Sermon 7/24/2022

Date: July 24, 2022
Scripture Lesson: Luke 10:38-42
Sermon: At Jesus’ Feet
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

To start our sermon time together this morning, I I would like your help. I would like you to take a few moments to write down some of your favorite stories associated with Jesus. Some of your favorite teachings of Jesus. Maybe it’s something from the Beatitudes. Or a parable. Or a story of healing. Or the Easter story. So, take a moment to think about something from the life and teachings of Jesus that is important to you. And I’d like you to write that down.

Hand out pens and pads. . . .
Hilton plays “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus”
Collect papers

Last week we talked about the story of Mary and Martha, but there is more that we are going to reflect on today. In this story we are told that Mary was seated at the feet of Jesus. We know she was there as a disciple, a student, to learn, to hear his teachings. Men seated at the feet of a rabbi was the classic modality for teaching in that time.

So, as we think about the legacy of Jesus, let’s think about who would be seated at his feet. In the classic religious scenario of the time, those at the feet of a rabbi would be men, who were ritually clean, in good standing, current on their prayers and tithes.

But as we read the New Testament, and particularly the gospels, we see a different picture of who may have been seated at the feet of Jesus; who was interested in learning from him. It was a far wider group. More diverse. Including women. Like Mary. Like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil. Or the woman caught in adultery. And there were probably people seated at Jesus’ feet wanting to learn from him who were not upstanding Jews. Like the Roman centurion who came to Jesus begging him to heal his servant. Or some Samaritans who were foreigners and enemies. Maybe the grateful leper was seated at Jesus’ feet. Or the man born blind. Or the Gerasene demoniac who was possessed and living among the graves until Jesus cast out the evil spirits within him. Maybe Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector, was seated at the feet of Jesus. Maybe there were children. Maybe Lazarus who had been covered with sores and was homeless and hungry sat at Jesus’ feet. Maybe the woman with 7 demons was seated at the feet of Jesus. And the woman with the flow of blood. Maybe the poor widow who put two coins in the Temple coffers. Maybe she was sitting at Jesus’ feet; eager to listen and learn.

So, as we think about listening at the feet of Jesus we are seeing a much more diverse group than just the respectable men of the day.

And there is a teaching in that. You see, everyone is welcome at the feet of Jesus. He turns no one away. When we think of Jesus teaching today, do we see him in a big, fancy, arched stone church with a gorgeous organ and a marble pulpit? Or in a white steepled building with wooden pews? Do we see good, respectable, well dressed, well spoken people coming to hear Jesus? I hope they are coming to hear Jesus, but I think there would be a much more diverse crowd at the feet of Jesus. Do we see homeless people? People who don’t speak English? Jesus didn’t speak English. People with holes in their clothes? People of varying shades and hues? Do we see people of varying identities? And more than that, people of many differing kinds of backgrounds and experiences? Tech execs and gas station clerks? PhD’s and people who mow lawns? People who are rich, rich, rich, rich, and people who are struggling to get by? I’ll never forget that moment in the presidential debates between Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. when they were asked about the prices of a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. Clinton answered as if he had been in the grocery story the day before. Bush, not so much. But both of them, and those like them, are welcome at the feet of Jesus.

To people who have been downgraded, excluded, and sidelined, Jesus says, there is room at my feet. For you. Your place is waiting. I have a word for you.

To people who have been failed by the education system, who feel ill-equipped and inadequate to deal with life around them, Jesus has a place at his feet. And he has something to say, and it can be understood. It is meant for for them.

To people who have been failed by the economic system, and abused by the economic system, to people who have been taken advantage of to make others rich, and who can’t make ends meet, or scrape by. To people who are used up and throw aside, overlooked, and ill-treated because they cannot stay on top of their basic needs and that of their families. Society says, you are a failure. You just don’t work hard enough. You are lazy. You lack motivation. Jesus has a place at his feet. And a word of liberation and comfort and worth.

To people who feel abandoned by the health care system and by society. Deemed not competent to make their own health care decisions. Not able to pay for needed care or medication. Not given access to the full range of medical resources available including needed mental health services. Cast out. Ignored. Jesus has room at his feet. And a word of healing and hope.

To people who haven’t bathed because they don’t have access to a safe place to live and care for themselves. Dirty. Smelly, even. Jesus has a place at his feet.

To children who are hungry, who don’t have a safe place to live. Who are discounted and devalued and bullied in school. Jesus has a place at his feet.

To people who have been swallowed up by capitalism and taken the Koolaid about getting rich and being happy, to those who have been seduced by power and money, Jesus says come sit with me. I have a word of hope and joy for you.

And then there is the diversity of our activities and behaviors and politics. All welcome at Jesus’ feet. When you think about this, it is really extraordinary. When do all of these kinds of people come together? Maybe, just maybe at a ball game. Though the tickets can be costly. Or at the 4th of July fireworks. They’re free. But there is no interaction. No relationship building in those spectator settings. But at the feet of Jesus, everyone is welcome. And everyone comes. And they get to know each other. WE are welcome and we form relationships with people we would never have encountered otherwise.

There is something else about the people who are welcomed at the feet of Jesus in the gospels. Lots of them are, well, sketchy. Like thieves. Unscrupulous cheaters. People who have done bad things. Maybe drug dealers. Embezzlers. People who have been involved in abusive financial dealings. But there they are, at the feet of Jesus, because Jesus welcomes them, too. Not only whoever you are, but whatever you have done. There’s a place for everyone. And not only is there a place, but there is a teaching, a story, a message, to help all of us come back, be restored, have hope again.

In today’s world, who we are just dogs us. If you have a police record, God help you. Because it will come up again and again and again, even when it has nothing to do with the matter at hand. You just can’t get out from under it, thanks to the ubiquitous computer and the ever present spirit of vengeance.

Apply for a job. There is that dreaded section about a felony. Or any other legal altercations. No matter how long ago or what the circumstance.

Got into trouble somehow, made a bad decision, got into a harmful relationship, blew it at a job, it all stays with us thanks to social media and the internet.

To all of us dogged by the past, Jesus says sit at my feet. You are worthy of my teaching. I have a word for you. About a different kind of life.

Heather Cook was a suffragan bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. She was the first woman elected a bishop in that diocese. In 2014, she was involved in a traffic fatality in Baltimore. In addition to vehicular manslaughter, she was charged with drunk driving, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of a crime. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heather_Cook.]

The person killed, Thomas Palermo, was a beloved husband and father of a 6 year-old daughter, Sadie, and a 4-year-old son, Sam. He was an avid cyclist and bike builder. He had many loyal friends and colleagues. He was a software engineer for Johns Hopkins. He was a kind, gentle soul and a good listener. [Obituary of Thomas Palermo, https://www.baltimoresun.com/obituaries/bs-md-ob-thomas-palermo-20141230-story.html.%5D

And he was killed by an Episcopal bishop driving drunk. Cook was convicted and spent 4 years in prison and 5 years under supervised parole and probation.

