of “how they made parkas from bird or fish skins, and heavier coats of caribou and bear hide.  Their socks were woven grass; a rain slicker was fashioned from seal intestine.  The people were tattooed and pierced and handsome. . .”  Curtis’ assessment of those very northern North American Indians?  “In all the author’s experience among Indians and Eskimos, he never knew a happier and more thoroughly honest and self-reliant people.”  [Egan, p. 296-297]  It was good to return to Alaska where his dream had begun and to have a positive experience when the overall story of the indigenous peoples was a tragic one.  

In this last volume of his encyclopedia, Curtis thanked those who had helped him with the project through the years and there were many.  The people “who never lost faith.”  Who encouraged him.  We need others to help us pursue our dreams and to support us along the way.  Curtis recognized this as he concluded his herculean project saying, “Mere thanks seem hollow in comparison with such loyal cooperation; but great is the satisfaction the writer enjoys when he can at last say to all those whose faith has been unbounded, ‘It is finished.’”  [Egan,p. 297]  Curtis knew the food that does not perish.  The bread of life.  May we taste that bread!  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 8.5.18 Stand Your Ground

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

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 7.29.18 What Good Is Religion?

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

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 7.8.18 Rev. Victoria Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so! 

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

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Sermon 7.22.18 The Racial Divide

Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 6.17.18 “Raising Fathers, Boys, and Men”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon June 3, 2018 “Mother’s Milk”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 5.27.18 Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 5.20.18 Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 5.6.18 Open Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Earth Sunday 4.22.18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the sermon, there was a litany of confession:

VIDUI FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY from the Jewish tradition

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

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

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

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

RITUAL OF HEALING

Reflections on air.

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

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

Reflections on water.

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

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

Reflections on plants.

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

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

Reflections on animals.

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

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

Reflections on earth, soil.

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

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

Reflections on humanity.

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

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

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Sermon 4.29.18 Love Is Kind of Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 2.4.18 Healing Faith

Scripture Lesson: Mark 1:29-39

Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon 12.31.17 Get Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you Jesus?” she asked impatiently.

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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