Let It Shine!

Date: January 6, 2008
Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17; Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 17:1-12; Luke 24:1-12; Revelation 21:22 – 22:5.
Sermon: Let It Shine!
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Any creche display or Christmas pageant is not complete without the Magi – later referred to as the 3 kings. We image three exotic, stately figures clothed in rich robes. These Magi, we are not actually told, were three. That has been inferred from the mention of the three gifts but the Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian religion which originated in present day Iran. Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, who is generally thought to have lived in the 10th or 11th century BCE. This religion is based on the worship of the one Creator God, Ahura Mazda. The sacred texts are called the Avesta. The Zoroastrian world view presumes the presence of Asha, which is truth and order. And the presence of chaos present as falsehood and disorder. These two forces, Asha and Chaos, are in conflict. Through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, humans can align themselves with Asha and keep Chaos at bay.

Asha, the presence of truth and order, can be observed in the laws of the universe, the planets, stars, and astral bodies, and in the changing of the seasons. So Zoroastrian priests, or magi, were astrologers. They were also seen as magicians, sorcerers, and wise men. They were experts in the interpretation of dreams.

As Matthew’s gospel begins we are told that Magi from the east followed a star which led them to Jesus. These Magi are clearly foreigners. They are markedly different from the Jews of Palestine, Jesus’ cultural context. In world view, heritage, culture, and beliefs, these Magi are separate, distinct from the Jewish context into which Jesus is born. They are strangers from a strange land. They are entirely “other.”

So why are we told this story at the beginning of a gospel about the Jewish Messiah? A book addressed to a Jewish context and rising out of the Jewish tradition. A book aimed at solidifying belief that Jesus is the Messiah in the lineage of David, who was promised and awaited for centuries. Where does this story of the Magi fit in?

And not only are we told of the Magi following a star to Jesus, of a different culture, in a strange land, countries away necessitating a journey of months, if not years. We are told of religious leaders in Jesus’ context, experts in the Scriptures, who are blind to what is happening in their own back yard. Why does Matthew tell us this story?

The story of the Magi shows devout people on a search, a quest. They are responding to a longing, a deeply felt desire. They are following a star they believe leads to the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams. The desire for a sense of the sacred, for authentic life and for the true human community is not limited by culture, geography, time, or religion. It is a universal human longing. The abundant life rooted in communities of justice and compassion that is manifested in the life of Jesus speaks to the longings and desires of the whole human family, not just what has become the Judeo-Christian tradition. So, this story shows the common longing of all of humanity, the common quest, the shared hope. Present in every culture, every era, every religion, we share the desire for thriving life and wholeness.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
— (United Church of Christ Hymnal p. 591)

We share the hunger to be part of something beyond ourselves. We pursue that desire in countless, different ways, but it is our common bond as human beings. So this story affirms our oneness as a human family with common hopes and dreams.

This story of the Magi also shows us foreigners being drawn into the narrative of another religion. We are shown a God that is bigger than one religion or one spiritual path. We are shown a God that is beyond just one religious tradition. We see respect for different belief systems. These Magi come to worship Jesus; to pay their respects; to offer lavish gifts befitting someone of extreme significance. Then they go back to Persia, now Iran, back to their religious context of Zoroastrianism, back to their jobs as priests, diviners, astrologers, and dream interpreters. They don’t stay in Palestine. They don’t become Jewish or Christians. They go home a different way. Who would not be changed by such a quest? But they go home. To their religion and their culture. Jesus can be honored and appreciated, respected, and revered, beyond the Christian faith and the church as he is a light that shines beyond one faith tradition. The mercy, compassion, justice, and power seen in Jesus can be appreciated universally.

In this story, then, we see Jesus as a point of commonality and reconciliation of all peoples. We see the recognition of our universal human longings for the sacred, for abundant life, and compassionate community. We see recognition of generosity and justice as the path to the fulfillment of our common hopes and dreams. We see universalism in this story that transcends time, culture, geography, religion.

I think it is very important for us to hear the messages of the story of the Magi in our current context. Far from being a magical tale of far off exotic royalty, this story offers intense and significant insight for us today.

