Sermon 1.6.19 “Ablaze!”

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

This year began with the Nasa New Horizons space probe having an encounter with Ultima Thule, a tiny, icy, cosmic body over 4 billion miles away from Earth. The information gleaned by New Horizons is helping us learn about how planets are formed.

Later this week, we learned that China had launched a probe to the “dark” side of the moon. The information from this probe will help humanity better understand the formation of the solar system.

We can imagine that the astrologers from the east in Matthew’s gospel would be very excited about these initiatives! Space and the stars have always fascinated human beings. We are drawn to these lights shining in our night sky and to the light which illumines the day.

Humans are captivated by light. And this attraction is apparent in many of the religious and spiritual expressions of human history. Of course! Because light cannot be fully explained. It is beyond our full comprehension. And it is necessary for life to exist. So the imagery of light lends itself to expression of things spiritual, divine, transcendent.

In the Christian tradition, the gospel of John begins with talking about the word and the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John1:5] We speak of Jesus as the light of the world. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world.” [Matthew 5:14] Jesus, love, light, God, the stars, the heavens, they are all incorporated into the Christian tradition.

The Jewish tradition, the religion of Jesus, also uses the imagery of light. The Jews were to be a light to the nations shining justice and peace. The long awaited Messiah was to be a light. The descendants of Abraham were to number greater than the stars in the night sky – back in the days before light pollution! There are countless references to the stars, the sun, and the moon in the Hebrew scriptures. God’s word is described as a light.

In December, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights. It is a holy time to commemorate the re-dedication of the second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt. A small quantity of oil lasted for a week lighting up the rituals and prayers and services rededicating the Temple. At the end of the service today, we will sing, “Don’t Let the Light Go Out,” a song written to honor Hanukkah as well as a celebration of the imagery of the light that has not gone out.

Other religions and cultures also embrace the imagery of light. Hindus celebrate Diwali, a festival of lights symbolizing the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. Homes, shops, and temples are brightly illuminated often with oil lamps and candles. Fireworks and gifts are part of the celebration of Diwali.

A Hindu prayer celebrates light:
“O Mother, you are light and your light is everywhere.
Streaming from your body are rays in thousands –
two thousand, a hundred thousand,
tens of millions, a hundred million –
there is no counting their numbers.
It is by you and through you that all things moving and motionless shine.
It is by your light,
O mother, that all things come to be.”
[From the Bhairava Yamala, Hindu, cited in In Every Tiny Grain of Sand: A Child’s Book of Prayers and Praise, collected by Reeve Lindbergh, p. 10.]

Light is also important in the Buddhist religion. Many Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day in December. This commemorates the enlightenment attained by the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi tree. This holy day includes lighting candles and decorating trees with lights.

The celebration of Kwanzaa, a week affirming the values of African American culture, involves the lighting of candles each day of the festival.

The image of light is important in Islam as well. From the Hadith of Muslim, we are told, “I asked the Messenger of God, ‘Did you see your Lord!’ He said, ‘He is a Light; how could I see Him?’” [Cited in World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, a project of the International Religious Foundation, p. 56.]

Another passage from the Qur’an [24:35] uses the imagery of light:
“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light
is as if there were a Niche,
and within it a Lamp;
the Lamp enclosed in Glass:
The Glass as it were a brilliant star:
Lit from a blessed Tree,
an olive neither of the East nor of the West,
whose oil is well-nigh luminous,
though fire scarce touched it.
Light upon Light!
God guides whom He will to His Light:
God sets forth parables for men, and God knows all things.”
[Cited in World Scripture, p. 381.]

Light is also an important image in indigenous spiritual expression. We listen to a prayer from the North American Tewa Indian tradition:
“O our Mother the Earth, O our Father the Sky,
Your children are we, and with tired backs
We bring you the gifts you love.
Then weave for us a garment of brightness;
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness,
That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,
O our Mother the Earth, O our Father the Sky.”
[Cited in Here a Little Child I Stand: Poems of Prayer and Praise for Children, chosen by Cynthia Mitchell.]

These are just of few of the examples of spiritual expressions that celebrate the imagery and symbolism of light.

It just seems to be part of the human identity to be drawn to light. We could discuss seasonal affective disorder and other effects of light and light deprivation on humans. We need light to live, to thrive, to grow, and to be healthy. We have this in common with plants!

I’ll admit it. I have an attraction to lights, and not just the natural light of our sunshine state. I like light displays: the brighter, the more tacky, and the more garish, the better! I would wither and fade without visiting the Oakdale light display here in St. Petersburg several times each Christmas season. Even the tanks along the model railroad, and the soldiers in the display, and the war planes circling the train track, with Billy Graham preaching in the background that Christmas is about Jesus and peace, can’t dim the experience for me. Even with all of the discontinuity, I am drawn to it. Those lights shine for me.

