Sermon 11/28/2021

Date: Nov. 28, 2021. First Sunday of Advent
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36
Sermon: Receive the Gift: On the Look Out
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

So, in case you haven’t been paying attention, the world IS falling apart. The roaring of the seas and the waves. Distress among the nations. Those island nations sure had something to say at the UN Climate Change talks in Glasgow. How about the recent flooding? Oh, and the fires? The devastation. And the deadly pathogens. And what about the protests over an unjust justice system? And poverty and need growing while wealth is swelling? It’s unstable. Unsteady. Shaky. There is fear and foreboding about what’s to come. We are in the midst of cataclysmic shifts. Tectonic eruptions.

While I would never suggest that this is God’s plan, that God is behind it all, that this is intended punishment to further God’s ends, there is judgment. There is a reckoning in what is going on. And we see that the gospel of Luke lays out the options for response.

Psychologists tell us that in the face of calamity, of threat, of fear, the human response is either fight or flight. We either get out of the circumstance or we face it full force. We seek a safe haven or we seek to eliminate the threat. The gospel of Luke presents a circumstance of cataclysm, of turmoil, of anguish, and also presents two responses. One response is to hide, to escape, to sleep, to deny. Perhaps a version of flight. To be weighed down with dissipation, and drunkenness and the worries of this life, as Luke puts it. I think we are clear about drunkenness. And the worries of this life. But dissipation? What does that suggest? One scholar tells us that dissipation is the “nausea that follows a debauch.” [New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, p. 346.] OK. And what is a debauch? According to Webster, “an act or occasion of extreme indulgence in sensuality or carnal pleasures.” The second definition is an orgy. So, such an occurrence followed by nausea is dissipation. Are we suffering from dissipation after our over indulgence in fossil fuel consumption? In consumerism? Black Friday, anyone? Perhaps. But Luke lets us know that one response to cataclysm is drunkenness, dissipation, and being weighed down by the worries of this life. And we can see that, especially at this time of the year. There are so many trivialities to engage. So many opportunities for distraction. For indulgence of various kinds. Worrying about the food for the party. Worrying about the dress for the Christmas photo. Worrying about how to get the Christmas tree home. Worrying about the granddaughter studying in Europe who might not be able to come home for Christmas because of the Omicron variant. Worrying about the supply chain issues that might prevent you from getting that perfect gift for someone. Worrying about the concert you won’t go to because of covid. Worrying about the problems with the mail and your Christmas cards and packages getting delivered. We could go on and on and on and on with the distractions and worries of this season. And there may be plenty of parties offering the opportunity for drunkenness. Numb the pain. Ease the grief. Sweeten the memories. And then there’s dissipation. Some days, it’s all we can do to get out of bed.

But the gospel of Luke presents another response to cataclysm, to turmoil, to the breaking and shaking and quaking of the very world under our feet. Stay alert. Awake. Stand up. Straight. Raise your head. Keep watch. Pray. Pay attention. Be on the lookout. For the activity of God. Because where there is trouble, where there is pain and heartache, where things are falling apart, where there is strife, that is where the love of God is sure to be breaking in. With comfort and justice.

And we never know what form the presence of God will take. We don’t know how redemption will come. It may be in ways that are small and seemingly insignificant. Easy to be missed. It may be through some huge shift. A huge transformation. The Bible tells us of the presence and workings of Divine Love in everything from an enormous flood, to a burning bush, to a cross, to silence. This is a way of letting us know that we cannot predict or limit the workings of Love in the world. We are urged to stay alert because we may be surprised, we may be taken aback, by the ways of restoration and redemption. But it happens. Whether we notice or not. You see Advent is a season of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The birth has already taken place. It has already happened. Divine Love is present in the world. The process of redemption has begun. It is already happening. Advent reminds us to be awake, alert, and watchful so that we don’t miss it. So that we see that Divine Love is breaking into our reality. The transformation is happening. It’s not just about the future. It is not just what will happen. It is about what has happened and what is happening right now. If we are focussed on waiting for something in the random future, we may be missing what is happening right now. Right now Divine Love is invading our world, spreading like a virus, fomenting new life. Not just 2000 years ago. Not in the illusory future. But right here. Right now. Because things are falling apart.

These darkening days make us want to turn in early, cozy up under the covers. Or snuggle in with a screen. But we are warned – stay alert. Awake. Vigilant. Be immersed in prayer, community, worship, generosity, and justice. And stay wary. Everything we hope for or dream of is here, waiting for us, unfolding around us – if we have eyes to see. If we pay attention.

Luke presents two very clear alternatives – distraction or engagement.

We must not be afraid of the chaos and turmoil around us. That will not keep God, Divine Love, away from us. That will not separate us from God. It is may be that in turmoil, pain, suffering, in injustice, we find God is, perhaps most intensely, with us. It’s the darkness that makes us crave the light. And the light has come and darkness has not overcome it.

This Advent, be present. Watch. Look. Listen. Pay attention. Immerse yourself in the spiritual disciplines that keep you centered. So many distractions, so many worries, can consume us. Trap us, Luke says. Trap us. And keep us from experiencing the very thing we need – connection to Divine Love, experience of the presence of God, engagement with the Sacred.

Advent. It starts not with Black Friday, but with our choice in the face of the horrors and devastation around us. Will we hide? Become consumed with worry? Escape in self indulgence? Let ourselves be trapped? Or will we stand up? Straight and tall. Awake. Alert. To what God is doing. And how we are needed. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us – are we paying attention?

