GATHERING MUSIC They that Wait Upon the Lord
WELCOME and ANNOUNCEMENTS
LIGHTING THE PEACE CANDLE Earl Waters, liturgist
Desire nothing but God: seek for nothing but God: and you shall taste of peace: you shall taste it in defiance of the world.
Francois Fenelon (1651-1715)
PRELUDE Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
CALL TO WORSHIP Dag Hammarskjold, 20th century
“God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
MUSICAL OFFERING I Waited for the Lord Mendelssohn
MODERN READING Thomas Merton, 20th century
Let us prepare ourselves for the word of God as it comes to us in the reading of Holy Scripture. Our hearts and minds are open.
For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us. Thanks be to God.
SERMON The Great Beyond Rev. Kim P. Wells
Date: January 31, 2021 Outdoor worship
Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 40:21-31
Sermon: The Great Beyond
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
I don’t know about you, but maybe you, too, almost hesitate to ask someone how they are doing these days. I mean, you could get almost anything for an answer. Like, I have 8 close relatives and friends who have died of covid. Or, I lost my job and my unemployment and health care have run out. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my home. Or, Well, for the first time in my life, I have had to go to a food bank so that I could feed my kids. Or, My special needs child has to go to school in person and my mother who is elderly and has complicating health factors lives with us and I am so afraid she will get covid. Or, I’m not safe at home but don’t have the means to make other arrangements. I mean, there is just so much pain and heartache, so many challenges and choices these days, our lives just seem fraught. And many of our typical avenues of support are not available to us because of the pandemic.
Life always has its seasons of difficulties but this seems worse than most. And sometimes we just get pulled in a downward spiral, a swirling eddy, and we can’t see our way clear. The ongoing pressure takes its toll.
But then we human beings have a proclivity toward being, well, self absorbed. A celebrity makes a fashion faux pas and you’d think the world was coming to an end. An infantile president can’t accept the results of a free and fair election. A bad grade on a test and we think we have ruined our future prospects for all time. It’s easy to put on blinders and only see our own problems. And to let that view control our reality.
This is why humanity has always looked to the heavens, to the stars, to the gods, to a larger reality to help us keep our egotism in check. To balance our selfish myopia.
In modern times, this perspective is shared with us by those who have been to space and have literally seen Earth in all its beauty from afar. Retired astronaut Scott Kelly spent a full year in space on the International Space Station as well as making other trips into space on the space shuttle and on shorter stays on the ISS. He certainly has had the opportunity to see Earth from a bigger perspective. And he has experienced life with its disappointments and challenges from that grander, more comprehensive remove. In the book Endurance: My Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Kelly talks about his experiences as an astronaut. He tells us about what it is like to look at the Earth from the International Space Station:
“One of my favorite views of the Earth is of the Bahamas – a large archipelago with a stunning contrast from light to dark colors. The vibrant deep blue of the ocean mixes with a much brighter turquoise, swirled with something almost like gold, where the sun bounces off the sandy shallows and reefs. Whenever new crewmates come up to the station for the first time, I make a point of taking them to the Cupola (a module made entirely of windows looking down on Earth) to see the Bahamas. That sight always reminds me to stop and appreciate the view of the
Earth I’ve been given the privilege of seeing.” [Endurance, p. 73]
Well, most of us will probably never see first hand that view of the Bahamas, or of the Earth, but Kelly, and sages throughout the ages have encouraged us to take a larger view, to see a bigger picture. And we have access to images as well as descriptions of a larger reality – real and metaphorical – to help shape our world view and give context to our experience. We heard one such insightful description today from the prophet Isaiah.
In the passage we heard from Isaiah, the people are stewing in their troubles. They feel abandoned by their God. They have forgotten the teachings of their faith
tradition. They are mired in self pity.
And what message does the prophet bring them from God? God reminds them of what they already know. And have been taught. And need to remember. Their God is so much bigger than their immediate troubles. God has stretched out the heavens. Human rulers are like vapor to God. Like dried grass. God is responsible for the stars and planets. God’s power is limitless and unsearchable. And the Hebrew people with their problems – are like, well, grasshoppers in the scheme of things. Now that proclamation could reorient your self absorption.
While we may have different notions about God, and what those three letters symbolize, still it is a main function of our faith, of religion in general, and of the way of Jesus, to help us to know that we are part of a larger reality. A bigger picture. That encompasses the Big Bang and all that was before and has come after, and that will go on, beyond our planet, our solar system, our milky way, our comprehension.
With this kind of larger perspective, we open ourselves to seeing our own lives and our challenges from a truer perspective and with greater clarity. Whatever our
circumstances, we still can see the grandeur of creation and nature. We still can see the scope of reality and the miracle that we are part of it at all. And we still can appreciate how we are connected and related to the rest of life and reality. We can see our pain in a larger context and appreciate the suffering of others. We make a connection to a bigger picture. We find our place in a greater reality.
Scott Kelly intentionally connected himself to a larger reality when he went into space so that he wouldn’t become beset by his challenges and woes. For him, this
meant turning to the struggles faced by others. For those moments when he would feel sorry for himself, Kelly brought the book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible
Voyage by Alfred Lansing which chronicles the 1914 attempt at a trans antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. The experience of these explorers, ironically,
on Earth, reminds Kelly of a larger reality. Kelly tells us that he “reflects on what these explorers went through almost exactly a hundred years before. They were
stranded on ice floes for months at a time, forced to kill their dogs for food, and nearly froze to death in the biting cold. They hiked across mountains that had been
considered impassable by explorers who were better equipped and not half starved. Remarkably, not a single member of the expedition was lost. . . . When I read about their experiences, I think about how much harder they had it than I do. Sometimes I’ll pick up the book specifically for that reason. If I’m inclined to feel sorry for myself because I miss my family or because I had a frustrating day or because the isolation is getting to me, reading a few pages about the Shackleton expedition reminds me that even if I have it hard up here in some ways, I’m certainly not going through what they did.” [Endurance, Kelly, p. 76-
77] It helps to have a bigger picture. To know that you are part of a larger reality.
