Sermon Oct. 30, 2016 “The Fear Factor”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Sept. 11, 2016 “Shaped by Love”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Aug. 28, 2016 “Learning from Lightning”

Sunday August 28, 2016

Scripture Lesson:  Job 37:1-13

Sermon:  Learning from Lightning

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon Aug. 21, 2016 “Shark Encounters”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date: July 31, 2016

Sermon Title: Christianity and Culture

Scripture: Romans 14:13-17

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Whitman (1802-1847)

Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847)

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore reminds us of the reward:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon July 3, 2016 “Learning from the Bison”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scripture Lesson: I Kings 17:1-16

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon May 22, 2016 “Heart Condition”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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
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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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