Sermon 11/10 What Seeds Are You Planting?

Date: Nov. 10, 2019 The BIG Event – Stewardship Sunday
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 55:10-11 and Matthew 13:1-9
Sermon: What Seeds Are You Planting?
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells


Even I, who was raised by city slicker parents and have always lived in an urban or
suburban environment, know that this parable is not a lesson on farming.

Farmers very carefully assess where and when to plant their seeds. They prepare
the soil with precision and care. Then, when the time is just right, they plant the
seed. Today’s combines are guided by programs on iPads to dispense the precise
amount of seed based on the soil conditions foot by foot through the field. For
farmers, seed is an important investment and they are not going to waste it. Their
goal is to plant it in the most effective way to get the highest return. They want
that yield – 30 fold, 60 fold, even 100 fold!

Seed is an investment like other investments. We pride ourselves on investing
carefully. Where it will pay off. Where the return will be maximized, whether we
are investing seed, or money, or time. We want to see a return. This is the
transactional mindset in our culture. We do something to get something in return.
We are trained to be transactional beings and not only regarding our financial
affairs but in relationships with people, with institutions, with government, and
within society as a whole. We want to know the expected yield before we invest.

The parable we heard today abandons the transactional model entirely. And on
purpose. There really is no quid pro quo here. The farmer plants seeds on the
footpath, the rocky ground, and among thorns. The story tells about the planting of
seeds everywhere. Strewn with abandon. Cast away freely in a wasteful manner.
It’s a random, inefficient investment strategy. And yet, some seed yields 30 fold,
some 60 fold, and some an unimaginable 100 fold.

This planting scheme is more related to nature than agriculture. In nature seeds are
strewn freely. Seeds like dandelions blow through the air and land where they will. Birds spread seeds through their poop. Just look at the plants growing below a
fence where birds sit. Fruits protect seeds which then are deposited randomly by
the animals that eat the fruit and eliminate the seeds. Animals spread seeds on
their fur. So, in nature, we see the widespread, indiscriminate dispersal of seeds.
And this system works. What we hear about in the parable seems more related to
this natural process than to agriculture.

In the parable we hear of the seed of God’s word, the gospel, love, being spread far
and wide with abandon. Unconditional, universal love. Strewn everywhere,
wanted or not. God invests in everyone. Because no one is irredeemable.
Because everyone can bear fruit. Because some seeds will yield, 30, 60, and even
100 fold. So the seeds are freely scattered with the knowledge that some, some of
these seeds will help to grow a better world. And they will be enough.

We see this kind of seed planting in Jesus. Jesus was constantly planting seeds of
love. He offered forgiveness. He healed people. He shared food. He told people
about a world where no one was left behind and everyone was beloved. He shared
a vision of a different kind of reality. He was planting these wonderful seeds all
the time. But many of the seeds that Jesus planted fell on deaf ears. Many people
dismissed Jesus. Many despised him. He was killed because there were people in
power that wanted to end his planting seeds of justice, mercy, and love. Yet many
of the seeds Jesus planted grew and bore fruit. Some 30, some 60, some even 100
fold. That is why we have the church today. It is the result of those seeds that
Jesus planted.

The church is here to help us know that we have seeds to plant. We are needed to
spread love and compassion and justice in the world. The church is the soil
nurturing us, helping us to grow. Helping the vision of the gospel grow in us;
getting stronger and more deeply rooted so that we can spread the love, the
universal, unconditional love of God, in all circumstances and situations. The
church is here to help us be people of integrity, critical thinkers, people of moral
fiber, compassion, and creativity. And to encourage us to plant the seeds of God’s
reality with abandon. This means being nice to the person who is mean to you.

Getting to know the person who isn’t fair. Giving to a hopeless cause that you
know is right. Taking the job with the huge cut in pay because it makes your heart
sing. Getting involved in social justice and ministries of compassion to serve the
least of these. The church is here to grow the gospel in us and encourage us to
spread the seeds of love in the world – with wasteful abandon.

