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.

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 5/15/2022

Date: May 15, 2022 Earth Sunday
Scripture Lesson: Psalm 148
Sermon: Here to Praise
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Tonight there is a very special lunar eclipse. Apparently the positioning of things and the timing means that there will be a red glow to the eclipse. Very rare and beautiful. So, if you can, head outside tonight from 11:29 until 12:54 a.m. Hopefully it won’t be cloudy! And most of us won’t have scheduling conflicts.

This special show put on by the moon is the moon doing what it is supposed to do. Playing its part in the drama of Creation. The Psalmist recognizes this as praise to God. Nature praises God when it fully functions as it is intended to. Blossoming, shining, flourishing, fossilizing, flowing, adapting, all as it is created to do – with abandon and abundance.

We read the psalm together and heard how the psalmist celebrates the praise of:
the heights, mountains and hills
the sun
the moon
the shining stars
the waters above the heavens, rain and the needed life sustaining moisture that comes
from the sky
the skies giving us the night and the day and clouds and weather
the earth, the soil, the rocks, the sand, the hills and valleys, all providing habitat and
resources to sustain life
the sea monsters like whales and fish and manatee
the deeps and all that is contained in the oceans
fire and hail, heat, lightning,
snow and frost, winter weather providing water and dormancy to promote growth
storming wind – gusts, gales, hurricanes and tornadoes with their incredible power
mountains, hills havens for life forms and purveyors of beauty, evidence of deeper
forces within the earth
fruit trees for food and drink
cedars for shade and habitat and construction
beasts of the forest, wild animals that populate the woodlands cultivating the land with
their activities and providing food
cattle and domesticated animals which provide sustenance and companionship
crawling things like worms, insects, microbes, fungi and all the little life forms that
keep the whole system of life awhirl
flying birds with their beauty and their niche in the system of life

All these aspects of the natural world are celebrated in the psalm for praising God. And they do that by flourishing and fulfilling their role is the complicated mysterious design of nature. All have an important role to play. Even the ancient writer knew the importance and interconnectedness of the natural world. In our religious tradition, nature is not only life sustaining, it is sacred. It is the self disclosure of God, of Divine Love. It is to be appreciated and revered.

But the psalm does not just assign the task of praising God to what we would call the natural world. The human species, too, is called upon to praise God. And that command is made with some specificity. It’s not just that people are responsible for offering praise. It is:
rulers and all people
nobles
all leaders
young men
young women
old people, men and women

All are to offer praise. All of us. Every single human being. All stations and strata of society. How do we do that? Well, we come to church and we pray and sing our praises. Notice there are 7 hymns in today’s service. Plenty of praise being offered!

But like nature, we also praise by fulfilling our role in the greater scheme of life. By doing our part as the waters and weather and animals and plants and soil and land do their part in contributing to the ecosystem that sustains life.

And what is our role? The Bible, our sacred text, gets quite specific about that in the first book of the Bible, the book of beginnings and origins, Genesis. That is where we are told that our role in the grand scheme of Creation is to function in the image of God, taking care of the whole system, tending it, keeping it, stewarding it. We are care takers. We are to care for the whole system of life so that all of its parts can praise as they care intended to – so that they can fully function in their role. We are to oversee the whole thing and keep it healthy. That is our role. And when we fulfill our role, we are offering our praise to God, to Divine Love, to the source, the genius, the mystery. We offer our praise by caring for the whole of nature making it possible for nature to offer its praise.

How are we doing? Is our praise ringing through the mountains, sounding over the waters, echoing in the valleys, resonating over fields and forests, reverberating in the skies? Ask the Florida scrub jay – heading for extinction. Or the manatee – dying out of starvation. Shall we ask the vanishing butterflies? The bleached corals? Shall we ask the dead fish ravaged by red tide caused by fertilizer run off? Shall we consult the chemically laden fields and lawns and golf courses? The downed forests and trees? Shall we ask the waters tainted by industrial waste? Or the air laden with pollutants? How are we doing with our praise? Fulfilling our role as care takers?

