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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermon July 17, 2016 “The Harvest” Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore reminds us of the reward:

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

The harvest is ready. May our joy be full. Amen.

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


Sermon July 10, 2017 “Remembering” Genesis 6:5-9:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let’s not sell our memory capacity short. As a species, we have amazing memory powers. And in this day of memory cards and chips and drives and disks, scientists tell us that the best way to store the most information is on a strand of DNA. It is the perfect medium for copious data storage. So volumes of human knowledge and history are being downloaded onto DNA, the most efficient and effective way to store our collective memory. [Jacob Aron,]

God remembered Noah. God did not forget. Created in God’s image, humans have an extraordinary capability to remember and when we don’t use it we suffer for it. With our incredible capacity for memory, may we always and constantly remember Jesus, the way of life. Amen.

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


Sermon July 3, 2016 “Learning from the Bison”

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

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

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

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

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

In 1873, Columbus Delano, who was the US Secretary of the Interior, wrote: “I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians.” [“It’s official: America’s first national mammal is the bison,” Elahe Izadi, May 9, 2016,] And this strategy worked. As the bison disappeared, the Indian cultures were weakened and inducing capitulation was all the easier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermon June 26, 2016 UCC Anniversary “Fifty-Nine and Counting”

Date: Sunday June 26, 2016 United Church of Christ Anniversary Sunday
Scripture: 2 Kings 2:1-15
Sermon: Fifty-Nine and Counting
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Fifty-nine years ago this week, two predominantly white mainline denominations in the US merged to form a new church. The whole process was dominated by white men, mostly clergy. The Evangelical and Reformed Church had many congregants of German heritage. The Congregational Christian Church was strong in New England and the South. Both groups were the result of two previous denominations coming together. So this merger was seen as continuing a trend. The two churches had great differences in how they operated but were similar in their beliefs. They felt that their differences could be complementary. And so they came together to form a new organization of churches called the United Church of Christ.

They believed that their combined strengths would be even more effective in sharing the love of God and that this new union would be a spark to greater cooperation among churches. It doesn’t seem so earth shaking by today’s standards but at that time, it was an event that was rich in hope and possibility. It was bold and courageous.

It was a time in society of coming together. After World War II, the United Nations was formed. NATO was established. The World Council of Churches was created. And the National Council of Churches was formed. All of these efforts and more were aimed at bringing people together to work of the betterment of the world. Maybe after the divisions of World War II and the terrible destruction and loss of life, people wanted to try to cooperate instead of killing each other.

The formation of the United Church of Christ was full of expectation and potential. One of the primary dreams for this new church was that it would be the start of the merging of many churches and that the church, which had become very fragmented, would start to come back together. The formation of the UCC was to get the ball rolling and they were hoping for a snowball effect – expecting that the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others would eventually join in. The idea was that these two relatively smaller denominations would get things started and the bigger ones would join in. It was thought that together, the church united could have a bigger impact on the condition of the world and the future of humanity. This was a big, beautiful dream!

Anticipating this evolving unity was important to the thinking of those who worked on the forming of the UCC. This is why the verse from the Gospel of John, “That they may all be one,” was selected for the motto of the new church. This hope for continued growing cooperation was also part of why the new UCC was formed with adaptability and flexibility in mind. If other communions were going to be joining, they would need to be accommodated to feel at home. This would be easier if the church was created with an openness to change and adaptation.

The new United Church of Christ adopted a Statement of Faith that we will recite later in the service. This was a statement of common belief without being a creed, something that had to be attested to. So churches could continue to use the creeds they held dear while adding this new Statement of Faith that was part of the new church. Indeed there are still UCC churches today that regularly recite the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed, and also use the Statement of Faith.

The new UCC also incorporated congregational polity. This means that each individual congregation is responsible for its own affairs and can function as it chooses. The national church does not tell the local church what to do or how to organize itself. A church can have deacons, or a consistory, or a board of directors, of trustees, or a council, or advisors, or whatever the church thinks will work best. And the individual churches are responsible for what they do with their money, how they worship, and what they do for mission. It was felt that this would work best in terms of being flexible and adaptable to accommodating churches of greater variety. It also was important to recognize that each church was responsible for knowing what ministry was needed and fulfilling that need.

This flexibility and openness that was incorporated into the new church was very much in keeping with the teachings of the Bible. Jesus shows us how this works in his circumstances. We see how his ministry met the hungers of the people of his context both literally and spiritually. He looked at what was needed and responded. And he did not insist on fixed beliefs or dogma or proper theology from his followers. Jesus looked to God and kept that connection strong so that he would know what was needed of him. He was not constrained by the religious ideas of his day. He trusted the love of God and he adapted himself to that. The UCC was formed with that kind of intention. Religion was not to constrain us but to free us to live and serve in the spirit of divine love. There is a flexibility and adaptability to that. We never know what the need will be and we want to stay open and ready to respond.

The kind of openness that we see in the ministry of Jesus is also evident in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures that tell stories of faith before the time of Jesus. We see this wisdom in the story of Elijah and Elisha that we heard this morning. Elijah has been a prophet of great renown and his ministry is coming to an end. His companion Elisha has been with him and is positioned to continue Elijah’s work. What will that involve? What will he be called upon to do? What will the circumstances demand? We don’t know. So, what does Elisha ask for to carry on? Money? A contacts list? Secret knowledge? A set of laws or principles? Five simple steps to eradicating other gods? Does Elisha ask for a piece of land? A book or scroll? No. Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. He wants that whole heart, that pure intention, that undivided loyalty to God. Elisha has no idea what the future will bring. He has no way of knowing what will be needed of him. But he knows that he needs to be flexible and adaptable, willing and ready, for whatever God may need of him. So Elisha asks for that spirit of openness and willingness and boldness going into the future. That is all he needs. That is all he will count on. Everything else will fall into place.

The church is to carry on that bold witness. We are to assess the hungers and needs of our day. And to bring the eternal, universal love of God to bear on the circumstances of our time. This requires constant change and flexibility and adaptability. And the faster society changes, the more prepared the church needs to be to tailor is mission and message to the times. We must be nimble and agile and creative. And the bigger the issues, the bolder the witness that is needed.

When we think about our individual life journey, we can see how we are changing and growing. We learn though experience and intellectual knowledge. Our ideas about God, ourselves, faith, the world, the Bible, change and evolve. We grow in wisdom and maturity. Changing times invite new awareness and understanding. To hold on to fixed beliefs and behaviors can stunt our personal growth. We remain immature. This causes conflict within ourselves, with others, and with the world. To be healthy human beings, we are expected to change and adapt in our consciousness.

We also see this constant change and evolution in nature. Tectonic plates are continually shifting. Land forms erode and amass. The beaches change. Animal and plant life adapt and change. Nature and creation are constantly in a state of change and adaptation.

So, of course, it makes sense that the church, as the body of Christ, would always be growing and changing and adapting to be an effective witness to the eternal universal love of God. A church with beliefs and actions that are not changing and adapting is dying, or worse yet, having a negative impact on society and the world.

Many in the church look to the past and want to reclaim the past. They want to go back. Or use the strategies, ideas, and theology of the past and apply them to today’s circumstances. That can be detrimental and destructive. Any church that preaches that homosexuality is a sin is contributing to a culture of intolerance and violence. Did Jesus promote intolerance? Hardly. In fact, he is known for just the opposite. Did Jesus promote violence? No, just the opposite. So the thinking of the past cannot be employed today without serious considerations of the consequences. And when those consequences are at odds with the way of Jesus, then the thinking and the message needs to be changed. The church exists to look at the world, to focus on the needs of the world today and tomorrow, and to bring divine love to bear in the world. This requires discernment, adaptation, and change.

The UCC has sought to be a church that is open and willing to be a witness to the God of love in the circumstances of today and tomorrow. As times change, as challenges emerge, the UCC responds. While we appreciate traditions, theologies, and wisdom of the past, we are not locked into that heritage. We learn from it and gain wisdom, but we are not tied to perpetuating the past. That is visibly demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus. He draws from the past but he extends it to meet the new circumstances and is not afraid to break new ground. “You’ve heard it said, but I say. . .” In the Hebrew prophets and in Revelation, we are told that God is doing a new thing. So our religion is devoted to a God that does new things, that changes, that expects humanity to evolve and grow in understanding and knowledge. As we say in UCC, we believe that “God is still speaking.”

Well, despite the grand hopes of the founders of the UCC, Christians have not joined together in this country to form one great church. There may even be more division among churches now. Many churches do not want to work with the UCC because we are considered too liberal. Too bold. Too unconventional. They prefer to be more tightly defined and controlled. Well, so be it.

But the openness and flexibility that the founders embraced has borne fruit in other ways. The UCC is able to make a bold witness and is not tied to perpetuating an institution but to living out a mission of universal love and community.

The founders of the UCC would never have expected the church they were establishing would bring a case to the Supreme Court of the United States to make marriage between people of the same gender legal. They could never have anticipated such a thing. When the UCC was founded, interracial marriage was illegal and gay marriage was not even on the back burner. It was unthinkable. And yet look what has happened in just 59 years. And yet maybe they would not be surprised because they were intent on forming a church that would be faithful and responsive to changing times. They wanted to be open to the spirit of God doing new things. They were hoping to embrace a theological openness and an organizational openness that would let God in and let love out – fully and freely without constraint.

Now in the UCC, we are expanding our understanding of our motto, “That they may all be one,” to the human family as a whole, and we are engaged in interfaith dialogue and working with other religions not just with other Christians. We are not staying tied to Christian exclusivity and superiority. We are welcoming God, still speaking, doing a new thing.

Like Elisha and like Jesus, the United Church of Christ is committed to the realm of God, one beautiful, diverse, human community living in harmony with creation. May we as a congregation be always willing, open and ready. Amen.


Sermon June 19, 2016 Luke 9:57-62 “Orlando”

Father’s Day
Sermon Title: Orlando
Scripture: Luke 9:57-62
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Last Sunday in church, the unfolding situation in Orlando was mentioned and we prayed, but we did not know the full extent of the horror, and some people have told me since that they had no idea why we were praying for Orlando. They had heard nothing about it – yet. Now, we have heard maybe too much about it. I was glued to my laptop all afternoon last Sunday reading posts and watching video of the horrible scene. I finally had to make myself shut the laptop. Several times during this week, I have had to turn off the radio.

In the direct aftermath of the shooting mainly what I was feeling was anger. And it was coming from a self-centered place. I was thinking, we’ve been working for gay rights for decades and made many strides and still something like this happens? I thought, we have been working on interfaith relations for decades trying to cultivate bonds of mutual respect with people of other religions. And this is going to fuel more Islamaphobia. We have been working on celebrating diversity and acceptance of people of differing cultures and backgrounds, and this flies in the face of all of that. All those lovely gay, Latino people shot by a Middle Eastern Muslim claiming affiliation with ISIS. And we have been working on anti-violence, gun control, and peace for decades. And this violent episode just shows what has not been accomplished. My first feeling was anger that this one person was undermining all that we have been working for as a church for decades. One person. One place. One night. One heinous violent rage against gays and Latinos by a self-declared Islamic terrorist. That’s all it took to undermine our years of working for good. I was mad. Maybe you were, too.

For some this horror has brought on mostly sadness and fear: Much thought about the devastation to the families of those who are dead. The sense of loss of so many young, beautiful lives. And there is compassion for the first responders and all those involved in helping the victims and the families. And, of course, there is great suffering, unimaginable suffering, really, for those who have been directly involved in this terrible tragedy.

But I suspect that the level of anger one feels may be related to the level of involvement one has had in working for a just and peaceful world. It may be related to one’s devotion to a God of universal love. Maybe the more you have been involved in God’s work of justice the more angry you feel.

On Thursday evening I attended the Hospice event “Talking About Tragedy: A Community Conversation for Hope and Healing.” It was wonderful gathering and clearly needed by the community. The conversations dealt with issues around grieving and talking with children about death. That is what Hospice does beautifully and it is a wonderful service to the community. In the course of the event, the names of the patrons of Pulse who were killed were read, with the age, and a bell was tolled. You couldn’t help but cry for all those precious, promising lives ended. But it was clear this was Hospice, a secular organization, despite the responsive reading, the bell, and the ritual because there was one name that was not read. One name of a person killed that night that was not mentioned. One name of a person whom we believe, though he was clearly a tortured soul wracked by evil, was still a child of God, a human being, a vessel of the sacred. That name is Omar Mateen. As a church, we are followers of Jesus, who directs us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek, to forgive. And so we, as Christians, must acknowledge and remember the life of Omar Mateen which also ended that night. And we must pray for healing for his family and loved ones not because we want to but because we must if we are to honor the sacredness of God and our own humanity.

Up on the window is the list that was posted at the Hospice event and because this is a Christian church, we will add the name of Omar Mateen, 29, to the list of those to be remembered. (I wrote the name and age on the list with the other names on the banner from the Hospice event.)

As the week went on and I was thinking about my anger, the lectionary scripture that we heard this morning spoke to me. Jesus is inviting people to follow him. They have excuses. They have reasons to postpone responding. They have other obligations and distractions which are also worthy. But from Jesus we get the message that this is so important, so urgent, it cannot be put off. Response is necessary immediately. The world is waiting. The field needs plowing – now. Yes, it does.

As we look at the horrible occurrence in Orlando we see issues around Islamphobia. We see issues around relations with Latinos; the discrimination and immigration problems. We see the surfacing of the ugly visage of homophobia. And we see yet another horrific display of gun violence. These glaring problems are all on full view.

And when you think about it, we, as a church, have been working on all of these things for years. We have been working to effect change in these areas. We have been actively involving ourselves in significant ways to address all of these issues. We have been on the job. With our hands to the plow. Not looking back. We have been doing what a church should be doing. We have been following Jesus. We have been addressing ourselves to the fundamental problems and issues of our society. We have been sharing the good news that another world is possible. In the story we heard today, Jesus tells one of his would-be followers: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the realm of God.” We have been working to create the realm of God here on earth, as a church of Jesus Christ, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do. We have been working in just the areas where the church should be working in the world today. Orlando shows us glaring needs and we have been on it, addressing those needs, for years. We have been right on target.

While other expressions of Christianity may be obsessing over getting people on board with the band, or trying to protect the right to wear a cross at work, or arguing over what color to paint the bathroom, or – worse yet – declaring homosexuality a sin, working to protect the second amendment, and decrying Islam as the work of the devil, we have been behind the plow, not looking back: Working for full inclusion of people who are sexual minorities, working for acceptance of the legitimacy of other faith traditions and cultures, and working against violence in all its forms, including gun violence and war.

This church became a Just Peace Church in 1988. The church declared itself an Open and Affirming Church in 1998. And it was the Sunday after 9/11 that the tradition was begun of starting every Sunday service by renewing our commitment to peace using readings from many sources including the many different religious traditions of the world. We have been working on the problems that need addressing for years. We have been doing what we are supposed to be doing as a church of Jesus Christ. Orlando shows us that we are on the right track and that there is more for us to do.

This Father’s Day, the sermon was going to be about fathers and parents passing on more than DNA, money, and maybe sports team loyalty to their children. It was going to be about the need to pass on wisdom from generation to generation. A deep knowing about the world, yourself, humanity, and creation. We are part of a big, living whole, and we need to know our place and respect the whole enterprise. Wisdom, regardless of our religious roots or lack there of, regardless of our political inclinations, regardless of our economic status or cultural background, wisdom teaches mutual respect and compassion.

I mentioned earlier that in the direct aftermath of Orlando, I felt angry. This one shooter was undoing all the good that I/we had been working on for years. Maybe even for a life time. Then I thought of my parents. They, too, worked to end war and gun violence. They worked for equality for all people. They worked against racism and sexism and homophobia, advocating for ordination of gay people in the UCC back in the 1960’s. They were working on all these things for much of their life time.

And their parents? My father’s father died in 1927 when my dad was 5, so he never really knew his father. And his mother was overcome with struggling to raise two small children on her own. But when my dad was in seminary, for his thesis he wrote a biography of his father. He looked into the few documents that the family had and into other historical records. He discovered that his father was a very prominent man, both in Italy, his home country, and in the US, his chosen home. He came here as a young man under the auspices of the YMCA. It was an intercultural exchange with an educational component. Here, he studied for the ministry and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He founded the Church of the Ascension on 125th St. in Harlem. He was very active in providing help and services to immigrants who were coming in droves to New York in the early 20th century. He helped set up programs for the newcomers to learn English, to get jobs, and to adjust to life in this country so that they could be productive citizens. And these services were not only offered to Italian immigrants, they were offered to all immigrants from every country. He was also the editor of a daily Italian language newspaper and a speech writer for Fiorello LaGuardia. So, here my father, as a young seminarian, discovered that his father had been a pastor with a heart for what we would today call social action or social justice. His father was committed to the church being engaged in the world as an agent of transformation, working for justice and equality. I think that finding this out about his father spurred my father to a similar commitment which was then passed on to my brother and me. And we, with our spouses, have tried to impart this wisdom to our children.

The brightest spot for me around the Orlando event was the reaction of our 20 year old son, Malcolm. He was livid. Furious that anyone would do this to gay people. Furious that Latinos were targeted. Furious that it would fuel more Islamaphobia. Furious at religion for fostering these hateful ideas. Furious that it would generate support for Donald Trump. And, then he said, “And I am most upset about the violence, Mom. I just cannot tolerate violence in any form.” His grandfathers and his father are smiling.

So, while we are awash with anger, grief, fear, or even numbness, take heart. As a church, as an expression of Christianity, as followers of Jesus, we are addressing ourselves to the needs of the world. We are spreading the good news of universal love, no exceptions. We are sharing the vision of a world where all have a sense of acceptance, worth, belonging, and purpose. We have our hand to the plow, the row ahead is long, and we are not looking back. Amen.


Sermon June 12, 2016 – Luke 7:36-8:3 “To Life!”

Scripture Lesson: Luke 7:36-8:3
Sermon: To Life!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Cynthia Moss lived among the elephants of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park for 20 years. In the book, Elephant Memories, she tells of the lives of her closest elephant companions. While Moss was following the elephants, there was a very bad drought. With no rain, most of the plant life died and the elephants had very little food to eat. This led to the death of many of the great animals. Moss tells of one group of elephants and their search for food just after the rains began which ended the drought:

The four families, with their matriarchs Torn Ear, Tania, Slit Ear, and Teresia, stood bunched together forming a single tight-knit group. With them were several independent, but young, males. In all they made up a group of 30 animals. Earlier in the evening they had moved out of the swamp up into the long tough grass just to the north of the swamp. Now they waited in the security of the tall ‘elephant grass’ for darkness. It had rained for several days in a row and there were strong smells of damp earth and new grass on the wind. The elephants did not rest; they milled about, clearly stimulated and on edge. They were as thin as ever from the long drought but their whole demeanor had changed. Instead of being slow and plodding, their gestures were now energetic and lively. There were frequent rumbles from various individuals and a reaching of trunks toward one another. The younger animals in particular seemed eager to get going, but the big females remained stationary.

Finally, when the sky was lit by only the new moon and a few emerging stars, Torn Ear made the soft ‘let’s go’ rumble while slapping and sliding her ears against her neck and shoulders, and set off toward the ridges above the basin to the north. They moved away from the protection of the long grass out onto short grass plains, which had been reduced to nearly bare ground by the long drought. . . The elephants were nervous and did not vocalize as they traveled. . . They soon reached the red-soil ridge. . . Although small bushes here had recently flushed green, there was no new grass yet and the elephants did not stop to feed. . . They walked fast, rapidly covering ground, and they eventually came to an area at the base of the hills that had received more and earlier rain than the places they had come through. Here, fresh bright-green grass was growing.

The elephants began to feed immediately, wrapping their trunks around the stalks, breaking off as big a bunch as possible, and stuffing it into their mouths. It was the first sweet, nutritious grass that they had had for many months and they ate as if they were never going to see any again. [From Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of An Elephant Family by Cynthia Moss, pp. 65-66, adapted slightly]

These elephants leave their familiar home territory, weak and vulnerable, seeking life. They know that they must migrate, they must move, if they are to live. So they go. They follow their instincts and they follow the leader, Torn Ear, and they are not disappointed.

We, too, have the instinct for life. But unlike other animals, our journey is more complicated. We have competing paths to choose from. There are different leaders we can follow. We have to choose between right and wrong. We construct our reality. Elephants don’t have to worry about all of that. They just know what to do. And yet, like the elephants, our drive for life is very strong.

In the scripture lesson this morning, we heard a story about people who are seeking life. And they have chosen to follow Jesus to lead them to life. In his teaching, in their experience with him, they have found a new way of looking at themselves and the world that is refreshing and life-giving. With Jesus, they taste nourishing, new life that is like the fresh bright-green grass that revives the elephants.

In the story we heard today, we are told about a woman with expensive oil who follows Jesus to Simon the Pharisee’s house. We heard mention of the 12 disciples who have left home, family, and livelihood to follow Jesus. And we were told of women, among them, Mary, Susanna, and Joanna, who follow Jesus helping and giving of their money to support the ministry of Jesus and his followers. All of these and more are following Jesus. They have chosen this path that leads to life.

The way it is presented in the gospel of Luke, these people have heard Jesus’ teachings, things like ‘love your enemy,’ ‘do good to those who hate you,’ ‘turn the other cheek.’ And they see that Jesus is showing them a whole new way of relating to each other and the world. They see how Jesus is turning things upside down. And they feel the power of new life in his message. So they follow. Like the elephants in search of food, they follow because they trust that he is leading them to life. He is showing them the way to joy and peace.

We are here because we also want to follow the way of Jesus to life that is exciting and satisfying and purposeful. We have heard a rumble stirring us to follow. We look around and we see much of death and suffering. And we recognize that we have been called to take another path. To choose another way of seeing ourselves and the world. And we believe that this way, the way that we are shown by Jesus, is a way that is life-giving not life-taking.

Let’s look at how this new life offered by Jesus works for the people in the story we listened to this morning. The woman who comes to Simon the Pharisee’s house with the oil that she puts on Jesus’ feet is known to be a sinner. Apparently she has a reputation as a bad person. Simon is not happy that this bad person is at his house. But Jesus is not upset by this. He sees what she is doing as a response to being forgiven. Whatever she has done that makes others think she is a bad person, she feels she has been forgiven. The regret and shame that she felt over what she had done has been taken away. She feels she has been given another chance at life. She is a person of worth and value again. She feels that by accepting forgiveness, she has been given a new life. She is so grateful that she lavishes her gratitude and love upon Jesus.

From this nameless woman, we are reminded that forgiveness can renew our lives. And Jesus taught a lot about forgiveness. He told people that there was nothing we can do that is so bad that God cannot forgive us. Jesus showed us that God wants to forgive us. God is eager for us to be freed of the bad feelings and regrets we have when we do something that hurts ourselves or someone else. Jesus shows us how forgiveness is like that fresh grass that brought the elephants back to life.

Jesus also shows us that we experience new life when we forgive others. Offering forgiveness to others can remove the bad feelings that result when we do things that hurt others. When we forgive, we help to heal those feelings. Our relationships can be mended. We can make a new start.

Forgiveness is very important for the healing of relationships whether between individuals, in families, at school, or at work. It is also important between groups of people in society. When people come together and resolve their differences there is new life.

Unfortunately, today in our world, we see a growing fear of those who seem to be different. Who are “other.” Maybe foreign or Mexican or Muslim. This fear can lead to anger, hatred, and even violence. This is not the way of Jesus. It is not life giving. The way of life that Jesus shows us involves all different kinds of people working together and cooperating for the common good.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells people to love their enemies. That is followed by a story about Jesus healing the servant of a Roman soldier. The Romans were enemies, so Jesus is showing love for his enemy. The way of life that Jesus shows us involves actually doing good for those whom we don’t like. This kind of action can lead to forgiveness and new life.

It was so wonderful this week to see people of many perspectives and religions and cultures honoring the life of Muhammad Ali. He lived as a citizen of the world, a member of the human race. He tried to overcome the differences that separate and divide people. This is the way of Jesus; a way of full and abundant life for all people.

In the scripture lesson we heard today, we are also told about women that follow Jesus, including Mary, Susanna, and Joanna. This is one of the few references to women as followers of Jesus. We are told that these women help the other disciples and give their money to support the ministry of Jesus. They are doing this because they have found new life in the way of Jesus and they want to follow him.

At that time, women were not at all equal to men in the eyes of the society. They had few rights and they were considered to be possessions of men – their fathers or husbands. If they were not under the protection of a man, they did not fit in and did not have a way to earn money and live. Jesus showed women that they were valued in the sight of God; that God loves and cares for women and men equally. This message was life-giving for the women who felt degraded and demeaned in that culture. Regardless of what society says about the worth of women, both women and men find the way to full and abundant life in the way of Jesus. Even though the Jesus movement and the church are not free of patriarchy and sexism, the foundational message of Jesus that leads to life is that all people are of equal value in God.

This message is still very important for people to hear today. The recent story of the assault case at Stanford University helps us to see in glaring terms that the worth of women is still an issue in our culture. While we may celebrate that there is a woman running for president of the United States, that does not mean that things are equal for women in this country. If you have not yet read it, I encourage you to read the statement by the woman who was assaulted at Stanford. It is easy to find on the internet and will be read out loud in Congress this week. It directly speaks to the discounting of the woman and the privileging of the man in the case. That is not the way of Jesus; it is not the way of life. It is not the way to healing, wholeness, and reconciliation for the human family. Jesus shows us the way to life where everyone is equally valued and gender, color, age, background, money, and intelligence have nothing to do with a person’s fundamental worth.

In the story we heard this morning, we are also told of the 12 disciples that follow Jesus. They have left their homes, families, and jobs to be part of what Jesus is doing and to spread his message of love and new life for all. The new life Jesus gives is so compelling that they follow, even though it may have been hard to leave their old lives behind. They leave what was comfortable and familiar and venture into something new because they want to be part of this new world Jesus is showing to them. These disciples reorient their whole lives to follow Jesus to new life.

Mary, Susanna, Joanna, the 12 disciples, and the others who follow Jesus see where he is leading them. They see the destination. Life! So they follow. The Pharisee in the story doesn’t seem so sure. He is searching. I think he wants to see this new life Jesus is offering but for him it is not yet clear. Maybe he can’t leave his old ways behind. Maybe he is afraid of the unknown. Maybe it feels like too much of a risk to him. Maybe it’s easier for those who are poor, who have less to lose, or for women, who are already in a diminished place in society, to accept this new path of life.

But make no mistake, the way of Jesus is a path of life for all. All are welcome. All belong. No one is turned away. No one left out or cast aside. The belonging and community are life-giving for all, not just some. It is a path that gives to each of us the forgiveness we need, whatever that may be. For hurting others. For hurting ourselves. For being part of systems that take advantage of others and the earth. For being too tied to material possessions and comforts while ignoring the needs of others. For denying our worth and that of others. For abusing the beautiful earth which feeds us, the elephants, and all the animals. For turning away from the way of Jesus even though we come to church. And the church itself needs forgiveness for turning its back on the way of Jesus. We can be forgiven our part in hurting others. We can forgive those who harm us. We can serve friend and foe, with dignity and generosity.

What Jesus shows us is a path of life. He leads us to a mindset, a value system, a reality, an identity that is life-giving, not life-denying. He shows us that forgiveness and love foster life. Cooperation rather than competition is the way of life. Overcoming harmful attitudes that separate and divide us are the path of life for all. Jesus shows us a way to life not a way to death, destruction, violence, and war. No. He is giving us a way of caring for each other with dignity and respect for ourselves and for all of life regardless of who we are. He is leading us to the place of refreshing peace, like that beautiful matriarch elephant, Torn Ear, leading her tribe away from the death of the drought to the fresh green grass of life.

Those elephants that made their way through the night did not go in a slow and plodding manner. They were eager, energetic, and lively, despite their weakness from lack of food. They were driven to stay alive, to pursue life, to survive.

Though we may be surrounded by difficulties and problems that wear us down, Jesus is leading us to life. He knows the way. He goes before us. May we follow Jesus. Trust his lead. No holding back. No fear. Pure 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.


Sermon June 5, 2016 – I Kings 17 – Linked Together

Scripture Lesson: I Kings 17:1-16

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In 1958, the People’s Republic of China initiated the Great Sparrow Campaign. This initiative was an effort to kill the sparrows that were eating the grain seeds which, it was thought, was impeding food production. The birds were shot and killed. Peasants banged pots and drums scaring the birds and preventing them from landing which led to their death from exhaustion. They dropped from the sky by the thousands. Nests were destroyed and eggs broken. Every effort was made to eradicate the grain-eating sparrow and it was nearly driven to extinction. Schools and towns were given awards and recognition for their efforts. The ultimate goal of the Great Sparrow Campaign was to increase agricultural output.

In the aftermath of the Great Sparrow Campaign, it was found that rice yields actually decreased rather than increased. It was the opposite of the intended result. What became clear was that in addition to eating grain, the sparrows were also consuming vast quantities of insects that also ate grain. Without the sparrows, the insect population soared, and locusts and other bugs decimated the rice fields. The Great Sparrow Campaign, combined with the effects of rapid industrialization, drought, and flooding, contributed to the Great Leap Forward Famine which accounted for anywhere between 15 and 45 million deaths in China. When the negative effects of the Great Sparrow Campaign were recognized, it was ended, but it was too late to mitigate the negative consequences.

