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.

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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.

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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.[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Nickel_Mines_School_shooting]

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.

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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.
PANO_20160207_105704

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Forgivenes – Claire Stiles

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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.
FORGIVE

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:

Definitions

  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)

Forgiveness:

  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.

REFERENCES

 

A Campaign for Forgiveness Research Website accessed on January 14, 2007 at: www.forgiving.org

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 http://www.apa.org/pi/emsctraining1.html#

 

APA Help Center. (2004). Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Traumatic Stress. APA Fact Sheet accessed on line at http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles/article.php?id=122

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

 

Beaumont, L. R. (2009). Forgiveness. Retrieved at

http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/forgiveness.htm
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 http://www.witnessjustice.org/advocacysta/berger.cfm
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 http://www.biblebb.com/files/mac/57-1.htm.

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
http://find.galegroup.com/ips/infomark.do?&contentSet=IAC-Documents&type=retrieve&tabID=T002&prodId=IPS&docId=A75249361&source=gale&srcprod=EAIM&userGroupName=lirn_main&version=1.0

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 http://www.coadp.org/thepublications/pub-2001-WelchOnMcVeigh.html
Welch. B. The Forgiveness Project. Accessed on the internet on January 15, 2007 at http://www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories/bud-welch
Whitbourne, S. K. (January 1, 2013. Live Longer by Practicing Forgiveness. Forgiveness can help you feel better, and even lengthen your life. Retrieved at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201301/live-longer-practicing-forgiveness

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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.

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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: http://www.sciencefriday.com/blogs/05/07/2015/what-does-the-sun-do-solar-experts-respond.html?series=34]

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.

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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.

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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?
Interdependence?
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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sermon Feb. 1, 2015 “Decisions, Decisions”

Scripture: I Corinthians 8:1-13
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

This New Year began with a pastor calling in a janitor who was to be fired. Apparently, the janitor pulled out a gun and fired at the pastor who then pulled out his own gun and shot the janitor. Only the janitor was wounded. And only the janitor was charged with attempted murder. And, if you’re wondering, yes, this happened in Florida, at Living Water Church outside Orlando. People in the church and community are defending the pastor making the case that what he did was morally right and right in the eyes of God because it was self defense. [http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/breaking-news/os-pastor-shooting-self-defense-20141231-story.html] Myself, I find it hard to imagine how a pastor decides to go to work with a loaded gun. But there you have it. Frankly, I don’t think he’s read much of the New Testament, certainly not First Corinthians.

In the scripture we heard this morning, the writer is advising the people of the Corinthian faith community about how to make decisions based on their faith. The issue at hand is the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. The Roman religions involved worshipping many gods in the form of idols and sacrificing animals and bringing grain and other foods as offerings to those idols. The food was then eaten by the people in communal meals. Could Christians be part of those meals? Or would that be part of idol worship, something forbidden to Christians?

The way the discussion spins out, we learn how the decision whether or not to eat the food sacrificed to the idols is to be made. The writer is not against eating the meat sacrificed to idols because the meat is bad, or it was cursed, or it is a sin, or something like that. The writer is against eating the meat because of how eating meat sacrificed to idols will be perceived by others especially others in the faith community.

Apparently, there are those in the Christian community who are struggling to disentangle themselves from the Roman religious practices involving sacrifices to idols. It has been hard for them to give up that system of practices and relationships. They have become part of the Christian community and are leaving idol worship behind but that can be a difficult transition. The people are advised not to eat the meat sacrificed to idols because it would make things harder for those who are trying to leave that life behind. The outcome is to be determined by the effect the decision will have on others. They are to do what will be most helpful to the others in the community. Out of love and respect for the others in their faith community, they are to abstain. The decision is based on what is best for others. That is what is loving. That is love that builds up the community.

The reasoning is not based on moral teachings. It is not based on the Bible. It is not based on religious tradition. It is not based on legal principles of some kind. It is very practical. This will have an adverse effect on others so you are not to do it. You are to choose the path of love for others. And to eat that meat sacrificed to idols would not be loving toward those who are struggling to break free of that whole system of life.

The heart of the Christian life is concern for the community, for the wellbeing of the group, for the whole, for the needs of others. That is love which builds up. Behavior is determined not by a law code or by tradition or by authoritarian decree. Behavior is determined by the needs of the community and the good of those around you. The Christian faith is about promoting the lifestyle of love for others.

We see this in the tradition we have of the life and teachings of Jesus. He makes decisions based on the well-being of others and what is good for the community as a whole. He does not blindly follow religious dictates. His religious tradition forbade men speaking with women in public. We have stories of Jesus doing just that. Jesus’ religious tradition forbade eating with sinners. We have stories of Jesus doing just that. His tradition forbade working on the sabbath. We have stories of Jesus doing just that; healing and picking grain on the sabbath. His tradition forbade touching someone who was a leper. We have stories of Jesus doing just that. Jesus shows us that our deepest loyalty and commitment must be to love, love which builds up others and the community. That trumps all rules laws, dogmas, principles, and statutes.

Jesus knew the temptation for religious rules and practices to become idols in themselves. While the laws of Judaism were meant to bring people closer to God and form a strong community supportive of the weak, the following of the rules sometimes became more important than the outcome. The bottom line becomes the rule or the law and who has the power to enforce it. The bottom line is no longer love and the well being of the community and of creation. We see this same tendency in religion today. The rules or practices become more important than the outcome they were intended to foster. We see this is the fundamentalist expressions of all religions. The danger is that in the zeal for faith, we become structure legitimators, rule enforcers, line drawers, and become drunk with the power we feel in our righteousness.

We face many choices and decisions about how to live out our faith in our times. How do we embrace the Jesus life fully in all of our decisions and choices about every aspect of our lives? That is our calling as Christians who have been made a new creation and called to a new identity in Christ. How do we do this while avoiding the temptation to make our religion and its tenets an idol?

And how do we continually disentangle ourselves from the idols that surround us: the glorification of youth, sports and entertainment figures, the second amendment, religious dogma, the family, wealth, success, political ideology, and all the other things that people choose to give their worship and devotion?

These challenges have faced people of faith for eons. Our tradition gives us guidelines and some rules. We have the teachings of Jesus that have come to us in the New Testament. We have centuries of history in the life of the church to instruct us. But still, we, too, have to make decisions day in and day out about how we will live in the way of Jesus. What is good for the community? How will this be perceived by others? How do my decisions build up the community, help others, make the world a better place for all people, and contribute to the healing of divisions and injustice? These are the questions we need to be continually asking ourselves as we navigate the choices of our lives.

I recently heard of a mosque that was built adjacent to a Presbyterian Church and the two houses of worship share the parking lot that is between their facilities. This is a beautiful example of making a decision based on what is good for the community, on building others up in love. It makes a witness to the wider society about peace, mutual respect and cooperation. It undermines negative stereotypes of Muslims and of Christians.

Then there is the doctor who went to West Africa to help with the ebola crisis. He contracted the disease and came back to the US to be treated. He nearly died. Afterwards, he told of the excruciating experience of treating the ebola patients in Africa and of the moments of grace and hope. After his full recovery, Dr. Crozier is making plans to return to Africa to continue his work there. [The Christian Century, 1/7/15, p. 8] That is a decision based on what is good for the community, on the needs others, and on the perceptions of others. It speaks volumes not only of his faith, but to the people in Africa and to his community in the US. It is a testimony of selfless love, life lived for others, and commitment to the healing of the world.

Devoted to that kind of expression of Christianity, in that kind of community, we become a new creation, we are made whole, and the world is the better for it. Amen.

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

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2014 World Communion Sunday at Lakewood UCC

Altar arrangement by Colleen Coughenour; items from the collection of Rev. Wells.
CameraZOOM-20141005102757674
World Communion Sunday at Lakewood UCC was celebrated with an emphasis on the church in Africa. All the music in the service–hymns, anthem, prelude, offertory, and postlude–were of African origin. The pictures below are of the choir singing an African anthem with the accompaniment of percussion instruments.


Below is the podcast of Rev. Wells’ sermon for World Communion Sunday, followed by a text version of that sermon. The recording begins with Liturgist, Susan Sherwood, reading Exodus 17:1-7 and John 7:37-38, followed by Rev. Well’s sermon.

Podcast

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 Text

Sermon Title: Lessons from Africa
World Communion Sunday
10/5/14
Scripture Lessons: Exodus 17:1-7 and John 7:37-38

A land of tremendous natural resources, the home of iconic wildlife, the cradle of humanity, and the site of stunning natural beauty, Africa is incredible. Our family had the opportunity to go to Kenya in 1995. I remember flying over the Sahara Desert. You look out the window of the plane and all that can be seen is sand. An hour later, you look again. Sand. Several hours later. Still more sand. It was unbelievable. But Africa is HUGE. It is as big as China, India, the US, and most of Europe combined. The population is 1.69 billion people with subSaharan Africa being the fastest growing region on the earth. Africa is stunning.

The problems there are stunning as well. About 25% of the population is HIV positive. There are over a million deaths a year attributed to AIDS. Malaria is still of epidemic proportions in Africa. The deforestation rate is twice that in the rest of the world with 90% of the population relying on wood for fuel for cooking and heating. There is the the assault on the animal population by poachers. 35,000 elephants were killed last year. There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left. The rhino, lion, and Grevy’s zebra are also under attack. We can add to that the toxic legacy of the colonial era in which rich countries raped Africa of its natural resources. There continues to be political unrest and war in many parts of Africa and we hear of Boko Haram and other groups fomenting violence. There is a huge refugee problem as people leave areas of violence and war seeking safety. And there is drought and famine to contend with. And, now, we hear daily of the erupting Ebola crisis. There are over 7,000 people with Ebola and about half that many deaths to date.

The suffering of Africa is tragic. If ever there were a place ripe for cynicism and despair, it is Africa. This continent in crisis has so many reasons to cry out and complain and lament like the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. Surely the people of Africa could cry out for water. And for food.

Given the problems of Africa today, one could expect this to be a godless land. All these troubles and sufferings. How could there be a good and loving God? Has God abandoned Africa? Are the people forsaken? And yet Christianity has deep roots in Africa and is growing and thriving. There are many churches in Africa: Episcopal, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Evangelical. There are many, many expressions of Christianity in Africa. And the people are dedicated in their faith. The ethics and values of Christianity blend very well with traditional tribal cultures. There is the focus on hospitality, on community, on consensus, on forgiveness, and on solidarity. This fits well with the teachings of Jesus.