The autumn issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin is devoted to peace. In the introduction to the Journal, Professor Donald Swearer explains that there is a basic assumption about the exclusivity of Christianity. “Focus on peace building comes at a time when the world’s religions are castigated by vocal critics as instigators of divisive exclusivism, promoters of hatred, and perpetuators of violence. These critics site the examples of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, Buddhist-inspired nationalistic chauvinism in Sri Lanka, the legacy of the Roman Catholic-Protestant animosities in northern Ireland, Roman Catholic-Orthodox-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, and the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and globally” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Autumn 2007, pg.1.)

The perspective presumed that God is revealed in Jesus Christ and that Christianity is the only valid path of salvation. We live in a setting that assumes the superiority of Christianity. And we live in a time when the bond between Christianity and the agenda of American Empire have become inextricably linked. This context has dulled our vision and distorted our perception of God’s greater hope and dreams. Like the religious leaders in Matthew’s gospel, our political/cultural context is affecting our vision. The strange priests from the east perceived God’s presence and activity and were led by a star to Jesus. The chief priests and scribes, trained to look for their Messiah, couldn’t see it, because they were blinded by the power structure, the political context, and fear. We face the same challenge today.

Friends, if the people of Iraq were Christian you can bet the United States would be proceeding in a very different fashion. In my travels this fall, while waiting to board a plane, I got to talking with a group of women who had been to a Christian Women’s Conference in Jacksonville. When they heard I was a pastor they went on about the wonderful experience they had had. The powerful expression of faith. The incredible evidence of the Holy Spirit. They were pumped. Then one woman mentioned that at the same hotel at the same time there was a convention of Muslims gathered to celebrate one of their holy days. The women had on their scarves and long dresses. There were a lot of them all over the hotel. And this Christian woman went on about how strange it felt. How it felt uncomfortable. How odd it was to have those Muslim people there while we were there. In a discreet, diplomatic way, I asked why. And she replied, “To them, we’re the enemy.” Then I asked, “Were you treated in a hostile or disrespectful manner?” “Oh no,” she said. “They were very nice and friendly.”

How incredibly ironic that Jesus, who revealed our common longings; Jesus who showed a God larger than any one tradition; Jesus was sent to reconcile all humanity, has become a source of separation and division.

The story of the Magi invites us to see beyond the exclusivism of cultural Christianity which serves the agenda of Empire. God’s light is not limited to one religion or nation or time period. God is not confined by culture or class.

The story of the Magi shows us the fulfillment of God’s vision that all nations stream to the divine presence and the promise to Abraham that his lineage will bless all nations. Right from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew the writer refuses to let God’s revelation of presence in Christ Jesus to be confined to one culture, time, place, or religious tradition. In Christ Jesus, God shows God’s presence – with all of humanity for all time.

As this New Year begins, may we have the courage to search for the divine presence. To risk getting lost. To experience new places beyond the familiar and comfortable. To overcome our fears. To offer our best to the quest. To be surprised. To let Jesus really save us. Then, with the Magi, we too will be overwhelmed with joy. Amen

Refugees

Date: Dec. 30, 2007
Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23
Sermon: Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Currently the United Nations Refugee Agency is serving 32.9 million refugees world-wide in more than 150 countries. Over 9 million refugees are children!

There are many reasons that people become refugees. One factor may be drought and lack of food. Another may be a result of natural disaster like the mudslides in Indonesia or flooding or hurricane. People may become refugees out of a desire for more opportunity and a better life. People may become refugees because of violence and war. It may be due to a political regime. There are many different reasons that people feel compelled to leave their homes and get re-established someplace new. While there are different situations that drive people to be refugees, for the most part, they are looking for the same thing: safety, security, and protection. A refuge. A haven.

In the story we heard from the gospel, Jesus is still a babe and his parents flee to save his life from an insecure ruler who is threatened by the birth of a new king. Herod was a brutal ruler known even for killing his family members. There is no evidence of the slaughter of innocents referred to in Matthew. But the story serves Matthew’s purposes of showing that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are led to safety and security in Egypt. Their lives are spared. God’s purposes are protected. Even the most heinous death-dealing humanity can concoct cannot kill God’s plans to save us. Jesus is preserved for his future mission. God prevails. In this story we see God’s purposes protected and nurtured.