A member of the congregation recently suggested a book to me, Wilding by Isabella Tree. I listened to it. And then I read the actual book. I think about that book every single day. Literally. It is the story of a 3,500 acre estate in England that was a farm. And the owners, a couple, over time decide to no longer use the land for agricultural purposes which have proven completely unprofitable. Instead, they undertake a decades long process of rewilding the land. This involves restoring the soil, restoring natural water ways and wetlands, letting native trees and weeds and bushes and bracken to grow. It involves introducing wild animals to re-inhabit the land. It is a very involved process that they pursued extremely carefully and with a lot of consultation from scientists and naturalists from various fields. The book begins with a reference to a verse from the Song of Solomon: “Flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the Turtle is heard in our land.” [Song of Solomon 2:12] This is a reference to the turtle dove which is approaching extinction in the United Kingdom. But as the wilding proceeds at the estate, called Knepp, the turtle dove returns as do many many other species of plants and animals and butterflies and countless other creatures. All offering their praise as they thrive in the newly rewilded environment.

The project at Knepp certainly is well received by nature; the flora and fauna flourish and create balance as they increase in numbers. But there are other problems. The main resistance to the project comes not from nature but from the neighbors. Charlie Burrell and Isabelle Tree who are pursing this restoration tried to share their dream with their neighbors. They had a gathering with a presentation and provided dinner to about 50 neighbors. The result was not what they expected or hoped for. Tree recounts some of the responses they received.

“When Charlie stood up to show how he envisaged the landscape of Knepp changing over the next few years, the tidy Sussex fields and manicured hedges devolving into rampant scrub and untrammeled wetland, the room erupted into a dissident murmuring and shaking of heads. It wasn’t simply that our neighbours (including some other members of the family) thought this wasn’t right for them. Chatting to them afterwards, Charlie and I realized it was more visceral than that. It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.” [Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, Isabella Tree, p. 98.]

As the wilding process continued, local support did not materialize. Tree writes: “Our area of the south-east is, according to the authors of The Kent and Sussex Weald (2003), ‘beautifully man-made.’ It is ‘one of the longest-running and best recorded examples of the unremitting labour of generations of farmers to clear and settle a great expanse of wild country.’ It was not surprising, then, that locals who had gazed all their lives on what they considered the epitome of English landscape, the picture postcard of resolute agricultural endeavor, were out raged when Knepp [the estate] was invaded by scrub. . .” [Wilding, p. 129.]

Nature loving neighbors simply did not think that it was an appropriate use of land in their domain. They thought the land looked like a mess, abandoned, like the owner had died and the land was abandoned. Tree explains: “Abandoning the land to nature, on the other hand — letting it go — smacked of laziness, irresponsibility, even immorality. It was uncivilized, a ‘backward step.’ To some it was ‘wanton vandalism.’” [Wilding, p. 130.]

So this amazing re-wilding project runs into NIMBY. Not. In. My. Backyard. We love nature. It’s great to learn about all the wild animals and nature biomes. On TV. From a documentary. In a book. Or on a trip. But at home? That’s another story.

We know that story. We want to support the natural world, but not if it means restricting development and the tax base that pays for schools and roads and EMS services. We love nature, but we don’t want to pay more for food grown locally using sustainable practices. We like our neighborhoods neat and tidy. And we idolize our freedoms: It’s your yard, you have the right to cut down all the trees. Nature is fine until it creates friction with some of our long held beliefs and assumptions and rights. The poet Rumi reminds us: “We rarely hear the inward music but we are dancing to it nevertheless.” [Wilding, p. 150.]

In our Western Christian tradition, we also want to own the fact that we have intentionally moved away from nature. In our industrialized, advanced, modern society, Christianity moved away from devotion to nature. Love and reverence for nature was associated with animistic, aboriginal religions. It was considered primitive. There was a racial component involved in looking down on cultures that venerated nature. Western industrialized society was thought to be superior, with nature considered a big bank from which to make withdrawals to fund the exploits of capitalism. So our religious heritage has had a decided bias against the veneration of nature for economic and racial and cultural reasons. We now see the need to atone for this prideful abusive attitude that was fostered by western Christianity. And we are beginning to appreciate all that we have to learn from original peoples about living in harmony and balance with nature.

