About Rev. Wells

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

Corona Sabbath 28 AUTHORITY and INTEGRITY Reflection Text

Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath. This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

This post focuses on a story associated with Jesus that may speak to us about voting in this contentious election season.

Sue Sherwood reads Matthew 21:23-32.

Video from Sue.

Jesus entered the Temple precincts and began teaching. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing what you do? Who gave you this authority?”

“And I,” replied Jesus, “will ask you a single question; if you give me the answer, I will tell you my authority for these actions. What was the origin of John’s right to baptize? Was it divine or was it human?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘divine,’ he will respond, ‘Then why did you refuse to believe him?’ But if we say ‘human,’ we have the people to fear, for they regard John as a prophet.” So they replied to Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said in reply, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Jesus continued, “What do you think? There was a landowner who had two children. The landowner approached the elder and said, ‘My child, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The first child replied, ‘No, I won’t,’ but afterwards regretted it and went. The landowner then came to the second child and said the same thing. The second child said in reply, ‘I’m, on my way,’ burt never went. Which of the two did what was wanted?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “The truth is, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kin-dom of God before you. When John came walking on the road of justice, you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you didn’t repent and believe.”

Reflection from Kim on video

It’s an election year. A presidential election year. Have you noticed? When the COVID pandemic started back in March, I thought, Well, at least now we don’t have to hear about the election constantly. But as the date draws nearer, we are hearing about the election all the time.

And while I may bash the campaigning, make no mistake. Elections matter. I hope everyone seeing this post will VOTE, and encourage everyone they know and come in contact with that has breath and blood in their bodies to vote!

But, oh this electioneering! All of these claims and counter claims. Boasting and bashing. And worst of all, fearmongering.

Today we heard a story in which Jesus addresses the issue of authority. Who has authority? To whom should authority be given? Whom should we trust? How do we decide? These are the concerns swirling among the religious leaders, Jesus, his followers, and the community for whom the gospel was written. And these kinds of questions continue to confront us, especially in a presidential election year.

In this context, we are told of Jesus telling a story about two brothers. This is a story that is supposed to be enigmatic and have multiple meanings. That’s how teaching was done in that setting.

So there are these two brothers. And the father wants them to go work in the field. One brother says, Yes, of course, no problem, and then doesn’t do it. The other brother says No, I don’t feel like it, got other plans, and then rethinks things and heads out to the fields to work.

So, Jesus says, who is the better one? Whom do you trust? Who deserves authority? Well, the religious leaders stand with the brother who went out to work. The determination is made not by the promises spoken but by the action taken. So behavior, action, deeds, are the determinant. Actions speak louder than words, as we say.

So in this election season, filled with lots and lots and lots of messaging, words, words, and more words, we can think about voting for, giving authority to, placing our trust in, people who have done things for the common good. Taken action, been involved in making a difference for the betterment of all. People who have a track record of self giving service to the community. The ones who have been working in the fields.

In choosing who to vote for, we can base our decisions not on what the campaigns are saying but on the actual actions of the candidates. And, thanks to the internet we have access to that kind of information. What has the candidate actually, factually, done?

And there is something else about this story that relates to elections and voting. These two brothers. One says he will go work in the fields and then doesn’t do it. Maybe he says it just to placate the parent, get the old man off his back, look like a good son. But he doesn’t do it. That is certainly is not what we would call good character.

Then there is the other brother. He says he won’t help. Maybe he doesn’t feel like it. He’s busy. He’s mad at the dad about something else. Who knows. But then he goes out and helps in the field. Yes, he does do the right thing, but he isn’t exactly exemplary either.

So, in this story, really neither son is perfect. The ideal. A pie in the sky version of virtue. And that is something very important to keep in mind relating to voting. Despite what is said, about the candidates, boasting and bashing, they are all human. And that means none of them are perfect. None are the virtuous ideal. All are a mixture. They are all capable of doing good things as well as capable of messing things up. All are fallible. All are imperfect. All have made mistakes. They are all human. No more. No less.

