About Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

Pastor’s letter to the City Council about the Boley housing project next to the church

Dear Mayor and City Council,

This letter is in support of the Boley Centers housing project which is being planned for the property adjacent to Lakewood United Church of Christ at 2601 54th Avenue South in St. Petersburg.  I am the pastor of the church and we want you to know that the church is in full support of the Boley initiative.  The Boley staff reached out to our church and met with me and several leaders of the church including church members who live in Lakewood Estates.  The project was explained to us.  We were given the opportunity to ask questions and get clarification.  In sum, the church strongly endorses this project.  Frankly, we have to.  We are a church and the gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to show support and care for “the least of these.”  The Boley project will be ministering to the needs of the least of these.  As a church we support this effort because it reflects the values of the gospel.

Our position is based on the teachings and sacred texts of our religion.  Of course, we do not expect you, as a City Council, to follow those dictates.  Your commitment is to live up to the values and expectations that have been set for the City.  In this regard, I remind you of two recent commitments made by the City.

The first is the Proclamation declaring St. Petersburg a City of Compassion signed and sealed on Sept. 15, 2018.  In this Proclamation,  it is stated:

“Whereas the City strives to be a place where the sun shines for all, and works to protect and promote the rights of LGBT and disenfranchised communities, the homeless, the elderly, the youth, and the pet and animal residents of the City;”  

The population that will be housed at the Boley complex next to the church includes the disenfranchised community (special needs), the homeless, and, likely, the elderly.  This project will directly serve to protect and promote the rights of these City residents to have a safe place to live.  

The second commitment made by the City that I would like to cite was made on January 10, 2019.  It is the Proclamation declaring St. Petersburg a City of Peace:

“Whereas, the community leaders of St. Petersburg are committed to establishing peace in the region to promote economic opportunity and improve the quality of life of the people of our region.”  

The Boley project will definitely improve the quality of life of the special needs population and the homeless population, both segments of “the people of our region.”

We do not expect the City Council to support the Boley initiative based on our religion values but we do expect the City Council to support the Boley project based on the values and commitments made in these proclamations and other statements which establish the aspirations for life in St. Petersburg.    

Thank you so much for your consideration of this matter.  Please let us know how we can be helpful in supporting the Boley project.  

We are grateful for your service to the community and your dedication to our City where the sun shines on all.  

Sincerely, 

Kim P. Wells

Lakewood United Church of Christ, pastor

Sermon 6.2.19 Choose Joy!

Scripture: Luke 24:45-53

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Startled.  Terrified.  Frightened.  Doubtful.  Panicked.  Disturbed.  Grieving.  That is what we are told about the condition of the disciples as this story begins.  That is the shape they are in.  It’s not a very good place to be, is it?  It’s hard to be grieving and heartbroken and afraid and all that goes along with that.  These disciples are distraught.  Yet in the story, just a short time later, they are filled with joy and praising God.  How did that happen?

In the story we are told of Jesus appearing to the group of disciples and showing them his hands and feet, and then eating.  He is trying to show that he is not a ghost.  That he is real.  He then tells them about the fulfillment of the scriptures.  Again, he is showing them that this is real like the other things that God has done in the past.  Like the promises God has made and fulfilled in the past.  It is happening again.  And it is real.  They are not imagining something or hallucinating.  Those references to the hands and feet, eating, and scripture are ways of validating the reality of the disciples.  

In the story, Jesus is extending the intentions of God to the present moment and beyond.  Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations beginning from Jerusalem.  There is more to come and it will start right there, with them.  And God will provide the energy and inspiration.  All they have to do is wait for it and be obedient.  Again, this fits in with their conception of reality as a continuation of what God has done and, they now see, has been doing.  They will be part of the unfolding of a new chapter in the fulfilling of the promises of God.  

Then in the story, Jesus is taken up into heaven.  While this sounds like sci-fi to us, there were several Hebrew Bible figures who were taken up into heaven like Elijah.  This concept of being taken up was also part of Greco-Roman literature.  The ascent of heroes and immortals was a well-known device.  In one example, the nobles exhort the people to revere Romulus, “since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king.”  [Plutarch, quoted in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 417]   So, in Luke’s story, Jesus was taken up.  People had associations with this.  This would not have seemed unbelievable.  It would have put Jesus in league with other important figures.  So being taken up again verified his importance and the reality of the experience.  