We close with the poem, ‘The whole earth’s a waiting room’ by Joseph T. Nolan:

We wait — all day long,
for planes and buses,
for dates and appointments,
for five o’clock and Friday.

Some of us wait for a Second Coming.
For God in a whirlwind.
Paratrooper Christ.

All around us people are waiting:
a child, for attention;
a spouse, for conversation;
a parent, for a letter or call.

The prisoner waits for freedom;
and the exile, to come home.
The hungry, for food;
and the lonely, for a friend.

The whole earth’s a waiting room!
“The Savior will see you now”
is what we expect to hear at the end.

Maybe we should raise our expectations.
The Savior might see us now
if we know how to find him.
Could it be that Jesus, too, is waiting
for us to know he is around?

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 11/21/2021

Date: Nov. 21, 2021 Thanksgiving Sunday
Scripture Lesson: I Timothy 2:1-4
Sermon: Aspirational Gratitude
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Quiet, peaceful lives. Isn’t that what most of us want? To be able to go about our business; enjoy our friends and family, enjoy nature, enjoy the arts, go to school, go to work, go to church, walk the dog. Peaceful, quiet lives.

The writer of Timothy urges us to pray for our civic leaders so that they create a society in which we can live godly and reverent lives in peace and quiet. Intercessions and thanksgivings are to be offered for the quiet and peaceful life.

I love that. Doesn’t that sentiment resonate with you especially as the ‘noise’ has notched up in our society. The noise of lies, fake news, police violence, insurrection, social media, unjust verdicts, and the travails of the planet? Godly and reverent lives in peace and quiet. I like that image. Take a deep breath. Feel the relief.

But if you keep reading on just a few verses later in the first letter to Timothy, you find:

“I also want women to dress modestly and decently, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes. Their adornment should be the good works that are proper for women who profess to be religious. Women are to be quiet and completely submissive during religious instruction. I don’t permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must remain silent. After all, Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived — it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through child-bearing — provided they continue in faith, love and holiness, with propriety.”

OK. How can you ever get a godly and reverent life in peace and quiet when you denigrate, degrade, and debase half of the population? And you ground the teaching in a false understanding of an ancient myth? Really? And are men going to be counseled in how to dress? Are they going to held to account for the actions of the male figures of the Hebrew scriptures? Of course not. Guess what, writer of Timothy, forcing women into submissive complacency is NEVER going to get you a life of peace and quiet and it shouldn’t.

You can’t have a society of peace and quiet when a segment of the population is being stepped on and held down for the benefit of another segment of population. That kind of arrangement does not get you peace and quiet. Godly and reverent peace and quiet can never be based on oppression, on injustice, on degradation, on abuse. Never.

Now I am thinking about the Thanksgiving holiday. We are given this image of the Pilgrims and the Native peoples feasting and celebrating together for days after the Natives saved the lives of the European colonizers. It’s an image of godly reverence that has led to peace and quiet among the groups. And we, in the UCC have perpetuated this image because the Pilgrims are our forbears in this denomination.

But that is not all there is to the story. The Pilgrims also paid cash for the dead bodies of indigenous people – men, women, and yes, children. The government, which, according to Timothy, is supposed to create conditions for godly and reverent lives lived in peace and quiet, set about to achieve this by putting a price on the heads of the people who had been living on that land for over 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived. In today’s dollars, they paid the equivalent of $12,000 for the scalp of a native man, $6,000 for the scalp of a woman, and less for a child. So, how is that going to lead to a peaceful and quiet life? It shouldn’t. How is that godly and reverent? It isn’t.

And the legacy of those government policies, enacted by the Pilgrims and others, continues to impact our society today, and so we still do not have peace and quiet. A recent article entitled “New England once hunted and killed humans for money” tells us:

“Of course, those deadly bounties were only one of the tools deployed by the European settlers to make this land theirs. The legacy of those wrongs manifest today in a range of forms: the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; the fact that Indigenous people have the highest rate of death at the hands of police, the highest suicide rate among veterans, a disproportionate rate of death from Covid-19, and the highest incarceration rates in the US; continued violations of Indigenous sovereignty by state and federal authorities and private extractive industries; the continued use of Indian mascots; and the celebration of national holidays, like Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, that dishonor Native peoples.” [“New England once hunted and killed humans for money. We’re descendants of the survivors,” Dawn Neptune Adams, Maulian Dana with Adam Mazo, The Guardian, 11:19 UTC Monday, 15 November 2021]

Just like the patriarchy promoted by the writer of Timothy is not going to result in peaceful quiet lives, so the racism perpetrated by those who came to these shores from Europe and its continued legacy is not going to lead to peaceful quiet lives. Nor should it.

And a great irony is that these Europeans who came to these shores did so to get away from tyranny and religious oppression and were seeking freedom. Then they imposed the very same conditions on those who were already living here.

So I am thinking about how we get to that godly and reverent life of peace and quiet. What drives the oppression that prevents peace and quiet? That promotes violence, ungodly disrespect and irreverence? Over inflated ego? Greed? Desire for power and control? Pride? Fear? A superiority complex? Insecurity? All of these things and many more influence the people of a society to behave in the ways they do. But oppression is always about benefiting someone. People don’t subdue others, degrade others, demean others unless they are getting something out of it. Someone is benefitting. Someone want or needs something and this kind of degradation is supplying it. The letter of Timothy advises the subjugation of women because the writer believes this has some advantage to men. The Pilgrims decimated the original peoples because it had an advantage for them. They could take the land and set up their society unimpeded. Injustice, oppression, degradation, is always about benefitting someone. Someone, a group, wants something and they will do what they have to do to get it.