Rev. Dr. James Forbes was our preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary
in New York City. He went on to serve as the pastor of The Riverside Church in
New York. In his retirement, he continues his ministry, spreading seeds of love
and hope. He has this to say about the church:

“In God’s grace the Church discovers that its member are not helpless victims of
alien powers but bearers of gifts, competencies, and influence for effecting change.
Just as Moses was told to use the rod in his hand and the disciples were bidden to
feed the multitude with the lunch they had, so we are expected to use what we
have. One of the functions of the Church is to help its members discover and
release their power in ways that promote the cause of the Kingdom. Professionals
and non-professionals, trained and untrained workers, rich and poor – all are
influencing their context either by reinforcing the status quo or promoting change.
The issue is not simply one of getting power but of becoming aware of how we use
the power we have, and then developing expertise to make an impact on our
communities for good. The Church is a sleeping giant. What a powerful witness
we could be if the parts of the body came to a new awareness of the power that is
at work within and around us!”

This is another way of talking about planting seeds. And Forbes emphasizes that
we have a lot of seeds, power, to spread in the world. Remember, some of the
seeds will produce an inconceivable yield of 100 fold.

When we look at the world today, we know that we are needed to continue to plant
seeds as Jesus did. We see the rise in acts of racism. We see hate crimes
committed against people who are Jewish and Muslim. We see the break down of
the environment due to human activity which has created global warming. We see violence growing like a cancer in our country. We see the negative attitude toward
immigrants when the only people on this continent that are not immigrants are the
indigenous native americans. We see the rise of anxiety and mental illnesses. We
see little concern about an economic system that creates extensive wealth by
creating extensive poverty. We are needed to plant seeds, seeds, and more seeds!
Strewn everywhere. Cast about with abandon. Some won’t do much. But some
will. Some will produce 30 fold, some 60 fold, and some even an amazing 100
fold.

In closing I want to tell you about the redwood tree. It starts from a small seed and
grows to become the largest plant on the planet. These towering trees, some over a
thousand years old, are still to be found in the forests of northern California. In the
book, Wild Trees, author Richard Preston tells of a college student obsessed with
these trees. He and a friend launch themselves into a tree which they call
Nameless and they make their way to the top. Now, we know how that type of tree
grows, right? There are large branches at the bottom and the branches become
thinner and taper off near the top. Right? Well, that is not what these college
students found as they summited Nameless. Here’s how Preston describes the
mature growth of the coast redwood tree as discovered by these adventurous
students:

“As the redwood enters middle age [about 800 years old], it typically loses
its leader. Its top spire dies back. . . and it falls off the tree. . .
“A redwood reacts to the loss of its top by sending out new trunks. The new
trunks appear in the crown, high in the tree, and they point at the sky like the
fingers of an upraised hand. The new trunks grow straight up from larger limbs,
rising vertically and traveling parallel to the main trunk. As the new trunks rise
and extend themselves over centuries, they send out branches. These branches
eventually spit out yet more trunks, and those trunks grow branches that send up
more trunks, and so on. The tree is becoming a grove of redwoods in the air,
containing redwoods of all sizes, from tiny to large. This aerial grove is connected
to the ground through one main trunk. The whole structure is, of course, a single
living thing.” [pp. 20-21]

And this single living thing, a huge tree, with a grove at the canopy, hosts many
other forms of life – many species of lichens and mosses, hanging gardens of ferns
and other plants. Before these college students made their ascent, scientists
considered the redwood canopy a redwood desert. But these students discovered a
whole vast forest ecosystem at the top of the redwood canopy!

And it all starts with a seed. Just one of the 6-8 million seeds produced by a
redwood tree each year. Seeds so tiny that a million seeds weigh just 8 pounds.

May we plant the seeds of the gospel with indiscriminate wasteful abandon.
Because some will take root. Some will yield 30 fold, some 60 fold, and some will
produce an astronomical, unimaginable, explosive yield of 100 fold – food for all,
community for all, material and financial security for all, justice for all.
Inconceivable abundance emerges. When we plant our seeds. 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 10/27 Real Relationships

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 4:17-25
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I am captivated by stories of people who are forced into isolation like in the movie
Cast Away, when Chuck Noland played by Tom Hanks spends four years on a
deserted tropical island with no human contact. Or The Martian, where Mark
Watney played by Matt Damon is left for dead on Mars and has to try to figure out
how to survive alone. These stories grab my attention because they challenge the
fundamental character of the human being: We are social creatures. We are
relational. We are not created as isolationist do-it-yourself loners. We are meant to
live together in families, friendships, clans, tribes, and societies.