The Great Sparrow Campaign is but another reminder that creation is connected. The world is an interconnected web of mutual interdependence. Nature and humanity, all species, plant and animal, land and sea, mutually dependent and intertwined. The more we learn about nature, the more we become aware of the connections and relationships among the many components forming an intricate, vibrant, living whole. Imbued into creation is essential interaction and relationship, even between the most unlikely life forms. We see that mutuality is essential to life.

This is borne out in the story that we heard this morning from I Kings. First Elijah,
God’s mighty prophet, who declares a drought that lasts for 3 years, and kills 950
prophets of foreign gods, this great prophet is driven to seek shelter in the wilderness where he is sustained by the ravens and a creek. The birds see to his existence. They keep Elijah alive. The humble birds. Creation, doing God’s bidding, saving the life of a human. Here we see interdependence and relationship.

Then when the creek dries up because of the drought, Elijah is directed to the town of Zarephath in Sidon, to seek out a widow who is to keep him alive. Sidon is the region that is home to Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, the king of Israel. Jezebel is credited with encouraging Ahab to introduce the foreign god, Baal, into Israel, complete with shrines where Baal can be worshipped. This has caused the God of the Israelites to send Elijah to straighten out Ahab about Baal. The drought will last until Ahab cleans up his act and shows his loyalty to the one God of Israel. When he is sent to Sidon, Elijah is sent into enemy territory. And he is sent to be served by a woman who is most probably a worshipper of Baal, the very god Elijah is trying to cast out of Israel. This is not an arrangement that we would expect or predict.

And there is more that makes this woman an unlikely person to be helping Elijah. She is a widow. She is poor. She is vulnerable. She is restricted in her economic options. And, to an Israelite, she is an outsider. Virtually powerless, she is bereft.

How is this widow supposed to take care of Elijah and save his life when she herself is preparing to die, with her son, of starvation? They have nothing but a bit of food for a last meal. And why would she even be willing to help Elijah? It is his God that is responsible for the drought that is killing her, her son, and her community. She is a victim of Elijah and his God.

This is a very unlikely pairing, Elijah and this widow. Someone with
nothing is supposed to keep someone else alive and the two are virtual enemies. Yet as the story unfolds, Elijah asks the widow for help. She gives it. And the two of them, along with her son, are sustained through the drought. In the next part of the story, the son becomes sick and dies and Elijah brings him back from death. These two unlikely characters are brought together and sustain each other. The widow, even given the little that she has to offer, helps Elijah. And Elijah, who has no sustenance, is instrumental in keeping the widow and her son alive for 3 years. There is a mutuality and interdependence that is at work. Unlikely parties are of benefit to each other in unexpected ways; connected, their destinies intertwined.

In this story, we see that the God behind it all intends for us to live in mutuality with each other and with nature. We are mutually dependent. The ravens minister to Elijah, and this widow and Elijah keep each other alive. God intends for us to be interconnected and interwoven in a web that promotes life. The path of life is a strand in this vast, unlikely whole; involved with and dependent upon those we least expect.

The way of life is the way of connection and relationship. When we are connected to God, to each other, and to the natural world, we are sustained and life is rich and full. In the life and ministry of Jesus, we see this borne out. Jesus interacts with those who are considered foreign, enemy, other. He feeds, heals, and forgives those who are considered beyond the pale even by his religious tradition. We are told of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman. So we see that he lets others minister to him. Jesus has given us the story of the Good Samaritan where the most unlikely character does the right thing. And the story of the Prodigal Son, where the father, who is expected to be angry and indignant, overwhelms his son with forgiveness and grace. In the teachings of Jesus, we see unexpected mutuality and changed paradigms of power in relationships.

Jesus interacts with all of humanity and all of creation as it is, imbued with the holy. He sees the divinity in all of life and in the earth itself. He is not defined or constrained by the artificial divisions and barriers that we tend to construct for perceived self protection.

The Bible and the way of Jesus show us what is of the most benefit to humanity, what is the most life giving, what is in service to our highest good; engagement with all of creation and all of life. Elijah goes to the enemy for food. And he is given life. The widow serves her enemy, and she and her son find life. We are meant to live in mutuality and interdependence, not in isolation and separation. Our well-being is intertwined with all of humanity, all of life, and all of creation. When we are engaged, even with unlikely partners, we thrive. The path of life is one of solidarity and cooperation.

Yet so often what we see around us is isolation and separation. We define ourselves over and against other people. We value ourselves and our kind above others. We think the natural world is here to serve us not to sustain us. This separates us not only from one another and from nature, but it also separates us from God, the source of love and life. We become alienated from the divinity within ourselves, others, and nature. We become afraid and selfish. Life is barren and death awaits. Even if we have material wealth, we are bereft.

Life expectancy has gone down in the US for the first time in 13 years. This is largely due to drug use and suicide. These are conditions that result from a broken soul, from alienation, from separation; not necessarily from material poverty, but from spiritual poverty. Life becomes dry and barren when we are separate and disconnected. Addiction looms. Drugs beckon. Life devolves into self absorption and pleasure seeking that is elusive.

When we are connected to each other, to the sacred, to life, to nature, we grow in our mutuality and interdependence. We know the importance of the world and the community around us. We appreciate our own worth. In service, we find our value and our wholeness. When we are served by others, we give them the opportunity to experience their worth and value. When we are separate and self-centered, our world becomes small and we wither.

Our son lives in California where there is a drought creating severe water shortages and necessitating severe restrictions. This is having a detrimental effect on farming. In an agricultural area of the state, our son saw signs put up by farmers and farm workers saying, “Is growing food wasting water?” “No Water = No Jobs” “Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl.” These are signs of alienation and separation. People are not listening to each other and working together with the land to sustain each other. There is definitely a difference of outlook between those who live in the city and those who are farmers about the drought. City dwellers want nice lawns. Farmers want to eat. Instead of cooperation, which could lead to life for all, there is conflict and acrimony which detracts from finding mutually beneficial solutions.

Elijah and the widow show us the divine intention for our mutuality and cooperation. Strangers, enemies even, giving each other life. We see it in Jesus befriending foreigners, women, sinners, Romans, the clean and the unclean. We see it in nature – remora and shark, birds and bugs, orchids and bees, oxygen breathers and carbon dioxide eaters – living in balance and mutuality. Elijah was fed by the raven. China, though they did not know it, was being served by the humble sparrow. When we vanquish an enemy through violence or extinguish a species it may very well prove to be at our own peril. The world has been designed so that we depend upon each other and all the other species that populate this sacred planet to sustain our lives. Creation is a vast, intricate, complex web. Who knows? Our future, our very lives, may depend upon the fate of the
endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. We’ll 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.


Sermon May 22, 2016 “Heart Condition”


Sermon Title: Heart Condition                                                                                 Scripture Lessons: Acts 2:42-47 and Romans 5:1-5                                                 Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Heart disease is one of the biggest health threats in America today. We all know people with heart-related health problems. We know folks whose hearts beat irregularly and they have a defibrillator or a pace maker. There are doubtless those who have had angioplasty among us this morning. We know people who have had bypass surgery and valve replacement. And even heart transplants have become routine since the first such surgery in 1967. We know people who have what is commonly called “hardening of the arteries” with the build up of plaque in the arteries limiting blood flow. We know people with high blood pressure. All these conditions and more limit the full functioning of the heart, which, of course, is necessary to the functioning of the body.

Symbolically, the heart is also essential to good health and happiness. The term “heart” is used to refer to the seat of emotion, will, and purpose. “She stole my heart.” “My heart wasn’t in it.” “Have a heart.” The military gives the honor of the purple heart. We talk about someone being cold hearted – uncompassionate and insensitive. All these examples show how we use the term heart to refer to our emotional state as well as our sense of moral courage.

The Hebrew word for heart, lev, implies the seat of emotion, the mind, and the actual organ in the chest. There are many examples in the Psalms of orienting one’s whole heart to God: “Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole heart.” [119:2] “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” [119:34] “I will give thanks to God with my whole heart.” [9:1] This expresses the intention to be completely devoted to God, with emotion, intellect, and body. In addition, the heart was thought of as the throne of God in the human being.
Our tradition tells us that we are born as God intends: With a heart oriented to God. With a heart filled with divine love. We are created with the capacity to love as God loves. We see this exemplified in the life of Jesus who shows us what it is to live a human life with a whole heart devoted to God; fully expressing divine love in our daily lives and sharing that love with the world.

That is the ideal of which we are all capable. But things happen. Life intercedes. We are hurt or betrayed by those we love. And our hearts break. Disappointment gathers as life goes on. Guilt burdens us. We have regrets. These things start to block the love in our hearts like the plaque that clogs our arteries. We look back on what we should have done. We are sorry about the path we chose. We did not live up to our dreams. We disappointed others who are important to us. Perhaps we have experienced neglect or abuse. Maybe our failures weigh on us. All these things make our hearts heavy. Maybe restricting the flow of love. To ourselves. To others. And to the world.

The gift of our faith is that it is intended to help our hearts be healthy, yes, physically, but also spiritually. Our spiritual path is one of heart health. The Christian faith helps us to work through the difficulties and challenges of life in a way that encourages healthy hearts – hearts of single purpose, hearts flowing with love, hearts committed to the common good, hearts of moral courage. The kind of heart that we see in Jesus.

In the scripture that we heard today from Acts, we heard about the follow up to Pentecost. Last week we commemorated that glorious festival that marks the beginning of the church. After Peter preaches about the infinite love and grace of God as seen in Jesus, love and grace so vast that it includes those responsible for the killing of Jesus, 3000 people choose to be baptized. Three thousand people find themselves moved to accept this God of grace and love. Three thousand people want to be part of this new reality, this new creation, which is really a return to the original intent of creation – humanity and nature and God living in harmony, an appreciation of the sacred in all of creation, a spirituality without the keeping of accounts, a way of life in which no gift is too great, even the giving of one’s life for the good of the world, a new vision of community in which everyone has an equal place at the table.

On Pentecost we see people drawn to this vision: People whose lives are clogged by poverty and the oppression of the Romans. Those whose consciences are heavy with guilt, perhaps even over the death of Jesus. Those who are tired of a religious establishment that seems more intent on taking than giving. People hear a message of grace and hope that is life-giving and life-affirming and inclusive of all. They sense the presence of a bigger God, a universal God, a loving God not a judging God. Their hearts rejoice in this good news.

So the story tells us that 3000 are baptized. What did they do then? We are told that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” So they have had this transcendent moment but that is just the beginning. To follow up, the people immerse themselves in this new community and in the teachings of Jesus. They meet together, eat together, pray together, discuss and spend time together. Daily. They reorient their lives. They put their energy, time, and effort into going deeper into this new way of life. Like the changes in diet and the regular exercise needed for the health of the physical heart, these people show us a reorientation of their daily lives that supports their commitment to the health of their spiritual/emotional hearts, their center. They are committed to working to get rid of former habits, former ways of thinking, former behaviors and attitudes that block their living wholeheartedly for the God they have experienced through Jesus.

For some, this new wholehearted spiritual devotion with its disciplines and commitment meant leaving family. Some families were so against this new movement that they would try everything to keep their loved ones from pursuing involvement with these Jesus followers. And the new believers were so convicted and passionate about this spiritual path to new life that they were forced to choose between family and the Jesus way. And many chose the way of Jesus. Yes, mothers even left their children. For some who were drawn to this movement, it meant leaving jobs and work, and facing the challenge of economic uncertainty. It was a drastic, risky commitment, this new path toward heart health.

Then we are told of how the people sold their possessions and pooled their resources and thus provided for the needs of all. This is definitely a communitarian arrangement. And it was as wild and controversial an arrangement then as it appears to us today. I am intrigued by this portrayal of the community and how it relates to heart health. One way to look at it is that the people’s hearts have become so healthy, so filled with the love of God, that they freely abandoned their attachment to property and wealth and held nothing back: The love pushed the blockage of attachment to ownership out of the way. When we look at it this way, we may think that our hearts are just still too clogged for such signs and wonders today. We are willing to give, maybe a trickle, but we aren’t enlightened enough to expect the wild rush of the opened floodgates of generosity.

Another way of looking at this, though, is that in light of the teaching and praying and fellowshipping, they were directed perhaps by the leaders, to put their money where their mouths were. They were told in the teaching that this is the way of Jesus. That this is humility. That this is universality. That this is equally valuing each person as God does. That this is an expression of full devotion and trust in God as we see it in Jesus. No holding on to money or property as security or for status. Full blown devotion to God and God alone means giving up your possessions and property and knowing that you and everyone else will be taken care of. It is a giving up of control and power, things that can block the flow of love. So maybe those early Jesus followers did this because they were directed to. They were told to do this because it would make their hearts healthy. Maybe they chose to remove the blockage. And then they experienced the full flow of love.

We are told that “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved.” Maybe this happened, this gratitude, this sense of well being, this intense experience of life-giving community, maybe that came as a result of their having sold their possessions and goods. Maybe you don’t experience the full love and joy until you completely release your attachment to your money and goods and all that is associated with it. So maybe the utopian community developed because they gave up their private property. Maybe the full flow of love was possible because they removed that obstacle.

So when it comes to setting free the flow of love, sometimes it might be that we need to do the work of removing the obstacles and that might involve risky, daring choices. And sometimes it may be that the love pushes the blockage out of the way. I think it can happen both ways.
When we hear these stories of the early Jesus community, we see that to reorient your life to a whole new world view – the common good, a radically egalitarian vision of community, including economics – is drastic and taxing. Life giving. Yes. Passionate. Yes. But also challenging.

So, we see that there is suffering and sacrifice involved. Paul, who wrote the epistle to the Romans, knew well of this. He went from persecuting Jesus followers to planting churches. He endured the hazards and discomforts of traveling far and wide in the Roman Empire. He left the economic security of his profession. He left the social connections of his community. And for his wholehearted zeal for the love and grace of God that he experienced in the way of Jesus, he was jailed and finally killed. So, he knew well the pain and risk that can come from commitment of one’s whole heart to God.

People of the first century, much like people of today, expected their devotion to God to lead to an easy life including health, economic prosperity, and status in the community. Those were the expected consequences of devotion to God. But the crucifixion of Jesus, and the killing of his followers, and the persecution of the early Christians, tell a different story. Our tradition shows us that faith, and dedication to the way of love, does not necessarily lead to a life of ease and comfort. In fact, it may quite likely lead to the opposite. But this should not be a cause of despair because, as we are told in Romans, suffering, too, can bear fruit in a way that contributes to heart health. Maybe it is like strenuous exercise for the physical heart.

Here we want to note that commitment to the gospel leads to suffering when we are in solidarity with others who are being oppressed, or when we choose to make a sacrifice for the good of others. That kind of suffering is redemptive. This is not an endorsement of suffering for suffering’s sake. It is not encouragement of abuse of ourselves or others. It is not a defense of the inevitability of victimhood for some as a good thing. When we are effected by undeserved suffering, I think of those harmed in war, or those who have been raped, or the grief of the loved ones of someone who has been shot, this is not suffering that has been sent to improve the person’s character. But, whatever befalls us, it can be redeemed. Through God, all things can work together for good. All things are possible.

As we are told in Romans, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts . . .” [Romans 5:4-5] So suffering, however it may come, can lead to our seeing more clearly the love of God that has been poured into our hearts.

Sometimes it is through these challenges that we learn to depend on God. It can be in times of hardship that we see all that we have to grateful for. In times of desperation, we may feel more fully the divine love that is flowing into us to meet our need. We may discover divine love within ourselves and others that we never could have supposed was there. So even pain and hardship – whether a consequence of conscience, chosen sacrifice, or victimization – can help to promote heart health in people.

The way of God provides us with many different paths to help lead us to heart health. To help us be healthy of heart, wholehearted in our devotion to love. Fully committed to a life of purpose and moral courage.

So, to be physically healthy, we need our fist-sized hearts to pump out 6 quarts of blood through our 60,000 miles of blood vessels supplying nutrition and oxygen to our tissues and organs and removing carbon dioxide and other waste from our system. And heart health is, for the most part, something that is the result of personal choices. What we eat, our exercise and activity level, and whether we smoke are the main factors in determining whether our hearts are healthy.

In terms of our spiritual heart health, we also see that healthy habits contribute – study and learning, relationships with people of common commitments, eating together, praying, suffering and serving together. All these things help to keep divine love flowing in our lives, in our communities, and in the world. So, here’s to a healthy heart. 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.


Sermon Pentecost May 15, 2016

Sermon:  Pentecost in Practice or A New Creation

Date:  May 15, 2016 Pentecost

Scripture Lessons:  Psalm 104:1, 4 and Acts 2:1-24, 37-41

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

“In the beginning. . .” In the beginning of our story, the story of our faith, the story of our identity as Christians, and the story which shapes our community and culture, we are told that, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” [Genesis 1: 1-2]  The Spirit was brooding over the waters. The Spirit was stirring things up. Something new was about to emerge from the divine imagination, a new reality was about to be born.

“And then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. . .” [Genesis 1:3-4a]  There was the sun to light the day and the stars to light the night. Fire burning in the heavens lights this new creation. Wind and fire mark the inception of our first story of creation.

Now science tells us of a cloud of dust particles swirling through space and the explosion of a star creating fiery, chaotic forces that eventually formed our solar system including Earth. Again, we see fire and wind, the conditions for creation.

This morning we heard the Pentecost story. The disciples are gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost. This was a harvest festival held 50 days after Passover. It was a celebration of the first harvest of the summer. Jewish people from many lands came to the Temple in Jerusalem for this festival. And what happens? Wind and fire. We are told that the Spirit of God comes – something like flames appear on each person. And there is the wind. The writers are struggling for words to convey what it was like because they hadn’t experienced anything like this before. But they know what they want to get across. They want to express a sense of a new creation. So they choose the images of wind and fire.

Wind and fire. The wind brooding over the waters in Genesis. The daytime sky lit by the fire of the sun. The night lit by the fire of the stars. Breath, wind, giving life to humanity. Wind and fire signal creation. Pentecost is a story about something being created.

These images of fire and wind are images of energy and life. Fire warms. It brings light. It provides energy and power. It is fuel. And wind spreads seeds for vegetation to flourish. It is a source of power and energy. Wind sails boats and powers machinery. Wind refreshes and cools. So there is creative, constructive power in wind and fire.

And just like the first creation story, the Pentecost story is a story of chaos and power beyond human control leading to a new kind of order.

The Pentecost story begins with a small group of Jesus followers from Galilee. They are in Jerusalem for this festival attended by people from all over the Empire. It’s a cosmopolitan crowd. And Galileans were known for being, well, we might say, hicks. From a backwater province. And here these unsophisticated people start speaking in the languages of all the other people who are there from all over the known world. These people are enabled to speak in every language so that everyone hears about what God is doing; no one is left out. God’s message of love and grace is for all people. Period. Not just for this group. Or that sect. Or this culture. Or that ethnicity. Or this religion. Or that socio-economic class. That’s the way religion worked in the past. That’s what people associated with the gods in past eras. Pentecost is telling of something new. This story is telling us that God wants to make sure that everyone knows of the love and grace at the heart of reality. No exceptions. No divisions. No favoritism. No privileging one group over another.

The story of the Tower of Babel was a story to explain why people are different and divided. The story of Pentecost is a story about bringing everyone together around the message of universal love. This is a new beginning, a new reality, of commonality and unity though not uniformity. Everyone hears in their own language; they do not all learn one language.

We also want to notice that the story begins with a small group of Galileans, and ends with 3,000 people being baptized that day. People from all over the world. From every culture. From all walks of life. Every strata of society. All these people are drawn to the message of divine love that they hear spoken directly to them in their own tongue.

Now, with the immediate baptizing of over 3,000 people, we are being told that there was not time for a test of creed or credentials. There was no theological screening. There was no background check. Man, woman, slave, free, Jew, Gentile, whosoever, let them come. They all heard the message. They were all free to respond by being baptized. No exceptions. This is an amazing expression of egalitarian community. All these different people, all these different languages, brought together by divine love. Drawn together as gravity pulled the swirling dust particles disturbed by the supernova together to form the solar system. Here the Holy Spirit is disturbing the crowd of diverse peoples and bringing them together in an unlikely, uncommon, unique mass, a new community free of the divisions and separations that previously defined orderly human society.

The Pentecost story is about the creating of a new reality where all the divisions we create and all the things that separate us are overpowered by the universality of divine love. In this new reality, we don’t get to control things, especially the faith community. There is no place in this new reality for the church to create tests and barriers that mete out divine love. There is no room for humanity to consider controlling divine forgiveness, grace, and love. The faith community is to completely submit itself to the power of the divine. There are simply to exceptions, no exclusions, and no fine print. And the results, the impact, the influence, the effect is beyond our wildest imaginings.

In this new creation, divine blessing is poured out on all of humanity and all of creation; “. . . the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. . . and the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. . .” [Genesis 1: 21, 25] The Pentecost story conveys the Spirit of God poured out on all, as wind blows and touches whatever is in its path; as fire illuminates whatever is present. Divine love imbues all of creation and our calling is to reverence the sacred in every person, every life, and all of the cosmos.

This is the new reality that we pray for: Thy Kin-dom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. A new creation, with fire to consume all that prevents universal blessing. We think of the images that we have seen of the conflagration engulfing the area of Fort McMurray, Canada. Fire definitely has destructive capacity. The fire of the Holy Spirit has the power to destroy pettiness, selfishness, ethnocentric attitudes, classism, and all divisions and separations that perpetuate conflict. And wind also has destructive capacity. We think of the images of Hurricane Katrina or Andrew. The wind of the Holy Spirit has the ability to wipe out our fears, grudges, illusions, and delusions. All of this creating the conditions for the Spirit to ignite our passion of eternal love and caress us with refreshing joy and peace.

There is a photon in every atom, including every atom of our bodies. We are fire and light. And we live by breathing; wind, spirit flowing through our nostrils and lungs. Fire and wind. Each of us a new creation, Spirit filled, a message of divine love for the universe. 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.


Sermon March 20, 2016 Palm Sunday

Sermon: Hosanna! and Crucify!
Sunday March 20, 2016 Palm Sunday
Scripture Lessons: Luke 19:29-40 and Luke 23:13-25
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

After seeing the movie “Spotlight” this week, I thought, it’s a good thing it’s Jeff, my husband, that works for the Catholic church and not me, because I don’t think I could take another paycheck from the Catholics. We’d be down by one income. I know that I tend to be rash and prone toward self righteous grandstanding, but the cover up of the molestation of children by the church, the people of “Let the Children come, for to such belong the realm of heaven,” well, that was just too much for me.

But before I get too focused on pointing a finger at the Catholic church, I want to point out that there are plenty of reasons for the rest of us, who aren’t part of the Catholic Church, to point the finger at ourselves. There are many things for which we bear collective guilt.

Shall we go back to the crusades? Or the treatment of the indigenous populations in the Americas? Or slavery? Or the interment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War 2? Or the ethnocentric immigration policies that kept Jews from emigrating to the US around World War 2, even children? Or the economic policies of the US government that permitted the economic crisis of 2007 and are largely still in place today? And that’s before we even get to what we have done and are doing to the actual Earth itself. Yes, there is plenty of collective guilt for us to share. There are many more travesties, known and unknown to us, for which we bear responsibility.

As this Holy Week begins, this is a time to consider our complicity and the collective guilt that weighs us down and prevents our moving freely into the future. Let’s remember that this problem is not new. We heard this morning the story of Jesus riding through the streets of Jerusalem, God’s chosen, inaugurating a reign of peace. He comes on a donkey, not the stately stallion of a military conqueror. He comes in humility and peace. And we’re told of the crowd gathered and cheering:

Blessed is the One who comes in the name of Our God!
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!

We also heard the story of the crowd, later in the week, gathered and cheering, Crucify him!Quite a change of heart. Yet we, too, know the cruelty that we are capable of. Think of the lynchings which took place, some right here in this city. We recognize that we, as a society, should not have been letting that go on. And there is much going on today about which we can say the same.

There are three things I would like to say about collective guilt this morning.

First, it takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to deal with collective guilt. We hide things. I wasn’t taught about the Japanese interment camps in school. Nor the mass deportation of Mexicans in the 1930’s. Estimates project that up to 2 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were repatriated. In 2005, the state of California passed an official “Apology Act” to those forced to relocate to Mexico, an estimated 1.2 million of whom were United States citizens. I didn’t learn about this until I read the book Esperanza Rising with my third grade son. I went to high school in Minnesota, so they did a better job with the Indians. But collective guilt requires that we doctor our history, that we stick to a certain story in our text books, that we hide, and deceive, and lie about things. And these secrets, these lies are corrosive. And they are demanding. We have to keep watch all the time to make sure the truth is not getting out. Think of all the time and money that we spend on prisons to make sure all those criminals don’t get out. Well, it takes even more resources and energy to keep the truth at bay and deny it. For example, there are people today, people who are educated and who are leaders in this country, that are trying to deny the detrimental effects of human activity on global warming. Keep the genie in the bottle. Don’t let out the secret that human action is magnifying global because then we’ll have to deal with why we didn’t do something about it and why we still aren’t doing enough about it. That’s just one example of the kind of mental gymnastics and twisted manipulation that happens when we try to hide our collective guilt.

The second thing I want to say about collective guilt is this: When we don’t deal with the problems, past and present, in an honest way, they fester. It’s like an infection. And it doesn’t just go away. It makes us sick. The problems get worse when people continue to be denied justice and honesty. People get more angry. Perhaps they get poorer and more marginalized and that leads to greater desperation which can erupt in disastrous ways – look at Al Qaida and The Lord’s Resistance Army, and Daesh, and Hamas, etc. In this country, over 150 years after the abolition of slavery, there should not be the degree of racism that is still present in American society. This is a problem that should have been addressed generations ago. So there is guilt. But ignoring the guilt will not make the situation go away. Without healing, true and genuine, we all will continue to feel the pain that this problem creates for everyone. In schools, courts, prisons, the economy and in countless other ways, we pay a high price for racism. And all the while we are all deprived of the contributions that people have to make to society from which we could all benefit. I’m not so naive that I believe that this is an easy issue to tackle. The cure will come at a cost and be painful, but we are enduring pain as a society now over racism and ethnocentrism. And it is not clearing up. Collective guilt, even when denied, exacts a price. If we think we can’t pursue reconciliation and justice because they re too costly, then we are denying the toll being taken by our problems and collective guilt.

The third thing I want to say about collective guilt pertains specifically to Christianity. This is supposedly a religion of grace and forgiveness. We extol God’s grace. We say there’s nothing humans can do that can separate us from the love of God. And we claim that God’s grace is demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus. God loves us so much, in spite of our sin, that God is willing to face the cross for us. From the cross, we are told that Jesus says, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” In Acts, Peter declares God’s forgiveness and grace for those who shouted, “Crucify him!” and were responsible for the death of Jesus. Even the crucifixion of Jesus cannot exhaust God’s grace and love. God’s love is stronger than any evil or sin that humanity can devise. God is about forgiveness and reconciliation. There is no breach that cannot be healed. No wrong that cannot be resolved. No hatred or violence that cannot be transformed by Divine love. These are core teachings of Christianity. That’s what this Holy Week is all about.

So, to ignore our wrongs, to perpetuate deception, to deny our sins, to cover up our collective guilt, is to deny the very power of the God we proclaim. To continue to mask our collective guilt is a denial of the reconciling death of Jesus. It is a direct undermining of the life of Jesus and his trust in the power of God’s love and grace. So, to ignore our collective guilt, to put our heads in the sand is to deny the reconciling power of God. It is to deny that “the truth sets us free” and love is stronger than death which is what Jesus and Easter are all about.

When we really believe in God’s grace as we see it in Jesus, we are not afraid to repent. We take off the masks and stop the denial. We submit ourselves to the transformation wrought by reconciliation. We follow Jesus who broke the mechanism of violence, the spiral of denial, and the perpetuation of the lie. To say that Jesus died for our sins, and then deny collective guilt, is basically saying that Jesus’ death was in vain. It is allowing collective guilt to hold sway and letting ourselves be held hostage by fear and self interest.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers us a constructive, healing way to respond to collective guilt. And we see this borne out in the life of the church. In the United Church of Christ, the church has made a public apology to the state of Hawaii for the ways that missionaries took advantage of the land and people. The UCC has apologized to the indigenous peoples of this country and has returned land that was taken to its tribal owners. The Southern Baptist church has repented of the sin of racism. These are a few of the ways that the church has sought to deal with collective guilt seeking honest, mutual reconciliation.

I started out by talking about the movie “Spotlight,” so I want to be sure that I share with you the way this situation is being addressed by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. When it began to be revealed that there was a pattern of priests engaging in sexual misconduct and pedophilia, leaders in the local diocese were told that they were to find the victims. They were to look for anyone who had been abused by a priest. They were to encourage people to come forward with their stories. As victims have come forward, the bishop meets personally with each one that is willing. And right away. The response is immediate. The church is taking responsibility for what has been done and help is offered. A counselor was designated to work on this full time all the time. Again, immediate response. The wrongs are acknowledged and help is given. It has been the opposite of a cover up. It is a manifestation of the healing power of the grace of God extended through the church.

As we make our way through this Holy Week, while our hearts are heavy with the sorrow and suffering of Jesus and all the other innocents who have come after him, may our spirits still ring with our Hosannas for we have a faith that gives us a constructive way to deal with our collective guilt and our sin. Through this week may we be reminded once again that the power of love is greater than the power of sin and death. May we walk through the valley of the shadow of death with Jesus who shows us the way of reconciliation, regardless of the harm we are party to. Let us honor the one remembered for declaring forgiveness from the cross by being honest about our collective guilt and shame. When we uncover our sin, the grace of God covers our sin and makes new life possible. Hosanna!