This kind of approach is perpetuated by the economic culture that has been created in this country. We are embedded in an economy that works by creating desires in the consumer population – us. It is fueled by convincing us that there is something we need, we want, that we don’t have. We are always being messaged about what we don’t have and what we should want. And how are we going to get it? So we are put in a continuous state of dis-ease. Then there is political messaging from civic leaders that takes over to tell us why we don’t have it. Someone is preventing us from having it – someone is taking our job, getting our due, some is taking something away from us, and we need to fight to get it. And usually that someone doesn’t look like us – whoever ‘us’ may be. That’s not peace and quiet from the sphere of governmental leaders by any means. In fact, it is the inciting of hostility, division, and rancor.

Now, it’s Thanksgiving. And I am thinking that the spiritual discipline of gratitude may be something that could function as an antidote to this kind of abusive society that does not lead to peace and quiet but just the opposite. I am thinking that if people dedicate themselves to seeing what is good, to seeing the many gifts of life, to appreciating what they have, to being satisfied with enough, then maybe it could help stop this systemic abuse that is based on getting something at the expense of others; at having something even on the backs of someone else.

Maybe gratitude tempers greed. Maybe if we pinch ourselves each morning at the miracle of being alive, we won’t feel we have to get something even when it hurts someone else. Maybe if we can see all that we are being given, purely given, each and every day, we won’t feel the need to harm someone to get something. We won’t need someone beneath us.

Maybe we can cultivate gratitude for all the different kinds of people who now live on this continent. The richness of cultures and perspectives that make the society better. This can include the Original peoples, and the ancestors of slaves, and all of the immigrants who have come here. Maybe we see the good in this – in the foods and languages and customs and religions and knowledge that are making this country stronger and better. By cultivating gratitude, maybe we can take a step closer to the peace and quiet Timothy talks about.

With all we have to be grateful for, maybe we don’t have to take advantage of others and abuse the Earth. Maybe we can think about actually feasting and celebrating with the people who have lived on this land for thousands of years. Living in harmony and dignity and respect. Actually all living in peace and quiet — together. Maybe our image of thanksgiving should not be looking back at something that never really was but looking ahead to creating that kind of reality. Can we look back and see what really has taken place, see the truths of the past, and take responsibility for creating a different future? Maybe thanksgiving and the process of being grateful can help us to create a different future. A future in which people live godly and reverent lives in peace and quiet. Happy Thanksgiving! 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 11.14.2021

Date: Nov. 14, 2021
Scripture Lesson: 2 Timothy 1:5-7, 14
Sermon: Receive the Gift!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Thanks to the wonderful recommendations of good reads in the LUCC monthly Book Talk, I have recently read The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline. If you want to know more, you can ask Kay about it. In the book, which takes place in the mid 1800’s, one character, Mathinna, is a native person from an island near Australia. Her people are being forcibly removed and relocated and their land seized by the British. That should sound familiar. Mathinna is taken on by the wife of the governor as an experiment in trying to civilize a native.

When the girl arrives at the governor’s house, she is wearing beads that were strung for her by her mother who is now dead. Her father is dead as well. So is her sister. And she has been taken from her step father, from her home, from her land, her people and her culture. All she has left of her life, her self, her past, her heritage is wrapped up in her beads. A gift from her beloved mother. Three strands strung from vivid green mariner shells the size of baby’s teeth. When her mother gave her the beads, she told Mathinna, “Every person you’ve ever cared about, and every place you’ve ever loved, is one of these shells. You’re the thread that ties them together. You carry the people and places you cherish with you. Remember that and you will never be lonely, child.” [pp. 81 82]

When Mathinna gets to the governor’s home, she is relieved of her native possessions. The beads are put into a curio case with other objects collected by the governor’s wife including the skulls of native people. Her mother? Her father? Her sister? Mathinna is taught to read and write. She is fluent in English and French. She is capable in mathematics.

Later in the story, Mathinna is dismissed from the governor’s household, the experiment abandoned. Hazel, a maid on work release from the prison, knows some of Mathinna’s story. Hazel has taken the beads out of the curio cabinet, while dusting perhaps, and she puts them in Mathinna’s pocket as Mathinna is sent away from the governor’s compound. Later in the book, the maid, Hazel, and Mathinna meet at the market. Hazel has her daughter, Ruby, with her. And Mathinna gives one string of the beads to Ruby, telling her, “I watched my mother make this. She used a wallaby tooth to prick these tiny holes, then rubbed the shells with muttonbird oil to make them shiny. . . Just imagine you’re the thread, and the people you love are these shells. And then they’ll always be with you.” [p. 321]

These precious beads are threaded through the book. A gift. Of belonging. Of identity. Of dignity. Of connection. Of beauty. Of love. Something that isn’t recognized by the so-called civilized people in the story but can be seen by the natives, the convicts, the servants. The beads are a gift of significant meaning to be worn, regarded, remembered, honored, cherished, enjoyed. Threaded with love from shells carefully attached and woven together. Like the relationships of meaning in our lives.

So this is the time of year that we reflect, give thanks, remember, in different ways in different settings of our lives including the church. In the church, it’s also stewardship season, a time to think about what the church has meant in our lives and how the church has been a gift to us.

We’ve heard some wonderful testimony about how the church has been a gift. One person credits the church with helping her to clarify her thinking. With all the inputs we get these days and with so much media access, think of how important that is. The church helps to clarify our thinking.

One family in the church explains how it was through the church that they got their family, their friends, and their house. What a gift this faith community has been in their lives!

One member of the church who made a career change from the business world to social service attributes the decision to the church.