Relatively speaking, we live in circumstances of stability and security. We are not living under a direct death threat from an autocratic dictator. We have not lost our homes to natural disaster. We have not been driven out of our communities by war. We are not displaced refugees. And yet we experience a sense of dislocation and disorientation when we look at the world around us. What is happening? World leaders assassinated openly. Shootings in sleepy downtown St. Pete. A school board in favor of teaching creationism in the science curriculum. Prisons full. The death penalty reinstated. An 80% increase in child deaths due to neglect and abuse in Florida. (St. Pete Times 12/29)

Insecure rulers still misusing power and not just in marginal banana republics, but right here in our preeminent empire. You wonder what’s going on in the world. Where is the progress and maturation of the human species that we thought we would be witnessing?

While we may not feel directly, personally threatened, what about God’s purposes and intentions? Are they under threat? You bet! There are forces at work trying to thwart God’s intentions for peace and harmony in the world. There are selfish, greedy interests undermining God’s desire for justice. There are initiatives ignoring God’s commitment to anti-violence. There are threats to God’s sacred creation. While we may not feel personally under attack, the purposes of God revealed in Jesus are threatened. The heart of God exposed in the self-giving life of Jesus is under attack. The hopes and dreams of God, so openly shared by Jesus, are challenged,

In the story we heard from Matthew’s gospel, we are told of Jesus threatened. Powerful forces sought to extinguish the light of God’s hopes and dreams for creation. But there was a haven, a refuge of protection. God prevailed. The forces of this world could not overcome God’s intentions.

Friends, today, too, God provides a haven, a refuge. Today, too, God protects God’s hopes and dreams and visions. Today, too, God nurtures God’s mission. This is happening in the church and in the faith community. This is why the church exists. To be that haven, that refuge where god’s hopes and dreams are kept alive. The church exists to protect God’s intentions. The church was established to nurture God’s mission of loving the whole world. The church is the haven where the life-giving truth of service, of living for others, and of caring for the earth, is intended. The church is an asylum from the craziness of the world. It is the place we are cared for so that we grow in God’s image. It is not a club, not a business, not a social service, not a therapy group. It is the church. It is the safe harbor from which we venture out into the world spreading God’s love and then return to be tended and restored only to return to the world once more with God’s love. Here we steward and treasure the teachings and ministry of Jesus and here we tend the flame of the Christ light that we each carry into the darkness of the world. As a church we seek to protect and nurture God’s plan to save the world.

This week we have celebrated once more the revealing of God’s love and light in the birth of the baby Jesus. Friends we must nurture that life. We must provide protection for that love and light to shine. We must maintain this church as a refuge, a haven for God – with – us, Emmanuel. This is why we are here. This is why God has brought us together. To be that refuge. To provide that protection. To see that God prevails. No matter how intense the attacks from the world may be. No matter what the risk or sacrifice. The church must guard and nurture the Good News that God is with us. We are not alone. And God will prevail. That is our purpose. May the hopes and dreams of God that we see in Jesus, never be threatened or suffer neglect in our midst Amen

Christmas Eve, 2007

Date: Christmas Eve, 2007
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46-55; Luke 2:1-7; Luke 2:8-14; Luke 2:15-20; Matthew 2:1-12
Meditation: Rev. Kim Wells

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How can you measure the love of a mother?
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?

Find him at Bethlehem, laid in a manger:
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay.
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation:
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day.

Candlelight, angel light, firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn.
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo!
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born.

— John Rutter

In stunningly beautiful poetry, John Rutter captures, as well as words can, the magic and mystery of Christmas. God is with us! In a timeless tale of shepherds and kings, angels and animals, we are told of God – with – us.

This God chooses not to remain distant, far off and remote, but to be with us, one of us. The beautiful nativity story not only tells us of God with us, but of God – with – us in a very particular way We are told of a child born on a trip away from home, away from friends and family, and loved ones. We are told of parents lonely and afraid. We are told of a child born in a barn, with an animal trough for a bassinette. A refugee almost. We are told of a child born in a small town, not a major power center. In a territory dominated by a foreign empire that was taxing their population into poverty to maintain control.