And when we think about what the prophet Isaiah had to say to his people, we notice that he doesn’t stop with extolling the magnificence of God. The prophet also extols God’s power to lift up, to strengthen, to sustain. We are told that God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait on God shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not get weary, they shall walk and not faint. The intention is that we will be literally uplifted by the power of this magnificent, mysterious, incomparable God.
When we are mired in our individual problems, consumed with self pity, we are cutting themselves off not only from the larger reality of which we are a part, but we are separating ourselves from the very source of strength and power that will see us through our despair and anguish. When it is only about us, it is just that, only about us. And we isolate ourselves from the love, the connection, the power, the sources of strength and inspiration that we need to make it through. That’s one of the problems with a small reality, a small world view, with a self obsessed reality. You become cut off from what is life giving, life sustaining, and life affirming. Our faith calls us to incorporate the power of the universe into our reality. And it affirms that that power is not only around us but within us.
Our faith teaches that all of life is sacred and holy. It teaches that we are created in the image of God, however we may imagine God. Our faith teaches us that our bodies, our flesh and blood and bone, are temples for the Holy Spirit, for Divine Love. Yes, we are sacred beings in a holy world.
Jesus embodies the perfect balance between living in the reality of God, and not being self-consumed, while also honoring the holiness of each and every life. He shows us how to integrate the grandeur and majesty and awesomeness of the reality of God with our day-to-day lives. Grasshoppers, ok. They have their place, too. They fed John the Baptizer. And they played a part in the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. Everything, even the grasshopper, has its place and is part of the reality of God.
The problems come when we try to deny this larger reality around us and within us. Then we limit ourselves. And cut ourselves off. And isolate ourselves. And can become fearful, and insecure, and violent. We disrespect the lives of others, and thus of ourselves as well. We close the taps to hope and joy in our lives.
The message we heard today is a message of hope and joy for those who are experiencing despair. When they embrace a small reality, they are cutting themselves off from the sources of strength and renewal that will bring them through their current anguish and grief. We are invited to be part of a reality bigger than me, bigger than we.
And it is this reality that offers us the resources to come through: In this reality, the faint are given power, the powerless are given strength, to mount up with eagle’s wings, soar to the stars, to run, to walk and not faint. How we need that strength for the living of our days. Through this pandemic. Through this time of racial healing.
Through this season of creating global community. Through the crisis of climate change. As well as through the challenges of our daily lives, dealing with life and death and jobs and homes and food and fractured relationships and aging and education and debt and all the rest of the challenges we face.
Again, Astronaut Scott Kelly helps us to see a bigger picture. Scott’s sister-in-law is former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was shot in a mass shooting in
Tucson, AZ on Jan. 8, 2011, just about 10 years ago. When the shooting occurred, Scott was on the International Space Station. He was asked to make a statement to the public about the shooting. Here is some of what he said:
“I’d like to take some time this morning to recognize a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the Tucson shooting tragedy. First, I’d like to say a few words. We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station. As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems inviting and peaceful.
Unfortunately, it is not.
“These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another. Not just with our actions, but with our irresponsible words. We are better than this. We must do better. . . .
“Those of us who have had the privilege to look down on the Earth from space get the chance to take a larger perspective on the planet and the people who share it. I
feel more strongly than ever that we must do better.” [Endurance, pp. 303-304]
While we may never personally see this Earth from space, we have prophets, like Isaiah and Scott Kelly, to remind us to take a larger view of our reality and to see the possibility and promise for our lives and our future together. 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.
UNISON PRAYER David Coleman
Thanks be to you, God awesomely distant thanks for the searing of shooting stars the colours of the planets in the night sky the space and power beyond our perceiving which sparkles in the sky of our lives with your caring.
Thanks be to you, God uncomfortably close giving life to dead dry things — the dance of pure stillness, the beat of our hearts, is your doing.
Thanks be to you, God known in a body who blessed as he lived who raised up our life to be gathered as one, reaching out for the kingdom.
MUSICAL OFFERING Stars and Planets Flung in Orbit
MISSION STATEMENT The mission of Lakewood United Church of Christ, as part of the Church Universal is to:
- Celebrate the presence and power of God in our lives & in our world
- Offer the hospitality and inclusive love of Christ to all people.
- Work for God’s peace and justice throughout creation.
MORNING OFFERING Morning offerings may be brought forward and placed in the plates on the altar.
Offertory Don’t You Get Weary
Prayer of Dedication
Brother Roger Schutz, Taize, 31 July 1969
Tiredness, since rising. Could I have forgotten what are the sources of refreshment? Entrusting cares and opponents to God sets free new energy – enables us to look beyond situations, and beyond persons. It is then, perhaps, that we touch a fragment of eternity?
MUSICAL CALL TO PRAYER
And I Will Raise You Up on Eagle’s Wings
COMMUNITY PRAYERS – SAVIOR’S PRAYER
O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos, focus your light within us—make it useful. Create your reign of unity now; Your one desire acts with ours, as in all light, so in all forms. Grant what we need each day in bread and insight. Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strand we hold of others’ guilt. Don’t let surface things delude us, but free us from what holds us back. From you is born all ruling will, the power and the life to do, the song that beautifies all; from age to age it renews. Amen.
(Peshita Syriac-Aramaic translation)
*POSTLUDE God Moves in a Mysterious Way