Can we imagine that Heather Cook, the ex-bishop, has a place at the feet of Jesus? One entrusted with spreading the gospel who instead spread grief and pain? After such a betrayal, does she still have a place at the feet of Jesus? Can we see that Thomas Palermo’s beloved family and friends also are sitting at the feet of Jesus?

So, when we think about this image of sitting at Jesus’ feet, first we want to see that no one is turned away. Jesus sees the sacred, the Divine Image in everyone. Jesus has deep and abiding love for every single soul. No matter who you are. No matter what you have been put through. No matter what has been done to you. No matter what you have done. Or haven’t done. There is lots of room at Jesus’ feet and Jesus has a message of love and hope for everyone.

Can you see all those people? That gathering? Can you find a place to sit down Do you notice those seated near you? Well, maybe 6 feet apart. And wearing a mask. Can we imagine that?

And what do we hear at Jesus feet? What is he teaching? He is giving each of us what we need. Forgiveness. Hope. Encouragement. A dream. Comfort. Love. Truth. Whatever it is that we need, Jesus offers it. And we are here because we have heard that good news. We have heard what we need from Jesus.

This is where you have helped with this sermon. You have contributed the stories and teachings that you have heard and that have stayed with you and shaped you and given you hope. The teachings that have informed your reality and taught you about the nature of universal love.

This is what we have heard at Jesus’ feet. These are the teachings that we need:

Early in the morning on the first day of the week when Mary Magdalene
went to the tomb –
Then not finding Jesus’ body. She was crying in the garden –
Jesus calls her by name “Mary”
She recognizes him – Jesus is alive
Her beloved!
Love is stronger than death!

The Sermon on the Mount is my favorite because it lays out the ethical framework for living which emulates the commandments to love God and others.

So if I don’t know any teachings, just that he is a forgiving person that always did the right thing to and for his fellow person.

Mary and Martha! Since covid this story of balance and priority has helped me use my time in more loving, thoughtful ways.

Psalm 121 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.
I learned this at 13 years old from my mother as she was dying.

Jesus and the Woman at the Well-

-He engaged her
-He accepted her as she was
-He challenged her
-He sent her to go and live her life –

This story helps me in my situation – whatever or wherever I am on the road of life.

When Jesus came down from the mountain and found his disciples asleep.

Healing the woman with the flow of blood – Moving beyond the expectations of his time and place. She reached out. With just a touch of his garment, he knew! Courage! Desperation!

Last supper. My body, my blood for you. Teaching??

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.

Parable of the lost sheep

-Every single person is valuable in God’s eyes.
-God will never stop pursuing us until we are back in restored
relationship with God.

Always interested in children. Come unto me – teaching them at his feet.
Beatitudes
Good Samaritan
Zacchaeus

Feed followers with fish and bread (loaves)

Jesus gives me
quiet and peace
and a friend when
needed

The Loaves and the Fishes made an impression when I was a lad. Preaching in the temple as a youth. (That’s in there, right? Or am I mistaken?)

At the tomb – Easter morning. Mary asks the gardener Where have you
taken my master? And Jesus says her name “Mary”
And she recognizes him and says Master – Rabbi
On the cross — Jesus says Forgive them for they know not what they do.
Jesus says he has not come to refute ‘the law’ but to fulfill it —
Love God with all you heart and soul
Love all others as I have loved you.

These are the teachings that we have heard at the feet of Jesus. These are the stories we have needed.

Sitting at the feet of Jesus, our teacher, listening to him, we are given life. In Psalm 1, we are told of a tree beside the water nourished by the stream and how we are like the tree nourished by the love of God. Jesus is messaging to us a word that is life giving like the mycelium messaging under the soil to the roots of the trees to keep the trees alive, healthy, and safe. Like the oxygen emitted by plants and trees that keeps us alive, those who sit at Jesus’ feet are given life, sustained, brought back from despair, and kept alive. We are welcomed into the reality of God. At Jesus’ feet, we are nourished with life giving love. Not condemnation. Or retribution. Or threat. Or intimidation. Or judgment. No. At Jesus’ feet, we are given the word of life that sustains all of us and that does not judge or berate. No matter who we are. Or what we have done. Jesus has a life line for us. We just need to listen and let him save us. Amen.

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

Sermon 7/17/2022

Date: July 17, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Luke 10:38-42
Sermon: Martha and Mary
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

When we were in seminary, preparing for ministry, the United Church of Christ required that candidates go through psychological analysis and career counseling in order to be approved for ordination. This is still a requirement today. I did my counseling through the career development center at Lancaster Theological Seminary, a UCC school in Pennsylvania. In preparation, I had to do lots of questionnaires and psychological assessments. Then on the day I spent at the center, I met with several professional therapists and career counselors who had reviewed my materials. Frankly, it was very daunting. Maybe they would find something that would prevent them from recommending me for ordination. Maybe there would be a red flag. What would I do then?

At one point in the review process, my 24 year old self was in a wood paneled office with a middle aged white male authority figure kind of person who held my future in his hands. He was going over one of my assessments. And he said, So when you have a day off, you are likely to make a long list of things to do that could never actually be accomplished in one day. I was stunned. Nothing like that was asked on any of the questionnaires. How did he know that? I felt like I had been stripped bare naked. What should I say. Was it better to lie? Or confess? Guilty.

We have a code at our house. When I get home from work, someone asks, How was your day at church. And there are two possible answers. ED. Or NED. ED stands for Enough Done. NED signals Not Enough Done. And far and away, my response is NED. That is just who I am. So, you can line me up right behind Martha. Every time.

I know the need for balance. I have read the books about keeping Sabbath. About the Slow movement. About voluntary simplicity. And I know from Genesis that even God rested on the seventh day.

But I will be waving my hand for the Martha team every time. I might advise you to rest, to do less, to spend more time in silent reflection. But that’s because I am doing my job. You see, Martha always comes through!

Now, I know these matters can be personal. And we don’t want anyone to feel exposed here at church. So, I am not going to ask you if you identify more with Mary or with Martha. You know where you stand. And we’ll leave it at that.

In our time, we are witnessing the unraveling of society around us. We are seeing the implosion of the eco system. We are watching the erosion of civility and safety. These things are not unrelated. And we are being constantly bombarded with choices and activities clawing for our time. So many problems. So many things that need attention. And so little time.

There is competition even for our entertainment time. Which show to watch. Which movie to see. Never enough time to keep up on social media.

We live by our calendars – be they posted on the wall or on our phones or in a diary or managed by Alexa.

So, this story is fraught for us. Decades ago, we were told this would be the age of leisure. All those labor saving devices would give us oodles of free time. Wrong. Instead, we are in a season of famine, time famine. Even retired people don’t seem to have all the leisure they were led to expect. So this story of Martha and Mary glares at us. Reminding us of the need to be attentive to the spiritual life. And the importance of having that inform the rest of what we do and who we are.