We do not hear a story of a baby born in a 5 star birthing suite with champagne and jacuzzi surrounded by family and friends. This is not a celebrity birth to be flaunted in the media. This is not a birth to a rich and powerful family. This is not a birth of one with status, authority, or prestige. This is a birth in the most humble of circumstances, to insignificant parents, living under a cruel dictatorship. This is how God chooses to be with us. Not as a distant, austere, authority figure or judge, but as a vulnerable, helpless, dependent baby.

The story we celebrate this evening is of a God whose love is so deep, so passionate, so compelling, that God will go to any length to be with us. Whatever our circumstances or our condition. Regardless of our mood or our money. Sick or well. Perky or brooding. Homeless or haughty. We are human beings. That and that alone makes each and every one of us God’s beloved. In this birth, God says to absolutely everyone, “I love you. You are not alone. I am with you.”

  • I am with you in the dislocations of shifting relationships, of the death of a loved one, in the loss of abilities as life progresses.
  • I am with you when you feel alone – When no one understands the grief and hurt you feel at your core.
  • I am with you when you feel lost. You can’t see a path. When the changes in seasons of life feel disorienting.
  • I am with you when you face injustice, oppression and violence.
  • God is with us – just as God was with Mary and Joseph and Jesus
  • God’s love for us, this incomparable intimacy is magical and mysterious.

Susan Mangum, an artist and hermit living in upstate New York tells us of an intimate encounter with a cow:

“Year after year in the springtime, I watch my neighbor’s cows – watching for one who begins to withdraw from the herd and get that inward look. And when she doesn’t show up at the barn for feeding time, I search the pastures and woods. Most times I find the cow already crooning and licking over a little, wet, glistening white-faced creature. I’ve learned not to get too close; mama can be quite protective. For a few hours, mama and baby are alone. The calf is scrubbed and scrubbed. It stands, falls, stands, and learns which end of mama is full of milk. Then, side by side, they begin their first journey together. Ordinarily they stop as they near the herd, and mama steps back and presents her child. One by one, cows come to greet the newborn with a gentle sniff.

“On a cold, rainy morning last spring, big old “Gramma” didn’t show up at the barn. After a long, wet search, I found her way down in the woods with her newborn. I stopped a way off. Gramma looked at me, sang that low sweet sound, stepped back, and presented him to me. Never before had this happened to me – this sacred ritual of infinite courtesy. And after I, on my knees in the mud, had joyfully caressed the new life, and Gramma and he were heading to meet the others, I thought, “I’m a cow!” No, Gramma and I know differently. But I’m no longer an intruder: I am one with them!”

This night we celebrate that God has chosen to be one with us. This night we celebrate a birth which makes every birth holy. This night we celebrate God’s presence in a life which makes every life sacred. This night we celebrate God who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability and dependency revealing that we are never alone. This night we celebrate a love as earth and heaven in harmony sing – Amen.

Forgiveness: Always in Season

Date: August 26, 2007
Scripture: Luke 13: 10-17
Sermon: Forgiveness: Always in Season
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

In 1820, the brig Thaddeus, carrying 150 missionaries recruited by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM), arrived in the Sandwich Islands, or Hawaii. This Board is the organization that was formed to advocate for the freedom of the Africans on the ship, Amis- tad. This is the Board that sent teachers to the South to establish schools for the freed slaves following the Civil War. This Board is part of our United Church of Christ Congregational heritage. With the best of intentions, 150 of these missionaries went to Hawaii, risking their lives to share the Gospel. They sincerely wanted to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of these exotic islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

They arrived in a sovereign country governed by a monarchy. There was a policy in place assuring free use of land and ocean resources with taxes paid to local managers and monarchs.

By 1820 when the missionaries arrived, Western influence was already clearly evident as commerce, trading, alcohol, guns, and disease had already been brought to the Hawaiian Islands following the visit and charting of the islands by James Cook in 17_8.

