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.

Sermon 2/20/2022

Date: Feb. 20, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Genesis 45:1-15, Luke 6:27-38
Sermon: Set back. Set right.
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Earlier this month I read about a man in Oregon who accidentally shot his brother while loading a gun to try to defend himself against a bear in his yard. After killing his brother, he called 911 and reported what had happened. When the police arrived they found the brother, dead. They also found the other brother dead from a self- inflicted gunshot wound. Evidently when the man saw that he had killed his brother, he turned the gun on himself and took his own life as well. It seems he simply could not see how he could go on living after what had happened.
[ https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/police-man-confronting-bear-accidentally-kills-brother-82806693 ].
What a heart-breaking tragedy.

And what about those brothers in the story of Joseph? Yes, he was the annoying younger brother. Daddy’s pet. They were determined to do away with him. So they put him in a pit. Then they sold him into slavery. And told the father he was dead. Eaten by a wild animal. That was the end of that. Until many years later, in their desperation during a time of famine, they unexpectedly find their brother, and he has the power that controls their survival. Of course they have nothing to say, at first. They are asking the brother they wanted to kill to save their lives. What can be said? How to go on after something so heinous?

And then there is slavery in this country and what it has done to the people who were directly involved and their descendants, and to the country as a whole, and to all of us still today. One person owning another person. A system in which people have no freedom and are completely controlled by other people who own them. Who see them as property, to be used, like a tool or a machine. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives a moving description of the ravages of slavery: “For years the Negro has been taught that he is nobody, that his color is a sign of his biological depravity, that his being has been stamped with an indelible imprint of inferiority, that his whole history has been soiled with the filth of worthlessness. All too few people realize how slavery and racial segregation have scarred the soul and wounded the spirit of the black man. The whole dirty business of slavery was based on the premise that the Negro was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p.194.]

How do you come back from that? As a person? As a society? How do you go on after something like that? How do we heal? Recoup? Make a path?

The familiar words that we heard this morning from the gospel of Luke are core teachings of Christianity. They are intended to give us a way back after we have gotten into trouble. They offer signposts on the path of reconciliation when there is disruption in a relationship. And these teachings not only address personal relationships that involve disruption and betrayal but also the ravages of societal institutions and arrangements that create divisions and rifts. So these teachings are about more than just how to get along with your actual neighbor. They are also about how to set things right when they have gone wrong in the world.

Now we want to keep in mind that we know we have problems, differences, and conflicts. We are living in a time of extreme polarization. And before we cast aside the teachings of Jesus as impractical, theoretical instructions for resolving conflict and pursuing reconciliation, let’s reflect on some of the things that we do to supposedly resolve conflicts and address problems. When there is disruption in a relationship, we may back out, disappear, cut off the relationship. End contact. Rather than doing the work of resolving the differences and making a way forward. This happens so often in families as well as in other settings. Is that practical and healthy?

In other situations, we address problems and conflict through violence. Maybe verbal violence, words of hatred, words that are hurtful and harmful. And also through actual deeds of violence to property as well as to people. This happens in interpersonal relationships as well as on a societal scale. Is this practical and healthy? These methods are used in conflicts between individuals, groups, countries, and peoples. Look at Russia and Ukraine. These are some of the ways that society teaches us to respond to differences, to conflict, to problems, to disputes. Are they so practical? Do they get the desired results? Are these methods constructive and sustainable? I don’t think so.

What Jesus is offering is an alternative path for addressing differences and conflict. It is a path with efforts made toward reconciliation and peace; extreme efforts because that is what is needed when there is extreme conflict, an extreme breach. Sometimes you can simply apologize to a friend. But sometimes you have to actually love an enemy. We see this actualized in the story of Jesus forgiving those who were responsible for his death from the cross. And in the public forgiveness issued by Dexter King, Dr. King’s son, to James Earl Ray who assassinated Dr. King. [Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, epilogue.]

Love is a misunderstood term. To love your enemy is not weakness. It is not cowardice. It is not passive. To actively love, to seek the good of someone who has harmed you, this take courage, bravery, and risk. It is not for the fainthearted.