But that message is embedded in this story in an even bigger way than the immediate contemplation and action drama between Mary and Martha. And because we are so caught up in the busy-ness eddy, and because we may have slight familiarity with first century Biblical culture, we might miss it. So let’s take a deeper dive.

To look deeper, we have to notice some details in this story. We are told that “a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her home.” This means that this is a female headed household. That is extremely unconventional for the times. And we’ll say more about that in a minute. And we are told that Martha’s sister, Mary, “seated herself at Jesus’ feet and listened to his words.”

Now, in the first century, when a rabbi taught, he sat down. And his pupils sat at his feet. To listen. To learn. For us, this happens with a professor behind the podium and the students in amphitheater seating. Or around a seminar table. Or when the preacher is in the pulpit and the congregation is in the pews. In the context of the story from Luke, the rabbi sat. And the students sat at the rabbi’s feet. And what do we know about the students sitting at the rabbi’s feet in the first century? They were men. Always men. Only men. Never women. So, the sentence, “She had a sister named Mary, who seated herself at Jesus’ feet and listened to his words,” — this would trigger alarm bells, red flags, stunned shock and loud contempt. There’s a big issue here.

And there’s more. Next, Martha drags Jesus into what at first glance appears to be a sister’s spat over who is going to do the dishes. “Rabbi, don’t you care that my sister has left me all alone to do the household tasks? Tell her to help me!” To our ears, this makes Martha seem so petty compared with Mary who appears so holy. We are told that this is Martha’s house. Why is she dragging Jesus, her special guest, into this domestic squabble? Shouldn’t the sisters be in the kitchen with the door closed and voices lowered to have this conversation? But Martha calls on Jesus to mediate. Why? Because Jesus is a man. Yes, it is Martha’s house, but as soon as a man present, his authority trumps that of any woman present, even the home owner, the head of household. So, with Jesus there, Mary, and even Martha, must defer to him because he is a man. He has the authority. So Martha needs Jesus to set Mary straight. Mary does not need to listen to Martha with Jesus there because she is under Jesus’ authority, the man, not Martha’s authority, a mere woman, albeit the head of the household.

So, the real drama here is not about the division between action and contemplation, a false split anyway because we all know they are related and both are important and needed. But the real drama here is about being liberated from the constraints of society, even around gender roles and authority. Jesus is springing us from gender roles and the dictates of sexual identity. Jesus is cutting us loose from societal and cultural constraints, expectations, categories and definitions. Of every kind. Including class, ethnicity, educational attainment, race, all of it. Jesus is confronting patriarchy head on. Martha is still enmeshed and embedded in patriarchy – the woman’s role, and deferring to the authority of a male guest even though she is the head of the household. She is not supportive of Mary casting off her assigned gender role. While it is comfortable for us to see this story as a commentary on action versus contemplation, Jesus is going far deeper with a critique of the fundamental organizing principles of society. He is removing the categories and definitions that create barriers and limits for people in society. That’s about as revolutionary as you can get. He is cutting down the tree and grinding out the stump. He’s liberating us from the labels and definitions that mould and shape us as well as limit us.

Jesus is taking it all away. And replacing it with one thing. Really only one thing is necessary. Not the coffee. Not the napkins. Not the food. Not the dishes. One thing. God. Love. Being a child of God created in the Divine Image. Beloved. Created to love. One thing. The reality of God.

After that, you’re free. To love. To serve. Every which way. Busy. Contemplative. Using mind. Body. Heart. Outside. Inside. However you are called. Whatever you are suited for. However you are needed. No restraints or constraints. Free.

I am listening to an audio book, The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. The story is about a family. The mother and father meet at the Marian Anderson concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday in 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution forbid Anderson from singing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. and Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady, arranged for the free outdoor performance at the Lincoln Memorial which was attended by some 75,000 people. The father in the book is a Jewish scientist whose family was all killed in the Holocaust. And the mother is an African American woman from Philadelphia. They marry and have three children. They raise the children as individuals, not as part of the racial caste system. It’s the 1960’s. The one son becomes a professional singer. At one point, he auditions for the Metropolitan Opera. A wild stretch for someone with his background. But he has the voice. He is offered a part. A bit part in an obscure opera. He turns it down. Then he is offered another part. In a new opera. The story: “A young sensualist university student is arrested and forced to stand a surreal trial for mysterious crimes he has no knowledge of committing. He’s found guilty and then lynched. The man is never named. Throughout the score, he’s identified only as ‘the Negro.’” [The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers, p, 390.] Jonah is offered that lead. And he turns it down. He wants to be hired for his voice, not his perceived race. This young black man, in the 1960’s turns down what would be any singer’s dream – the Met. You see, he refuses to be limited by perceived racial identity.

That is what Jesus is showing us in this story of Mary and Martha. He is telling us to refuse to be defined, limited, by the constructs of the society around us. Including gender roles. And certainly racial casting. Mary and Martha is a story about freedom. Being free to love. The one thing.

And when we devote ourselves to the one thing, we are free. And then we are not restricted by the messaging of the world around us about what we can and can’t do. Who we can and can’t be. Who are are and who we are not. We can give ourselves freely in service to Love. And more gets done. And more people are happier. And more people live with dignity. And there is less need and suffering. And the one thing, the reality of God, emerges in our midst.

You won’t be surprised that the Martha in me wants to have the last word.

During the pandemic, there was an article about the division of labor in the household with both partners confined to the home. The article happened to feature Japan. Aki Kataoka gave her husband, Susumu, a spreadsheet that listed her 210 household chores. We can only wonder what would be on his spreadsheet. [“During Pandemic, Japan’s Men See the Real Meaning of Domestic Bliss,” May 17, 2020, New York Times.]

We still have a lot of work to do. On gender roles and justice and equality of every kind. Because we are devoted to the one thing. The better part. The reality of God. Proclaimed by Jesus.
Amen.

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

Sermon 6/26/2022

Date: June 26, 2022
Scripture Lessons: 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Luke 9:51-62
Sermon: It’s Who We Are
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Well, I am surprised to find myself talking about my mother and about abortion this morning, but that Supreme Court is inserting itself into our personal lives in ways we could never have imagined. And so you can blame them if you have heard some of this before at my mother’s memorial service four years ago.

My mother was a first generation American. Her parents came from Germany. They lived in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx in New York. Her father owned a butcher shop. Her mother helped in the shop.

When my mother was growing up, it was not fashionable to be German. They lost World War I. And then they caused World War II. My mother and her parents did not speak German outside of their apartment. My mother did not take German in school. My mother and her mother joined the other women of the apartment complex sitting in the courtyard knitting for the soldiers – caps, scarfs, socks, mittens. And they bought war bonds. And when meat was hard to procure during the war, rather than buying it on the black market [that feels like a racist term], my grandfather closed his butcher shop and went to work at a local grocery store. My mother and her family went to church every Sunday.

These were respectable, hard-working people who kept their heads down and had no desire to make any waves or call attention to themselves in any way.

