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.

Sermon 1/30/2022

Date: January 10, 2021 Outdoor worship
Scripture Lesson: Mark 1:4-11
Sermon: Downside Up
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It was a slog, but some of us even read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Or maybe it was The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Or The Rise and Fall of the Ming Dynasty. We are captivated by the concept of the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, governments, and movements as well as the rise and fall of individual leaders, entertainers, and other public figures.

This week, we have had cause to reflect on the rise and hopefully fall of the Trump era. More on that later.

But again and again in history we see the rise and fall of different phenomena.

In the scene that we were told about today from the gospel of Mark, we see a people who have fallen. They are on the down side of things. They are living under occupation. The Romans have the Jews under their thumb. They are being oppressed: their labor and their money extracted for Roman benefit. They are in the ‘fall’ position.

And we hear of this prophet, John, calling people to repent and be baptized. He is talking about preparing the way for one who will reverse their fortunes. A savior. A messiah. So the people pour from the capital, from villages and towns, out into the desert to hear John. To be part of creating the conditions for a rise in the fortunes of their people. They are turning toward God in hopes that God will bless them and improve their circumstances and rescue them from Roman oppression through the one who is to come.

And we are told that among those who head out to the Judean wilderness, to the banks of the Jordan River, is Jesus, of Galilee. And after he is baptized, a voice is heard saying, “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” [Mark 1:11]

This story is written for us, for those who come after Jesus, for those who need to be told that Jesus carries the authority and approval of God.

And maybe part of why we need to be reminded of this is because Jesus doesn’t follow the usual human pattern of rise and fall. He doesn’t overthrow the Romans. He doesn’t become a civic ruler or military leader. He doesn’t follow the usual trajectory of rise to power, fortune and fame. In fact, Jesus inverts that pattern. He turns it upside down; his life ending in a humiliating public death on a cross.

James Howell of Duke Divinity School points this out when he writes, “In the world, it’s rise and fall. The rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of the business tycoon, the rise and fall of a movie star. But with Jesus it’s fall and rise…We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.”

We see this in the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus goes out to the wilderness to be baptized. The leaders in the capital, Jerusalem, the Temple authorities, they do not go out to the Jordan to be part of what John is doing. But Jesus goes among the common people. He goes low. He goes down into the water. The symbolism is of dying and rising to new life. Baptism is about the emergence of a new creation. Jesus invites people to be part of a new creation; a reality that is not based on the assumed pattern of rise and fall. The wielding of status, success, prominence, and power.

Jesus addresses himself to fall and rise not rise and fall. Again and again in his ministry we are told of his encounters with the lowly. He seeks out those who are lost and forgotten. Those who are suffering and marginalized. Those who are considered ‘less than.’ Jesus looks for those who have fallen, or been pushed down. So that he can lift them up. With Jesus it is about helping lift up those who are down. And he gets down to do it.

And what he teaches us is that our highest good is found in lifting others up. In helping the fallen to rise. That is how we rise. That is how we become a new creation.

The conventional pattern of rising involves amassing wealth, or status, or power, or influence. And this is often done on the backs of others. Empires are built on the shoulders of smaller countries and their wealth and labor. The Roman Empire. The British Empire. And, yes, the American Empire, came to what is seen as greatness on the backs of slaves from Africa, labor from Asia and Mexico, and natural resources extracted form other lands. And the wealth of the few continues to be built on the backs of the many who are denied health care, pensions, vacation time, affordable housing, good schools, clean air and water, etc. It is built on the backs of people who work long hours in unsafe conditions here and abroad. The rise is achieved on the fall of others as it was in Jesus’ day. But what Jesus shows us is what it means to rise by lifting others and standing beside them not by standing on their backs. He shows us that we rise by going down, looking down, reaching down, and serving others. We elevate our humanity by honoring the humanity of others, especially those who are hurting and struggling and bereft. And what Jesus shows us is that we are to lift each other, one on one, and as a community, a society. The people who went to John the Baptizer were looking to lift their people, their society, in the face of the oppression of the Roman Empire. It was about lifting the community as a whole. They were seeking a better future for their country.

We are called to lift one another one by one, yes, but also to lift one another by creating institutions and organizations and power arrangements and economic systems that lift everyone. We are called to pursue justice for society as a whole. We are called to lift each other through societal arrangements that provide for everyone, not arrangements that provide for some at the expense of others.