I got campaign email this week from someone who is in office and would like to remain in office. And in the email, he says, “they IMPEACHED me earlier this year for being a PERFECT PRESIDENT.” [sic] Remember that story attributed to Jesus about the two brothers. No one is a perfect president. Period.

I like this story of the two brothers. While it sheds some light on voting, this story is also about the authority that we give to religion and religious leaders. The situation was a challenge to the authority of Jesus. And what comes out of it is look at what is happening. Look at what is being done. Look at the actions. In another gospel story, Jesus is asked about his standing, and in the story he says look at what you see, then decide. In the story of Jesus recruiting some fisherman to join him, he says, come and see. With Jesus, it is about looking at what he does. It is about actions, behavior, treatment of others. It’s about incarnating unconditional, universal love.

With Jesus, it is not about presenting a theological treatise or a set of rules. There is no self promoting speech to entice adherents. It’s not about a slick, packaged image and a promised pay off. Jesus simply says, look at what I am doing. See for yourself. Then decide. Decide if this is a way of life and love and joy for you and for the world.

Jesus teaches us to decide who to trust and who to give authority to based on behavior and actions not promises and propaganda. Jesus knew that who we trust matters. The consequences can mean life or death for us and for others.

So make sure to vote.

Amen.

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Corona Sabbath 27 Reflection Text

Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath. This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

This post focuses on the founding of Lakewood United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg, FL in 1967. Each year the start of this congregation is celebrated on Charter Sunday in September.

We listen to two oft read Bible stories. From the Hebrew scriptures, we listen to a story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt. We also listen to a story associated with Jesus about a questionable boss.

Jim Andrews reads Exodus 16:1-15 and Matthew 20:1-16.

Audio from Jim Andrews.

From Elim they set out again, and the whole community of the Israelites reached the wilderness of Syn, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they left Egypt.

They began to complain against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness. The people of Israel said to them, “If only we had died by Yahweh’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat next to pots of meat and ate our bread till we were filled! But now you have brought the whole community out into this wilderness to die of hunger!”
Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Look, I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people will go out and gather a day’s portion every day, so that I can test them to see if they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they brought in, it will be twice as much as the daily gathering.”

So Moses and Aaron said to the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was Yahweh who brought you up out of Egypt, and in the morning you will witness the glory of God, the One to whom you directed your complaints – for who are we, that you should complain to us?”

Moses continued, “It is Yahweh who will give you meat in the evening for your meal, and all the bread you want in the morning, because Yahweh has heard your complaints. For it is not to us that you are complaining – who are we? – but to Yahweh.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Tell the whole Israelite community, ‘Present yourselves before Yahweh, who has heard your complaints.’”

As Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of Yahweh appearing in the form of a cloud. Then Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the people of Israel. Say this to them: ‘In the evening you will eat meat, and in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I, Yahweh, am your God.’”

So it come about that in the evening quail flew in and all around the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp; when the layer of dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert were flakes of something: delicate, powdery, fine as frost.

When they saw this, the people of Israel said to each other, “What is it?” – not knowing what it was. But Moses told them, “This is the bread Yahweh has given you to eat.”

Now we turn to the gospel of Matthew 20:1-16 and listen to a teaching of Jesus.

“The kin-dom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard. After reaching an agreement with them for the usual daily wage, the owner sent them out to the vineyard.

“About mid-morning, the owner came out and saw others standing around the marketplace without work, and said to them, ‘You go along to my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is fair.’ At that they left.

“Around noon and again in the mid-afternoon, the owner came out and did the same. Finally, going out late in the afternoon, the owner found still others standing around and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’

“‘No one has hired us,’ they replied.

“The owner said, ‘You go to my vineyard, too.’

“When evening came, the owner said to the overseer, ‘Call the workers and give them their pay, but begin with the last group and end with the first.’ When those hired late in the afternoon came up, they received a full day’s pay, and when the first group appeared they assumed they would get more. Yet they all received the same daily wage.