And I can’t visit New York City without a stop at Times Square at night. I have got to see those lights!!! For me, it’s not so much the astronomy, the stars, and the constellations, but give me a good colored light display and my spirit soars!

So, when I hear the story that was read this morning, I feel some sympathy for those astrologers, or wise men, who follow a star that takes them to a newborn king. Yes, they follow a light, but this story also sheds light on the ministry of Jesus and on our faith. In this story, we see the conflict between this new born king, Jesus, and Herod, the established king, a puppet of the Roman Empire. There is the empire of this world, maintained through intimidation and violence, and there is the Divine realm, the commonwealth of God, a reality of anti violence and justice, that is lived out by Jesus. Two conflicting paradigms necessitating choices. The story sheds more light. There are those who are invested in a religious expression which favors them, their kind, and their tradition. And there are those who are open to a spiritual expression that includes all people and all cultures; that is universal in nature. This is the way of Jesus. Already in this story of these extreme foreigners coming to find the baby Jesus, we see that barriers are being crossed and walls are being taken down. Jesus represents a blessing to all of humanity and all of Creation, not just to one people or one group or one geographical region. This story portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in scripture. The magi are not part of that tradition. And yet they seek Jesus. So in this story we also see Jesus as a fulfillment of humanity’s hopes and dreams for authentic life and human community. This story sheds much light showing us Jesus’ universal mission to all people regardless of religion or ethnicity or culture. Like the sun, which shines and illumines all of the Earth, Jesus is seen as one offering spiritual illumination to all whatever their background or tradition. He is seen as a light for the world.

Here, we want to remember something else about light. It helps us to see better. It helps to show what is there. It illuminates. It does not hide. So it is with Jesus. He shows us the truth of our reality as humans. He shows us our frailty. Our need for forgiveness. He shows us our capacity for generosity and grace. He shows us our ability to love and be loved. He shows us our need to serve and live with an “other centered” orientation. He also exposes our capacity for evil. It may have been the very same people who shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and, “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. That’s how it is with light. It shows us what is there. We see reality. Not fantasy. Not fiction. But reality. The truth. And when we are open to seeing in the light, to letting the light reveal what is there, it is then that we can come to truly know ourselves, and others, and begin to create authentic community with real people of all different kinds. And in the light, we can also pursue an authentic relationship with Creation that is characterized by respect, balance, and reverence.

The days are getting longer. There is more light. The celebration of the birth of Jesus has opened our spirits to greater light. While we may be putting away our Christmas lights, it’ll take them three months to take them down at Oakdale, the light of the way of Jesus ever shines to illumine our lives and draw us into authentic community. So, look for the light. Create the light. Shine the light. Reflect the light. Be a light. Let yourself be drawn to the light. For with light, there is life. Amen.

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

Sermon 11.18.18 The Darkling Beetle


The BIG Event, Stewardship Sunday

Scripture Lessons:  Isaiah 25:  6-9 and Matthew 6:25-33

The Namib Desert is a vast expanse of, well, dry sand, in south western Africa.  This long narrow coastal desert stretches about 1200 miles from Angola through Namibia and into South Africa.  The name, Namib, comes from the Nama word which means “vast place” and indeed the Namib Desert is a vast place covering over 31,000 square miles.  That’s about half the size of the state of Florida.  The Namib Desert is one of the oldest on the planet.  It may be between 55 and 80 million years old!  The landscape includes sand seas with dunes rising up to 1000 feet, gravel plains, and scattered mountain outcroppings.  In some places, the average yearly precipitation is 2 millimeters per year!  The temperature ranges from 140 degrees F to freezing.  Not surprisingly, there is very little human habitation or activity in this desert, though there is mining of diamonds and tungsten. 

Despite the harsh conditions, there is prolific life in the Namib Desert.  It is home to some 3,500 plant species half of which are endemic.  That means they can be found only in this region of the Earth.  One of these plants is the Welwishcia mirabilis.  It has only two long, narrow leaves and it can live for over 1,000 years!

There are also a variety of animal species that live in the Namib Desert including birds, shrews, moles and snakes as well as zebra and even elephants.  There are also lots of beetles and bugs including the amazing darkling beetle.

