Date: June 26, 2022
Scripture Lessons: 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Luke 9:51-62
Sermon: It’s Who We Are
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Well, I am surprised to find myself talking about my mother and about abortion this morning, but that Supreme Court is inserting itself into our personal lives in ways we could never have imagined. And so you can blame them if you have heard some of this before at my mother’s memorial service four years ago.
My mother was a first generation American. Her parents came from Germany. They lived in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx in New York. Her father owned a butcher shop. Her mother helped in the shop.
When my mother was growing up, it was not fashionable to be German. They lost World War I. And then they caused World War II. My mother and her parents did not speak German outside of their apartment. My mother did not take German in school. My mother and her mother joined the other women of the apartment complex sitting in the courtyard knitting for the soldiers – caps, scarfs, socks, mittens. And they bought war bonds. And when meat was hard to procure during the war, rather than buying it on the black market [that feels like a racist term], my grandfather closed his butcher shop and went to work at a local grocery store. My mother and her family went to church every Sunday.
These were respectable, hard-working people who kept their heads down and had no desire to make any waves or call attention to themselves in any way.
After my parents met, at church, my father of Italian extraction, another axis ethnicity, an unfavored group, they decided to go out on a first date. At the end of the evening, sitting on the steps outside the apartment, my mother informed my father that she intended to become a missionary and go to Ecuador. She must have heard something about that at her church and that is what she had decided to do.
Since this is the Sunday nearest the founding of the UCC, I’ll point out that all four of my grandparents went to Christ Church in the Bronx, an Evangelical and Reformed Church that in 1956 became part of the United Church of Christ.
So, my mother wanted to be a missionary to Ecuador. Well, things did not go as planned. Instead, she married my father, put him through seminary, and he became a pastor in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, later part of the United Church of Christ. And my parents had two kids. And my mother did a lot of other things of what might be called a missionary nature.
My mother never went to college. She worked almost all of her adult years usually in clerical office jobs, often in church or social service settings. In 1965, our family moved from the Pennsylvania Dutch country where my father had served a thriving church to Silver Spring, Maryland, where my father began his tenure as the first conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference of the newly formed United Church of Christ. The conference includes Maryland, Washington, D.C. northern Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey.
As another aside, UCC related, some of you knew Kristin Andes, a devoted LUCC member in the 1980’s and 90’s. Kristin’s mother was on the search committee that called my father to the Central Atlantic Conference.
So, when we moved to Silver Spring, MD my mother went to work in the conference office as the administrative assistant to the associate conference minister in charge of youth ministry and christian education. So she worked where my dad worked. There were several other staff people in the office – professional and clerical. One was a young African American woman, Judy, who was single and had a young child. My mother and the other women of the office encouraged Judy to continue her education and to go to college. They helped her to find a program she could attend at night. And they helped with tuition. And they helped her with childcare. That was going along well. And then Judy found herself expecting another child. She decided that she wanted to end the pregnancy, finish her college education, provide a better life for the child she already had, and make a more significant contribution to society. So, to help support Judy in that decision, my parents gave her the money to have an abortion.
This was my under-the-radar, non rabble-rousing mother. Who baked cookies for the PTA. And sewed banners for her church. And needle pointed covers for the pew cushions.
You see, my mother did not have to assess this abortion issue. She did not have to dissect it. She did not have to analyze anything. She knew Judy’s situation. And she saw Judy’s potential. And she knew that the right thing to do was to respect and support Judy in exercising her intelligence and moral responsibility as a human being. My mother did not need a degree or a Bible to certify what was loving and just and right in that circumstance.
During these years, the sixties, my parents were sought out by someone from the youth group in the first church that they served in Western Pennsylvania, many years before, and asked to help pay for a trip to Africa for a sex change operation that would not be done in the US. Of course my parents gave them the money.
The point here is, for my mother doing these things was not calculated in anyway. It was natural. For her, being Christian, following Jesus, serving others, was not second nature. It was who she was. It was her only nature. She always saw every person as a precious child of God. Period.
Now, my mother went to church every Sunday but I never saw my mother pray- except for grace at meals and a prayer before bed. I never saw my mother read the Bible. I really never saw my mother read a book of any kind. She made sure her kids were reading and our home was filled with books, but I didn’t see her read. She didn’t listen to religion on TV or the radio. No gospel music or anything like that. She didn’t keep a prayer journal. She was simply Christian. It is who she was.
In 2 Corinthians 13, we are told: “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Don’t you understand that Jesus Christ is in you?” (v. 5) My mother didn’t even know it, really, but Jesus Christ was in her. It was like a fish that lives in water but doesn’t even really know that. My mother was just Christian. It is the only way she knew how to be. It was the only way she had to look at things. In her last years with her mind gone and her body frail, she could no longer speak. But whenever anyone went into her room at the nursing home or greeted her in her wheel chair in the hall way, she smiled. She tried to do something for someone else, to give what she still had to give. And she didn’t have to think this through. It is just who she was.