“Thereupon they complained to the owner, ‘This last group did only an hour’s work, but you’ve put them on the same basis as those who worked a full day in the scorching heat.’

“‘My friends,’ said the owner to those who voiced this complaint, ‘I do you no injustice. You agreed on the usual wage, didn’t you? Take your pay and go home. I intend to give this worker who was hired last the same pay as you. I’m free to do as I please with my money, aren’t I? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“Thus the last will be first and the first will be last.”

Reflection from Kim on audio

1967. On a Sunday in September of 1967, a small group of people who had been part of the congregation of All Saints Lutheran Church decided to reconstitute themselves as Lakewood United Church of Christ. And so, instead of folding as a church, this group of some thirty souls decided to recommit themselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Those were interesting times. There was the Vietnam War and the growing anti war movement. There was the Civil Rights movement. There was Muhammad Ali refusing to do military service. There were race riots around the nation including riots in Tampa in response to the police shooting of Martin Chambers. The gay rights movement and the women’s movement were gaining steam. There were countries all over the world casting off the shackles of colonialism and declaring independence. It was a time of incredible social and political upheaval.

In the eyes of some, things were falling apart. To others, things were being brought down that should be brought down. There was fear. There was idealism. There was division. There was activism. 1967 was a time of foment and passion.

Now, why found a church in those times? What could the church do in the face of such large societal forces? Maybe it was a time to found an anti nuke group or an anti racism group. But a church?

And we look at things today. Certainly it is once again a time of major upheaval and transformation in our society. There is the economic crisis. There is the environmental crisis. There is the COVID crisis. There is the racism crisis. There is the political crisis. With things falling apart at the seams, why bother with church?

The founders of LUCC in 1967 can probably explain it. Here’s how I see it. When things are turbulent, unsettled, in a state of upheaval, in your personal life or in society, or both, that is when you really NEED the church.

The church provides a vision of how things can be. Of the lion and the lamb. Love your enemies. Diverse people living together in mutually supportive communities. The church gives us Divine dreams for life on Earth and beyond. The church gives a vision of Eden – harmony in the web of life, a garden of peace and plenty. Church is about a comprehensive vision for the well-being of all of creation. When life in society is upsetting and disturbing, church gives us a vision of a future worth hoping for and working for.

Why church in troubled times? Church also gives us teachings and stories that lead toward reconciliation and transformation. We can move forward together toward something new through listening, sharing, understanding, and forgiving. The church gives us tools for pursuing right relationships with others, even those who have been wronged and those who have perpetrated wrong. This is important in our social context as well as in our personal relationships. Things happen that are bad. There can be a way forward. In times of upheaval, a spirit of reconciliation and compassion goes a long way. So when things are turbulent, it is very important for us to remember that church helps us navigate the changes in ways that are creative and constructive, not destructive.

Why church when things are stressful and uncertain? Our religious heritage is rich with the complaints, laments, and grieving of those who have gone before us. Church gives us a place to express our sadness, our loss, our anger, our frustration, in ways that are appropriate and that do not hurt others. Church provides a context for the healthy unburdening of the spirit. We heard about that in the story from Exodus. The people complain. Church is a place to complain, to let it out, and know that it’s ok. In church, we free the soul from what is negative and hurtful in a space where there is love and grace to renew us.

Why start a church in times of turbulence? The church is a community of sustenance. It feeds us. The faith community provides support and nurture. We support one another with the strength and perseverance needed to face uncertain times. The church helps us to persist in our work of creating a world of peace. We are supported and sustained when our voices of compassion and justice and truth are needed in the wider society. We can persist in our witness thanks to the support of our faith community. A church provides the spiritual sustenance necessary for envisioning a different world and having the emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical fortitude and persistence for doing the work. So that’s why you found a church in the middle of a social revolution and that’s why you found a church now.

Why do we need the church in times of upheaval and turbulence? Even in times of struggle, we need the church to remind us to celebrate. To find joy. To give thanks. For all that we are being given. For all that is provided for us. For the grace of each and every breath. The church helps us to celebrate the abundance of life and the goodness of creation in spite of the problems we are facing. Simply appreciating beauty can be an act of resistance. We need the church to invite us to celebration and joy.