So this Earth Sunday we think about our praise. Will it be limited to the singing of hymns on Sunday? Or will we truly embrace our divine calling as part of Creation and become the protectors of nature that we are intended to be? Will we take the drastic measures necessary to protect the planet? Or will we just sing hymns in church? At one time, taking care of the Earth was considered the purview primarily of those in agriculture but now we have come to see the wisdom of the psalmist – this is the responsibility of every single human being. Leaders, young and old, men and women, literally everyone.

In the Hindu scripture, the Artharva Veda, written about 1200 BCE, we are told, “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter, and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.” [Quoted in Wilding, p. 268.]. This could have come from our own scriptures which echo the need to care for the land so that the land can support our lives.

We have so much to be grateful for. To offer praise about. May we not limit our praise to this sanctuary. But may the earth be our sanctuary, the dwelling place of the reality of God. All the earth and the universes beyond.

We are far more likely to take care of and defend and protect what we cherish and adore. A colleague has this quote at the end of his email signature: “If you fall in love with the Earth, you will fight to save the Earth.” [Rev. Bob Shore Goss] So, set your alarm for 11:25 tonight. Get up and head outside with a chair. And settle in to watch the show put on by the moon and the earth, dancing their praise. And remember the poem by 17th century Japanese poet Masahide:
Barn’s burnt down –
Now
I can see the moon.

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 4/3/2022

Date: April 3, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 543:16-21 and Luke 11:55-12:8
Sermon: A House Full
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

The beautiful book, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, has this dedication: “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago”. That’s intriguing, isn’t it. Well, here is the story behind the dedication.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, FL. His grandmother had been a slave. He grew up under the strictures of Jim Crow in a town that was run by the Ku Klux Klan. Thurman rose to become one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. He was supremely influential in the life Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When King was recovering from a stab wound in New York City, he had two books with him: The Bible and Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. Thurman wrote 22 books. He served as the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He founded an interfaith church, The Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco in1944. Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, spent a year touring India, Ceylon and Burma on a Pilgrimage of Friendship and met with Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman taught and lectured around the world.

Ebony Magazine called Thurman one of the 50 most important figures in African- American history. In 1953, Life Magazine rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States.

So what about this unnamed man at the train station in Daytona Beach who restored Thurman’s broken dream? When Thurman was young, to get into high school, students had to pass an eighth grade assessment. Schools for Blacks only went up to the seventh grade so that high schools for Blacks would not be needed. The principal of the school in Daytona volunteered to tutor Thurman so that he could pass the eighth grade general knowledge test and go to high school. In addition to the three public high schools in Florida that accepted Blacks, there were several private schools supported by the church for Black students. It was determined that Thurman would attend Florida Baptist Academy of Jacksonville. He would live with a cousin there. Thurman’s family scraped together what he would need.

Here’s what happened according to Thurman:

“When the time came to leave for Jacksonville, I packed a borrowed old trunk with no lock and no handles, roped it securely, said my good-byes, and left for the railway station. When I bought my ticket, the agent refused to check my trunk on my ticket because the regulations stipulated that the check must be attached to the trunk handle, not to a rope. The trunk would have to be sent express but I had no money except for a dollar and a few cents left after I bought my ticket.

“I sat down on the steps of the railway station and cried my heart out. Presently I opened my eyes and saw before me a large pair of work shoes. My eyes crawled upward until I saw the man’s face. He was a black man, dressed in overalls and a denim cap. As he looked down at me he rolled a cigarette and lit it. Then he said, ‘Boy, what in hell are you crying about?’

“And I told him.

“‘If you’re trying to get out of this damn town to get an education, the least I can do is to help you. Come with me,’ he said.

“He took me around to the agent and asked, ‘How much does it take to send this boy’s trunk to Jacksonville?’

“Then he took out his rawhide money bag and counted the money out. When the agent handed him the receipt, he handed it to me. Then, without a word he turned and disappeared down the railroad track. I never saw him again.” [With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, pp. 24-25.]

And so the dedication of his autobiography “To the stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago”. Such a lavish act of generosity, of intimacy, can change our lives. If we let it.