The way of Jesus undermines the whole notion of hierarchy and rise and fall. Maybe that is why we need to hear again that what Jesus is showing us is the way of God. The way of Divine Love. That Jesus is beloved, favored by God. Because we are always in danger of doubting, of being drawn into the power arrangements that lead to the traditional model of rise and fall.

Rise and fall. We saw the manifestation of that phenomenon this week. A president who built his rise on the backs of people who perceive themselves as being left behind, ignored, forgotten, cut out, and cut down. Using them for his gain. And once it became clear that his cause was lost, he had no more need of them. It was never about them and their needs. It was always about him and his needs and what they would do for him. And now they can do nothing for him so he has abandoned them. That is rise and fall.

But we, as followers of Jesus, are to be about fall and rise. And a great challenge for us as Christians and for our society is how we are going to reach out to those who have been betrayed by the president. They are still our neighbors and coworkers. Still our family members and fellow citizens. So, how are we going to reach out, reach down, and help to lift up those who are angry and hurt and embittered? What about their pain? They, too, need lifting up. What word of hope and uplift and redemption do we have? How can we talk about a rise for all who have been battered? I don’t know exactly, but I know that we must take this seriously.

The story of the baptism of Jesus does not just tell us who Jesus is, it tells us who we are. We are the ones lifted by the love of Jesus. No matter how low we may be. No matter how deep we are mired. Jesus goes low. Reaches down. And lifts us up. And he calls us to extend our hand. And take hold of another.

As followers of Jesus, we are to concern ourselves not with the rise and fall, but with the fall and rise. Our fall under the water of baptism, our death to the ways of the worldly power, and our rise to the way of Jesus, lifting each other in love. Let us remember the call of God in our lives empowering us. Brennan Manning, who wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel, puts it this way:

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” [Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, 20th century]

Hear that again: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”

May we part of the fall and rise that define the commonwealth of God. 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 1/23/2022

Date: Jan. 23, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-30
Sermon: Re-Set
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

During the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King’s house was bombed He was out at a meeting, but his wife, Coretta, and their baby, Yoki, along with a parishioner, Mrs. Mary Lucy Williams, were in the house. No one was hurt. That night, Dr. King had to pull himself back from descending into bitterness. He tells us:

“I tried to put myself in the place of the three commissioners. I said to myself these men are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectable and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all the very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural tradition under which they have gown — a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more that 90 years of segregation — teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.” [From Stride Toward Freedom, 1958, quoted in The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp. 11-12.]

Each of us is in some measure a product of our culture. Part of the function of culture is to form our identity. And, as King alludes, and the “South Pacific” song reminds us, ‘We’ve got to be carefully taught.’ And sometimes what our culture teaches us is at odds with the basic human values of morality and goodness. And it is also at times in conflict with the precepts of our faith as Christians. And, as King points out, and as we know from experience as well as from thousands of years of history, sometimes even our religious tradition leads us astray.

We see this in the story that we heard from Nehemiah. The people all gather for the reading of the scroll. And when they hear the law of Moses, the intentions of God for their community, they realize how far they have strayed, and they are sad, weeping, distraught. But the leaders tell them to rejoice. They see the error of their ways. They are regretful. They want to return to God. They are sorry. They can make a new start. And this recommitment brings joy to God. And the joy of God is their strength. It will give them the power to follow through on their commitment, to start anew, to clean things up. So it is an occasion to celebrate, a new beginning, a re- turning to God.

That is the kind of hope and possibility that King and the Black church saw in the bus boycott and the civil rights movement in general. It was an opportunity for a re-set. To recommit to the values expressed in the Constitution and certainly in the Judeo- Christian tradition. Remember, most Southern segregationists were church goers. Probably most Klan members were church members, too. Here was a moment to make a new beginning. To deal with the past honestly and to chart a new course into the future that would honor the dignity and humanity of all races and classes of people. Everyone truly a beloved child of God. Sacred. To be treated with dignity and respect. Period. And wouldn’t that kind of re-set bring joy to God and offer strength to the people, all of the people?