Why found a church in a time when things are falling apart? The gospel gives us a way of looking at reality that is non transactional. The love of God is non transactional. You can’t earn it, merit it, buy it, or sell it. It is given. To everyone. Period. The story of the laborers in the vineyard makes it plain. We live by grace, constantly given to us and everyone else regardless of situation or condition, and whether or not we realize it. Every day in our world we are confronted with a reality that uses an economic system to assess value. And this value system is not only applied to things, material objects, products. It is also applied to people. The church gives us an alternative reality to be part of that values all of life in its glorious interdependence and diversity. Every life sacred. Every life beloved. Every life cherished. The church invites us to be part of a different reality. The church helps us to navigate the times with values that are timeless.

A time of struggle, turbulence, upheaval, and change is the perfect time to start a church. It’s the right time to plant, nurture and foster hopes and dreams of a new reality of peace. The church helps us to live into that kind of reality. When times are tough; that’s when people need spiritual support. That’s is when you found a church.

And our beloved Lakewood United Church of Christ was founded in 1967 so that it would help people through those difficult times. And so that it would be here for us today in these times of struggle and change. Supporting us. Helping us to navigate our circumstances.

At a doctor’s appointment recently, we spoke of Covid 19 and the toll it is taking on people. The doctor told me flat out that the patients who are most steady in this storm are the ones who are part of a faith community, who have religious ties.

May we be grateful to those who have nurtured and supported Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1967 to provide for this and every time of need. Amen.

As you listen to the music which follows, you are invited to notice the thoughts and feelings that arise for you.

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Corona Sabbath 26 Reflection Text

Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath.  This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19.    We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

This post focuses on freedom.  We listen to the story well known from Sunday School about the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. 

We listen to Exodus 14:19-31.

Earl Waters recording

Then the angel of God, who was leading the Israelites, moved to their rear – the pillar of cloud left the front of their number and took up position behind them, between the Israelites and the Egyptians.  All during the night the cloud provided light to one side and darkness to the other side, so that there was no contact between them.

Then Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and Yahweh swept the sea with a strong east wind throughout the night and so turned it into dry land.  When the water was thus divided, the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water walled up on their right and on their left. 

The Egyptians followed in pursuit; all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers went after them into the midst of the sea.  At dawn, Yahweh looked down upon the Egyptian forces from the column of fiery cloud, and threw the army into confusion and panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they could hardly turn.  The Egyptians turned to flee from the Israelites, saying “Their God fights for them against us!”

Then Yahweh told Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, and let the water flow back upon the Egyptians, over their chariots and their charioteers.”  So at sunrise, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the waters rolled back in.  As the Egyptians fled, Yahweh hurled them into its midst.  As the water flowed back, covering the chariots and the charioteers – Pharaoh’s whole army, who had followed the Israelites into the sea – not one of them survived.  But the Israelites passed through, walking dry-shod in the sea, with the water like a wall, on their right and on their left.  Thus Yahweh saved Israel on that day from the power of Egypt.  When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore and beheld the great power that Yahweh had shown against them, the people held Yahweh in awe; and put their faith in Yahweh and in Moses, God’s trusted servant. 

Reflection from Rev. Kim Wells

This is one of the most famous scenes from the Bible:  Moses parting the Red Sea so that the Israelites can escape from slavery in Egypt.  After the river turning to blood, an infestation of frogs, the swarming of gnats, the cloud of flies, the death of the livestock, the devouring locusts, three days of total darkness, and finally the killing of every firstborn in the land of Egypt.  Finally, the Israelites escape across the desert and through the Red Sea. 

If you want to make a horror movie or tell a post apocalyptic dystopian tale, look no further than the Bible for inspiration! 

The Israelites escape the angel of death by putting lamb’s blood around the door frames of their homes.  While the Egyptians are mourning their dead, the Israelites make their exit into the wilderness.  Only to be pursued by the Egyptian army.  They get to the Red Sea and we hear of the parting of the waters that enables their escape. 