The story of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman is well known. Let’s think of some other well known stories associated with Jesus. There is Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish. Jesus changing the water into wine. Jesus healing the servant of the Roman officer. Jesus casting out the demons from the man in the graveyard. Jesus healing Peter’s mother in law. Jesus healing the blind man. Jesus healing the person with leprosy. Jesus healing the man by the pool of Siloam. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus casting the demon out of Mary Magdalene. Jesus stilling the stormy seas. Jesus overseeing the catch of fish. Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Jesus forgiving those who killed him from the cross. I am sure I missed some, but the idea here is that in one story after another, Jesus is helping people. He is doing things for others. He is giving. He is serving.

In the story we heard today, at a dinner with his friends, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and others, Mary, breaks open a jar of nard, worth a year’s pay, maybe about $40,000 today. And she anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard, an aromatic oil. And the amount of nard is so lavish, the perfumed scent fills not just the room but the whole house. The stench of the death of Lazarus a few verses earlier is replaced by the fragrance of devotion and gratitude. And she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, which she has let down for the occasion. Letting down the hair in mixed company was forbidden by social dictates. Being touched by a woman was a violation of the religious law making Jesus ritually unclean. And Mary functions as a religious authority anointing Jesus the way a prophet, a priest, or a king might be anointed by a male religious official. Back in her lane as a woman, Mary anoints Jesus for his burial so near at hand. This is a wild act of intimacy and extravagance. This episode is scandalous in so many ways.

And in the story, Jesus accepts the anointing, the touch of Mary, the lavish gesture. With his death at hand, Jesus doesn’t say, We don’t have time for this, I have work to do before they get me. Gotta go heal some more people and feed some more people and forgive some more people. My time is short. No. He doesn’t reprimand Mary for violating the Law of Moses and making him ritually unclean. Mary, no, not before the Passover, I have to be ritually clean. No. Jesus accepts the gift. He welcomes the love. He relishes the devotion. He receives Mary’s lavish, intimate gesture of extravagant generosity. And there is a house full of the aroma of the oil, full of love, full of loyalty and devotion. Jesus says yes to this gift.

Howard Thurman said yes to the generosity of the random stranger who paid for his trunk. He could have said, Oh no, I can’t let you do that. I can’t accept your charity. I can’t pay you back. I can’t let you. But Thurman accepted the gift.

I would like to invite us to take a few minutes to think about a time when you received a gift of love that changed your life. A time when someone did something for you that you could never explain or repay. A time when you were the recipient of lavish generosity. From a friend, a family member, or a stranger. Think of a time when you were on the receiving end of something lavish that made all the difference. Just think about that for a couple of moments.

I’ve heard about someone who pushed a woman in a wheelchair for the whole Camino de Santiago, over 500 miles. There are people who donate organs to complete strangers. Someone gives an anonymous scholarship to pay for a student to go to college. How have you been the recipient of some kind of random, unexpected, life-changing gift.

Congregation shared stories from their lives.

This story of the anointing of Jesus has so many teachings to offer. One thing we learn from this story is that Jesus says yes to being served, to receiving, to accepting the love of another. In an extravagant, lavish way. And the scent of the nard, the love, fills the house. Jesus shows us that God is seeking to bless us. That life is an amazing gift. That life is filled with awe and wonder and beauty. And we are called to say yes! To allow others to give to us. To receive the gift. To take the house full of blessings.

We are not to let our pride, or our delusions of self-sufficiency, or constructs of fairness, or obsession with independence, or desire to control get in the way of our receiving love and goodness and generosity and blessing from others, from God.

Say yes to love. To the love of Jesus who died out of love for us. To the love of God. To the love and generosity of our sisters and brothers of this precious human family. Say yes. Let the house be filled with love.

May our autobiographies — written, spoken, or just remembered — also be dedicated to those who have restored our broken dreams with their acts of love. 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 3/6/2022

Date: March 6, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Psalm 91:1-3a, 9-16 and Luke 4:1-13
Sermon: Errand into the Wilderness
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

The sermon to the delegates assembled for the election of officers for the Massachusetts General Court in 1670 was given by the Rev. Samuel Danforth, pastor of the First Church in Roxbury, MA. Rev. Danforth was a graduate of Harvard College, a poet, an almanac maker, and an astronomer as well as being an associate of Rev. John Eliot, missionary to the indigenous peoples. In this sermon at this important event, Rev. Danforth addresses the question: “What is it that distinguishes the New-England from other Colonies and Plantations in America?” The answer is that they were founded for the pursuit of religious ends by reformed Protestant churches of England. He went on to say:

“You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men, that the Cause of your leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers houses, and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness, was your Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel, and your enjoyment of the pure Worship of God according to his Institution, without humane Mixtures and Impositions.”
[ https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libraryscience/35/ ]

It was in this sermon that Danforth referred to the immigration of these devout Europeans to the shores of this continent as an “errand into the wilderness,” which three centuries later became the title of a famous book by Harvard historian Perry Miller. Some of us read it in the course of our education in American and religious studies. It is a classic examination of the culture of colonial America from various perspectives, including, of course, religion.

There is a narrative that some Europeans came to these shores seeking religious freedom and seeking to establish a society based on religious principles. While they may have seen this as an ‘errand in the wilderness,’ we are well aware today that New England and what came to be known as North America had many indigenous societies thriving here on this land that were well-organized and living in harmony with the land.

But to the Europeans, this land was like a blank page to be written upon. A canvas to be painted and embellished. It was like marble waiting to be carved into a thing of beauty. Adorned with the godly society they would establish, righting the wrongs of the civilizations of Europe. And in some way, this was seen as a divine mission, at least by some in the first generation of those who came here. An errand in the wilderness, like the calling of Abraham and later Moses.

A wilderness. To us, maybe that means land untainted by human interference. Or land awaiting the application of white/European ingenuity. Or even worthless land. And now maybe even essential land to our survival. Wilderness can have many connotations.

In the Bible, this concept of wilderness is also a prominent theme. Cain kills Abel and flees into the wilderness. The Hebrews wander in the wilderness when they escape from slavery in Egypt. Elijah tries to escape to the wilderness. The Psalms and the prophets use the image of wilderness again and again to convey the transforming power of God. Springs bubbling forth in the wilderness. Flowers blooming in the desert. These images convey the life-giving blessings of God to humanity.

In the story we heard today from Luke we hear about Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. It is interesting. Jesus has been baptized. We are told that God’s favor rests upon him. And now he is to prepare to begin his ministry. And does he go to the Temple in Jerusalem to study with the priests and scholars there in the cultic center of his faith? Is he sent to the local rabbi for field work? Professional development? An internship? Does he lock himself in a cell with the Torah – God’s guiding word for the Jewish people?

No. Jesus, we are told in the story, is driven into the wilderness implying little or no human influence. We want to notice several things about the character of wilderness. Of course, Jesus would know the stories of those from his faith tradition who had also gone into the wilderness especially Moses and the Hebrews escaping from Egypt, and Elijah and other prophets. So Jesus would know the wilderness as a place of encounter with God. A place that is, as the Celts call it, ‘thin space.’ Where Earth and heaven come together. Where there is closer contact between human and Divine, the physical world and the sacred. In scripture, wilderness can function somewhat like the mountaintop that we discussed last week with reference to the story of the Transfiguration. It is a space associated with encountering not only wild animals but God. So Jesus is sent to the wilderness perhaps expecting to encounter God. In the story, what he encounters is the devil, but the devil seeming to further God’s agenda preparing Jesus for his ministry. These encounters with the devil drive Jesus to more completely trust in the God of Love. Like training for an athlete, this wilderness time gets Jesus in shape. He learns to rely solely on God. He learns to identify evil. An he learns to trust his spiritual center. He learns to ground himself fully in scripture. He also hones his debating skills, his repartee, which will be needed when he is confronted by the religious scholars and officials of his day.

But we also want to remember that wilderness is not as the Europeans imagined, a blank canvas. Wilderness is nature that has been minimally impacted by human culture. So to be in the wilderness means to be in a space that has less human influence. We are to think of it as devoid of driving human concerns like development, economics, extraction of natural resources, space for human society. The concept of wilderness is intentionally meant to convey the minimal impact of these human influences and drives. With those things at a minimum, there is space. Yes, to encounter God, the Divine. And we want to remember that nature itself is the self disclosure of God. So being in the natural environment, the wilderness, also creates an opening to learn of God from nature.

Historic wisdom emphasizes the importance of nature. Martin Luther [1483- 1546] tells us, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” [Quoted in The Green Bible, p. 1-103.]