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


Sermon Sunday Feb. 28, 2016

Sunday Feb. 28, 2016
Scriptures: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and Genesis 39:1-6a
Rev. Kim P. Wells

On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ended his sermon to the congregation at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee saying:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have see the glory of the coming of the Lord.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by James M. Washington, p. 286]

Don’t you wonder how people can have such faith? To put their lives on the line for what they believe?

There are other examples of people who just seem to have so much faith. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, was a self made millionaire by the time he was 29. And he gave away his wealth to start an organization building homes for poor people the world over. Wow!

And Nelson Mandela reconciling and serving with his white captors in South Africa. That’s really living out your faith! Or one of the women from Cleveland who was kidnapped by Ariel Castro and kept captive for 10 years who forgave her captor: The man who kept her and two other women imprisoned, regularly raping them. Forgiven. That’s amazing grace!

When we think of the story of Joseph, we think of him forgiving his brothers, the very ones who sold him into slavery. And he not only forgives them, he eventually saves their lives by giving them food and providing them with a new life in Egypt. The very people that wanted to do him in and get rid of him. That’s impressive faith.

And, of course, most impressive, is Jesus who lays down his life for his friends. He stays so true to God and to God’s intentions for humanity, that he endures the suffering and death that ensue. Even, we’re told, forgiving his own killers from the cross.

Most of us, carrying on our every day lives, don’t face these kinds of
circumstances. Most of the time, we are not facing peril for our beliefs. Death is not knocking on the door as a consequence of our activism. Most of us aren’t filthy rich, so we don’t have to worry about giving away all of our wealth for the poor. Most of us will not be so wronged that our forgiveness appears otherworldly.

For most of us, life is pretty ordinary. We go to school. We go to work. Every day. Maybe we deal with our children, changing diapers, chauffeuring them around. Later letting them take care of us. Maybe we mow the grass. Clean the house. Pay the bills. Do the laundry. We might enjoy a hobby. Read books. We might travel. We might have fun with friends. We deal with medical issues and the challenges of aging. We do our best as caregivers to loved ones.

For many of us, we live ordinary lives. Mundane, really. Nothing spectacular or heroic. So what about our faith? In every day life? For those of us who are not sustaining freedom movements or forgiving murderers or funding global charities? What can we expect from our faith?

It’s interesting that in the passage we heard from the New Testament, Jesus is saying don’t make a show of your faith. Don’t use your piety as a way to gain status or respect. This teaching is in the middle of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s sandwiched in between the teaching about loving your enemies and the teaching about not storing up treasure on earth. These are some of the most important teachings of Jesus. And here amidst them are these words about faith practice and religious observance. Jesus is letting us know that faith is not self aggrandizing. It is not about moving you up the social ladder. It is not something that you use to gain status and privilege. In fact, just the opposite. Pray, give alms, fast, yes, but in private. Do it for yourself and God, not to impress others.

But Jesus is not saying don’t bother with religion or religious observance for he knows that it is in the regular discipline of prayer, reading of scripture, attending services, giving of money, singing of hymns, and helping others that our faith shapes our character and gives us life. It’s kind of like watering a plant- you do it again and again and again and it keeps growing. Our daily faith practices feed us. They keep us mindful of our faith. They give us strength for the challenges we face. They help us to know what is right and true. They form us as people who are grateful and giving. Faith practices are the way that we stay connected to God, to Divine Love, to our heart’s center. And that is critical for navigating the course of life. The practices are what give us the strength and will to love our enemies, eschew materialism, and keep greed at bay.

Every day or so, I hear of someone and I think, “They need church.” Now, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that I think the person is going to hell because they don’t go to church. It doesn’t mean that I think the person is morally bad because they don’t go to church. It’s just that sometimes people seem lost, confused, or maybe bitter. They don’t seem to have a moral compass. They don’t seem to have a sense of how to navigate life. They don’t see the conflicts in their behavior. Maybe the person is spending a lot of money on something frivolous when don’t have money for basics like utilities and rent. Maybe a person is laying into their child in the store instead of respecting the child’s needs. Maybe someone is dropping trash from their car. Maybe someone is working in finance and getting people to borrow more money than they can handle and at high interest rates. Maybe we see people letting their friends have a bad influence on them. There are all kinds of ways people just seem to be lacking a sense of the connections between values and behavior, between morals and actions, between what they say and what they do. And so, I think, they need church.

Does this mean that people who go to church never make mistakes, don’t do stupid things, don’t bow to peer pressure, don’t cave in to social and economic pressure? Do people who go to church never make a scene? Of course not! In fact, it might be that weaker people go to church because we need more help!

To me, what “church” means is being part of a community that celebrates and reinforces values that honor creation, see all of life as sacred, and respect the dignity of the whole human family. Church represents a life oriented toward giving not taking. It is about seeing a bigger picture and your part in it. And, a big part of church is accepting yourself and others with all of our wonder and all of our warts. We will make mistakes and screw up. But we know that is human and we try again. And we want to offer the same grace to others. Church is about seeing our best selves and summoning them to the surface, aligning our beliefs with our actions.

In church we are striving toward healing and wholeness for ourselves and for the world. We are trying to get our behavior in line with our hopes, dreams, and beliefs. We are seeking integration. That is the quest of our full humanity. Coke Coughenour, a friend of LUCC, wrote a beautiful essay about this for the last Westminster Shores newsletter. I recommend it to you.

Church brings us together in solidarity with others who have been drawn to the way of Jesus, the path of justice, love, compassion and forgiveness. Church is about living in God’s realm, living Love’s way, here and now. And becoming more and more complete in that identity and that community.

Without “church” and that could be mosque, synagogue, or another faith community, people are more prone to being fragmented. Pulled apart. Buffeted by the winds of society and culture around them. With little sense of home, acceptance, and a way back. Without community and solidarity. Ruled by the tyrant “me.” Selfish. Self absorbed. A small life enslaved.

Church is an antidote to all of that. Faith practices day in and day out, week in and week out, shape our worldview, our sense of self, and help us figure out where we fit in to the whole. Our faith becomes our home, our grounding. Nurturing and fostering our growth and healing.

Our faith teaches us that we find our truest selves in service. Day in and day out. Not necessarily the one heroic episode, say, rescuing someone from drowning. But the day to day kindness, the smile, the practical help here and there, the caring, attentive presence, the every day efforts to make the world a better place. This daily mode of being is how divine love comes into the world and spreads. Most of the good that happens in this world is done by everyday people, doing for others, where they are needed. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to be “special” or “gifted” or in Mensa. It’s the everyday dedication to service and the wellbeing of others that God uses to bless the world.

Our faith also teaches us to live our everyday ordinary lives with a sense of joy, delight, and gratitude. Instead of just being a daily grind, we feel graced by a good meal or a good laugh or a good friend. We treasure another dawn. We see the miracle of each and every breath. We are stunned over and over and over again by the magnificence and beauty of nature. Miracle after miracle after miracle! Wow!

Our faith, nurtured through regular faith practices shapes our character and our life style. It informs our choices. It provides a compass to navigate through life. We are shaped and formed by God/Spirit/the Holy/Love.

Now, we started by talking about some giants of the faith. People who have made an extraordinary witness to the realm of God and the power of love to transform lives and the world. And each one of them was rooted in a faith tradition. Each one was part of a community of faith practice, formation, and solidarity. Their faith led and guided them. It gave them strength and insight for their life’s calling.

But this leaves me wondering, is it that regular habit of faith that led them to do those extraordinary things? Sometimes, I think it happens like that. We go about our business, going to church, praying, reflecting on scripture, sharing with the poor, and out of that emerges some grand and noble aim that we must devote our lives to. I think this is the case with Dr. King. If he had not been a person of faith, he may very well have never been a Civil Rights leader. His involvement in the movement came directly from his experience with church and the Bible. Sometimes our engagement with our faith compels us to be involved in things we never could have expected. So, our ordinary lives and faith practice may lead to quite extraordinary service.

This is certainly the case with Jesus. His faith led him to make a bold witness that was threatening to others and engendered hostility and retaliation which resulted in his death. Sometimes faith practice gets us into trouble.

Other times, I think we are just thrown into circumstances that require our response. That’s what we see with Joseph. He ended up in Egypt, a slave, then a vizier, and finally a savior, really. But he did not create the circumstances that led to all of that. He dealt with what life handed him.

We see this in other situations of tragedy and disaster. What a compelling Christian witness we saw from the Amish community where the children were killed in the school house. They had nothing to do with creating that circumstance. And yet, it happened. And they had to respond. And they responded with forgiveness, love, and support for the shooter’s widow, Marie Roberts. In the aftermath of the shooting, she wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”   It was a remarkable witness, that arose from the ordinary, steady practice of faith that shapes and forms.[]

Sometimes life throws us into unexpected situations. And we do what we can. We try to do what is right. We try to live out our faith. And the result is something we never would have predicted or known we were capable of. But all that church and faith practice was preparing us, making us ready, and we had what we needed when the time came.

Who knows where going to church may lead? We know that through our practice, the world will be blessed and so will we, though we don’t know how. So, let us persist in our faith journey, trusting Love to make us who we need to be. 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.


Dr. Forrest Harris, Sr. guest preacher

guest_preacher copySunday Feb. 7, Dr. Forrest Harris, Sr., President of the American Baptist College, Nashville, TN, Associate Professor in the practice of ministry at Vanderbilt University and Director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies preached at Lakewood UCC. It was an honor to have this church leader, inspiring visionary, and teacher in our midst.

The recording begins with Rev. Wells reading the scripture, followed by Dr. Harris’ sermon.

To listen, right-click HERE and select the save link option and play the downloaded file with your computer’s media player. If you have a one-button mouse (on a Mac), press and hold the “Control” key and click the link and select the save link option.


Sermon Jan. 24, 2016 – Text and Tradition – Nehemiah 8 & First Corinthians 12

Scripture Lessons:  Nehemiah 8:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells
In the beginning God created. God created humanity in the Divine image. This is a foundational premise of our faith. We believe that humans are divinely created in the image of God with an amazing imagination and intellectual capacity. Just look at the size of our brains relative to our bodies.

Our brain ability has made it possible for humans to accomplish incredible things. The development of tools, technology, the arts, bio medical advances, scientific discoveries, space exploration, cellular research, advanced weaponry, all of these developments and more are astounding. And we are by no means finished yet. Many think the real breakthroughs are yet to come!

We also recognize that humans are set apart by the capacity for free will. We can make all of these amazing things but how do we use them? We can discover and innovate, but what guides the implementation? We don’t just live by innate instinct. Humans have the ability to make choices: To show self sacrificing compassion. And to demonstrate an enormous capacity for heinous evil.

Given our intellectual abilities combined with our free will, it appears that we need religion to help to draw forth the best of our humanity and to curb our worse impulses. Religion may very well be the key to human survival, maturation, and constructive development. Our texts and our traditions have the power to guide humanity in positive direction. Yet, there are challenges there, too.

With all of the changes in our social, technological, economic, and scientific context, religions are tested, too. We are in a time of great change and so this morning we take a look at how we deal with our holy texts and traditions in the light of our context which is one of increasing change. How do our scriptures, the Bible, and the traditions of the church inform our faith today?

Incidentally, this same issue is being faced by all religions, not just Christianity. It is a challenge for Judaism, for Islam, for Buddhism, and for other faiths, as well. How do we benefit from our holy writings and traditions in today’s context so that religion can be the positive force it is needed to be in today’s world?

As a case study, we are going to look at something that has been in the news here in St. Petersburg for the past couple of weeks: The controversy over the speaker for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast. This recent topic gives us an example of how we use our holy texts and our Christian traditions to inform our faith today.

Basically, the speaker, who is the pastor of a church, has vehemently preached that homosexuality is a sin. Some felt this message was contrary to the spirit of Dr. King as a civil rights leader. Area pastors defended the speaker saying that he is a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and he is compelled to uphold the Bible, so he has no choice when it comes to homosexuality. He has to be against it. Their perspective is that Christians can’t help being anti gay when that’s what the Bible says. Period. So, don’t blame the man for preaching that homosexuality is a sin like gambling and drug addiction. [I’d like to see where there is a reference to drug addiction in the Bible. . . but that’s another topic.]

And while these Christian pastors and churches are decrying homosexuality, there seems to be no recognition that there are other Christian churches, like the United Church of Christ, that draw upon the Bible and the Christian faith tradition to advocate for human and civil rights for the GLBT community. The UCC brought the lawsuit to the Supreme Court which led to gay marriage being legal in all 50 states. That was a faith witness by a Christian church based on the Bible and our tradition which is ignored, discounted, and disrespected by those who take a different view.

So we can see that how we access our texts and traditions can inform our faith in different ways. Let’s look at the way that Rev. Bryant and others like him, are using the Bible to inform their faith today. It’s basically, “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.” This approach is challenged by the scripture that we heard this morning from the book of Nehemiah. The leaders have found the book of the law of Moses. This is their holy book, their Bible, their scripture. It is read out loud to the whole community – men, women, and children. The people hear it all directly. But then, the Levites, one group of authorized, educated, trained religious leaders, teach. We are told, the Levites, “helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” So, we are told directly that the law needed to be explained, interpreted, and taught to the people. It wasn’t enough just to hear it read. The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.

Well, here’s a brief teaching, interpretation, and explanation about some of what we can say about homosexuality and the Bible.

There are a several verses in the Bible that refer to same gender sexual activity. These references do not refer to sexual activity in the context of a mutual loving relationship. Same gender sexual activity was part of pagan religious practice and therefore forbidden by the Jews and later Christians because it was associated with being pagan.

Evolutionarily, the early Hebrews and even the people of Jesus’ day needed to concern themselves with perpetuation of the species given infant mortality and short life expectancy. So same gender sexual activity worked against that.

In addition, the texts were addressing presumedly heterosexual married people who, when engaging in same gender sexual activity, were being unfaithful to their marriage partner.

We also want to note that there really is no reference in the Bible to what we consider homosexuality today. There was no social concept or understanding that there were people who were born with an attraction to others of the same gender and that there could be mutual, life long loving relationships of that kind. That simply was not conceived of just as there was no knowledge of the atom, or the cell, or the speed of light. They were there, but not yet conceptualized. That’s how it was with homosexuality. It was there but not yet defined.

Also we want to note that in the scriptures we have, there is no record of Jesus referring even to same gender sexual behavior.

So blaming the Bible for a stance against homosexuality is a really weak argument to make. We need to apply our God-given reason, intellect, and knowledge to our thinking about our sacred texts, the Bible, to inform our faith today. It simply is not enough to just be “literal.” There is more to it and even the ancients knew that.

Now we turn to another consideration of how we use our texts and traditions. While some Christians may gravitate toward literalism and legalism based on the Bible, Jesus shows us another approach. In the tradition we have of Jesus, we are told that Jesus broke the law of Moses. He directly, knowingly broke the law. He violated the scriptures. The New Testament tells of Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Against the law. He spoke with women to whom he was not related in public. Against the law. We are told that he let a woman touch him and anoint him with oil. Against the law. We hear that Jesus and his followers picked grain on the Sabbath. Against the law. We have stories that tell us that again and again that Jesus broke the law of his faith; he directly violated the holy scriptures of his tradition. Evidently, he was not a literalist and not a legalist. We are given the impression that expressing compassion, healing, and love overrode legalistic considerations. Jesus defied the religious, social, cultural, economic, and civil norms of the day. This has volumes to say about how Christians today are to deal with the Bible and our traditions. And it leaves little room for condemnation of gay people.

We also want to be sure that we take into consideration that Jesus was an embodiment of God’s preferential option for the poor and the oppressed. The stories we have tell us how he reached out to those that his society and his religion had cast aside. He looked for the people on the margins. He healed those who were other, outcast, and enemy. He directly concerned himself with the condition of people who were oppressed, discriminated against, and devalued. This is why the church must always strive to defend the rights and humanity of all people. Now, when you have to hide who you are to get a job, to get a loan, to receive succor from your religious tradition, and you live in fear for your safety and your life, this is oppression. And this is why the church of Jesus Christ is compelled to advocate for human and civil rights for sexual minorities. The commitment of the United Church of Christ and other churches to justice comes directly from the Bible and our Christian tradition.

Now, in the scripture that was read from 1 Corinthians, we have the beautiful image of the faith community as a body. This body imagery was common in the ancient world. Philosophers thought about the cosmos as a body of diverse, complementary elements. So this image of the body as a unity of diverse parts was not new. What was new was the equal valuing of all the parts. The Corinthians were wrapped up in competition and hierarchy. Who had the most important spiritual gifts. Whose gifts made them most important to the community. Who was better and deserved more status. They wanted a pecking order. The letter to the Corinthians tosses this all out the window. The one who empties the trash is of the same value as the one who preaches. [And in our church, it’s often the same person, as it should be.] All should be needed and valued. The early church was a community of rebellion against the hierarchy and stratification of society. Worldly distinctions – social, religious, ethnic, economic, sexual, educational – were all subsumed to the oneness of the body of Christ. Power, privilege, and position were insignificant. What was important was common devotion to service. The writer of this letter is specifically countering the Corinthians’ penchant for boasting about the more flashy, flamboyant roles in the faith community and competing for those roles. They are reminded that the community of Jesus is a community committed to egalitarianism which values diversity as a gift. It was radical rebellion. Again, an image which mitigates for the full inclusion of GLBT people in the church and society.

This image of the body with many parts has been used to account for the diversity of the church today. A big tent. A huge umbrella. But it seems that we are getting to a breaking point which hinges on how we see the Bible and the tradition. There is growing division within Christianity and it is not defined by denomination. Within each communion, there seem to be those who want to use our texts and our tradition to help navigate the change around us. To help us to maintain our values in the face of drastic technological advances. To help us protect our humanity and our soul as we become more machine dependent. Who want to use the rich tradition and texts we have inherited as constructive tools for building a future of peace and mutual understanding. And, then it seems that there are those who, in the face of the massive changes taking place in our context, want to use our texts and traditions by applying antiquated approaches that exacerbate problems rather than solving them. And, ultimately, they betray the gospel and deny humanity’s divinely bestowed reason and intellect. You can’t build a computer with a stone axe. There are those who seem to want to ignore the contributions of culture, history, science, economics, the arts, and education in advancing human development. These strides can help to advance the positive influence of religion as well.

As the old hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” reminds us:

New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth.

That was written in 1845.

Can we be one church? People who bring guns to church? People who support reproductive rights? People who berate homosexuality? People who endorse the ordination of women? People who are dedicated to God’s preferential option for the poor? People who teach God wants believers to be rich? People who use intellect to inform faith? People who insist on literalism? Can we be one church? One body?

Our context is complicated. There is a professor at Wheaton College, a professed Christian, who was put on leave for wearing a head scarf and affirming that Muslims and Christians are praying to the same God. But her actions seem in keeping with the teachings and witness of Jesus.

And we have Muslim journalists declaring: “To us, the ‘hijab’ is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject that believes that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair. We don’t buy it.” [Quoted in The Christian Century, 1/20/16, Asra Z. Noman and Hala Arafa, two Muslim journalists, who discourage non-Muslims from wearing the hijab out of solidarity with Muslims, arguing that it reinforces a patriarchal interpretation of Islam, Washington Post, 12/21/15] That, too, seems to reflect the way of Jesus.

The way we access our texts and our tradition to inform our faith in a constructive way is a complicated challenge in our complex context. But we have such a rich heritage to draw upon that has all the answers that we need for navigating our perilous and promising times. The way of Jesus, of service, of equality, of generosity, of other-centered living, of rebellion, is needed today to foster life and well-being for the whole human family as well as all of creation.

It seems that our world is in a time of transition. There are divides in society, in politics, and in religion. Maybe two hundred years from now people will look back and see with more clarity what was going on.

In the church, did we err on the side of traditionalism? Did we make an idol of the Bible? Did we try too hard to maintain Christian unity, the body, and so betray the heart of the gospel? Did we ignore the influences of our unique intellectual abilities, discounting culture, the arts, history, economics, science, and education, and cling to the past, not availing ourselves of what we were being given to transform Christianity? Did we let our faith have the constructive impact that was needed? Time will tell.

In Jesus’ day and after the crucifixion of Jesus, those who followed Jesus were Jews. They were Jews, within Judaism. A minority movement, but still part of Judaism. But as time went on, as conditions in society had an impact, as history unfolded, the strain between Jews who followed Jesus as the Messiah and Jews who were still awaiting a Messiah grew so great, that the two camps parted company and Christianity emerged as a separate, though related, religion. There are those who think that kind of transition is happening in the Christian world today. That the strain between the varying factions will lead to a parting of the ways and the emergence of separate expressions of the way of Jesus moving into the future.

When Ezra read the law of Moses to the people and the Levites offered their interpretation, the people saw how far they had departed from God’s way. They were afraid of God’s wrath. They sought to repent. And Ezra affirmed their desire to return to God’s way, but encouraged them to have a festival, to feast, to celebrate, that they have recommitted. He tells them this is an occasion for joy, not sorrow.

Our texts and traditions are to lead us to God. They are to be a guide for equipping us to embody divine, unconditional, universal love on earth. And that path is desperately needed in the world today amidst the competition, alienation, turmoil and violence of our times. The gospel is still, and ever will be, good news. Perhaps needed now more than ever. This is not a time to abandon our texts and our tradition. It is a time to embrace them. And to rejoice in the welcoming mercy of God. 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.


Sermon Dec. 13, 2015 – Fear Not! Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 1:26-38

Third Sunday of Advent
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

With continuous terrorist attacks and mass shootings taking place, not surprisingly, gun sales in the US are up. There are already more guns than people in the US. But even so, gun sales are soaring. A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times gave a local perspective. Typically, sales in December are up about 20% because of the Christmas season. Apparently, people don’t only give toy guns as Christmas presents. To me, to give a gun as a gift at Christmas is about as anti-Christmas as you can get but evidently plenty of people disagree. So, in addition to the usual holiday rush on guns, there has been an additional increase in sales this year. This year, sales are up more like 50%. And the sales are more and more to first time gun buyers. Thankfully, I guess, attendance at gun safety classes is also skyrocketing. When asked to account for the significant increases, gun shop owner Paul Digirolamo of Clearwater said, “The sentiment is fear. It’s more fear of terrorism than fear of losing their ability to purchase firearms.”

Doug Jackson, of Bill Jackson’s in Pinellas Park said, “We’ve had a lot of people coming in concerned because the police can’t be everywhere all the time.” [TBT 12/9/15, “Bay area gun shops see spike in sales”] Fear. Fear. And more fear.
We got an invitation at the church for an 8 hour class at St. Petersburg College on “Keeping Your Church and Ministry Safe In An Uncertain World.” The topics include: Domestic, Partner and Workplace Violence; Child Protection; Transportation Protection; Developing Safety and Security Policies; Recognizing High Risk areas; Legal, Insurance, and Liability Issues; Prepare for Emergencies, Natural Disasters, Medical Crises, Active Shooters and Extreme Violence; Mission Team Protection; Church Security Assessment; and Addressing the Aftermath. Again, fear, fear, fear.

Let’s remember that the church has existed in times of peril and violence since its very inception. The Jews living under Roman rule in the first century were fearful day in and day out. They were always afraid of Roman crackdowns and violence. Crucifixions were a regular occurrence. People were thrown in prison and mistreated for all kinds of things including debt. The society was understandably fearful. Humans have forever lived in fearful conditions.

But the issue really is how fear is perceived and used. Actually, people are safer today than in previous times. The crime rate is down. Killing is down. Disease and pestilence is down. There is more justice and empowerment than there have been in past times. People have more human rights than ever before. So, you would think, based on the evidence, that the fear level would be going down. But it is not. It is actually going up.

Fear is a very powerful tool. Fear makes money for lots of people, including weapons manufacturers and gun companies. And, even more importantly, fear makes is easier to control people.

There is a quote, questionably attributed to Julius Caesar, about using fear to gain power and support:

“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind.

“And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so.

“How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar.”

Using fear to manipulate and control people is nothing new. And our government is as good at it as any. When people are afraid, they are much more likely to engage in violence as we see from the gun sales statistics.

Fear is also what is motivating war and terrorism. The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is fueled by fear. ISIS is motivated by fear. Fear of losing a way of life. Of being taken over by Western culture. Fear of losing power and control. Terrorists are afraid and so they lash out perpetrating death and destruction. Fear of losing access to desired land, water, oil, and other resources fuels war and violence.

Fear induces the fight or flight reaction. And, it appears in the world today that fight is outpacing flight in the face of fear.

Do people in the US want all these guns because of hate? Is it their hatred of someone that is leading them to purchase guns? No. Are they purchasing guns because they have a vendetta against someone? Not for the most part. Is it out of vengeance? Not really. Is it the desire to inflict pain and kill? Not in most cases. For the most part, the main motivation for the people buying the guns is fear.

Fear skews our view of reality. It leads us to behave in uncharacteristic ways. It makes us set rationality and morality aside. As the Caesar quote says, it narrows the mind. Fear poisons our humanity, our good will, and our compassion. We become afraid to help others. Afraid to be generous. Afraid to engage with other people. Fear isolates us. Fear can lead us to give up the very things we were afraid of losing and wanting to protect. It is extremely powerful and destructive.

And so we are reminded of the famous words, accurately attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt, president of the United States during World War 2: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

As people of faith, we know that fear can prevent us from living out our faith. It can stop us from being compassionate and generous. It can put the brakes on our impulse to help others and work for the common good. It can stop us from being honest and ethical, let alone good and helpful. We may be afraid for our safety, or our economic security, or our reputation, or our job. There can be all kinds of fears that lead us to be apathetic and not get involved, even if we don’t choose to do something violent or vengeful. But fear can definitely hold us back from acting on our faith and following Jesus.

Fear holds churches and pastors back all the time. They are afraid to make waves in the congregation. They are afraid to ruffle feathers and loose financial support. They are afraid of getting a bad reputation in the community. They’re afraid of getting in trouble with the wider church (though this is not much of an issue in the UCC with congregational polity and a national church that is usually more progressive than most of the congregations). Churches and pastors want to “keep the customer satisfied” and keep the pews and the coffers filled. They’re afraid of loosing members and money. So, the church is not always the bastion of courage and faith and trust that is should be.

Here we want to remember the beautiful story of the annunciation that we heard this morning for it has a message about fear and trust. The story tells of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary to inform her that she will be the mother of Jesus and he will be the long-awaited Messiah. We are meant to be surprised that this angel visitation is to someone who is a “nobody.” Mary is portrayed as someone poor from a small village, a person of low status. It would be natural to think that an important figure would be born to an important person, someone of high status, from a family with power and authority. But no, the angel comes to mere Mary. In the story, the angel greets Mary by name. Maybe this is to avoid any confusion, like, that the angel had the wrong person. Then the angel kicks off with, “Do not be afraid.” Or, “Fear not.” “You have found favor with God.” Evidently, the angel expects fear. At the presence of the angel? Or the message that may come? Maybe the angel knows what to anticipate from previous experiences with such visitations. Just a few verses before we are told of the angel visiting Zechariah, who is fearful of the angel and does not trust his words. Maybe the angel knows the pattern with Moses and the prophets resisting God’s call out of fear. So, the angel broaches Mary with, “Don’t be afraid.” And that alone should really put her on her guard!

This scene of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary is so well known in part due to the countless artists that have offered renderings of the scene. Perhaps in a bower. Or a bedroom. Or a garden. Or a portico. Or even while Mary is hanging out the wash. In most renditions Mary appears submissive. Passive. Agreeable. It seems too easy. In a version by John William Waterhouse painted 1914, Mary looks very concerned. One hand on her head, like, “Oh, my God.” The other at her heart. An extremely worried, hesitant, intense expression on her face. The angel is portrayed as a beautiful woman offering Mary a stem of lilies. A bad sign, but Mary wouldn’t know that, yet. Mary is not reaching out to take the lilies. It is as if she is presented with a perplexing dilemma and she is trying to figure out what to do. I wonder if the angel is offering the flowers before or after the message has been delivered. Is the angel trying to soften Mary’s defenses, disarm her before delivering the blow? Or has the angel already given the message and Mary is hesitating and so the angel is offering the flowers to entice her to say yes? We don’t know. But which ever it is, we know that Mary has reason to be wary. She is right to show surprise and hesitation. Even fear.

To me, this is a more helpful portrayal of Mary because I think that the call to live in the realm of God, to follow Jesus, should give us pause.

It can be a fearsome thing to be called by God. It can be fearsome to be part of God’s plans for justice and peace in the world. It can be fearsome to stand up to the powers that be. It can be fearsome to face the risks that come with embodying God’s divine love for the world. It can be fearsome to be confronted by the Holy and have your life turned around. Our faith calls us to put ourselves in the hands of divine love to do the work of redeeming creation. Our faith calls us to submit ourselves to the divine dream for the common good of all creation. Our faith calls us to follow, as Jesus did, often into difficult, uncomfortable, dark situations where God’s love is needed most. We are called to put ourselves at God’s disposal. This we have in common with Islam which literally means “submission.” Islam is about submitting to the will of God. That is what Jesus did and what our faith calls us to do. And that is what we see from Mary. And, yes, it is fearsome, to give up control, and to face the challenges to which we may be called. Mary was right to be afraid. The angel knowingly tries to dispel her fears. And she agrees to what the angel announces. Let it be.