We know the image from pictures in Bibles, from Church School booklets, and of course, from the movie, ‘The Ten Commandments.’  The parting of the sea and the people crossing over on dry land is one of the most well-known images from the Bible. 

It tells of a god committed to freedom.  A god who stands up for those being abused and downtrodden.  It symbolizes the power of justice.  God is on the side of the oppressed.  God heard the cries of the Israelites being terrorized by their Egyptian task masters. 

But I don’t like this story.  Because in the story, God is responsible for seeing to it that the entire Egyptian army is killed.  We are told:  “. . . the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea.”  [Exodus 14:27]  And then the conclusion, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians.  So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”  [Exodus 14:31]

Yes, I understand that the story was designed in a certain way to meet the spiritual needs of the people who wrote it centuries later.  In that time and place, the story was needed to fortify the Jewish people in a time of despair.  God had rescued them once, God would do it again.  It is also a projection of our very human desires for vengeance and retribution.  We create God in our image.   But, knowing all of this, I still don’t like this story.

In addition, as a Christian, this image of a vengeful God is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.  We do not see Jesus promoting a god of vengeance.  I can’t imagine Jesus, remembered for forgiving his killers from the cross, touting a God of retribution and pay back.  Jesus seems to have taken the opposite approach – even those who do evil are beloved.

That said, Jesus is known for celebrating the Passover, the commemoration of the escape from Egypt, on the night before he was killed.  So he did not renounce his heritage.  He accepted this story and its important role in the history of the Jewish people. 

But we have no record of Jesus telling people to follow him to freedom with the expectation that God would take out the Romans.  Maybe after hundreds of years, it was time to see things in a different way.  And Jesus wanted to show us that way. 

While I do not like this story and the killing of the Egyptians, just like I don’t like the story of Noah and the killing of not only the humans but of the animals and plants, this story is important.  It helps us to see ourselves more clearly.  Our desire for vengeance and retribution.   It shows us the contrast with the way of Jesus which is about reconciliation and forgiveness not punishment.  It shows us our tendency to image God in a way that suits our purposes.  It shows how we prefer to hold God responsible, rather than taking responsibility ourselves.  God did this.  God did that.  Give God the glory.  Or the blame.  But this can be used to diminish human responsibility and accountability. 

There is also another consideration that is important in this story.  For something new to be born, something has to die.  To realize our ideals of justice and freedom, there are things that need to be laid to rest.  Drastic change means something new is accepted and former ways are released, or drowned, as the case may be. 

In these days we are addressing ourselves to creating an anti racist society.  This is a noble, divine goal.  But a lot has got to be washed away to achieve this valiant ideal.  To make this a free land, a lot of harmful attitudes and assumptions and lies need to be laid to rest.  There is a lot of truth to be uncovered and accepted.  And this is a painful healing process.  But it must be embraced. 

Think of a change you would like to see – in your life.  In the community.  In our country.  In the world.  Focus on that one change.  That moves your heart. Give it some thought.   Envision the reality you would like to see.  Imagine that world. 

To create that reality, to get there, something has to go down, something has to be given up.  Destroyed, even. 

In this autumn season, in a temperate climate, we think of the trees, giving up all of their leaves, so that they can survive the winter and come back to new life in the spring.  The process of death is incorporated into the process of growth.

So, this story of the parting of the Red Sea reminds us that we don’t get to the Promised Land on a tram from the parking lot to the theme park.  True transformation can be an arduous, painful, frightening, redeeming, worthwhile, life giving process.  Amen.

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Corona Sabbath 25 WONDER and AWE Reflection Text

Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath. This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

In this summer series on the theme “Grounded” we turn the foundations of our faith. This post focuses on wonder and awe.

We listen to Psalm 19 verses 1-6 and a reading from astronaut Edgar Mitchell read by Colleen Coughenour.