This is part of what makes the punishment of solitary confinement in the prison
system so heinous. It is not only cruel and unusual. It is inhumane. It is
unnatural. It is a denial of the humanity of the prisoner.

We need to be together to live, to thrive, and to survive. This is the nature of our
species. While the nature of our social arrangements may vary greatly, we are
intended to live in relationship with others.

So, religion, as part of how we express our social nature, must necessarily deal
with the social arrangements of human beings. We see that in a prominent way in
the ministry and teachings of Jesus. This morning we listened to a story of Jesus
beginning his ministry. Jesus is inviting people to a new path and immediately we
see the communal nature of this path. It was common for teachers to teach and for
students to come to them. But in this story, we see Jesus going out, among the
people, taking his teaching to them; inviting them to follow. Already we are seeing
something new.

It was also customary for teachers to maintain their authority and superiority, even
if done with humility. Leaders stay at the top where it is often lonely. But in many
stories about Jesus, we see a different kind of relationship between Jesus and his
followers. He gives his followers full authority to do everything he does. He calls
them not servants but friends. Equals. He has faith in their power to do greater
things than he has done. This is a different kind of leadership. Jesus is not keeping
the power at the top.

We also see that Jesus reaches out to all kinds of people, not just the elite or those
with glowing reputations or those who have shown some kind of gift or promise
that will benefit the movement. No. With Jesus, everyone is welcome and
included in the reality of God. Women, men, rich, Roman, sick, poor, pariah, Jesus
finds people where they are. And he demonstrates compassion and love through
healing, sharing food, forgiving. And having fun. Everyone a beloved child of
God no matter the circumstances.

Jesus can teach, Love your enemy, because he does it and he welcomes even those
considered enemy into the community. He shows love to a Roman solider, to
Samaritans, and to Zaccheaus, a hated, corrupt tax collector. When the disciples
and his closest friends don’t trust, when they disobey, when they betray, Jesus still
loves them. He forgives them. To those who crucify him, we are told of Jesus
offering mercy. Jesus doesn’t just say it, he does it. He embodies God’s reality.
All beloved. All forgiven. All welcome in the community.

Jesus is not just telling stories about a fantasy world. He is not simply offering
principles and ideals. Or a set of rules or an abstract formula. From the beginning
we are told of Jesus forming relationships that embody the way of God. Jesus
offers lived experience in relationships to demonstrate the reality of God. He
models for the people around him the commonwealth of God; beloved community.
And the people around Jesus learn to practice this new kind of community.

Those who knew Jesus experienced first hand this new kind of community that was characterized by mutuality, equality, accountability, forgiveness, and joy. Yes,
Jesus’ followers were known for partying and enjoying themselves. They felt what
it was like to be part of an alternative dynamic to the stratified oppression of the
society around them. And it was life giving. It was freeing. It was like cool fresh
air on a beastly hot day. It was so compelling – even just to witness, to catch a
glimpse, to see an outline of what could be – that people were attracted to the
community around Jesus. And they were willing to be part of this experiment
creating the realm of God with others. They were willing to let go of attitudes that
did not fit the new model. They were willing to turn their lives upside down to be
part of this new construct of social relationships and community. This non
hierarchical, egalitarian way of compassion was exciting and enlivening.

Jesus does not follow God by himself in isolation because the way of God is a way
of relationship. Yes, it is important to cultivate a relationship with God, Spirit, and
self through silence and spiritual disciplines. But the rubber hits the road in
relationships with other people. How we are with others? Others who are flawed
and imperfect like we are? That’s where we truly express our faith, our deepest
beliefs, our most cherished values. In relationships with others – in society, in the
economy, in the environment, in our work settings, our social lives, our
neighborhoods, our families. All of these different contexts provide us with
opportunities to live into the kingdom of God, the realm of the Divine, the
commonwealth of Love.