Faith involves overcoming our fears because to live in fear is to strangle life. And our God is a god of life – flourishing, prolific, diverse, teeming life. And fear saps life. Deprives life. It makes us close in and close up. It drives out life and love. It drains joy. Fear takes over. It becomes a tyrant. It enslaves. Fear deprives us of freedom and life and well-being. It forces us to shut down and isolate and wither.

Love fosters life. Living for others gives meaning and purpose. Serving the common good is life giving. Engaging with others brings joy. Yes, faith may involve risks and challenges, but it is a way of life not death. It is also a fearsome thing to contemplate a world where people take matters into their own hands and look out only for their own good.

In this season of Advent, we have been talking about Wonder-Full peace. It seems that peace is becoming harder and harder to imagine. I’m afraid to look at the front page these days. What new horror will be announced? What sickening image will be imprinted on my psyche from the pages of the Tampa Bay Times? Is it time to get a gun? Of course not. That only feeds fear and fear leads to death, either of body or soul. To live in peace does not mean being able to protect yourself. It means living without fear.

The New Testament tells us that love casts out fear. God is about the love that enables us to overcome our fears. We see this in Mary. She submits to the love. And we see it in Jesus.

The enemy of peace is really not so much hatred as it is fear. Because fear takes control of us and drives out the love. We isolate and build walls instead of reaching out with compassion seeking understanding. Fear makes us clench our fists instead of opening them to shake hands and to give and receive. Divine love is about bringing us together, overcoming our differences, helping each other, and learning to live together in peace. That can’t happen when we let ourselves be overcome with fear.

Faith takes us out of the fear spiral. Love casts our fear. God enables us to surmount our fears so that we can trust and risk and engage. Mary overcame her fears and said yes.

On the bathroom mirror at our house are a variety of comics and clippings. One is a picture of Christopher Moltisanti of “The Sopranos” with this quote, “Fear knocked on the door. Faith answered. There was no one there.” May we welcome divine love into our lives so that we can live in peace and not fear. Amen.

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


Sermon December 6, 2015 – Moving Mountains Luke 3:1-18

Second Sunday of Advent

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Why do people climb Mount Everest? The most famous response is, “Because it’s there.” Those are the words of George Mallory, one of the first climbers to attempt to summit Everest. We still don’t know if he made it or not because he never returned from his summit bid of 1924. His body was found in 1999 but it has not been determined if he died on the way up or the way down. Why do people risk life and limb to climb Mount Everest?

At the end of the book, High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, film director and mountaineer, David Breashears concludes: “The risk inherent in climbing such mountains carries its own reward, deep and abiding because it provides as profound a sense of self-knowledge as anything else on earth. A mountain is perilous, true; but it is also redemptive.” [pp. 304-305]

The incredible challenges involved in climbing Mount Everest evidently bring out your essential character. You find out who you are. If you have seen the movie, “Everest,” or read Into Thin Air, the best seller by John Krakauer, you know the story of the tragic climbing season in the spring of 1996 on Mount Everest. Horrific storms led to 8 deaths in the course of two days.

One of those left for dead, three times, was Beck Weathers. I have read Weathers’ book, Left for Dead, a memoir which includes the Everest story. I must say, in reading about Weathers before the Everest episode, he is not the most likable person. He seemed rather self absorbed, self indulgent, and, consequently, alienated from his wife and family. Yes, he suffered from depression, but he was a successfully employed pathologist and able to function professionally. Personally, it was another matter.

Then you read of Weathers’ Everest experience. He spent two consecutive nights exposed to the frigid temperatures during fierce storms at 26,000 feet. He was left for dead three times by fellow climbers. There was no way that he could survive. But he did. This is how he describes it: “Then, a miracle occurred at 26,000 feet. I opened my eyes.

“My wife was hardly finished with the harrowing task of telling our children their father was not coming home when a second call came through, informing her that I wasn’t quite as dead as I had seemed.

“Somehow I regained consciousness out on the South Col – I don’t understand how – and was jolted to my senses, as well as to my feet, by a vision powerful enough to rewire my mind. I am neither churchly nor a particularly spiritual person, but I can tell you that some force within me rejected death at the last moment and then guided me, blind and stumbling – quite literally a dead man walking – into camp and the shaky start of my return to life.” [p.7]

Weathers’ hands and feet and face were frostbitten. He ended up having to have his right arm amputated between the elbow and wrist, the four fingers and thumb of his left hand removed, parts of both feet removed, and his nose and face reconstructed. It was bad.

David Breashears, the film director referred to earlier, was on Everest that spring filming a movie for IMAX. As a seasoned climber, he was involved in rescuing those who were caught on the mountain. He ended up walking the blind, frost bitten Beck Weathers back to base camp. This is what Breashears says about the experience:

“It wasn’t long before I began to understand how remarkable this stranger at my back really was. We’d just started down, when Beck said, ‘You know, David, I paid $65,000 to climb Everest. And when I left Dallas, I said to my wife, I said, ‘Peach, $65,000 to climb Everest! It’s costing me an arm and a leg!’ Then he added, ‘But I guess I bargained them down.’”

Breashears goes on:
“I was astounded. This man, this mutilated survivor, was telling me a joke? About his own injuries? He was a pathologist. He well knew what lay in store. Both hands were frozen through to the bone. He knew he’d lost them. He still had no idea about his face. We weren’t about to tell him. He probably would have simply invented some jokes about that.

“It went on, pretty much nonstop the whole way down. He was funny as hell. He compared our little string of climbers to a conga line. He wanted to sing ‘Chain of Fools.’ It kept his mind agile and his body moving.

“He didn’t complain. He was so thankful. He had a profound effect on me. After all that death, after being judged dead himself, not once but three times, this man’s spirit was transcendent. He was a gift for all of us from that tragedy. Out of all that horror emerged this great spirit. He never should have survived. . . His first night was spent lying on the edge of an abyss, and his second was spent screaming in a tent with the doors blown open, exposed, his sleeping bags torn away. The very fact of his survival was astounding. He came out of the horror with his humanity and intelligence intact.

“The stresses of high-altitude climbing reveal your true character; they unmask who you really are. You no longer have all the social graces to hide behind, to play roles. You are the essence of what you are. And if I can be one tenth of what Beck was that day, I will have been a worthy man.” [pp. 273-274]

It’s not Everest but this morning we heard about John the Baptizer calling people in the wilderness to confront who they really are. Out in the wilderness, away from the trappings of power and comfort, the social roles that protect, and the wealth that obscures, John is calling people to repent. To come clean. To face who they are and deal with the truth of it. To turn their lives around.

John invites the people to be baptized. This is a ritual cleansing, yes. But in Christian symbolism, baptism represents new life in Christ. The submersion under the water symbolizes dying. The coming out of the water represents new life, like emerging from the waters of the womb. Baptism was a commitment to a new future. Regardless of who these people were in the past, there was a different future ahead once they were baptized; once they had come to terms with their situation and were ready to commit to change. The mountains brought down and the valleys lifted up and the crooked places made straight.

Now one of the things I really like about this story is the specificity. We’re not just given theoretical platitudes. The story includes not only the symbolic but also the practical. The people ask John directly, “What should we do?” He offers advice about concrete changes in real life circumstances that represent substantial transformation. This brood of vipers has a lot of work to do. They are going to have to make major changes if they are going to bear the fruit of repentance.

Two coats? Give one away to someone who has none. That’s pretty direct and specific. And with food, do the same. Take down that mountain of excess.

This week I heard about someone who went out to eat at an extravagant, expensive restaurant. The food was delicious, yes, but the bill was also astounding. To mitigate the sense of overindulgence, the person determined to donate the cost of the meal to an area food bank. That is just in keeping with the counsel from John the Baptist in this story. You have two, give one away to someone with none.

The tax collectors also ask, “What should we do?” They were overcharging people all the time. They gave the expected portion to the Romans and then kept the rest. The Romans didn’t care what the people were forced to pay just so Rome got the amount due. It was a set up ripe for taking advantage of people and that’s what happened. So, what are these repentant tax collectors to do? Just collect the fair amount. No more extortion. That’s a drastic change. A valley filled in.

And soldiers who were essentially Roman police there to keep order, what are they to do, these Gentiles who have come to be spiritually renewed in the wilderness? No threats. No undue violence. And be satisfied with your wages. No extra duty security. There’s something crooked made straight.

John’s strong language and direct appeal seem to inspire a sense of hope and promise. We are told that the people are filled with expectation. His teaching is described as good news: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

In our honest moments, it is good news to know that we can change; that God is not finished with us yet, that we can create a different future, that the mountains and valleys can be surmounted.

This Advent season used to be referred to as “little Lent.” It was a time of repentance. A time to examine your life and see how God is calling you to turn around and live in the light of God’s realm. Our faith teaches that we can be transformed. Our valleys smoothed over. Our mountains leveled out. Our crooked edges softened.

In thinking about Wonder-Full peace this season we are aware of the mountains that need to be moved so that all people can live together in peace. We need to level the mountain of violence. And the mountain of racism. And the mountain of environmental destruction. And the mountain of greed. We need to fill in the valley of hunger. And the valley of poverty. And the valley of entitlement. And the valley of alienation. We need to straighten out the crookedness of power abuse and injustice and oppression and self centeredness. How can we face these huge challenges on a societal let alone a world wide basis?

How do they climb Mount Everest? They climb Everest step by excruciating step in the thin air while their bodies are breaking down and their minds are going askew and their energy has ebbed below functionality. Yet they take another step. And another. Sometimes having to wait for minutes until they can summon the power to go just one more. Step. Yet they press on. And the summit appears.

To move the mountains of problems in our world, to fill in the valleys of inequity and scarcity, to straighten out the corruption and selfishness and suffering, we have to face the personal transformation that each of us is being called to make. Each one of us needs to be willing to take another step. Start anew. Turn over a new leaf. Make a change. Be transformed by the power of love. To see the big changes, we have to be willing to change, to be changed, to face the often difficult and painful process of individual conversion.

And it is good news in the context of our faith, because we know that we are called to face who we are so that we can be redeemed. When we are honest, when we let ourselves see the truth, we know that we are missing the joys and delights of life with our dissipation and greed and obsessions. And we are given the opportunity to change. The Christian call to conversion is a call to new life which is purposeful and satisfying and peaceful. It is a life of bearing good fruit.

When you find out who you are on Mount Everest, it may be too late to change. Your character flaws and weaknesses may lead to your death. But our faith teaches us that each and every day, God is seeking to work for our highest good by bringing out our best nature so that we might bear the fruits of goodness and justice. It is never too late to repent. And we are never beyond hope or beyond the scope of God’s transforming power.

Beck Weathers essentially died three times. And he is alive to tell about it. So he knows what it is to have your life upended and turned around. The mountain brought low, the valley raised up, the crooked made straight. And in reflecting on that experience he tells us:

“I learned that miracles do occur. In fact, I think they occur pretty commonly.

“I also now understand that humans are the toughest creatures on Earth. There’s a reason we’re at the top of the food chain, and it is not simply because we’re a smarter cockroach. There’s drive, determination and strength within each of us.” [p. 283]

May we not be afraid to scale the mountain of personal growth and change. 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.


Sermon November 29, 2015 – The Heavens Are Telling Luke 21:25-36

The First Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Luke 21:25-36
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In July 1969, the first manned spacecraft landed on the moon. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon while millions the world over watched glued to their televisions.

Then, on July 20, the day they walked on the moon, there was the first phone call between earth and the moon. Then President Richard Nixon addressed the astronauts:

Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure that they, too, join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.

It was definitely a historic moment for humanity around the world. An unforgettable experience filled with hope and promise.

As Nixon said it, “the heavens have become a part of man’s world.” Exploration into space has helped humanity to see the place of the Earth in the wider whole of the cosmos, and it has helped us to see the Earth as a whole. The picture of the Earth as a blue marble, taken by the Apollo 17 crew on December 7, 1972, is considered one of the most iconic, and among the most widely distributed images in human history. [Wikipedia, The Blue Marble] This picture gave the human race an image of its home – Earth. Space exploration has given us an understanding of the Earth as barely a speck of dust in vast expanding universe. And it has also given us an understanding of the precious uniqueness of our planetary home.

In the understanding of our Christian tradition, the Earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars, all are seen as part of the creative expression of God. We think of God as infinite mystery, so we are not surprised at the vast expanses of space. And we understand that to God, all of creation is one living, pulsing, dynamic whole. There are many, many references in the Bible to creation, the land, sea, animals, plants, and planets all fulfilling the will of the creator. Air, sun, comets, and nebulae, all play the part they are intended to play in the divine creative design. All of nature and all of the cosmos is seen as God’s self expression. In other traditions and religions, there are myths about the creation of humanity, but the world itself is already assumed. In the Judeo Christian concept of creation, humans are just one small part of a larger story of Divinity revealed in all of reality. It is a cosmic vision from the beginning.

We see this understanding reflected in the scripture we heard this morning. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. . . the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” [Luke 21:25-26] The power of God is not limited to humanity and human history. God’s power extends to the planets and stars, as well as all of Earth and creation. We are given a universal vision of God’s power and intentions. Ours is a cosmic God.

It is also clear in our tradition that the Divine intention for all of the vastness of the cosmos is peace. It has all been created as an evolving whole which supports life in untold forms – past, present, and future yet to be determined. Our faith is founded on a vision of peace that is life-affirming and universal.

This Advent season, we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, one in whom we see God breaking into human history with peace. And we remember that the peace that is expressed through Jesus is a universal peace. It is not just peace for one group, or one nation, or one culture, or one geographic area. Divine peace, the peace revealed in Jesus, is universal peace: For all people. For all cultures. For all times. For all lands and seas, planets and stars. In Jesus we see peace for the cosmos.

This is an insight that we want to remember as we think about extending peace in our world. There are so many areas wracked by violence and the absence of peace – from our individual souls and our psyches, to our city blocks, to our borders, to conflict and violence between groups and nations. Bombs, drones, guns, and missiles destroy daily. Where is peace? Where is there hope for peace? As we look at so many conflicts we see that this person, this group, this country, this government, this ruler, this religious expression, is trying to protect itself and extend its power. We want security for ourselves. The goal is not really peace, but self interest, self promotion, or self protection, because peace is for everyone or no one.

When we embrace the Christian view of cosmic peace, we look at paths to peace that extend peace to everyone, to all lands, all seas, all creation, the universe known and still unknown. When we adopt that cosmic perspective which we see again and again in our scriptures, then we are pursuing peace that means security for all and not just, temporarily, for some. Our faith teaches us to work for peace in ourselves and in specific situations from a universal perspective so that just and lasting resolution can emerge.

We can think, for example, about problems in a relationship. In this holiday season, these kinds of issues can become more pronounced. Maybe there is stress in one of your primary relationships. Maybe instead of thinking about what you want and what you think the other person wants, you can try to see things from a broader perspective. What is best for both of you? For the others in your family? What will make a constructive impression on children or young people in the family? What will be in the best interests of everyone in the long term? Maybe you can overcome a smaller issue when together you see there is a greater goal that is good for others that you both care about.

If we only look at certain specific interests in a particular situation without a broader framework, we may very well just be creating another problem. But when we work together to resolve conflicts whether it be in an interpersonal situation, in a work setting, in an ideological conflict, in international disputes, or in dealing with extremists, we want to keep in mind the universal perspective of our faith with the intention of peace for all of creation, the universe, and throughout the cosmos. That kind of all encompassing vision can help us to find specific ways to pursue peace that are truly secure and lasting.

Now, I must admit that for much of my life I was not very interested in space exploration, NASA, or even entertainment involving space. I felt that the energy put into space exploration was taking needed resources away from solving problems here on earth. I mean, was it really necessary to spend all that money so that we could drink Tang, eat dry ice cream, and close our shoes with Velcro? These are just some of the technological ripples of the space program. I saw space exploration as a sign of giving up on Earth and looking to other venues for pursing life. To me it represented having failed here on this planet and I could not accept that. But I married someone who minored in astronomy in college, who used to go out and observe the stars and the constellations every night when we lived in the country and it was actually dark enough to see the stars. Someone who knows all about the planets, space, and the space program, and who even, penny pincher that he is, gave money on a regular basis to the Space Studies Institute at Princeton to work on colonizing space. Now my spouse is a physics teacher. So, through the years, my heart has softened toward space. I have even come to take an interest in new discoveries and developments. But mostly I have been moved by the influence that space exploration and knowledge of the universe can have on our spirits, on our self understanding, on our grasp of our place in the scheme of things, and on our perspectives of life on Earth, our little blue marble home.

Images from space have helped to increase the understanding of global warming. They have given us other scientific insights and understandings. They have helped us to overcome a sense of individual and cultural alienation between humans because we know that we are all together on this tiny planet and there’s no where else just like this.

Space exploration also has the power to enhance our vision and pursuit of peace. While different countries may not be able to work together to solve problems on Earth, we seem to be more amenable to cooperating internationally when it comes to space and space exploration. The International Space Station is one promising example of this. Maybe through these experiences we can learn to work better together here on Earth as well.

In the 2014 hard science fiction movie, Interstellar, a ship is sent out into space to go through a worm hole and follow up on earlier initiatives to find a planet with an environment that can sustain human life. In the course of the journey, the main pilot, Cooper, is having a conversation with the primary scientist, Dr. Brandt, about space.

Dr. Brandt comments, “That’s what I love. Out there we face great odds, death, but, not evil.”

Cooper replies, “You don’t think nature can be evil?”

Brandt says, “No. Formidable. Frightening, but no, not evil. . .”

Cooper goes on to ask, “There’s just what we take with us, then?”

“Yeah,” Brandt responds.

Maybe the only evil in the universe is the evil that emerges from the human heart. No evil in space. No evil in creation. No evil in the universe or the cosmos. So maybe all this exploration of interstellar space can teach us to overcome the evil only we are capable of and to live in peace. In this season we prepare for the coming of Jesus, a figure portrayed in cosmic proportions: Jesus, a Palestinian Jew who has become associated with the cosmic Christ figure, an embodiment of the divine love that is at the heart of the universe. With no evil. A truly stellar figure with a universal message proclaiming peace – on Earth, all the Earth, not just some of the Earth, as well as the entire cosmos.

This season we’ll remember the story of the magi, the wise ones, following a star in search of Jesus. Maybe the stars will help to lead us to peace, in all of our hearts and homes; the peace that is intended for the world, the peace that has been given to creation in Jesus Christ. 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.


Sermon November 22, 2015 – Truth Telling John 18:33-37

Date:  November 22, 2015 Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday

Scripture:  John 18:33-37

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

This Sunday is traditionally celebrated as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church year. The year ends with a final declaration that Christ is King. Next week a new church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent. For a host of reasons, I don’t embrace the image of Jesus as a monarch but there is value to the idea that the gospel given to us by Jesus is worthy of our highest commitment and loyalty. It is a way of life for ourselves as individuals and for the church as a community, which is intended for the good of all people, including those who are on other spiritual paths, and the good of all creation. Thus the way of Jesus deserves our whole-hearted devotion.

This morning we heard the scripture lesson assigned for Christ the King Sunday. It is a story of a conversation between Pilate and Jesus specifically about the concept of kingship. Claiming to be a king was considered treason. It was a direct assault on the authority of Caesar, the true Emperor, the Divine King. And this crime was punishable by death. The religious authorities were threatened by Jesus because he was challenging their dictates. He was defying their rules and conventions. They wanted to get rid of him. So, they accuse him of claiming to be a king so that the Romans will see him as a threat and convict him of treason and put him to death by capital punishment. Thus the religious leaders will get the job done without getting their hands dirty.

The story we heard today tells of Jesus’ vision of his role. “My realm is not of this world.” His values, vision, and concept of power is so far removed from the hierarchy and tyranny of the leaders of his day, both Roman and religious, that he is by no means intending to take over their positions and put himself in office. No. He is revealing an entirely different reality in which the precious notions to which they cling have no place whatsoever.

From this short passage we glean at least two important points. We are surrounded by people, institutions, and values vying for our loyalty. When we are called to be Christians, the God shown to us by Jesus becomes the primary authority for our lives. Jesus’ teaching, his values, his worldview becomes preeminent for us. This is a big change from the surrounding culture in his day and as well as today. That’s one message here. Another message in the story of this brief encounter with Pilate is that following Jesus can put us at odds with the institutions and authorities around us in ways that are difficult, if not deadly.

The symbolic meaning of Christ the King Sunday is that Christ is our king. Our highest authority. The sovereign of our lives. The one we obey. Above all others. And there is that beautiful line at the end of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate: “. . . for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18:37] As Christians, we get our truth from Jesus.

This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving. With the celebration of the quintessential American holiday ahead, let’s take a look at some of America’s history with the eyes of Jesus’ truth. This week, we will remember the iconic image of the Pilgrims and the Native American Indians feasting together. Yes, it is factual that the Pilgrims and the Indians had a feast together. The Indians saved the Pilgrims from perishing during their first winter in New England; something they very well may have come to regret. Now the Pilgrims knew what it was to be unwelcome and treated in a hostile manner from their experiences in England and Holland. They knew what it was like to have their religion and culture treated disrespectfully. Then they came over here and did virtually the same thing to the indigenous people, as did others who followed them from Europe, and the subjugation of the indigenous people continues to this day. Yes, the Pilgrims came to these shores to worship God in a Christian manner, seeking the freedom to practice their faith and create a community based on Christian principles. But what resulted was actually a far cry from way of Jesus that we are given in the New Testament. So on Christ the King Sunday, we open ourselves to seeing the truth as Jesus would, and not just the idolized fantasy of American lore.

Seeing the truth as Jesus sees it also deconstructs our mythologized version of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. For most of American history, Columbus has been seen as a hero. He has his own holiday complete with parades, sales, and no mail. When Columbus came to this continent, he came in the name of the Catholic monarchs of Spain. The idea was to spread Christianity for the salvation of the people as well as to explore, find new markets, and identify new sources of raw materials. It all seemed legit. The proper exercise of power. But the way we know the story today, we know that the result was devastation not salvation including eradication of the locals, stealing of land and raw materials, and the decimation of indigenous religion and culture. With the eyes of the truth as Jesus shows it, Columbus Day may be better commemorated as a day of somber repentance.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we also revisit the national narrative that the United States is a Christian country. Actually, it was specifically founded as a nation of religious freedom. The government was not to foster the establishment of religion in any way. People are to have complete freedom of religious expression with nothing forced upon them in the public square. So, the US is not and never has been a Christian nation. Christianity has been the majority religion but that is by personal choice not dictate from the government. That is the truth despite the many other narratives that are perpetrated about the US being a Christian country.

In the spirit of truth telling on this Christ the King Sunday, while discussion of immigration swirls around us, it may do us well to remember the truth about the US when it comes to immigration. Yes, this is a nation of immigrants unless you are of Native American Indian descent. Yes, people have come here from all over the world seeking homes, jobs, and freedom. People have come to help populate this vast continent and supply labor for the growing economy, industry, and agriculture. But the idea that the US has welcomed the tired, poor, and huddled masses is stretching it. I am of Italian descent. And growing up, I heard stories of the discrimination and hostility that my forbears experienced coming to this country. Jewish immigrants have experienced discrimination here. Irish immigrants have experience hostility. The US interred its Japanese citizens during World War 2. Evidently this was done out of fear that they were terrorists or spies. That’s hardly hospitable. Those are just a few examples and there are many others shattering of the image of America as a country that welcomes immigrants with open arms.

And then there are all the people of African descent who were forced to make this land their home. Those inhabitants did not come here willingly. And they were not free. Slavery was the most hostile and inhospitable system imaginable. This is hardly a welcoming nation as far as the slaves were concerned and while things have improved vastly there is still a LONG way to go.

Yes, the US is a nation of immigrants, but. . .

The week has been filled with conversation about the refugees fleeing their war torn lives in Syria; fleeing the regime the US does not support, fleeing the system of rule that we do not endorse. Why are we not taking these people in? There were communist terrorists during the Cold War. We still took in the Communist defectors. So why not take in the Syrians? Is it because they are brown? Or because they are Muslim? We seem afraid they will do to us what the European settlers did to the indigenous population – terrorize the natives.

Most of these Syrian people are just like the rest of us. They want a safe place to live. They want to have food for their families. They want to work in jobs that are meaningful and make a contribution to society. They want their kids to do well in school. They want to be able to play and pray. And we hear them talked about as if they are hostile invaders, coming here to infiltrate, to plunder, to terrorize. They want to leave all of that behind. That is what has driven them from their homes. They are looking for stability, freedom, and opportunity.

Now Obama may say that to refuse these people entrance into the US is un American. We must add to that that it is also unChristian. In story after story of Jesus, Jesus chooses to reach out to those that his society, his religion even, treated with hostility. We are told of Jesus having encounters with women. This was forbidden. We are told of his interactions with Gentiles, even helping Gentiles. This, too, was forbidden. We are told of Jesus going out of his way to engage foreigners, those who were “other” and taking heat for it from the leaders of his day. We hear of Jesus talking with those considered “enemy.” And he treats them with respect and compassion. He offers them the grace of God. We are given these stories of Jesus specifically to show us how he extends the grace of God to all. He goes beyond the bounds of social acceptability in his context. He violates the social dictates about who is and isn’t in God’s favor.

Jesus took seriously the scriptures of his tradition which dictate that welcoming the stranger, helping the alien, showing hospitality to a refugee, is required by God. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. That is a basic fundamental of Judaism and of Christianity.

This week I was asked by a colleague, a clergy person, what I think about taking in the Syrians. I said that we, Christians, pastors, don’t really have a choice about what to think. The Bible makes it clear how Christians are to treat those who are foreigners, immigrants, refugees, and aliens. So, as Christians, we really don’t have a choice. Our faith compels us to take these people in.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that there are those who will sing and pray and preach about how Jesus is the ruler of their lives. He is the King. He is worthy. He is to be praised. People will extol their devotion to Jesus. But let’s remember that Jesus did not ask people to praise him. He did not ask people to honor him. He did not ask people worship him. We are told that Jesus asked people to follow him. And because we live in a country where we have freedom of religion and separation of church and state, there is nothing standing in our way as followers of Jesus. We are free to live according to his dictates; embracing the foreigner and the stranger, dismantling the social constructs that constrain people and diminish their dignity and freedom. A true Christian, a follower of Jesus, one who honors the authority of Christ, would be sure to invite an immigrant Syrian family to Thanksgiving dinner.  Amen.


Sermon – November 8, 2015 A Penny for Your Thoughts

Scripture Lessons: Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:38-44
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In our household, when the kids swept their rooms, if there was change on the floor, it simply want into the trash can with the rest of the sweepings. They weren’t interested in coin. To them, it was not worth bothering with. To their parents, who emptied the trash, however, it was another matter and the coin was routinely rescued from the rubbish bin.

What’s two cents? You can’t even use it to buy penny candy anymore. Two cents. It’s an inconsequential opinion added to a conversation. Two cents. Worthless. Useless. Inconsequential. That’s what they thought in Jesus’ day, about the widow’s contribution of two cents and, frankly, about the widow herself. Worthless. A nuisance, even. But Jesus shows us the value of the two cents and of the widow.

Now it is no random detail that the woman Jesus singles out is a widow. You see, there is a “thing” in the Bible about widows. Widows were perceived as being worthless, bothersome, a nuisance, a burden. If they had any means, which most did not, they were preyed upon for their wealth, as was mentioned in the lesson we heard this morning. But most widows were simply dirt poor and at the mercy of others given the way society was structured. A widow was vulnerable. And, according to our scriptures, a widow was important to God.

There are numerous references in the Bible to the need to take care of those who are widows. Here are a few examples:
Exodus 22:22-24 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Deuteronomy 24:17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.
Exodus 24:19-22 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
Exodus 27:19 “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.
Zechariah 7: 8-10 The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.
And from the New Testament:
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Almighty, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

These are just a few examples of Biblical dictates that require taking care of widows. Evidently this is mentioned over and over again because it was an issue. Widows were not being cared for and so the people had to be reminded again and again of the need to do so.

There are numerous references in the Bible to the people of God being taken to task for neglecting to take care of the widows in their midst. Again, an indication that this was an ongoing problem.

So we see that widows are more than just women whose husbands have died. They are also symbolic of God’s care for all, especially those whom society has made vulnerable. While humans are cajoled to take care of widows, and reprimanded when they neglect that responsibility, we see again and again in the Bible how God shows care and compassion for widows:
Deuteronomy 10:17-18 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
Psalms 146:9 God watches over the strangers; God upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.

We also see God’s care for the widow in the story of Elijah feeding the widow at Zarapheth and saving her son. In Acts there is a story of the raising of Tabitha who cared for widows. We see God’s care of the widow in the story of the raising of the son of a widow in the Gospel of Luke. And in Jesus offering salvation to the woman at the well, who was likely a widow. God’s esteem for widows is evident in the role of Anna the prophetess, a widow, identifying the baby Jesus as the Messiah.

In stories in the Hebrew scriptures as well as the Christian scriptures, we see God’s care and concern for widows. They are a symbol of vulnerability and justice. God’s care for the widow shows God’s alternative value structure to that of the world which sees these women as worthless. God shows they are worthy of saving and have a constructive role to play in God’s community.