Now, let’s turn from my mother and abortion to these important verses from Luke because here are these people who want to follow Jesus, who want to get in on what he is about, and basically he is telling them, it’s about who you are. It’s not about a set of propositions. It’s not about a system of rewards and punishments. It’s not a guide book on the route to heaven. It is about who you are. Fundamentally. At your core. It’s not one of the hats you wear, it’s your head, itself. And it determines what hats you will wear. Following Jesus is about identity.
The disciples who have been with Jesus all along are sent ahead to make provisions for the night. Now they are in Samaria, the territory between Galilee and Judea where Jerusalem is. This is enemy territory. The Samaritans and the Jews have been at it for centuries about the proper worship of God, etc. So, the Samaritans are not willing to provide hospitality to these Jews. The disciples report the rebuff to Jesus and suggest: “Rabbi, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and destroy them?” This may be a reference to Elijah who called down the fire of God to prove that the God of Israel was superior to the God Baal.
[See I Kings 18.] So, after all this time with Jesus, these disciples still don’t get that Jesus doesn’t do violence or vengeance or retribution. He forgives. We are told that Jesus reprimands the disciples, and then probably forgives them. They just don’t get it.
So then a person on the road comes up to Jesus and says he wants to follow Jesus. The story tells us Jesus responds: “Foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Chosen One has nowhere to rest.” In other words, you want to follow me? Well, you’ll have to be on the move, probably avoiding danger and opposition. And probably not welcome in a lot of places. And you probably won’t have much money so you won’t be able to afford a home. It’s like the situation of someone who is oppressed. Don’t expect acceptance of any kind for you, your life orientation, your message, or your reality. This is no bed of roses.
In the story, another person wants to follow Jesus comes up to him. Hearing that the man’s father has died, does Jesus offer sympathy and compassion for this grieving soul? “Let the dead bury their dead; you go and proclaim the reign of God everywhere.” The old rules don’t apply any more. There is more pressing business. There is a reorientation of priorities. Nothing comes before proclaiming the reign of God.
Then we are told of a third person coming to Jesus and who wants to follow him. But he wants to say goodbye to his family. Jesus says, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God.” Following Jesus is a new life. And there can’t be any competing loyalties or commitments. No holding back.
There is a story told by Father Raymond about “a little child whose mother was teaching him to pray. When he got to the part, ‘Lord, I surrender everything to thee, everything I own,’ he abruptly broke off and whispered to himself, ‘except my baby rabbit.’” [From Paul Tournier, Escape from Loneliness, in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C, Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 202]
In the New Testament, those who accept life in Christ are spoken of as a new creation. In other words, they are made new. It is a new life. Think of the story of Nicodemus. In that story Jesus tells him, you must be born again. It is a new life A different life. You become a new person. And there is the image of baptism, going under the water, dying to your old life, and coming out of the water, like the birth water of the womb, into a new life. This is what we hear from Jesus as he is on the road.
In the story we heard today, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and we know what happens there. He is crucified. He probably knows he is in danger. He probably knows his time is short. So he doesn’t have time to make nice. He is not trying to make things look palatable to gain adherents. This isn’t a marketing campaign to amass new members, for their money and resources. This is the heart of the matter. Life in God. Period. That reality. The only reality.
In Jesus’ day, people knew the primary bond of familial connection. Of attachment to the land. Of adherence, sticking to, the Torah, the core teaching of Judaism about God and right relationship between God and humanity. These things formed a person’s identity. And Jesus was superseding all of this with devotion to God alone. To love. No limitations or restrictions. It’s who you are.
In our context, our culture, we have made religion a commodity more than an identity. And it has been marketed for what it can do for you. Guilty? Believe in Jesus and he will forgive you. He died for your sins. He will clean your slate.
Afraid of death? We got you covered. Believe in Jesus and he will have your room waiting in heaven complete with piped in muzak provided by the angels.
Sad, distraught, heartbroken, despairing? Give it to Jesus. He’s got you covered. He’ll take it all away. Just pray.
Can you see how this meshes with our market-driven, consumer economy mindset? Religion becomes a service provider. Need this, this, or this? We got you covered. Just take your place in the pew and put your donation in the plate, thank you very much.
And if you don’t get the results you want from your religious observance – ask and it will be given, seek and you will find – then you just don’t have enough faith. You need to pray harder. Oh, yes, and donate more. Or you can try another church. Maybe they can give you better service.
It’s like God is Santa, and Jesus is an elf, and we want to keep ourselves on the nice list, not the naughty list, so that we get what is on our wish list: health, wealth, a nice family, a good job, heaven in the next life. Whatever.
But when Jesus expresses the nature of discipleship in the verses we heard today, it’s not an ad from a service provider. Come to us and we’ll take care of all your needs. What we hear from Jesus is detach yourself from all of your other entanglements, including your attachment to violence, and retribution (sometimes called justice). Sever yourself from your responsibilities and relationships, including family. And take on this completely new identity, world view, reality orientation. A new creation. Baptism. Old life. New life. Born again. There’s an old saying, communism puts a new suit on a man. Christianity puts a new man in the suit.