After my parents met, at church, my father of Italian extraction, another axis ethnicity, an unfavored group, they decided to go out on a first date. At the end of the evening, sitting on the steps outside the apartment, my mother informed my father that she intended to become a missionary and go to Ecuador. She must have heard something about that at her church and that is what she had decided to do.

Since this is the Sunday nearest the founding of the UCC, I’ll point out that all four of my grandparents went to Christ Church in the Bronx, an Evangelical and Reformed Church that in 1956 became part of the United Church of Christ.

So, my mother wanted to be a missionary to Ecuador. Well, things did not go as planned. Instead, she married my father, put him through seminary, and he became a pastor in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, later part of the United Church of Christ. And my parents had two kids. And my mother did a lot of other things of what might be called a missionary nature.

My mother never went to college. She worked almost all of her adult years usually in clerical office jobs, often in church or social service settings. In 1965, our family moved from the Pennsylvania Dutch country where my father had served a thriving church to Silver Spring, Maryland, where my father began his tenure as the first conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference of the newly formed United Church of Christ. The conference includes Maryland, Washington, D.C. northern Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey.

As another aside, UCC related, some of you knew Kristin Andes, a devoted LUCC member in the 1980’s and 90’s. Kristin’s mother was on the search committee that called my father to the Central Atlantic Conference.

So, when we moved to Silver Spring, MD my mother went to work in the conference office as the administrative assistant to the associate conference minister in charge of youth ministry and christian education. So she worked where my dad worked. There were several other staff people in the office – professional and clerical. One was a young African American woman, Judy, who was single and had a young child. My mother and the other women of the office encouraged Judy to continue her education and to go to college. They helped her to find a program she could attend at night. And they helped with tuition. And they helped her with childcare. That was going along well. And then Judy found herself expecting another child. She decided that she wanted to end the pregnancy, finish her college education, provide a better life for the child she already had, and make a more significant contribution to society. So, to help support Judy in that decision, my parents gave her the money to have an abortion.

This was my under-the-radar, non rabble-rousing mother. Who baked cookies for the PTA. And sewed banners for her church. And needle pointed covers for the pew cushions.

You see, my mother did not have to assess this abortion issue. She did not have to dissect it. She did not have to analyze anything. She knew Judy’s situation. And she saw Judy’s potential. And she knew that the right thing to do was to respect and support Judy in exercising her intelligence and moral responsibility as a human being. My mother did not need a degree or a Bible to certify what was loving and just and right in that circumstance.

During these years, the sixties, my parents were sought out by someone from the youth group in the first church that they served in Western Pennsylvania, many years before, and asked to help pay for a trip to Africa for a sex change operation that would not be done in the US. Of course my parents gave them the money.

The point here is, for my mother doing these things was not calculated in anyway. It was natural. For her, being Christian, following Jesus, serving others, was not second nature. It was who she was. It was her only nature. She always saw every person as a precious child of God. Period.

Now, my mother went to church every Sunday but I never saw my mother pray- except for grace at meals and a prayer before bed. I never saw my mother read the Bible. I really never saw my mother read a book of any kind. She made sure her kids were reading and our home was filled with books, but I didn’t see her read. She didn’t listen to religion on TV or the radio. No gospel music or anything like that. She didn’t keep a prayer journal. She was simply Christian. It is who she was.

In 2 Corinthians 13, we are told: “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Don’t you understand that Jesus Christ is in you?” (v. 5) My mother didn’t even know it, really, but Jesus Christ was in her. It was like a fish that lives in water but doesn’t even really know that. My mother was just Christian. It is the only way she knew how to be. It was the only way she had to look at things. In her last years with her mind gone and her body frail, she could no longer speak. But whenever anyone went into her room at the nursing home or greeted her in her wheel chair in the hall way, she smiled. She tried to do something for someone else, to give what she still had to give. And she didn’t have to think this through. It is just who she was.

Now, let’s turn from my mother and abortion to these important verses from Luke because here are these people who want to follow Jesus, who want to get in on what he is about, and basically he is telling them, it’s about who you are. It’s not about a set of propositions. It’s not about a system of rewards and punishments. It’s not a guide book on the route to heaven. It is about who you are. Fundamentally. At your core. It’s not one of the hats you wear, it’s your head, itself. And it determines what hats you will wear. Following Jesus is about identity.

The disciples who have been with Jesus all along are sent ahead to make provisions for the night. Now they are in Samaria, the territory between Galilee and Judea where Jerusalem is. This is enemy territory. The Samaritans and the Jews have been at it for centuries about the proper worship of God, etc. So, the Samaritans are not willing to provide hospitality to these Jews. The disciples report the rebuff to Jesus and suggest: “Rabbi, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and destroy them?” This may be a reference to Elijah who called down the fire of God to prove that the God of Israel was superior to the God Baal.

[See I Kings 18.] So, after all this time with Jesus, these disciples still don’t get that Jesus doesn’t do violence or vengeance or retribution. He forgives. We are told that Jesus reprimands the disciples, and then probably forgives them. They just don’t get it.

So then a person on the road comes up to Jesus and says he wants to follow Jesus. The story tells us Jesus responds: “Foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Chosen One has nowhere to rest.” In other words, you want to follow me? Well, you’ll have to be on the move, probably avoiding danger and opposition. And probably not welcome in a lot of places. And you probably won’t have much money so you won’t be able to afford a home. It’s like the situation of someone who is oppressed. Don’t expect acceptance of any kind for you, your life orientation, your message, or your reality. This is no bed of roses.

In the story, another person wants to follow Jesus comes up to him. Hearing that the man’s father has died, does Jesus offer sympathy and compassion for this grieving soul? “Let the dead bury their dead; you go and proclaim the reign of God everywhere.” The old rules don’t apply any more. There is more pressing business. There is a reorientation of priorities. Nothing comes before proclaiming the reign of God.

Then we are told of a third person coming to Jesus and who wants to follow him. But he wants to say goodbye to his family. Jesus says, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God.” Following Jesus is a new life. And there can’t be any competing loyalties or commitments. No holding back.

There is a story told by Father Raymond about “a little child whose mother was teaching him to pray. When he got to the part, ‘Lord, I surrender everything to thee, everything I own,’ he abruptly broke off and whispered to himself, ‘except my baby rabbit.’” [From Paul Tournier, Escape from Loneliness, in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C, Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 202]

In the New Testament, those who accept life in Christ are spoken of as a new creation. In other words, they are made new. It is a new life. Think of the story of Nicodemus. In that story Jesus tells him, you must be born again. It is a new life A different life. You become a new person. And there is the image of baptism, going under the water, dying to your old life, and coming out of the water, like the birth water of the womb, into a new life. This is what we hear from Jesus as he is on the road.

In the story we heard today, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and we know what happens there. He is crucified. He probably knows he is in danger. He probably knows his time is short. So he doesn’t have time to make nice. He is not trying to make things look palatable to gain adherents. This isn’t a marketing campaign to amass new members, for their money and resources. This is the heart of the matter. Life in God. Period. That reality. The only reality.