So, in 1820, these 150 missionaries arrived. But they were committed to bringing more than just the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the instructions from the Prudential Committee of the ABCFM to members of the Mission to the Sandwich Islands the missionaries were charged to “aim at nothing short of covering these islands with fruitful fields and pleasant dwellings, and schools and churches; of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization… to turn them from their barbarous courses and habits.” [Quoted in “Why Our Church Apologized to Hawaii” by Charles McCullough, available on line at http://www.ucc.org]

The missionaries were very successful in fulfilling their charge. In less than 80 years Western people had gained control of the land, commerce, and government of Hawaii.

In 1893, 73 years after the arrival of the missionaries, things had deteriorated to the point that the USS Boston arrived in Honolulu with 162 military personnel armed with gatling guns to protect,
“the lives and property of American citizens and to assist in preserving public order,” while the Honolulu Rifles and the Committee of Safety including descendants of the missionaries took over the main government buildings and deposed the Queen, Liliuokalani, of this sovereign nation. Mind you, the Queen was a devout Christian and a supporter of many churches and mission societies in her country. She was imprisoned in the Iolana Palace and the 1,800,000 acres of her nation were taken without compensation.

The Hawaiian Evangelical Association, which later became the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ, endorsed the deposing of Queen Liliuokalani. In 1893, the year of the take-over, the editor of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association newsletter, “The Friend,” wrote, “Dead and rotten is the monarchy, beyond chance of resuscitation … so hopelessly fallen into heathen mental and moral vileness, it only remains to be speedily buried out of sight.” [Also from McCullough]

In 1990, the native people of the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ brought a resolution to their Conference and in 1991 to the national General Synod of the UCC calling for support of Native Hawaiian sovereignty. As part of the initiative the UCC affirmed, “in recognition of our historic complicities in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 [the General Synod] directs the office of the President of the UCC to offer a public apology to the native Hawaiian people and to initiate a process of reconciliation between the UCC and native Hawaiians.” [Quoted by McCullough]

This apology was made on January 17, 1993, one hundred years to the day after the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the sovereign nation of Hawaii. The apology was made at the Royal Iolani Palace, where the Queen had been imprisoned, to an estimated crowd of 10,000 people. Subsequently, substantial grants were given by the Hawaii Conference, and the national UCC as redress.

Eleven months later, then President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology to the Native Hawaiian people on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, citing the action already taken by the United Church of Christ.

The native Hawaiians are also working on forgiveness. On April 23rd of this year. thirteen people from the UCC in Hawaii ventured to Princeton, New Jersey, to honor Grover Cleveland. They placed leis and leaves and beads at the monument marking his grave. Why honor Cleveland? When he was informed of the takeover of Hawaii he issued a declaration advocating the speedy return of the throne to Queen Liliuokalani. He opposed the invasion of a sovereign nation. But his initiative was overruled by the US Congress.

One hundred years after the take over, all the people who were directly involved had died. No one in the churches of the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ in 1993 was personally involved in the unjust overthrow of the sovereign monarchy of Hawaii. So why apologize? Well, the consequences of the overthrow are still being felt in significant ways. The takeover by the U.S. of the nation of Hawaii meant not just the annihilation of a government, but of a culture. Today, native Hawaiian people continue to have the lowest life expectancy and the highest rate of major disease, suicide, homelessness and incarceration in Hawaii. In addition, the land owned by the native Hawaiians was taken in 1893, and the Hawaii Conference of the UCC has churches on beautiful pieces of oceanfront property that was confiscated in the overthrow. The Native Hawaiians continue to suffer because of the overthrow and the perpetrating entities continue to benefit. Thus there is need for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The UCC apology and ensuing reconciliation dialogue has sought to address some of the continuing injustices and resultant feelings of anger, pain, and resentment. The Hawaiian people continue to carry the burden of their overthrow. They continue to feel beaten down.