In the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King promoted love and the use of non-violent means to confront evil. He did not promote ignoring evil and thus being complicit in evil. He did not promote doing nothing and just suffering in silence. King promoted the use of love and nonviolence to confront the evils of racism and to move the country and the world closer to freedom and dignity for each and every person. King put the emphasis on the evil of segregation not on the people who were defending it. He sought to separate the person and the issue so that he could always see each and every person as a child of God. He was not willing to sacrifice his commitment to the way of Jesus and the core teachings of his faith. So he remained committed to nonviolence even when it became very unpopular. Many people saw nonviolence as weak. But actually nonviolent resistance requires vulnerability, creativity, and risk. It is not easy or pain free. We have seen the images of the violence and death inflicted upon those who sought social transformation through nonviolence. The way of Jesus
takes courage.

In the readings we heard this morning we are reminded that we are human. There will be misunderstandings. We will have problems in our relationships. We will make mistakes. We will hurt others with our words and behavior. We are human and imperfection is a core trait of our humanity. Given this reality, the only way to promote the health and well being of the soul is to address issues and problems with love.

Dr. Kings defends the teaching ‘Love your enemies’ when he says: “. . .hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.

“ . . . Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.

“. . . love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp.59-60.]

Dr. King does not simply expect white people to suddenly embrace the concept of loving Black people. That is not how he uses this teaching. He uses this teaching to encourage Black people to love their oppressors, white people. He says:

“There will be no permanent solution to the race problem until oppressed men develop the capacity to love their enemies. The darkness of racial injustice will be dispelled only by the light of forgiving love. . .

“Of course, this is not practical. . . .

“My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. . . While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. . . . Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.

“Love is the most durable power in the world.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp. 61-63.]

Here we see a reflection of the teachings of Jesus. Love your enemy. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Turn the other cheek. These are the methods for healing and reconciliation in interpersonal relationships as well as societal rifts. Yet they remain largely untried.

Let us remember that the teachings of Jesus are not a litmus test for Kindom entrance. They are a set of directions, a road map, for how to live this life with love and morality and dignity and joy. We are fallible, flawed creatures as individuals and as a society. These teachings are a gift to help us navigate our way out of trouble. Solve our problems. They show us how to set things right. They show us how to go on when we have messed up our relationships, from personal to international. Jesus gives us a way forward.

While some strides have been made in improving race relations in America, we still have that and many other divisions and tensions and conflicts that require attention. And as we live out the way of Jesus, we will see the dreams of Dr. King realized: “. . . in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p.45.] 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 2/13/2022

Date: Feb. 13, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:12-26
Sermon: Connected
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In his final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his dissatisfaction. Despite the many successes of the Civil Rights Movement, King offered a lengthy list of dissatisfactions. He told the assembly:

“Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.

“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.

“Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.

“Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.

“Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.

“Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

“Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black [sic] they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.

“Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol will be housed by a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy, and who will walk humbly with his God.

“Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

“Let us be dissatisfied, until men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, ‘White Power!’ when nobody will shout, ‘Black Power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

Now Dr. King had a good job as the pastor of a thriving congregation. He was the head of SCLC. He had a nice home, a wife and healthy family. Food on the table. A car. Fine clothes. He was well-educated by any standard. He had a good livelihood. As a pastor he had prestige and respect in the community. So why was he so dissatisfied? Why was he worrying so much about the people in the slums and the downtrodden and about dignity and freedom not only in the South but in the entire United States and even the whole world? Why did he have such grandiose notions of justice and freedom?

Yes, Dr. King was a movement leader. He was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a superb orator. He had a doctorate and was highly learned in philosophy and theology. But, first and foremost, Dr. King was a Christian. A follower of Jesus. Connected to the God revealed in the ministry and teachings of the Jewish Jesus of the first century of the Common Era. So he felt compelled to live according to the faith and values of Jesus.


And the reading that we heard this morning reveals the essence of the way of Jesus. Jesus goes off to pray overnight. To connect with God. To ground himself in Divine Love. To stay true to his faith and his calling. To be in the world but not of the world. He prays the night through to foster his citizenship in the commonwealth of God. Jesus spends the night, we are told, in communion with God. He maintains his connection to the Source, the Love, the Spirit, the Power.

And after that night of prayer, he selects his inner circle, and then proceeds to engage with all who are looking to him for teaching and healing and freedom. And we hear those famous beatitudes: Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who are persecuted. And the original audience for this gospel was being persecuted. What we see here is that Jesus’ connection with God, his time in prayer, directly fosters his connection to those who are suffering, who are being victimized, who are oppressed. This is what we see in Dr. King as well.