There is a similar situation in the gospel story that we heard. Jesus is reading in his hometown synagogue for the first time. He is given a scroll. Isaiah. The verses express God’s commitment to liberation — good news to the poor. Well, they were poor, made poor by Roman extortion and taxation. Liberty to those held captive.

They were being strangled under Roman rule. They so wanted their freedom. Recovery of sight to the blind. Yes, they wanted healing and wholeness. Release to those in prison. There were many in debtor’s prison because of the land seizures and taxes. They wanted relief. And the year of God’s favor. That was a reference to Jubilee when all debts were cancelled and all land restored to the original owner. Truly an economic and social reset. They were ready. As an oppressed people, this was good news.

But then Jesus reminds them that God’s liberation is intended for all who are bound, who are suffering. The references to the widow of Zarephath and Namaan are examples of God’s concern for all people not just people of the Jewish tradition. God is committed to the poor and captive whatever their religious or ethnic identity; a God of universal compassion. Well, the people of Nazareth don’t like this. They want favored status. They want to hear about a God that focuses the rescue efforts on them alone. So when they see the gap between their desires and God’s intentions, they are not moved by sadness or regret, they are angry. And they try to drive Jesus off of a cliff. But of course, the purposes of God will prevail. Not only against an angry mob but against the grave. God’s dreams cannot be killed or snuffed out or eradicated.

So when the faith community is faced with the reality of injustice, which is a failure to love on the societal scale, how do we respond? Sadness. Yes. Anger. Yes. And there is denial.

Desert Wisdom from early Christianity tells us: “Abba John the Little said: We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.”

That was true in Jesus’ day. In King’s day. And in our current times.

But as we heard this morning, ours is a faith that teaches the power of new beginnings, of new starts, of the re-set. We see this in story after story associated with Jesus. Forgive 70 times 7. The prodigal son. The one without sin cast the first stone. And the forgiveness offered by Jesus from the cross. Ours is a faith that is always redemptive and reconciling. This is not to say the past should be ignored or denied or distorted. It is to say that whatever the past, there can be a way forward.

This is one of the key functions of Christianity — to help people move forward, toward greater wholeness and community for everyone so that all can thrive and flourish. It is a message of hope and transformation. With God ALL things are possible.

So it is not surprising that when it came to the bus boycott in Montgomery, this amazing mobilization was possible because it was supported completely by the Black churches of Montgomery. The churches offered their buildings for meetings several times a week for months often involving thousands of people. The churches offered their vehicles for transportation, their staffs and facilities for operations, and of course, they provided constant spiritual support through worship, prayer, and inspirational preaching from all of the clergy. It took a lot to keep people motivated and moving many miles for months and months. And the churches were there. Persisting in this painful process of transformation. This re-set.

These churches were very different in character and from different denominations which had different theologies and interpretations of scripture and ritual practices, but they could all agree that each and every human being was made in the image of God. They could agree that they were worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. And they could agree on loving your neighbor and loving your enemy, those that revile and persecute you. On those basic Christian teachings, they could agree.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the Christian community coming together like that today, white or Black. Things have become so fragmented and siloed and divided. Are there basics the faith community can agree upon? I sat near someone at a recent legislative update for religious leaders, and the topic of gun violence came up. The legislator is working for gun control. I made a comment to the woman beside me about how that was in the spirit of Jesus, and how Christians are to love their enemies not shoot them. She replied that that was appropriate for those times. At her church, they had armed security details. Ok. Well. Do we have any common ground? I don’t know. And this is a problem because the moral voice of the church, consistent with the teachings of Jesus that we see in King and others, is desperately needed today. Yes, there are fewer church goers than there were in the 50’s and 60’s. And, yes, the power of the church in society has decreased, but the possibility still exists for those of us in the church to embrace the moral authority of our tradition and speak up and speak out and not only against racism, but against every form of oppression and global warming which are strangling our country and our world.

Here there is more that we can learn from the bus boycott. When the court ruling mandated the integration of the buses in Montgomery, the Black church leaders made a concerted effort to prepare their people for this new reality. They passed out sheets with guidelines about how to behave riding the bus. They did trainings on how to behave a variety of situations that may arise. They practiced how to respond to hostility from white people. The ending of segregation on the buses was a huge re-set for Montgomery, and the Black leaders wanted to make sure that their people were prepared for this new reality. They wanted to do all that they could to support this new opportunity. They wanted to make it work for everyone. They did not want to antagonize the white bus riders or fuel further hostilities.