Video from Colleen

Psalm 19 verses 1 through 6:

The heavens herald your glory, O God
and the skies display your handiwork.
Day after day they tell their story,
and night after night they reveal
the depth of their understanding.
Without speech, without words,
without even an audible voice,
their cry echoes through all the world,
and their message reaches the ends of the earth.
For in the heavens the sun has pitched a tent.
It comes forth with the grandeur of a wedding procession,
with the eagerness of an athlete ready to race.
It rises at one end of the sky
and travels to the other end,
and nothing escapes its warmth.

Next is a quotation from US astronaut Edgar Mitchell reflecting on seeing planet Earth from space for the first time:

Instead of an intellectual search, there was suddenly a very deep gut feeling that something was different. It occurred when looking at Earth and seeing this blue-and-white planet floating there, and knowing it was orbiting the Sun, seeing that Sun, seeing it set in the background of the very deep black and velvety cosmos, seeing – rather, knowing for sure – that there was a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time, of space in the cosmos – that it was beyond man’s rational ability to understand, that suddenly there was a nonrational way of understanding that had been beyond my previous experience.

There seems to be more to the universe than random, chaotic, purposeless movement of a collection of molecular particles.

On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.

Reflection from Kim on video

So, in church, when we are having church, in the regular style, pre Corona, we say lots of things. There are lots of words used. There are readings. Calls to worship. Hymns and songs and anthems with words. There are prayers. Readings from the Bible. Benedictions. There are announcements and conversations. And, of course, there is a sermon. There are lots and lots of words spoken and sung in church. We clearly have things that we want to say. That we are trying to communicate.

In the Psalm we heard, there is reference to the planets and space, the sun, resonating, and yet no word is heard:

Day after day they tell their story,
and night after night they reveal
the depth of their understanding.
Without speech, without words,
without even an audible voice,
their cry echoes through all the world,
and their message reaches the ends of the earth.

No words and yet their message is heard, conveyed to the ends of the Earth. But we are not balls of rock or gas floating through space. We are human beings with voices. And one of the defining characteristics of our species is language. So, we are meant to use words. But even with all of our words, can we say it all, clearly, so that it reaches the ends of the Earth?

You could say that we are talking so much in church because we are trying to convey, to capture, to express, what is really beyond words. We use lots of words trying to say what we want to communicate yet knowing that words cannot say it all. That what is going on is more than words can express. The problem is not the words. Not their inadequacy. It is that we as human creatures we have an awareness that there is that which exceeds our full comprehension and expression. The birth of a baby. Being present at the passing of a life. Heartbreaking grief. There can be an intensity – of feeling, of space, of awareness, of beauty, of sacrifice, of loss, of confusion, of mystery, of convergence. So many things are really beyond our ability to explain or fully comprehend. In the life of the spirit, in our religious life, we seek to be aware of these things while knowing that we cannot completely express or understand what we are experiencing.

Faith is about an awareness of the beyond. The beyond in ourselves, in others, in the world around us. It is an attempt to come to terms with what cannot be measured, displayed on a graph, or scientifically accounted for.

So, we use lots of words to try to say something about awe, wonder, and mystery. Knowing that we cannot capture it all, that our human experience and consciousness, that things of the spirit, go beyond words and numbers.

Just after the September 11 attacks, we went to a Florida orchestra concert. Stefan Sanderling was the conductor. I was interested in how that moment was going to be acknowledged at the concert. Would they play something special? Would there be some kind of extraordinary musical moment? Sanderling announced that there were times when the only fitting response was silence. And there was a prolonged period of silence. And then the concert began.

Even music. Even visual images. Cannot say it all. Yet much is experienced. With our words in church, we are pointing to what is beyond words. We are affirming that there is much more going on than just the mundane material transactions and interactions of our day to day lives. The universe is carrying on and we are created with the awareness that we do not comprehend it all.

We see that which is beyond words when we think about the power of nature on this planet. These recent storms, two in the Gulf at once. The wild fires in California. The derechos in the midwest. The virus that is ravaging the globe. There is awe, wonder, and mystery around these forces that are at work in the world around us breaking into our routine and our reality.