In the Gospel reading we heard this morning, we were told of a woman bent over for 18 years and in extreme pain, physically, socially, and spiritually. Jesus removes the burden. He liberates her from whatever it was that diminished her quality of life. Jesus bears witness to the God, who from the beginning has a heart for liberating people from injustice, oppression, and suffering. We are told Jesus frees this woman, unbinds her, looses her and restores her to her full stature. But the leaders of the synagogue are not happy about this because it is done on the Sabbath. They see it as a violation of the law of God they are committed to following and enforcing. Jesus’ action is completely consistent with the intention of the God they are worshipping on the Sabbath. But the challenge to authority, to legalism, to tradition upsets those in power. They are bent over by bad theology but don’t realize it. God seeks to liberate all people from whatever burdens they carry. God seeks restoration and full stature for all people.

The process of forgiveness is part of God’s work of liberation and restoration. The apology to the Hawaiian people made by the UCC was intended to help lift the burden they are carrying by recognizing the wrong that had been done to them and the full nature of the consequences. The apology was also part of a process of liberating the UCC and specifically the Hawaii Conference, of the burden of guilt and shame as accomplices and beneficiaries of the overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian nation. Through forgiveness and reconciliation God seeks to free us from all that keeps us stooped and bent over. God seeks to restore our full stature, our wholeness, our well-being.

In our UCC Statement of Faith, we affirm God’s promise of “forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace.” Whatever we have done, whatever systems keep us bent over, God seeks liberation through forgiveness and grace. This extends from our personal relations to the impact of institutions and organizations and the relations between nations. There is no pain or suffering in this world beyond redemption and restoration through God’s forgiveness and grace. This is the heart of Christianity.

This afternoon we will give thanks and celebrate the life of Ken Kinzel, a member of this church who was brutally murdered in Nicaragua. Why was Ken in Nicaragua? He had moved there to start a farm, to restore some of the land depleted as a consequence of US military and economic activity. He wanted to be part of restoring Nicaragua in the wake of US intervention and oppression. He wanted to employ some people, create fair wage jobs, help the economy. He wanted to have some small part in helping Nicaragua stand up straight and tall, assume its full stature. Ken intended to be part of reconciliation and forgiveness. This included the restoring of his own dignity as one bent over by the shameful acts of the US government done in Nicaragua in his/our name.

And what about the young woman who murdered Ken? He would be the first to see the forces that kept her bent over, stooped, suffering. He would have compassion on her as a victim. And he would be committed to her healing from all that has damaged her. He would seek the restoration of the image of God, the goodness within her as a child of God. There may be varying perspectives on the particularities and practicalities involved, but not the intention, the goal, the sought after outcome.

Forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace are the Good News of the Gospel. They are the source of our hope. They are the path toward transformation and healing.

The apology of the UCC to the native people of Hawaii was a beautiful symbolic action of the power of forgiveness, grace, and the process of reconciliation. A process so desperately needed on all levels for the healing of the world.

But long before that apology was a gesture of reconciliation, in 1893 another very meaningful statement was made. After the US takeover of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani was put on trial by those who had taken over her country. In her statement at the proceedings she concluded:

I must deny your right to try me in the manner and by the court which you have called together for this purpose. In your actions you violate your own constitution and laws, which are now the constitution and laws of this land.

There may be in your consciences a warrant for your action, in what you may deem a necessity of the times; but you cannot find any such warrant for any such action in any settled, civilized, or Christian land. All who uphold you in this unlawful proceeding may scorn and despise my word, but the offence of breaking and setting aside for a specific purpose the laws of your own nation and disregarding all justice and fairness, may be to them and to you the source of an unhappy and much to be regretted legacy.

I would ask you to consider that your government is on trial before the whole civilized world and that in accordance with your actions and decisions will you yourselves be judged. The happiness and prosperity of Hawaii are henceforth in your hands as its rulers. You are commencing a new era in its history. May the divine Providence grant you the wisdom to lead the nation into paths of forbearance, forgiveness, and peace, and to create and consolidate a united people ever anxious to be in the way of civilization outlined by the American fathers of liberty and religion.

In concluding my statement I thank you for the courtesy you have shown to me, not as your former queen, but as an humble citizen of this land and as a woman. I assure you who believe you are faithfully fulfilling a public duty, that I shall never harbor any resentment or cherish any ill feeling towards you, whatever may be your decision.

This statement attests to the fine Christian character of Queen Liliuokalani. She had learned well the heart of the Gospel from the missionaries. She opened her heart to the God of liberation and was not stooped down, in spite of her circumstances.