Of course we know that there have always been groups wanting to create
community and to inculcate a sense of belonging. Cults, sects, gangs, and other
groups throughout history have sought to attract people often coalescing and
finding meaning and belonging around hatred. Around taking advantage of others.
Around a message of superiority. There has always been this strain in human
social constructs.

What Jesus demonstrates is community, belonging, and meaning, around grace.
Around compassion. Around forgiveness and acceptance. Around universal,
unconditional love. The experience was so compelling, that, as we heard this morning, fishers, stable people with jobs, families, businesses, providing food,
working people, leave everything behind to be with Jesus. To be part of the new
community. To embody the new reality. They accept this intrusive disruption and
follow because what they find is so life giving.

The integrity, the wholeness, the honesty attracted people. Jesus was about real
relationships. It wasn’t like trying to teach someone to knit without actually
having needles and yarn at hand. It was lived experience. The embodiment of
ideals and values and teachings. It wasn’t just wishful thinking and good
intentions.

Friends, this is what the world needs today. It needs models of authentic, honest
community where people actually live what they say they believe. And they make
mistakes. And seek to repair broken relationships and broken trust through honest
engagement. We have a government that will send troops to protect oil but not to
protect people. We have companies that are more concerned with profits than
people let alone the poisoning of the Earth. We live in a culture that may be further
from realm of God than the Roman Empire was in Jesus’ day. Which is why the
church may be more important than ever. The church. A seed. Growing a
different reality. Creating a different kind of community. Bearing an unfamiliar
fruit in this context. The church is needed to give people a different kind of
experience of social relationship. We are needed to embody a different construct
of human community. The way of Jesus is not the way of self serving Western
culture, corporate capitalism, or corrupt governance. In the way of Jesus, the
worth of a poor person can never be less than the worth of a wealthy person. There
are no expendables. In the way of Jesus, the value of the life of a white person can
never be greater than the value of the life of a person of color. This simply cannot
be in the commonwealth of God. A man cannot be of greater value than a woman.
That is not the way of Jesus. We are needed to show the world the reality of God
among us just as Jesus did in his day. Maybe the church is in decline in our society
because the church looks more like US culture than like the alternative community
formed by Jesus. But the Jesus community is desperately needed. And the more
perilous the times, the greater the need for this witness. May we create community
that reflects the realm of God here in our midst and in the world beyond. 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 10/20 Anxiety and Action

Scripture Lesson: Psalm 65
Sermon: Anxiety and Action
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I went to a social justice community organizing event this past week sponsored by
the Florida Council of Churches. At the beginning of the gathering, we were asked
to introduce ourselves and what issues we were working on. Several people,
including me, mentioned they were working on climate change and
environmentalism. After the introductions, we were asked to think about one issue
or experience that got us really mad and worked up. . . Something we are
passionate about.

We all picked our story. When we shared, no one mentioned anything directly or
even tangentially related to climate change or the environment, including me. I
thought about that. Why was this something we are working on but not something
we would mention as a hot button topic? No one said: I am furious that the sea
level is rising. That the coral is dying. That there are fewer birds. That these
continuous extreme weather events are taking lives and costing millions of dollars?
No one said anything like that. I think there are lots of ways to think about this. I
mean, the person next to you mentions how upset he is about the children separated
from their parents and put in detention centers that are less humane than the SPCA.
And then you mention, The glaciers are melting. Yes, the glaciers melting is going
to cause a lot more human suffering than ICE, but somehow it doesn’t sound right.
But I think there is more. I think sometimes, it is just too painful to think about or
talk about the environmental crisis. The climate situation can feel too enormous,
too cataclysmic, too overwhelming. What can we say?


This situation was made manifest in the last debate among Democratic contenders
for the nomination for president. As former candidate Jay Inslee pointed out in a
Tweet:
Not one single question about the climate crisis.
Not one single question about the climate crisis.
Not one single question about the climate crisis.
This is the existential crisis of our time.

Not one single question, and that’s completely inexcusable.

For Christians, this situation is even more fraught because we believe the Earth is
sacred, of God, holy, God’s self disclosure. A gift provided to nurture life and
sustain us. So for us, the unfolding devastation of the planet is even more
problematic for it involves our deepest held religious convictions and beliefs. We
are responsible for devastating the handiwork of God, the Divine masterpiece, the
material expression of the ineffable, the inspiration of awe and wonder and
mystery. So, for people of faith, the environmental crisis may be even more
horrifying and maybe more immobilizing than for the random population. And
we know that a common path of self-protection is denial.