Connection to God, to Divine Love, to the Sacred, produces concern for others and for the conditions in society that produce suffering. That is what we see in Jesus. So we see that religion associated with Jesus must also be associated with justice. When we pursue connection with the God of Jesus, we are moved to have compassion for those made poor and for those who are suffering. And the call is not just to be concerned about these people but to cure the causes of the suffering including injustice – social, economic, racial, and every other kind of injustice which denies the sacredness of each and every human life.

Connection to God creates connection and concern for the others. And I would suggest that any true religion has this basis. And if a religious expression does not produce this kind of concern, then I would question its validity and authenticity. And this includes the church. There are many churches where the primary teaching is that connection with God will bring you personal benefits such as health and wealth and heaven after you die with no mention of the needs of others. That simply is not consistent with the witness of Jesus.

Different expressions of Christianity can convey differing views about the divinity of Jesus, about baptism, about communion, about prayer, about the Bible, even about heaven. But there really is no room for differing views about the poor and the oppressed. Christians are to have compassion for those made poor and are to seek to heal the societal conditions that create poverty and suffering.

This is the heart of the witness of Dr. King. And he calls out the church for its shortcomings.

In his letter from the Birmingham jail written in August of 1963 from solitary confinement, Dr. King tells us:

“There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God- intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.”

King goes on:

“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. . . .

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp.141-42.]

Well, Dr. King was prescient about this as well as other things. The church has diminished and while there may be a variety of factors influencing this decline, certainly the lack of commitment to justice and concern for the downtrodden must be among them. Connection to God must lead to concern for the people and the society around us for the church to be meaningful and to have validity and authority.

The connection between commitment to God and to each other is conveyed in the graphic on the bulletin this morning. It is an ancient symbol of Christian spirituality. The center is God, Divine Love, and the lines represent people. As we move closer to the center, to the Sacred, we find ourselves closer to each other. Being in closer connection with God puts us in closer connection with each other.

This is the reality that we see embodied in the life of Dr. King. He maintained his connection to God, he was devoted to following Jesus, and this drew him into the cause of Civil Rights not only for Black people in the South but for the poor and downtrodden the world over. And he was criticized for this from within his own community. There were colleagues that wanted Dr. King to stay focussed on the conditions of Blacks in the South. Period. They didn’t want to hear about the war in Vietnam and the brown people getting killed over there. They didn’t want to hear about Africa, India, and South America and the movements for self
determination and getting out from under colonization and empire. They wanted King stay focussed on Blacks in America. But King could not accept that limitation because he was connected to God, the God of Jesus, the God of Creation, the God of all humanity, not just the Blacks in the United Sates. And there were many who did not like that.

Dr. King knew that he would face controversy because, well, Jesus did. Again and again. Much as we may have come to associate the Beatitudes with Jesus and to accept Jesus’ concern for the poor in our day, the message of the Beatitudes was absolutely contrary to the assumptions and mindset of the first century. This teaching was extremely controversial. The common assumption was that if you were sick, or poor, or hungry, it was due to your behavior. It was a consequence of your actions or choices or thoughts. You had done something to displease God and this was the result. Jesus rejects that altogether. He preached a God of love for each and every person. No exceptions. Jesus overturns every conventional expectation of his listeners. What he says in the Beatitudes is scandalous. Period. Already the gospel of Matthew tones these teachings down, and ‘Blessed are the poor’ becomes ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ The version in Luke is in red in the Jesus Seminar Bible, indicating that scholars pretty much agree that Jesus actually said something very close to:

“You who are poor are blessed,
for the reign of God is yours.
You who hunger now are blessed,
for you’ll be filled.
You who weep now are blessed,
for you’ll laugh.”

Jesus preached a God of love for all. And that God is adamantly against the principalities and powers that create poverty and suffering because those forces degrade and undermine the image of God in each and every person. Suffering and poverty can diminish the sense of holiness at the heart of each life. They can distort the reflection of the Divine image in the lives of those who are oppressed and suffering. Oppression must be eliminated so that the image of God in each person can be free.

The Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama was focussed on eliminating segregation. In a variety of ways, the Black community expressed the need for change through non violent direct action. As always the locus of the movement was the church. The protests and marches and demonstrations of various kinds stemmed directly from the Christian faith of the community. And in Birmingham, those involved included not just adults but also youth and even children. The leaders did not want to put the young people in harm’s way, but the young people were part of the church and as Christians they wanted to express their faith by being part of the movement. Thus thousands of young people were active in the movement. They would gather in the church and a few would go out one door as decoys while larger groups went out other doors while the police were distracted. They were very sly and cunning. Children too young to protest went to the library which was segregated and went into the children’s department in the white section and sat down and read books for the afternoon. These young people were eager to make a witness.

Dr. King tells us of one young child, about eight years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother.

“An amused policeman leaned down to her and said with mock gruffness: ‘What do you want?’

“The child looked into his eyes, unafraid, and gave her answer.

“‘F’eedom,’ she said.

King concludes, “She could not even pronounce the word, but no Gabriel trumpet could have sounded a truer note.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, pp.546-547.]

Jesus shows us that connection with God leads to concern about those who are being treated in a degrading manner. That is completely consistent with the teachings of Judaism, especially the teachings of the prophets. Jesus’ perspective is also a reflection of the message conveyed in the Magnificat attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the gospel of Luke in the stories that lead up to the birth of Jesus, when Mary affirms her special role she celebrates the God who lifts the lowly and gives good things to the hungry and promotes the radical reversal of the structures of society that produce hunger and poverty. In the Beatitudes, Jesus echoes his mother.

While the radical blessing of those who were thought to be ‘less than’ was scandalous in Jesus’ day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the ‘woes’ that we listened to this morning. These verses are not included by Matthew in his version of this material associated with Jesus. In addition, the Jesus Seminar scholars agree that the ‘woes’ are not historically attributable to Jesus. So why are they in the gospel of Luke? Well, when the gospel was written, those who followed Jesus were being persecuted. So, they wanted to see consequences for those who were having it good in this life. They did want some sort of vindication. That perspective also echos the Magnificat. The rich are sent empty away. It is a way of seeing the agenda of justice furthered in some kind of eternal sense.

We also want to notice that while poverty and suffering can diminish a person’s sense of sacredness, so can wealth and power and social acclaim. These things can lead to a false sense of security and control. They can lead to a false sense of independence and create distancing from God, Divine Love, the Sacred.

Jeremiah uses the image of the shrub. Planted by the water, connected to God, it is deeply rooted and thrives and is resilient. But those who do not trust God are like shrubs in the desert during the drought which wither. There are many who are wealthy and well fed and seemingly happy and highly praised, who are spiritually withering whether they know it or not. We thrive when we are connected to God. The closer the connection, the more we flourish. And, as Jesus shows us, the more we are compassionate and sensitive to those who are made poor and those who are mistreated and those who are suffering. The closer we are to God the more we serve and help and heal. When we entrust our life to God, to Love, when we conform to God’s value system shown to us by Jesus, when we know our dependence on God, we lose our lives in something bigger than ourselves. We are rooted in a larger reality in which we thrive.

It is no coincidence that the Civil Rights Movement emerged from the church and was rooted in the church. In Birmingham, after much training, the people were asked to consider signing a pledge to indicate their intention to participate in the demonstrations. This pledge was a direct commitment to the Christian faith. Here’s what it said:

“I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF — MY PERSON AND MY BODY — TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS:

  1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks
    justice and reconcilIation — not victory.
  3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of a
    demonstration.

    “I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.”

    There was a space for name, and address, AND nearest relative because there was definitely risk involved. [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, p. 537.

This pledge is a direct expression of the way of Jesus, of what it looks like when you are connected to God. And while that seems to be something admirable, it was also controversial. There were parents who did not want their children to be participating in the demonstrations. Of course they were concerned for the safety of the young people because Bull Connor did not spare the dogs or the hoses. So this pledge, the commitment to the demonstrations, caused division in families and homes.

Dr. King tells us of one such conflict between a father and son in Birmingham.

“The children understood the stakes they were fighting for. I think of one teen-age boy whose father’s devotion to the movement turned sour when he learned that his son had pledged himself to become a demonstrator. The father forbade his son to participate.