In the wilderness, without a table to be fixed, without his mother hassling him, without neighbors sounding off about the Roman occupation and the fees and taxes, without religious officials forcing an agenda, Jesus can listen. Not only to his heart, his spirit. But to nature. While Jesus may not have had much human contact in the wilderness, there was surely much wildlife and the land itself to observe and contemplate.

The wilderness of what is Israel today looks barren at first glance which it is not, but in the first century it was home to lots of wildlife probably including lions, cheetah, camels, lizards; the hedgehog, fox, vultures, eagles and other raptors as well as many bird species; various kinds of insects – today are about 22,500 species of insect in Israel, who knows how many there were two thousand years ago. And there were likely bears, scorpions, snakes like the viper, cobra, and asp; the wild ass, gazelle, the oryx, bats, the arabian leopard, the arabian ostrich, swine, goats, sheep, hyenas and jackals, spiders, hyrax, a rodent, cougars, antelopes, and wolves. Jesus was hardly by himself in the wilderness in terms of the community of life.

And there were the land formations, cliffs, craters, mesas, plateaus, striations of rock and sand, dunes, the sun, stars, moon, colors and winds. There were the sounds of the wind and the animals. All this providing inspiration, information, insight, and understanding that helped to inform Jesus’ concept of the kin-dom of God. He had the opportunity to learn from the interwoven, interconnected mutually dependent life of the wilderness. This could inform his view of people living together interconnected, mutually dependent, and all sustained by the natural world, a gift of a loving God.

One of the most amazing minds in human history begs us: “Look! Look! Look deep within nature and you will understand everything.” Those words of Albert Einstein remind us of the importance of paying attention to nature.

So the wilderness is not just about getting away from distractions and human influences that cloud or obscure the presence of Divine Love and distort the perception of reality.

The wilderness, time alone, apart, be it out in the nether reaches or in the back yard, or a park, is also about intentionally creating the space for encounter with the Divine essence within us and around us in nature.

Wilderness time can function for us as it did for Jesus. These stories of his confrontation with the devil show the emergence of Jesus’ preparation for ministry. He learns to identify evil. And unmask it. He learns to confront evil. Even when it presents as good. And he uses his tradition to redirect the message. Wilderness helps Jesus to development a plan, a strategy for facing the world around him. Not for mixed income residences with office and retail space. But a development plan for the kin-dom of God. The commonwealth of God. On Earth as it is in Heaven.

Wilderness can help us to focus on Divine Love, on the essence of reality, on the richness and goodness of our faith tradition. It can ground us and root us in the reality of God.

This may have been the intention of those 17th century Europeans who engaged in their “errand in the wilderness.” They may have felt themselves drawn by God to this wild land. For illumination. And to live in closer harmony with God and with each other. But as historian Perry Miller points out, by the second generation on these shores, these motivations and visions were already dimming and what we might call more worldly concerns were at the forefront of their efforts. It is so easy for us to become distracted from the will and way of God. From the purposes of Divine Love. We know because it is happening still.

This Lenten season invites us to step back. To create space. To move away from our normal routines and busy-ness. To look and listen. To pay attention. To reflect. To examine. Our lives. Our world. Especially in light of pandemic and the continuing aftershocks of covid. In light of the most recent climate report from the UN saying that irreparable damage to the planet caused by human activity has now become unavoidable. And in light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Which raises a host of concerns, some of which we will discuss after the service this morning. This war also invites us to reflect on the other wars that are going on around the planet and why they do not get treated with the same significance that the Russian invasion is given. Could it be that those other conflicts involve people who are brown, people of color, people not of European descent? We have many things to think about this season. To process. To unmask. To examine. To confront. As Jesus did in the wilderness.

And like Jesus, we are not left alone, not left to our own devices. We have God, however we may conceive of God. Speaking to us. There is our rich tradition of scripture and witness to inform us. There is the natural world offering revelation. So much in the wilderness seeking to inform us about how to establish the kin-dom of God, Heaven on Earth, in ourselves, in community, and in loving relationship with the planet Earth. European forbears came to these shores to live out the gospel freely without interference from society or government. May this be our errand in the wilderness this Lenten Season. Amen.