This beetle is endemic to the Namib Desert.  That means it cannot be found living anywhere else on Earth.  It’s a little beetle about the size of a thumb nail.  And it gets up every morning and climbs up a sand dune which may be up to 1000 feet high.  That’s like twice the height of Mount Everest to a human being.  Then, when this beetle gets to the top of the dune, does it lay down and rest?  No!  It stands still, facing the wind, and does a head stand.  In this position, here’s what happens scientifically – the bumpy elytrons with a pattern of hydrophilic bumps and hydrophobic troughs cause humidity from the morning fog to condense into droplets and roll down the beetle’s back into its mouth.  OK.  That means that the beetle does this head stand and moisture from the fog forms drops on its body which has special bumps and grooves to channel the water down the body right into the beetle’s mouth.  What a design!  In this way, the beetle takes in up to 40% of its body weight in water.  That’s like an adult drinking about 30 liters of water!  (Calculated for a 160 pound adult.)  So, the beetle doesn’t rest at the top of the dune but it sure has a big drink of water!  Then it heads down the dune to conduct the rest of the days activities!  This seemingly crazy water capture procedure keeps the beetle alive even in the harshest conditions.  

Well, I’m going to suggest that coming to church for us is something like heading up the dune for the darkling beetle.  We get up on Sunday morning and get dressed, eat something, drink something, and then we head to church.  Here we find what we need to live.  We find community.  We find love.  We find spiritual sustenance.  We find teachings and values that promise life.  We find a concept of reality to not only sustain us but to help us flourish.  All that we need to live is offered here.  We just have to show up and take it in like the beetle heading up the dune.  Sometimes it may seem like a taxing trek up that dune but the beetle is not disappointed.  It does its headstand and gathers the water it needs to make it through another day.  Some Sundays, it seems like hard work to get to church.  How are we going to fit it in with all that we have to get done?  Maybe we feel weak.  Maybe there are other reasons the effort seems like a stumbling block.  Maybe it’s not as bad as climbing a mountain twice the height of Everest, but it could be as taxing as doing a head stand!  But we make the effort and we get here, and we find just what we need to make it through the day, or through the challenge we are facing, or through the difficult circumstance that has us stressed.  Here, at church, we find that what we need comes pouring in.  We just have to show up.  And then we leave to proceed with the rest of life, prepared, supported, and fortified, even for the harshest conditions.  

So as you make your pledge this morning, offering time, talent, and treasure, think of all that we are receiving from the church and all that the church is offering.  It’s all here.  Everything we need to live with meaning, purpose, joy, and delight.  Let us share the harvest that is being so generously given to us.  Amen.  

Information on the darkling beetle and the Namib Desert is from:

Planet Earth, “Deserts”

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

Sermon 10.21.18 "Fact and Faith"

Scripture:  Mark 10:46-52

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

The quintessential American writer and social commentator of the 19th century, Mark Twain, had this to say:  “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”  It doesn’t take much discernment to see that there are many in our country today whose imaginations are way out of focus.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say it, we have guided missiles and misguided men.  Our species has made enormous strides in science and in understanding the world around us and beyond.  We have achieved tremendous technological advances, so much so, that it almost seems as if we are living in a sci-fi movie from the 50’s or 60’s.  

And Albert Einstein observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  So, I am wondering about our capacity to imagine humans living in balance with Earth in a way that sustains both.  I am wondering about the will to imagine human communities that are just:  Free of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and all of the other attitudes that judge and therefore diminish people.  I am thinking about our capacity for imagining economic arrangements that profit the common good.  I am wondering about imagining peace.  Many of us joined hundreds of others to do just that yesterday at Circus McGurkis and what a glorious celebration it was! 

It seems there is boundless imagination for schemes of amassing power and wealth at any expense.  There seem to be no limits to the imagination when it comes to inflicting pain and inventing weaponry.  But what about imagination for the good?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, the human mind has used imagination in service to religious expression.  Humanity has used imaginative pictures and stories and rituals and monuments to shape community, consciousness and meaning.  Humans do not live by bread alone, as scripture tells us.  We need stories and images which form narratives that help us to understand and make meaning out of our experience.  Religious expression is part of that.  Religion is a response to mystery, awe, and wonder.  Religion helps us to understand the world around us and the world within us.  Religion invites exploration of our motivations, influences, and values.  It helps us to figure out who we are, why we are here, and what matters.  

Religion, Christianity included, relies largely upon story in this process.  Jesus did not deliver well thought out, well documented treatises about human behavior.  He told stories.  The stories of our religious traditions, folk tales, myths, and lore, these stories all help us to see who we are, shape who we are, and help us to understand ourselves and the world.  Narratives define us.   

In Mexican lore, there is a creation story about people being created from corn.  Corn was growing prolifically.  And a divine figure turns the tall, erect corn stalks into people.  And this is how people came into the world.  Of course this is not science.  But we know that.  We see that this is a story that helps to shape a culture in which corn is the most important food.  Corn makes life possible.  The story gives people a sense of their core connection to the corn, the land, and the love that sustains them. 