As the gospel concludes, the disciples are in the Temple in Jerusalem.  That is where the gospel began, with Zechariah, Anna, and Simeon, validating the identity of Jesus.  And now the disciples are in the Temple again without Jesus.  He has left them.  Again.  He died.  Came back.  And left again.  A cruel joke?  Are the disciples distraught and scared?  No.  We are told that the disciples were filled with great joy.  Yes, joy.  They were at the Temple night and day filled with joy and praising God.  They were continually in the Temple blessing God.

It’s interesting.  They still don’t have Jesus.  He has been crucified.  They have still left home and family.  They still may be pursued by Temple authorities or Roman authorities as friends of Jesus.  The way the story is told, the outward circumstances of the disciples has not greatly improved.  And yet they are overcome with great joy.  

Here we see the nature of joy.  Jesus promised the disciples joy.  And here, they have it.  But joy is not based on outward circumstances.  Joy is not dependent on being in a comfortable, safe situation.  Joy is not defined as the absence of sorrow or pain or heartbreak.  Joy can be present, can thrive, can overwhelm, even in difficult circumstances, even through grief and loss.  

In the story of the ascension, we see that joy is rooted in deeply held trust in the on-going goodness, steadfast love, and purposes of God.  The disciples see a story with intention.  They see the arc of redemption.  They see that all things are working together in the plan of God.  And so they are filled with joy.  Their deep conviction is in the larger prevailing dreams of God.  Joy is confidence that those dreams will come to fruition and that all of Creation is part of that.  

In today’s world, in the church, we may not ascribe to such a traditional view of God.  Many no longer think of God as a spirit, some thing some where, making personal interventions in human history.  While we may have different conceptions of God, the basics about joy hold fast.  Joy is a deep seated trust in the unfolding of Creation and history in a way that is good.  Joy encompasses the ability be struck by wonder whatever the circumstances.  Joy invites us to be amazed and awed whatever our outward condition.  Joy includes a fundamentally hopeful orientation toward the future whatever it may hold.  While some may not feel comfortable with the terminology, “God has a plan,” and I am among you, joy invites us to be taken in with wonder and amazement and delighted by the inexplicable, the holy, the sacred, every day; continually to use the word from Luke.  

To choose joy as the orientation for our lives does not mean that we will be happy all of the time.  It does not mean that we will be materially prosperous.  It does not mean that disaster will not befall us or our loved ones.  It does not spare us grief.  Joy gives us a grounding in something that is greater than ourselves, that is beyond us, yet within us, something that is good and hopeful.  It involves a capacity for seeing the love, the connection, the blessing, wherever it may be and then rejoicing, feeling and expressing joy.  

This is part of what we do in church each week.  We try to tune ourselves in to the greater reality of love and forgiveness and blessing so that we see this in our lives and the world.  Here we cultivate the trust that life is fundamentally good, a miracle, really.  Here we remind ourselves to be struck by awe and wonder, wherever it may appear.  And it will appear.  Here we claim and validate our reality in goodness and love.  We choose joy!

Sometimes I think that the greed in our culture obstructs the orientation toward joy.  We see ads and commercials that tell us life is good when you have a certain cold beer in your hand on a hot day.  And that driving a certain kind of car will make it all fine.  And that to be beautiful is to be bejeweled.  But joy depends on none of those things.  It is not dependent on material possessions or wealth.  That makes joy countercultural, subversive.  It is not something you can buy.  But it has great value.  

You can be poor and hungry and still have feelings of blessedness and joy.  You can be sick and tired and still experience joy.  You can be buffeted by grief and still know joy.  You can be unemployed and homeless and still find joy in life.  And no one can take it away from you.  Joy is about spiritual conviction and can’t be controlled by economic conditions or other circumstances.  To choose joy is to choose liberation.  

An orientation of joy leads to a life of deep contentment and fulfillment.  That is what Jesus wants for his disciples, for his followers, for us, and for all people.  Joy.  Delight in the marvels of life, nature, relationships.  Engagement with others in the work of healing and justice and reconciliation.  This is the way of joy.  And it is open to us all.  It is our birthright.  And it exceeds explanation or comprehension.  

Bill Clarke shares this story from the L’Arche community which includes developmentally disabled adults:  

“Claude has the most illogical mind that I have ever encountered so this may be the first and last time that he is ever quoted in a book.  He may ask such questions as ‘What time is orange?’ or ‘How was tomorrow?’  But still he does have a wisdom all his own. . . Well, one day Claude was at the beach with Jean-Pierre and several others of the community.  The ocean was at low tide so there was an immense stretch of flat, sandy beach.  They began making designs in the sand.  Claude drew a big circle with a couple of marks inside that could have been facial features.  ‘What’s that?’ asked Jean-Pierre.  With a big smile Claude replied:  ‘It’s Madame Sun.’ ‘That’s good’ Jean-Pierre said, ‘Now let’s see you draw joy.’  Claude took a look around him at the wide beach that stretched out in both directions as far as the eye could see, then turned to Jean-Pierre and said with a huge smile in all seriousness:  ‘There’s not enough room!’”  Amen!