The people of Africa can also identify with the sufferings of Jesus. He, too, traveled from place to place, as the refugees of Africa. He lived under a repressive regime. He was concerned with fulling the basic needs of people for food, water, and community. Jesus faced death threats and violence and hardship. He was killed. And through it all, he maintained his trust and love of God. This is the kind of faith that we see in the people of Africa.

In the face of so many problems, the Christians of Africa still appreciate God’s blessings. They rejoice in the gift of life. They gather to praise God. When we were in Africa, we stopped by a church in a rural small town to see a friend of our family. The women had gathered at this church for a retreat over Saturday and Sunday. The woman we knew had walked 6 hours to get to the church. She left on Friday as the sun went down to avoid the heat of the day. She carried food to share with the others who would gather there. They slept on the bare wood of the church floor. They prayed and sang all day Saturday and into Sunday. Then, Sunday, at sundown, they began their walk home, in the cool of dusk, another 6 hour trek. People in Africa routinely walk hours to go to church each week. I was stunned. Here, people find it hard to manage a 10 minute drive and an hour or so for church on Sunday morning. Have these Africans nothing else to do? Hardly. They labor intensively to eke a subsistence existence from the land. It is time consuming and taxing. And yet they make time for church. They have a saying. “For us, religion is like our skin.” It is fundamentally part of who we are. It is not like clothing that we take on and off and change. [Once Upon a Time in Africa: Stories of Wisdom and Joy compiled by Joseph G. Healey]

For these Christians of Africa, their faith pervades their lives. When a baby is born, they rejoice. When a baby dies, they entrust the child to God, trust God to heal their grief, and rejoice that the child has gone to the heart of love. They serve one another and others around them. A child at a doctor’s office shares a precious piece of candy with another sick child. A child carries a sibling on a long journey feeling no sense of burden or resentment. A girl knits a blanket for her new baby brother using thorns from a nearby tree as knitting needles. A government worker who abused the lepers under his care is buried by those same lepers who have forgiven him and taken care of him in his last days. People with next to nothing kneel and pray in gratitude for the blessings they have received. [From Once Upon a Time in Africa] These are not the arrogant, spoiled Hebrews of the wilderness. They are resilient, strong, and trusting. If there is a stick and a rock, they will work for water. And they will share each and every drop. They are unsparing in generosity – with food, water, clothes, and material possessions, as well as time, gratitude, hospitality, service, and forgiveness.

There is one area where the church of Africa has lost its way and that is around homosexuality. Church groups in Africa mobilize their substantial faith and energy to promote homophobia, to advocate for laws that punish gay people even with death. Are they concerned with covering their bases to avoid God’s wrath? Is this to distinguish them from non-Christians and those who practice animistic religions? Is it to resist the West. I don’t know. In traditional tribal societies, homosexuality was accepted as special. A gay person was often considered holy because he was different. They were thought to have special powers. Maybe being anti gay is a way to undermine the power of superstition associated with traditional religions. But in any case, the church of Africa is definitely at odds with the churches of the west and the rest of the world in its vehemence against homosexuality. While other churches may see it as sin, they do not advocate for the death penalty. But, hopefully, there will be a transformation soon. New living water will flow. And the people will be cleansed and healed and reconciled of this sin of homophobia.

When we were in Kenya, one of the vehicles we used had a leak in the radiator. We had to constantly seek out sources of water to fill the radiator. This could be very challenging. At one point, we had to stop by the side of the road at night. We could go no further. We were not in a town or village, but out on a remote road. We got out of the wagon and looked around. Three men were walking down the road. They stopped to talk with us. We told them about our problem. Oh, water? There’s some right here. Jeff took the two empty jugs and went with the men down a steep, grassy slope. Then I could no longer see him, and the kids and I waited at the car. I am not given to alarmism but it did occur to me that I might never see my husband again. About 10 minutes later, the three men came back up the hill with Jeff right behind them struggling with the two jugs evidently filled with water. Jeff thanked the men for their help and offered to pay them something. Oh, no. They refused, saying they were Christians. And off they went. To church? Who knows.

Evidently, at the bottom of the hill was a pvc pipe above the ground. The men took Jeff right to a spot where the pipes had been connected and could be separated so that the water could be accessed. He filled the jugs and they put the pipes back together and came up the hill. Who would have known about the pipe and the location of the break to open the pipe? These men knew exactly what to do. Amazing! Like a stick and a rock, as far as we were concerned. And off we went back to Nairobi.

For the Christians of Africa, religion is truly their skin. The Christians of Africa are constantly in need and trusting God to sustain them. And they are willing to gather the elders, climb the mountain, find the rock, and strike it with the stick. Whatever it takes. They are willing to work in partnership with God to sustain life. And the joy, trust, and faith that they show is as beautiful as any view of the Rift Valley, or Mount Kilimanjaro, or Victoria Falls.

This World Communion Sunday Christians around the world celebrate communion as a symbol of the unity of the body of Christ. We all come to the table together. We rejoice in our common bond through Jesus. Praising God. Following Jesus. Serving the world. Christ Jesus is the host at communion. We are all guests. There is no one superior or inferior, no one above or below, we are all side by side.

Historically, we of the west have taken from Africa. Natural resources. Labor. In recent times, we have given to Africa. Assistance and aid. Maybe motivated by guilt. Maybe with a patronizing attitude of condescension. But this World Communion Sunday invites us to think about coming to the table as a community, as equals, as sisters and brothers. In this spirit, we see that there is much that we have to learn from Africa. The Christians of Africa have much to teach us about faith, trust, service and community. African Christians exhibit trust in a God who seeks nothing but our highest good. And they partner with that God in any way they can for the good of the world.

Pediatrician Alan Jamison was in Liberia when the Ebola virus broke out and the country slipped into chaos. He treated as many patients as he could before being called back to the US by his sponsoring organization. But Dr. Jamison wants to go back to Africa. “This is where the need is,” he said. “This is my calling.” [The Christian Century, 10/1/14, p. 8] It may be hard to understand why Dr. Jamison wants to go back to a place so dangerous and fraught with problems. I imagine that Dr. Jamison wants to go back to Africa because he senses the deep hope and faith of the people. Their spirit of love and community has infected him. And he wants to be part of that context of faith and trust even in the face of horrific suffering. The Christians of Africa have no fear. With no grumbling, but gladly, rejoicing, probably with drums and dance, they strike the rock with the stick. And living water flows. For all. Amen.

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Sermon September 28, 2014 The Bottom Line

Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

A household inventory may be used for the purposes of home owner’s insurance or for a will. In the novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, there is an inventory of the Grimke household of Columbia, South Carolina in the early 1800’s. Each item enumerated includes a figure; a monetary value. The harpsichord is listed with a value of $29. Two Brussels carpets and a cover are valued at $180. Then, on the last page, there is a list of additional goods and chattel. Lucy, 20 years old, Lady’s Maid, is valued at $400. Tomfry, 51 years old, Butler and Gentleman’s servant, is valued at $600. [Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings, pp 110-111]

This kind of valuing of human life is abhorrent to us. And yet, we place economic value on human life all of the time. All the factory workers in developing countries that have plenty of people who need to work are paid little because they are not considered to be worth much. They can be easily replaced and there is little competition for sources of labor. There are other individuals in our world paid millions upon millions each and every year. These figures are more than wage indicators. They are numbers that indicate how people are valued. We routinely value people according to their economic productivity. Just think of the question, “What’s he worth?” We may be thinking about a professional athlete or a corporate mogul or an entertainer. And we are referring to financial assets. But those numbers also become intertwined with our sense of the value of the actual person.

If you want to see this at work, go to a place where there are a lot of low income people. Visit the health department or the social security office or the Salvation Army community services office. The conditions of the facility and the treatment of the clients speak volumes. Low income, low economic productivity translates to low worth as a human being. Then think of how we fawn over rich, successful, powerful, prestigious people. High income is associated with high worth as a human being. We may not buy and sell people any more, but we still make associations between economics and the value of human life.

This morning we listened to a parable that is told around an economic situation. A parable is a story that is intended to convey multiple meanings and to speak on differing levels. Scholars have much to say about this parable. In this story, there can be seen a message about those in the early Christian communities of the first century. Some of the people were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah that the Jews had long awaited. Others who became part of the Christian community were Gentiles who had never been Jews. They were essentially pagans who became associated with the Christian community. There was some tension between these groups. Does Matthew include this story to show that Jews, like the early workers, and Gentiles, like the late workers, all receive the same salvation in the end? This could be one way to understand the story. Some see in this story an economic critique: An expose of the wealthy landowners who have taken the land from the peasants, creating an unemployed under class. A story of the elites and the expendables and the economic injustice of the day which leaves the wealthy landowners free to do as they please. We could see in this story a justification of economic disparity and affirmation of the rich who appear to be generous. And that line, “Am I not allowed to do what I want with what is mine?” This sounds like the declaration of a good democracy-loving capitalist. There are many messages to be found in this story and that is the intention of a parable. To speak many truths.

To me, there is one thing that is inescapable about this story. The workers are all paid the same amount. Given our proclivity then and now for equating economic productivity with a person’s value, this story seems to indicate that all are of the same value. Hardworking and able-bodied hired early in the day. Older, sick, disabled people left to last and hired late in the day. Those in the middle. All paid the same. Of the same value as a human life in the divine economy. In God’s design, persons are not valued for their economic productivity or lack thereof. Each life is of equal value. Certainly people have differing capabilities and skills and are not the same by any means. But they have the same value because they are a human being created in the divine image.

Today we live in a time of economic upheaval. There’s a movement for an increased minimum wage. Fast food workers are agitating for a living wage. The wealth gap in the US is a growing problem contributing to greater societal instability. Are CEOs really worth 354 times the average worker? [“Pay gap more like a canyon,” Roberto Ferdman, Tampa Bay Times 9/26/14] The wealth gap world wide fuels violence and terrorism and social and political unrest. Underlying many of these economic issues is the connection between economic productivity and the value of a life. People who are underpaid feel undervalued and second class. People at the top financially have a sense of privilege and entitlement. And this situation is becoming more and more
volatile.

I was asked by someone in the congregation to address the issues that are facing us in our day. What is a Christian response to ISIS and the Islamist threat? To globalization? To school resegregation? To the economic system and its inequities? What is a Christian foreign policy? How do we put our beliefs into practice relative to the issues of our time?