Story is an important part of religion.  Stories help us to see who we are and find meaning in our experience.  We see this in the story that we listened to from the gospel of Mark this morning.  We are told that Jesus is walking along through a town called Jericho, accompanied by a large crowd. So this is a public circumstance.  As they are leaving Jericho, on the outskirts of town, they encounter a person who is on the outskirts of society – someone on the fringe, the edge, marginalized.  We’re told about a physically blind person who, when he finds out that Jesus is going by, cries out for mercy.  The blind person, who cannot see, seems to see who Jesus really is and what he is capable of.  And, remember, from stories in the Hebrew Bible, the people knew that that the messiah was supposed to give sight to the blind.  So this blind man’s expectations are in line with the teachings of his religion.  He is giving Jesus the opportunity to show the crowds who he is.  But the crowds, including the disciples, don’t see this.  They are forgetting their stories and they tell the blind man to be quiet; stop making a scene.  But in the story, Jesus sees what is going on.  This is an opportunity for him to fulfill his role as messiah, messiah not only to the respectable people, but messiah to those on the outskirts of society.  So we are told that Jesus calls out to the man.  Well, the crowd immediately responds and calls the man to Jesus.  The man throws off his cloak, perhaps his only possession,  and goes to Jesus.  He gets rid of anything that gets in the way.  He is willing to give up whatever he has to because he sees who Jesus is and values whatever Jesus will give him above all else.  This is in contrast to the disciples who just verses before are wondering why they have left home and family and job to follow Jesus and if it will be worth it.  And there is also the story of the wealthy person who cannot give his wealth to the poor to follow Jesus.  The blind man may only have one possession, but even this he will gladly cast aside for he trusts Jesus. 

Next in the story, Jesus asks this man, “What do you want me to do for you?”  What does he want?  It’s almost like a genie and three wishes.  But you can’t ask for three more wishes.  What do you want me to do for you?  Again, just a few verses earlier, the disciples have come to Jesus with a request:  To sit at his right hand and left hand in the realm of God.  They want favored status, recognition,  and privilege.  This brings to mind the observation of Helen Keller, a person who was physically blind and deaf: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”   What does this blind man want?  “My teacher, let me see again.”  See.  This man wants understanding.  Insight.  Meaning.  That is what he asks for which also tells us what he does not ask for:  wealth, power, status and prestige.  There are lots of things that he does not ask for.  The one thing he wants is sight.  True vision.   

In the story, Jesus tells him, “Your faith has made you well,” or saved you, or made you whole, or cured you, depending on how the word is translated.  But the man’s inner sight, his trust, his awareness, has led him to Jesus, to desiring what is true, to letting nothing stand in the way of his quest.   And he is rewarded. 

And what is the first thing he does once he can see?  Does he look in a mirror?  Does he count the coins he has collected begging?  Does he take a swing at someone nasty in the crowd that has taunted him?  No.  We are told, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”  He sees with validity and the value of this alternative world that Jesus is offering to people.  He sees the commonwealth of God in Jesus and his way.  He sees the truth that our highest good is found in living for others.  

We have touched on just a few of the many meanings and insights in this story that help us to see truth and to see ourselves more clearly.  This story has much to offer in helping us to examine ourselves and better understand ourselves and the nature of the world around us.  

Now, the touchy topic.  Did Jesus heal the man?  Did Jesus actually physically heal this man or anyone?  Is this a miracle?  Is it an occurrence that is beyond the bounds of scientifically provable experience?  Is this story to be looked at literally to show that Jesus is the Messiah?  

If the Bible is taken literally, then there are many claims that are in direct conflict with scientific fact.  Some of these can be accounted for by the less advanced state of knowledge at the time the documents are written.  But some of the stories are specifically intended to contradict scientific fact to show the power of the Divine.  But these stories were not originally taken literally, as we understand that term.  In ancient times, there was not the delineation between scientifically provable fact and fiction that we understand today.  Stories were considered true because of what they conveyed about human experience that resonated with the listeners and their experience.   Strict Biblical literalism as we know it is a relatively recent development, really since the 19th century.  And the problem with this new Biblical literalism is that it puts religion at odds with science and creates a false choice between science and religion.  And a consequence of this false choice is that religion with its potentially powerful influence for good loses much of its authority and validity and respect.  

Our religious tradition is rich in stories that help us to understand ourselves, see our choices, choose our reality, make moral judgments, create community, and pursue justice.  The stories of Jesus have much to offer the world to address the many challenges and problems that we are facing.  And we know that stories have the power to shape our consciousness.  Narrative creates our reality.  The power of our Christian stories is being lost to this blind insistence on literalism.  