“‘Daddy,’ the boy said, ‘I don’t want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I’ll just have to take the punishment. For, you see, I’m not doing this only because I want to be free. I’m doing it also because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.’”

Dr. King concludes:

“That father thought again, and gave his son his blessing.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin
Washington, p. 537.]

We hear the echo of the teaching of Jesus:
“Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they scorn and insult you
and spurn your name as evil
because of the Chosen One.”

May our connection with God, the Sacred, Divine Love, increase our compassion and commitment to Jesus and justice so that we, too, may know what it is to be blessed. 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 2/6/2022

Date: Feb. 6, 2022
Scripture Lesson: Luke 5: 1-11
Sermon: Net Worth
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

In a recent archeological find, a boat was discovered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee or Gennesaret. It was dated to the first century. This gives us an idea of the size of the boats that may have been featured in the story that we heard this morning. The size of the boat was 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet deep [The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, v. VIII, p. 94.]. That would pretty much fill up the chancel.

Now we want to imagine boats that big filled to swamping with fish. Overloaded with fish. On the verge of sinking because of the haul. That is a LOT of fish. It is an enormous demonstration of abundance. Like the wine referred to in the story of the wedding at Cana where the water is turned into wine, or the story of the feeding of the 5,000, this is another story with a vast manifestation of something that is needed. A demonstration of the provision of the grace of God offering more than enough. It is another story of overflowing abundance.

And this story occurs on the shore of the lake. Not in a holy shrine or at a special spiritual site where God’s power is supposed to be demonstrated. And it happens not in the presence of prestigious priests who are supposed to oversee the dispensation of the grace of God but it involves a rural rabbi and some random fisher people. And there are no extraordinary instructions given or special commands to the sea or the fish. There is no incantation or ritual. The purview of religious officials. There are simple instructions given to average people who have no special qualifications or character. In the presence of these everyday people, in this everyday setting, there is a ridiculously abundant catch of fish.

In this ordinary scene, Jesus reveals the extraordinary gospel. There is a demonstration of the abundance of life in the commonwealth of God. The gospel is a path of liberation and abundance. It offers more than enough. For everyone. It meets human needs – physical, spiritual, social, and emotional. And it is not an elitist teaching meant for some. It is available, offered, accessible to all. It is a message of liberation from all of the social, cultural, and, sadly, religious messaging that we are to try harder, that we are not enough, that we aren’t receiving because we aren’t deserving. The gospel of Jesus nixes all of that. There is no meritocracy with God. Jesus shows us more than enough. For everyone. No conditions. No requirements. No entrance exams. No qualifications. No documents. No fees. Like the super catch of fish in the lake, the gospel is readily available, accessible, waiting, to meet the needs of all people, to give people a better life.

Ah, but Jesus is well aware that there are nets that entangle us. We get caught up in the social structures around us. We get enmeshed in the racial constructs of our culture. We get pulled in by the current of consumerist capitalism. We get trapped by the alluring images of wealth and success that assault us. And while promising a beautiful life, we find that we are trapped in a system of spiritual and moral death because that supposedly beautiful life comes at a cost, a human cost and an environmental cost. There is the untold suffering that is required to keep some people in their materialist heaven. There is the degradation and subjugation that is necessary to access resources, including human labor, so that the beautiful lie of material happiness can be maintained.

Consider the contrast of the story from Luke where there is an untold abundance of fish which will feed and sustain people and the recent story of the huge kill of fish in the Mediterranean Sea, in the Bay of Biscay off of the coast of France. There was recent discovery of over 100,000 fish, blue whiting, a sub species of cod, used for fish fingers, fish oil, and fish meal, found dead, floating like a huge white carpet on the sea covering over 3000 square meters. The kill was perpetrated by the second largest fishing vessel in the world, the Lithuania-registered trawler Margiris [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/05/shock-in-france-after-giant-trawler-sheds-100000-dead-fish-off-coast] Here we see the devastation, the death, the waste, of our current system of industry and economics. It is evidence of our moral malnourishment that such a thing could happen. It is a consequence of greed.