We can be stunned by the creativity of the human spirit. The beauty of the music created by the Florida Orchestra often leaves me in tears. What is it about a group of people showing up with their instruments and playing notes that so enchants my spirit? It’s beyond words. Awe. Wonder. Mystery.

We can also be left without words about things that are destructive, heinous, even evil. Recently as I learned of the killing of Dijon Kizzee – another black person killed by the police – I found myself left with a sense of awe and wonder and mystery. How is it that the police just keep doing it again and again and again – killing black people. Just shooting them down. Within minutes of an encounter. It leaves me in stunned awe. Speechless wonder. I cannot understand. Maybe we need to send police officers up in a rocket so that they can look back at the Earth like Edgar Mitchell and experience “the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.”

That’s what faith helps us to see, without the rocket ride. That we are living in a world that is good and that the experience of being alive cannot be fully explained or expressed. And that the awareness of the unknown, beyond words, makes us fully human, whole, and holy.

So, yes, I have just used a lot of words to remind us that Christianity, the way of Jesus, Love, involves cultivating the capacity of the human spirit to embrace awe, wonder, and mystery. Beyond words. Without all the answers. Amen.

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Corona Sabbath 24 GENEROSITY and SERVICE Reflection Text

Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath. This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

In this summer series on the theme “Grounded” we turn the foundations of our faith. This post focuses on service and generosity.

We listen to Mathew 16:21-26 read by Earl Waters. In the traditional translation, Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross and follow me. This does not refer to a burden beyond our control like an act of nature or a random accident or contracting COVID-19. It is a reference to consciously choosing the path of service and self-giving.

Scripture video from Earl

From that time on, Jesus began to explain to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and religious scholars, and that he must be killed, and on the third day raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Rabbi!” he said. “This will never happen to you!”

Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get yourself behind me, you Satan! You are trying to make me stumble and fall. You’re setting your mind not on the things of God, but of mortals.”

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very selves, take up the instrument of your own death and begin to follow in my footsteps.

“If you would save your life, you will lose it; but if you would lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What profit would you show if you gained the whole world but lost yourself? What can you offer in exchange for your very self?”

Reflection from Kim on video

When I started as pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ in 1991, the church had a custom around baptism. When a child was baptized at the church, they were given a ‘cradle cross.’ This was a small wooden cross that was to be hung near the child’s bed as a reminder of their baptism and their connection to the church.

Then after one baptism, the parents returned the cross to the church. They said that the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. They would no sooner hang the cross in the child’s room than hang a likeness of ‘old sparky’ – the electric chair that was used in Florida for executions. After that, the church did not order anymore cradle crosses and no longer gave them out at baptisms.

Yes, the cross is an instrument of capital punishment. So why does Jesus, who loves us beyond measure, who is the incarnation of universal, unconditional Divine Love, who wants the best for us, instruct his dearest friends and followers to take up their cross? Why would he suggest that they risk death? Death at the hands of an oppressive government reserved for traitors and people who were perceived as a threat to the public? Death that was an excruciatingly painful public humiliation? Why would Jesus suggest that his followers take up their cross?

The heart of Christianity is love. Love for others, love for self, love for neighbors, love for enemies. Love that is expressed in commitment to the common good. Love expressed in acts of service, generosity, and self giving. The book of James puts it this way: “But act on this word – because if all you do is listen to it, you’re deceiving yourselves. . . . Pure, unspoiled religion, in the eyes of our Abba God, is this: coming to the aid of widows and orphans when they are in need, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by this world. . . Be assured then, that faith without works is as dead as a body without a spirit.” [James 1:22, 27, 2:26]

Jesus does not want us to be dead. He wants us to be alive. That’s why he tells us to take up our cross. True life, at its fullest and most joyful, is life spent in service to others. Our highest is good is marked by our generosity; the giving of ourselves as well as our time, talent, and treasure.