We’ll take a moment to look at how this is the case with two important images associated with Christianity.  First, heaven and hell.  Seen as metaphors, symbolic images, the concepts of heaven and hell have much to offer.  On Earth as it is in heaven.  Creating communities, societies and culture that respect the dignity and value of every human being.  That’s heaven.  Living in harmony with the physical creation.  That’s heaven.  Living the path of love and forgiveness and generosity.  That’s heaven.  Living for others and serving others.  That’s heaven.  Creating peace through justice.  That’s heaven.  That’s what we are told about the way of Divine Love in the Bible.  These are visions of God’s way.  And we can image that as heaven.  

And what is hell?  Hell is life that is not lived from the foundation of Divine Love.  Hell is when we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.  When we do not love our enemy.  When we do not see the needs of others.  When we live from our own selfishness and greed.  This creates suffering and separation and pain and violence.  This can be imaged as hell.  

To insist that heaven and hell are only actual places that you go after you die distorts and limits the potential constructive power of these images.  

Another example is the powerful image of resurrection.  The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is a story that tells of the human capacity for evil and violence.  It tells of the power of greed and lust for power and control.  It tells of human resistance to the way of love.  It is also a story of the ultimate triumph of love.  Of resilience.  Of the power for new life that is beyond our wildest imaginings and dreams.  Think of Nelson Mandela becoming the president of South Africa.  Think of the European Union forged from peoples who were at war with each other off and on for hundreds of years.  Think of the parents who keep going, one more day, after the tragic death of a child.  Resurrection is all around us.  It is always possible within us.  To limit this concept only to something literal that happened to Jesus and will happen to us after we die is to rob this symbol of its power.  Symbols and stories by their very nature are not limited in power and scope.  To insist on literalism when it comes to the Bible is to limit its power.  

Now I have a wand here, an exact replica of the wand used by Daniel Ratcliffe in the Harry Potter movies.  This wand was custom made for Malcolm Wells by his father, Jefferson Wells.  Now, if I point the wand at the altar and utter the spell, wingardium leviosa, what will happen?  Will the altar rise?  Levitate?  Of course not.  But that does not diminish the power of the story of Harry Potter in which we see the battle between good and evil.  And we see the extreme loyalty that marks true friendship.  And we see evidence of sacrificial love as a mother places her body between her child and a deadly curse, giving up her life to save the life of her child.

If we ask to have our sight restored, we will see that the perceived conflict between science and religion, between verifiable fact and religious truth, is illusion.  We will see that the way of Jesus, a way of love, service, reconciliation, and valuing the worth of every person and all of Creation, is life-giving.  And we will choose that way.

The blind man in the story threw down his cloak and gave up life as he knew it to embrace a new life following Jesus.  There is a loud cry coming from our society, from our communities, from our neighborhoods, and from ourselves for healing and hope.  Our faith tradition is rich with stories that help us to see our circumstances, the implications of our choices, and the meaning of our lives.  May we be willing to abandon the dogma and theology and tradition that prevent us from following Jesus and finding new life.  May our plea be, “Let me see.”  Amen.  

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

Sermon 10.7.18 One Is Not the Loneliest Number

Scripture Lessons: Job 1:1, 2:7-10 and Mark 10:13-16                                            Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

This week there was the celebration of the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  You know, the guy who is often pictured talking to the birds and other animals like Dr. Doolittle.  St. Francis is remembered for writing an ode to the sun, the stars, and the moon.  At the end of the service, we’ll sing a hymn based on his verses.  To our ears, it almost sounds, well, Wiccan or Native American.   It is an unusual celebration of the natural world for traditional Christianity which is usually so anthropocentric.   But St. Francis is hardly seen as edgy or provocative.  He seems more eccentric and quaint with his fascination with animals and nature.

But St. Francis is also known for pursuing poverty and he made quite a turn around in his life.  He grew up in a context of wealth and privilege.  He was known for living the high life.  He relished military glory.  But as a young adult, he underwent a process of spiritual transformation.  We are told that in the town square, in front of his father, the bishop, and the townspeople, he carefully took off all of the clothes he had on, which his father had given him, and folded them into a neat pile, and then renounced his inheritance, exclaiming that God was his only father, and walking away, singing.  

In this gentle act, a symbolic gesture, Francis was making a statement about his trust in God and his connection with the world.  He saw himself as a child of God, part of God’s Creation, and he did not want to be defined by other biological, cultural, and economic labels.  He wanted to self-identify as a child of God, a creature in God’s world.  He looked at other people and animals in this way as well.  All created, creatures, part of Divine reality: all of it holy and sacred.   Theologians today say that Creation is the self-disclosure of God.  Francis saw that.  All of it.  Of God.  He was part of God’s family, the human family, living in relationship with all of the other creatures with the natural world as a household.  One community of life.   One world.  One reality.   