Underpinning all of this, the foundation, the bottom line presupposition for our approach to social issues, economic problems, and security concerns, is the core message of this parable that we have discussed. The parable tells an equalizing story which points to the equal worth of each and every person. That is the heart of the realm of God, the commonwealth of heaven, the divine intention for creation. Each and every person, each and every life, of fundamentally equal value. Each beloved; each precious. To function as individuals, as citizens, as a community from that fundamental commitment is transforming.

Imagine thinking about a social problem and speculating about a response with the bottom line that each and every life is of equal value. If that is the bottom line, then all students are going to have the opportunity to learn and grow provided for them by the school system. The situation at home for the child cannot be controlled by society, but what the school system offers will be fair and just treatment of each and every student. In thinking about foreign policy, if the bottom line is the fundamental equality of value of each and every human life, then the picture of the world today would be quite different. US foreign policy begins with the assumption that the lives of US citizens are worth more than the lives of people of other nations, and there is a pecking order among those other nations. With a commitment to the wellbeing of each and every person, foreign policy would be much more oriented toward empowering other countries and cultivating self determination, helping them achieve their hopes and dreams, and creating a community of equals among nations and peoples. Instead, we not only protect US interests but promote and privilege US interests worldwide over the interests of other peoples with a heavy handed attitude of superiority and this creates enemies that we then have to defend ourselves from. The assumption is that these other people are not as important or as valuable as people of the US and US interests.

The world, our society, the community around us, does not embrace the egalitarianism of the gospel. All around us, one person in a situation is treated one way, and a different person in a similar situation is treated another way. This has been a glaring message in the episodes involving police brutality against blacks. I had a black friend tell me, “A black life is not considered of equal value to a white life in this country.” A so-called Christian country could never tolerate that because that is fundamentally antithetical to the Christian faith.

The parable with the scenario of equal pay sends a strong message of equality in terms of the value and worth of a life. To put that message at the core of our ethics, our economics, our policies, our personal and international relationships, would be a drastic change that would transform reality as we know it. And this is what Christianity should be about, in a fundamental way, in the world. This message is radical. It is offensive. It is faithful. And it is true to Jesus.

In the book, Enrique’s Journey, author Sonia Nazario tells of a young man who leaves Honduras to come to the US to find his mother who is here illegally trying to make money to support her children in Honduras. The book tackles the issues around immigration as well as the story of one youngster and his perilous trek to the North. The journey involves taking buses and trains, walking and hiding. There is law enforcement to evade. There are thieves and bandits who prey on the migrants. The authorities abuse and extort and rob the migrants. There is constant threat not just from the elements and the moving trains, but from the people along the way.

But at some points on the journey the people help the migrants. There are people who take the migrants in offering food, first aid, and medical treatment. The kindness and generosity of some is as stunning as the violence and abuse of others. They hear the train coming and race to the tracks to throw bundles of food and clothes to the migrants on the trains. These are people who live on $2-3 a day. Whose existence is constantly in peril. Who themselves are barely hanging on in the face of debilitating poverty. Nazario tells us, “Families throw sweaters, tortillas, bread, and plastic bottles filled with lemonade. A baker, his hands coated with flour, throws his extra loaves. A seamstress throws bags filled with sandwiches. A teen ager throws bananas. A carpenter throws bean burritos. A store owner throws animal crackers, day-old pastries, and half-liter bottles of water. People who have watched migrants fall off the train from exhaustion bring plastic jugs filled with Coca-Cola or coffee. . . Migrants who haven’t eaten in days in days sob when they are handed a bundle of food. . . As the procession of migrants has grown, so has the determination to help.” [Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey, pp. 105, 107] This is what happens in certain areas particularly in the state of Veracruz.

When the people who offer help were questioned about their generosity, they were humble:

“If I have one tortilla, I give half away. I know God will give me more.”
“I don’t like to feel that I have eaten and they haven’t.”
“It feels good to give something that they need so badly.”
“I figure when I die, I can’t take anything with me. So why not give?”
“What if someday something bad happens to us? Maybe someone will
extend a hand to us.”
“God says, when I saw you naked, I clothed you. When I saw you hungry, I gave you food. That is what God teaches.” [pp. 105-107]

This last perspective refers to the story of the last judgment which is in the gospel of Matthew just a few chapters after the parable that we heard this morning. In the story we are told that whatever you do for “the least of these” you are doing for Jesus. The people along the migrant route that help others do so in large measure because the bishop and the local priests encourage the generosity as an act of faith. One church has organized teams that defend the migrants from the police. Church member Gloria Sanchez Romero says, “They aren’t animals. They are human beings. You’d never want to be treated that way.” [p. 112] That is the heart of their goodness and generosity. The belief, based on their Christian faith, that each and every life is precious to God. That all people are equally loved and valued in the eyes of God.

These people are treating the migrants like human beings. Like people. To honor our own humanity, to respect the sacredness of life, involves treating others as human beings as well. Of equal value and worth as ourselves, as one another, and as Jesus.

Yes, people are different. We have differing skills, abilities, talents, and interests. These differences are reflected in the monetary economy and translate into varying value and pay. While those differences are important and understandable from an economic perspective, for a Christian, there is still the bottom line that each and every person is precious, cherished, beloved, and sacred in the divine economy, in the eyes of God, in the fundamental reality of creation.

What can we say for a Christian approach to foreign policy and social issues? Every life of equal value. Every life valued as our faith tradition teaches that God values the life. Every life valued as Jesus valued the lives of those he encountered. Every life valued as your own.

In The Invention of Wings, the inventory of the Grimke household that is found by a slave, Handful, aka Hetty. When she sees that her mother has the highest monetary value of the women slaves, she is proud. And she, Handful, is second only to her mother. She marvels at this. Later in the day, she reflects: “Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledged people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was.
“After a while, I went down to the cellar. When mauma saw my raw eyes, she said, ‘Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.’” [p. 112]

That, my friends, is the scandal of the gospel. Each and every person is of incalculable value in God’s economy. And the Christian path involves living out that truth. Trusting that equality. Banking on that value. Taking that risk. Amen.

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

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Sermon July 13, 2014 The Many Faces of Jesus Part Two: The Exalted Jesus

Scriptures: John 1: 1-14 and Philippians 2:5-11
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

When I was growing up, one of my favorite hymns was “At the Name of Jesus.” I was captivated by the majestic, awe-inspiring words and tune. Maybe some of you know it:

At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every heart confess him
King of glory now;
‘Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

Hymns are a way that we articulate and celebrate our faith. This hymn, not included in the current New Century Hymnal, echoes the ideas in the two hymns that were read for us this morning from the gospel of John and the letter to the Philippians. Scholars believe that these passages were both independent writings, poetry or hymns, that were used in worship in the early church before the gospels and epistles were written.

These hymns extol the exalted Jesus as Christ: Pre existent with God since before the beginning. A participant in the original process of creation. God in human form who lived and died and returned to heaven to rule over creation once again. A sacrifice made to redeem humankind from sin. These hymns show us Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ (the Greek term for Messiah). They tell of Jesus as the human face of God.

In the first part of this series on the many faces of Jesus, we talked about the historical Jesus. He was a Jew, from Palestine, lower class, and likely illiterate. Within 3 decades of his crucifixion, Jesus is known as God. How did this exalted face of Jesus emerge from his humble historical beginnings?

Let’s look back at the message and ministry of Jesus. The gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by those who were not eyewitnesses. Scholars are clear that while Jesus probably did not say verbatim much of what is attributed to him in the New Testament, what he did say was radical and subversive to both the religious and political authorities of his day. Jesus was known as a prophet. The job of a prophet is to critique the power structure and to re-call the community to God’s vision of justice which includes special care for the most needy and vulnerable in the community. In broad strokes, it can be agreed that Jesus spoke with authority of the realm of God and the intentions of God for the human community.

So Jesus is painting pictures and telling stories and stirring things up and mobilizing people’s imaginations to embrace an alternate view of reality. A reality in which every person is beloved by God. Every person is worthy of respect. Everyone is treated with compassion and generosity. There are no victims and there is no violence. Jesus is re-visioning Eden and he is getting people to catch on to this vision and orient their lives to these values which, incidentally, do not come from the thin air, but from the Jewish scriptures. Jesus is choosing the justice themes from his heritage and recasting them for his audience which is what prophets do.

Evidently, he is good at this. His message is compelling. There appears to be no self interest in his ministry. And somehow that came through in ways that attracted people to Jesus especially those at the bottom of the socio/economic/religious ladder. We can imagine that Jesus was charismatic not in a flamboyant way for self promotion, but in an intense, sincere way. The communities that formed around his message and his witness experienced a different kind of reality, a new way of being in the world. And this spread.

So, how do you talk about this compelling experience? How do you talk about something life changing? How do you convey the intense experience of transcendence that Jesus embodies? How do you share the sense of awe, wonder, and authority that you feel about Jesus’ ideas and actions? How do you express his fearless love? What can be said about a person who transforms your entire view of reality? What are the words and images that will tell this story?

Well, in that time, in that setting, there were a number of ways to do that. Other religions in that context had gods born in a cave with a star and animals near by. Other religions had figures that came back from the dead. Other religions had leaders that healed people and did miracles. Judaism had its prophets, like Elijah who multiplied food and Moses who had power over the water. Many of the themes and images and stories that we have of Jesus are echoes of those from the Hebrew scriptures and from other near Eastern religions of his day because that is how people knew how to speak about important, significant
religious figures.

We also want to note that the language and legacy about Jesus reflects a context which was anchored in the system of sacrifice for patronage, power, and standing. At that time, people believed in gods that were often thought to be angry and hostile and required sacrifices for appeasement. In a religious context in which people are trying to stay in the good graces of the gods so that they will be saved, rescued, and blessed, it makes sense to talk about Jesus as a sacrifice that links people to God’s good graces.

In this scenario, Jesus creates a new path for humans to be in right relationship with God. In a context of sacrifice, what sacrifice can be given to appease God for human sin? Only a sinless, perfect sacrifice. Can humans come up with anything to meet this debt? No. But, it was thought, in Jesus, God provided the perfect sacrifice. God made it possible for humans to be reconciled to God’s good graces. In the exalted, cosmic view of Jesus as the Savior, he is presented as the new Adam, getting it right, and redressing the sin of the first Adam.

In a religious context expecting a Messiah who would be an heir of King David, it made sense to speak of Jesus as a King. In a context in which the wisdom tradition talked about the immortality of the soul, preexistent before birth, then inhabiting a body, and then going on after the body, the image of Jesus present with God at creation fits in. In a context that was dominated by polytheism with gods who were regularly involved with and interacting with humans, it made sense to see Jesus as a divine being, as a god.