So, first we realize that each and every one of us needs to be lifted; needs to be brought to life, needs to be rescued from the numbing, life-sapping impulses of selfishness, self centeredness, and greed. Jesus saw our need as humans for meaning and purpose and belonging. And so he invites us, urges us, begs us, out of love, to take up our cross. To find our highest good by giving ourselves away. He knew that we would experience our greatest worth by helping others, investing ourselves in the wellbeing of the community. Without that, our lives would be hollow, empty, even tormented.

Karl Menninger, one of the premier psychiatrists of the 20th century, was once asked what action he would recommend if a person were to feel a nervous breakdown coming on: Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, and find someone in need and do something for him. Menninger is picking up on the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual teachers throughout human history.

The positive effects of the spiritual command to serve have also been verified by science. Studies show that helping others, practicing generosity, and volunteering have direct health benefits such as boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, and other positive physiological consequences. This learning has been shared by Norman Cousins and Dean Ornish. It is also documented in the book, The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others by Allan Luks and Peggy Payne.

So we see that modern healing professionals are endorsing the teaching of Jesus, take up your cross. This basically amounts to LOVE. Don’t be controlled by fear. Give your life away. Because, as Jesus teaches, to find your life, you must lose it.

The beauty of this teaching is that it applies to everyone. No matter what your circumstances in life, whatever your condition, your status, your class, your education level, your income, every single person can take up their cross. In fact, Jesus, known for taking up his cross, was poor and owned almost nothing and had no financial portfolio. And he sets the pace for taking up his cross. For giving his life away for the good of others. For generosity and service.

Some of you know that our son, Sterling, is an artist in Los Angeles. This spring he was painting the famous California poppies near an urban homeless encampment. Each day he want to his spot to paint. One day he sent us this text:

Some homeless men just gave ME some change and cigarettes because they liked my painting. The opposite of how it usually works.

Sterling received those offerings with gratitude. And in so doing, he affirmed the capacity of the homeless people to be generous and giving. Like the widow’s mite. He validated the humanity of those who are often treated as less than human in our society.

Take up your cross.
Jesus ennobles everyone because everyone can serve in some way. Everyone can listen. Everyone can smile. Everyone can pray. Everyone has something to give to help another.

Take up your cross.
Realize all that you have been given and all that you are. Experience abundance.

Take up your cross.
Free yourself from the the bondage of selfishness and the tyranny of the self. Free yourself from the false construct of scarcity that is perpetuated by the society around us.

Take up your cross.
Experience your commonality with each and every human being because we all suffer and are all in need of comfort and solace from one another. Be enlivened by the connections borne of solidarity and compassion.

Take up your cross.
Be rescued from a small, constricted, paltry existence and experience the expansive life of love, joy, and freedom from fear.

If you hear of a church that does not ask the members to give, to serve, to contribute, to help others, the community, the world, then head the other way. This is not the life giving way of Jesus. This is not the way of joy and abundant life.

And I can say as a pastor for all the many times I have been involved with getting people to volunteer for some kind of ministry, to help the homeless, to advocate for more just policies, to cook a meal for someone in the church, to teach church school, to help with Operation Attack, whatever it is, people always say to me that they got far more out of it than they put into it. It was far more meaningful to them to have participated than the effort that was expended. I have heard that over and over and over again throughout 35 years of ministry. Thirty five years of inviting people to contribute their money to the church and other initiatives to transform society and the lives of those in need. And never have I heard, I’m sorry I gave away that money. No, what I’ve heard again and again is, I am so glad to give. I feel I am making a difference. Let me know what else I can do.

We know that when we reach out to others and engage in service or generosity of some kind, we are the ones who are blessed by the giving.

This is why Jesus tells us to take up our cross. He wants us to have a full life; brimming with joy and meaning and purpose and well-being and significant relationships with people. All the fruits of service and generosity that come from offering ourselves in service to others in whatever shape or form that may take. Amen.

As you listen to the music video featuring Zach Blair-Andrews, you are invited to notice the thoughts and feelings and that arise for you.

(Click HERE if you wish to see the post containing the video of this text.)