[Bill Clarke, Enough Room for Joy:  Jean Vanier’s L’Arch, A Message for Our Time, quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 158]

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

Sermon 6.2.19 Choose Joy

Luke 24:45-53                                                                                                                                   Rev. Kim P. Wells

Startled.  Terrified.  Frightened.  Doubtful.  Panicked.  Disturbed.  Grieving.  That is what we are told about the condition of the disciples as this story begins.  That is the shape they are in.  It’s not a very good place to be, is it?  It’s hard to be grieving and heartbroken and afraid and all that goes along with that.  These disciples are distraught.  Yet in the story, just a short time later, they are filled with joy and praising God.  How did that happen?

In the story we are told of Jesus appearing to the group of disciples and showing them his hands and feet, and then eating.  He is trying to show that he is not a ghost.  That he is real.  He then tells them about the fulfillment of the scriptures.  Again, he is showing them that this is real like the other things that God has done in the past.  Like the promises God has made and fulfilled in the past.  It is happening again.  And it is real.  They are not imagining something or hallucinating.  Those references to the hands and feet, eating, and scripture are ways of validating the reality of the disciples.  

In the story, Jesus is extending the intentions of God to the present moment and beyond.  Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations beginning from Jerusalem.  There is more to come and it will start right there, with them.  And God will provide the energy and inspiration.  All they have to do is wait for it and be obedient.  Again, this fits in with their conception of reality as a continuation of what God has done and, they now see, has been doing.  They will be part of the unfolding of a new chapter in the fulfilling of the promises of God.  

Then in the story, Jesus is taken up into heaven.  While this sounds like sci-fi to us, there were several Hebrew Bible figures who were taken up into heaven like Elijah.  This concept of being taken up was also part of Greco-Roman literature.  The ascent of heroes and immortals was a well-known device.  In one example, the nobles exhort the people to revere Romulus, “since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king.”  [Plutarch, quoted in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 417]   So, in Luke’s story, Jesus was taken up.  People had associations with this.  This would not have seemed unbelievable.  It would have put Jesus in league with other important figures.  So being taken up again verified his importance and the reality of the experience.  

As the gospel concludes, the disciples are in the Temple in Jerusalem.  That is where the gospel began, with Zechariah, Anna, and Simeon, validating the identity of Jesus.  And now the disciples are in the Temple again without Jesus.  He has left them.  Again.  He died.  Came back.  And left again.  A cruel joke?  Are the disciples distraught and scared?  No.  We are told that the disciples were filled with great joy.  Yes, joy.  They were at the Temple night and day filled with joy and praising God.  They were continually in the Temple blessing God.

It’s interesting.  They still don’t have Jesus.  He has been crucified.  They have still left home and family.  They still may be pursued by Temple authorities or Roman authorities as friends of Jesus.  The way the story is told, the outward circumstances of the disciples has not greatly improved.  And yet they are overcome with great joy.  

Here we see the nature of joy.  Jesus promised the disciples joy.  And here, they have it.  But joy is not based on outward circumstances.  Joy is not dependent on being in a comfortable, safe situation.  Joy is not defined as the absence of sorrow or pain or heartbreak.  Joy can be present, can thrive, can overwhelm, even in difficult circumstances, even through grief and loss.  

In the story of the ascension, we see that joy is rooted in deeply held trust in the on-going goodness, steadfast love, and purposes of God.  The disciples see a story with intention.  They see the arc of redemption.  They see that all things are working together in the plan of God.  And so they are filled with joy.  Their deep conviction is in the larger prevailing dreams of God.  Joy is confidence that those dreams will come to fruition and that all of Creation is part of that.  

In today’s world, in the church, we may not ascribe to such a traditional view of God.  Many no longer think of God as a spirit, some thing some where, making personal interventions in human history.  While we may have different conceptions of God, the basics about joy hold fast.  Joy is a deep seated trust in the unfolding of Creation and history in a way that is good.  Joy encompasses the ability be struck by wonder whatever the circumstances.  Joy invites us to be amazed and awed whatever our outward condition.  Joy includes a fundamentally hopeful orientation toward the future whatever it may hold.  While some may not feel comfortable with the terminology, “God has a plan,” and I am among you, joy invites us to be taken in with wonder and amazement and delighted by the inexplicable, the holy, the sacred, every day; continually to use the word from Luke.  