The exceptional experience of Jesus is perhaps most strongly conveyed in the presentation of Jesus as a leader with a vision that rivaled the authority of Caesar. There are many titles used for Jesus in the New Testament including Son of God and Son of Man. These titles were not just personally designed for Jesus. These were titles that were used for other authority figures, like Caesar, the head of the Roman Empire who was believed to be the divine son of God. Using these familiar titles for Jesus set Jesus up as a figure of power and authority and vision akin to that of the most powerful leader of the day. In fact, Jesus was crucified in part because he was seen as one who was seeking to create a new kingdom to replace the realm of Caesar. His message was so compelling, so widespread, so strong, that it was perceived as a threat, treason, to the great, vast, Roman Empire. And so Roman authorities put Jesus to death.

And to people who had left home, family, jobs, social connections, and religious traditions to follow Jesus, what did you do with a leader who died a humiliating, excruciating death? That can’t be the last word. Their experience was so intense, so transformative, so hope filled. It surely could not have all been a sham. So what to do with a dead savior? Resurrect him, as was done with other gods and leaders. Have the final outcome, the end result, resolved in the next life. Those who killed Jesus, who persecuted his followers? They might not get it in this life, but just wait until the life to come. Eternal torment awaits.

I grew up thinking that all these things were special and unique to Jesus. Now through scholarship, we know that these special features that we associate with Jesus are associated with him because that’s how you talked about someone extraordinary in those times. These images, titles, and stories conveyed claims for Jesus in ways that his contemporaries would understand. They tell how Jesus was experienced by those around him. They had such a compelling, intense, transforming experience that they talked about him in the most superlative ways they knew how. And they passed those stories on until they were written down and have come to us in scripture.

This exalted way of talking about Jesus, as king of the universe, as lord of all, as the perfect sacrifice, as the one sent by god for this very purpose, as God incarnate, all of this was intended to express how compelling Jesus and his message was. It was a way of conveying the power of who he was and how he was experienced. People lived their lives differently because of Jesus. They committed to following him. To living as he did. Rich people gave away their money. Poor people accepted help and contributed to the community in new ways. People chose to forgive. They left home and family. They gave up social standing and prominence. They changed their lives to live as he did. They imagined and created a different reality because of their experience of Jesus and his message.

The exalted face of Jesus shows the power of his impact and his influence. It conveys the extraordinary transformation that was wrought by his ministry. But as Lord Acton, English historian, politician, and writer of the 19th century so eloquently said it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The power that was associated with the exalted Jesus as Messiah, God incarnate, was assumed by the church, a very human institution, movement, and organization, prone to all the pitfalls and temptations of power abuse. Just a few generations down the line, the church, which had been persecuted was persecuting. The church of the poor was rich. The church of no victims and no violence was going into battle and subjugating the masses. The image of Jesus as a divine King was used to authorize and endorse subsequent human kings who then abused their power. The exalted, elevated images of Jesus were used to justify the abuse of power and to serve self interest. All in the name of Jesus, the King, the Lord of Creation, God.

As the exalted imagery of Jesus was passed on, the expectation became not that you would follow him (how could you?) but that you would believe in him. And then, he, the exalted king of the universe, would do things for you. Give you power, wealth, and health. Or give you the strength to endure your God-ordained servitude. If you believed in him. There was the subtle shift from following Jesus, doing as he did, to believing in Jesus and he’ll do for you. When Jesus is imaged as an exalted God, then we can’t be like him, we can’t hope to emulate him. But we can believe and then trust what he will do for us.

So the exalted face of Jesus has been used by Christians as an excuse for not following Jesus, but expecting his great and almighty holiness to be mobilized on our behalf if we only believe. If we believe, he will do it for us. We can trust him, and this can mean that we don’t exert ourselves in living and forgiving and giving as Jesus did.

Yes, we need ways to talk about the unique, compelling tradition of Jesus. But the exalted images of power associated with Jesus have been abused and are still being used to promote personal agendas of power and privilege today.

In the book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, author Robert Kaplan describes how in 1921, Greece decided to invade Asia Minor, Turkey, to reclaim territory lost in previous conflicts and settlements. This is post World War 1 and there had been vast advances in warfare. But Greece was still living in the past. Kaplan tells us: “A reporter for the Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway, writes that the Greek officers ‘did not know a god-damned thing,’ while the Greek troops came to battle in the ceremonial, nineteenth-century uniform of ‘white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompoms on them.’” [p. 247] In 10 days, the Greeks were driven back to the sea.

There are problems with carrying forward the images of Jesus as king, monarch, and God especially when the language used is ancient. In some ways, it undercuts the very message that it was intended to convey. The challenge to every age is to carry forth the message, the contents, but not necessarily the container. New times call for new containers.

The challenge for the church of every age, is to find ways to express the alternative universe that is presented and embodied by Jesus, this new creation, this transformation of the spirit as well as of society, in ways that are compelling and have power and authenticity while holding on to the self giving humility and poverty of Jesus. For the very way that Jesus lived as a person is what inspired the exalted expressions of his legacy.

How do we put Jesus at the center of our lives, our choices, our behavior, that poor peasant from Palestine, in a world caught up in consumerism, greed, self indulgence, entitlement, violence, and vengeance? How do we express the life giving power of forgiveness? How do we convey the transformative power of giving? How do we create a different reality?

New ways of communicating the eternal message of Jesus are needed. New language and messages of hope are called for in this and every age. What we have in the Bible and in ancient documents tells us their story. We must make it our own. And add our stories to those that have gone before us. We are the ones who need to be finding new ways to convey the power of the gospel of Jesus.

Jesus was a radical and a subversive rebel. He was undermining the structures of society that were thought to be keeping things stable. He alienated those in authority. He attracted those at the bottom of the social/economic/religious ladder. He wanted to upset the apple cart and he wanted to create a new reality, a new status quo. Here we are reminded of the sentiment attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words. May our tribute
to Jesus be not only in our words and hymns but in our actions. Amen.

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

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Sermon July 20, 2014 The Many Faces of Jesus Part Three: Jesus of Popular Culture

Scripture Lesson: John 3:16-17
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In the year 2000, candidates for the Republican nomination for president gathered in the Des Moines Iowa Civic Center for a televised debate. In the course of conversation about the usual – abortion, school violence, and ethanol – the candidates were asked which “political philosopher or thinker” they “most identified with.” The responses included John Locke, the founding fathers, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. Oh, and there was one last response – Christ – offered by George W. Bush. [Jesus in America A History: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession, Richard Wightman Fox, p. 384-5]

There’s no question that Jesus Christ is an influential figure and not only because he changed the heart of W. In countless ways and contexts, it can be asserted that Jesus Christ, who began as a Palestinian peasant over 2000 years ago, is top ranked today as a figure of influence even celebrity.

In 1966, John Lennon remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. [Fox, p. 377] Later he apologized for the overstated comment. Today, we have become used to such insolence, but a performer would be hard pressed to say such a thing because the popularity of Jesus seems to be growing, or at least it is more universally recognized.

Jesus is a major figure in music, film, literature, and of course, art. A few examples include The Tale of Two Cities, JC Superstar, The Passion of Christ, Last Temptation of Christ, and the list could go on and on and on.
Jesus is recognized as a figure influencing social change. He is revered by civil rights activists including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is honored by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Jesus was influential upon Cesar Chavez and the National Farmworker movement.

Jesus is a revered figure not only in Christianity. He was admired by Mohandas Gandhi. He is respected by the Dalai Lama. For Muslims and Jews, he is considered a prophet. BaHai’s revere Jesus. Hindus and Buddhists honor Jesus. He is considered an avatar for the Hindu god Vishnu.

Jesus is a significant figure not only for what some of us may consider positive initiatives in society, but he is also a key symbol for the Ku Klux Klan, the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Congo, militia groups and hate groups in the US and the world over.

Capitalists, socialists, fascists, pacifists, the armed forces, and so many other diverse factions and groups, claim Jesus as an ally.

Jesus is a frequent subject of tattoos. I saw a woman this past week with a tight, short spaghetti strap dress on, high platform shoes, looking like a street walker on 34th Street, and there on her back was a huge depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus. What does that mean to this woman? To have a huge tattoo of Jesus dead on the cross adorning(?) her back?

Visually, you can find Jesus represented as a yogi in the lotus position, as a business man in a suit, as a homeless person asleep on a park bench. You can find images of Jesus depicted laughing, crying, and dying. African or Aryan. At a computer or cell phone in hand. Toting a cross or toting a gun. As President of the US, as a Zombie, or astride a tyrannosaurus rex. I even found an image of Jesus flipping the bird. The only thing I did not find was Jesus having sex, and I am sure if I looked long enough the internet could have provided that, too.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the notoriety of Jesus is the popularity of Christmas. Christmas is celebrated the world over by people of all cultures and religions. It is the most celebrated holiday in the world.

This morning we listened to those beautiful words from the Gospel of John extolling the love of God in Jesus: “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal live. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” These words, written well after Jesus died, convey the importance of Jesus to the community the writer was addressing and beyond. They are words which have come down to us encapsulating the meaning of Jesus. God’s gift to the world to show God’s eternal love. A gift to save the world, to foster life, to embody the good, to show the way. This teaching was specifically addressed to people within the Jewish tradition both those who had chosen to follow Jesus and those who had not. The writer wants people to know that there is a decision to be made about Jesus. If you believe, then you are saved. The word used for belief implies to have faith in, to be committed to, to put trust in, to rely on, to place confidence in. So, if you believe in Jesus, then you are saved. The word for saved is used in various settings implying healing, wholeness, and deliverance. It can be used to refer to this life, suffering, sickness, or danger. It can also be used to refer to the life of the spirit, to eternal damnation or eternal life, to the outcome at the end times. Which side do we want to be on?

Who does not want to be on the side of good, the right side, the side of God, the side of Jesus, however we may envision that? Who does not want to be saved, to be delivered in whatever way that we may conceive of that? When presented with the choice, with the decision, most of us want to believe and be saved. We have mentioned how Jesus is ubiquitous, imaged, portrayed, and conveyed in countless ways. I think this is indicative of our desire to be on the right side of things. We want to show our alignment with Jesus and thus with God. We want to know we are loved and cared for by a power beyond our own. Jesus gives us
access to that; he is a symbol of that.