Here, let us turn to the psalm. As we have mentioned in past weeks, the people of
Israel were dealt a devastating blow in the exile to Babylon. Their country was
overrun by the Babylonians and most of the people were deported to Babylon as
the spoils of war. Their country, their capital, Jerusalem, and the Temple were
destroyed. Their homeland lay in rubble and they were devastated. This situation
was seen as punishment for not being faithful to God. They did not follow God’s
way of justice and compassion. They worshipped other gods. They saw this take
over and exile as punishment for their sins against God and one another. They
were overwhelmed with guilt, shame, and regret. They had no idea how to go on.
And so they repent. They re-turn their life as a community to God. They seek
God’s forgiveness. The whole society concedes guilt and seeks mercy. And we
are told in the Psalm, God answers prayer. “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.” There is a public celebration of divine
forgiveness. Later, the people extol, “By awesome deeds you answer us with
deliverance.. . . you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest
seas.”

The term used for forgiveness in the psalm is a theological rather than a legal term.
It does not just mean pardon in the judicial sense. The term implies the image of
covering the guilt to rob it of its power. When forgiveness is given, guilt and
shame no longer have the power to inflict despair and immobilize the people. The
God with power over the whole Creation also channels that incredible power toward the forgiveness of humans so that the Creation may flourish. The people are
freed by forgiveness to take action directed toward a new future.

The Jewish people survived the exile in Babylon and eventually they were restored
to their land. They rebuilt their society. The power of forgiveness liberates the
people and they rise up, out from under their shame and guilt. They redirect their
energies to faithfulness and eventually they are restored.

To me, this psalm speaks to our situation regarding the climate crisis. We feel
overwhelmed about how to think about this problem and how to address it. There
seems to be no future as we know it, as we would expect it to be. The crisis seems
insurmountable. This is how the Jews felt about their exile to Babylon. They got
out from under the rock of guilt and shame by taking responsibility for their
actions; repenting and seeking forgiveness. The psalm is a celebration of liberated
people who have made it to the other side.

This psalm invites us to consider our need for forgiveness to liberate us so that we
can co-create a new future with God, a future that in some way preserves life as we
know it on this precious planet. A future that results from a vigorous attack on the
current conditions that are contributing to the climate crisis. But forgiveness is not
an easy matter, especially when the actions and decisions of society rather than an
individual are involved. We may be willing to seek forgiveness for a wrong we
have personally committed such as lying or saying something hurtful. But when
the wrong is committed by society as a whole, this is more difficult, though it can
be done. The psalms tell us of corporate forgiveness for the wrongs committed by
society as a whole. Germany went through a process of repentance following the
atrocities of World War 2. South Africa sought reconciliation as it emerged out of
the apartheid system. We do not have a good example of this kind of collective
repentance in US history. Lincoln sought that kind of response following the Civil
War but because of his assassination those ideals were never fully implemented.


In thinking about collective repentance in the modern United States, Walter
Brueggemann, premier biblical scholar and theologian, has this to say. He wrote this in 1984 in reference to Psalm 65: “Let us not miss the dramatic claim. The
whole people (together with the king, presumably) concedes its guilt and celebrates
its forgiveness. Such a scene is nearly unthinkable in our public life. Of course,
our society is not a theocracy. Religious pluralism makes it problematic, but the
main problem is not pluralism, for we have sufficient resources in common
religion for that. The problem is that public imagination is so filled with pride,
self-serving complacency, and moral numbness that we could hardly imagine an
act of public repentance or acknowledgment of forgiveness, for to ask for and
receive forgiveness is to be vulnerable. If we were to use this psalm, we might
reflect on the dimensions of guilt which vex public life, e.g., colonialism,
exploitative economics, or misuse of the ecosystem of creation. Our public life is
not lacking material for such a liturgical act.” [Walter Brueggemann, The Message
of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, p. 135]

And that was in 1984. It seems all too clear that this condition has only gotten
worse. Did you notice the three issues Brueggemann raises: colonialism. Have
you read about how the money allocated to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief was
never delivered? Exploitative economics. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders
won’t let us forget about that. Misuse of the ecosystem of Creation. There’s a
climate crisis, as Jay Inslee repeatedly reminds us. These issues from 1984 are still
with us.

