Date: Sept. 19, 2021. Charter Sunday
Scripture Lesson: Psalm 1
Sermon: Well Watered
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In 1967, the year this church was founded, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: “There is a fire raging now for the Negroes and the poor of this society. They are living in tragic conditions because of the terrible economic injustices that keep them locked in as an ‘underclass,’ as the sociologists are now calling it. Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p. 147]
1967, It was a challenging time. Things were breaking open. Things were falling apart. There were race riots in many major cities including San Francisco, New York, Tampa, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Washington D.C., and Detroit – where the riots were the worst in US history with 43 people killed and 342 injured and 1400 buildings burned. There was a prison riot in Jay, Florida and 37 were killed. And there were huge protests against the Vietnam War. Muhammad Ali refused military service and was barred from boxing for 3 years. There was disruption and turbulence not only in the streets of the US, but around the world.
In the face of such turmoil and upheaval, Lakewood United Church of Christ was founded and the charter was opened on Sunday Sept. 17.
Evidently, despite the chaos in the country around race and the war in Vietnam, along with the movements for gay rights and women’s rights and indigenous rights, a group of 31 people, 27 from All Saints Lutheran Church which had begun a ministry on these premises and constructed these buildings, along with 4 other brave souls, signed the charter to begin a new congregation forming Lakewood United Church of Christ. I said, despite the times, but maybe it was really because of the times!
Dr. King offered this challenge to churches in 1967:
“The Church has an opportunity and duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.” [The Martin Luther King, Jr. Companion: Quotations from the Speeches, Essays and Books of Martin Luther King, Jr. selected by Coretta Scott King, p. 25]
King saw the need for the church to help guide society through these travails and to help birth a new society with freedom, justice, and opportunity for all. Keep in mind that in 1967 most churches, white or Black, were not involved in the civil rights movement or the anti war movement. These initiatives were extremely controversial, dividing families and neighbors, and churches for the most part did not want to be involved but wanted to keep the offering plates and the pews filled.
I believe those who founded LUCC, the original 67 charter members, the Florida Conference of the UCC which financially supported the new church, and Rev. Richard Wiggins, the first pastor, I believe that they had in their hearts founding a new church because of the times not in spite of the times. I think they believed that the church was needed to be a voice of empowerment and justice and community in those changing, challenging times. They wanted to step up to Dr. King’s challenge and seize the opportunity to be a witness to the true values of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In a time of drastic social change, the church was needed to help people feel grounded and inspired to be constructive participants in creating a new society.
This can be seen in the early ministry of the church. There was worship each Sunday beginning the first Sunday of September in 1967 with the charter officially opened on the 17th. Sunday after Sunday, praising, preaching, and praying. Week in and week out. Providing spiritual guidance and sustenance in the intensity of the days of the civil rights movement and the anti war movement. There were other usual church activities: Sunday School and youth group for young people. Picnics, retreats, outings. Church camp. Vacation Bible School. Women’s Circles. A lunch and learn group. A Kupples Klub. Outreach efforts offering material aid in the community.
But here is something that is very telling about the early life of this congregation and its roots. A newsletter from January 1968 shows the desire of the congregation to have a broader view and impact: There was a group formed called Great Decisions Discussion Group. This group met weekly for dinner and discussion. [That was before we wasted so much time online. . .] The discussions were led by people in the congregation. Here were the topics for the first few sessions of 1968:
The Middle East
Upheaval in Communist China
Britain after Empire
The “Other War” in Vietnam
The Two Germanies
Dollars, Trade and Aid
American Power and Foreign Policy
But this group was not limited to discussion alone. The newsletter tells us that, “Opinion ballots will be provided each participant at close of each session, which will be tabulated and results sent to Congressmen and the State Department.” This church really did want to embrace King’s vision of the church lifting up its voice like a trumpet.
And what you don’t see in the church archives is the effort that was made just after the church was founded to integrate the church. The church was founded by members who were all of Euro-American descent. But founding pastor, Richard Wiggins knew that the church should reflect the community and Lakewood Estates was one of the first intentionally integrated communities in St. Petersburg. So Rev. Wiggins went calling. Visiting the homes of African Americans that were built in Lakewood Estates, inviting the new residents to church. One home he visited was the home of James and Mary Byrd. James was a pharmacist at Bay Pines and Mary was an educator in Manatee County. When he visited, Rev. Wiggins was told that they went to Bethel Community Church. Finally after Wiggins’ third visit to the Byrd household, James told Mary, “We better visit that church so that pastor can stop coming by here.” And they did visit. And at the end of the service, James looked at Mary and said, “One hour, one offering. We’re coming to this church.” And every Sunday James sat in the seat nearest the door so that he could get out as soon as the service was over to smoke a cigarette. The Byrds were the first Black members of LUCC but not the last. At one point about one third of the congregation was Black. And, yes, some of the white members left because the church embraced integration.
These beginnings, this initial identity of the church, has continued to inform the ministry of the church ever since. Though the projects and formats have changed, the witness has continued. We see this in the church embracing the covenant process to become a Just Peace Church actively committed to anti violence and creating peace in the world. We see it in the Open and Affirming Covenant, an intentional welcome to all regardless of ethnicity, economic status, background, sexual identity or orientation. And in the more recent Creation Justice Covenant, making a witness to the single most important issue of our time, environmental destruction and climate change.