Last week we read from the first chapter of John, “The word was in the world. . . but the world did not recognize the word.” The invitation, the option, the opportunity was there. But some missed it. The story before the verses we heard this morning is the story of Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who comes to Jesus by night. He is seeking. He, too, wants to be saved, whatever that may mean to him. He knows that Jesus is offering something that makes a difference and he wants to get in on it. As the story proceeds, Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being born anew, or from above, or again. Nicodemus is confused and doesn’t understand.

One aspect of the meaning of saying “yes” to God through Jesus is the willingness to change. To be born anew. To be remolded. To see things differently. Embrace a new kind of life. Following Jesus is marked by an openness to a continual process of growth, transformation, and change.

Now what about change? I could tell you numerous things I would like changed about my husband. Let’s see. Where to start? But I surely do not want to change. We don’t like change. People never really have liked it even in ancient times. Change is fine if it involves someone else changing to suit our desires. Otherwise, we’re not so enamored with change. In the Nicodemus story, Jesus talks about submitting to the Holy Spirit that blows where it wills. It might puff us in to a new locale, out of a familiar relationship, into a new movement for social change, out of a lucrative career, into a new perspective about something important, out of old prejudices, or even on to a cross. It’s no wonder Nicodemus ends up sneaking off back into the darkness. Taking Jesus on those terms is quite a challenge and a commitment and it’s beyond him in this story and beyond many others as well, then and now.

We see that Jesus offers salvation. He wants to remake us in God’s image. But I
think that we find it easier, more palatable, more convenient, to remake Jesus in
our image. We want to be aligned with Jesus and his saving love, so we find ways to portray him, image him, and reconstruct him, that suit our sensibilities. We enlist him in our causes so that we appear to be on the same side, the side of what is good and right and true. We appear to believe so that we will be saved. In my estimation, much of this occurs subconsciously, inadvertently, and naively. “The word was in the world. . . but the world did not recognize the word.”

This has been a difficult week. I get my news from reading the newspaper and from the radio. Every time I glanced at the latest headline or hit the button on the radio, the world seemed to get more depressing and depraved. A passenger jet shot down out of the sky over Europe? Israel sending ground troops into Gaza notching things up instead of working for peace? Isis creating more chaos in Syria and environs? The inside scoop on Boko Haram, the group that kidnapped the girls in Nigeria. They are carrying out beheadings with swords according to the rituals of some ancient sacred writings. Then there is the crazy dysfunction of our government and the Supreme Court. And our STEM governor who doesn’t seen to want to be influenced by what scientists have to say about global climate change. I know there were some wins for gay marriage this week, but overall, this was a week for despair. Or maybe I should say, another week for despair. We simply seem to be going the wrong direction.

This making Jesus in our image, enlisting him in our causes, getting him on our side, it doesn’t seem to be saving us – from ourselves or from anyone else. Here is Jesus, a ubiquitous figure, portrayed and displayed in profusion, and look at the shape things are in. Jesus offers us salvation through healing, wholeness, justice, reconciliation, compassion, and community. He faced death for the well-being of others. He is a gift of salvation to the world. But he will only save us if we let him. Amen.

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

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Sermon July 27, 2014 The Many Faces of Jesus Part Four: Why Jesus?

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 11:1-9 and Mark 9:33-37
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Why Jesus? Why are we, over 2,000 years after the life of this poor Palestinian Jew, why are we paying him any mind? Why are we singing and praying to him? Around the time that Jesus lived, there were other healers. We are not here for them. There were other prophets. We are not here for them. There were other would-be messiahs. We are not here for them. There were other miracle workers. We are not here for them. Why Jesus? When you think of how long ago Jesus lived and in such a different world, it’s almost bizarre that we even know that he ever existed. Why Jesus?

I have three ideas to suggest that give some account for why Jesus stood out in his lifetime and continues to do so today. The first is the new vision that
Jesus offered. In his preaching and teaching, Jesus imagined a different reality. The stories he told turned the reality that people knew on its head. We heard an example in the scripture lesson this morning. The disciples are having a conversation that seems entirely natural. Who’s on top? Who does Jesus like the most? That’s hierarchy and competition just as we all see it each and every day. And the response of Jesus in the story? The first will be last; the first will be a slave to all. He completely upsets the apple cart.

Then, Jesus talks about a child. A child? They were not thinking of a child as
someone naive, innocent, impressionable, and eager. In that context a child was of the lowest social standing and worth. Think of the images we have seen recently of the virtually abandoned, helpless, powerless children that are coming here from Central America. They have nothing. They are completely at the mercy of others. Vulnerable and dependent. That’s the kind of child Jesus was referring to. Become like children and you will experience God. There you have it again. Jesus offering a teaching that reveals a completely different reality.

Jesus deconstructs the default settings of the people in terms of their assumptions about the nature of reality including economic identity, hierarchy, patriarchy, religion, racism, gender, and culture. Jesus exposes all of these things for what they are: social constructs. These are all things that we use to categorize, to define, to stratify, and to divide people. In his teachings, Jesus shows that these things don’t have to be accepted. He deconstructs current assumptions and offers an alternative reality.

Jesus shares a vision of a reality in which all people are of equal worth and value as human beings. It is an egalitarian vision in which everyone has a significant role to play. There are no haves and have nots. No privilege. Money does not talk in Jesus’ new vision of reality. Jesus portrays a reality of egalitarian social relationships, material simplicity, non violence, and harmony with nature.

In his new vision, Jesus does not convey a God that keeps score, careful accounts, or maintains a pecking order. Jesus does not teach about a God that punishes. He does not portray the classic warrior God. Jesus does not give us a “Santa in the sky” keeping track of who’s naughty and nice. Jesus deconstructs that God and reveals a God that is forgiving, creative, trusting, vulnerable, and self giving. Jesus shares a new vision of reality based on a new vision of God. He turns the world upside down.

Here are just a few examples from the Gospels that show Jesus revisioning the
social and religious constructs of his time. The widow’s mite. Someone on the
bottom lifted up as a model for those considered above her. The Good Samaritan. The wrong person does the right thing. The prodigal son. Shouldn’t he have been punished for his sin? The workers in the vineyard. The people who work a short time are paid the same as those who labored all day. The sower profligate with the seed. What farmer would waste precious seed on the path, on the rock? There are many other examples which show Jesus challenging the power structure, economic system, the social definitions, and the religious assumptions of his time showing them for the imperfect human constructs that they are and offering a new vision of how life can be.

There were other would be leaders of Jesus’ day who simply worked from the constructs that were there. There were those seeking armed rebellion against the Romans. There were those promoting religious orthodoxy to purify and strengthen religious devotion. There were those who were trying to exercise power within the context as it was. Jesus was changing the game, offering a different reality.

That is one reason Why Jesus? He frees us from the social constructs that produce victims and injustice and oppression and offers an alternative reality that is life-giving and joyful.

Why Jesus? Here’s a second idea that I think explains Why Jesus? Jesus had integrity. His words and deeds, his teaching and living, his saying and doing were consistent. His ideas and visions were completely integrated into his behavior and action. And this is how it was in the Jesus community. In many other leaders, we see their high ideals, their charisma, and it’s compelling, but their actions fall short of those ideals. They say one thing and do another. This undermines the power of their message. But in Jesus, the tradition that we are given shows someone who is completely walking the talk. His message and his lifestyle are in complete alignment.

Jesus didn’t just talk about serving, he served. He didn’t just talk about God having concern for the sick, he had concern for the sick. He didn’t just talk about God’s compassion for the lost, he sought out the lost and invited them in to community. I think that is a second explanation for why his legacy lives; why he is still revered today.

Here’s a third thought about Why Jesus? The tradition that we have about Jesus shows us someone who is completely self giving. He is concerned about others. He is concerned about that state of the world. He is concerned with creating egalitarian community. In the legacy we have of Jesus’ life and ministry and teaching, there is no indication of self interest, of self absorption, of individualism, or entitlement. We get no sense that Jesus is seeking popularity, notoriety, power, or wealth. According to the ways of the world, there is nothing in it for him. As we heard this morning, Jesus is remembered for teaching, the one who is the greatest is the one who serves. Jesus didn’t get a palace, a security detail, a bank account in Switzerland, a private jet, none of it. He got the cross.

While people may not feel a personal desire to emulate Jesus, even those outside of Christianity find Jesus noteworthy for his integrity and his self giving service for no personal gain.

In the community gathered around Jesus, people had an experience of an egalitarian world, where the default settings of status and worth and expectation no longer applied. The message of Jesus ennobled the poor. It was freeing to the rich and those with privilege and status. Everyone was released from the status quo and invited to find new life in self giving service, generosity, justice, and compassion. All were beneficiaries of the love and generosity of God in the very gift of life itself. They experienced an amazing life giving freedom. In the new reality lived out by Jesus and his followers, people experienced divine transcendence and joy.

And people were so moved by the experience of Jesus that they left home, family, job, and even religion, to be part of the Jesus movement. To give themselves to the life of the world. It was powerful beyond anything they could have hoped for or dreamed about.

The three things combined, the new vision, the consistency of words and deeds, and the embodiment of self giving, I think help explain Why Jesus? then. I also think they account for Why Jesus? now, for us.

We, too, need a new vision for a different future. This need comes home to us in the situation of children around the world and in our midst. Yes, there are the vulnerable children like the ones from Central America, the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, the children of Israel and Palestine, and those in poverty areas of the US. Their situation is a travesty. We need a new vision of a world that is safe and nurturing for all children. And at the other end of the spectrum are the children of mainstream American society. They have their own TV channels. There are ads specifically directed at babies. Children are treated as a lucrative consumer market because they have the power to get their parents to buy them things. We have given children immense control and power though not over themselves. This situation, too, is a travesty. This reflects the values and social constructs of our society.

Children today are the product of a society that is individualistic and that has all kinds of matrices of status and place and position and power. Of a society based on hierarchy, privilege, domination, and competition. Do before you get done to. Our society is rife with constructs that define and divide.

And a brief walk through Toys R Us shows us the warring madness of our society. There are rows of toys, games, and video games that encourage and promote violence. You must kill to win. Again, this reflects the values of our society.

We look at our kids and we see that we are consumed with violence, greed, individual entitlement, and self absorption. This is just the kind of world that Jesus deconstructs. His teaching points out the false assumptions that we labor under. We are shown the truth of our folly. We see how we are controlled by social constructs that maintain the status quo for good or ill.

Jesus also offers a new vision for the church. In the church, we have over 2000 years of interpretation, theology, and tradition, that stresses certain themes and perspectives, and that privileges some concepts and people over others, usually to serve human power constructs. We have religious default settings about God, Jesus, Christianity, and other religions. Jesus’ new vision frees us from all of that as well. Our faith tradition challenges us to critique, to examine, to be open, to grow. To be born anew.