May we be true to the God who promises to all forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace. Amen.

It is for now that you have been called

Scripture Isaiah 1:1,
Sunday August 12, 2007

This week teachers return to school and next week, the students return. Consider a kindergarten or first grade teacher who tells the students, “I am going to teach you to read. In this class you will learn to read.” The excited students look around the room only to notice that there are no books in the room. No display with big books,. No shelves of easy reading books. No books anywhere. This doesn’t seem to go with the promise of learning to read.

Consider a coach who tells the ream, “My goal is for everyone to have a good time. Every student is equally important to the success of the team. “ After hours of practice, drills, and scrimmaging, the students can’t wait for their first game. Then, some team members are selected to play and some warm the bench. And as the season progresses, the same students are warming the bench at every game and seldom are asked to play. So much for everyone having a good time and everyone important to the team.

Then there are politicians who say one thing and do another. I just spent 2 weeks in Mexico in Chiapas where the indigenous people are advocating for the government to treat them fairly. There was an armed uprising in Chiapas in January of 1994. Vincente Fox ran for president that year. He promised to solve the Chiapas problem in 15 minutes. We’ll, he was in office for 12 years, and the Chiapas problem still is not solved. So much for 15 minutes.

In the scripture lesson we heart this morning from Isaiah, the prophet conveys God’s outrage at the same kind of discontinuity between words and actions. The people are worshipping God, offering sacrifices, making offerings, having special services and assemblies, and lifting their hands in prayer. They are devout! This is not the Christmas and Easter crowd, this is the church every Sunday crowd, the read the Bible every day crowd, the pray every day crowd, and attend services on all holy days. They are fulfilling all the proper rituals and observances, and yet, God is displeased. Angry, eve. Because the religious devotion of the people is not reflected in their daily behavior. The prophet offers God’s word: Cease to do evil. There would be no need to say this if there wasn’t a problem. The prophet adjures; Learn to do good. And what is that good? Isaiah tells us: Seek justice. Aid the wronged. Defend the rights of the orphans. Plead the cause of the widow.

Evidently, these pious people were perpetrators of economic and social injustice. In Isaiah 3:15, God inquires, “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” Evidently the gap is growing between rich and poor. The rich are driving the poor off of the land. Isaiah 5:8 tells us, “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you and you are lift to live alone in the midst of the land.” And the poor are denied their rights. “Ah, you. . . who acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of their rights.” (5:23) The state of things is pretty well summed up in Isaiah chapter 10:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
and that you may make orphans your prey!

The problem is that these people are devout practitioners of the proper religious ritual, but they are not honoring God’s desire for justice and equity. They are not manifesting the compassionate community commanded y God. So God is angry.

God tells them don’t focus your energies on fancy assemblies, but instead direct your attention to the social and economic injustice you have created. Give up greed and pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of others. Invest yourselves in care for the widows and the orphans, and in a just system of economic, social, and community life.

This is exactly what we see in the life of Jesus, and not surprisingly, it offends the sensibilities of the religious leaders who are complicitors in his death. Yes, Jesus participates in religious observances, but the purpose of those rituals is to form and mold the individual according to God’s desires. The purpose of worship is to show devotion to the God of justice and compassion, the God of the poor and needy. This is how Jesus lived. He embodies devotion to the God of shalom, peace, compassionate community. The stories and teachings of Jesus, like the prophecies of Isaiah and others, lay bare the social and economic injustice pervading society, sometimes blesses and perpetrated even by religious institutions. In his first sermon, Jesus quotes Isaiah. He doesn’t say, “I’ve come to get more people in church.” He doesn’t’ say, “I’ve come to make sure you’re performing your rituals correctly.” He doesn’t say, “I’ve com to thank the high priests, scribes, rabbis, and others who have kept things going all these years.” No. Jesus kicks off quoting Isaiah:

The Spirit of God is upon me,
Because God has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of God’s favor. {Luke ]

Jesus, like Isaiah, wants the heart of devotion to God to reflect the hear of God with the commitment to compassion and justice for all people.