Relating to Perry Miller and Errand into the Wilderness, these resources were consulted:
https://s-usih.org/2013/05/perry-miller-and-the-puritans-an-introduction/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry_Miller
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Danforth
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Errand_into_the_Wilderness

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 2/27/2022

Date: Feb. 27, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-43a
Sermon: Glory! Glory!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

From Mount Kenya to Mount Everest, from Mount Olympus to Valhalla, since ancient times humanity has associated mountains with the presence of the gods, divinity, deity, the holy. Mountains are high, in the sky, and seen as a gateway to a higher reality, a heavenly world.

We also want to remember that from a mountain there is a vast vista. Miles upon miles of earth can be seen from a high mountain. The view from a mountain conveys a magnificent seemingly endless reality. And from a mountaintop, you don’t see the trash in the streets and the tawdry machinations of those too small to be seen from such heights the humans. From a mountaintop you don’t see the abused laborers and the people without shelter and those who are suffering from violence and oppressive governments. Ah, the mountaintop. Where all you can see is a vast vista of a glorious landscape. An uplifting view. An awesome vision.

So our religious tradition, like most others, has its share of mountaintop stories and we heard two of them today. One about Moses going up Mount Sinai, again, to get another set of the commandments, because, well, things didn’t go so well with the first set. Moses couldn’t see the golden calf episode from the mountaintop. This time he comes down the mountain with two new tablets and he is visibly changed. And we heard the story of Jesus going up the mountain with three of his closest allies and having a mysterious mystical experience. There was not only a vista and cloud cover, but the luminous presence of Moses and Elijah, two pillars of Israel representing the Law and the prophets. And then is the altered appearance of Jesus, seemingly taking his place as a pillar. Yes, the glory of the Divine in its luminescent wonder is portrayed in both of these mountaintop stories.

So, what about us? Do we need to be headed to the mountaintop to be filling our spiritual cup? That’s a challenge for those of us here in Florida living at sea level. There are certainly many offerings of such mountaintop experiences through spiritual practices that often actually involve a mountain. And there are those who pursue such spiritual illumination through structured, monitored, drug-induced visions. And there is a place for such revelations and illuminations and transformations.

But I don’t think that we are being told by our scriptures that this is the only way to experience, to encounter, the glory of God. The luminous Divine presence. It isn’t just a mountaintop thing. Moses and Jesus experience the glory and then they share it with others.

Let’s back up a moment. In the story of Jesus’ baptism, as his ministry is about to begin, we are told of a voice from a cloud saying to Jesus, “You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests.” [Luke 3:22] Later, there is the story that we heard today of the Transfiguration. In this story, Jesus is in the middle of his ministry. He has healed and taught and fed and cast out demons and forgiven sins. He has gained a following. And as he and James and John and Peter prepare to descend the mountain and head toward Jerusalem where Jesus will face the crucifixion, these words are heard from the cloud: “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” So words of assurance to Jesus at the baptism, “You are my Own, my Beloved. On you my favor rests,” become words of admonition to the disciples: “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” Some translations are even more emphatic ending with, “Hear him!”

Evidently, the disciples were not paying enough attention to the teachings of Jesus. And we see this borne out in the story of the healing of the boy with demons when they come down the mountain. Jesus has given his disciples the power to cast out demons. But they don’t seem capable of using it. Trusting God. And Jesus is frustrated. He is not being heard by his disciples.

In the words from the cloud, “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him,” I think we are given direction related to experiencing the glory of God. It is not just about going to a mountain and having a literally awesome spiritual transformation. It is also about listening to Jesus. Hearing him. Following him. Living in the reality of God that Jesus shows us. And when we do this, we find that we see glimpses and glimmers of the glory of God. In our solidarity and relationships with those who are poor, and marginalized, and suffering we may glimpse the glory of God. When sitting at the death bed of a loved one, or even a stranger, we may glimpse the glory of God. In a conversation with a death row inmate, we may see a glimpse of the glory of God. In company with those who are taken advantage of and demeaned and discounted and denied their full humanity, we may be given a glimpse of the glory of God. In our efforts to be peacemakers, in our personal relationships and in the world, we may glimpse a glimmer of Divine glory. When we help a child learn to read, we may glimpse God’s glory. There are so many opportunities in our every day lives to witness the power and presence of the glory of God. And listening to Jesus, hearing him, following him, trains our spirits to see and experience that sustaining glory.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the power of Jesus’ witness because that is what compelled him to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. King chose to live his life in the reality of Jesus. In the commonwealth of God. In the kin-dom of Love. He could have chosen middle class America. He was well educated, well paid, and respectable. He wasn’t raised to be involving himself with the ‘rabble.’ Oh, but he discovered that he did need to be involved in the struggle because he had chosen to follow Jesus. And he knew that in that struggle, he would see the glory and it would sustain him. That is the power of Jesus. King had this to say about Jesus:

“I know a man, and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I‘m talking about as I go down the way, because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And then he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

“He was thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies, and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. One of his closest friends denied him. Another of his friends turned him over to his enemies. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. When he was dead, he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.

“Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today, he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life. . . . He didn’t have anything. He just went around serving, and going good.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, p. 266.]

It is clear that Dr. King knew the admonition of the story of the Transfiguration: “This is my Own, my Chosen One. Listen to him!” And he took that admonition seriously. We can see in King’s leadership in the movement and in his ministry that he was taking his marching orders from Jesus. It’s notable that despite the Nobel Prize and his many lucrative speaking engagements and his coterie of celebrity associates, King died with less than $6,000 to his name. [Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968, epilogue.] As a follower of the simple Palestinian Jew, who, as he said, never even owned a house and really owned only the clothes on his back, King challenges America: “There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked.”

King goes on to refer to the story of Nicodemus and being born again. Which leads to, “. . . in other words, your whole structure must be changed. . . America, you must be born again!” [A Testament of Hope, pp. 250-251.]

King was clearly driven by the teachings of Jesus and the way of Jesus. Jesus was his living water, his bread of life. This is where King got his capacity to persist and to go on. And to expand his vision to include all who were suffering, from America to India to Africa, and to Vietnam, and we might add, Ukraine. Because he knew from Jesus that every single person is a child of God.

In his every day witness following Jesus, because King was listening to Jesus, King received glimpses of glory that allowed him to keep on keeping on. In his service and sacrifice, in his engagement and incarceration, he saw glimmers of the glory of God. The God of divine love and power, that sustained Jesus. And those glimmers sustained King.

On the third of April 1968, the night before he was assassinated, King preached his last sermon. He had left Atlanta that morning for Memphis where they were in the midst of the sanitation strike. The flight from Atlanta was delayed because of a bomb threat targeting King. The plane was throughly searched as well as the baggage. King found this out when the pilot told all those aboard the plane. The FBI never let him know when there was a credible threat to his life, though they did inform others under their watch. They did not give King that common consideration. [See Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968.] Even so, he knew that his life was in danger. But he was not afraid. In his address to the sanitation workers, who came out in an extremely threatening storm to hear King, King told them that if he could pick any time in history to live, he would pick the mid 20th century. After eloquently reviewing ages of old, he lands where he is, saying, “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’” [A Testament of Hope, p. 280.]

In the midst of the chaos, King saw the glory. After discussing a number of other issues, including world peace and the sanitation strike, King turns to his conclusion in which he refers to another mountaintop story about Moses who was given the opportunity to go up the mountain and look down on the land of Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the land that he had brought the Hebrews to as their homeland after leaving slavery in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. But Moses was only allowed to see that promised land from the mountain. He died before the people entered the land. King refers to this in the closing of his last sermon:

“It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning . . .

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” [A Testament of Hope, p. 286.]

It’s a different mountain story, but the same glory. By following Jesus and listening to him, King saw the glory. He learned what it means to trust God and to be part of a reality beyond your own individual existence. He was transformed by listening to Jesus and following him. So, we may not have that mountaintop experience, we may not routinely experience those lofty spiritual highs, but when we follow Jesus, the light of the world, when we listen to him, when we live lives dedicated to making thing better for others, we are given glimpses, glimmers, flashes even, of the glory of the presence of Divine Love, imbuing, saturating, permeating reality. Reality is awash in the glory of God, and when we hear Jesus, when we listen, when we follow, we shine. 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.