The story of the widow’s mite incorporates all these aspects of the widow in scripture. This widow is considered worthless by the community around her. Her gift is considered worthless. Yet Jesus cites her as an example for the leaders to follow. She is the last person who would have been considered worthy of emulation as the model for those who considered themselves worthy. In this story, the widow is used to show God’s intention to turn societal convention on its head, and to invert the values of society.

This widow defies all expectations. She does not allow herself to be confined to the identity assigned to her by those around her. She is not limited by cultural expectations. She is not defined by the negative messages of those around her. She will not let herself be controlled by the attitudes of the religious leaders. She defies all of this. And walks up to the treasury in full view of everyone, not cowering or sneaking or abashed, and puts her two cents in the treasury, all she has. With this simple act, she topples the reality that those with status and power and wealth have carefully constructed.

Today, corporations, politicians, the government, religion, and society try to control our thoughts, our lives, and our identities. And they can do this for a penny – just give some kind of economic incentive, just make it look like it is saving you money, or making you money, and we are easily brainwashed. These institutions are pretty good at constructing and controlling reality and we let them do it. But the story of this widow shows us that the gospel of Jesus Christ is far more than money. It is power. It is self identity. It is dignity and respect in spite of the messages pervading the cultural context around us. It is pushback. It is freedom.

As Christians, we believe that people are defined by God. Dignity is a divine birthright for all people regardless of their religion or lack thereof. Each and every person is sacred and invaluable. For us, everything is not defined by money, in economic terms. People are not pawns in power games or economic units. Life is sacred. The gospel is a message of freedom from the constructs and delineations and categories that so ofter drain and diminish life. The gospel is freedom from being controlled by the opinions and perspectives of society.

This past week we heard that the number of “nones” is going up in our country. Nones, not nuns. Nones are people who claim no religious affiliation. There are more and more people in the US who do not consider themselves religious. To me, this is not a surprise at all because in many ways the church has let itself be defined by the culture and so is anachronistic, irrelevant, arcane, and even laughable.

This week, there was a big article in the paper with a large picture about the Episcopal Church installing its first African American as presiding bishop. [Tampa Bay Times 11/2/15] Yes, in a way this is to be celebrated. But in another way, it is embarrassing. Given everything in the New Testament that is anti-racist and anti-bigotry, and given the blatant diversity of the early church, it’s sad that this is a big deal over 2,000 years later. The church should have been way past this a long time ago and it is a travesty worthy of repentance that it is not. When the church is patting itself on the back in 2015 for authorizing a black person to a position of power in the church, when the country already has a black president, this is embarrassing and its no wonder there are a growing number of nones. This kind of thing makes the church look passe and irrelevant. Which, sad to say, it often is.

The Gospel has freed us from the cultural constraints around us and we have ignored that freedom and instead chosen the shackles of society. The church should be way ahead of society, bringing society along, making a witness.

Friends if the church seems our of touch, passe, a relic, this is not because of the gospel. This is not because of the teachings of Jesus. This is not because of the witness of the early church. The story of the widow shows the power of the gospel to free us and transform us and empower us to model a new reality, the reality of God, in the midst of our skewed human society. We are to be yeast, light, salt to the world. Making a difference. [You’ll hear more about that next week.] The Gospel is a message of freedom and hope. Yet the church is seldom perceived as the bearer of that radical Good News.

I know that many of you are on Facebook, which I am not, and I’m told that our daughter, Angela Wells, pastor of the Burlington United Church of Christ Congregational in Massachusetts, is a prolific poster. So, maybe you have already heard these stories, but they bear repeating because they show the way the church is perceived as not only irrelevant but harmful.

Angela’s husband, Martin, was invited to the wedding of his boss, a woman who was marrying another woman. The boss took Martin aside and talked with him about the wedding and she expressed sensitivity to the fact that Martin’s wife was a pastor and she may not be supportive of this same gender wedding. The boss said she knows Martin is progressive in his thinking but she didn’t assume that his wife was the same way. After rattling off the numerous instances of UCC support of gay rights he told his boss that there were gay people in their church and Angela had performed gay weddings. Then he looked at the boss and said, “Where do you think I get my progressive ideas? I get them from Angela who gets them from the church.” The boss started to cry. The church is just not perceived to be a champion of freedom and dignity for all people.

In another situation, Angela was meeting with a family from the community about a memorial service. An elderly person had died and they were not part of a church but wanted a service at Angela’s church. One of the adult children involved was transgender. At the meeting about the service, the transgender person asked Angela if she was ok with the situation. She replied, “I just want to know what name you want me to use when I speak with you and what gender pronoun you prefer.” The person started to cry.

Frankly, this makes me want to cry at the pathetic state of the church and its reputation in society. The Gospel is a message of freedom and empowerment for ALL people. It is hope for the widow; it is hope for the world. Yet the church seems to be known for being judgmental and narrow minded. It can be seen as a derelict relic. No wonder there are so many nones.

And the great travesty is that society desperately needs to hear the gospel of freedom. Society needs to see the hope of a different reality and alternative future. People are hungry for transformation. I saw a bumper sticker this week on a car which said – and I realize this is off color for a sermon and unconventional and perhaps offensive but it strikes a chord – the bumper sticker said, “Bernie Because fuck this shit.” People are sick and disgusted with the way things are. And the church has an alternative. The church has a message of freedom and dignity and justice for all people.

This week we heard about the death rate going up among some middle aged white people. This was a complete surprise. Up? Why? Drug abuse, addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. These are expressions of desperation. This is hopelessness. This is people who share the sentiment of the bumper sticker but they have given up.

And the church holds back its two cents; it’s message of hope and an alternative world view, and lets the money of corporate America do all the talking, define the terrain, determine the value of a life, and set the course for the future. We have a message of hope and transformation that people are literally dying to hear. We have a message that frees us from the social constructs that deny life and hope. We are heirs to a tradition of power that defies the opinions, stereotypes, and stigmas around us. This widow will not let the people around her, even the religious authorities, define her, tell her who she is, or tell her what she is worth. Her faith has freed her from that power over her. With her two cents, with her all, she puts her trust not in money, not in people, but in God and God’s intentions for reality and creation.

Society wants to define us. Our faith frees us from the constraints of these definitions. We hear the stress put on STEM these days. Science, technology, engineering and math. And those pursuits are important. My husband is a science teacher. Now the Gates Foundation has put forth the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” to encourage the design of a toilet that can serve the 2.5 million people who do not have access to plumbing facilities. We’ll see what results. All l know is that the lights for a park that are fueled by dog waste were developed by an artist not an engineer or a scientist. Our faith compels us to break out of the limiting constraints that society is trying to impose upon us.

In our crazy days of selecting a presidential candidate, there is much fodder in the news. This week, when one of the presidential wannabes was asked a question, the candidate’s reply included this sentence, “I have to admit that I don’t know a great deal about that, and I don’t really like to comment until I’ve had a chance to study the issue from both sides.” [Tampa Bay Times 11/5/15, “Carson stumbles on Cuba question”] There’s the problem. Not that the candidate is uninformed, but that the candidate assumes there are two sides. Why only two? Most issues have more than two sides; many perspectives and facets. To assume there are just two sides is to simplify an issue, to already choose sides, to ignore the multiplicities of realities. It’s assuming a construct that is not helpful and limits the way that positive solutions and responses can emerge.

Our faith calls us to expand our thinking and not be limited by the labels society uses and the constructs society imposes. Corporate America wants to control our thoughts for a penny. Save a buck, make a buck, and we listen. We tune in. It’s on our radar. The widow shows us what two cents can do. Two cents defy all the power structures and economic assumptions of the day. Two cents defy every stereotype, stigma, and social construct. They don’t expect this widow to be generous. They don’t expect her to give. They expect her to be needy, pathetic, and dependent on others. With two cents, she breaks out of the prison they have created for her. She defines herself. And she declares her freedom to love and serve only God. And it only takes two cents. 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.


Sermon Nov. 1, 2015 All Saints Sunday – Hometown Survival

Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Mark 12:28-34

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

On the radio show, “Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor begins his weekly monologue, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown.” Well, we can’t say that about our hometown this week. It has not been a quiet week.

We watched a teen age orphan girl being thrown across the classroom by a police deputy for texting in math class. Well, that’s if your hometown is Columbia, South Carolina.

We’ve been told that U.S. military personnel have been sent in to Syria. Not our hometown, but the soldiers have hometowns across this land.

I don’t know how much good we can do in Syria when the military can’t control a surveillance blimp which was supposed to be guarding the government but got loose and was brought down in Pennsylvania after taking out power lines and wreaking havoc that affected lots of hometowns in the area.

There was the sentencing of a student from the elite St. Paul’s Prep School in Concord, New Hampshire convicted of rape. Evidently, the students were not just competing for top grades or coveted spots in Ivy League schools but the male students were competing for sexual conquests even raping their classmates to increase their score. And sadly, sexual harassment and rape are part of the reality of most hometowns.

We saw the wreckage of yet another boat filled with refugees in the Aegean Sea. Another tragedy involving people driven from their hometowns by violence and war.

And there was the presidential debate on Wednesday night. In some ways more scary than any fantasy horror flick because it was not Hollywood but our real live hometown.

And then closer to home, there was the execution of Jerry Correll on Thursday on behalf of the citizens of the state of Florida. There’s our hometown for you.

And we still know well Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hometown of racial strife, gun violence and disappearing jobs.

We seem to have plenty of horror happening these days Halloween not withstanding. It doesn’t take much imagination to conger an evil empire or a satanic realm.

In the scripture we heard this morning, the story includes what is almost like a little side comment from Jesus near the end of the encounter: “You are not far from the realm of God.” This is what Jesus tells the scribe who has come to him asking about the most important commandment. The scribe affirms Jesus’ response and even adds that love of God and neighbor is more important than religious observance and this from a religious official. And Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the realm of God.”

Now when we think back to Bible times, we may have an idyllic image of the simple life when people had time to devote to spiritual matters and when they had the inspiration of being in the presence of revered holy figures like Jesus. In our minds, it may seem like a fairy tale land: Long ago and far away. But the times in which Jesus lived were hardly a pastoral paradise though there were sheep and goats. Jesus lived in hard scrabble times. They were under the thumb of the Roman Empire which unabashedly used military might to threaten and intimidate to ensure cooperation from its subjects. The Roman Empire put the screws on economically. Taxes and fees were squeezing the everyday people into poverty. That’s what it was like in Jesus’ hometown.

And the religious community was hardly a beacon of hope or virtue. The religious establishment had succumbed to collusion and corruption. It’s hard to stay pure and committed under pressure as we know all too well. And Jesus is threatening the delicate balance exposing the complicity of the religious leaders.

It is in these life threatening circumstances, in this time of peril and danger, when the future, if you dare to think that far ahead, is dark, and when day to day existence is in question, that Jesus reminds people that the heart of faith is to love God and neighbor. Neighbor? When I can barely get by? When no one can be trusted? Love my neighbor? And this love Jesus was talking about was not some warm, sentimental feeling but love as proactive service, justice, and generosity. Love your neighbor means taking the part of your neighbor, next door in your hometown but also taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the stranger, the refugee, the enemy, and humanity as a whole. Yes, Jesus teaches love of neighbor, engaged service and self giving to others, at a time when daily survival was a battle and the future a threatening prospect. Love your neighbor. Do good to those who persecute you. Pray for your enemy.

Is this pie in the sky? Is this simply theoretical ethics? Is this otherworldly houha? Is it quaint arcane philosophy? Maybe Jesus can be expected to live by that code but the rest of us? This couldn’t be meant to apply to the complications and complexity we face today in our hometowns.

Yet Jesus knew what he was talking about. Love your neighbor. As yourself. Pray for those who persecute you. Love your enemy. Ah yes. When times are frightful and the future is imperiled and our hometown seems like the set for a horror thriller, that is just when the only sanity, the only solace, the only salvation, is in loving your neighbor. The worse the times the more apt the teaching. For when it is really bad the only thing that can keep you from going under is to live for others, to serve others, to save your life by loosing it in engagement with the wider world. To love your neighbor, to do good to a stranger, to help an enemy, this gives the very meaning and purpose and worth that the world it trying to take away. This preserves dignity and the sacredness of life when all around you life is askew, contorted, and twisted.

And if we look to sages throughout human development, we see the same truth shining through. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy tells us, “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” And Karl Menninger, a premier figure in 20th century American psychiatry, advised that when someone is down they need to find someone who needs help and help them. There are similar teachings in all the world’s religions and cultures. Get outside of yourself. Live for others. Serve. Do good. This is what saves. This is what grounds us and helps us to live with health and sanity and integrity in the midst of chaos and complexity.

Last week, I was in Orlando serving with the Florida Conference of the UCC. There was someone from the national staff of the UCC who was making a presentation at the Fall Gathering who needed to be picked up at the Orlando airport. I didn’t know the person, but I could go to the airport. I was told to be in the cell phone lot at the Orlando airport at 8:00 p.m. and I was given the name and phone number of the person I was to pick up. Before going to the airport, I mentioned to a colleague what I was going to do. She looked at me in a puzzled way. “Well, you’ve always been a risk taker,” she said. Well, to me, this was hardly risky even though this was not my hometown. I picked up the staff person with no problems and delivered her to the hotel.

Little did I know that was preparation. On the way home from Orlando, Saturday evening at about 7:15, I stopped for gas when I got off the highway here in my hometown, St. Petersburg. While I was pumping the gas, a man came up to me saying he needed to get back to Bay Pines where he is staying. Did I know where Bay Pines was? Maybe I wasn’t from around here, he said, since we were at a gas station near the freeway. The guy was in his 60’s, in shorts and a t shirt, clean, carrying a gym bag, with a story about how he had left his wallet on the bus. After hearing his story, I clarified, “So you are looking for a ride to Bay Pines?” “Yes.” I thought to myself, “Bay Pines? Really? What can I say, I live right near Bay Pines.” I heard myself tell the man, “I can take you to Bay Pines.” Honestly, what could happen driving across 54th Ave. N. from 275 to Bay Pines? Don’t answer that. So, the man looked at me. Then, he started talking about how it would be too awkward to get in the car alone with a woman, etc. and he backed out of the ride I just offered. He told me he would make another call and try to get a ride from a friend. My final comment was, “That’s up to you.”

I don’t share this because I think it was some heroic gesture. Many of you may think it was pure and utter stupidity. But looking back on it, I see that offering the man the ride was more for me than it was for him. It was a way of maintaining my dignity, not letting the forces of fear overcome me, not capitulating to the crazy world around us. The greater risk was to turn him down and to risk loosing my soul. Offering the ride was a way of holding on to my humanity and trying to live near to the realm of God in spite of the times and because of the times.

Love God – however you understand God – and love your neighbor; other human beings, made in the image of God, for whom you can embody love in service. Regardless of the surrounding circumstances, without full comprehension let alone assurances, in spite of the crazy times, maybe because of the crazy times, love your neighbor. This is what saves. This is what makes it possible to be near the realm of God even in our hometown. 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.


Sermon October 4, 2015 World Communion Sunday – Migrants All

Scriptures:  Exodus 22:21 and Mark 7:24-37

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Africa is a continent of untold wonders. From the Sahara Desert to the Nile River and Victoria Falls, the geographies and cultures of Africa are magnificent. On a trip to Kenya many years ago I remember coming around a curve in the road and there, laid out before us, for miles upon miles, was the vast Rift Valley. The cradle of humanity. Our home. It was an extremely emotion filled moment that took me by surprise.

In a sense, we could say that all humans are Africans, because we all come from ancestors who originated in Africa some 200,000 years ago. And over the course of thousands of years, homo sapiens has migrated from Africa to the Near East, to Asia and Australia, then Europe, and finally in more recent times, relatively speaking, across the Bering Straits to North America and South America.

As humans settled the globe, migration continued. People migrated with the seasons. In search of food. In response to the weather or a natural disaster. All the while seeking to sustain themselves and live. Such migration continues today, though in more complex ways. We still move for a better job, snowbirds migrate seasonally, and weather like Hurricane Katrina forces people to move to a new home. So, migration continues.

In our faith tradition, we are told of Abram and Sarai called to migrate from Haran to Canaan to begin a new branch of religious culture in human history. Later we are told of their heirs migrating to Egypt in search of food in a time of drought. We are given the story of the Hebrews liberated from slavery in Egypt and wandering for 40 years until finally settling in the Promised Land. In the Bible we also hear of conquests that lead people to lose their land and homes resulting in dispersion. Forced migration. And we hear of return to the homeland.

Our faith tradition continues the theme of migration when we think of the stories associated with Jesus and the early church. We have a story which tells us of Joseph and Mary fleeing with Jesus to Egypt for safety. Later, we are told of Jesus, so often on the go, seeking out regions beyond his homeland. He migrates to foreign lands and into hostile territory seeking to share the Good News of a loving God as we heard in the gospel read today. And Paul, the apostle, and his followers, go even further afield to the frontiers of the Roman Empire. There is all of this movement and migration in the stories of our faith in the Bible.

And the migration stories continue as we learn of people migrating to this continent, across the seas, seeking land, space, food, resources, and also coming to these shores for religious liberty. Every child learns in school of the Pilgrims and their journey from Holland in search of a place where they could practice their religion without interference. All well and good except that they robbed the indigenous residents of their liberty, religious and otherwise.

In our history, we also know of migration that occurs due to human trafficking. The slave trade within Africa and between Africa and Europe and the New World caused a great migration, though it was by force, not by choice. And we know of Australia and even Florida populated by migrants who were criminals and sent to these remote destinations where they could not be of harm to society at large.

Can any of us here in this room say that we are not migrants to this our home? We all come from Africa and have gotten here by many different routes!

Migration happens for many reasons. Some migration occurs because people are trying to get away from something – famine, war, oppression, crime, punishment, family problems, natural disaster, poverty. People want a chance for a better life. So they seek it through geographical migration.

Sometimes people migrate motivated by what they are going to. They want more land, space, food, water, natural resources, freedom, safety, economic opportunity, education, family, a more pleasing climate, adventure, a different kind of beauty.

The human story is a story of migration. Everyone, family , clan, tribe, ethnic group, has come from somewhere, and migrated, save those who still inhabit the Rift Valley.

The US had a dominant self image as a melting pot, or more recently, a salad bowl. We saw the diversity of the immigrant population to the US as a strength. We have benefitted from all of the different peoples that have come to this land: Their strengths and skills in industry, human service, agriculture, and the arts, have added to the richness of this country.

We prided ourselves on taking in dissidents from repressive regimes and welcoming those seeking freedom of conscience. We welcomed refugees from Vietnam and other war ravaged lands.

There have been moments that mar our self image as a welcoming nation. We think of turning away ships full of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and the interment of Americans of Japanese heritage during World War 2. We are ashamed of these failures because we declare ourselves to be a country of “liberty and justice for all.”

The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor has welcomed thousands upon thousands of immigrants and refugees to this country including my four grandparents. The US has been proud of its image as a place where anyone who wants to work hard can make a contribution and have a good life. This pride is captured in the poem “The New Colossus” written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish migrant, in 1883 for the base of the famous statue. I bet many of you memorized this poem in school:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

It’s hard to imagine that poem being selected today for such a monument. A current contender for the Republican nomination for president, not Donald Trump, has declared that multiculturalism is bad for the United States. He adds that immigrants who close themselves off from American culture deny themselves access to economic rewards. [Tampa Bay Times, 9/23/15, “Jeb Bush: Don’t Close Yourself Off to Culture”, 3A] American culture? Is he talking about corn and deer and bison? Weaving baskets and blankets? Making decisions based on the wellbeing of 7 generations hence? Because anything on these shores that is not indigenous Native American is multiculturalism. And we used to be proud of that.

Regardless of current sentiments, humankind is a species characterized by migration. People on the move. To new frontiers. To new possibilities. To peace and freedom. And now we are even looking to migrate into space!

As a migrating people, as a people on the move, we surely know that migration requires the expression of hospitality and welcome. In a few weeks we will commemorate the classic image of American history: The Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down to feast together. If not for the Indians, who’s to say, maybe none of us would be here! Every immigrant, every refugee, every transplant knows the importance of help from the locals with getting the lay of the land and becoming acclimated to the new environment. We see this expressed beautifully today as vacationers on the isle of Lesbos in Greece help the people coming ashore in perilous vessels. Here are people on their summer holiday having breakfast then going to the store and getting food and supplies for the refugees and delivering them before heading to the beach for the sun and the sand. How beautiful. This is the love and compassion of the human spirit rising up and refusing to be suppressed by greed and ethnocentrism and self absorption.

This beautiful capacity of the human spirit for hospitality is expressed by churches, organizations, and communities that are working to help people from war torn, repressive countries find shelter and safety as they transition to a new home.

In the story we heard this morning from the gospel of Mark, we see the pleading of a desperate mother. She is so concerned about the well being of her child, she will resort to anything she needs to to take care of her child. She will lower herself to approaching a total stranger to beg for a favor. She will speak with a man in public which is against the law. She will risk the reproach of a foreigner and endure being insulted and demeaned. Being called a dog was a slur back then just as it is today. But she persists. She will not be daunted or intimidated because of her desperate love for her daughter. She will do whatever she possibly can to secure her child’s well being.

How many millions of parents around the world are risking everything, daring anything, degrading themselves willingly, for the sake of their children. They will resort to anything to see that their children are safe, have a home, and can go to school and play. Most of the migration today is about people fleeing horrific conditions to save their lives and give a decent life to their children. There are driven by desperation not greed.

I have been to Mexico numerous times. I love Mexico – the food, the colors, the people, the music, the churches, the art, the culture. To me, it is an amazing delight. Why would people want to leave this wonderful homeland? Hunger, violence, lack of opportunity, corruption. This is why people are leaving Mexico. The policies of the Mexican government particularly in partnership with its northern neighbor have devastated Mexico. The land is taken over by multinationals and people can’t grow food. Coca Cola has water rights while people have no drinking water. Cash crops are grown instead of food, crops that become drugs to meet the demands of the largest market in the world for these illicit substances just on the northern border of Mexico. Legitimate society is collapsing. People have no hope. That is why they are leaving.

Like the Syrophoenician woman, people around the world will resort to anything to save the lives of their children. They are fleeing to save themselves and their beloved families.

When the Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus in the story, he is not interested in her need. He tries to shut her down. He doesn’t want to be bothered. We heard echoes of these sentiments from European leaders as they met to decide what to do about all the people arriving on their shores. We can’t take care of our own. We can’t help these people, too. They’ll destabilize our society. But Jesus is moved by the desperation of the woman. She calls forth his compassion with her determination and resolve. He relents and helps her daughter.

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin observes, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.” [p. 61] That’s what happens to Jesus in this story. Migration and the plight of immigrants and refugees today gives us the opportunity to be moved like Jesus. To become larger, freer, and more loving. It is our call to fulfill the demands of decency and morality as well as the compunction of our faith to offer compassion, generosity, and hospitality. As spiritual migrants, hopefully we are constantly progressing on our spiritual journey toward greater love. Humanity as a whole throughout the ages as well as each one of us in our individual lives are making a journey in our beliefs, our understandings, our attitudes, and our faith. The challenge posed by refugees and immigrants invites us to move further on the journey toward our best selves, toward our highest good, toward a fuller expression of the Christ within us. When we offer hospitality to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of teeming shores, the homeless, the tempest tossed, that kind of generosity and compassion help us move forward on our life long migration toward good, toward each other, and toward God our forever home. 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.


Forgivenes – Claire Stiles


The Guest Speaker on July 26th, 2015 was Lakewood parishioner, Claire A. Stiles, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, Human Development, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL.

The title of her talk was Getting to Forgiveness: A Return to Wholeness. To listen, right-click HERE and select the save link option and play the downloaded file with your computer’s media player. If you have a one-button mouse (on a Mac), press and hold the “Control” key and click the link and select the save link option.

What follows is the written text of that audio.

Getting to Forgiveness: A Return to Wholeness
Claire A. Stiles, Ph.D.

Adaptation of Paper written for
The Council of Faculty Fellows Seminar
Center for Spiritual Life at Eckerd College on February 21, 2007

Presented to Lakewood United Church of Christ on July 26, 2015

Good Morning. I am humbled to be able to share some ideas with you in Pastor Kim’s absence, and although I can only scratch the surface on this topic, central to Christianity and our faith tradition, I hope some of the ideas will be of value to you personally and to all of us as a faith community. I am reading an adapted version of a paper that I wrote as a member of the Council of Faculty Fellows Seminar for the Center for Spiritual Life at Eckerd College in February 2007. Six faculty members were selected to be fellows during the 2006-07 academic year, and each of us wrote a paper from our own disciplinary perspective on the topic of forgiveness.

As a professional in the behavioral sciences, my intention was to bring a social science perspective to the topic of forgiveness. In doing so, I hoped to further clarify the process of forgiveness not directly addressed in the sacred scriptures of the Judeo-Christian religious traditions. The questions before us today are: How do those who look for guidance within this religious tradition find the path toward forgiveness and a release or healing from the experiences of real or perceived victimization? How do we “get to forgiveness” and return to a state of wholeness? Can modern science fill in the gaps and point us toward a practical method of raising the probability of actually being able to forgive ourselves or others? And finally is forgiveness always the best choice in every circumstance?

Just what is forgiveness? Many definitions can be offered but one description by Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., & Rique, J. (1998) as cited by Whitbourne on January 1, 2013 is

Instead of revenge, resentment, and judgment, you show generosity, compassion, and kindness. In forgiveness, you don’t forget that the offense occurred nor do you excuse it. You substitute your negative with positive feelings, thoughts, and behavior. (para. 1)

Beaumont (2009) tells us that “When you forgive someone, you make the choice to give up your desire for revenge and feelings of resentment. You also stop judging the person who caused you the hurt.”

He also lists the following that might be part of forgiveness:


  1. The decision not to seek punishment for those who have harmed you.
  2. A decision to release yourself from anger, resentment, hate, or the urge for revenge despite the injury you suffered.
  3. To let go of hope of a different past.
  4. A change of heart; ceasing to hate.
  5. Responding to unjust hurt with compassion, benevolence, and empathy.
  6. Moving beyond bitterness.
  7. Cancelling a debt.
  8. Choosing not to act on vindictive passions.
  9. Discharging—removing the obligation for—a debt owed to you.
  10. Ending estrangement and letting go of resentment and the urge for revenge.
  11. Surrendering feelings of animosity and hatred when others harm us
  12. Peace and understanding that come from blaming less that which has hurt you, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story


Regardless of the specific definition, as so well expressed by Jim Andrews in his children’s sermon, we all have within us the power to forgive.

When seeking answers to life’s difficult and painful challenges, like those of forgiveness, many of us in the Judeo-Christian traditions frequently first turn to the Bible and other spiritual or church-based readings. We often rely on our faith-based solutions when we are perplexed, discouraged, frightened, or overwhelmed by the demands of our relationships, family, jobs, finances, health, and even national and world events. During these distressful times, we often feel a loss of well-being, and we long to return to a state of balance and wholeness. As we face the stresses of modern life in the 21st century and our own unique life experiences, we search for insight into how to resolve our difficulties and live a moral and satisfying and even joyous life while being true to our personal values and to the core tenets of our faith.

Turning to the Holy Bible (1989), can we find a prescription for the restoration of well-being and a return to wholeness, especially when faced with the pain of wrongdoing against the self or significant others? Here we find some guidance as forgiveness is presented as the character of God and of the Christ. Examples from scripture include the story of the return of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15 and the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” (Matthew 6:12). Other verses confirm the forgiving nature of the divine, e.g., “Then the Lord said, ‘I do forgive, just as you have asked.’” (Numbers 14:20); and “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’” (Luke 23:34).

In numerous places the Bible directs us to forgive, e.g., “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses,” (Mark 11:25); tells us why we should forgive, e.g., “For if you forgive others their trespasses, our heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” (Matthew 6:14); who we should forgive, e.g., “but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;” (Matthew 5:44); and even how often we should forgive, e.g., “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21-22). Forgiveness, thus, is a basic precept of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

However, as inspiring and clear as the Bible is about our duty to forgive, it does not reveal the exact process leading to forgiveness. Fortunately, we have access to additional resources to help illuminate the path. For the modern human in a world where the scientific method has unraveled many mysteries of the natural world, we find a wealth of potential in the research and literature of the social and behavioral sciences. Turning to the field of psychology and counseling may provide strategies for coping with this dilemma and, along with Biblical wisdom, help to find the path to forgiveness and a return to wholeness.

A major source of human stress and suffering, the experience of having intentional or unintentional harm inflicted on ourselves or one’s loved ones by the other, e.g., an individual, a group, or an institution, can wound us at a deep emotional level. This experience of victimization usually involves a significant loss that may be physical, psychological, social, financial, or a combination of losses. The death of a loved one may be one of the most devastating losses of all. Based on the disruptive effect on our lives and the extent of readjustment necessary afterwards, the pain we experience upon the death of a beloved one can be even more devastating when the loss was caused by someone else’s violent or irresponsible behavior.