While repentance and forgiveness are difficult to conceive of on a societal level, I
think we can consider the process within in the church, within the faith community.
Typically, the church is known for prayers in which we ask God to do things for us.
As the psalmist says, “O you who answer prayer,” So, we pray: Holy God, we ask
for this, we ask for that, we plead for this, we want that. We tell God what we
want and how to fix things. We seek divine intervention. The psalm invites us to
come together with our shame and guilt and fear and make our honest admissions
while opening our hearts to receive forgiveness. This is a public act of
vulnerability rooted in trust. Knowing there is another way, a way of life, in the
wake of devastation. And seeking that new future.

In this, the church can be a model for society: Listening to the shaming words of
prophets like Greta Thunberg. Calling for repentance about the climate crisis and
trusting the God of forgiveness. The process of cleansing, healing and renewal, as
we see in the psalm, will liberate us to joyful praise and radical action. The
considerable energy we spend in denial, in keeping silent, in ignoring the elephant
in the room, in suppressing our horror, guilt, and shame, can be redirected into
creating a different future for ourselves and humanity and the planet. Working for
the mitigation of climate change and environmental devastation. Advocating for
new policies that promote clean energy. Finding creative responses to the
challenges we are facing, instead of simply trying to stay in a losing game.

This process and this power do not only apply to the climate crisis. Repentance
and forgiveness create power that is healing for relationships, injustice, oppression,
and for the soul. When you find yourself stymied around a bad situation, a
relationship, a problem, an issue, maybe what is needed to move forward is
repentance and forgiveness. As the psalm says, “When deeds of iniquity
overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.” And then, “By awesome deeds you
answer us with deliverance. . .” Repentance leads to deliverance. When we are
liberated, we are freed to act.

In society today, people who are concerned about the climate crisis are often seen
as prophets of gloom and doom. Climate activists are seen as unrealistic fanatics.
Later this month, author Nicole Seymour is talking about her book, Bad
Environmentalism, at the Museum of Fine Arts. She explores this negative view of
concern for the environment. Apparently, sociologists have found that the more we
know about alarming issues, the less likely we are to act. And this applies to
climate change. So Seymour is encouraging the use of humor and irreverence and
play to bring attention to environmental issues. We need to work on this from
every front. Unfortunately, I cannot go to Seymour’s talk.

The psalm reminds us that the church has a unique role to play in encouraging
honest repentance to overcome our anxiety about this issue that will lead to
significant action. Our faith gives us a path that is, as the psalm says, “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” The seas that are clogged with
plastic and dying. The Earth that is crying out in fire and storm. We can see this
as a literal hope for the health of the land and the water of the earth. The church
can pursue repentance and make a bold witness as a liberated people energized and
passionate about creating a new world – healthy, safe, sustainable for all flesh, all
forms of life.

In the psalm, the people who praise the power of God made manifest in
forgiveness and in Creation speak from the other side – they have overcome. And
they show us what awaits us when we trust and repent and are empowered. The
power of creativity is seeking to be manifest in us. We are created in the image of
the creating God. We are being called to make amends for the past and seek
reconciliation so that through forgiveness we might be unleashed as a category 5
force in the world. Not timid and scared. But bold with the power of the Divine
that establishes mountains and stills seas.


When we engage in the process of being freed from guilt, shame and fear, we join
creation in the profusion of life –
“The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.”


As we overcome our anxiety and take action to address the climate crisis, we bring
this reality into being. 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 9/15 Branching Out

Scripture Lesson: Jeremiah 17:7-8

Sermon:  Branching Out

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Maybe Colin Tudge, the science writer who wrote The Secret Life of Trees, published in 2006, has been to the Sagrada Familia Roman Catholic Basilica in Spain.  Maybe that is where he got the inspiration for associating trees and sanctuaries as we heard in the Call to Worship this morning. [The Call to Worship is included at the end of the sermon.] In that grand basilica in Barcelona, the columns lining the sanctuary rise like tree trunks branching out and supporting the vaulted ceiling which seems to reach to the sky.  Apparently the architect, Antoni Guadi, who died in 1926, studied the structure of trees out in nature to inspire his design.  