I have found beautiful discussions of faith in the novel, A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin. There are several very philosophical, theological reflections in the book which offers the telling of a soldier’s experiences in World War I. At one point, the main character, an Italian soldier named Alessandro, is in a military prison for desertion. Everyone in the prison is slated to be executed. The prisoners have many interesting conversations as they wait for days, weeks, or months for their turn to be shot. Alessandro meets a communist, Ludovico, in the prison. They have several discussions examining the faith of Alessandro and the communist commitment of Ludovico. Alessandro challenges Ludovico: “How can you reserve your most sacred beliefs for a descriptive system, and one that is imperfect at that? I can’t imagine myself believing in trigonometry or accounting, and yet you guide your soul according to a theory of economics.”
“It won’t fail me as surely as your system will fail you.”
“I don’t have a system.”
“Theology is a system.”
“Not my theology.”
“Then what is it?”
“What is it? It’s the overwhelming combination of all that I’ve seen, felt, and cannot explain, that has stayed with me and refused to depart, that drives me again and again to a faith of which I am not sure, that is alluring because it will not stoop to be defined by so inadequate a creature as man. Unlike Marxism, it is ineffable, and it cannot be explained in words.” [Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War, pp. 442-443.]
Following Jesus is simply about who you are. Beyond words and into being. What reality you are in. It is about fundamental identity and how you experience life.
This week is the 65th anniversary of the United Church of Christ, the denomination of which we are a part. The UCC was founded in 1957 as a merger of the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which were both mergers of predecessor denominations. There were also other smaller communions feeding into the mix. One of the things I appreciate about the UCC is that we are a non creedal church. We have a Statement of Faith. And we honor the historic creeds of the church and what they conveyed in their times and circumstances. But we don’t insist that anyone, even clergy, endorse a specific creed to be a part of the church. To me this honors the spirit of Jesus who taught that faith was a fundamental life orientation, not a system of thought or a set of laws or a road map for getting to heaven.
In recent days and weeks we are hearing much about the Supreme Court. It is interesting that recent rulings are not consistent with public opinion. In the latest ruling about abortion, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, addressed this issue head on. In a news article from the Washington Post we are told that he “attacked the notion that the court should consider the public will. He quoted late chief justice William H. Rehnquist from a previous ruling: ‘The Judicial Branch derives its legitimacy, not from following public opinion, but from deciding by its best lights.’” [“Supreme Court goes against public opinion in rulings on abortion, guns,” Michael Scherer, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/24/supreme-court-goes-againstpublic-opinion-rulings-abortion-guns/%5D
Their role is not to reflect the views of society, but to implement justice according to the dictates of the Constitution and established legal precedent. Their responsibility is not to give the people what they think they want but to honor the rule of law whether people like it or not. And many people didn’t like it when the court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education ending the precedent of separate but equal in education. People did not like it when the court ruled in Loving v. Virginia making interracial marriage legal throughout the country. And they did not like it when the court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges making gay marriage legal.
This speaks to the role of the church. We are not here to reflect the views of society. To tailor our message to make it palatable to society, to reflect popular opinion, so that we get more members and more money. That is not at all how Jesus looked at things.
We are to look at the world, ourselves, life, through the eyes of love. And when we do, we can see that the actions of the Supreme Court of late are completely at odds with the reverence and respect for every single life that is at the heart of Christianity. The gun ruling puts the rights of guns and gun owners above the safety and protection and right to life of the random population. And the abortion decision completely denies and denigrates the full humanity of women, and of course, will place the heaviest burden upon women of low income who are disproportionately women of color because of the legacy of racism in our country. These decisions do not respect the equal rights, equal worth, and equal sacredness of each and every person. As one person in our church observed, if we’re going to restrict abortion, then what about forcing every father who does not keep up on child support to have a vasectomy?
Unlike the court, the church, as the body of Christ, as the community of followers of Jesus, can never abandon its commitment to the dignity and the inestimable worth of every single person. Period.
What Jesus is teaching as we heard this morning is that it doesn’t matter what the times are like, we as Christians are living in another reality and will always be out of step in some way with the world around us. And following Jesus is not a path to a candy store where we get all the goodies that we want. It’s not about getting anything, really. It’s about learning to receive, becoming conscious of what you are being given, simply by being here on this earth in this body on this day. Regardless of the times or the circumstances or the location. Following Jesus is about embracing the living of our days in a way that will lead us to deep experience, intense engagement with others, meaningful relationships, desire for material simplicity, profligate generosity, appreciation for beauty, relishing the delight and joy of living, as well as the hardship, staggering loss, and heart break. That is full and abundant life. It’s love. It is who we are.
As people who are in Christ, who are following Jesus, we can live out the prayer based on sentiments of Etty Hillesum, who was Jewish and lived through the Holocaust. Of course, Jesus was Jewish, so the prayer is completely consistent with the gospel of Jesus:
Against every new outrage
And every new horror
May we put up
One more piece of love and goodness
Drawing deeper and deeper strength
From within our deepest selves.
[Andrew Harvey, based on Etty Hillesum]
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