This is the orientation that we see in the life and ministry of Jesus.  While society was busy trying to establish divisions and classifications and hierarchies, Jesus would have none of it.   Jesus is completely undermining the standards and assumptions of his society and culture.  We see this in the story that we heard this morning with the children.  In Jesus’ day, children were non-persons.  They were owned by their father.  They were completely dependent upon their father for care, inheritance, and life.  They had no status.  They had no power.  They had no rights.   They were nobodies.  The disciples are annoyed with the children for disturbing Jesus.  Children should not be bothering a teacher and his students.  They are not worthy of consideration.  The disciples are not being rude and heartless.  They are expressing accepted cultural norms.   

Though this story has a first century context, we might think about groups that are considered non-persons today in our culture.   Homeless street people?  Refugees?  Farmworkers?   People of color?  People who are made poor?  The disciples are accepting the mindset of society about personhood.  Jesus is rejecting the mindset of society about personhood.

When Jesus welcomes the children and blesses them, he is affirming their personhood. And he does not stop there.   Jesus affirms the personhood of women, the mothers of children, children, Samaritans, Romans, foreigners, the sick, the mentally ill, literally everyone.  There is no one who is of “non-person” status with Jesus.  The male disciples want to shove the children away, but Jesus will shove no one away.  He overturns the accepted notions of society.  His vision is inclusive.  All are part of the one family of God.  And he invites everyone to know their status as dependents on grace, on Divine Love, on God.  Everyone is radically dependent upon a God of universal love. 

Not one of us is responsible for our being here.  For our existence.  For our being alive.  In this place.  At this time.  As this species.  We are not responsible for the fact that we are here or that there are human beings at all.  We are not responsible for the fact that there are dogs or that there are trees or that there are clouds or that there are oceans or that there are mountains.  We did not create this Earth.  We need to remember this as we seek an appropriate understanding of ourselves as part of everything else that exists, that has emerged, that has appeared and formed.  We are part of the created world.  We are not responsible for our existence.  While we have incredible potential for effecting Creation, and for altering Creation, we are ultimately still created.  Like all other creatures.  Like the land, the waters, the planets, and the stars.   Our faith invites us to remember that we are part of something much bigger that we did not originate. We are one with the rest of all that is.  

I experienced this sense of oneness recently when I visited the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.  I am not African American.  My relatives were in Europe until the early 1900’s so were not part of slavery on this continent.  So I have always felt a sense of distance from that part of history.  The Wright Museum changed that.  The exhibitions begin with a description of the geological formation of the African continent.  Then we learn about the emergence of hominids in the Rift Valley.  We are told about the first homo sapiens sapiens evolving in the Rift Valley and of our common human ancestor known as “Eve.”  Then we hear about the migrating of the human species around the planet.  The way the museum tells the story, we are all part of the story because it is not just a story about those we name as being of African heritage or dark-skinned people today but it tells the origin story of all people including me.  It was very compelling.  I really felt that I was learning about my own history which is really our history as one human family.    

Society is always trying to undermine this sense of connection and oneness.  We see it in Jesus’ day.  We see it in the context of Francis of Assisi.  And we see it today.  “Us and them.”  The “other.”  Polarization.  Division.  We live in a time where everything is branded – liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, American or other.  And there is economic division.  The haves and have-nots.  The 99% and the 1%.  Those with capital .  This without capital.  Management.  Labor.  Domestic.  Foreign.  We live in a time beset with divisions and polarization.  And the media around is capitalizing on this and making it more ingrained.  

Division, tribalism, and fear make people easier to control and manipulate.  Christianity is about freedom from this vicious cycle.  

There is no room for divisive, polarized thinking in the way of Jesus.  Jesus rejected the labeling of people which makes them of different value and differing worth in the eyes of society.  He rejected the construct of “us and them.”  He rejected the concept of “other.”  The way of Jesus, of Christianity, is rebellion against all of these divisions and separations, whatever they may be.  There is one human family.  Each person a child of Divine Love.  In God, reality is one.  One enterprise.  One unified interconnected whole.   All sacred and holy.  All a gift.  That is the fundamental, foundational concept of our faith.  We are not one nation under God, we are one Cosmos within God.  

We have to realize that the things that we don’t like in this world, they are part of us.  The people we don’t agree with in this world, they are part of us.  What we see as abhorrent, anathema, and despicable in this world, it is part of us.  We have the capacity for such evil within us.  Also, what is good, what is loving, what is true, that is also part of us.   We have the capacity for incredible resilient love.  And when we see ourselves as part of this oneness, we can have compassion for all of it.  For ourselves.  For others.  And for the Earth itself.  