And how about the white churches of Montgomery? How did they prepare their people for this re-set? For this new reality? For this unfolding manifestation of the liberation that Jesus refers to from Isaiah in the story we heard today? Despite encouragement from their Black colleagues, they did nothing. Nothing to help prepare the way. Make the road smooth. Clear the path. Nothing. Maybe they thought Jesus would take care of everything for them. We don’t know.

What we do know is that we are a re-set religion. We are a faith rooted in new beginnings. The God of our tradition never abandons us. Divine Love is constant and unfailing. Our turning toward God, toward justice, toward love, toward wholeness and healing, is always an occasion for joy!

We have mammoth societal problems that plague us, and we are all dealing with personal dis-ease and heartbreak and grief. There is addiction, mental illness, and the psychological toll of the pandemics – covid, as well as racism, and sexism, and ethnocentrism, and white supremacy. There are so many divides. And now more than ever, the voice of Christianity is needed to echo Jesus, our teacher and leader – Love. Yourself. No matter how others or society treat you. Love yourself. You are holy and sacred. Love your neighbor. No matter what that neighbor looks like. Or where they are from. Or what foods they eat. Or what language they speak. Or what they wear. Or where they sleep. Love every neighbor. For every single human being is a temple of Divine Love. Love your enemy. Those who hate you. Disagree with you. Seek to harm you. Those you don’t understand. Those you can’t stand. Those who do harm. They can only be made whole with love. And we can only be made whole when we love even those we consider vile, misguided, and evil.

We come here each Sunday, to this sacred space, to this community of love and spiritual support, to be reminded of the dreams of God. And to equip ourselves to live into the compassion and healing that is possible for not only for us but for our enemy, and for our beloved world. We come here to train ourselves to go out into the world and treat everyone as sacred and holy and to honor the earth despite the forces of the culture around us that deny this reality. We come here to learn about how to seek reconciliation and restoration of relationships. We come to learn to be freed from the past which binds us and to pursue dreams of forgiveness and new beginnings. We come here to practice being part of a new reality. To be reminded that another world is possible. Things can be different. There can be change.

Here we are reminded of what is in our sacred story. There is good news for the poor. There is liberty for the captive. There is sight for the blind. There is release for those who are bound. There is economic liberation.

As we heard this morning, Jesus slipped through the crowd that sought to kill him. His ministry did not end on the brow of the hill near Nazareth. The way of God’s universal justice and solidarity and peace will persist and prevail. 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 1/9/2022

Date: Jan. 9, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 43:1-3a, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Sermon: Fire and Water
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

At one time the church hosted a day training program for mentally and physically disabled people. The people came to the church each day and worked with staff and went out and did things in the community. And what were these people who came to the program called? Guests? Clients? Community members? No. They were called ‘consumers.’ I asked about this. Why that term? It is because they consume state resources designated for their care. Consumers. Because they eat up tax dollars. Doing something taxes should do, I might add.

But we are so imbued in a market economy and a capitalist culture that our reality is defined by economics. Things are judged and labeled according to how they fit into the economic context. Economic impact influences everything. It’s all about gain and loss. Inputs and outputs. Commodities and profit. This reality is in the air we breathe. What are people? Workers. Consumers. Economic entities. We are what we do for a living. We are what we make – either a product or an income. Work hard and you are financially rewarded is a basic assumption. We expect a direct correlation between work and wealth. And the greater the wealth, the greater the value, not only of someone’s financial portfolio, but of their person. The more money you have, the more you are worth, literally. That is the bubble we are in.

So today we listened to the story of the baptism of Jesus. As the gospel of Luke opens, we have the stories that lead up to the birth of Jesus and his birth. There is one brief story about his childhood. And then, there’s John the Baptizer, in the wilderness, away from the centers of power, calling people to get ready, to repent, to prepare the way, to clean up their lives. And Jesus comes to be baptized. We haven’t heard anything about what Jesus has been doing. His ministry, his deeds of witness to the power of God, his preaching and teaching and healing and feeding, none of this has gone on yet that we are told. Jesus comes to be baptized. One of many who come to John. Then we are told of the heavens opening, and the Spirit descending, in a way that brings to mind a dove, and a voice heard by Jesus, You are my child. My beloved. On you my favor rests. With you I am well-pleased.