In Jesus’ day, people knew the primary bond of familial connection. Of attachment to the land. Of adherence, sticking to, the Torah, the core teaching of Judaism about God and right relationship between God and humanity. These things formed a person’s identity. And Jesus was superseding all of this with devotion to God alone. To love. No limitations or restrictions. It’s who you are.

In our context, our culture, we have made religion a commodity more than an identity. And it has been marketed for what it can do for you. Guilty? Believe in Jesus and he will forgive you. He died for your sins. He will clean your slate.

Afraid of death? We got you covered. Believe in Jesus and he will have your room waiting in heaven complete with piped in muzak provided by the angels.

Sad, distraught, heartbroken, despairing? Give it to Jesus. He’s got you covered. He’ll take it all away. Just pray.

Can you see how this meshes with our market-driven, consumer economy mindset? Religion becomes a service provider. Need this, this, or this? We got you covered. Just take your place in the pew and put your donation in the plate, thank you very much.

And if you don’t get the results you want from your religious observance – ask and it will be given, seek and you will find – then you just don’t have enough faith. You need to pray harder. Oh, yes, and donate more. Or you can try another church. Maybe they can give you better service.

It’s like God is Santa, and Jesus is an elf, and we want to keep ourselves on the nice list, not the naughty list, so that we get what is on our wish list: health, wealth, a nice family, a good job, heaven in the next life. Whatever.

But when Jesus expresses the nature of discipleship in the verses we heard today, it’s not an ad from a service provider. Come to us and we’ll take care of all your needs. What we hear from Jesus is detach yourself from all of your other entanglements, including your attachment to violence, and retribution (sometimes called justice). Sever yourself from your responsibilities and relationships, including family. And take on this completely new identity, world view, reality orientation. A new creation. Baptism. Old life. New life. Born again. There’s an old saying, communism puts a new suit on a man. Christianity puts a new man in the suit.

I have found beautiful discussions of faith in the novel, A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin. There are several very philosophical, theological reflections in the book which offers the telling of a soldier’s experiences in World War I. At one point, the main character, an Italian soldier named Alessandro, is in a military prison for desertion. Everyone in the prison is slated to be executed. The prisoners have many interesting conversations as they wait for days, weeks, or months for their turn to be shot. Alessandro meets a communist, Ludovico, in the prison. They have several discussions examining the faith of Alessandro and the communist commitment of Ludovico. Alessandro challenges Ludovico: “How can you reserve your most sacred beliefs for a descriptive system, and one that is imperfect at that? I can’t imagine myself believing in trigonometry or accounting, and yet you guide your soul according to a theory of economics.”

“It won’t fail me as surely as your system will fail you.”

“I don’t have a system.”

“Theology is a system.”

“Not my theology.”

“Then what is it?”

“What is it? It’s the overwhelming combination of all that I’ve seen, felt, and cannot explain, that has stayed with me and refused to depart, that drives me again and again to a faith of which I am not sure, that is alluring because it will not stoop to be defined by so inadequate a creature as man. Unlike Marxism, it is ineffable, and it cannot be explained in words.” [Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War, pp. 442-443.]

Following Jesus is simply about who you are. Beyond words and into being. What reality you are in. It is about fundamental identity and how you experience life.

This week is the 65th anniversary of the United Church of Christ, the denomination of which we are a part. The UCC was founded in 1957 as a merger of the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which were both mergers of predecessor denominations. There were also other smaller communions feeding into the mix. One of the things I appreciate about the UCC is that we are a non creedal church. We have a Statement of Faith. And we honor the historic creeds of the church and what they conveyed in their times and circumstances. But we don’t insist that anyone, even clergy, endorse a specific creed to be a part of the church. To me this honors the spirit of Jesus who taught that faith was a fundamental life orientation, not a system of thought or a set of laws or a road map for getting to heaven.

In recent days and weeks we are hearing much about the Supreme Court. It is interesting that recent rulings are not consistent with public opinion. In the latest ruling about abortion, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, addressed this issue head on. In a news article from the Washington Post we are told that he “attacked the notion that the court should consider the public will. He quoted late chief justice William H. Rehnquist from a previous ruling: ‘The Judicial Branch derives its legitimacy, not from following public opinion, but from deciding by its best lights.’” [“Supreme Court goes against public opinion in rulings on abortion, guns,” Michael Scherer, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/24/supreme-court-goes-againstpublic-opinion-rulings-abortion-guns/%5D

Their role is not to reflect the views of society, but to implement justice according to the dictates of the Constitution and established legal precedent. Their responsibility is not to give the people what they think they want but to honor the rule of law whether people like it or not. And many people didn’t like it when the court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education ending the precedent of separate but equal in education. People did not like it when the court ruled in Loving v. Virginia making interracial marriage legal throughout the country. And they did not like it when the court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges making gay marriage legal.

This speaks to the role of the church. We are not here to reflect the views of society. To tailor our message to make it palatable to society, to reflect popular opinion, so that we get more members and more money. That is not at all how Jesus looked at things.

We are to look at the world, ourselves, life, through the eyes of love. And when we do, we can see that the actions of the Supreme Court of late are completely at odds with the reverence and respect for every single life that is at the heart of Christianity. The gun ruling puts the rights of guns and gun owners above the safety and protection and right to life of the random population. And the abortion decision completely denies and denigrates the full humanity of women, and of course, will place the heaviest burden upon women of low income who are disproportionately women of color because of the legacy of racism in our country. These decisions do not respect the equal rights, equal worth, and equal sacredness of each and every person. As one person in our church observed, if we’re going to restrict abortion, then what about forcing every father who does not keep up on child support to have a vasectomy?

Unlike the court, the church, as the body of Christ, as the community of followers of Jesus, can never abandon its commitment to the dignity and the inestimable worth of every single person. Period.

What Jesus is teaching as we heard this morning is that it doesn’t matter what the times are like, we as Christians are living in another reality and will always be out of step in some way with the world around us. And following Jesus is not a path to a candy store where we get all the goodies that we want. It’s not about getting anything, really. It’s about learning to receive, becoming conscious of what you are being given, simply by being here on this earth in this body on this day. Regardless of the times or the circumstances or the location. Following Jesus is about embracing the living of our days in a way that will lead us to deep experience, intense engagement with others, meaningful relationships, desire for material simplicity, profligate generosity, appreciation for beauty, relishing the delight and joy of living, as well as the hardship, staggering loss, and heart break. That is full and abundant life. It’s love. It is who we are.

As people who are in Christ, who are following Jesus, we can live out the prayer based on sentiments of Etty Hillesum, who was Jewish and lived through the Holocaust. Of course, Jesus was Jewish, so the prayer is completely consistent with the gospel of Jesus:

Against every new outrage
And every new horror
May we put up
One more piece of love and goodness
Drawing deeper and deeper strength
From within our deepest selves.

[Andrew Harvey, based on Etty Hillesum]

Amen.

