About Rev. Wells

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

Advent Devotion 24

Christmas Cactus

When I went outside this morning to get the newspaper I looked at the two Christmas cactus plants on our porch. One bloom on each plant has opened! And there are many more to come. It’s like being allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. It’s just a glimpse of what’s ahead.

How did these plants know to begin opening on Christmas Eve? How did they know it was the right moment? How is it that they are timed just right?

Christmas knows. After recent weeks of acrimony over the impeachment of Donald John Trump how did Christmas know to come? To bring the cheer of music and parties? To come with the distraction of decorations and presents? How did Christmas come just when we needed it? This most celebrated holiday in the world came right on time to upstage our political and moral morass.

Christmas is exactly what we need. Right now. So, celebrate!

Christmas comes. Whether we are ready or not. And it is exactly what we need. Amen.

2019 Advent Devotion 22

Laugh? Cry?

As we approach Christmas, we sing of the hopes and dreams associated with the birth of Jesus. We offer prayers celebrating the peace and joy that go with the arrival of Jesus. As with any child, birth is an experience of anticipation and hope. And this is magnified with the birth of Jesus.

We have so much to be grateful for as we think of the love and compassion that has come into the world through Jesus and his ministry. But as we reflect on all the light that Jesus brings, we still see so much darkness around us. Two thousand years plus after the birth of Jesus, why are people still greedy? Why do people still hurt each other? Why is there killing? How can we be letting the natural world as we know it collapse due to human activity and apathy? Why isn’t every child well fed, vaccinated, and well educated? Why are we still facing so many of the basic struggles of the human spirit that Jesus came to confront and to resolve?

We may feel much joy at the promise associated with the life of Jesus. But our hearts may be breaking over the sad state that we are still in.

But anyone who has been at a birth knows that it is a time of joy and tears. Laughter and crying. It is an ending. And a beginning. There is so much hope and promise but also the looming unknown. I remember an episode of the TV show ‘All in the Family’ where the son-in-law, Meathead, explains why he does not want to have children. He didn’t want to bring a child into a world with so many problems. And this was back in the 1970’s. There are people today who are opting not to have children because the environmental situation is so perilous that they don’t want to have a child knowing it will have to face such danger. And there are many other problems that children face today – school shootings, the internet, the economic system, racism and hatred. Many dangers! But having children that we love in our lives motivates us to take action to protect their future and do the right thing.

So, as Christmas approaches, do we laugh with joy or do we cry with heartbreak?

I heard a writer interviewed recently and he talked about how each day he finds that at some point he laughs. And he often cries. And he feels that both are part of experiencing life in its fullest. They go with being fully alive, deeply experiencing the many dimensions of life. So he sees both laughing and crying as good.

In the gospel of John, the writer has Jesus offer the promise of abundant life. Maybe this means feeling deeply. Feeling joy and delight and awe as well as grief and pain and disappointment. All of it. In its fullness. It’s richness. It’s depth. Being fully present and fully alive.

Laugh? Cry? Yes.

Note: I noticed that there was laughing and crying in church this morning. Maybe that’s what church is for. To help bring us back to life. To feel.

This is a complicated season. We want to be happy and celebrate and enjoy all of the festivities. But it is also a time to remember who is not celebrating. Who is struggling. Who is no longer with us. May our observance of Christmas remind us of what it is to be fully alive. Amen.

Sermon 12.22.19 The Nativities

We have all seen a Christmas nativity scene,  made popular, complete with animals, by Francis of Assisi.  And what do our nativity scenes usually include?

Input from the congregation. . . 

There are lots of examples along the back shelf here in the sanctuary.  You may want to look at them after church.  

Our nativity scenes tend to include many of the same figures but there are actually two stories about Jesus’ birth in the Bible and they are quite different and involve different characters.  

A nativity scene that is based on the story of the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, would have Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, an angel (just one), some wise men (we don’t know how many) bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And the scene might even include a key figure, King Herod, and some of his advisors.  I don’t know about you, but I have never, ever, seen a Herod in a creche scene. Herod was a violent, insecure tyrant akin to Stalin.  I can’t imagine him in a nativity scene.  But there he is as a major character in the birth story of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.  And we want to note that in Matthew’s story there is no mention of a stable, no manger, no hosts of singing angels, no shepherds, and no animals, except maybe camels for the wise men.    

Then there is the birth story of Jesus in the gospel of Luke.  This story includes the angel Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the stable with the manger and the swaddling cloths, shepherds and probably sheep and other animals.  No Herod.  No wise men.  No gifts.  No star.   

But why are there different stories?  In the same Bible?  Written in about the same time frame?  In the same context?  

One fundamental issue of the time was power and authority.  Rome was in control.  Caesar, the head of the Roman Empire, was referred as Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, God from God, Liberator, Bringer of Peace, Savior of the World, Divine.  [See The First Christmas by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p. 63]  These are among the same titles that were used for Jesus.  So there was a basic conflict between the authority of Rome and the authority of Jesus as the Messiah of the God of the Jews.  The same titles were used but who really had the power?

And there was a big conflict about what it means to be at peace.  Rome inflicted peace on the people through fear, intimidation, and threat.  And Jesus was symbolic of peace through justice and anti violence.  Which kind of peace was it going to be?  

So, there were two competing world views influencing the context of the birth stories.  And the gospel writers chose to respond to the same reality in different ways.  Matthew tells a story that is more about the political power structure and who has the real power.   The Matthew story is looking at things more from the top down.   Luke is telling a story that lifts up the people who are made poor, forgotten, not important, and of little value; those who are victims of the Roman Empire and its social, political, economic, and ideological power structure.  The Luke story is looking at things more from the bottom up.  So, the birth stories confront the same reality but are told from differing perspectives.  