Why Jesus today? Because we, like the people of the context of the historical Jesus, need to be confronted and challenged by a teacher who would deconstruct our default settings, our definitions, our carefully constructed economic, religious, and social arrangements and assumptions. The social constructs of our setting cry out for transformation. We desperately need new visions of a different reality. We need freedom from the shackles that bind us.

I get several emails a day from a certain political party. It doesn’t matter which one. And every day, it’s another battle. There has been another attack. There is another call to fight. It is all so antagonistic, polarized, negative, and violent. There is no attempt to create another reality, to change the game, to work for transformation to another model. The names change but the game keeps going. Jesus changed the game. He exposed the reality he saw and offered something else. So, why Jesus? He offers a new vision that recasts reality.

Why Jesus today? We, like the people of Jesus’ day, need leadership and models of integrity. People who don’t just talk, but who act. People who don’t just come to church and sing and pray, but who offer themselves for the life of the world. And we need clergy of integrity who don’t take advantage of others and who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. We need leaders who don’t just speak about peace, but who take the radical risks necessary to create peace. We need leaders who expect more of themselves and people who hold them accountable.

How many politicians today wave the banner that they are Christians, but then have no sympathy for those Central American children? They see no need to help those kids. In their default setting, these children are poor and high maintenance. They drain resources. They are not our responsibility. They are a distraction from the needs of our own kids who are US citizens. So much for their Christian faith and values. They are more interested in being re-elected than in humanitarian concern for these poor, brown children. Why Jesus? We need to aspire to integrity.

Why Jesus today? In our setting of give me, give, me, give me, we need to create a culture of service, giving, and communitarian values. Children should grow up asking themselves How can I serve? What can I do to better the world? What can I do to help someone? Generosity and helping others needs to be valued with no expectation of gratitude or payback. Jesus’ model of giving and service is the antidote we need to the tyranny of the self.

Why Jesus today? Because we still need exactly what Jesus offers. And this is what the church has to offer the world: Communities in which people experience the ministry of Jesus in an intense, transforming way as they did in the first century. Communities that make a powerful witness to new visions for society in which all people are treated equally and deserve to be treated with love, compassion, and respect. Faith communities that are living what they say. Congregations that are oriented to the common good, the needs of the world and not simply self preservation. Communities that are dedicated to service.

In that kind of faith community, people have intense, compelling, transformative experiences of the divine within themselves, each other, and the world. And it is worth giving your life to.

There was a bright spot in the news this week. Amidst all the scrambling around to figure out what do to with these children crossing our southern border, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, offered two locations in his state to house the children and provide for their needs while the situation is being sorted out. He explains the reasoning for his offer:

I have come down where I have for two main reasons, love of country and lessons of faith.
We are a great Nation.  Unlike any other superpower, America’s power, to paraphrase a great man, comes from giving, not from taking.  America, and this Commonwealth in particular, has given sanctuary to desperate children for centuries.  We have rescued Irish children from famine, Russian and Ukrainian children from religious persecution, Cambodian children from genocide, Haitian children from earthquakes, Sudanese children from civil war, and New Orleans children from Hurricane Katrina.  Once, in 1939, we turned our backs on Jewish children fleeing the Nazis, and it remains a blight on our national reputation.  The point is that this good Nation is great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children, and diminished when we don’t.
The other reason I have offered our help is more personal, less about patriotism and more about faith.  I believe that we will one day have to answer for our actions — and our inactions.  My faith teaches that “if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him,” but rather “love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  (Lev. 19:33-34).  We are admonished to take in the stranger, for “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these,” Christ tells us, “you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:43, 45).  Every major faith tradition on earth charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. 
I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t and won’t turn to it in moments of human need.  And I thank Cardinal O’Malley, Bishop Borders and the many other faith and lay leaders I’ve spoken with for reminding me of that.

[http://www.mass.gov/governor/pressoffice/speeches/statement-on-sheltering-of-unaccompanied-minors-in-ma.html]

This man has experienced Jesus. And he is so moved by that experience of a new reality embodied in service, generosity, and self giving, that he is offering what he can for the well being of these children, poor, vulnerable, defenseless, of little worth or status, regardless of the cost – personal, political, or economic. That’s what happens when you follow Jesus. That’s what it means to be the church. That’s Why Jesus? Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Amen.

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

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Sermon July 6, 2014 The Many Faces of Jesus Part One: The Historical Jesus

Scripture Lesson: Micah 4: 1-5
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

About 2,015 years ago or so, we don’t know the exact date because people did not keep records as we do today, a baby boy was born to a Jewish family in Palestine, a remote, rural, agricultural province of the Roman Empire. He was named Jesus. Because he was Jewish, he was circumcised and he went to the synagogue and the Temple for worship and the required festivals.

In that context, babies were born into two kinds of families – peasant artisan families who were poor, or aristocratic elite families that were rich. Jesus was born to a poor family. as were most of his followers during his lifetime.

There is also agreement that he was a teacher/preacher/prophet figure. But he was by no means alone in that role. The people of Palestine were chafing under Roman rule, like the Ukrainians under the Soviets in the 30’s. Or the American colonists under English rule in the 18th century. The rights of the Jews in Palestine were curtailed and they were being squeezed for money and labor by the Romans. Of course, bad times heighten the desire for deliverance. The Jews were hoping and praying that the promised Messiah would come to end their oppression and misery. And there were many who vied for that role. Would-be Messiahs were common in Jesus’ day. He was not the only candidate for Messiah.

In addition, we want to remember that this was a primitive society in which there were many healers and miracle workers and exorcists. The people did not have the scientific information that we have today about health, biology, and mental illness, etc. so there were those who were credited with having the ability to heal and cure others. This was not uncommon.

There is historically verifiable evidence that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem as an enemy of the Roman state when Tiberius was Caesar of the Roman Empire and Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. Crucifixion was a punishment for treason, so in some way Jesus was perceived as a threat to Roman domination.

As a Jew in that context, we know that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek or Hebrew, but a more local dialect, Aramaic. This was a preliterate context in which only 3% of the Jews could read any words, copy a word, and perhaps write their name. They were from the upper crust elite. So we know that Jesus could not functionally read or write. A stunning, incredulous idea for people like us who are used to everyone who’s anyone knowing how to read and write.

So, we have no writings from Jesus. Or from any eyewitnesses to his life. The gospels were written between about 70 and 95 CE, in Greek, decades after Jesus’ death, based on oral tradition and various written documents that had begun to circulate. There are references to Jesus in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus who was born after Jesus was killed. There are some references to Jesus and to Christians in Roman texts of the second century. But there are no written, direct, first hand, eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. Again, that is just the way things were then. Most people left no writing. Most people were not mentioned in any records that were kept. So there is no paper trail directly back to Jesus, much as we would like there to be one.

“Just the facts, ma’am,” was a catch phrase for Joe Friday and his colleagues on “Dragnet.” Given what can be known from archeology, inscriptions, the few preserved written records, New Testament sources, other first and second century documents, there is precious little factual, historically verifiable information that can be known about Jesus. We know he was born and he was male. We know he was an observant Jew which makes it hard to understand how the religious movement gathered around him promoted anti-Semitism. But Jesus was a Jew and and he was considered a teacher and prophet and that he, like many of his day, expected the end of the world imminently. We know he spoke Aramaic and could not read or write. We know he lived in a remote rural province that was under the thumb of the oppressive Roman Empire. We know he was crucified, a victim of capital punishment. So, those bumper stickers, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” and “Jesus was a low wage worker”? They’re not far off.

There is much more that can be said about Jesus and we will look at some of that in the weeks to come, but to begin, we must honestly recognize what we can factually know about the historical Jesus. That undergirds the faith and hope of our witness as followers of Jesus seeking to bless the world with divine love and peace as he did. Anything else that is said about Jesus must take the historical Jesus into consideration and should not be in conflict with the facts that we have such as they are.

Several years ago, I was part of an interfaith conversation at the University of South Florida for high school and college students. During the question and answer time someone asked about the views of different faiths regarding homosexuality. When it was my turn to respond from the Christian perspective, I shared the range of views within the Christian tradition from those who see homosexuality as a sin, going against the intentions of the God of creation, to those who see it as part of the glorious diversity of God’s creation and accept it as a natural part of the fabric of life. When I said this, a hand shot up. A high school student stood up and informed the group that what I said was not true. She told us that, “Jesus said that homosexuality is a sin. He said it. That’s what true Christians believe.” I mentioned that there are no references in the Gospels or in the New Testament to Jesus saying anything about same gender sexual activity. The student was undaunted and went on: “I know Jesus said it. My pastor told us that’s what he said, so I know he said it.” I encouraged her to go home and read her Bible.

There are so many things that we can say about Jesus. There is a myriad of facets to his influence on religion and human history. There are various faces of Jesus that speak to the spiritual needs of humankind. And we will explore some of those aspects of legacy of Jesus in the weeks to come. But behind it all, there is a person. And the little that can be factually known about this historical figure needs to be incorporated into our understanding of who he is and what he means to us and the world. Amen.

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Sermon May 25, 2014 Telling Stories

Scripture Lessons: Acts 17:22-31 and 1 Peter 3:13-22
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

“Billionaire and former tech mogul Bill gates predicts there will be almost no poor countries left in the world by 2035,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Gates goes on to “try to dispel what they say are myths about global poverty that hinder development. Poor countries are destined to stay that way, foreign aid is not helpful and saving lives leads to over population.” In the next two decades, desperately poor countries will become the exception rather than the rule, Gates wrote. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is the world’s largest charitable foundation. It has made $28.3 billion in grant payments since its inception 13 years ago. [Tampa Bay Times]

Gates’ philanthropy and his views about poverty are shaped by a story. It is a story about what can be done. It is a story of abundance. It is a story of generosity. It is a story of value for each and every life. It is a story of hope. It is not a story of gloom and doom. The Gates foundation is functioning from a narrative of promise and possibility.

Then there was the recent tweet from “Wheel of Fortune” host, Pat Sajak. “I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends.” [USA Today] So, scientists working on climate change issues are unpatriotic? They are racists? They are self interested and in it for personal gain? How do you get to these conclusions? There has to be a narrative, a story, a world view that goes with this. I personally cannot imagine what it would be.