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

Sermon 5/29/2022

Date: May 29, 2022 Memorial Day Weekend
Scripture Lesson: Acts 16:16-40
Sermon: Let Freedom Ring
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
My country ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty!
Of thee, we sing!
Land where our fathers died
Land of the pilgrim’s pride
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!
[Lyrics by Samuel Francis Smith]

We’ll hear this sung this weekend in honor of Memorial Day. Freedom is a core characteristic that we like to associate with America. The land of the free. Our national story tells of seeking freedom from the constraints of Europe, from the control of kings, from exploitation by European business interests, from the constraints of European social divisions and stratification. The Bill of Rights protects our freedoms. We tell the story of America as a land where every person is free to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is the land of the free. And ask someone who has been in the service and they may very well tell you that they served to protect America’s freedom.

Given the theme of freedom this weekend, let’s take a moment to look at the story from Acts through the lens of freedom. There is the slave girl, the household servant, who allegedly has clairvoyant powers labeled as a foreign spirit. She is used by her owners to make money. She is a household servant, a slave. She is being exploited for her income producing ability. She is host to an ‘evil’ spirit, maybe a mental illness, for which she is not being treated because it is an income producer for her owners. Is she free? Hardly.

There are the owners of the girl. They are not concerned with her well-being beyond the point that it serves their interests providing them with money. When the foreign spirit is driven out by Paul, they are furious because they can no longer make money from the girl. They complain to the town magistrates. But they don’t accuse Paul and company of evicting the spirit and freeing the girl. They accuse Paul and friends of introducing foreign ideas that are at odds with Roman beliefs. This is anti Semitism. The owners are prejudiced against Jews. And that is what they focus on in their complaint because they know they can get traction around that. They don’t complain that the girl was healed, but that these foreigners are infiltrating the town and stirring up trouble. So, they are controlled by greed and anti-Semitism. Are they free? Not really.

Now, the townspeople. They are involved in the story. Speaking out to the authorities. They perpetuate the prejudice expressed by the slaves owners. And they are swayed by peer pressure, the influence of the crowd. So, are they free? Not really.

And the jailer. He has his job in the town authority structure. He is to staff the jail. Keep the prisoners in. That is fine until the prisoners are freed by an act of God and since it is Jews that are freed, it appears to be the work of the Jewish God not a Roman God. After the earthquake, the jailer is afraid of loosing face for the escape of the prisoners that he has put in maximum security, in solitary down in the darkness of the hole, and chained by the legs. But they are freed. He will be held responsible. So, he will be killed or he will save face by killing himself. From his perspective, his choice is to be killed by agents of the magistrates or kill himself. He is not really free, either. That is, until he seeks out the religion of Paul and Silas, and then in his freedom he takes the prisoners home, cleans their wounds, feeds them, and is baptized by them along with his household. Once he has chosen to align himself with the God of these Jews, his actions convey his freedom. He is no longer constrained by the power of the society around him.

And the magistrates? Are they free? They are faced with mob-supported accusations. They do not provide any opportunity for a trial or any defense on the part of those accused. They seem completely at the mercy of the crowd. So they don’t really seem to be free either, free to carry out their duties. They seem controlled by the whims of the crowd.

Now we turn to Paul and his companions. They free the slave woman of her foreign spirit with no thought to self interest or the consequences. Really this is done out of annoyance. They banish evil. Unintimidated. That is pretty free. Once they have been beaten and put in jail, they sing and pray. They seem to exert their freedom and celebrate their trust in God. They have offered salvation to Lydia in the previous chapter of Acts. She was rich seller of purple of cloth. They have exorcised a demon from a slave girl. Then they offer salvation to the Roman jailer. They offer salvation, healing, to Jew and Gentile alike. They seem to be egalitarian, offering the way of Jesus to everyone, not influenced by wealth or position in society or religion or ethnicity. That is freedom. And then, in what is really the cherry on top in this story, they confront the magistrates after they are released.

When someone from an oppressed minority gets released from prison, what do they do? The run. They get out of there while they can. Before anyone changes their mind. They save their skin by fleeing. But Paul and Silas? Paul takes issue with the authorities. They are citizens and they were jailed without a hearing or any defense. That was illegal and the magistrates could be punished, even killed, for violating the rights of a citizen. So, Paul wants them to publicly acknowledge their wrong and make a public display of freeing these Jewish citizens. And the authorities are so scared that they do just what Paul requested. Paul was not intimidated and he insisted on justice even though it could have cost him his life. Again, Paul, who was imprisoned, makes a flagrant display of his freedom and rightly so.

So it really seems that Paul and his colleagues who were beaten and imprisoned, who were victims of prejudice, who were denied their rights, are the ones who exhibit the most freedom in this story. They are freed from fear. They are free to love and serve. They are free to follow Jesus. They don’t seem to let any social or legal issues constrain their freedom. They let freedom ring.

And that is what our faith offers to us – true freedom. To praise. To sing. To serve. To reject evil. To insist on justice. Our faith frees us from the attitudes and prejudices of those around us. It frees us from the greed and self interest that motivates so much human behavior. Our faith untethers us from the constraints of the society around us. Our faith lets freedom ring.

There are so many themes in this story that resonate today. The slave girl possessed of a foreign spirit. We would not say it that way, but certainly we are aware of the damaged souls around us, especially those who commit such terrible acts of violence as the Uvalde massacre and the Tops grocery store mass shooting, and the attack at Mother Emmanuel Church and the Pulse shooting, and the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Elementary School, and Sandy Hook, and I could, sadly, go on and on and on and on. These are acts carried out by people who we could say are mentally ill. In the first century, it was called ‘possessed.’ We know about the manifestation of evil due to sickness and damage. We see this theme in our setting. And like Paul, we have the freedom to pursue the healing of those seemingly lost to evil.

In the story we also see the manifestation of greed. The owners are upset and get crowd support really because of their greed. They want to keep making money from the abuse of the servant. They want to keep taking advantage of labor and the healing of the possessed servant has cuts into their profits. So they come up with the sham of these outsiders bringing in foreign ideas disrupting society.

Isn’t America controlled by the gun manufacturers hiding their profits thinly behind defense of the second amendment; the right to own a musket to protect yourself from a foreign invader? It’s all a sham protecting greed. And the profits are extreme. That is where the gun manufacturers get all the money to influence politicians and voters.

Just to set the record straight, there are more guns than people in this country. About 335 million people. Over 400 million guns. The highest rate of guns per capita in the world. That is one thing that makes us exceptional in the world. No other country can claim that.

The number of guns manufactured in the US has tripled over the last 20 years. Do guns wear out and need to be replaced like shoes?

School shootings are literally sky rocketing in the US. There were 118 in 2018. And 249 in 2021. Three years. The number more than doubled. Again, making the US exceptional.

And guns are the leading cause of death among children in the US. Not disease. Or car accidents. But guns. What an exceptional country!

In America , everyone is free to make a profit. No matter the cost. And the gun manufacturers are raking it in.