The gospel writers are also addressing different audiences so they tell their stories in ways that will speak to their readers.  Matthew is speaking to a mostly Jewish audience using references to the Hebrew Scriptures and including the wise men to show that Jesus is a universal figure and his reign will include everyone not just Jews.  Luke is concerned with addressing an audience of both Jews and non Jews and includes people who are poor and expendable.  

Why do we have different stories?  People of the first century saw Jesus as an incredibly powerful figure who transformed their reality.  They felt that his impact was universal.  They saw his significance to all people of all times and cultures.  Jesus was experienced as a figure of power sent by God to change the trajectory of human history.  Jesus was so special, so important, that the people in the Jesus movement wanted to make sure that everyone heard about him.  In a relatable way.  So they sought to tell of him in ways that would speak to all different kinds of people so that everyone could see the importance of Jesus.  

Yes, there are two different birth stories in the gospels, but in both stories light triumphs over darkness, peace with justice triumphs over oppression and violence and fear.  That is the message that both gospel writers want to convey and it comes through in each of their nativity stories.  The birth of Jesus is a significant event for people of all times and places.  It is as important to us today as it was to the people of the first century.  It is about a new reality for all of us where light conquers darkness and peace with justice is stronger than war and violence and greed.   

So we can think about how we relate to these nativity stories today.  Do we relate to the conflict of power on a societal scale?  We sure saw some of that this week during the impeachment debates. Do we relate to the multicultural message of Matthew?  This is important in our time of increased hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiment.  Do we find ourselves relating to the story of Luke and the inclusion of those who are made poor, forgotten, and marginalized?  That is a problem in our country and world wide with the growing wealth gap.  Do we resonate to Luke giving women a more important place in the story?  We continue to confront the second class status of women in this country and around the world.  Do we relate to Joseph and his dreams encouraging him to resist the power structures around him?  What is legal is not necessarily moral.  Do we see ourselves in the angels who have good news to share?  We need more of that today!  Do we relate to the shepherds, low wage workers?  There are so many people struggling in the shadow economy where things are not prosperous.  Do we feel like bystanders, onlookers, like the animals of the barn?  Witnesses with a story to tell.  Do we feel called like Mary to birth love into the world?  What the world needs now is still love.  Are we well educated intellectuals seeking spiritual guidance like the wise men?  Churches that respect and encourage scientific thinking are here for us.  Do we have gifts to give?  They are needed.  Do we see our primary focus in parenting and trying to imbue the world with love through our children?  There are many ways for us in our life situations to find a place in the nativity stories.  Today we are part of birthing God’s love into the world.  We, too, have nativity stories to share.  

The congregation was invited to be part of forming an impromptu nativity tableau with costumes and props provided.

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

2019 Advent Devotion 21

Home for Christmas

Who hasn’t heard Bing Crosby croon, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”? Even if you don’t call it up from your music source, you will inevitably hear it in a store or on the radio. It’s virtually unavoidable this time of year.

And while some may find it sappy, it’s actually quite poignant. The song was recorded in 1943 during World War II. The song was popular because it expressed the sentiments of soldiers stationed overseas during the war. They wanted to come home for Christmas but for most it would only be in their dreams. The song made the top 10.

In this song, home is described as the place where the “love light gleams.” When we think of home in this way, we realize that Christmas is about the love light of God gleaming on earth for everyone. Welcoming everyone. Inviting everyone home not only for the holidays but always. Jesus shows us what it means to make our home in God’s love. We are invited to live and grow and find our highest good in the unconditional, universal love of God.

Yes, we may experience that kind of love in our actual physical homes. And we ideally share that kind of love with our families. But that kind of home, that love, is what the church is about. Or it should be anyway. Church should always a place where the love light gleams; welcoming and accepting everyone. That is the message of Christmas. Divine love at home in humanity and made manifest in community, especially the community of the church.

So, I hope that church is on your agenda for the Christmas season. Home is waiting for you. And not just at Christmas. Whatever battles you are facing – in your daily life, in these challenging times, with your health, in your relationships, with your finances, with addiction – you can always come home to church where the love light is gleaming.

We spend our lives looking for home. We want to be at home. A place of love and comfort, acceptance and growth. May we find home wherever we live as well as in the faith community. May we see the love light gleaming. And may we shine that light for others. Amen.

2019 Advent Devotion 19

The Elf on the Shelf

I recently learned about this relatively new Christmas obsession. There is a book and an elf toy and the idea is that the elf is watching the children of the household from Thanksgiving to Christmas and reporting back to Santa each night about what goes on – is the child naughty or nice? This surveillance is supposed to elicit good behavior which will then be rewarded with more toys on Christmas.

I just recently heard about the elf on the shelf for the first time. I have asked parents I know if they are doing it with their kids. No one has said yes. Maybe the elf hasn’t gotten all the way to Florida?

But Jesus has. Christmas is about God’s gift to the human family in Jesus. It is about God’s love for everyone. For all creation. Jesus is a gift for all of humanity and history. God isn’t short on love so it doesn’t have to be meted out or apportioned. And good behavior doesn’t get anyone a bigger helping. Everyone is already loved. Period. Bad behavior might actually be associated being given more love from God because more love might be needed, and we are given what we need. No surveilling elf is necessary.

The metaphorical image of God watching over us all of the time is not to be about judgment and reward or punishment. This image is to convey God’s constant care. God knowing our need. God looking out for us not checking up on us. It is about being constantly engulfed in Divine Love.

No, I don’t think there is ever going to be an elf on the shelf at our house.

In this holy season, may we know that we are precious and loved just as we are. Our imperfections make us human. May we grow in our capacity to love others and ourselves just as we are. That God’s way. We see it in Jesus. Amen.