This church has been a haven, an oasis, for people who are deeply engaged in social service, community uplift, and movements of justice and peace. Today, the church doesn’t have to do as much educating because we have the internet to educate us about the issues that we care about. But we still need a community to ground us in the values of Jesus. To inspire us to take action. To guide us in our service and advocacy. And to sustain us, spiritually, on the journey especially when it is grueling and we feel defeated and spent.
Being a loving, caring person and wanting to make a difference, it’s a hard road in today’s world. Wanting to be compassionate and an agent of reconciliation; feeling called to make our voices heard. It can be a lonely place. One can easily give up or give out.
And here is where the church is still needed. In the weekly worship, still praising, preaching, and praying. In the social interaction and relationships. In the events, in person and on line, that bring us together for mutual support and inspiration. In the work we do together, for the community, building community. In our worship, activities, gatherings, relationships, all of it, typical church stuff, yet sustaining us to be the kind of church King encouraged us to be – making a witness. Sounding
During the process of becoming an Open and Affirming church, there was concern among some in the church that this kind of declaration would mean the end of the church. It was too controversial. The church would lose members. It was a fear based intimidation tactic masking homophobia. A member of the Open and Affirming Task Force said to me, “Well, if the church does not endorse Open and Affirming, it’s ok if we close. People can go to other churches.” In other words, if we aren’t fulfilling our mission, if we aren’t sounding the trumpet, as King put it, and affirming “that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man,” then we don’t really need to be here.
But Lakewood Church did embrace Open and Affirming. And yes, some people did leave. But the church did not close.
Here we are. On this 54th anniversary of Charter Sunday. Now, given the trends in society, given the number of members, and the finances, well, that is actually a surprise if not a miracle. From a statistical standpoint, Lakewood United Church of Christ should not be here. We should be at home reading the paper, or mowing the lawn, or at the beach, or sleeping in, or attending services at another church. But we are here. And the church is here.
And I believe Psalm 1 gives us some insight as to why this is so:
Happiness comes to those
who reject the path of violence,
who refuse to associate with criminals,
or even to sit with people who belittle others.
Happiness comes to those
who delight in the Law of Our God
and meditate on it day and night.
They’re like trees planted by flowing water —
they bear fruit in every season,
and their leaves never wither:
everything they do will prosper.
It’s interesting to note that the church chose the image of the tree for its 25th anniversary, Branching Out in Faith and Service. See the banner in the back. And for its 30th anniversary – Out on a Limb for 30 Years. And for its 50th anniversary -back to Branching Out in Faith and Service. LUCC is like the tree planted beside the flowing water, bearing fruit in every season. Because of the commitment of the church to the God of Love and the way of Jesus, here we are. Sustained by Divine Love. Inviting our faith community to be nurtured by faithfulness to the dreams of God and seeking to grow and bear fruit.
This nourishing has sustained the church through times of challenge and change in part because the church has been accepting of change. Changes in society have necessitated new programs and ministries. We have been flexible and embraced adaptation. We have let the Spirit lead and guide.
With the emergence of new scholarship in religion, social science, and hard science, the church has adapted its worship and theology to be more open. Branching out. Growing. This is what happens when we are fed by the stream of Divine Love. We are letting that stream feed us and our church. We are embracing the new growth. As a congregation and as individuals.
As new issues and problems and injustices have emerged, the church has endeavored to sound the trumpet, affirm the sacredness of each and every life, and the life of the planet.
I think LUCC persists because the roots are deep in the gospel and the branches are reaching out to stretch and soar. And so we find a haven here, where we can grow and be challenged and comforted. Where we can be sustained and inspired. Where we can heal and hope. Where we can receive succor as well as be encouraged to serve. Here we are nourished to live full and free.
We are not like a tree existing next to a river polluted by industrial waste. We are not like a tree located next to a dried up stream bed evidence of a persistent drought caused by global warming. We are not like a tree planted next to a toxic pond fouled by agricultural run off.
We are like a tree growing next to clear, flowing, life-giving water. Sustained. Flourishing. Season after season. Bearing fruit. Strong. Resilient. Because of the water. Because of the flow of Divine Love. Because of being rooted in the way of Jesus, who is remembered as living water.
This is a church where from our roots we draw spiritual sustenance from the way of Divine Love and with our branches we reach out to one another and to the world in love. This church is like that tree planted by the fresh, nourishing water. And this church has a vital, flourishing ministry. Continuing to grow from the trunk established at its founding.
We, too, like those first charter members in the 1960’s live in challenging times. Global warming, terrorism domestic and international, gun violence, racial injustice, economic inequity, the growing threats as the balance of power changes among nations, and the deep divides within our country make these exceedingly difficult times.
Dr. King’s words still ring true: “The Church has an opportunity and duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.”
As people become more individualistic and isolated, more concerned with the self, and more apathetic and afraid of the wider world, this church continues to encourage us to find health and wholeness in deep spirituality intertwined with meaningful service that contributes to societal transformation. That is what makes a strong and healthy congregation. And that has characterized the 54 years of ministry of this church.
The words of Dr. King remind us of the living water that sustains us:
“‘I’ cannot reach fulfillment without ‘thou.’ The self cannot be self without other selves. Self-concern without other-concern is like a tributary that has no outward flow to the ocean.” [The Martin Luther King, Jr. Companion, p. 57]
May we, as a church, continue to grow and make a witness sustained by the flow of Divine Love. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.