Jesus receives this amazing blessing at this baptism before he has started his work as messiah. Not even one day on the job and he gets a fantastic review. Complete approval. What’s that about?

Well, that’s all about God. The story is told to convey a God that loves us. Period. Not because of what we have or haven’t done. Not because we got it right. Not because we have done a great job. Not because we have worked hard. We are God’s. We are beloved. God’s favor rests on us. Because that is what God has chosen. Because God is satisfied with God’s handiwork – Jesus. You. Me. Our neighbor. Our enemy. Our annoying co-worker. A stranger. Whoever. God is pleased with God’s work. God’s imprint on every soul. We are all holy. Beloved. Blessed. Not because of anything we have done. Or haven’t done. But because of the nature of God. This is totally in conflict with the meritocracy, the consumer economy, the money mindset that surrounds us.

This past week, we have lost a cultural icon, Sydney Poitier, who used his voice in public life to convey the message that each and every person should be treated with dignity. Every person is of inestimable worth. Each and every soul has the imprint of God. His voice will be missed.

After the baptism of Jesus, we are told that Jesus undergoes a time of discernment and testing in the wilderness. Then, he gets to his preaching and teaching — because he has got to let people know what he has seen of God. He’s got to be a witness to God’s reality. Where each and every person is beloved and sacred. He’s on fire with desire to share this Divine reality with others.

So, we usually think of baptism as having to do with the forgiveness of sins. Or, with children, it’s about committing to bring them up in the Christian faith so that they join the church on their own when they are of age. But the story of Jesus’ baptism shows us that baptism is so much more. The power in baptism is not a sprinkling, it’s a torrent, a flood! We see that baptism conveys who we are in the eyes of God. Holy and beloved. God’s creative handiwork. Beautiful. Precious.

The power of Divine Love as we see it in baptism completely disentangles us from the society around us that values life according to productivity and wealth. It washes us away from being enmeshed in the market mindset that determines worth. It wipes away the punishment and reward system that dominates our culture. It frees us from being bound by social roles and cultural labels. This Divine Love manifest in baptism purifies us from judging the worth of people based on their behavior and then casting some as less than, unworthy, expendables. The image of baptism involves going under the water and dying to, washing away, all those cultural constructs that limit us. It involves being liberated by the flood of grace informing us that we are holy and beloved, we are favored and blessed because that is who God is and how God feels about what God has created.

And in the story of Jesus’ baptism we are told that baptism is not just about water but it is also about fire. Purifying. Burning away, destroying all that is holding us back and tying us down and diminishing us. All the shame and guilt. Up in ash. All the regrets. Not good enough. Haven’t made it. Didn’t get there. Messed up. Blew it. It’s all fuel for the fire of passion for life, for good news, for service, for wonder, for delight, for joy, for forgiveness and mercy and compassion. Fired up!

Baptism is about being reborn from the water into new life and recognizing the new reality of the realm of God. It doesn’t matter what we have done. Who we have been. How our patterns of behavior thwart us. Because we are holy and beloved. We have been stamped with the imprint of divinity. And so has each and every person. We are God’s handiwork and God is pleased. It doesn’t depend on us. God has done it. The reality of God is within each of us and among us. And there is a place for each of us in that reality.

This image, this reality, is powerful. So much of the hurt and harm in this life comes from people not feeling wanted, valued, or accepted. It comes from people clawing for a place. For recognition. For a sense of worth. And we go to all kinds of extreme ends to try to find this – even using violence, killing others, depriving others of basic life necessities, degrading the lives of others to elevate our own. All these awful things we do, when we have already been given what we need to thrive and flourish: the blessing of Divine Love pronouncing us beloved and good.

In Psalm 29 we heard those larger than life depictions of the power of God: the voice of God like thunder, God breaking the cedars, flashing in flames of fire, shaking the wilderness, whirling the oaks, stripping the forests bare. All of that power. That force. That impact. Associated with God. Let all in God’s temple say,“ Glory!”

Then in the verses from Isaiah, we heard about all of that incredible power being channeled into the redemption of God’s beloved. All that might and imagination applied for the good of God’s people.