I know for many of you this church was an anchor during the last presidential administration, a time when many were reeling and in despair. It was a haven of sanity and hope.

The church has been a source of solace to church members who are dying and those who are grieving giving peace and assurance.

Recently, people have commented about how the church has helped them to get through the covid pandemic. It has been a lifeline of support and connection.

There are so many ways that this church is a gift in our lives.

People in the congregation were given the opportunity to share how the
church has been a gift in their lives. . .

I have been reflecting on this idea – how has LUCC been a gift in my life. I could go on for days about it, but to be brief – I am continually inspired by the people who are part of this faith community. You. By your outlook, strength, commitment to justice, grace in aging, the forgiveness, the life experiences shared. The generosity, the caring, the compassion, the love. The diverse interests. The honesty. And so much more. But I find myself continually inspired by the people of this church family. What a gift!!

I also feel that we receive the gift of theological freedom at this church. Many clergy feel hemmed in by what they can and can’t say to their congregations – maybe because of social norms, or theological assumptions, or political affiliations, or tradition. I do not feel that restriction here and that is a true gift. I don’t have to hem in what I say about the values and witness of the ministry of Jesus and how it relates to the situation we are in today. In many churches, in fact, I would say, in most churches, that is not the case.

Recently I heard about a church in which two retired doctors run a clinic offering medical care to those who don’t have money to pay for healthcare. It is wonderful that there is concern for those who don’t have healthcare. But does the church challenge members to support efforts to change the healthcare system so that everyone has access to care? And what about questioning an economic system, a healthcare system, a political system, a value system, that creates millionaire doctors while many people do not have access to needed healthcare? Oh no. That kind of observation is not welcome in most churches even though it is completely in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus. Here at LUCC, I feel like we can ask those questions. We can challenge those systems.

This relates to another gift of this church – the commitment to justice, to the unconditional worth of each and every person and of the Earth. You don’t find that kind of commitment in many circles, but it is certainly here and it is a gift.

So for me, the gifts I am most appreciative of at LUCC are the people, the intellectual and theological freedom, and the commitment to justice. I feel like LUCC is a growing medium, like soil, in which we can grow and thrive and bear fruit. We are being cultivated to live out the love, justice and compassion that we find in the ministry of Jesus. In this community, in the the rituals and the theology, we find spiritual support for life’s journey as we seek to do good in the world.

In the verses we heard from Timothy, this church leader is being given encouragement because it is needed. He, too, is in a setting in which gospel values are not dominant, not readily accepted. In fact, the wider culture can even be seen as hostile to the way of Jesus. We know what that is like. And it takes its toll. It is easy to lose heart. But the writer reminds Timothy, that faith has been given to him as a gift by those who have come before him. And he is to fan the flame of that gift, keep it lively and strong. We, too, need support to maintain our faith. To stay strong in the way of Jesus. Especially given the world around us.

To follow Jesus, to be a person of faith, means living in a reality that is fundamentally different from the world around us. We live in a society that is hostile to the values of justice, equity, compassion, and care for the Earth. All of that takes a backseat to market driven capitalism which is based on ownership of private property, consumption, the monetization of labor, and the extractive economy. Capitalism prioritizes individual rights to wealth over community needs.

This is in drastic contrast to the reality of Christianity which begins with the concept of gift. Creation – a gift. Life – a gift. Loving relationships – a gift. Skills and talents -gifts. Jesus – a gift. Divine Love – a gift. OUR reality starts with what we are given. And we go on to what we do with those gifts. But we start with what we are given.

The society around us starts with what you own, what you have, what you have earned, or made, or done. From that comes what is deserved. What one is entitled to. The value of a person is based on what they have acquired. It’s all dependent, supposedly, on the individual.

This is fundamentally different from starting with what one has been given. With faith, it all starts with the generosity of God and what we have been given, entrusted with. And then cultivating generosity and community based on what has been given. Sharing the gifts. Distributing the gifts. This is the way of Jesus.

The church reminds us of the gifts that we are receiving – the gifts of faith, of life, of access to resources, of relationships, of love. And then encourages us to find life and joy in sharing and living with generosity. The church has been given to us, thanks to those who have gone before us – our mothers and grandmothers, our forbears, Timothy, Jesus, and the ancestors of the Jewish faith. All of it given to us to enrich our lives, to make us whole, to heal the world.

Now, what do we do with a gift? Well, if it is a white elephant from some kind of crazy gift exchange, it might sit on the back of a shelf in a dark closet. Ignored. Neglected. Until it is donated to a thrift store. Or recycled. Or pitched. We can all probably think of things like that. If it’s something really monetarily valuable that we don’t want, well, that’s more complicated.

In contrast, think of a gift that we cherish. Like Mathinna’s beads. Something important to us because of the giver, of the meaning of the gift, or the importance of the thing itself to us. If it is a significant gift in some way, then, we wear it, we use it, we care for it, we maintain it, we tend to it, we share it, we enjoy it, we put it in a place of honor. With a gift that is cherished, that is meaningful to us, we take care of it.

Can you think of a gift like that? Something really significant to you?

Well, we are here because Lakewood United Church of Christ is a gift in our lives. It has been given to us. The church undergirds our reality. Grounds us in love not consumption or ownership or greed. It fosters the importance of service, compassion, and generosity for our well being and for the good of the world. It extricates us from the glorification of wealth and the monetizing of the value of a human being that imbues the society around us. In this church we find reverence for creation and appreciation for the gift of nature. Here we find friends, community, social and spiritual support. In so many ways, this church is a gift. It has been provided for us by those who have gone before us. Thanks to their faithfulness and generosity, this faith community is here for us. And, as with a precious gift, it is now for us to express our gratitude by being guardians of this congregation so that it can be a gift to generations to come. We are the guardians of this “rich deposit of faith” as Timothy puts it. We are entrusted with sustaining the church through our involvement, through relationships, through participation and service, and with our financial contributions. You may even find that the church has far more value and meaning to you as you increase your connectedness to the church.