Regardless of the nature or severity of loss, if we perceive that the cause of the loss was harm inflicted, deliberately or unintentionally by another, and that we were powerless to control it, our anger, grief, or fear can lead to a burning desire for revenge or punishment, depression and a sense of futility, an acute traumatic stress reaction, or a debilitating longer term post-traumatic stress disorder when the trauma experienced was profound, e.g., battle stress, homicide, terrorist attack, childhood abuse, and domestic violence (APA Help Center, 2004). Witnessing harm to another or even hearing the stories of harm from someone known or unknown to us, can also create a vicarious trauma experience with a similar emotional reaction even if we are not the victim. Take for example the emotional effects on children of witnessing violence. We also know from veterans of war the emotional impact of witnessing battle field horrors and the torture of fellow POW’s. Clearly victimization with its subsequent flood of painful emotions is a widespread problem. From the sexual abuse committed by Roman Catholic clergy against children to the senseless killing of Amish children in Pennsylvania, to the brutal revenge murders televised daily from the Middle East, and to the racism and violence on our streets towards African Americans, we are awash in news reports of victimization and trauma.

What is a possible antidote for healing of this victimization and the emotional fallout from the real or imagined deep offenses against oneself or another? One such antidote in forgiveness although some would also say that justice plays an important part as well. In exploring the social science literature, the first thing we note is an increase in the number, frequency, and diversity of research studies on forgiveness since 1985. This explosion of research and theory suggests both the acceptability of this topic as a research topic and the urgency to understand how forgiveness and reconciliation occur in order to help break the cycle of anger, grief, pain, and desire for revenge experienced by so many people in the world. We even see increased funding by major philanthropic organizations like the John Templeton Foundation and other donors who support programs like the Campaign for Forgiveness Research led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pulitzer Prize winning author Dr. Robert Coles, community activist Ruby Bridges Hall, and former US President Jimmy Carter. Campaign for Forgiveness Research alone between 1999 – 2005 resulted in an upsurge of studies investigating forgiveness at all levels and under many different circumstances, e.g., from individual and family forgiveness to among nations, and from forgiveness and its relationship to health to forgiveness after sexual, alcohol, or drug abuse, trauma, grief, loss, or violence, and in place of revenge.

Based on this research, what do we know about getting to forgiveness today? Mostly we have many different perspectives on everything from a) WHAT IS FORGIVENESS, i.e.,the definition, conceptualization, and measurement of forgiveness, b) WHAT IS THE REAL GOAL OF FORGIVENESS, i.e., the optimal endpoint or goal, c) WHAT FACTORS INFLUENCE OUR ABILITY TO FORGIVE, i.e., the influence of personality variables and contextual factors, and d) WHICH APPROACHES TO FORGIVENESS ARE VALID AND EFFECTIVE to resolve anger and pain. Just as in all academic fields of study, we find many brilliant minds hypothesizing, reasoning, debating, and finding evidence to support a particular understanding of any phenomenon. The methods may vary but the search for truth drives all of them. So what is the truth about getting to forgiveness and is there only one truth or one way?

Well, what we do know is that according to an extensive and recent review of the forgiveness literature in psychology by Strelan and Covic (2006)


  1. Provides mental health benefits such as increased hope and self-esteem, decreased anger, and alleviation of depression
  2. Reduces physiological stress and coronary heart disease
  3. Varies according to an individual’s disposition and personality as well as environmental factors

The literature is unclear in describing how people actually come to a point or a time where they have forgiven a wrongdoer, including themselves, in their lives. Of the 25 models reviewed by Strelan and Covic (2006) in their ground-breaking article, all of them describe “an individual’s progression through a series of interdependent (though not necessarily linear) phases, each consisting of mental, emotional, and behavioral responses or intentions” (para. 6). An individual proceeds in a basically sequential manner, performing certain cognitive, affective, or behavioral tasks or actions before moving on to the next stage. What these models share is agreement that the following stages are part of the process:

  1. Initial feelings of hurt and anger accompanied usually by shock and sometimes disbelief
  2. Ongoing negative, painful, or discomforting emotional and mental consequences
  3. Realization that one’s efforts to cope with these responses is not effective
  4. Decision to forgive or consider forgiving
  5. Understanding of or empathy for the offender

Where the models differ is on the exact order of steps, the transition between stages, and the what triggers movement to the next stage. The importance of the social nature of the process versus the internal characteristics and perspectives of the victim, and even the final goal or endpoint of the process also differ in each model. Finally, models are religious or secular in that some include or place emphasis on the role of God’s forgiveness in this process and some do not.

One example of this process of change that recognizes the role of the divine can be drawn from the life of the Reverend Frank Windom. This United Methodist minister who presided over Action Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia, was shot by a mentally ill stranger in May 1999 at a gas station in Decatur (Montgomery, 2006). After recovering physically from a near death encounter, Reverend Windom struggled emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to regain his equilibrium and live up to his Christian commitment to forgive. He suffered from several years of post-traumatic stress and was plagued by irrational fears of strangers. Over time he became determined to change and credits his faith in God with helping him overcome the ordeal. From what is reported, this man spent at least a year in the process of coping with his feelings and thoughts of victimization before he was “able to forgive in his heart the deranged stranger who shot him and find peace” (p. D1). We can surmise the likelihood of his working through the five stages listed above even as he relied on his religious faith for support to get to this heartfelt act of forgiveness.

A more secular example is that of Bud Welch, father of Julie Welch, one of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in April 1995. He admitted in an interview (A father’s struggle to forgive, 2001) that during the first month after his daughter’s violent and tragic death, his anger, pain, and hatred was so intense he could understand the desire to kill the perpetrator. By the end of that year he was drinking heavily and smoking excessively because he was stuck emotionally on the events of his daughter’s murder. He then knew he had to do something about his emotional state when he realized that he would not feel any better once the murderers were executed. At this point he became an advocate against the death penalty by traveling and speaking nationwide about his opposition to capital punishment. The real turning point for Bud Welch, however, came when he visited Timothy McVeigh’s father and met Timothy’s 24 year old sister, Jennifer. When he saw Tim’s high school graduation picture in the family home and made a positive comment about it, Bud Welch and the McVeigh family broke down and shared real grief, compassion, and empathy as they realized that they were all deeply connected by the terrible tragedy of April 19, 1995. At the time of the interview, Welch stated, “Forgiving is not something you just wake up one morning and decide to do. You have to work through your anger and your hatred as long as it’s there. You try to live each day a little better than the one before. I do have setbacks, even when I’m sure I want to forgive. That’s probably why I can’t handle that word ‘closure.’ . . . How can there ever be true closure? A part of my heart is gone.” After McVeigh was executed, Welch continued to campaign against capital punishment and said, “About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him” (The Forgiveness Project). Welch came to understand McVeigh’s mind-set of revenge against the US government and even though he believed the bombing was horrifically wrong, Welch realized that the cycle of violence must stop (Welch, 2001).

With Bud Welch we see stages in the process of forgiveness starting with Welch’s initial feelings of hurt and anger (Stage 1), followed by ongoing negative, painful, and discomforting emotional and mental consequences, i.e., excessive drinking and rumination about the bombing (Stage 2). Finally, Welch realized that his efforts to cope with these responses was not effective (Stage 3), and he decided to consider forgiving or at least not seeking revenge toward McVeigh (Stage 4) A year after the execution, Welch, in understanding the mind-set of McVeigh and his motivation behind the heinous act, actually felt empathy for the offender and forgave him (Stage 5).

Of course, the process does not necessarily unfold in a neat linear progression nor does it always take a long period of time for everyone who has suffered from wrongdoing. In the recent case of the nine church members of the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC murdered by a young man who had been welcomed into their midst at a prayer meeting, we see the almost immediate offering of forgiveness to the killer. The Christian faith of members of the victims’ families and friends clearly led them to state their forgiveness of him publically. We can only hope that after the shock and horror of these losses begins to fade and as the realization of the violent and hateful intent of the murders comes into sharper focus, that these deeply bereaved people of faith are able to continue to feel forgiveness in the privacy of their own hearts. In Jeanne Safer’s book, Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not to Forgive we learn that despite persuasive evidence that not forgiving can be mentally and physically stressful, pressuring people into forgiving can be harmful as well. Deciding to let go of angry thoughts and not seeking revenge is one form of forgiveness Decisional Forgiveness, but replacing negative feelings with love, compassion, and empathy or Emotional Forgiveness can only be encouraged not coerced. Some people reach one level but not necessarily the heart forgiveness level.

Despite the popularity of the stage models, they are limited so alternative models have been proposed. One particularly effective model is derived from the stress and coping research done by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) and also favored by Strelan and Covic (2006). This model helps define forgiveness and the actual coping mechanisms involved in the process as well to advance theory and research about the forgiveness process in the future.

According to Lazarus and Folkman (1984), our reaction to any stressor is determined by our subjective evaluation of the stressful situation. First we evaluate or appraise the degree of harm or threat of harm done to us or our loved one, i.e., a primary appraisal, and then we evaluate what resources within ourselves and in our environment we have to cope with this harm or threat of harm, i.e., a secondary appraisal. . Believing that we have the resources to manage this harm allows us to cope with it and reduces the negative emotions and their accompanying physiological reactions. If, however, we believe that we do not have adequate resources, we respond in two different ways, by using either or both emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping helps us regulate the intensity of our feelings and disturbing thoughts associated with the stressful event, e.g., expressing our emotions of grief and pain, praying or meditating, reading inspiring or faith-based texts, or reinterpreting the situation. Problem-focused coping is also used when we try to bring about a change to the situation and resolve it, e.g., seek more information, plan, or take action for justice or change. In situations which cannot be changed, we tend to use more emotion-focused coping, but most often a combination of coping strategies is used as the stressful situation evolves.

We can see the similarities between the forgiveness process and the coping process described above when we note that 1) the forgiveness process is an attempt to reduce the stress reaction to being wronged or harmed, 2) individuals make both a primary appraisal of the extent of the harm experienced and secondary appraisals about what one can do (retaliate, demand justice, withdraw, or express anger) as well as the availability of one’s resources to cope when an injury has been experienced, 3) both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies describe what people actually do during the forgiveness process, 4) the effectiveness of coping processes varies and can change over time, e.g., rumination over the transgression appears to be a barrier to forgiveness (McCullough et al, 2001), emotion-focused coping may be effective immediately after an incident but not as effective if no action is taken later, for instance, developing empathy for the wrongdoer may be a key in the long term resolution of the process, 5) both coping and forgiveness involve internal mental processing and interpersonal processes (communication and interaction with others) as well as situation-specific factors unique to each incident, and 6) forgiveness, like coping with any stressor, is a dynamic, unfolding process with both positive and negative responses occurring and reoccurring over time (Strelan and Covic, 2006).

The more we explore the process of forgiveness, the more clear it becomes that for most people, most of the time, forgiveness is an challenging process with no certain or even unanimously recognized endpoint attainable by all. However, whether we rely solely on Biblical scripture or seek knowledge and guidance from the social sciences, we can be assured that the process of forgiveness, even if it does not result in closure, is a worthy one. Whether we view forgiveness as the restoration of our original human nature or, more specifically, restoration of our lost or underlying unity with God, with others, and with ourselves (Foltz, 2006), or a psychological process determined by internal and shared coping strategies, the way to forgiveness does clearly involve a process of transformation or change that restores us to our wholeness or, as expressed in the language of faith, to our original unity with the spirit of God dwelling within us.

Whether our inspiration to make the difficult journey toward forgiveness comes from the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition, or from the social sciences, we can be heartened by stories of unexpected role models. When we hear and identify with the ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances, who finds the strength and courage to move through a painful cognitive, affective, and oftentimes behavioral process to achieve wholeness, we are lifted up and offered new hope. Indeed, from those who have experienced even the most difficult life circumstances, we learn that the way is steep and the pain at times unbearable, yet perhaps, as The theologian Marcus Borg tells us, “we can midwife the process” (p. 120) by turning to our faith and our reason to truly find a return to wholeness. Our willingness to approach this task and the intentionality we bring to it is the work of all who would seek forgiveness.

I would like to end by saying a few final added words about self-forgiveness which may be the real key to forgiveness.
In many ways self-forgiveness allows us to release the hurt and pain of real or imagined wrongdoing for which we blame ourselves or take responsibility. Could be something we said, felt, or did or avoided saying, feeling, or doing when we thought we should have done so.

As we already know, self-forgiveness is a process – begins by accepting where we are even if we don’t like where we are Kind, gentle, and compassionate acceptance sets the stage for what is to come next. No predictable timetable – varies with individual and what he or she would like to forgive. Needs patience and faith that things will change – you will change, the situation will change, and your receptivity to change will change.

Forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others is a healing process that takes time and occurs on many levels of our consciousness. We may feel ready to forgive on a conscious, rational level, but not on another more fundamental unconscious or trans-rational level. Intellectually we may want to forgive, but emotionally we may not yet be ready. Honoring and respecting our readiness without judging or chastising ourselves is essential while at the same time doing the inner and outer “healing work”.

What is that healing work? Again this varies for individuals but some ideas are contemplation, meditation, prayer, journaling, affirmation, visualization, reading of inspirational texts, sharing your heart with a trusted others, and making amends if possible may all be part of this work. Trusting the process, not rushing it, going forward gently, and recognizing that we will experience ups and downs, that the process is not linear or straight forward is helpful to know too.
And so each of us can begin this process by taking small steps on a daily basis to learn the habit of self-forgiveness. And so by building the habit of compassion and forgiveness of ourselves, we also lay the foundation for the habit of forgiveness of others.

I might suggest starting by affirming verbally or in writing that “I love and forgive myself (name) for ______________________(whatever I think I did wrong.”)

And I will begin by stating aloud that I love and forgive myself, Claire, for perhaps trying your patience with a rather lengthy treatise on forgiveness! And I hope you will forgive me as well!

Thank you and God Bless.



A Campaign for Forgiveness Research Website accessed on January 14, 2007 at:

APA. (January, 1998). Training EMSC Providers in Violence Prevention. A Report by the American Psychological Association to the Emergency Medical Services for Children Program, Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed on line on January 13, 2007 at


APA Help Center. (2004). Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Traumatic Stress. APA Fact Sheet accessed on line at

Bandura A. (1977.) Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


Beaumont, L. R. (2009). Forgiveness. Retrieved at
Berger, T.J. (September 13, 2006). Congressional Issue Briefing on the Nature and Impact of Psychological Trauma. Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC. Remarks submitted by Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D., Chair, PTSD & Substance Abuse Committee, Vietnam Veterans of America. Accessed online on January 13, 2007 at
Borg, M.J. (2003). The Heart of Christianity – Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins Pub.

Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., & Rique, J. (1998). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness (pp. 46–62). Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Foltz, B. (2006). “As We Also Forgive” Asceticism and Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer,

According to St. Maximos the Confessor. Unpublished essay delivered at the November 29, 2007 Council for Faculty Fellows forum, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL.

Holmes, T.H., and Rahe, R. (1967). The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 11:213-218.

Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Pub.

Lazarus, R.S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer.

MacArthur, J. (1997). A Living Lesson on Forgiveness. Accessed on January 13, 2007 from the Bible Bulletin Board at

McCullough, Michael E., C. Garth Bellah, Shelley Dean Kilpatrick, and Judith L. Johnson. “Vengefulness: Relationships with Forgiveness, Rumination, Well-Being, and the Big Five.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 27.5 (May 2001): 601. Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. LIRN. 19 Jan. 2007. Retrieved at

Montgomery, B. (Monday, December 25, 2006). Minister learned to forgive gunman. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, pp. D1 & D16.

Seaward, Brian Luke. (2006). Managing Stress – Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being. 5th Edition. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Strelan. P. & Covic, T. (2006). A Review of Forgiveness Process Models and a Coping Framework to Guide Future Research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology,25:10, 1059-1086. Accessed via PROQUEST database on January 14, 2007

Welch, B. (March 8, 2001). Bud Welch Statement about Timothy McVeigh. Coloradans against the Death Penalty website. Accessed from the internet on January 15, 2007 at
Welch. B. The Forgiveness Project. Accessed on the internet on January 15, 2007 at
Whitbourne, S. K. (January 1, 2013. Live Longer by Practicing Forgiveness. Forgiveness can help you feel better, and even lengthen your life. Retrieved at


Sermon July 12, 2015 – Inquire Within

Readings: Genesis 1:24-31; Luke 17:20-21; Gospel of Thomas 2:1-3
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Summer sermons based on topics requested by the congregation

Kate Atkinson’s book, A God in Ruins, is a story that takes place in England before and during World War 2. Near the end of the book, one of the characters goes to a retreat center. While there, she hears this short speech:


There is a Hindu legend that tells us that there was once a time when all men were gods, but they abused their divinity. Brahma, the god of creation, concluded that people had lost their right to their divinity and decided to take it away from them.  Wanting to hide it somewhere where they wouldn’t be able to find it, he called a council of all the gods to advise him. Some suggested that he bury it deep in the earth, others that they sink it in the ocean, others still suggested it be placed on top of the highest mountain, but Brahma said that mankind was ingenious and would dig down far into the earth, trawl the deepest oceans and climb every mountain in an effort to find it again.

The gods were on the point of giving up when Brahma said ‘I know where we will hide man’s divinity, we will hide it inside him. He will search the whole world but never look inside and find what is already within.’

When we look to the teachings of various religious traditions we find that there are similar stories in Judaism and Christianity and other folklore. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, right up front at the very beginning of our scriptures in the book of Genesis, where we look for the foundations of our belief system, we are told that humanity is created in the image of the gods. This sounds very much like divinity within the human species. We also have the story of the garden of Eden and the people leaving their God-like status behind. In the teachings of Jesus, we find reference to the realm of God that is within us. We also have the teachings associated with Jesus that not only is he the light of the world but that we are the light of the world as well. Again, this sounds very much like the idea of divinity within each and every one of us.

Many of the individual stories associated with Jesus show his care and compassion for those who are not of much status or value in society. Again, it is as if Jesus is treating everyone as though they were sacred, special, divine. So, we see that the teachings of our tradition lend themselves to an understanding of God in everyone.

We can also think about this idea not only in terms of teachings but in terms of consequences. What are the consequences of this concept of God being in everyone? If we think that God is in all life, and specifically in every person, this has implications for how we think about others and treat others and what we expect from others. If we think God, the most important, valued, center of our reality, is in every other person, then we are likely to highly value others: To treat them with reverence and respect. To care for others and be concerned about their highest good. This brings to mind the story of Jesus telling his listeners that whatever they have done for the least of these they have done for him. If they have helped someone poor, or hungry, or in prison, they have helped Jesus. If we see God in everyone, then whatever we have done for others, we have done for God. This story echoes with the idea of the divine in every person.

To accept that the divine is in every person leads to the kind of living, choices, and values that we see embodied in Jesus. He responded to those who were outcast, forgotten, and ignored. He cared for the sick, the suffering, the sinner. Unlike other religious people of his day, Jesus had time for those who were considered enemies, the detested ones, the corrupt people, and the cheats. In the stories we have about the ministry of Jesus, we see that no one was beneath his love and care. It sure seems like Jesus sees the divine image of God in everyone.

There was a beautiful expression of this kind of commitment recently in the Girl Scouts. Last spring someone donated $100,000 to the Girl Scouts of Western Washington. The executive director was thrilled to receive such a large gift. This money was about one fourth of fundraising goal for the year. The gift could give 500 girls the opportunity to go to camp. It was a wonderful expression of generosity. Then Bruce Jenner, the Olympic athlete, shared the journey of being transgendered and becoming Caitlyn Jenner. After that story was told, the donor to the Girl Scouts asked that the $100,000 gift not be used for transgender girls. The donor wrote: “Please guarantee that our gift will not be used to support transgender girls. If you can’t, please return the money.” The Girl Scouts could do so much good with that money. I am sure that they did not want to return it. But return it they did. Every penny of the $100,000. And there was a very simple explanation: “Girl Scouts is for every girl.” This is the kind of decision that comes from valuing each and every person equally and seeing that every person is sacred. [“Girl Scouts’ moral courage,” Leonard Pitts, Tampa Bay Times, 7/5/15]

While the Girl Scouts might not say it this way, this decision is based on the assumption that every girl is beloved and deserving. We could say, every person a vessel for the divine. No exceptions.

The basis of Christianity is that we are called to give ourselves for the good of the world. We are here to serve. We find our lives, our highest good, when we help others. This understanding is based on the foundation that all people bear the divine image of God, whether they think so or not. Our faith teaches us to look for God in the person who annoys us, in the person we are mad at, in the person we don’t like, in ourselves, in our families, in our friends, in people who are different than we are, and in people that we don’t understand. Our tradition teaches us to love everyone and treat everyone with respect. This is what it looks like when we see God in every person.

In thinking about the concept of seeing God in everyone, let’s think about what it is like if we don’t see God in everyone. What if we do not believe that the divine is in each and every person? How might that affect our choices and behavior? If we do not think that God is in everyone then the lives of others will be valued to different degrees. This person is good. This person isn’t. This person deserves to be treated well. This person doesn’t. With this outlook, people become judges of each other. They decide who is and is not worthy of basic rights, dignity, and respect. Who does and does not get served. Who we do and don’t care about. This kind of thinking definitely leads to the haves and have nots. The privileged and the expendable. Some people are going to be favored at the expense of others. Life is not of equal value. People are not of equal value.

If we do not live from the assumption that God is in everyone, then we can justify being mean to others, killing others, treating others unfairly, and taking advantage of others. With this view, people and other forms of life can be treated like trash with justification.

This kind of thinking is not consistent with Christian teachings and values. This is not the way of Jesus. This is not in keeping with the stories that Jesus shared about loving our neighbors, whoever they may be, and our enemies. If we do not see God in everyone, then we are not compelled to treat everyone with respect and dignity and compassion.

Now, a discussion of these ideas would not be complete without thinking about some of the people that we consider really evil. Can God be in them? Can we possibly say that there was a spark of God in Adolf Hitler? Or in the mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer? Or in the unibomber Ted Bundy? Or in Charles Manson? Or in Dylan Storm? Or in the people that behead others in public spectacles? Or those behind the massacres in Armenia or Bosnia which have been commemorated recently? Could God be in those people? Now, I want you to know that I don’t like to be sexist. Maybe you noticed that my list of evil people was all men. I tried to think of despicable women that we could add to the list, and I couldn’t come up with much that was in league with these others. Women mass murderers are not on the tip of our tongues but if you do a Google search for “evil women,” you can find out about some of the evil women of history and their terrible deeds as well. So there are people, women and men, who have done terrible things that we think of as being beyond redemption. What do we make of them in light of the idea of God being in everyone? Is God in those who are evil, too? How can that be?

One way we can think about this is that God is in everyone, but everyone doesn’t know it or see it. Maybe no one encouraged the person to look at life that way. No one helped the evil person find God in him or her self. No one showed them the good they are capable of. No one encouraged them to look for the divinity within. No one taught them to see the good in others. Somehow they did not learn that life is sacred. They did not accept the proposition that God, the divine, is in them and in everyone else. And so they persisted in carrying out terrible evil. For them, the divine remained hidden. They didn’t figure out how to see God in themselves and the world.

We can also wonder, if God is in everyone, why aren’t more people good? In a recent article about being good, David Brooks of the New York Times tells us:

About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

Brooks goes on to analyze how people become good: How they draw it out of themselves, thus implying hope for him, and for others, if they work at it. The assumption is that everyone is capable of that kind of goodness if they pursue it. In the picture that goes with the article, there is an outline of a head with a lighthouse in the facial area and the light from the lighthouse where the eye would be. The graphic shows what Brooks assumes which is that the good is within, if we choose to let it shine. We can think of that as the divine within. It is there if we look for it. We can draw it out of ourselves and others and give it expression if we have the will. [“The beacon of becoming good,” David Brooks, Tampa Bay Times, 4/26/15]

Where are people to learn this kind of moral outlook? While it should be stock and trade in church, it is not. Often the church seems more bent on judging and saving some at the expense of others. Is it to be learned in school? Hard to fill in a bubble on a test to show it has been learned. Since many people won’t make it into a church or a place of worship where such things should be emphasized, we are left to do like Jesus: To take it to the streets. He went out and about in cities and towns and the countryside – showing people how to find the love of God within themselves and others. He took the message to the people, not waiting for them to come and get it at the Temple or at a local synagogue. He went out and showed people that God was within them. He took the love of God out to where it was needed. And I think that we need to take the message of God’s love for all and in all to the people; out into the world. We can show people by the way we act what we believe. We can show them where to look for love, for goodness, for the divine – within themselves and others. We can show the world that all lives matter – girls, boys, smart, slow, rich, poor, brown, white, all are precious and sacred. This is how we can invite others to find and act on the good within themselves and others and not the evil.

The person who requested a sermon on the story from A God In Ruins asks, “Is the Brahma right?” Is God hidden in each and every person? Well, we can’t do a scan or diagnostic procedure to find God in each person, but I think that we can say that this idea is consistent with Christian teachings. But is this “right”? Is it morally good? Is it true? We are an outcome oriented society. So when we think about the outcome, do we get a better world for everyone if we believe there is divinity in everyone? Or do we get a better world if people are left to judge and take action according to their own outlook? I think we can say that a world in which people see God, divinity, the sacred, in one another is a world that is more just and compassionate and good. It is a world where people can live together in peace. So I think we can say Brahma is right. Jesus is right. And we are right when we honor the presence of the divine in ourselves and in each and every 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.


Sermon May 17, 2015 – To the Sun and Beyond

Scripture: Ephesians 1:15-23
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

If you listen to “Science Friday” on National Public Radio, you know that they have been talking about the sun. The Science Club has a project going inviting people to explain the sun. They have been broadcasting some of the responses.

Dean Regas of the Cincinnati Observatory tells us: “The repetition of the sun rising, setting, and rising again became the primary cycle to life on Earth. Call that a ‘day.’ Our prehistoric ancestors imprinted this pattern into our very nature.”

So the sun is responsible for the rhythm of time and seasons.

Richard Friedman, Psychiatry Professor at Cornell Medical College describes how the sun brings joy: “There is a reason why the sun makes us happy, why we are drawn towards people with sunny dispositions, and why so many of us are deeply affected by the seasons: sunlight has a biologically profound effect on our mood.”

The sun influences our mood, our productivity, our outlook.

Someone who raises chickens tells us: “More sun = more eggs from my hens They stop in winter because of less daylight and resume as days lengthen”

Thanks to the sun, we have more eggs!

A backyard gardener offers this explanation of the sun: “Thanks to the sun, something amazing happens in every back yard garden each summer. I understand the science in a very basic way — the biology, photosynthesis, and chemistry at work — but there’s something more. Words fail me. Is it magic? A miracle? Those are nice words but they carry too much baggage. Let’s consider the humble garden variety tomato plant.
I love watching what happens in the garden every day. Pretty little yellow blossoms set fruit in an intricate dance with pollinators, evolved over millions of years. The pea-size green fruit grows fast — sometimes doubling its size every day. In a few quick weeks, the fruit is ready. There’s nothing better than eating a ripe tomato from a back yard garden. It’s all possible because we live on a speck of dust, 93 million miles from our sun; a typical star in a typical galaxy in a stunning Universe. Bon appetit!”

Because of the sun, we have food to eat. If this gardener lived in Florida, he could witness this miracle year ‘round as I do in my garden.

And, from the United States Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, we learn: “What does the sun do? Let’s talk sun and energy. First, the sun’s surface temperature—you know, it’s about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s a big energy source, driven by fusing together hydrogen. We’re trying to harness that fusion process on Earth, but it’s very hard and expensive. In the meantime, we use the light from the sun here on Earth to make energy directly. In one hour, the solar energy hitting Earth is enough to meet the world’s energy needs for about a year. Solar energy technology is making great strides, and we think it will be a major source of carbon-free electricity in the years ahead as the costs keep falling, and energy storage allows us to use the electricity even when the sun is not shining.” [The quotations come from:]

As these explanations show, the sun has incredible power. Power to control mood, life, time, and much more. Plants, life, light and darkness it is all possible because of the sun. It would be hard to overestimate the power of the sun. It is not surprising, then, that the sun has been an important religious/spiritual symbol throughout human history. People don’t just worship the sun at beaches today. People have been worshipping the sun for eons. The sun is an important part of ancient Egyptian religions, Aztec religion, African religions, and Asian religions. Religions today still honor the sun. The sun has an important role in Buddhism, Hinduism, and, yes, Christianity. Just one instance of the influence of the sun on Christianity involves Christmas. In the Roman Empire, the Festival of the Unconquered Sun was held on Dec. 25. It was the date for celebrating the rebirth of the sun. This image was then given Christian connotations. Jesus was seen as the light which does not go out, the sun which still shines. So his birth date was established as December 25. Because of the sun. In many expressions of Christian spirituality, Jesus is imaged as the sun. He is imaged as light, as a life force, as illuminating and enlightening, as a source of power and energy, all like the sun.

In the scripture that we heard this morning, there is much talk of power. The power of God. The power of God made know in Jesus. The power of God which overcomes death. And the power of God which is now channeled into the church, the faith community.

This passage is assigned for this Ascension Sunday, the marking of when the risen Jesus stopped appearing to his friends and rose into heaven. His physical presence is gone. But the power that was working in him is still a force, and now, since he is gone, it is at work in Christ’s new body, the church. This amazing power of God is now energizing the communities of people gathered in response to the ministry of Jesus. They are given the same power that he accessed to love as he loved – their neighbor, those who are naked, hungry, homeless, forgotten. They have the same power of God working in them that was at work in Jesus making it possible for them to lay down their lives for others. They have the same divine power to resist, to persevere, and to confront the powers of domination and exploitation, that Jesus did. That’s incredible. These small groups, of diverse, ordinary people, now possess the greatest power imaginable working through them to heal and sustain the world in peace and harmony. And we are those people today. It’s astounding!