All around us, in small and large ways, we see the depletion of life. And Jesus offers an alternative. He offers life, full and abundant for everyone. Through the gospel of love of self, neighbor, and enemy, through the teaching of generosity of material goods as well as spirit, through the demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation, through the promotion of community and celebration and gratitude, we see the values and way of a good life. A life that is not lived at the expense of others or at the expense of the environment. A life of harmony and balance. A life grounded in the sacredness of all life and the interrelatedness of life. Each and every life beloved, holy, worthy.

The gospel is a message of liberation, especially for those who are being abused by the system. For those on the bottom. For those who are taken advantage of by the institutions and systems of society. The rural, Jewish fisherman were certainly in that camp in the first century. And millions upon millions of people are in that camp today.

But Jesus’ gospel is not just good news to the poor. It is also good news to those who are simply born into the injustices and immoralities of society. It is a message of freedom and liberation, another way, for everyone. And that is important, because as Dr. King put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p. 128.]

The overwhelming obsession of our culture is on money and it is harming us all. There was a cartoon in a recent Christian Century magazine showing an older man with has arm on the shoulder of a younger man. They are looking out the window of what is clearly a corner office on an upper floor at a skyscape of office buildings. And the caption has the executive telling the underling, “I worry that we’re headed for a future where you won’t be able to earn three hundred times the salary of your lowest paid worker.” [Condron, The Christian Century, 1.12.22, p. 8.] There it is. The obsession with wealth strangles the labor force. It rapes the environment. It creates false divisions among people. And, as we have discovered in this pandemic, there are negative outcomes for everyone, not just those at the bottom.

Dr. King did not just focus on the uplifting of Black people in America. He was committed to the uplift of all people everywhere because he knew that our well- being is connected. In the last chapter of the book, Where Do We Go from Here, written in 1967, King talks about the world house and that we are all living together in what essentially amounts to a common dwelling. He tells us, “When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge
which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a European. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half of the world.

“In a real sense all of life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p. 87.]

In Luke, when Simon and James and John see the demonstration of the abundance and liberation of the gospel, they are awe struck. They are the ones who supposedly know how to fish and yet look what they have just seen. What Jesus offers outpaces their wildest dreams. And they are just every day working people. Not the elite. Not the power brokers. Not the structure legitimators. Just every day working people. And Jesus enacts for them this vision of what the gospel offers. The freedom. The care for all. The abundance and joy. It is so compelling, they leave everything, we are told, and follow Jesus. They leave everything. Boats. Nets. Family. Livelihood. Routine. Identity. World view. And, as the story is told, yes, they even leave the fish. The greatest catch of their lives. The greatest economic success of their careers. They. Walk. Away. And follow Jesus. For the gospel. And there’s no joining fee. They don’t have to pass an entrance exam. There is no interview process. They only provide obedience, humility, and trust. And Jesus takes care of the rest.

We, too, are surrounded by evidence of incredible abundance. Nature, human ingenuity, the incredible productivity that we are capable of. The overflowing bins of produce in our grocery stores, the shelves of foodstuffs. So many things day in and day out testify to the abundance around us. And yet our society is wracked with injustice and poverty and oppression and hypocrisy and greed. As King describes it, “We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged smallhearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p. 91.] We don’t have to live like that. The gospel is calling to us. We are being invited to an alternative reality of goodness and compassion. We are being lured into a life lived in solidarity with others not at the expense of others. We are being called to healing and wholeness.

And especially here in America, we have the resources to live in a society in which all can live flourishing lives enriched by recreation, the arts, entertainment, and sports, as well as work. King saw the potential of America. He tells us:

“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to school teachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except short-sightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum — and livable — income for every American family. [This was an issue in the last presidential election.] There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp. 93-94.]

This is what the church is to be about. This revolution of values. There is nothing to prevent us from living into the Jesus reality of abundance for all. But like those fisher folk in the story from Luke, we have to leave something behind. Maybe even everything behind given the way things now stand. So, what are we being called to leave behind so that we can live into the gospel dream of abundant life? What systems perpetrating our moral, spiritual, and even physical death are holding on to us? We, too, are being called to break loose. To be liberated. To live from the abundance of the grace of God. To let Jesus catch us and give us life.

We are being called to be part of God’s dream of abundant life for all people and all creatures. May we let ourselves be caught by Jesus who frees us from being strangled, constricted, and squelched by systems of exploitation and degradation. All it takes is obedience, humility, and trust. And we all have that to offer. In abundance. 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.