There are those who believe that natural disasters like the tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti, the mudslides in California, and all the other natural disasters that are befalling us are due to homosexuality. There is a narrative behind that perspective. It is a story of an angry God. A God of retribution and punishment. The assumption is that the existence of gay people is making God so angry that God is punishing humanity by sending these natural disasters. This is a narrative of a punitive God that intends a single stream of acceptable sexuality and religion and culture. And that story forms and shapes people in certain ways.

Our views on life, on culture, on religion, on society, our choices, behaviors, and attitudes, are all rooted in story. There is a narrative we accept that shapes who we are and how we act.

In the scripture we heard from Acts, the writer refers to the story he sees of the people of Athens. The writer sees the temples and shrines and inscriptions and knows that the people are very religious. So Paul tells the people of another God, of another religious option, of a God at the heart of creation and at the heart of each and every person. He then goes on to talk about how this God is revealed in Christ Jesus. Paul is giving the people of Athens another story. They will have to decide which narrative to give the power to shape their lives.

In the first century, the Jews of Israel were shaped by the story of God creating the world and calling it good. This God liberates the people from slavery in Egypt and brings them to a new land and gives them a new way to live together in peace with each other and other communities, tribes and nations. It is a story about care for the most vulnerable. But the people ignored the story and made up new stories involving other gods and justifying their violence, economic abuse, and self indulgence. Prophets tried to call people back to the original narrative and they were ignored. And so God’s dream remained unfulfilled.

Then with Jesus we get the old story with a new twist. God becomes vulnerable. God makes a sacrifice. God is the victim to show solidarity with all other victims and those who are suffering and to inspire transformation, mercy, and compassion. In Jesus, sacrificial, self giving love is embodied. Community is built on vulnerability and compassion and mutuality. There is no dominance or intimidation involved. No punishment. No retribution. No victims. No abuse. It is a story of ultimate love. Endless forgiveness. Unconditional grace.

This is the story that we have been given to form and shape our lives. This is the story which defines us. This is the story which guides and leads us in our actions, behaviors, and attitudes. We do not worship an unknown God, as the Athenians did. We worship the God made known to us in Jesus who served others and lived for others and gave himself to the life of the world.

When the story of Jesus shapes and forms us, we cannot accept the belief that gay people are causing natural disasters. That just doesn’t work with our story. Can we believe that all people can be fed and housed and clothed and educated and that poverty can be virtually eliminated? Yes. Because that is consistent with the Jesus story of universal love, generosity, and grace. God has provided a world that is good and is intended to take care of all life and all people. We are created in the image of a God that is giving, even self-giving, and so humanity has the capacity to be generous and compassionate. Because this is our character, there is the possibility that poverty can be eliminated. What Bill Gates says and what his foundation is working toward is consistent with our Christian story. We can accept that.

Our Christian story gives us a lens through which to view the world, the issues of the day, the decisions we must make for ourselves and for our society and world. We are not left adrift. We have a story to form and shape us. We have a story to tell. We continue the story of God’s redeeming love and add our stories to that great meta narrative.

This is Memorial Day weekend. It is a time remember those who have died in armed conflict throughout our nation’s history. No one likes war, least of all those who have fought in it. The one exception may be those who profit from it; who make money on supplies, material, weaponry, etc. They may actually like war because it feeds their greed. But the average person – Republican, Democrat, Independent, or other, or none – does not like war. And does not want our country to be devoting its people, and money, and resources to continual armed conflict. We don’t want our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, our neighbors and friends going to foreign lands to meet their end in armed conflict. People want peace.

In our culture, we have accepted the story that sometimes it takes war to make peace. We have accepted that there are times when the ends justify the means. We have been told a myth of redemptive violence. And we reinforce that myth by celebrating the nobility of war and those who serve. And we have let that narrative shape our thinking.

To question that story, to challenge that narrative is seen as unpatriotic and not just by an inane fringe. To challenge war as a strategy for resolving differences is seen as disrespectful to those who have died in armed conflict and to their families. After all, war was the path to freedom for this country and to the life we have today as Americans. To question the validity of war is seen as naive at best and traitorous at worst.

We accept this cultural narrative about war even though it conflicts with the narrative of our faith. Jesus was a pacifist, and his teachings tell us to love our neighbor as well as our enemy, and to turn the other cheek when we are struck. Our story tells of God’s universal love for all peoples. Then how can we endorse killing people who are God’s beloved? Despite this, churches around the country today will glorify war by glorifying the stories of those who died in war. There is cognitive dissonance in the Memorial Day remembrance. To accept both stories is to be like the Athenians worshipping many gods.

Tim O’Brien, from small town Minnesota, is a veteran. He served in the Vietnam War. After graduation from Macalester College and Harvard, O’Brien became a writer. Most of his novels and short stories address war and its aftermath for those who were involved. O’Brien has been awarded the National Book Award, the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction, and in 2013 the $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. And here is what O’Brien says about stories and war:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done. If a war story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

O’Brien reminds us of the power of story. And the power of the story of war that we have been told in our culture. And he challenges that story. Stories shape us and can make us good people and can make us do awful things as well, depending on the story. Our Christian story gives us a way to redeem the deaths of war through repentance and transformation of our warring madness. We are not hopelessly locked into our cultural story of war. We have a story of a liberating God who frees us from stories that deny the goodness at the heart of all humanity.

We live story. We are shaped by story. Our lives are narrative. And so we ask ourselves what story is shaping us? What story are we living? Are we being shaped by the story of Jesus? Are we acting according to the story of universal love and grace? Are our lives a continuation of the story of God’s unending love?

With the gospel as our story, we not only choose how to live and how to act, but we also choose the lens through which to see our lives and the world. This doesn’t mean that we are perfect. It does not mean that we always do the right thing. It doesn’t mean that there is always consistency between what we say and what we do. But it means we have an intention. A way forward. For the good of the world. For the good of others. For the good of the ourselves. And we have a way to deal with things when they do go wrong. When there are problems. When we do the wrong thing. When we make a mess of things. There is a way of reconciliation. Of healing. Of restoration. And of peace.

We have a story of redemption and transformation. For ourselves. For others. For our country. For the world. The writer of First Peter challenges his readers: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” [1 Peter 3:15] Always be ready with the story. Know your story. Live by your story. And be ready to tell your story.

Last week on “Snap Judgment,” a weekly radio show, a woman tells the story of when she was 23 and her father, who was a pastor, got a phone call during dinner one night. As it turned out, the call was from a woman in the congregation with whom he had been having an inappropriate relationship. As this came to light for the pastor’s family, the woman’s family, and the church, it was decided that the pastor would tell the congregation that he was leaving and why during the worship service the next Sunday. Sunday morning came. The pastor and his family, including his wife, sat in the front pew. The congregation sang, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The pastor got up to address the congregation. As his daughter tells it, he said, “‘Beloved, I stand before you today for the last time as your pastor. I have broken my marriage vows.’ He said he had lied to us, our family. He had lied to the church. But then, in this kind of strange pastoral move, he said, ‘But I didn’t lie about the good news.’”

The pastor had a story. And he knew that story. And in that story, despite what he had done, he knew that there was still a place for him. And he was still ready to live by that story. And he wanted others to trust that story as well.

Friends, let us not be afraid to live by the gospel story. A story not of an unknown god, but of a known God. A God of universal love for all people not just some people. A God of unconditional grace. A God of boundless forgiveness. A God of deep, lasting, and true peace. Amen.

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Saving Imagination

SAVING IMAGINATION

By Rev. Kim Wells

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” [Quoted in interview by G.S. Viereck , October 26,1929. Reprinted in “Glimpses of the Great”(1930)., accessed on line] This quote is from Albert Einstein, some would say the most gifted scientist that has ever lived. “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

We know how important imagination is to science. The open mind willing to see new patterns contained in information, willing to posit new ideas about the world and then to test them. Imagination brought us the understanding that the world is not flat but round, and that the earth orbits the sun, not vice versa. Imagination through science has brought us knowledge of the atom and knowledge of the ever-expanding universe. Imagination has taught us to see energy as wave and particle. And we can only speculate about what there still is to learn about the world and life when the imagination is fully engaged.

Imagination is key to technology, a branch of applied science. Digital music, biomedical developments, cell phones. These things were incomprehensible to people just 100 years ago. In 1969, I visited my family in Germany and my uncle had one of two telephones in the town, both landlines. People came to the door of the house, knocked and paid a small fee to make a phone call. And now, less than 50 years later, people have cell phones everywhere and anywhere in the world. Who could have imagined this? Someone imagined the internet into existence. It would be absolutely inconceivable to my grandparents that such a system could be developed. Virtually all of human knowledge and information at your fingertips in the privacy of your own home 24/7? And yet, here it is and we are dependent upon the internet in just such a short time.

Imagination inspires business. FedEx imagined next business day delivery anywhere. And the company continues to imagine. The FedEx website tells us:

It’s clear that at FedEx, innovation is in our DNA. All employees are tasked with innovation as part of their day-to-day job. But there’s one group focused solely on developing future game-changing ideas: FedEx Innovation. FedEx Innovation is a cross-discipline team aimed at identifying emerging customer needs and technologies to change what’s possible through innovative solutions and businesses. The team systematically researches and demonstrates bold new concepts in key opportunity spaces and develops the best concepts with accelerated prototyping, incubation, and commercialization. [fedex.com]

That is imagination at work.

We know how important imagination is to the arts. Imagination brings us great visual art, dance, drama, literature, and music. The world would be bereft without the beauty, revelation, expression, insight, and delight of the arts fueled by the imagination.

Imagination can motivate our behavior and shape our reality. Garrison Keillor, of “A Prairie Home Companion,” tells of the power of imagination to fuel our fears. The parents have gone over to a friends’ house, leaving the kids at home alone.

It was getting dark and we were discussing our greatest fears over

French Silk pie when the phone rang. It was the kids. ‘The news guy said that there are thieves in the night and he’ll tell us where at ten. What if they come to our house?’ I told them to relax and there aren’t any thieves outside but lock the doors and turn on a light or two so you feel better, and have some butter brickle ice cream. The kids are old enough to be home alone, but young enough to flip out on occasion if they let their imaginations take over.