To choose joy as the orientation for our lives does not mean that we will be happy all of the time.  It does not mean that we will be materially prosperous.  It does not mean that disaster will not befall us or our loved ones.  It does not spare us grief.  Joy gives us a grounding in something that is greater than ourselves, that is beyond us, yet within us, something that is good and hopeful.  It involves a capacity for seeing the love, the connection, the blessing, wherever it may be and then rejoicing, feeling and expressing joy.  

This is part of what we do in church each week.  We try to tune ourselves in to the greater reality of love and forgiveness and blessing so that we see this in our lives and the world.  Here we cultivate the trust that life is fundamentally good, a miracle, really.  Here we remind ourselves to be struck by awe and wonder, wherever it may appear.  And it will appear.  Here we claim and validate our reality in goodness and love.  We choose joy!

Sometimes I think that the greed in our culture obstructs the orientation toward joy.  We see ads and commercials that tell us life is good when you have a certain cold beer in your hand on a hot day.  And that driving a certain kind of car will make it all fine.  And that to be beautiful is to be bejeweled.  But joy depends on none of those things.  It is not dependent on material possessions or wealth.  That makes joy countercultural, subversive.  It is not something you can buy.  But it has great value.  

You can be poor and hungry and still have feelings of blessedness and joy.  You can be sick and tired and still experience joy.  You can be buffeted by grief and still know joy.  You can be unemployed and homeless and still find joy in life.  And no one can take it away from you.  Joy is about spiritual conviction and can’t be controlled by economic conditions or other circumstances.  To choose joy is to choose liberation.  

An orientation of joy leads to a life of deep contentment and fulfillment.  That is what Jesus wants for his disciples, for his followers, for us, and for all people.  Joy.  Delight in the marvels of life, nature, relationships.  Engagement with others in the work of healing and justice and reconciliation.  This is the way of joy.  And it is open to us all.  It is our birthright.  And it exceeds explanation or comprehension.  

Bill Clarke shares this story from the L’Arche community which includes developmentally disabled adults:  

“Claude has the most illogical mind that I have ever encountered so this may be the first and last time that he is ever quoted in a book.  He may ask such questions as ‘What time is orange?’ or ‘How was tomorrow?’  But still he does have a wisdom all his own. . . Well, one day Claude was at the beach with Jean-Pierre and several others of the community.  The ocean was at low tide so there was an immense stretch of flat, sandy beach.  They began making designs in the sand.  Claude drew a big circle with a couple of marks inside that could have been facial features.  ‘What’s that?’ asked Jean-Pierre.  With a big smile Claude replied:  ‘It’s Madame Sun.’ ‘That’s good’ Jean-Pierre said, ‘Now let’s see you draw joy.’  Claude took a look around him at the wide beach that stretched out in both directions as far as the eye could see, then turned to Jean-Pierre and said with a huge smile in all seriousness:  ‘There’s not enough room!’”  Amen!

[Bill Clarke, Enough Room for Joy:  Jean Vanier’s L’Arch, A Message for Our Time, quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 158]

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

Sermon 5.26.19 Learning from Lydia

Scripture Lesson:  Acts 16:9-15

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In her book, A Big-Enough God: Artful Theology, Sara Maitland, known mostly as a fantasy fiction writer, has this to say:  “So, it turns out, we do not have a little tame domestic God, thank God, but we do have a huge, wild, dangerous God – dangerous of course only if we think that God ought to be manageable and safe; a God of almost manic creativity, ingenuity and enthusiasm; a Big-Enough God, who is also a supremely generous and patient God; a God of beauty and chance and solidarity.” [Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, eds. Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 159-160, quoting Sara Maitland, p. 150]

We see this God portrayed by Maitland in the story that we heard this morning from Acts; the story of Paul and Silas going to Macedonia and finding Lydia and others praying by the river.  There are so many things in this story that are unexpected, wild, and generous. There is beauty and chance and surprising solidarity.  [Maitland]

First we start with Paul and Silas who were busy going around what was Asia Minor meeting with people in synagogues and telling them about Jesus as Messiah.  They were heading to Asia to do this work for God.   But this plan is immediately scratched when Paul is given a vision of a man telling him to go to Macedonia, today this is Greece.  Europe.  Not Asia.  So we see Paul and Silas dealing with a wild God that is giving unexpected direction. 

In the vision a man tells Paul he is needed in Macedonia.  The man is pleading, begging.  The need is urgent, dire.  And Paul gets to Macedonia, to the city of Philippi and finds not an eager synagogue of people hungry to hear of Jesus Christ, but a group of women, outside of town, praying together by a river, headed by a rich Gentile woman.   OK.  This is all wrong.  

Paul is a rabbi figure who was used to sitting down to teach men not women.  And this Lydia woman?  First we note that Lydia is not Jewish.  She is not coming to the way of Jesus through Judaism as many others have.  She is a God -fearer, someone attracted to Judaism and its one God, but not born a Jew; not ethnically Jewish.   She is a Gentile woman.  Then we notice that she is not in any way identified by her status relative to a man – wife, mother, daughter.  No.  She is portrayed as an independent, self-sufficient, successful business woman who is in charge of her household.  That is not a “thing” in the ancient world.  And her business, this dealing in purple cloth, means that she is directly involved with important, powerful, wealthy people because that’s who was allowed to wear purple cloth and who could afford purple cloth.  Purple cloth was dyed with coloring from a snail that was found in Thyatira where there was a town named Lydia.  Was that this woman’s name or just where she was from?  We don’t know.  But purple cloth was sold to a very limited very wealthy market.  So Lydia was used to dealing with those who were rich and powerful.  Thus she herself had power and influence.   This is completely unexpected in that context.  

So, here are these unlikely characters in this story, Paul, his associate, Silas, and Lydia and her household and friends.  Paul shares the good news of Jesus Christ in this unlikely setting (where is the man he saw in his vision?), and Lydia responds by having herself and her household baptized.  Remember, she is the head of household, bizarre as it is, so she has the authority to make this decision for those for whom she is responsible.  All are baptized, and then, as if to provide evidence of the validity of this baptism, Lydia asks Paul and Silas to stay at her house, she offers them hospitality.  She is offering a test, proof that the baptism is authentic, that she is sincere about living a new life emulating Christlike behavior.  In this gesture we see the mutuality of life in Jesus and we see the validity of the baptism.  Paul has preached and baptized and Lydia immediately responds with the Christian virtue of welcome and hospitality even to those vastly different from herself – men, from a lower socio economic class, and from another country/region.  She is welcoming the stranger.  So both Lydia and Paul respond to the directives of the wild God of the unexpected.                                         

The first convert to Christianity on European soil is not a man of influence, or a man that is downtrodden.  It is not even a man.  It is a woman of wealth, power, and influence.  This is ironic when you consider that the church in Europe was dominated by men of wealth and means who intentionally prevented the leadership of women.  This story is rich in irony and surprise.  Isn’t that the way with the wild, unmanageable, almost manic, supremely generous and patient God?  The God of beauty and chance and solidarity?  [Maitland]

Paul and Silas put themselves at the disposal of God thinking they had some idea of what would be expected of them.  Even they were surprised by what God had in mind for them in this story.  Did Paul ever think he would be in Europe, Macedonia, the home of Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great, Homer, sitting on the ground by a river talking to a group of women that he would then baptize in that very river?  He could never have anticipated this even though he was in the Lord’s service, a slave to Christ Jesus.  

And Lydia.  She probably came to pray with these women every week.  They were sincere in their devotion.  Clearly she knew there was more to life than making money and amassing power and influence.  It was not enough to be the head of the household.  She knew that she had hunger for more than food.  We are not told anything about the heartbreak or suffering she may have been living with.  But do we know that she, like all people, had spiritual needs that could not be satisfied by material comforts.  She was looking for meaning and a sense of being part of something beyond herself.  She was looking for a larger reality;  something beyond the borders of her cultural setting and her daily life.  Perhaps she was looking to tap into a universal source of grace and love for herself and others.  And in Paul’s message she hears of a God of all reality.  A God of love for all people, rich, poor, and in-between.  Healthy, sick, and in every condition.  Liberal, conservative, and all the rest.  Asian, European, male, female, and every other sort of person.  She hears of that God in what Paul had to say about Jesus and his ministry, his vision of the realm of God here and now.  Evidently, it was all Lydia could have hoped for and more.  And so it was into the river for her and her household and rising up to this new life that she had yearned for.

Whatever state we are in, physically, spiritually, emotionally, financially, whatever our needs, even though we may not know what they are, God is here, seeking us out, offering us grace and love.  And it may be hard for us to recognize because it is coming to us in the most unexpected fashion, involving the least likely people we can imagine.  And when we say yes, and yes again, and yes again, this trust puts us in situations we may find extremely unexpected and transforming.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember those who have been killed in the armed services.  It is a poignant day.  A day of grief.  It’s not easy to willingly recognize the horrible toll of war and armed conflict.  And war is not only perilous for soldiers.  Families, elders, and children are killed in war as well.  Refugees forced to flee war torn areas die or are killed.  People who need healthcare and food die because the resources are diverted to armaments.  Memorial Day is a time to remember the terrible toll of war.  And if we are open to it, if our spirits are pliable, this remembering can open a space for the God of love to offer forgiveness, healing, and a way to peace.  Many avid peace activists have lost someone in war or have personally served in armed military conflict.  They know the price of war firsthand and are willing to pay the price of peace whatever it may be.  Memorial Day for us can be like Lydia going to the river.  Going with her needs and desires and opening herself to being surprised by God.  Then saying yes to the wildness of God.  Under God, in whom we trust, may our annual Memorial Day observance move us ever closer to peace through non-violent resolution of conflict.   

The story of the encounter between Paul and Silas and Lydia and her household reminds us that we can’t control God, the unmanageable, huge, and wild God of almost manic creativity, ingenuity, and enthusiasm. [Maitland]  But we can position ourselves to be open, to be receptive, to be willing to welcome that God into our lives.  Lydia went to the river each sabbath to pray.  We can prepare ourselves by practicing our faith – coming to church, praying, serving others.  We can make ourselves more receptive by reading the Bible and other writings that inspire and illuminate life and who we are.  We can learn and seek and trust and engage.  Then to the God present in our lives, we will say yes, we will go on the journey, we will take the plunge – whatever it may be.  

This story shows us that God, the wild, unpredictable dangerous God [Maitland] is not only a God for people who are poor and suffering and downtrodden.  This is a God for everyone and all forms of life and all that sustains life.  Christianity is not limited to serving those who are materially disadvantaged, those who are abused and forgotten.  Christianity is a spiritual path that is welcoming to everyone – in all states of growth as well as all lifestyles, experiences, and income levels.  It is open even to those who are causing, knowingly or unknowingly, abuse and injustice.  This is not a religion that assumes that material wealth is a sign of spiritual well-being.  In fact, many people with lots of money seem to be more despairing, more lost, more awash, more in need morally and spiritually.   So many people with material security are unsatisfied and lost. The country with the highest Gross Domestic Product, United Arab Emirates, ranks 20th in the World Happiness Report.  In case you are wondering, the US ranks 18th.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report]  Money doesn’t necessarily mean happiness.  This story of Lydia shows us a God concerned with the well-being of everyone, those who are well off in some ways, those who are disadvantaged;  all who suffering and broken hearted as well as those seeking a deeper experience of human life.  

There was a survey done of Presbyterians in the 1990’s about their experience of God.  Half the church members said they had had a vision from God.  Yes, half.  And an even greater percentage of clergy admitted to having had a vision from God.   [Cited by Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews at Sermon Seeds 5.26.19,  https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_26_2019]  Some thought the results of the Presbyterian survey were surprising.  The numbers very high.  

I must say, the statistics for the congregants surprised me but not for the clergy.  When you consider the stressful, demanding, challenging nature of the profession of ministry, even given the rewards that satisfy beyond measure, it is still surprising to me that people go into this field, including myself.  I had in mind becoming a lawyer and working for those who don’t get justice in the court system – people of color, people of low income.  But one Sunday morning, walking back to my dorm after the service at the Wellesley Congregational United Church of Christ, I had a vision that if I made one person feel the way I felt that Sunday morning after church, I would have served my purpose.  That is what I was supposed to do with my life.  I was to enter the ministry.  The message was strong and clear.  No ambiguity.  After that there was no turning back.  And I have not regretted it, well, at least not very often.    

In the Presbyterian survey, half of the lay people also reported having had a vision from God.  Why is that surprising?  Isn’t that what we come here for each week?  Isn’t that why we are part of the church?  We are trying to open ourselves to God.  Cultivate a willing spirit. Trying to make ourselves more receptive to grace and love.  Looking for a word of healing, forgiveness, comfort, and hope.  We want to be part of the Divine reality that we see in the ministry of Jesus.  We want to be part of the vision of the God of love and new life.  

So, whoever we are, rich, poor, broken, solid, happy, regretful, God is seeking us.  And in God our deepest hungers and desires will be fulfilled.  But this may very well all happen in ways we least expect and involve people we never thought we would meet and couldn’t have imagined in our lives!                                          

May we open ourselves to taking our part in God’s visions and dreams.  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.

Sermon 5.19.19 The Love Laboratory

Scripture Lessons: John 13:31-35 and Revelation 21:1-6

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

In an advice column, someone writes in about something and then the columnist answers it.  My mother in law did thus and so . . .  and it goes on from there.  The guy I am dating doesn’t . . .  Whenever we go shopping, my daughter insists on . . .  So, the columnist offers a response to the circumstances presented.  Parts of the Bible kind of work like this only what we have is the response, we don’t usually get the initial query.  We aren’t told the full details of the circumstances being addressed.  But many of the writers have a target audience in mind and are thinking about the needs of that group as they write.

So, why do you tell people to, “Love one another as I have loved you”?  Why is this included in the last set of instructions and teachings that Jesus gives to his disciples in this gospel?  Evidently, this targets an issue. This is what the original audience for the gospel is having trouble with.  This is what they need to be reminded of.  

For the community that the gospel of John was addressing, this was an issue.  They were fractured by doctrinal disputes and by differing responses to outside pressures.  This was after the fall of Jerusalem and faith communities were reeling and trying to find a new normal without the Temple in Jerusalem as a cultic center.    

The Jesus followers addressed by the gospel of John were told to love because that is what they needed to hear.  It’s easy to see how that would be the case in the first communities of followers of Jesus and not only because of the external circumstances and pressures.

The first Christian communities were very diverse and the people did not have much experience getting along in an egalitarian way, seeing the views of others, functioning outside of the social structures of the highly stratified Roman Empire and traditional Temple oriented Judaism.  So, now they were to be family to one another and this intimate community life among diverse peoples was stressful and rife for misunderstandings and conflict.  And then there was the stress from the situation between the Roman Empire and the Jewish community.  

So, the gospel writer feels his readers need to be reminded to love and he works this into the last teachings of Jesus.  It is perfectly understandable that the disciples in the story would also need to be reminded to love given the circumstances of their story.  So, the disciples need to be reminded to love, the community of John needs to be reminded to love.  And, we also need to be reminded to love.  

The idea of love as the core of religious identity and practice was not new.  The commandment to love is not something new within the Jewish tradition.   In the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:5, we are told:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you might.”  And then in Leviticus 19:18, ”You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am the Lord.”  Jews were taught to love God and neighbor. Love is the core of Judaism and Jesus was Jewish.  So what is new about the commandment that Jesus gives in the gospel of John?  In Judaism, love was defined by obedience to the Law, the Torah, and the subsequent teachings about the Law.  There were extensive guidelines that defined love so that people knew how to comply with the commandment to love God and neighbor.  

What is new in what is presented in the gospel of John is that now love is not defined by extensive rules and guidelines and regulations, but it is defined by the behavior and teachings of Jesus.  He is the model for defining love.  And what we see in Jesus is complete obedience to love, for everyone, regardless of the circumstances or the behavior of others.  

That is borne out in the story we heard today.  Jesus says love as I have loved you.  At the beginning of this chapter of John, there is the story of the foot washing associated with the last supper in this gospel.  And Peter misunderstands and wants to wash Jesus’ feet.  He still doesn’t get the nature of discipleship.  In this chapter there is also reference to who will betray Jesus and our portion of the chapter began with, “When Judas had gone out. . .”   So there is reference to the betrayal of Jesus to the authorities by one of his closest companions.  And the chapter ends with the arrest of Jesus.  So, amidst all of this misunderstanding, betrayal, denial, and death, Jesus tells the disciples to love one another as he has loved them.  Nothing stops Jesus’ love.  Not the worst humanity can sink to, and that’s pretty low, not even that can stop Jesus from loving the disciples.

Jesus’ love is for everyone, no exceptions.  Even death does not deter or restrict Jesus from loving.  There is no cap on the forgiveness, acceptance, and generosity of Jesus’ love.  There are no limits, boundaries, or restrictions to Jesus’ love.  This is a new way of presenting the concept of love.  

We often use the word love to refer to a feeling.  An emotion.  And we know that emotions can be powerful and can influence behavior.  But Jesus was not talking about love as an emotion.  There was no sentimentalizing love in his commandment.  There was no trivializing love in his commandment.

Jesus’ commandment is not a directive about a sentimental emotion.  It is about an ethical, moral imperative.  It is a way of being.  It is a choice.  It is true freedom and liberation, because Jesus has decided that nothing someone else does will stop his love.  He does not give up his life, he gives away his life in the cause of love.  Jesus’ love is not a denial of agency.  Jesus’ love is the full expression of identity and vocation.  It is beautiful.  Jesus’ love is liberating because it frees you from being controlled by others.  Others no longer have control or power over his being because he is choosing love regardless of what others say or do.  They will not control him.

In her book all about love:  NEW VISIONS, bell hooks discusses how to define love.  She affirms the definition given by M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled.  Peck describes love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  That is far beyond a casual sentiment or the expression of desire.  And in Jesus we see someone who extends himself unto death for the well-being of his friends, of all humanity, and of all of Creation.  This is what Jesus commands his disciples, to love as he has loved them.  He commands this because it is for their highest good, for the nurturing of their spiritual growth.  He wants nothing less for them and for us.  

Maybe you noticed that Jesus refers to the disciples as little children.  While he is with them, they are depending on him, like a parent.  But as he teaches, he tells them that he is going away and they cannot come.  They are going to be on their own.  They must learn to function as adults; no longer dependents.  They must learn to discipline and control themselves.  They are not going to have their teacher around to set them straight and help them understand everything any more.  They must grow up and become more mature in their discipleship.  So he tells them, as a group, about a new commandment so that they can help each other grow into living full and complete love.

We listened to a beautiful portion of a vision from Revelation.  This gives us a glorious image of a new reality.  This hopeful vision is needed for the people of the time because the Temple and Jerusalem have been destroyed and they are trying to come to terms with that.  Jesus teaches that when we love as he loves, we experience God’s presence and the comfort, peace, and healing we need.  We live into this new world portrayed in Revelation.  We experience the commonwealth of God here and now.  

In the first century, the faith community, the church, was to be a place to remember Jesus, to remember Jesus’ love, to retell his stories and teachings as a continuous reminder of who he was and who we are to be.  We do this still today in church each Sunday: we remember the love of Jesus because that is to define who we are.  And when we have communion, we do it remembering Jesus and his death which is the fullest expression of his love.  

Beyond that, in the first century as well as today, the church, the faith community, the gathered people, who eat together and pray together, and serve together, are to be a laboratory for love.  It is with these people that we practice forgiveness and try to get better at it.  It is with these people that we try to practice reconciliation when there are differences and hurt feelings.  It is with these people that we experiment with being generous.  It is with these people that we increase our capacity to be understanding and accepting.  Being part of a church doesn’t mean everyone is going to get along and it will all go smoothly.  Not at all!  We are going to have differences.  Feelings will be hurt.  There will be misunderstandings.  But it is with these people that we practice and experiment with loving fully, freely, and without limits.  It is in this community that we learn, grow, and improve our ability to love with Jesus’ love.  

We turn to bell hooks again who points out:  “Realistically, being part of a loving community does not mean we will not face conflicts, betrayals, negative outcomes from positive actions, or bad things happening to good people.  Love allows us to confront these negative realities in a manner that is life-affirming and life enhancing.”  [bell hooks, all about love:  New Visions, 2000, p. 139].

Church as a Christian community is a love practicum.  A lab class.  Where we try things out.  Assess outcomes.  Try to come up with a better solution.  Where we experiment and grow in our capacity to love with Jesus’ love.  It is a place to overcome our limits.  To wrest control from society and others who are testing the limits of our love.  It is the place where we are honest with each other and help each other learn and grow in love.  Here we are Jesus to one another trying to love each other with Jesus’ love.

During the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King focussed on the power of love.  He put into practice the new commandment that we are given in the gospel of John.  He did this by intentionally training people to be loving especially toward those who hated them and wished them ill.  When they were preparing for a non violent protest, people were trained in how to respond to hostility, to ridicule, to debasement, and to violence, with love.  No violence.  No retaliation.  No revenge.  The only tactic to be used was love – Jesus’ love, the love without limits, the love that suffers even unto death, but that eventually triumphs.  

Learning to love at church helps us to be more loving to people out in the world.  We spread the love.  We take the love out to others.  We learn to function from love for all.  And we know that when we love others, when people feel loved, it makes people friendlier.  It makes people more patient.  It makes people less self absorbed.  It makes people more at peace. So our loving with Jesus love brings peace and joy to us, to those we are engaged with in the church, and to the world.  

Really what is Christianity?  What is church?  What is following Jesus?  This teaching from John makes it very simple.   “Love one another as I have loved you.”  There’s no complicated theology or doctrine or dogma.  There are no extensive laws and rules and guidelines.  There aren’t even 10 commandments to remember.  Just one:  Love one another as I have loved you.  It is simple.  But it is not easy.  Most of us will spend our lives trying to get the hang of it.  Amen.  

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