In the United Church of Christ, we express our affirmation of God’s desires when we say in our Statement of Faith:

You call us into your church
To accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
To be your servants in the service of others,
To proclaim the gospel to all the world
And resist the powers of evil. . .

The UCC may not be known for its boys’ choirs, its stunning architecture, or its beautiful liturgy, but we have distinguished ourselves in our 50 year history, for our commitment to social and economic justice. We are know as the social action church. The justice and peace church. The church committed to equal rights. The church that tries to take the side of the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten.

This summer, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the UCC, the sermons have featured stories of our history and ministry. This morning we hear of the crusading work of the Office of Communication.

As the UCC was established in 1957, the decision was made to form an Office of Communication. This ministry was to deal with internal communication within the UCC providing materials needed for various programs, like making film stiprs and brochures. This ministry was also responsible for communication between the UCC and the wider world providing press released and programming for public media outlets.
MS to monitor a composite week of the station programming to see if it complied” with FCC guidelines. It didn’t. While blacks comprised 45% of the TV audience, “their concerns were completely ignored by local stations.”

In 1963, when Jackson, MS station WLBT applied to the FCC to renew tis broadcast license, “the UCC filed a petition to deny license renewal with the fCC. The FCC’s initial response was to rule that neither the United Church of Christ nor local citizens had “legal” standing to participate in its renewal proceedings. The UCC appealed that decision in the Federal appeals court, and three years later in 1966, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme court, Warren Burger, granted standing to the UCC and citizens in general to participate in the FCC licensing process. After a hearing, the FCC renewed WLBT’s license. The UCC appealed again. And Judge Warren Burger declared the FCC’s record, “beyond repair” and revoked WLBT’S license.

This legal proceeding initiated by the UCC had far-reaching implications. It established the fright to ordinary citizens to be involved in the media licensing process and other Federal government regulatory proceedings. It recognized the rights of the viewing audience, not just the economic rights of the stations and the advertisers. It established the duty of the FCC to protect the interests of the whole community of viewers.

In the wake of this bold and courageous crusade, the media continues to be monitored and challenged around issues of fairness, violence, appropriate children’s programming and other concerns. In fact, the UCC was recently involved in another licensing conflict involving inappropriate children’s programming.

The UCC has a distinguished history of seeking to respond in humility and repentance to the ringing words of Isaiah: to cease to do evil and learn to do good. Seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the powerless. In Isaiah’s day, there was a gap between theory and practice, between piety and ethics, between words and deed,. The gospel call us to bridge that gap and to diminish it.

Friends, this work is not yet done. There is still a great need for the gospel of Jesus Christ today. The embodied message of God’s liberating love is needed today. The work of truth which sets us free is needed today. Today perhaps more that any other time in human history, the gospel needs to be communicated with integrity and authenticity. The barrage of information around us twists and distorts reality. God’s work is drowned out by websites, ipods, blackberrys, personal listening devices, blogs, laptops, we’re always wired yet what are we receiving? Our actions are needed to convey the character of living presence of the God of Isaiah, and the God of Jesus Christ: the God of justice, yes, even economic justice, the God who is the defender of the powerless, the God who expects devotion to be expressed not juse in the church but in the school, in the street, in the home, in the corporate office, in the council chambers, in the courtroom, and on the screen..

Speaking at the UCC General Synod in Hartford, CT earlier this summer, rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, retired chaplain of Harvard University, and an Episcopal priest, reflected on our UCC heritage. He said:

You have a chance to redeem a long past by a better future. You have the power to do extraordinary things. Here is a chance for a great church to begin to behave badly. . . become a dangerous community of irrational, passionate Protestants which was your birthright, which is your identity. . . cease being respectable, . and actually do something extraordinary, dangerous, risky.. .

Let us embrace you as that dangerous collection of Christians out there who actually try to take the New Testament seriously and will be willing to take the hear for doing so. . .
You have been preserved for this moment. . . It is for now that you have been called, for this present moment that your ancestors crossed the sea. [This is a reference to the Pilgrims coming to North America seeking religious freedom.]

In the spirit of Isaiah, embodied in Jesus, may we truly be Christ’s church.
Amen.