And then we see all of that power and grace funneled into the baptism scene. Drifting down, ever so gently, like a dove. And a voice. All of that force and power for transformation and reconfiguration and salvation. For a new reality of love and goodness and justice and community. Gently infusing Jesus. Who hasn’t even done anything yet. But now that he experiences the power of this Divine grace and blessing, he’s freed. He’s on fire. He’s got to share this reality. He’s got to turn people on to this grace. He’s passionate about this love he has got to share. A love that frees us from worry, and guilt, and insecurity, and self-loathing, and condemnation of ourselves and others. Jesus is fired up about the love that liberates us from societal constructs, and greed, and fear.

He’s on fire. Burning it down. Turning it loose. And we’re here because we’ve been caught in the tides, drawn into the flood, gathered in by the flames.

The reading from Isaiah is to people who are dispossessed from their land, scattered, living under occupation, in a foreign culture. They are in a mess. They see no future. No hope. And what does the prophet say: Do not fear. Do not fear. God’s got this. The God of fire and wind and water, the God of the heavens and the earth, the God of the ancestors, has got this. Do not be afraid.

When you pass through the waters, do not be afraid. Don’t be afraid of the cleansing, the purifying, the new birth. When you pass through fire, burning, destroying, purifying, fertilizing, do not be afraid. When the job is gone. When mom dies. When the loneliness and grief wash over you. Do not be afraid. When another innocent black life is taken. When children go hungry. When drugs steal a loved one away from you. Do not be afraid. When you use your voice to defend justice, to shine the light on truth, to extend compassionate care. Do not be afraid. When a pandemic shuts down society, and exacerbates division, and leaves in its wake isolation, separation and loss. Do not be afraid. When death is near. When separation and loneliness break our hearts. When we long for normal. Do not be afraid. The powerful God manifest to Israel promising deliverance and descending upon Jesus at his baptism has got us covered.

At the end of the novel, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, a main character from 17th century London, who, incidentally, lived through a plague, ventures into the river to swim for the very first time. Ester, an adult woman, is finally ready to brave the water, something she has wanted to do for a long time. She is accompanied by her husband, a gay man who has a lover, and has seen more than his share of peril and threat in life.

“A high, clear birdcall sounded from a nearby tree. . . .

“The river flowed thickly before her, and she shielded her eyes to watch it. . .

“The more Ester looked, the less tame the river appeared; calling birds unperturbed by the receding skiff; the high, ragged grasses along the banks, bristling with hidden life. The wildness of things came back to her.

“Turning to Alvaro, [her husband] she let him see she was afraid. . .

“Standing on the shore, she stared. Something was lodged in her throat, aching to come loose.

“She stepped in, ginger, the muddy rocks shifting under her tender feet. One step; a second; she stood and dipped her hand into the edge of the current. This, cold water streamed between her fingers, gently at first — then more strongly as she stepped deeper, the water now forcing her palm open and her fingers wide as the current found its way between them. . .

“Water forcing her palm open, the current kissing her fingers. And swimming to the place where she stood waist – deep, her husband: master of the great house commanding the hill. She couldn’t keep from laughing in his face. He laughed with her — then, with a soft tug, pulled her off balance. The current ripped her forward and her husband led her, and the surface of the water was velvet and foam, and her legs and feet were absurd and she had no notion what to do with them — until the water lifted her limbs and made them glad and foolish. She settled her eyes on his, brown and sun-flecked as the water.

“‘Here,’ he said, guiding her wrists to his slim, sturdy shoulders, “Rest your arms here.’” Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink, pp. 556-557, 560.]

Ester is in the water, in the wet and wildness, her fear washing away; she is safe. And it is wonderful.

Let the water flow. Let it stir and spin and roil. There is safety even in the midst of the current. Baptism reminds us that we are anchored. That we are held. That we are secure in the embrace of Divine Love. No matter what life holds. And there is gladness and joy in it.

Jesus was born into perilous times. God’s holy and beloved child. A joy and delight to God. God is well pleased with God’s self disclosure in Jesus before Jesus has even opened his mouth to preach. Oh, what a God! All that love manifest in Jesus to show us, each of us, who we are. God’s children. Holy and beloved. Resting in God’s blessing. 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.