And there is another theme in the story from Acts that still plagues us today; prejudice. The arrest, beating, and jailing of Pail and friends is fomented by anti Semitism, racism, prejudice. The crowd is ginned up that they are doing things that are ‘foreign.’ How familiar is that? We see it every day. Don’t want any foreign influences here in the US – code for keep it ‘white.’ And we see the ravages of prejudice over and over and over: The Tops grocery store killings. And George Floyd. And the Tree of Life Synagogue. And again we could name and name and name. Racism and bigotry have their hold on the land of the free.

Supposedly we are the people from the land of the free. How does this ring true with us? We still seem bound by the forces that were controlling the slave girl, the owners, the citizens, the magistrates, and the jailer in the story from Acts. Bound by the power of profits and prejudice. This is a constant thread woven throughout the history of this country since the arrival of Europeans.

Here is an example from the 19th century that you probably did not learn about in school. Henry Dawes was a Yale educated senator from Massachusetts. Apparently in 1887, Senator Dawes toured Indian territory. He issued a report of his visit. Here is what he had to say about the Cherokee. And remember this is from a United States Senator.

“There is not a pauper in that nation, and the nation does not owe a dollar. It built its own capital. . . its schools and hospitals. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common . . . . There is no selfishness among them, which places them at the bottom of our civilization.”

Hear that again: “There is no selfishness among them, which places them at the bottom of our civilization.” Senator Dawes is faulting the Cherokee for taking care of everyone’s needs. They are seen as backward because they are not driven by greed. Yes, they are at the bottom of American Western civilization because that system prioritizes selfishness and greed, not the well being of all. That is a disclosure of the nature of American freedom. There is the freedom to be greedy and to serve self interest at all costs.

So we should not be surprised that in America guns proliferate because they are profitable. Selfishness rears its ugly, familiar head.

Greed. Free to run rampant in America. While the general citizenry is held captive. Afraid to go to the grocery store. Afraid to go to work. Afraid to go to school. Afraid to worship. Is that freedom?

Here we turn to Paul. He is the one in the story from Acts that is truly free. He is free from fear. He is not controlled by the powers that be around him. He is controlled by the power of Divine Love. He has bound himself to Christ Jesus. And no other. And so he is free. From intimidation, from greed, from prejudice. AND he is free to take action. To sing and pray. To save the jailer and his household. To call out the injustice of the magistrates. He is flagrant in his freedom. He is lavish in his love.

And that is what is needed in our land right now. People devoted to Christ Jesus who are willing to protect and defend the rights and dignity and lives of those being manipulated by society. Of those held captive by greed. Of those addicted to violence and guns. We are free to offer salvation, which means healing, to those whose lives are sullied by prejudice and hate. Through our faith, we are given the freedom and the power to aid in the healing of the soul of America.

This is Memorial Day. We honor and commemorate those who died to protect our freedom. Yet we are not free. To go to church. To go to school. To go to work. To go to the grocery store. As George Bush said, after 911, Americans have to be able to go shopping. We aren’t even free to do that which is putting more money in the pockets of Amazon and the like. Did those who have served our country think they were enabling greed? The greed of gun manufacturers? And protecting the gun culture? Is that why they put their lives on the line? No. They were protecting the freedom of their families, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, nieces, nephews, and communities to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

More than ever, we are needed to exert our freedom in Christ and honor the humanity and dignity of every person. We are needed to exert our freedom to disarm greed and violence. To cast out the evils of selfishness and prejudice. To disable the love of power. We cannot hide in our sanctuary. We must let our freedom ring for the healing of our beloved homeland and the world. Amen.

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

Sermon 5/22/2022

Date: May 22, 2022
Scripture Lesson: Psalm 23
Sermon: The Lord Is My __
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It’s been a rough week or so. There was the tragic shooting targeting Black people in Buffalo. And the shooting in a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California. In the US, we have surpassed one million covid deaths. And there is the continuing war in Ukraine.

And those are just a few of the latest horrors that are assaulting us. When I saw the flags at half mast last weekend, I didn’t even know why. It was the covid deaths. It could have been one of many things. It’s a rough time! And today we turn to beautiful Psalm 23 often recited at memorial services but really a psalm about how to live – how to live given the threats and perils and stresses that life inevitably and inexorably holds. Implied in the image of the shepherd is the idea that there are sheep needing a shepherd.

Most of us are not from an agricultural background. What do we know of sheep? Apparently, they are affectionate, docile, and defenseless. And they need care and supervision. Kind of like small children. Sheep were an integral part of life for the people of the Bible. There are over 500 references to sheep and shepherds in scripture. Sheep were part of sustaining a livelihood. They provided food, milk, wool, and skins. They were a measure of wealth. And a medium of exchange. And they were part of the cultic system of sacrifice. Sheep were integral to life. So those hearing of sheep and shepherds in the holy writings of the Bible were very familiar with what these images conveyed.

So, with our time and culture gap, let’s explore this image and see what it might mean for us. The psalmist, given the reality of the threats that life presents – death, enemies, evil, lack of food and drink – chooses “The Lord is my shepherd” as an image of being provided for, protected, guided, sheltered, and cared for. So, if you were wanting to express that kind of sentiment today, what might you say? What word would you use? The Lord is my _. There ’s a blue scrap of paper in your bulletin. Give it some thought, then write something down. I’ll collect the papers and we’ll read them.

These are the responses from the congregation:
Life guide, father, inspiration, protector, kindly neighbor, enlightener, caretaker, guardian, friend group, candle, mother hen, mother lion, beloved friend, guide, rock, strength, floor, refuge, teacher, ever present reminder, my comfort and stillness, umbrella in a rainstorm, shelter in a hurricane of life. The Lord is my soundtrack of life, bringing joy, rhythm, love, light, unity, energy, understanding and peace. Connection, strength and comfort, guiding presence, refuge, healer, inspiration, joy of light – loving – kindness.

These are wonderful expressions of guidance, care, and provision.

Because we are so removed from the imagery associated with a shepherd in Biblical times, we don’t see straight away that the word shepherd in Hebrew connoted the image of a king, a monarch, a ruler, a sovereign. There was royal authority implied. The rod and staff were not only for guiding the sheep but were also meant to imply the staff, the scepter of royal authority. So this shepherd image was much more than an idyllic agrarian reference. It had strong political overtones.

Now, we Americans are not ones to immediately resonate to monarchical imagery. We’re the ones who rebelled against the king and established a governmental system that intentionally did not have a king and did not concentrate power in one person, or office, or even branch of government. That’s why we have three branches – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial – supposedly with checks and balances. We don’t like the idea of one leader with complete authority, power, and control no matter how benevolent or enlightened they may be. And as we look at history, it seems like the leaders that have had complete power and control over their people have often abused that authority for personal gain in ways that do not protect and provide for the people. In a situation where power is concentrated in the hands of a human, what we often see is that power abused at the expense of the people, not for their welfare.

So, this idea of a shepherd as a political, royal figure, to whom complete loyalty is given, this rubs against our American grain. The statement, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is a pledge of loyalty, of fealty, of devotion. It is a commitment. A choice. A vow. A bond binding one to this shepherd. This ruler. This sovereign. Placing complete trust in God. Alone. No other. Period. That implied message is well beyond the agrarian connotations of the shepherd image that we may see. Yet that deeper message would have been immediately recognized by the original hearers of the psalm and those who came after for centuries.

The Lord is my shepherd. This is a vow made by someone who will have no other loyalties or competing claims for allegiance save God alone. There will be no rivalry or conflict. It is a statement affirming devotion to God alone. With no competition from an economic system. A political party. Liberal or conservative values. Allegiance to social systems that perpetuate racism or sexism or capitalism or patriarchy. To say, “The Lord is my shepherd” is to express loyalty, allegiance, and trust in God and God alone. As God is portrayed by the psalmist. It is to be freed from all other attachments and competing claims. It is to be answerable to and to serve God and God alone.

To go back to sheep, if they have more than one shepherd and one tells them to do this and the other tells them to do that, how do they decide? No. “The Lord is my shepherd” eliminates all of that. There is but one authority and allegiance. No division or digression or competition. The “Lord is my shepherd.” I will follow the way of Divine Love.

And when that loyalty is established, that commitment made, to the exclusion of all other potentially ultimate allegiances, how do things unfold? What is that like? To commit exclusively to the reality of God?

Well, as the first verse of the psalm tells us, “I shall not want.” That means we will not be in need. Spiritually or physically. We are led to green pastures, beside still waters, our souls are restored, there is food and drink. Later we are told a table is laid out before us and there is oil. I shall not want. We are provided for – body and soul.

I shall not want. I shall lack nothing. I will only want what I need. This assurance of provision is in direct conflict with the consumer society around us that is dependent on making us feel that we continually need something that we do not have. Our society is based on greed not need. When we live in the reality of God, we disentangle ourselves from all of that. We refocus our desires on what we need and on the needs of others, not on endless perceived, contrived wants. And then we can see the incredible generosity of God and the abundance of the world around us. To choose the reality of God is to choose to live in abundance not want. It is to have no other desires that fall outside the generosity of God. To trust that. I shall not want.

To name God as shepherd, as primary authority and to hold allegiance to Divine Love alone is to live not only without want but also without fear. Yes, there are perils and threats to our safety and well being. There are enemies. There is evil. There is the valley of the shadow of death. Oh yes! But God is with us, God is within us, and we do not need to live in fear. The love of God is our protection and comfort in whatever circumstances we are faced with. Love powers transformation.

There are those who think that churches should be protected with guns and armed security guards in light of recent incidents. I try to appreciate the fear and the threat that leads to such a conclusion, but that is in direct conflict with the way of the shepherd, the God of Love, as well as the embodiment of that love in Jesus. How is shooting your enemies loving them? Only love has the power to transform a situation. Violence just perpetuates division and hatred. It does not heal it.

Here we remember the powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was personally, directly threatened by violence and eventually assassinated:

“Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. . . violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

King also reminds us, “. . . the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. . . . The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.” We can hear the echoes of the twenty-third psalm: “You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

In the recent shooting at the Taiwanese Church in California, apparently the parishioners subdued the gunman, disarmed him, held him down by the neck, and tied him up with an extension cord until the police arrived. Apparently the only words he uttered during the entire horrific encounter were said while they were awaiting police. In an interview, the former pastor of the church, Rev. Billy Chang, tells us, “I knew he was Chinese when he said, ‘I can’t breathe’ in Chinese, probably because someone was holding his neck, and then they loosened up a bit so the gunman could breathe.” [https://www.voanews.com/a/interview-pastor-billy-chang-describes-california-church-shooting/6582258.html ] The church people had disabled the threat, but even though he had killed a doctor in their midst and shot 5 other people, they did not seek to kill him. They sought to stop him from harming others, but they did not seek his death. They were Christian. They were following the shepherd, the one who leads in love.

Those words, ‘I can’t breathe’ bring to mind another incident that ended in a very different way. The people at the Taiwanese church were following the shepherd.

We also want to notice that to choose to have God as our shepherd means that we are part of a flock. We are part of a group, a family, a community. Life in God is communal; it is not rugged individualism. It is not DIY. It is living in God’s house together, devoted to God, and serving God’s family, one another. The intention is that the provision of God comes to us through one another and in this way of relating we find our highest good.

Several years ago I had the delight of going to a dog herding exhibition in the hills of Wisconsin. The whole day was spent watching the dogs herd the sheep. It was amazing. In one display, the dog drove the sheep down a hill as a group. The sheep all had ribbons around the neck – some red, some blue. The dog sorted the sheep into two separate groups, the ones wearing red and the ones wearing blue. Then the dog got the red ones into a pen and shut the gate. And then the dog got the ones with blue ribbons into another pen and shut the gate. Was the dog amazing? Of course! But there was also the cooperation of the sheep. The twenty-third psalm reminds us that we are part of a flock, a community, a group. Meant to live together. It is not an individualistic, solitary image, but one of communal life that includes even enemies.

Now it can look daunting to choose this path even though it promises so much providence and protection and comfort. And all the original hearers had was the psalm and the Hebrew scriptures. But we also have the witness of Jesus to reinforce the beauty of life in God. In the New Testament, we are told of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He embodies the care and comfort and providence of Divine Love. He lives out the promises of God in this psalm for us to see and experience. Still waters. There is the story of the stilling of the storm. Green grass. There is the story of the feeding of the multitudes. And hosting the Last Supper. Who taught that his burden is light? Who charged his followers to love their enemies, neighbors, themselves, and one another? Jesus’ ministry is a testimony to the truth of the psalm. It is a witness to the wonders of life in God. It is an assurance that trust in Divine Love is not misplaced. We have Jesus showing us the alternative life waiting for us in the reality of God.

I read this week about a pastor who was speculating about having to teach an impromptu church school lesson. What story would she choose? What would she share with the children? She knew exactly what she would pick. The story of the lost sheep. The shepherd who leaves the flock to search for one sheep that is lost. The shepherd who is so concerned about the well being of each and every sheep. The shepherd who forgets none of the sheep and leaves none alone in danger. The shepherd who searches out the one separated, lost, in peril. This pastor wanted the children to know they were loved by that kind of a God.

The last line of the psalm is usually read as, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” Well, that word, ‘follow’, is actually a word that means pursue. So the original meaning was that goodness and mercy do not follow us, but pursue us, all the days of our lives. It is an image of the shepherd coming after us, seeking us out, to bless us with goodness and mercy,

Isn’t goodness and mercy what we need in these difficult days? And a table set in the presence of our enemies? God is the good shepherd. Made known to us in Jesus. It is our job to be part of the flock placing our ultimate trust not in money, not in a political ideology, not in nationalism, but solely in the shepherd. Amen.

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