We saw things go on this past week that I am sure we find disappointing if not horrific and infuriating.  The problem is that people are putting individual self-interest and loyalty to their “tribe” ahead of their commitment to the bigger reality, the greater whole.  So senators were putting their own self-interest, their own re-election, and their own loyalty to their party ahead of the best interests of the whole country and the long-term future.  This happens involving politicians all stripes.  And while we may be upset with them for doing this, in our own ways, closer to home, we may be doing the same thing – putting our own interests or the interests of our group ahead of the interests of the whole.  We may be doing this in the work place.  We may be doing this according to race or class.  We may be doing this in terms of our commitment to environmentalism.  We may even be doing this in our family relationships – putting our self-interest and certain loyalties ahead of the common good.   So we need to look at ourselves and think about transforming ourselves and our own outlook and behavior because in that process we can become agents of transformation in wider human society and in the world.  

Christianity is an antidote for our human proclivity toward tribalism.  Seeing ourselves as part of the whole and affirming this oneness is at the heart of our faith because it is necessary for the flourishing of the realm of God, the commonwealth of God, that Jesus imagines and embodies.   When we function from the perspective that all of Creation and reality is one, we let go of our control and our sense of entitlement.  We live in gratitude for all that is given that we did not make or cause.  We see our unity with others and our connectedness.  We all suffer.  We all want food and shelter.  We all want to live in safety.  Humans and animals, alike.  Internalizing this sense of connectedness and oneness frees our capacity for empathy and love.  We find ourselves being transformed.  And since we are part of the one, as we change, the world is changed.  When we see others as distinct and separate, we cannot effect change.   We can only change ourselves and when we embrace our oneness, and make choices and take actions from that reality, we transform the world. 

Communion has always been symbolically about being one with Divine Love in its fullest manifestation.  We can think about how the bread and the juice come from the Earth from plants that are grown by the sunlight and the water.   We can think about the animals and the birds that spread the seeds so that plants flourish and grow, and the bees that pollenate the plants so that they spread and bear fruit.  We enact and hallow our oneness with all of Creation as we eat the bread and cup.

And we embody our connection to each other as human beings and to Jesus the Christ in this offering of bread and cup.  There is the idea that Jesus as the Christ, is showing us the capacity and the potential that is in each and every human being.  It is not that he was one different, special, “other,” exceptional human being.  It’s that he, as a human being, shows us the possibilities of our nature as a species.  The love and trust and oneness that we see in Jesus is not just in him.  The possibility is in each and every person.  It is our oneness.

There was a song made popular in the ’60’s by the band Three Dog Night called “One is the Loneliest Number.”  Again and again and again, the phrase is repeated, “one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”  

No, one is not a lonely number.  One is about being part of a vast, awe-inspiring, incredible reality connected to and in relationship with all other creatures as well as all that exists on this Earth, in this solar system, in the Cosmos, and on beyond in the infinite expanse of galaxies that our minds do not have the capacity to comprehend.  We are woven into the sacred pattern of life, of reality.  With everything that is.  We are not alone.  We are always one.  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 9.2.18 Labor and Love

Scripture Lesson: Song of Songs 2:8-14                                                                   Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

According to ABC News, Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world.  More than the English, more than the French, way more than the Germans or Norwegians. Even, recently, more than the Japanese.  And Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later, too.  

According to Gallup, it is estimated that the average full-time American worker works 47 hours a week. That one of the longest work weeks in the world, and certainly higher than Europe where the average is more like 35 hours a week.  In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.

I had no idea there was such a thing, but apparently 134 countries in the world have laws limiting the maximum work hours per week.  Not the  United States.  

Then there is vacation.  Many jobs in the US offer 2 weeks paid vacation.  54% of workers do not take all of their paid vacation.  Compare this with many European countries where standard vacation time is one month.  In Sweden, it’s 5 weeks paid vacation per year.  And I bet they take it!

And what about family leave.  The average outside of Europe is 12 weeks paid parental leave.  In Europe the average is over 20 weeks.  Yes.  Paid.  Parental.  Leave.  In Finland, women can take 7 weeks of paid leave before a child is born and 16 weeks after.  And the men get 8 weeks paid leave.  The US is the only country in the Americas without a family leave policy.

Then there are the American work habits of eating lunch at the desk and working through lunch.  Not the norm in other countries.  And responding to work email on the weekend.  Again, not expected or accepted in other developed countries.  No matter how you slice it, Americans work A LOT.  

In the article “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World” posted at the website 20 something Finance, G. E Miller concludes:  “Using data by the U.S. BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics], the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.