We are heirs of incredible, amazing power. All the power that was at work in Jesus. All the power made manifest in creation. In us. Today. Whew! But I think, that as it is with the power of the sun, the power is there, but we are not taking full advantage of it. We are not availing ourselves of what is being given to us.

While solar power could meet all of our energy needs and do so in a way that is not destructive to Earth and its atmosphere, we are really using very little solar power today. For a host of reasons, power, money, money, money, and money, we have continued to choose to use energy sources that damage Earth, the atmosphere, and are jeopardizing the future of the human species. And all the while, here is that power. The sun. Shining down on us in sunny Florida, each and every day, and we spend more energy trying to protect ourselves from the negative effects of the sun than harnessing its benefits.

A similar situation may be occurring when it comes to faith as well. The church has been given this amazing power source, the love of God, and yet how much to we really tap into it. Do we power up? Do we offer ourselves as conductors? Like the sun, the energy is there, but it has to be harnessed and channeled to be most effective.

What impedes this? What mitigates against our fully accessing the power of our faith, the power of love, the power of good that was fully evident in Jesus?

One perspective is that we associate power with evil and violence. We think of the power of weaponry and guns. We think of the abuse of power by people who can inflict their will through intimidation and violence. We talk about when ISIS came to power, when Assad came to power, when Hitler came to power. We don’t talk about when Bill Clinton came to power in the US. We are more likely to use the word “power” with regimes or people that we think of as bad. Randomly ask someone who they think of as a powerful person, and I think you will hear the name Hitler more often than the name Mandela or Gandhi. We tend to associate the concept of power with evil and violence so we are afraid of power.

In religion, this means that we are talking more about subduing the power of evil, and keeping the power of evil at bay in our lives, than about wielding power in the service of good. We are more concentrated on the harm power can do than the good it can do.

Here’s another reason I think we down play the role of power and faith. A lot of people who make a point about connecting power and faith are doing things we find abhorrent. And this happens not only in Christianity, but in Judaism, Islam, and other religions. Look at ISIS; the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa; the rabid Zionists in Israel; and extremist Christians in this country who bomb abortion clinics, and protest against gays at military funerals, and burn the Qur’an. Yikes! We don’t want to be associated with that kind of religious expression. So we stay away from talking about the power of our religion.

Here is another perspective about power that I think holds us back from being more assertive in expressing the power of our faith. In the US, power has been largely relegated to complaining. People feel they have exerted their power when they have complained. About how they have been treated. About the government. About the economy. About the lover who dumped them. Whatever. We feel we have exerted our power when we have complained. Got that off my chest! On facebook, in a letter to the editor, in an email, Tweet, or phone call. That’s that. We have become weak kneed, entitled, whiners who are satisfied with spouting off, a few pats on the back or “likes” and that’s over and done. Complaining and whining is not necessarily constructive engagement. It is not necessarily trending toward transformation. It is not necessarily manifesting justice. We accept that by complaining we have done what we can do. Our obligation is fulfilled. Our work is done. We satisfy ourselves with self expression instead of working for meaningful transformation and change.

Another side to this concept of power is that we are afraid of power. It is convenient to think that we are powerless, that we can’t do anything. The problems are just too big. Then we are off the hook. There is an important explanation of this fear in Marianne Williamson’s A Course in Miracles, that has become associated with Nelson Mandela. Williamson is a spiritual activist working to get the US government to establish a Department of Peace. She writes:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
[A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”, Ch. 7, Section 3 (1992), p. 190.]

Yes, we can be afraid of power. Because we have seen it misused and abused. The power of the sun can burn and blind, as well as foster life and growth. Power can be dangerous. And we have seen where the power of love leads – for Jesus it led his to death on a cross. Who wants that? Better to steer clear of excessive use of force, even when the force is love!

So how do we deal with this cognitive dissonance? We want to celebrate the power of God, the power of faith, the triumph of love over death that can change the world and overcome evil within us and around us. But we are hesitant and afraid.

Here the verses from Ephesians help us. The writer tells the faith community that he is praying for them. And what does he pray? That they will have a spirit of wisdom. That God will reveal what they need to know. That the eyes of their hearts will be enlightened. These petitions deal with discernment. The writer is telling this community that he is praying that they will be discerning; that they will see the will of God and know hope. And then employ their power in the cause of divine love as Jesus did. We are being reminded that we are to address ourselves very carefully to the spiritual discipline of discernment. We are to think and pray carefully about how we are being called to exercise our power. We are to empty ourselves of our agendas and allow the spirit of divine love to fill us and work in us. In the second century of the Common Era, the Essenes, a Christian community in the wilderness of Palestine, referred to baptism as “enlightenment.” [New Interpreter’s Bible, Ephesians, p. 381] It was the opening of the eyes of the heart. With baptism came the clarity to discern, to know, and to take action and live based on that knowledge.

In today’s world how do we know? How do we know where we should be exerting our power? We look at the life of Jesus. We are thinking about the things that he addressed himself to: Abundant life for all. No one goes hungry. The right ordering of relationships with self, God, neighbor, and creation. Compassion. Equality. Freedom.

There are over 3,000 references to oppression in the Bible. The choice is whether we use our power to support and endorse oppression, or whether we use our power to transform oppression into justice and peace. Do we just want to complain, “Ain’t it awful.” Or do we want to serve, offer compassion, give hope to others, and be witnesses to the realm of God?

Our faith, as we heard from Ephesians, liberates us from powerlessness and fear. It saves us from intimidation and victimhood. Our faith gives us the tools for discernment. What is to stop us from using the power we are being given for the good of the world?

We have all the power needed to infuse the world with the love of God. We have all the power needed to embody universal love and compassion. We have all the power needed to nurture justice and peace. This power is so great that the first Christians could only talk about it in terms of a power strong enough to overcome death – the most final, incontrovertible irreversible situation known to humanity. And the power of God experienced through Jesus was more powerful and compelling than death itself.

Whatever problems face us, whatever suffering we are experiencing, whatever is breaking our hearts, whatever drains us of life and hope – the power of God is greater and it is within us and among us. Seeking expression. Seeking release. We see this divine power evident in creation. And in Jesus, we are shown that it is also in us.
The greatest source of power and energy in our solar system is the sun. The temperature of the surface of the sun is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and at the core over 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. The sun puts out 386 billion billion megawatts of energy. It takes the light from the sun a mere 8 minutes to travel 93 million miles from the surface of the sun to Earth. It would take 100 billion tons of dynamite exploded every second to match the energy of the sun.

On “Science Friday,” they are asking, “What does the sun do? Explain the sun. ” Well, here’s another response: It gives us a fitting image and metaphor for the power of the divine love of God; a power that makes life possible and is at work in you, in me, in the world, in the solar system, in the galaxy, in the cosmos and beyond! 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.


Mother’s Day Sermon May 10, 2015 – Coming Home

Scripture: Psalm 24:1-2
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In the news recently, we have not been able to escape hearing about Baltimore, and Ferguson, and other cities, in which there have been racial incidents with the police.

Another thing we have heard much about in the news is gay marriage since the Supreme Court took up the matter last week.

Gay marriage. Police brutality and racism. Over and over and over. Two very different issues. Yet with the same roots. Privilege, discrimination, injustice. And in both conversations, what comes up? The family.

In discussions about race we hear about systematic policies enacted to shred the black family like giving AFDC only to single mothers.

And in the gay marriage conversation, we learn that marriage was instituted for the raising of children. I don’t agree, but this is what some experts seem to think. Personally I think marriage has roots as a property transaction linked to the legalities of inheritance. But, that’s not the issue today though it really is an issue in the marriage conversation. But today some people cling to a certain definition of a couple and a family. Can a couple in which the two adults are of the same gender form a legitimate family? What is the effect of that kind of family arrangement upon society as a whole? Family is part of culture so it is not just an individual, personal matter. And children are involved. So, many are weighing in on this issue.

So we are hearing a lot about family this days. What is a family? What makes a strong family? Why is the family deteriorating? Why are families breaking apart with the divorce rate up, more single parent households, etc.? Where do same gender couples, with and without children, fit in? And inevitably this conversation about family, relative to race or sexual orientation, veers from sociology, psychology, economics, government policy, and anthropology, into religion. We’re told that the family is ordained by God. And that family is a religious institution.

First I wonder about just what kind of family God ordained? One like Adam and Eve and their murderous son? One like Jacob and Leah and Rachel, where the groom is duped at the altar and gets the wrong sister? A family like the most wise of the wise, Solomon, who, we are told, had some 700 wives and 300 concubines? Or to move to the New Testament, a family like Ananias and Sapphira, who lie and betray and end up being struck dead? Or a family like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha? Since when do three adult siblings make a family? Is that the kind of family that is God – ordained? Or is the God ordained family a single, celibate adult, which is how we think of Jesus? That won’t do much for perpetuating the species.

So, just what is a Christian family? What does our religious tradition teach us about family? One image we have been given by society and the church in recent decades is the image of the family as mom, dad, the kids, the pets, all living in their suburban bubble where the boys play soccer and the girls are cheer leaders and they order pizza and play videos games and go on vacation together in an SUV. Oh, and yes, they go to church together every week in their Sunday best. It’s kind of the white bread, middle America version of family. This is touted as the ideal. And dubbed the Christian family ideal.

Yet what is really Christian about this? Or ideal? Except maybe the going to church every Sunday? It’s a stereotypic view of family that suits the American milieu, the American economy, and American sensibilities. There doesn’t seem to be much that is explicitly Christian about it.

What is Christian? When we look at Jesus, we see that he shows us that we are to give our lives away. We are to spend ourselves in service. We are to reach out to meet the needs of others. Forgive and work for reconciliation. In this self giving kind of life, we find our highest good. When we think of this Christian lifestyle, we can see that none of this directly relates to the idealized family that we described earlier.

What makes a Christian family is a family in which the concern is for others, for the wider community, for neighbors near and far, all families, and all children. The Christian family is a family committed to the well-being of all people; a group dedicated to making the world a welcoming home for all. There is story in the gospels in which Jesus is asked about family. He says that those who do the will of God are his family. What is the will of God? Self giving. Generosity. Unconditional, universal love. The Christian family, then, is not an isolated self serving group in a bubble, but a locus for care of one another and the world.

I grew up in what was in many ways a typical white upper middle class family. We took music lessons and were in after school clubs and scouts. My brother played little league and I took up ice skating. We went to church and youth group. Our family ate breakfast and dinner together most days. We played card games or board games several nights a week. We watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “Wild Kingdom” on TV. We went on family vacations every year. The one thing that I knew was different about our family then was that my mother as well as my father worked outside the home. In those days, most mothers in our economic stratum did not work outside the home.

But in addition to being a pretty typical family, I can now see how we were also very different. When we think about a Christian family as a group of people committed to the greater good, I now know that I, like many of you, saw this kind of Christian orientation to family embodied in our home growing up especially in my mother. She was always looking outward, helping others individually and collectively. There was a colleague that needed to have an abortion and my mom lent her the money. There was the gay man in the 70’s who wanted to be ordained. My mom was his gifts for ministry and she worked with him and the church so that he could be ordained. Also in the 70’s, there was a member of a youth group from years past who discovered that he was transgendered and wanted to go to Morocco for surgery because that is what you did in those days. He needed money and, yes, my mother lent it to him. In the mean time, my mom was busy arranging housing and meals for the scores of people from churches all over the country that were coming to Washington in the 60’s to protest. When we moved to Minneapolis, there was serving on the Minnehaha Parkway redesign commission. There was leading the PTSA during integration. Later, in Pennsylvania, there was starting a soup kitchen. And all along the way, there were the peace committees and justice task forces. My mom worked on many political campaigns at phone banks and literature drops and other volunteering. There was political advocacy and involvement as well as lots of social action work in the church day in and day out. And my mom worked outside the home, sometimes full time, sometimes part time.

It was clear to me growing up that my mom loved us and was completely devoted to our family, but her devotion did not stop there. Maybe it started there, but she exhibited that same commitment to others and the world, especially those who were being treated unfairly. That she could not abide. It was as if every person who was being discriminated against or given the short end of the stick, here in the US or around the world, was her child, her sister, her brother. And she would take their part.

We hear that the family is falling apart and there are many factors. There is an economic component – capitalism making us want so much that we must all work all the time. And the commoditization of everything, including spouses, so that we think we can return them for a refund when they don’t perform up to snuff. And wanting our children to turn out like perfect little products.

But from a religious view point, I think the family is falling apart not because of the composition of the families but because of the incurved nature of the idealized family today. Family first. It is self serving, it is tribal, it is looking in and caring only for immediate self interest. In addition, the ideal family has become an idol. How many times do I hear people say they can’t do this, they can’t do that, in terms of service, because of family? Instead of commitment to the world that God has made, and the fullness thereof, people are committed to those who live under their roof. Amen. Mother’s Day is a perfect example. People will tell me, “I won’t be at church. We are taking mom out to brunch.” One of the churches that rents our building will not have services today because it is Mother’s Day. Go figure? I’m a mom, and I would much rather my children go to church on Mother’s Day than go to brunch because church fosters looking at the world from a broad perspective. The church helps us to see the bigger picture. The church helps us focus on seeing beyond our immediate self interest to the well being of the human family and all of creation. It is that kind of orientation that makes a strong, supportive family. That kind of vision helps us to see that we are here to give. And we see the needs beyond our own kin. And we realize that our immediate family is the context in which we strengthen and support one another in our service and generosity to others.

One of my favorite books is Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I know that many of you came to that classic when you were younger. I only read it for the first time in my 50’s and I was stunned. The level of generosity exhibited by these dirt poor okies was astounding. Sure this family had problems. Huge problems. But any time they can help someone, they do. And the ending is a an unforgettable tribute to self-giving love. I am not surprised that the book is not often taught in school any more because it is ultra-subversive and a full and complete condemnation of the injustice sanctioned under American capitalism. If you haven’t read Grapes of Wrath, or haven’t read it recently, stop at the library on your way home from church.

What Christianity has to offer the world is a vision of family that looks out, that is concerned for other families, and for the family of humanity as a whole. That’s the Christian family. And the world desperately needs to hear that from the church not only in the cause of liberating LBGT families, but in the cause of strengthening all families and being a force for well-being and peace in the world.

As we heard in the Psalm, the Judeo Christian view is that the world is God’s and everything in it. As people of God, we are called to take care of God’s world, the big whole thing, not just our corner, our yard, our household but every corner, every yard, and every household, so that all people may live together sustainably and in peace.

I recently heard an interview on the radio with an astronaut. I think it was Colonel Chris Hadfield. He talked about coming up in the military with the Soviet Union as enemy number one. And then later being part of a space program in which the US partnered with Russia. The astronaut described one particularly perilous descent from space in which the astronauts’ lives were in jeopardy. When the capsule landed, what he could see out the window was grass and a rock. And he was elated. And he was filled with a sense of “home.” While kissing the ground and overwhelmed with the feeling of being home, he realized that the actual dirt under his feet was Kazakhstan. It was then that the astronaut realized that our home is Earth, the whole planet. All of it.

As Christians, may we share that view, that Earth is our home. The home provided for us by a God of infinite, universal love. And on this Mother’s Day and Festival of the Christian home, we celebrate our family, the human family, and teach our children to look out and love the world. Our home. Amen.


Sermon April, 19, 2015 – True Believers

Scripture: Acts 4:32-35
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In the novel, True Believers, Kurt Anderson of public radio’s “Studio 360,” tells the story of a group of college students in the 1960’s. They are passionately against the Vietnam War. Frustrated with protesting and trying to exert political influence while thousands of people are being killed, the group develops a plan to end the war immediately. Yes, they come up with an approach that they are sure will successfully put an end to the Vietnam War. The plan will likely cost the students their futures and very possibly their lives. But they are willing to take the risk to end the killing in Vietnam. In their minds, they are absolutely committed to their principles which call for drastic action. They are true believers and will stop at nothing.

We are in the season of Easter in which we continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The crucifixion and resurrection are the defining images of the Christian religion. The resurrection story is associated with key theological concepts that have come to define traditional Christianity: That Jesus is the divine son of God. That humanity is reconciled with God. That there is life after death with God and the promise of heaven for those who believe. These have been defining concepts for Christianity. This is what the resurrection has come to mean for much of the history of the Christian church.

Easter celebrations of the resurrection typically focus on eternal life after our physical death and the promise of heaven. These themes are accompanied by images of new life – eggs, rabbits, the prolific procreators, flowers – life overcoming death.

For the Sundays after Easter, the scripture lessons of the lectionary highlight the resurrection appearances of Jesus: Jesus feeding his friends. Jesus forgiving Peter. Jesus meeting his friends on the road to Emmaus. Jesus’ encounter with doubting Thomas. Jesus sending his disciples out into the world to teach and baptize in his name. Jesus breathing peace upon his frightened friends. These are all stories that encourage us to have faith and be true believers.

Christianity has taken the content of that belief to be that Jesus is God, and that he has opened the door for believers to go to heaven to be with God after they die.

The scripture that we heard this morning from Acts is also assigned for the Sunday after Easter, but I am sure that the majority of preachers choose to preach on doubting Thomas and Jesus breathing peace onto his disciples rather than this iconoclastic story from Acts. Well, we got the peace last week. Now, we are delving into this more controversial story.

We are told about the life of a community of followers of Jesus that has formed after his death. These are true believers. We are told that, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” How inspiring. Except, they held all of their belongings and property in common. There was no private ownership of any possessions. There was not a needy person among them because they shared all they had. This communal economic arrangement was a result of their belief in the resurrection. It was evidence of their testimony. It was the manifestation of the great grace that was upon them all. The abandonment of private property and individual ownership. Hm. That’s not our typical image or symbol of the resurrection. You probably didn’t know the money bag on the front of the bulletin was a symbol of the resurrection!

There are many reasons that preachers will avoid preaching on this text especially after Easter. This is a season for spiritual matters: Heaven and the next life. Doubt and faith. Matters that are theoretical and theological. This Acts text is very material and practical. And it is much more comfortable to keep the discussion to abstractions and not get down to the nitty gritty like what you do with your money. This Acts story is too messy for the ethereal resurrection season.

Another reason preachers avoid this text is because we live in a time of great greed. We are surrounded by the message that we should be rich. Being rich is good. We idolize wealth and the wealthy. The message from Acts is completely contrary to the culture around us and who wants to stir that up especially when churches need money to function? The last thing you would want to do as a pastor is read this bit from Acts and alienate your wealthy members.

And, there is no avoiding that this Acts passage smacks of Communism. It is an echo of, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” a phrase of Louis Blanc made popular by Karl Marx. Most agree that communism has failed so no one wants to associate Christianity and the church with that failed economic system. This is a season to celebrate the success and triumph of the church and not get mixed up in the failings of communism.

I asked a fundamentalist friend about this Acts passage. She is always quoting the Bible and taking it literally. So, I asked if all the people in her church sold all their possessions and held everything in common. She explained to me that that was what God wanted for that particular congregation at that time. That was intended for them. It didn’t apply to the rest of us today. Her response left me wondering why the admonition to the Corinthians that women keep their heads covered in church applies to her church today, but not the communal ownership teaching from Acts? Why one thing but not another?

On Easter, if you preach, “Jesus is risen. Sell all that you have and give your money to the church and trust that you will be taken care of by the faith community,” the church will be empty or the pastor will be Baker-acted. Preach, “Jesus is risen, and you, too, will have eternal life in heaven,” the pews are filled. It’s a belief that doesn’t really require us to have much skin in the game. If it doesn’t happen, oh well. We’ll be dead anyway. Basically, we accept the view that you can have my afterlife, but not my house and my car.

In an individualistic, capitalist culture based on the ownership of private property, this story from Acts just doesn’t register. That was for “them.” Maybe we think those people were all poor and it is easy for someone poor to go along with selling everything because they aren’t giving up much and they actually may stand to gain. But not all the people in the Jerusalem Christian community were poor. Were they all so altruistic? No. We are told there was arguing over who will serve the meals to the widows, etc. Were they so egalitarian? No. There was competition between those who were Jewish and those who were Hellenists. They had their pecking order and status ladder just as we do today. This is why this story from Acts speaks with such great power. The story is clear that the power of the resurrection is what makes the people take these drastic economic measures. The power of the resurrection leads them to sell everything, something they would never have voluntarily done in the past. The power of the resurrection causes them to abandon all previously held notions about money and ownership. The resurrection twists them around, turns them inside out, and swings them upside down, in their everyday, very material lives. Here and now in this world.

Yes, we may associate the power of the resurrection with getting us into heaven. We’ll see. But this story tells us that the power of the resurrection does not stop there.

The power of the resurrection is not only stronger than death, it is stronger than free enterprise. It is stronger than capitalism. It is stronger than greed. It is stronger than individualism. It is stronger than consumerism. It is stronger than private ownership. It is stronger than selfishness.

Acts gives us an image of the resurrection that has the power to completely transform us in the context of our flesh and blood lives today.

The transformation that is portrayed in Acts is a testimony to the resurrection. The resurrection has compelled the true believers to take action that they never would have dreamed of. It has caused them to behave in entirely new, unexpected ways.

So what might the resurrection look like today?

A living wage for all, world wide?
Clean air, water, and reverence for the environment?
Universal access to healthcare?
No homelessness, poverty, or hunger?
An end to racism and prejudice of all kinds?

The truth is that ideals always have economic implications. If we think we are true believers and it doesn’t involve our money, we are deceived, because money symbolizes power, status, trust, and loyalty. If the resurrection doesn’t mess with our bank account then we probably believe in a resurrection that is relatively small and remote, and not the cataclysmic transformation portrayed in the New Testament.

For those first true believers, the resurrection was a community-evoking experience that completely changed the way they lived, including their economic assumptions and identity. They were transformed right to the core. Inside and out. Here and now.

The resurrection is about much more than heaven in the next life. It’s about heaven on earth. May we be true believers. Amen.


Sermon March 29, 2015 “The Legacy of Judas”

Scripture: Mark 14:1-50
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Judas. You know who I am talking about. The one who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The one who gave Jesus the kiss of death. The one who hanged himself. Yes. We know Judas. He is one of the most well-known figures in all of scripture.

We know that Judas betrayed Jesus. It is because of him that the authorities knew where to find Jesus and who Jesus was so that he could be arrested, tried, and killed by crucifixion. Why did Judas, one of the twelve, the inside circle, betray Jesus? There are multiple motivations that are hinted at in the New Testament. The earliest gospel, Mark, does not really intimate a reason why Judas betrayed Jesus. But later gospels allude to Judas’ motivations. Going chronologically, Matthew tells us that Judas is motivated by greed. Luke and John say it was the devil, Satan, that caused Judas to betray Jesus. Was Judas disillusioned that Jesus was not taking over as king as was expected of the Messiah? Was Jesus proceeding too slowly for Judas? We can’t know the motivations, but we definitely know that Judas betrayed Jesus.

Judas has been remembered in Christian literature for centuries as the embodiment of evil. He is portrayed as everything that Jesus taught people not to be. He is the supreme negative example; the person who is not good and true and dedicated to God.

A poem from the 4th century characterizes Judas this way:

You bloody, savage, rash, insane, rebellious,
faithless, cruel, deceitful, bribable, unjust,
cruel betrayer, vicious traitor, merciless thief –
[Meyer, p. 121]

That about sums it up for Judas in the New Testament, early Christian writings, and beyond. And that continues to be Judas’ legacy in literature throughout the ages.

There are several traditions about the death of Judas. The most familiar, that he hanged himself. Also, from the New Testament, we are told that he falls and explodes and his guts spill out. There is an early Christian tradition that he was stoned to death by the other eleven disciples. However he died, no death could be too awful for him. He is the quintessential betrayer, setting the standard ever since.

That is how the church wants to remember Judas. It gives a place to put the blame. There is someone to hold accountable for the whole heartbreaking travesty of the death of Jesus. Judas. It was his fault.

This presentation of Judas has been going along consistently for 2,000 years. Until an ancient document was discovered in the late 1970’s but not investigated by scholars until the early 2,000’s. It is a text referred to in the writings of Irenaeus from 180 C.E. Irenaeus discredits and refutes the Gospel of Judas. But what was the Gospel of Judas? We did not know until these ancient writings came to light in the last few decades found by farmers in a burial cave in Egypt described this way:

The burial cave was located across the river from Maghagha, not far from the village of Qarara in what is known as Middle Egypt. The fellahin stumbled upon the cave hidden down in the rocks. Climbing down to it, they found the skeleton of a wealthy man in a shroud. Other human remains, probably members of the dead man’s family, were with him in the cave. His precious books were beside him, encased in a white limestone box.
[Meyers, p. 6, quoting Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel]

As it turns out, the Gospel of Judas was written in Greek in the mid second century. The text found in Egypt is a Coptic translation. The Gospel offers Judas’ perspective on the teachings of Jesus and Judas’ relationship with Jesus. Judas is Jesus’ beloved. He is the disciple closest to Jesus. He is the one who can be trusted with the special knowledge that Jesus has to share. Judas is portrayed as the most devoted, the most loyal. He is the disciple with the most courage and strength. Yes, he hands Jesus over, but he does this at Jesus’ request. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas, “You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man who bears me.” [Verses 118-119, Gospel of Judas, see Meyer, p. 65] By turning Jesus over, Jesus will be released from his body, liberated from the confines of this physical life. Freed to return to God from whence he came. Judas has the emotional strength and boldness to understand Jesus and fulfill his wishes.

For those of you who are familiar with Harry Potter, this is reminiscent of Professor Snape. He is always trusted by the Headmaster Dumbledore but everyone else is suspicious of Snape. In the end, Snape contributes to the death of Dumbledore, and we learn that it is at Dumbledore’s request so that good will triumph over evil in the end. Snape, the apparent betrayer, is actually the loyal and faithful servant.

The Gospel of Judas presents Judas in that kind of light. He is the appearing betrayer, but he is actually fulfilling Jesus’ desires.

In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death, there is a crisis. The Messiah, Savior has been killed. Tried as a traitor, a capital offense, he is sentenced to die by crucifixion, a humiliating, excruciating death. Definitely cruel and unusual punishment.

How do Jesus’ friends and followers deal with this reality? With this outcome? They have left home, family, and livelihood for Jesus. Was it all for naught? What are they to do?

They must have been filled with doubts and regrets. Why didn’t they stand up for Jesus. Defend him? At least verbally. They were silent. They deserted him. Peter even denied Jesus. Could they have prevented his death?

How are Jesus’ friends and followers going to redeem this situation? Maybe they were jealous of Judas and his special status. Well, in any case, the blame is pinned on Judas. Judas becomes a negative example of everything Jesus taught. Drawing heavily on images and references from the Hebrew Bible, like the 30 pieces of silver taken from Zechariah, Judas is condemned. He is the one held responsible. He is the scapegoat for the guilt and blame associated with the crucifixion of Jesus.
And it has stayed that way for centuries until this alternate view has arisen with the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. Now, the lyrics of the Dylan song of 1963 seem prescient:

In many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
that Jesus Christ
was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
whether Judas Iscariot
had God on his side.

And then there is also speculation by scholars that Judas Iscariot was not an historical person at all, but a literary figure. He is not mentioned in the earliest writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul. Judas was a very common Jewish name in the first century, maybe like John today. Judas. Everyman. The name Judas is also related to the word for Jew. This goes with the agenda of some in the early church who wanted to pin the death of Jesus on the Jews. The name Judas is also reminiscent of the name Judah, the brother of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Judah is the one who comes up with the idea of selling his brother into slavery. Also the way Judas is presented in the gospels has many parallels with the archetype betrayer in ancient literature. So, there are those who make the case that there never was an actual person Judas Iscariot at all.

Of course, we cannot resolve all of this. We can’t really choose which tradition or version of events is historically accurate because we just don’t have the information we would need. For the ancients, tradition was truth. They were not burdened by a desire for factuality as we are today.

An examination of the legacy of Judas invites many interpretations and raises many questions. This makes it a fitting topic to consider as Holy Week begins. This week, we remember the last week of Jesus’ life. We reflect on the story of his crucifixion and death. It is a time to consider the many meanings, perspectives, and messages in this story. It is a time to consider the multiple interpretations associated with Jesus’ ministry, life, and death. It is a time to remember how close together goodness and evil may be. The legacy of Judas reminds us that life is not as simplistic as we may want to make it.

Between the contrasts of the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!” we are invited to examine ourselves and our reality. Who are we, really? Where do we stand? How do we deceive ourselves and others? How do we betray our beliefs?

The stories of this week should unsettle us. They should make us uncomfortable. They should disturb us. They should make us suspicious. They should provoke questions in us. What do the teachings of Jesus and his death mean? What does it mean to be faithful? How is God’s love present in our lives and our world?

May the legacy of Judas lead us to wider visions of God and the power of love. Amen.

Books used for information about Judas and the Gospel of Judas:

Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King
Judas: The Definitive Collection of Gospels and Legends about the Infamous Apostle of Jesus, Marvin Meyer
The Lost Gospel of Judas: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed, Bart D. Ehrman


Sermon March 16, 2015 “Snakes Alive!”

Scripture Lessons: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Tomorrow, millions of people the world over, will engage in the wearing of the green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Well, they won’t only wear green. There will be festivals, parades, and plenty of drinking. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17, the traditional date of Patrick’s death. And while the date usually falls in Lent, the church officially lifts lenten restrictions for the day, to allow for “mindless alcohol-fueled revelry” as it is described by one priest. [Wikipedia, “St. Patrick’s Day,” Father Vincent Twomey, The Irish Independent, 12 March 2007]

St. Patrick’s Day will be celebrated around the world including festivities in Japan, Malaysia, Russia, the Caribbean, and even on the International Space Station.