Like the beads so precious to Mathinna, the church is a gift in our lives reminding us that we are loved, that we belong, that we are connected, that we are part of a community of caring and meaning.

The church is truly a gift in our lives that helps us not only to see the many other gifts of our lives, but that offers us a reality based in gift and gratitude and generosity. As Timothy puts it this gift we are given not a gift characterized by timidity. No. It is a gift of power, of love, and of self discipline. A rich deposit of faith given to us. May we receive and cherish the gift. And may we reflect the generosity of the Giver. 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 11.7.21

Date: Nov. 7, 2021
Scripture Lessons: Job 12:7-8 and Luke 19:28-40
Sermon: For ALL the Saints!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Famed naturalist John Muir is remembered for his devotion to nature and for founding the Sierra Club to protect natural lands but Muir was also an adept engineer and inventor. In 1867 he had an industrial accident which led to his being blinded. He had secured work in a carriage factory. As he was repairing a circular saw, a file slipped and pierced his right eye. When he realized that he could no longer see from his right eye, his first reaction was to murmur, “My right eye is gone, closed forever on all God’s beauty.” It’s almost as if Muir believed he had been given his eyes purely for that purpose – to witness the presence and glory and mystery of God in the beauty of the natural world. After the accident injuring the eye, his other eye failed as well, and then after a long period of recuperation, he regained his sight in both eyes and he was able to give us the vivid descriptions of nature as his legacy. [From The Wild Muir: Twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures, selected and introduced by Lee Stetson, pp. 21-24.]

“Open your eyes, and behold, the whole world is full of God.” These words of Jacob Boehme, a seventeenth century German shoemaker and philosopher, certainly describe the life of naturalist John Muir, whether he knew them or not! Muir saw God constantly in the beauty and mystery and order of the natural world. While Muir’s father was an extremely devout Christian and sought to impose faith on his family through hard work, discipline, and punishment meant to ward off evil, his son, John Muir, spent his life taking delight in the divine revelations of nature. We see this religious devotion to nature in the way Muir writes about what he sees and experiences. In addition to continual biblical allusions, Muir very often personifies nature. Nature is not simply an ‘it,’ an objective thing. It is a living presence and he is in relationship with nature.

We see how Muir experienced this in a letter he wrote to a friend after spending some time in the city of San Francisco:

“When I reached Yosemite, all the rocks seemed talkative, and more telling and lovable than ever. They are dear friends, and seemed to have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh; and I love them with a love intensified by long and close companionship. After I had bathed in the bright river, sauntered over the meadows, conversed with the domes, and played with the pines, I still felt blurred and weary as if tainted in some way with the sky of your streets. I determined, therefore, to run out for a while to say my prayers in the higher mountain temples . . .” [The Wild Muir, p. 100.]

Muir found God in nature and he felt that he was part of the community of nature. His language of personification was not purely romanticism but was part of the expression of his theology – that creation was a community, a divine community, all of it, and that he and humanity were part of that community. His perspective reflects that of Genesis in the Bible.

Here’s an example of this idea of community from Muir in a description of the need for living things to seek protection in winter:

“The first of the great snow-storms that replenish the Yosemite fountains seldom sets in before the end of November. Then, warned by the sky, wide-awake mountaineers, together with the deer and most of the birds, make haste to the lowlands or foothills; and burrowing marmots, mountain beavers, wood-rats, and other small mountain people, go into winter quarters, some of them not again to see the light of day until the general awakening and resurrection of the spring in June or July.” [The Wild Muir, p.61.]

A marmot is a chubby rodent with the buck teeth of a beaver and without the tail plumage of a squirrel. And Muir, lovingly, fondly, refers to them among the small mountain people that hibernate in the Yosemite each winter. Mountain climbers and rodents alike must protect themselves from winter. All are part of a community of beings seeking the same goal – a way to survive the winter. Muir sees nature as one glorious whole revealing the presence of God.

What Muir shows us is what the Bible tells us, creation, nature, is the self-
expression of God. A manifestation of divine creativity. Nature unrestrainedly offering its praise to God, to the life force, the Creator. In Psalm 148, we are told:

“Praise Our God from the earth,
you sea creatures and ocean depths,
lightening and hail, snow and mist,
and storm winds that fulfill God’s word,
mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
small animals and flying birds,
rulers of the earth, leaders of all nations,
all the judges in the world,
young men and young women,
old people and children –
let them all praise the name of Our God
whose Name alone is exalted,
whose majesty transcends heaven and earth. . .”
[Psalm 148:7-13]

And in the gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus portrays the rocks glorifying God. All of creation is a symphony of praise.

Muir’s vivid depictions of nature exhibit the same exaltation, nature praising God, and humanity part of the chorus. Muir shows us that nature is offered by Divine Love as a blessing and a gift. And humanity is part of this cosmic expression and a recipient of the gift.

In general, I am not a fan of anthropomorphizing – of God, of animals, of cars, of ships, etc. The anthropomorphizing of a machine, a car, seems to elevate a collection of metal and plastic by imbuing it with the life force which it does not have. So that seems a false elevation of the machine and a devaluation of the sacred life force. And I think the anthropomorphizing of God has another host of problems. It seems to bring God down to our level, diminish God, limit and restrict God to human conceptions. What I like about the anthropomorphizing of nature, as we see it in the Bible and in Muir, among other places, is that it honors the life force contained in nature, it elevates nature, and it emphasizes the relationship between humans and nature as part of a whole that is imbued with God, with divinity, with the sacred.