[Labor trends and statistics cited come from: and  and]

Yes, we live up to our national image of being hard working, and we fulfill our cultural narrative of the importance of working hard.  We have been wellformed by the founders of our culture such as Ben Franklin who said:  “It is the working man who is the happy man.  It is the idle man who is the miserable man.”  I am in there with the best of them.  I had two parents who were always working.  It’s part of being first generation immigrants.  They had the incentive to work hard and make a life in this country.  And I have inherited that tendency.  So has my brother.   We have absorbed the cultural message that hard work is important – not only for productivity and income, but for character and service.  

But work is not all there is to life which is why we have Labor Day.  A day off from work.  Labor Day was originally created as a celebration of the labor movement and trade unions.  These are groups that fought for fair, safe, working conditions, workers rights, the 40 hour work week, minimum wage, and benefits such as healthcare, pensions, and sick leave.  The labor movement was about protecting workers from unsafe, inhumane conditions.  It was about making sure that laborers were given the just fruits of their labor instead of the fruits of their productivity going predominantly to those with capital, the owners, and the boards of directors of a corporation or business.  Unfortunately, the labor movement has fallen out of favor in this country and workers are paying the price with the result that more money stays on top and income inequality is increasing.

We heard beautiful words this morning from Song of Songs.  And they are not about work.  They are about love.  The verses burst with ardor, desire, and yearning.  In these words we hear of the strength, agility, abundance, beauty, joy, and play that go with love and desire.   The writer uses the image of spring time, with its exuberance, bursting with life, irrepressible, to convey the ardor of love.  

Is this passage about two lovers and romantic love?  Is it about God and the Jewish community?  God having such desire and passion for the faith community?  Is it about Christ and the church?  Christ with such passion and devotion for the church?  We don’t know.  And we don’t need to know.  Whether this is about romantic love or the spiritual life or both, because they are connected, don’t we envy such intense passion?  What we need to know is that this passage conveys to us the energy and boundlessness of love.  And we are people born to love.  We are born for passionate, energetic loving – of life, of nature, of others, of the spiritual life.  We are to nurture and cultivate our human ability to feel such devotion and commitment and desire.  We are to safeguard, cherish, and protect our capacity to love.  The church is about encouraging us to feel – to feel the exuberant intensity of love.  

We are not here to just be cogs in a wheel.  To be labor units.  To be figures in an economic equation to maximize profits for someone else.  We are not here just to consume, to buy, to be taken in by the lie that by purchasing things and increasing profits we’re helping working people.  Sure, hard work is important, but MORE important, our faith teaches, is hard love.  We are here to love with vigor, intensity, and dedication.  But when you are working all the time, especially just to stay even, it’s hard to have energy or passion for anything even love.

Love takes time and attention.  If we are working so much, as the statistics say we are, then we are not making room in our lives for love.  This is yet another reason to pursue economic justice in this country – so that people have energy and time and attention to devote to our real job on this planet – love. 

Unlike the culture and economy around us, the church reminds us that our primary purpose is to be lovers. To love people.  Music.  Beauty.  Nature.  Ourselves.  God, however you imagine God.  We are here to feel that ardor and passion.  That irrepressible energetic excitement and devotion.  

It’s hard in a culture in which we are defined by our job; where our identity is created by our work.  Think about it.  When someone asks about what work you do, what do we say?  “I am a teacher.”  “I am a plumber.”  “I am a pastor.”  We don’t say, I do teaching or I work in a school.  Or I do plumbing.  Or I serve as clergy in the church.  No we say, “I am.”  I am a secretary.  I am   housecleaner.  I am a garbage collector.  Not I do this kind of work.  We define ourselves not by our humanity or our love interests but by our job.  In recent years, I have been to Europe several times and it has involved a fair amount of interacting with every day people.  I’ve noticed that in Europe, it’s not like that.  You talk with people and get to know them and you still have no idea where they work or what they do.  You might hear about their political views.  Their children.  Their tastes in food or drink.  Where they went on vacation.  What music they like.  A favorite book or museum.  All this with no mention of where they work or what they do for work.  It doesn’t define who they are the way it does here.  In the US, one of the first things that comes out when you meet someone is where you work and what you do for a job because we are socialized to create our identity around our job.

Yes, tomorrow is Labor Day.  It is a holiday intended to remind people, with a day off, that we are not meant to work all of the time.  Work should be fair so that we don’t need to work all the time just to live.  Yet many will be working tomorrow – in stores and restaurants and gas stations, etc.  It’s often the biggest sales day of the year after Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Instead of spending the fruits of your labors, instead of shopping which requires that others work, I invite you to not work tomorrow.  To not shop tomorrow.  To not go out to eat tomorrow.  To not use the labor of others tomorrow as best you are able.  Just for one day.  And honor the desire to make more space and time in your life and in this world for love.  Hunger for that desire.  Pursue that ardor.  In some way, capture your calling to love.  Amen.  

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