St. Patrick’s notoriety comes with the tradition that he brought Christianity to Ireland baptizing thousands and converting the sons and daughters of the wealthy to become priests and nuns. St. Patrick is also credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland. As legend tells it, Patrick went up a hill for a 40 day fast. While there, he was attacked by snakes and he banished them to the sea.

Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, has examined extensive evidence concluding that there never were any snakes in post glacial Ireland. [Wikipedia, St. Patrick]

So, why is there a legend about snakes associated with St. Patrick? Well, it goes back to the Bible and beyond. Snakes have long had religious significance for humans. Many religions include snakes in their symbolism including Judaism and Christianity. In Egypt, the snake was a symbol of divinity and the pharaohs had the snake on the headdress for protection and power. Think of the well known mask of Tutenkahmen. There is a snake at the top.

Snakes were prominent in the religions of pre-Columbian Central and South America. At many of the pre Columbian ruins in Mexico, there are snakes featured in the construction of the temples and the relics associated with them. At the ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, the stairways of the pyramid are lined with 4 serpents representing the feathered serpent god Kukulkan. In the late afternoon on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadows cast create the appearance of the snakes slithering down the staircase.

Snakes figure prominently in Asian religions as well. In Angkor in Cambodia, serpents are symbols of protection. The buddha is shielded by a hooded serpent while meditating.

In the indigenous religions of North America, the snake is an important symbol. In Hopi culture the snake is a symbol of fertility. This symbolism is part of our Abrahamic tradition as well. The snake was associated with sexual passion – for obvious reasons.

The snake with the shedding of its skin has symbolic associations with transformation, rebirth, immortality, and healing. These are common religious themes so it is no surprise that snakes have religious significance.

The image of the snake is very powerful in many ways and still used in today’s culture. In Harry Potter, the evil Voldemort has a manifestation as a serpent, the basalisk, and as the snake, Nagini. But the snake is also used as a symbol of good and of healing. The caduceus, a snake twisted around a pole, is a medical symbol that is taken from the very story we heard this morning. The snake is an important symbol used throughout human history into the present time, a symbol with both positive and negative associations.

We want to note that the snake is a significant symbol in our own religious tradition. Very early in our scriptures, in the book of Genesis, there is the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the garden of Eden. This story was originally seen as a way to explain why humans have free will. Later, with Augustine, in the 4th/5th centuries, the snake of that story became associated with his doctrine of original sin. The snake was probably chosen for the story because of its religious significance. Many cults and religions already incorporated the image of the snake. The story of Adam and Even could have had a rat visit them and entice them with the apple. Or a bird. Or a deer. Yet the story is told with a snake because a snake was already a powerful religious symbol.

The snake appears again in the saga of Moses. Moses and his brother, Aaron, are sent to the Pharaoh to seek the liberation of the Hebrew people. There is a contest and Moses and Aaron and the priests of Egypt turn their staffs into serpents. But Aaron’s snake consumes the snakes of the Egyptians. In the Moses saga, there is also the story that we heard this morning and we’ll say more about that in a moment.

When the Israelites settle in the land and build a Temple, snakes are used as imagery of the divine. Serpents and snakes figure in the fiery railings of the prophets and in Revelation. And in the gospels, there are several references associated with Jesus that mention serpents. Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves, we are told by the Jesus of the gospel of Matthew. [10:16] And as an image of the generosity of God, Jesus asks, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” [Matthew 7:9-10] And a whole stream of Christianity has arisen around two verses from the gospels. One from Luke: “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” [10:19] And the verse at the end of the gospel of Mark: “And these signs will accompany those who believe. . . they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them. . .” [Mark 16:17-18] These two references have led to an expression of Christianity that includes snake handling in its services as proof of true faith. And this does not just go on in some remote jungle somewhere but is practiced right here in the US.

It is not surprising that snakes are such a powerful symbol. They are glorious animals. They appear in an amazing diversity of colors, sizes, and patterns. Their skeletal structure and their scales are uniquely suited to their needs and their protection. They have the mobility to procure food. They can be fast. Their fangs are arranged for maximum effectiveness in killing prey – curved into the mouth so when the animal to be eaten pulls, it is more securely hooked. The musculature of snakes gives them strength far beyond what their size and shape would indicate. The skeleton amazingly passes the prey through the digestive track with ease. Their structure is incredibly flexible. The venom of poisonous snakes it extremely toxic doing the job with efficiency. The markings and hoods of some snakes make them fearsome to predators. Think of those two large spots on the hood of the cobra threatening would be attackers. Other colorings serve as camouflage protecting the snakes from being eaten. Snakes are truly a marvel. Our daughter and our son had snakes as pets, so I speak from direct personal experience. Snakes almost seem to be designed from the imagination of a science fiction writer. It is no wonder that such an incredible, amazing animal has become so symbolic. Of both good and evil.

Now to the snake story that we heard this morning. We heard what is the last of six murmuring stories of the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. The people have complained to Moses before. Moses has taken their petitions to God. And God responded giving them what they asked for. But in this last story, it is as if God has finally lost patience with them. God appears sick and tired of their whining and moaning. Instead of the usual pattern of complaint and fulfillment with Moses as mediator, in this story we are told that God punishes the people for their complaining. Instead of sending something new for the menu, God sends venomous snakes to attack them. The snakes bite people and they die. Now the people really have something to complain about of far more significance than the bad food. But the snakes help them to see the error of their ways. They see that they have bought this problem on themselves with their lack of trust in God and their lack of gratitude. They see that their complaining has done them in. They realize that they have sinned by defying God and God’s servant, Moses. They see their role in their problems. They acknowledge their complicity. And they repent. They change course. At least for now.

Once they have repented, God responds. But notice, God does not take the snakes away. In the story, God has power over the snakes, for God sent the snakes to attack the Hebrews. Then surely God has the power to remove the snakes. But God does not do that. Instead, God tells Moses to make the likeness of a snake and put it on a pole. Those who are bitten may look upon the serpent on the pole and live. There will still be snakes. The snakes will still deliver fatal bites. It will be up to the person bitten to seek help by looking at the bronze snake on the pole and being saved. God provides the way of healing but it is up to the people whether they will avail themselves of the cure.

We see a similar message in the lesson from the gospel of John. Jesus is like the snake on the pole. God does not take away evil or the consequences of sin. But God gives Jesus as a way of healing and it is up to us whether we will seek that healing or not.

The image of the snake gives us important messages about spirituality and religion. The snake is an image of power. Power can be used for good or evil. It can be healing or destructive.

Religion has power. And that power incorporates both good and evil. Religion must offer honest insight into the power of good and the power of evil. The snake is a symbol of transformation and rebirth and hope. The venom can be used as a cure. It can be healing. Religion, too, can be a force for healing. It can be a force for justice and peace. It can be a sustaining force. It can motivate goodness and generosity. We see this in the charitable work of the church and in the advocacy for justice. We see this in the many institutions and initiatives of the church for good in the world. People of all faiths may be motivated by their religion to do good and serve the wellbeing of others and the world.

We also see the power of the snake as evil. The toxic bite. The drop of venom that kills. Religion, too, can be toxic. It can be used to foster domination, control, violence, and evil. We have seen this in our own religion in the past as well as today. People do heinous things in the name of Christianity. The members of the Ku Klux Klan were church goers. People today still attack and kill and perpetrate violence in the name of Christianity. And we see the impulse to use religion for evil purposes glaringly perpetrated in the middle east and Africa today as well as in other lands including our own.

But in the story of the Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness, we see that God does not simply bow to the desires of the people. God is angry with them for their repeated selfish complaining. They are acting like ungrateful, pampered, spoiled brats. And they are missing the amazing liberation God has accomplished for them in response to their cries of anguish in the throes of slavery. God has rescued them from slavery and is giving them a whole new lease on life and they are crabbing about the temporary conditions. They just want God to do everything for them. And God wants them to be co-creators, take responsibility, have a little skin in the game, too.

So, there is a dimension of judgment and punishment. God punishes the people with the snakes. And this leads to their eyes being opened and their confession and repentance. Sometimes that’s what it takes for us to see what is really happening. We may look at the world today and wonder why things are so awry and why God doesn’t do something about it. Maybe these travails are leading us to conversion, repentance, and rebirth as a human community. Maybe when we see our complicity, the log in our own eye, our vision will be cleared and we can see the way out. The way to healing. The way to new life. The way of resurrection.

For a snake to grow, there must be a shedding process. During the shedding, the snake is vulnerable. Similarly, for us to grow, for there to be healing and wholeness in our lives and in the world, there has to be a shedding process. We have to leave our old ways behind. We have to be willing to look beyond ourselves to the way of healing that is being offered to us. Our choices may lead us to pain and suffering. But honesty helps us to see our errors and take responsibility for them. That is the path to living in love and joy. But you get there through a process of confession and repentance. In the story with Moses, the snake is symbolic of the punishment and the cure. True religion incorporates honest assessment and transformation. Jesus helps us to see our failings and the consequences of our sin, but we are also given a way of reconciliation, joy, and new life. It is up to us whether we will avail ourselves of the power of our religion to heal. But the healing process can be painful. For Jesus it meant death on the cross.

St. Patrick didn’t literally drive the snakes out of Ireland because there were none. But he knew the dangerous proclivities of the human spirit. And he knew the power of faith to free us from the clutches of sin. We, too, know the reality of sin and evil in us and in the world. There is oppression and abuse in our culture. There is greed and violence in the economic system pervading our society. Our motives are not pure. We, like the Hebrews, are well acquainted with being selfish and feeling entitled. There is sin, that which is not of God, and it separates us from our highest good and the well being of the entire Creation. We can put our heads in the sand. We can ignore the cause of the problems. With our head in the sand, we only experience the despair and suffering of our dis-ease. We do not see the cure. Our faith has the power to heal. Healing that comes from honest, even brutal, self-examination and repentance. We have to have an accurate diagnosis to take the right cure. St. Patrick, devout, pious, servant that he was, would likely be shocked by the drunken revelry associated with his legacy. He went to Ireland to offer healing and hope and new life, not a hangover, to people he believed were living in spiritual darkness. He went to drive out despair and suffering. To hold up the snake on the pole and offer healing. May this Lenten season be a time of healing for 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.


Sermon March 8, 2015 “Up Close and Personal”

Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Orcinus orca is one of the most magnificent creatures to grace this planet. Scientists who study the orca whale are stunned by its beauty and intelligence. They even use the word humor in reference to the orca. In addition, orcas in different parts of the oceans are known for having differing cultures. Their behaviors, actions, and relationships differ depending on what group they are part of. Orcas from separate groups treat each other as strangers while orcas from the same areas are quite familiar with each other. An orca from near Iceland, for instance, has different habits, diet, and communication than an orca from the northern Pacific Ocean. Orcas from some areas eat mainly sea mammals while others eat only fish. The ones that eat mammals often play with them and toss them around before eating them. The fish eaters might work as group and corral a school of fish and slap them with their flukes to stun them and then eat their fill. This is highly social, cooperative behavior. Orcas are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators.

Orcas are observed frolicking, jumping from the water, and rubbing against each other all in delightful play. They have been seen swimming onto a stone covered beach and rubbing their bellies on the stones – as a massage, or to scratch themselves, or to hear the sounds of the stones rubbing together? We don’t know. The whales make an extensive array of sounds including whistles, clicks, and calls which they use to communicate with each other. They navigate and find food using echolocation.

These huge mammoths are known for helping each other. They will share food. A female will help another female in the birthing process. When an orca is injured, others will support it from either side and see that it gets to the surface for air until it has recovered.

The pods of orcas in some oceans are matriarchal with groups including infants, juveniles and adolescents as well as aunts and grandmothers. The young stay with the natal family. The male orcas stay with their mothers. A male orca 10 years old will still spend 40-75% of its time within a body length of its mother. And it will help its mother care for subsequent calves.

It is clear from observation in the wild that Orcinus orca is a highly developed, social creature with a magnificent life in the oceans. They live together, they play and take pleasure in life. They help one another and communicate in complex ways in a rich and stimulating environment that provides for all of their needs. They thrive and flourish living a glorious life.

Orcas have been much in the news in recent years in the wake of terrible occurrences at marine life theme parks. We hear much about this due to our proximity to Sea World. In captivity, orcas will bang their heads repeatedly against the cement wall of the tank, cut and scratch themselves on metal nodules developing skin lesions, float motionless for hours, grind their teeth on the bars of the gates to the pen, and interact with each other with hostility. And then there are the attacks on humans.

Taken away from their natural setting with all of its stimulation and freedom, removed from their social network, placed in contact with orcas of other cultures and habits, forced to breed repeatedly at a much younger age than in the wild and far more frequently than in the wild, problems develop. And the problems are compounded for the males that are removed from their mothers. In an environment that is unnatural, deprived of the appropriate social structure, the whales develop unnatural and aberrant behaviors. It is completely understandable that these amazing whales with a highly complex social and communication system, used to living with all of the space found in the ocean, would flounder when removed from that setting. Then there is the stark boredom of the tank compared with the involved undersea environment with its richness of sights and sounds. My intent is not to go into the roiling debate about whether or not such creatures should be kept in captivity, but just to note that when an animal is not in the intended setting, behavior can go askew. Problems may occur. And we should not be surprised.

This same kind of comparison can apply to humans as well. People who are in settings where they are familiar and comfortable, where they know the culture, and where they have an appropriate social system of relationships, can thrive and flourish. They can take delight in life and find abundance and joy. People who are in situations that are alien to them, that are unfamiliar, that separate them from their intended social and environmental setting, may behave in unexpected ways. There can be problems.

In our tradition, it is our understanding that the ten commandments were given to the people of Israel as a way of defining the social, spiritual, and cultural setting in which they will thrive and flourish. These ten decrees describe the intended environment for this group of people that will foster their well being. Adherence to these commandments will result in a community of justice and joy. Living by these commandments will lead to a strong community in which the people will take delight and prosper. These laws describe an intended environment in which people will grow and live in a healthy manner.

Thus we also note that to ignore these commandments, to deny their significance, can result in humans being in an environment which is alien. It can lead to the disruption of the intended social and spiritual community, and then behavior may very well be unpredictable and dangerous. We ignore these commandments at our own peril. They are not intended to be punitive. In fact, just the opposite. They are intended to help us live out our highest good in solidarity with all of humanity and all of Creation. They are intended to keep us close to God and one another in relationships and balance which leads to our deepest joy and peace.

Teachings such as the ten commandments are found in all major religions because they point us toward our best selves and a beautiful life. And they prevent us from straying in ways that cause peril for us and for others.

The teachings of Jesus and his ministry are also intended to describe and define an environment – social, spiritual, and economic – in which humans thrive and flourish. In the gospels we are told that Jesus brings abundant life, the realm of God, that our joy may be full. He has not come to punish or berate, but to bring to the fore once again Divine intentions for the health of humanity. He shows us how to create communities of mutual support, connected to one another, to God, and to Creation in ways that are life-giving and life-sustaining. His teaching is intended to create an environment that is conducive to human life that is rich and full.

In the gospel of John, after the prologue Jesus is baptized and calls the disciples. Then his ministry begins with the story of the wedding at Cana. Jesus is at a wedding and the wine has run out. In the story, Jesus sends the servants to fill several huge urns with water and when they taste the contents, it is wine. Very fine wine. Right at the outset, the gospel writer wants us to see the rich, full, and abundant life that God intends. This is a beautiful image for the life that God desires for humanity.

And right after that story is the one that we heard this morning: the story of the money changers in the Temple. Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for a festival, an important religious holiday. People come from far and near. It is crowded. And there are offerings to be made and sacrifices to be attended to. That is part of the observance of the holy day. Coming from far away, people cannot bring the animals with them for sacrifice. And since they are in the Roman Empire, the money they have bears the image of the Empire and cannot be used in the Temple precincts to buy the pigeon or goat to be offered in sacrifice. So, there are money changers who will take people’s Roman coins and exchange them for Jewish money which can then be used to buy the needed animals for sacrifice. And, just like people of every time and every place, there is the temptation to take advantage. To give in to greed. To capitalize on this influx of people who must use these services. And so the money changers and animal sellers take advantage of the those who have come to fulfill their religious observance. What should be a celebration of freedom and Divine deliverance, the Passover, has become a travesty of greed. The money changers and animal sellers have a captive audience and they abuse their power and let their greed hold sway. They incorporate huge profits into the exchange rates and the prices of the animals for sacrifice.

Now Jesus is well acquainted with injustice and greed and selfishness. He is familiar with abuse of power and authority. After all, they live under the thumb of the Romans who are bleeding them dry at every turn.

But what really gets Jesus going in this story is that these are Jews taking advantage of other Jews and in the name of religion: Religion which is supposed to be creating a healthy environment for the flourishing of all life. Religion which is supposed to lead people to the joy and abundant life that God intends for all people. Religion that is intended to be a blessing to all creating communities of justice, compassion, and generosity. What these money changers are doing in the name of religion, no less, is skewed behavior that needs to be corrected. They are exhibiting the very problems that religion is supposed to be working to overcome. It is full-fledged hypocrisy, betrayal, and irony. So it is not surprising that in the story this really sets Jesus off. It is going in the opposite direction of what religion should be offering to people and Jesus can’t abide it. He is furious. This is the one story we have that shows us an angry Jesus lashing out with hostility which disrupts things but does not do harm to life. This corruption of religion, the very thing that should bless, is more than he can stand.

Jesus is angry because he knows that when the environment is out of balance, or disrupted, or askew, things go awry. People suffer. Life is not healthy for all. Human behavior becomes aberrant and abhorrent. Harm is done. People are robbed of the flourishing life that is part of the Divine design. They are denied the life God seeks to give.

Jesus is about setting things right. Getting the balance back. Drawing us away from that which prevents and deprives us of the rich and full life we can enjoy. Jesus’ ministry is about restoring the conditions of justice and compassion that bring out our best.

We are here because we are called to be carrying on the ministry of Jesus creating the ideal conditions for life to be all that it can be for the whole human family and all of Creation. We are not here to feather our own nest while others are left out in the cold. Our faith is intended to connect us to God, the sacred, and one another in ways that create a culture that fosters goodness and health for all. The gospel is intended to free us from captivity to the forces that deprive us of full life and joy.

In the book, Death at Sea World, David Kirby tells of the life of orcas in the wild. He tracks the history of orcas in captivity. This information culminates in the story of Tilikum. Tilikum was taken from the waters of Iceland at two years of age and has lived in captivity ever since. He is the whale that killed Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes, and finally Dawn Brancheau. Kirby ends the book: “Tilikum was trying to tell us something. It was time to listen.” [p. 424]

We have been given teachings in scripture that are trying to tell us something. Jesus is trying to tell us something. Something about our situation and our captivity. Something about the appropriate environment in which humans thrive. We have been given these stories that invite us to freedom and release so that we might live as we are intended to live in right relationship with God, one another, Creation, and, yes, Orcinus orca. It is time to listen. Amen.

The information about orcas in this sermon comes from the book Death at Sea World: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby.


Sermon March 1, 2015 “Ever Evolving”

Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

“I was never more interested in any subject in my life, than in this of orchids,” wrote Charles Darwin to his colleague, Sir Joseph of Kew. [Goodall, p. 122] And it is no wonder. Orchids show the most amazing capacity for adaptation and have evolved with prolific diversity. Of course they were appealing to the great scientist Darwin with whom we associate one of the most important theories of in all of human knowledge: the theory of evolution.

Orchids began in tropical climes and now are found in almost all geographies save true desert and ice fields. There are 13 species found north of the Arctic Circle. They account for 8-10 % of all plants.

Orchids are amazing in their adaptive characteristics. They have aerial roots and receive nutrients from air and rain. This allows them to live in densely forested areas in the tops of tree canopies where they receive light.

Then there is the unfathomable diversity of orchids. Some are as small as one tenth of an inch. Others grow to sixty-five feet. One has a microscopic flower; another a bloom the size of a football. Some bloom only at night. Some smell like chocolate, or rotten meat, or vanilla. One looks like a flying white frog. One like a German Shepherd with its tongue sticking out. There are orchids which resemble an onion, a monkey, Mickey Mouse, a butterfly, a nun’s habit, and even one that looks like an octopus.

The amazing diversity of orchids occurs because the orchid is a cross pollinator. They have to attract pollinators, insects, to take the pollen from one plant to another to ensure fertilization. And the plants go to great lengths to make this happen. They have one petal that bends over serving as a landing pad for the insect. They must make themselves irresistible to the insects around them to be sure that pollination occurs. Some orchids look like the female species of the insect to attract the male to come and get the pollen. When the insect comes to the orchid and investigates the bloom, it gets the pollen on its body. Then realizing this is not a female insect, the insect flies off, at some point to another orchid, delivering the pollen. The bee orchid looks and feels like a female bee and emits a pheromone like the female bee to attract the male bees to pollinate. One orchid emits a perfume at night to attract nocturnal moths to accomplish pollination. Some orchids look like an enemy of a local insect. The insect attacks the orchid, gets the pollen on it in the attack, then attacks another orchid, delivering the pollen. The lady slipper orchid attracts the insect, then a petal closes over the opening of the bloom trapping the insect, which then travels through the bloom and out an opening at the bottom, covered with pollen. One orchid was found with a very deep throat of about a foot. What could pollinate such a bloom? Sure enough, a moth was found with a retractable coiling proboscis that could reach deep into the orchid flower.

With all of the machinations needed for orchids to pollinate, it may seem miraculous that they have not died out. But when pollination occurs and a seed pod appears, one pod carries millions of seeds; up to 4 million. And orchids are extraordinarily long lived. There is one plant in the New York Botanical Garden which has been alive since 1898. So, orchids are an amazing example of the glories of adaptation and evolution. They are prolific though certain species are rare due to habitat loss and human collecting. And, as Darwin believed, cross pollination has led to greater survival because the exchange of genetic material provides for greater adaptation which helps foster a greater chance of survival. That has certainly proved to be the case.

So orchids show us not only the beauty of the bloom but the beauty of adaptation and evolution. This is the amazing system built into the web of life to ensure that life flourishes and thrives against all odds and in the face of changing circumstances. Creation is a dynamic, changing, re-creating enterprise. It is never static. It is always in the process of transformation.

And that brings us to Abram and Sarai. Old. Childless. Sedentary. Doesn’t say much for propagation. Until, as the story we heard this morning tells us, there is an encounter with God initiating a covenant. We are told that God has singled them out and God is going to do something new. It is time for a new adaptation in the world of religion. This something involves Abram and Sarai moving to a new land. Expanding the range of their habitat. Making a new start for their descendants. And there are new names given to signify the change. They are now Abraham and Sarah. Yes, they will have children, despite their advanced years. God is bent on the flourishing of life and will see to it that this couple is the progenitor of great populations. And these people that will come from their union will be a blessing to all the earth. They will help others by giving them a faith that supports life through cooperation, mercy, justice, and compassion. This new initiative is being introduced by God to perpetuate the species and to encourage flourishing life. The story seems very much evolutionary. And we shouldn’t be surprised because we know that God has chosen to work through evolution as evidenced in Creation.

From scripture and our faith tradition, we see a God that does not shy away from doing something new. God chooses to promote adaptation. New circumstances might require new approaches, different responses, and changing behaviors. We see this within the Bible itself. There is differing guidance depending on the situation. For instance, we can find in the Bible the insistence upon male circumcision. And we can find in the Bible that circumcision is optional. We can find teaching in the Bible requiring that a woman who has committed adultery be stoned. And we can find teaching in the Bible against that. There is the admonition to make animal sacrifices before God. And then a stern declaration against such sacrifices.

The circumstances have changed, so a new approach is called for. We see this again and again in the Bible. Jesus is another example of the evolutionary process of our faith tradition. His ministry is a new adaptation of the covenant with Abraham. A new initiative is needed to meet new challenges. This is the way religion evolves and adapts so that it can fulfill its function, flourish and thrive, as a blessing to the whole earth, all of Creation.

Our circumstances are in some ways a far cry from Bible times. We face different issues and challenges. In Jesus’ day, people couldn’t have conceived of weaponry capable of destroying the earth. They could not have conceived of the biological knowledge we have today about plants, disease, the brain, and all manner of things. They could never have imagined the learnings we have about the cosmos and the planets. They could not have foreseen our tools and technology, our knowledge and understanding, our numbers and mobility, our diversity and communication. Our reality would not have in any way been imagined by the people of Abraham and Sarah’s time or even Jesus’ day.

For the faith and the covenant that God made with Abraham to be a living testament, adaptation is required. There was change from Abraham’s era to Jesus’ day. There have been significant changes in the faith between Jesus’ time and ours. And we must certainly expect, given the exponential rapidity of change, that if this faith, a faith intended to be a blessing to the world, is to continue to serve God, more change is needed and it needs to keep pace with the circumstances or it will become extinct. The ability to adapt and change has been built into our faith and our tradition.

But unlike the biological world, humans have more conscious input into the evolution of our faith. We have the capability of more intentional choice than any animal or plant. It is also part of the human condition that the more things change, the more we want them to stay the same. We resist change. And this is very evident when it comes to Christianity. I will never forget an experience on our trip to Russia in 1993 to visit our sister church there. As you may know, the Russian Orthodox Christians stand for the entire worship service which may last three hours, unless they get down on the floor to kneel or prostrate themselves. But mostly, there is standing. No sitting. In a conversation with our hosts, we asked about the standing. We were told that it is simply tradition. There is no great theological argument for standing. There is nothing specifically sinful about sitting. But they said that there were many changes occurring in their society and people needed the church to stay the same for a sense of security and stability. I can understand that. But sitting or standing doesn’t really cause harm. There are many traditions and attitudes in the church which do cause harm. They undermine the intent of Christianity. And if the church of today does not choose to change there may be no church of tomorrow. And God will have to figure out other ways to bless the whole world.

When we think of our calling to be a blessing to all of Creation, we have to see that many of the ways of the church today impede this goal. Theology and liturgy that is blatantly at odds with intellectual observation needs to be adapted and changed. Attitudes and doctrines that lead to the exclusion of children of God need to be altered. Practices and beliefs that privilege one group over another foster contention and conflict that is dangerous. This must be changed. Subjugation of peoples in the name of religion must be eliminated. Religion that serves imperialism has to go. Any endorsement of violence in the name of religion can no longer be accepted. Christianity must stop enabling greed and serving the interests of the rich. These and other characteristics of traditional Christianity are in dire need of adaption and transformation for our species, let alone our religion, to survive.

We have in our faith tradition, as heirs of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah and the ministry of Jesus, vast resources to draw upon that serve the interests of a God seeking to bless the whole Creation though us. We need to draw upon that heritage and foster the well being of the world. The church serves its best interests and the best interests of the world by promoting cooperation, mutuality, equality, acceptance, justice, and, most certainly, non violence. These kinds of values and teachings promote God’s desire to bless the world. They create community not division and conflict. Maybe other approaches were appropriate in the past given those circumstances and challenges. But today we need to evolve our religion to fit the circumstances of our current environment, to protect our habitat, to ensure the perpetuation of our species, and to promote our survival. Religion has the power to create contention and conflict. It also has the power to promote wholeness and well being. God’s intention in the covenant with Sarah and Abraham is clear. Be a blessing to all nations and all peoples and all of Creation.

Earlier, we looked at the incredible adaptability of orchids which has led to their flourishing the world over. People have been fascinated or maybe I should say obsessed with orchids for generations and given their prolific diversity, that’s hardly surprising. The orchid industry today involves over $44 billion a year. That’s quite a sum for a plant fascination. In addition to giving their money to orchids, people give their lives for orchids. Orchid hunters of the 1800’s and into the 1900’s scoured the earth facing environmental extremes that proved perilous. Some orchid hunters were ruthless scheming the demise of competitors. It was a cut throat enterprise. Today orchid smuggling and illegal trading continues. Florida is a hotbed for this kind of activity. And people are giving their lives and their fortunes to protect orchids and orchid habitat. One person sold his possessions and moved to Japan. Jane Goodall shares what he does: “There are a few species of very small epiphytic orchids in the forests there, but they are rarely seen, as they often grow high up in the trees. In the stormy season, however, many branches break off and end up on the forest floor. And that is when Tom sometimes finds tiny orchids growing on them. Knowing that these plants need fresh air and light to grow and are sure to die if he leaves them on a fallen branch, Tom collects the plants and nurtures them at home. Then, when the storms are over, he returns the orchids to the trees, each one to the correct host, since they are very selective and particular.” [p. 134] It is quite astounding to think of the risks and resources that people devote to orchids.

So, in this season of Lent, we ask ourselves how are we part of creating a faith expression that is a blessing to the world of today and tomorrow? How are we promoting the flourishing of all life? How are we holding on to what feels comfortable and safe afraid to change contributing to the extinction of the church as well as all of life? How are we devoting ourselves to Christianity and the ministry of the church and its adaptation to new realities? How are we investing ourselves in the good of the world? How are we promoting the adaptation and transformation of the body of Christ so that we can indeed be a blessing to all of Creation including the orchids? Orchids and other plants and animals don’t have to answer these questions because they are biologically driven to evolve. But our situation is more complex. And our choices about our evolution may very well determine their future. Amen.

The information about orchids used in this sermon comes from two sources:
Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants by Jane Goodall with Gail Hudson and The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean.