About Rev. Wells

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

Sermon 7.28.19 Saved!

Scripture Lesson: The Book of Jonah                                                                                     Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

The main take away usually associated with the story of Jonah is that God saved Jonah from drowning by sending a big fish, or whale, to pluck him from the depths of the sea and deposit him on dry land.  Jonah’s life is saved.  Whew!  When taught in church school to children this story is used to teach about a miraculous interventionist God who will save you when you are in perilous circumstances.  You can count on God to help you no matter how bad a fix you are in.  

When we teach this story to kids, we don’t usually make a big deal out of Jonah trying to get away from God and God’s assignment to go to Nineveh to save the great city.  We don’t emphasize that in the story God sends the tempestuous storm that threatens not only Jonah’s life but also the lives of the others on the ship.  We don’t go on about the fish spitting Jonah out on the shore near the city that he did not want to go to to deliver God’s message.  And we do not make a teaching point out of Jonah’s resentment and anger at the successful repentance and transformation of the evil city of Nineveh despite the brief message Jonah is instructed to deliver.  Hm.  Just a fish story – a big fish rescues someone who is drowning.  That’s sometimes where we leave it.  Especially for kids.  

Among the many messages and meanings in the book of Jonah, I think there is one needling issue that we can all relate to.  When good things happen to bad people.  Yes, Rabbi Kushner wrote a very helpful book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  While that problem confounds us, the situation of good things happening to bad people can lead to anger, resentment, and offense.  

And that is just what happens in this story.  Jonah is a faithful prophet of the Hebrew people.  He feels called by God to deliver God’s saving word to his people, the Jews.  But God calls him to go to Nineveh.  Nineveh?  The great city known not only for its size but for its wickedness and violence.  They are foreigners.  They are not allies.  They don’t even know that they need saving.  Why in heaven’s name would Jonah a prophet of the Hebrews committed to the well-being of his people want to go to Nineveh to proclaim God’s saving word and encourage them to repent and turn in a new direction?  Why would Jonah want to be part of this random act of salvation, helping facilitate When Good Things Happen to Bad People?  

After the storm, being tossed into the sea, and spending three days in the belly of the beast, tossed up on the shore near Nineveh, Jonah sees that he really has no choice in the matter.  But he is still resentful, inflamed with indignation.  He walks into Nineveh and declares the message God gives to him, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  That’s it.  No “Thus says the Lord.”  No fire and brimstone.  No long drawn out prophetic recitations of the evils done by the Ninevites.  No imaging of the scenes of destruction.  Just one short sentence.  “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

But that is all it takes.  The people of Nineveh repent.  The king gets on board.  The repentance is so all encompassing even the animals of Nineveh participate in the rituals of repentance wearing sackcloth and fasting.  The entire city completely repents and turns to the God of the Hebrews.  The city is transformed.   In the eyes of God, this is a triumph.  In the eyes of Jonah, well, since he wants to die, he doesn’t seem to consider it much of a success.  

In this story, we see a God that will go to any lengths to dispense grace.  Goading a reluctant prophet.  Using the natural forces of wind and water to form a storm that threatens life.  Sending a fish to help the process.  All to save Nineveh, the great, wicked, violent city.  God’s sights will not be diverted from the mission of salvation.  And this recalcitrant prophet, Jonah, will certainly not get in the way of God’s purposes.  

When good things happen to bad people. . . This is a story of mysterious, unpredictable grace.  The wrong people, the unlikely people, get on board with God.  We are scandalized by grace.

Divine Love will go to any lengths to dispense grace.  We see this same impulse in Jesus.  Reaching out to those who others think are unworthy, should be forgotten, and are not important.  Yet Jesus is not reluctant or resistant like Jonah.  Jesus is all in.  Send me where the need is greatest.  Why bother being a reluctant prophet?  Why try to undermine grace?  When, as the story of Jonah and of Jesus show us, grace will prevail.  And it will be dispensed from the most unlikely sources.  To those who may not even know their need.  And it may very well prevail in spite of well-intentioned people who are actually in the way.  

In the story of Jonah we see that there is no escaping grace.  The immensity of God encompasses all of the people and the animals of the great city of Nineveh, as well as the fish of the sea, the wind and the waves, and that surly, quarrelsome prophet, Jonah.  Our small-mindedness and resistance is no match for divine grace.  So, why waste our energy and resources digging in our heels?  Look at all those people and the animals of Nineveh?  They immediately and wholeheartedly succumb to grace.  They don’t try to hold out, defend themselves, or bargain.  They simply accept, say yes, and give thanks!

Grace may be amazing, but it is not exceptional.  It makes no exceptions.  No one is exempt from grace.  Grace is also enigmatic,  awe-inspiring, and wonder-full.  Its impact is immense.  It is life saving.  And it encompasses everything and everyone.  We can’t escape it.  

Several summers ago, we went on a whale watch boat tour from Long Beach, California.  They don’t make any promises about seeing a whale, but we saw several in the waters off the shores of California among the oil drilling platforms.  We saw the humpback whale and the right whale.  It was stunning.  They were beautiful.  Then, when we should have been heading back, the boat headed further out from shore.  The announcer told us to get up and look off the side of the boat.  There was a huge light blue patch in the water that looked almost like a sand bar.  It was long and oval shaped.  And as we got closer, we were told that this was a blue whale.  The largest whale in the seas.  It’s really gray but it is called the blue whale because of the light blue patch seen in the water when it is swimming near the surface.  We got quite close to the whale.  We were standing on the deck of the boat.  Our son, Malcolm, and I were standing next to each other.  We clasped hands and wept.  There was nothing that could be said in the presence of this the largest living creature on the planet.  This was simply an unforgettable moment.  The immensity of it inspired awe and wonder.  

There was room in the belly of that whale for everyone aboard our tour and maybe even the boat itself.    And even that huge creature dwarfs the scope of the capacity of grace to impact all of life and creation itself.  So why bother trying to opt out or jump ship – grace will still take you in and save you.  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 6.9.19 Pentecost “Fire and Fear”

Scripture:  Acts 2:1-21

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Between about 70,000 and 120,000 years ago, humans figured out how to create fire.  They knew about fire from lighting and other natural occurrences but they eventually figured out  how to make fire.  This was transformative in human history.  Making fire.  With fire, humans learned to cook food.  And they could keep warm which made it possible for them to migrate to colder climates.  With fire, they could have light after the sun went down extending the hours for activity and interaction each day.  Fire was also used to clear land for growing food.  It was used to make tools and pottery.  

And fire had another important function.  It was used for protection.  Fearsome animals were afraid of fire.   Yes, think of Mowgli driving away the man-eating tiger Shere Khan in the movie Jungle Book.  Fire helped humans to be safe and protected.  

Given the power of fire, it is understandable that in the Bible fire is used as a symbol of the Divine.  It is associated with God like in the story of Moses encountering the burning bush on the mountain.  Moses hears God speaking from the bush.  And this morning we heard how tongues of flame alit on the heads of the disciples.  This is a sign of the presence of God, the Holy Spirit.  The disciples in this story were scared, laying low, and staying in a closed room.  They were afraid that they might be associated with Jesus and end up being arrested or crucified as he was.  So they were in hiding.  Until the Spirit came, as we heard today, symbolized by the flames on the head of each disciple and the sound of the rushing wind.  This is like the scene of the light and the wind in the creation story in Genesis where the wind is brooding over the waters and light appears.  In the Pentecost story something new is being created.  The church.  These few followers of Jesus receive this power, this Spirit, and they are no longer afraid.  It drives out their fear and they emerge from their closed room.  They are overwhelmed with the love and power and passion that they experienced with Jesus.  And so, like Jesus, they become bold, speaking out, so that all may hear of the God of powerful love.  They form a courageous community, and then other communities, of people who are enlivened by the story of Jesus, the God of love that he talked about, and the commonwealth of God that he created among his followers when he was with them.  We trace the beginnings of the church as a faith community back to this Pentecost moment.  This is when, by the power of Divine Love, a few sacred people were transformed into a bold community that evolved into the church sharing the light and love of God and we are a continuing part of that manifestation today.  

Now fear can be important.  We are right to be afraid in dangerous circumstances so that we do what is safe and protect ourselves.  Recently we have been hearing about the problems on Mount Everest this climbing season.  So far 11 people have died this year trying to get to the top of Everest or Chomolungma as it is called by the people of Tibet.  Yes, one of the issues is the crowds.  You may have seen the picture of the people lined up to get to the summit.  It looks like people in line for a ride at Disney.  But a bigger problem is that the people who are going are not properly prepared.  They are not proficient in the skills needed for the effort.  They have not cultivated the physical capacity for the exertion that is required.  We could say that they do not have the proper level of fear which would drive them to prepare properly or to forego undertaking something so hazardous.  It is not an excursion at a theme park.  So fear can work for us.  It can protect us and lead us to make decisions that save lives.  

But fear can also lead us to into futility.  It can lead us to shut down.  It can be immobilizing.  We say we are frozen with fear.  And fear can also stoke our worst impulses.  It can cause us to leave rationality behind.  And it can make us easy to manipulate.  Julius Caesar was an extremely effective leader of the Roman Empire, and he exerted his leadership and control largely by making the people afraid.  He has this to say about his tactics:  “Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword.  It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind.  And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry.  Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all their rights unto the leader and gladly so.  How do I know?  For this is what I have done.  And I am Caesar.”  

Fear can be used to control and manipulate.  This is happening in our country today.  Fear is at the heart of the racism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia in our country.  People are afraid of the “other” be it someone from a different culture or someone with a different skin tone or someone with a different sexual or gender identity.  

We see this kind of fear at play in the situation with the property next to the church.  The property is to be sold to Boley Centers and their plan is to put in housing primarily for people with special needs who would otherwise be homeless.  Some people in Lakewood Estates are against the Boley project and are trying to stop it.  I think they are afraid of these “other” people – special needs people.  They are afraid this will negatively impact their property values and some are up in arms about this.  But these are irrational fears.  If people are concerned about their property values, what they should be attacking is global warming because sea level rise is what is most likely to tank their home values and it’s not far off. 

Fear can be dangerous.  It can keep people separated and isolated.  Isolation breeds its own problems – mental health problems, emotional stability problems, and other things which can lead to mass shootings and other horrors.  Separation also prevents people from working together for the common good.  The New Testament tells us that love casts out such fear.  

The Pentecost story reminds us that the flame which drives away fear is given to us so that we can be bold and courageous in speaking out with love.  We are given the power to confront the fears that separate and divide us.  We are needed to raise our voices and take bold actions to help create communities where everyone is welcome, where everyone is taken care of, where everyone is valued.  And where we take care of the earth and heal the damage that we have caused to the planet.  Pentecost reminds us to let those flames alight upon us, driving away our fear, so that we are emboldened to perform drastic acts of courage and love in the world as Jesus and his first followers did. 

In the  Pentecost story, the wind was heard and the flames were seen.  And the disciples proclaimed a bold message.  And by the Spirit, we are told that all the people gathered in Jerusalem from many different cultures, could understand what the disciples were saying, each hearing in their own language, languages the disciples did not know how to speak.  But their message got through.  As we think about the Spirit being given to us, we, too, have a message to share.  We need to speak with the language of love, not fear.  The language of courage, not fear.  The language of generosity, not fear.  The language of compassion, not fear.  The language of justice, not fear.  The language of understanding, not fear.  The language of forgiveness, not fear.  May the flame of Divine Love burn brightly within us driving away our needless fears so that we can be bold like those first disciples.  The message still needs to be heard.  Now more than ever!  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.

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.