In Genesis, humanity is tasked with caring for creation. We are to be curators of God’s masterpiece. Stewards of this gift. While the Hebrew is often translated as dominion, I think a better translation might be guardianship. We have been given guardianship over creation. We are to see that it is protected and cared for as a child without a parental figure. The state appoints a guardian to see that the child is protected and provided for. We are to be guardians of creation. And the anthropomorphizing of the natural world, while maybe sentimentally romantic is also a way of expressing relationship and care and respect for nature. It can be seen as a way of honoring creation.

Certainly John Muir would not desecrate creation or nature in any way. After all, the natural world is full of God. Those who read the Cathedral on Fire [Cathedral on Fire: a church handbook for the climate crisis, by Brooks Berndt] book for the Creation Justice book discussion may have noticed that Muir is cited in the first edition and then there is a corrective offered in the second edition. Apparently, Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, has been labeled racist and is now to be treated with circumspection. Well, I would like to know who in this room is not racist, does not have some attitudes that are a result of racism? Aren’t we all in some measure racist? Living in this society it is almost impossible not to internalize racist attitudes. Muir was also known as an egalitarian. [A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, Donald Worster, p. 5.] He was known for interacting with respect with whomever he met on his endless sojourns in the natural world. His fierce defense of natural land, and his desire to see that there was land protected from human habitation and development, meant that he thought that original peoples should also be removed from some lands so that those lands might remain pristine. It wasn’t that he wanted to hurt or punish the native peoples but that he wanted to protect the land. While this may be deemed insensitive and racist, it also shows that Muir was including the original peoples with all humanity, including the European invaders/colonizers that took over North America. All were human. And Muir wanted to see some lands protected from human influence. Period. Even from the original human inhabitants of the land. Is that racist? Or egalitarian? We don’t need to answer that, but we do need to take seriously the responsibility to be guardians of the earth and all that is therein.

This past summer, the United Church of Christ General Synod which meets every two years with representatives from all of the conferences met virtually. And among the many initiatives and pronouncements was the passage of a resolution in support of the rights of nature: “‘Who will speak for the Trees?’ A Resolution on the Rights of Nature.” It begins with a quote from environmentalist Aldo Leopold: “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

The resolution calls for a long needed reconfiguration of the relationship between the human species and the earth, people and nature. People have traditionally seen nature as an object, a commodity, property under human control, thus vulnerable to exploitation. The resolution calls for the view of nature as the self disclosure of God, as an expression of the Divine. Nature is to be respected and treated with reverence. This leads to a relationship of interconnectedness, human rights and environmental rights co-related. Our legal system recognizes a corporation as a person with rights. The rights of nature movement is working to give rights to nature, as to another living being. In Florida, there is an effort to see that the the Caloosahatchee River is given rights and is legally protected. The rights of nature movement comes from South America where there are efforts to respect the rights of the land, the mountains, and the waters. In a way, this is an extension of the personification of nature that we see in Muir and in other naturalists who are intent on the protection of nature from exploitation by human beings. And Muir was not just a tree hugger. He had lived in an industrial city in Scotland and then moved to a farm in Wisconsin. He had walked the states of the south and stayed in cities and towns across the land. He was an engineer. He was mechanically minded and trained. He was an inventor. He wasn’t against humanity. He was for the protection of nature. He saw the need for nature to have an advocate. He was trying to change the mindset of people before the damage was irreparable. And his legacy lives on in the Sierra Club and in countless other environmental organizations, maybe we can even say, including the church!

Muir and Rev. S. Hall Young, a Presbyterian minister, formed a friendship and engaged in many a wilderness adventure together. In an account of an outing with Muir, Rev. Hall tells of Muir seeing a host of wildflowers unexpected in the northern Alaska setting:

“Muir at once went wild when we reached this fairyland. From cluster to cluster of flowers he ran, falling on his knees, babbling in unknown tongues, prattling a curious mixture of scientific lingo and baby talk, worshiping his little blue and- pink goddesses.

‘Ah! my blue-eyed darlin’, little did I think to see you here. How did you stray away from Shasta?’

‘Well, well! Who’d ‘a’ thought that you’d have left that niche in the Merced mountains to come here!’

‘And who might you be, now, with your wonder look? Is it possible that you can be (two Latin Polysyllables)? You’re lost, my dear; you belong in Tennessee.’

‘Ah! I thought I’d find you, my homely little sweetheart,’ and so on unceasingly.”

Rev. Hall observes, “So absorbed was he [Muir] in this amatory botany that he seemed to forget my existence.” [The Wild Muir, pp. 153-154.]

This Sunday is All Saints Sunday. And we remember those whom we name as saints. We think of these as people who have in some way shown us a glimpse of God, in who they are, in what they have taught us, in ourselves. We think of saints as those who reveal God to us in some way. Those who embody the sacred and convey that to us. But as the Bible shows us, and we see it reflected in the writings of John Muir, God is also being revealed to us in the natural world.

So, this All Saints Sunday, I am inviting us to consider doing some of our own personification of nature. All Saints is a time to honor those in whom we see a glimpse of God. Saints are people who let that divine love shine. In the spirit of Muir, I invite us to name among our saints those animals, maybe pets, those waters, those woods and trees, those places in nature in which we have glimpsed God. Maybe there is a plant, a flower, a configuration of the night sky, or some other manifestation in nature that has connected you to the Divine, to the sacred, in yourself, in others, or in the world around us. Maybe there is natural phenomenon that has soothed your soul. Or that has knocked you flat with power and awe. Something that has made manifest the mystery and grandeur at the heart of life.

So, this All Saints Sunday, knowing the dire state of the world around us, knowing that we are responsible for the frail state of the Earth, let us pursue health and healing for ourselves and the environment, by honoring the Divine, the sacredness of all of creation, human and non human elements alike. 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 10.3.2021

Date: Oct. 3, 2021 World Communion Sunday
Scripture Lesson: Job 1:1-3, 2:1-13
Sermon: The Integrity of Job
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

So, what do Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela all have in common?

Yes, they are all Spanish-speaking countries, which we are honoring this National Hispanic Heritage month in the US. But there is something else that these countries have in common. The people in all of these countries have known suffering and not just as a result of the process of colonization and exploitation.

Indeed, people in every country, in every region, in every community, in the world suffer. The experience of suffering, in some form, is universal.

Everyone suffers. Regardless of language, ethnicity, circumstances, income, age, sexual identity, lifestyle, or education, everyone experiences suffering. Whether you are Pentecostal, or evangelical, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Mainline Protestant, or fundamentalist, you know suffering. Whether you are Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Wiccan, animist, or Unitarian/Universalist, suffering is part of your life experience. Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Independents, all experience suffering. People from countries that are communist, socialist, monarchist, dictatorships, and representative democracies, all experience suffering. Omnivores, carnivores, vegetarians, vegans, and pescatarians, all experience suffering. Teachers, doctors, tech ceos, mechanics, servers, clerks, managers, truck drivers, engineers, social workers, politicians, and farmers, all experience suffering.

Everyone suffers. Each of us in the human family suffers. We experience the disorientation, the numbness, the anger, the helplessness, the obsession, the distraction, the pain, the outrage, the desolation, the sorrow, the misery, the disappointment, and the grief, of suffering.

This World Communion Sunday, while we are joined in faith with Christians around the world, we realize that we are in very different circumstances. Some will observe communion in open air services with drums playing. Some will eat the bread and cup in a gorgeous, ancient cathedral drenched in the colored light of stained glass. The liturgy will be in different languages. The customs and prayers will be different. But all who observe this World Communion Sunday will come to the table having experienced suffering of some kind. We all suffer. And as Christians, we follow a Savior who personally experienced some of the worst suffering imaginable — and not only physical. Jesus also suffered injustice, being wrongly accused and punished, being misunderstood, being betrayed and deserted by his friends. Our faith is centered in a suffering servant. There is comfort in that solidarity. A knowing that God, however we may perceive God, knows suffering. Whatever the religion, religion is about understanding, making sense of, navigating, accounting for, and lessening or healing the experience of suffering.

I recently read that the failed Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando has been sold for $32 million. Apparently, the theme park was originally founded by Marvin Rosenthal, who was raised Jewish and became a traditional Baptist minister, to educate Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith. The property was then sold to Trinity Broadcasting Network. A spokesperson for AdventHealth, connected to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, said the property would be redeveloped to bring health-care services to the community. So, this property will continue to be an expression of faith, only now it will deal directly with suffering and with offering healing to the community, a key component of Christian witness and of religious expression. The site will doubtless do more good as a healthcare facility than it did as a theme park! [The Christian Century, 8.9.21, p. 8]

We all suffer. We all know pain and sorrow. And religion is intended to help us through it. While the book of Job shows us a kind of schoolyard contest between God and the accuser, Satan, as the source of devastation in the life of Job, we know that suffering comes from many sources in this life.

We suffer at the hands of society, and policies and prejudices that create victims. We suffer at the hands of authorities who abuse their power. We suffer in our families and schools, and from peers and social media. Sometimes we suffer at the hands of the medical profession. We suffer because of the treatment by others.

We suffer due to circumstances well beyond our control – like natural disasters, storms, fire, lightening strikes, floods, tidal waves, and countless other occurrences that lead to harm that are morally neutral and did not involve human choice. And there are accidents, pure and simple, things that no one intended or could have predicted or knew to prevent, that lead to suffering and even death.

And we certainly bring suffering upon ourselves – with decisions and actions and choices that lead us to experience pain, regret, guilt, and shame. We make health choices that contribute to physical suffering. We bear the responsibility of being part of a society that inflicts suffering. And now this includes our complicity in global climate change and the suffering that is causing. Our attitudes and expectations can bring suffering upon us. So, while Job is presented as a completely innocent victim, we know that we often contribute to the suffering we experience in our own lives and we can be associated with inflicting suffering; it does not only come from outside sources.

And the path of life inevitably brings suffering because it ends in death. We die. Those we love die. And that process is difficult because life is so precious. Really the only way to go through life without suffering is to live without love of any kind in your life, and that may just be a living death. So suffering is inevitable part of life. It comes with being alive. As Job puts it, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; God gave, and God has taken away; blessed by the name of God.” [1:21]

In his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner cites this story:

“There is an old Chinese tale about the woman whose only son had died. In her grief, she went to the holy man and said, ‘What prayers, what magical incantations do you have to bring my son back to life?’ Instead of sending her away or reasoning with her, he said to her, ‘Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.’ The woman set off at once in search of that magical mustard seed. She came first to a splendid mansion, knocked at the door and said, ‘I am looking for a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? It is very important to me.’ They told her ‘You’ve certainly come to the wrong place,’ and began to describe all the tragic things that had recently befallen them. The woman said to herself, ‘Who is better able to help these poor unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own?’ She stayed to comfort them, then went on in her search for a home that had never known sorrow. But wherever she turned, hovels and in palaces, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune. Ultimately, she became so involved in ministering to other people’s grief that she forgot about her quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that it had in fact driven the sorrow out of her life.”

Yes, we all suffer. And we all seek to find relief or redemption from the experience of suffering.

And that shared experience can bring us together. It can help us to be aware of our common bond with others of our species, in solidarity, in community. Talk with people who have faced some kind of disaster together – like a hurricane or a flood. There is a bond there – we have been through this together. We see this with people who have been in the armed services together and faced danger and hardship.

When we hear of the sufferings of others, it touches our hearts, we understand, we feel sympathy and perhaps empathy. In this pandemic, we have seen beautiful bonds formed among people who have lost a loved one to covid. We have seen solidarity among workers who have faced challenges during covid, especially in the healthcare field. We have seen solidarity in dealing with the restrictions and deprivations necessary to get rid of covid. We have seen people help each other and reach out to their neighbors.

And covid has helped us to see another response to suffering – anger, hostility, selfishness, competition, rudeness, and lack of sympathy. We have seen horrible displays of inconsiderate, dangerous, self-centered behavior – from the refusal to wear a mask, to physically attacking airline personnel, to hoarding of basic goods, to the deceitful undermining of the main tool we have to use against the virus – the vaccine.

Our current situation shows us that we can choose whether suffering brings out compassion and understanding or whether it brings out hostility and selfishness.

We also find that just like suffering can bring us together in common recognition of our humanity and our pain, it can also bring us closer to God, or Spirit, or Divine Love, or however we talk about those inner resources of light and strength and resilience and perseverance. Suffering, pain, challenge, and distress, can open the door for us to rely on our spiritual resources with greater need and trust. We can become more deeply rooted in the promises of our faith.

Suffering and facing vicissitudes can lead us to experience deep love in new ways – love for ourselves, for others, and for God, however we understand God.

This is what we see in the case of Job. He was faithful at the beginning of the story. And he defends his integrity throughout the whole story. But he does not remain unchanged. The story includes an encounter between Job and God. Job is finally getting his much desired ‘day in court’ with God, where he can ask why he has been handed such an awful lot when he has stayed true to God all along. And what Job discovers is that, well, he just didn’t know what there was to know about God. He was faithful and devoted, but he didn’t realize how much more there was to God. More of the mystery of God is revealed to him in his encounter with God. He doesn’t get an explanation for his condition, his situation, but he experiences God more fully and he is in awe. At the end of the book, Job confesses to God:

“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
. . .
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not
know.

. . .
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” [42:1-6]

Job’s experience expands his understanding and conception of God. Job is transformed. His faith is deepened. The connection between faithfulness and good fortune is severed, as it should be. But Job’s connection to God and his devotion grow stronger.

Job does not choose to follow the counsel of his wife, “Curse God, and die.” [2:9] though many do abandon their commitment to God when they experience severe pain and suffering. Instead of letting their experience of God, the Divine, the Holy, be transformed and deepened, they blame God and sever the relationship, evict God from their thoughts and their consciousness.

We all suffer. No matter how good we are. How rich we are. How apathetic we are. How abusive we are. No matter how we treat others. Or others treat us. We’ll still experience suffering in this life. Job invites us to be open to that experience. To let it bring us together with others and strengthen our common bond as human beings regardless of our background or circumstances. And Job invites us to find a deeper experience of God, of good, of love, of light, through our experience of suffering. And to be transformed by that experience.

We see the blessing of suffering in this beautiful story about a mission trip to Nicaragua:

“We thought we went to Nicaragua to build houses and get to know about the country and people. We discovered God had a lot more in store for us. We built the better part of three houses and had fun exploring the countryside: swimming on white sand beaches, horseback riding, and boating on the lake. We made friends at the work sites, sharing simple feasts of freshly caught fish. In the end we learned a lesson of humility concerning how God can use each of us in powerful and unexpected ways.

“The presence of our mission team gave the local pastor an opportunity to hold a revival. We provided preaching and special music — a little intimidating for members of our group. Four days into our stay, I was approached by a middle-aged man. With the help of the interpreter his story unfolded. The night before, a member of our group had preached about the power of Christ demonstrated by the raising of Lazarus. This man came to believe through the revival and observing us taking time as a group each morning to pray that our group was truly filled with God’s Spirit. He wanted us to pray over Carlos, his son, who had epilepsy.

“No one in the group had participated in a service like this before, but we took it very seriously. We sang. We prayed. We read scripture from James that tells us to anoint with oil those who need healing. We asked Carlos to come forward and be anointed with the only oil we had access to: the cooking oil from the community kitchen. Then to my surprise one of the members of our own group stepped forward and asked to be anointed as well. As the team leader I was aware that this person had epilepsy too, but few of the other members were aware of this.

“We anointed two people whose lives were worlds apart but at the same time united by a bond few would desire. They both knelt, while the other members of the team and the boy’s family laid hands on them, as we prayed fervently for God’s healing to touch them. The bond the two shared provided them with the knowledge that they were not alone with their malady, which was a form of healing by itself, even if nothing else occurred.

“Prayer: (Psalm 133) God, heal us and make us healers. Anoint us with the oil of kindred spirit across all of differences.” Amen.

[Janice L. Burns-Watson, USA, Nicaragua, pp. 58-59 in Gifts in Open Hands, More Worship Resources for the Global Community, Maren Tirabassi and Kathy Wonson Eddy.]

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