When we pulled into the driveway an hour or so later, every light in the house was on. The doors were all locked, and both TVs were on, and the kids were nowhere to be seen. I went upstairs and their beds were still made and I was a bit perplexed. Then I heard Mr. Sundberg holler from the kitchen. When I got there, he pressed his finger to his lips and pointed to the pantry. There they were, all three of ’em, bundled up in the blue blanket from the hall closet, sound asleep on the pantry floor. There were flashlights and books scattered over the blanket, and all three of them had faint white lines above their upper lips. Ice cream mustaches. Butter brickle. [www.publicradio.org/columns/prairiehome/sundberg/2007/01/29.shtml ]

Imagination can fuel our fears. It can be a great motivating force for human behavior, for good and for ill. Some world leaders imagine unrestrained power or wealth. Stalin imagined a Soviet Union unified under his personal control. And he killed multitudes of people in his effort to fulfill the designs of his imagination. Hitler imagined a Germany, a Europe with no Jews, no “undesirables,” peopled by a master race and governed by him. There are those today who are also fueled by evil imaginings.

World leaders can also be inspired in positive ways by imagination. In Cuba, Fidel Castro imagined a country in which everyone is not only literate but well educated, everyone has access to healthcare, all people have food, a home, and meaningful work that makes a contribution to society. He imagined a society in which the common good is the motivating force for all policies and personal behavior. He also imagined a country which reaches out to help other countries which Cuba does by sending doctors all over the world. Cuba has doctors assisting with health care in over 40 countries around the world. Castro was propelled by the power of his imagination to lead his country in a certain direction.

In a TV show I saw this week about President Kennedy, it was mentioned that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy dealt with Nikita Khrushchev working from the assumption that Khrushchev wanted peace for his children just as Kennedy did. And evidently Kennedy worked from this premise even though there had been no direct indication of this from Khrushchev. Kennedy imagined that as a human being, as a leader, as a father, Khrushchev would want peace for the children of his country as much as Kennedy wanted peace for the children of the US. This imagining contributed to averting a nuclear war.

Imagination is powerful and can be a force for good in the world. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, imagined a world in which everyone has a home. Habitat’s vision: “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” [habitat.org] Mother Teresa imagined a world in which no one dies alone and unloved. Thus imagination bears the fruit of goodness in the world.

Imagination has been a major aspect of the many religions that have emerged in the course of human history. Religion and various gods gave people a way to imaginatively explain how and why things happened as they did such as where the world came from and why it rained. Religion took over answering questions that empirical experience could not resolve.

We see the power of imagination at work in the scriptures of our religious tradition. The Bible is filled with imaginative, evocative descriptions and stories intended to impart a certain world view, insights about human existence, and guidelines for ethical behavior. In the passage we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah, we hear a vision of the world as God intends it to be. This vision is given to people who have lived under subjugation, as refugees in a foreign land. In the rich imagery of the passage we are told of a new beginning. This vision is given to people who are from Jerusalem and have seen their city destroyed and lying in ruins. There will be a new city, a place of joy. People will thrive there and live well and long. We are told that they will build houses and live in them and tend vineyards and eat the fruit of the land. In captivity in Babylon, they built houses for their captors, they tended fields of food for there conquerors. But in Isaiah’s imaginative vision of what is to come, they live in their own land, build their own houses, eat the food that they produce. They are not oppressed by others, they are living justly. Then we are given the imaginative zoological vision of this new world of peace – the wolf and the lamb eat together, the lion eats straw like the ox. There is no pain or destruction in this new earth. Imagination fuels this vision of hope. It gives the people something to believe in, to trust, to live for, to work for. This beautiful vision will sustain the people as they endure the long, grueling process of making a new home from the rubble. They imagine how glorious it will be and they have the wherewithal to keep on keeping on thanks to Isaiah’s vision.

Our scriptures are full of imaginative evocative images and stories that tell us about the world and ourselves and what the world can be. The creation story, the flood, the tower of Babel, the exodus from Egypt, in story after story in the Hebrew scriptures there are imaginative renderings of the complicated nuanced relationship between God and humanity. In the New Testament, particularly in the gospels, Jesus is portrayed using imaginative stories to teach people about God, life, community, solidarity, and justice. A widow searches for a coin. A father forgives a wayward child. A small man climbs a tree. A storm is stilled. Scripture is imbued with imagination because imagination is a gift of God to the human species to be used to form and shape us as individuals and as communities fulfilling God’s intentions for creation.

The role of imagination in our faith tradition is also quite complicated. Our scriptures are rife with imaginative images. Yet the church has sought to provide answers, to create rules to be followed. The church has created doctrine and dogma to define and describe. These things are fixed and determinative. Not matters that invite imaginative thinking, but rather that offer a clear cut structure of belief so that one knows where one stands. A clearly defined belief system is easier to convey and to control. This gives the institution of the church and its leaders more power. The church gives people the rules and regulations governing moral behavior and salvation. There is little left to the imagination.

In religion of recent times, there has been a greater embracing of literalism in some expressions of Christianity. This is a fairly new development in our faith – within the last 100 to 150 years. Up until that time, the vast majority of Christians knew that the Bible was intended to instruct through story and the power of the images used. It was not assumed to be necessarily factually true. That really didn’t matter. It was the meaning of the story or the image that mattered, not whether it actually happened or was going to happen, but what did it mean? But with literalism, again, this simplified explanation, makes it easier to describe and define. It reduces the search for multiple meanings and contextualization and application to the current situation. Make everything cut and dried. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” as the bumper sticker says.

Thus religion can actually be a force for stifling imagination. It can undermine free and imaginative thinking. While this may be aimed at discouraging imagination from inspiring evil, it also conspires to stifle the good. And ultimately will stifle the saving power of the church in the world all together because the church will make itself obsolete and irrelevant. Yet a church inspired by imagination, as we see from the ministry of Jesus, has the power to save. It has the power to motivate us to work for good in the world, to serve with compassion, to develop new ways to live together with all kinds of other people in peace. Our faith tradition has the power to compel us to create a world that is just and fair in which all people are treated with dignity and respect. We have the stories and images in our scripture to generate that kind of creativity from the church. Jesus shows us the God of love at the heart of the universe through story and image and parable and deed. He imaginatively reveals the love of God present in all people and in the world. This love has the power to overcome all the evil humanity can concoct. But the power of love is communicated through the imagination inspiring us to live and act in ways that convey that message. Facts and figures and rules and regulations alone cannot inspire that kind of action. As 20th century writer H.L. Mencken has observed, “Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” It is imagination that can motivate us to do what is good and true.

This past week, we watched the movie, “Chasing Ice.” It is a beautiful film about a man’s calling to imaginatively impact the world in a way that makes people care about global climate change and want to do something about it. This is done with images – a word with the same root as imagination. Studies and findings and measuring haven’t had the impact needed. So James Balog turns to image, to story. That’s what has the power to change people’s minds and hearts. That’s what has the potential to influence behavior. A person interviewed in the movie transitions from working for Shell Oil to being an environmental advocate.

Instead of fearing the imagination, the church needs to embrace the power of imagination. Instead of trying to control, the church needs to unleash the imaginative stories of scripture and faith to inspire people to create a new future.

We mentioned Fed Ex having an innovation team built into its corporate structure. I imagine a church with an innovation team – cross disciplinary, aimed at identifying new needs and technologies and to offer new solutions. I imagine a church where the leaders research and demonstrate bold new concepts in theology and liturgy and structure and mission. I would like to be part of a church identifying key opportunity spaces and developing best concepts with accelerated prototyping and incubation for promoting anti violence. I would like to see imagination brought to bear not only on the way the church packages its message, but on the message itself. Innovation and imagination in conveying the message of unconditional love, forgiveness, grace, and the sacredness of life that is at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. I would like to see a church boldly imagining a world where everyone has what they need to flourish and no one is a victim of the greed and abuses of others. I would like to see a church boldly innovating in ways that imaginatively create a Christianity without exclusivism and without a superiority complex. A Christianity focused on the creating new systems of community and social and economic models that eliminate poverty and all kinds of discrimination. I would like to see an imaginative expression of Christianity that does not make faith and science an either/or proposition but a both/and proposition. We can give people facts until the cows come home, but that will not necessarily change hearts and minds. That will not create meaning and justice in human culture. Facts and information alone cannot inspire us to seek our highest good. That requires imagination. Humanity’s greatest accomplishments – scientific, social, and cultural – are all rooted in the power of the imagination.

To deny the power of imagination is to take the air out of the balloon of our faith. It is to deny God – the Creator, the great imagination, and it denies the concept that humans are created in God’s image, intended to be imaginative co-Creators with God. To ignore or minimize or denigrate the imagination is to unplug the power for good that is inherent in the way of Jesus and in our faith.

The prophet Isaiah invites us to be creative. To imagine another world, a better world, into being. To persist in pursuing justice and peace. To imagine children cared for and flourishing and old people living rich and full lives to the end. To imagine food and shelter and safety for all. To imagine self determination and freedom to live and thrive. Imaginative visions and dreams have the power to literally change the

world.

There’s a story told of two men who shared a room in a hospital ward. The one man had to lie flat on his back at all times for weeks to allow for his healing and recuperation. He was to keep quiet and still. The hours seemed endless. Being consigned to such conditions in the confines of such a small room sapped his spirit. He became discouraged and depressed. Another patient was brought in to the other bed in the room. That patient, too was to be quiet and still. But the new patient was able to sit up in a chair next to the window for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. As he was sitting up, he would describe what he saw out the window to the man who could only lie flat on his back. He would tell of the park outside the window. The children playing, the model boats on the small pond. The ducks and swans. being fed bread by the children. He told of the flowers, the roses, and dahlias, and lilies growing in the park. Of the couples walking hand in hand. He described the matches on the tennis courts, and the soccer games on the field outside the window.

The man on his back began to live for these reports of the park outside the window. Each morning and each afternoon, he would listen to the vivid descriptions of the activities in the park. The child who fell down running on the path. The spectacular block at the soccer goal. The newly hatched ducklings on the pond. The descriptions of life outside the window gave the man something to look forward to, something to live for, a connection to the rest of the world. He began to improve little by little, though he still had to lie on his back completely still.

One night, the roommate, the man who would sit in the chair and tell of life outside the window, was seized by a coughing fit in his sleep, he began choking, and then, suddenly, all was silent. The man had died. His body was taken away quietly.

A few days later, the man on his back asked to be moved to the bed by the window. He hoped to see for himself the park and the pond, and the tennis court and the soccer field. His request was granted. He was moved to the bed by the window. Once he was settled, he asked the nurse to open the curtains so that he could look out the window. He turned his head to take in the view. It was the brick wall of an adjacent building. [Adapted from One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, by Margaret Silf]

New heavens and a new earth. A city of joy. No cry of distress. Homes and fields. Labor honest and fair. The wolf and the lamb together. A world at peace.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Amen.

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