When we go deeper into this association between trees and churches, we see there are many ways the images weave together.  Trees support life. They provide homes for plants and animals. On a hike through the Monteverde rainforest of Costa Rica, the guide told us that one tree was a host for 63 other species of plants.   That’s before you get to the fungi and the animals. Churches, too, shelter diverse life and provide a sense of home and belonging. Trees provide food for animals and for people. Churches, too, provide food, for the body and for the spirit.  Trees nurture other life forms by producing oxygen. Churches also sustain life by sharing stories and teachings that create life-sustaining community.  The values of sharing, generosity, concern for the common good, and anti-violence help to support life.  Trees provide shade from sun and rain. They offer protection. Churches, too, offer solace from the hard knocks of life, from sorrows and tragedies and grief.  Trees lower the temperature of the Earth, they give us cool breezes providing refreshment. Churches, too, refresh the spirit. The church can be a welcome haven after being buffeted by the craziness and trauma of the world.  And trees offer beauty to nurture and inspire the spirit. Churches, too, offer beauty in the building, in the meaning, and in the relationships, which enrich our lives.  

Like trees, the church supports life, provides a sense of home, family, and belonging.  The church is a shelter from the storms of life. The church sustains life with food for the body and the soul.  The church offers stories and teachings that root us in life-giving values and behaviors. The church provides comfort and solace when we need it.  The beauty of our experience at church, the music, the community, the sharing, the message, the view of the natural world inspire us. Like a tree, the church contributes to sustaining life.  Since its founding in 1967, Lakewood United Church of Christ has been doing this in so many ways.  

Are there examples you would like to share about how this church has been a life sustaining presence in your life, or in the world ?  How have you been nurtured, comforted, inspired, or found beauty in this community? 

So, our humble church is no Sagrada Familia.  We don’t have tree columns supporting a sky-high intricately decorated ceiling, but we still have a sanctuary that features the image of the tree.  First, there are the trees that we see out the glass doors including the huge oak tree that was removed this past summer. That tree has been a guardian of this church.  It was there long before the church was built and it has been there providing its shade and inspiration to us for the 52 year history of the church.  

We also have the image of the tree on the banner in the back of the church reminding us about Branching Out in Faith and Service.  That banner was created for the 25th anniversary of the church. And there is the tree.  

For the 40th anniversary, the theme was Out on a Limb for Forty Years.  Again, the tree image.   

And more recently, the branch has been added to the interior of the sanctuary.  The hooks were put in the ceiling for something else. When that was done, the hooks were still there.  Then the Advent season was upon us. A shoot shall spring forth from the stump of Jesse. And Colleen Coughenour who shares her inspiration and creativity with the church family mentioned that she has always wanted to hang a branch from the ceiling.  So, the branch went up. Advent was over and the branch stayed up. People came to the church for the first time and would comment on the branch. A year went by. The branch was still up. Another year was going by. And we thought it was time to take the branch down.  So, one Sunday after church the ladder was brought out for the task. But the people who were still in the sanctuary after the service saw what was afoot and protested. No. Don’t take the branch down. Evidently, we have brought the tree into the church and it is staying.  It has meaning. So, the branch is still up. Who knew that we would become so attached to the branch? 

Maybe you did not even really notice the enormous oak tree that was just on the other side of the driveway.  Until it was gone. But now there is a pile of mulch from the stump. So the tree continues to nurture and sustain life by decomposing and making soil for other things to grow.  

Most of the charter members who formed this congregation are gone.  Most have died. We still have Vita Uth, Ed Kaspar, and Bill Parsons. Though most of the charter members are gone, their legacy continues in the present congregation.  We are here because of them; because of the ministry that they started and supported which has been entrusted to us to continue. What they did is helping us to grow in faith and service.  And we, too, foster the growth of those who will go on after us.  

In some kind of fundamental, elemental, instinctual way, we are connected to trees.  We came from being tree dwellers to living on the land but our attachment to trees is still within us.  Not only biologically but spiritually. There are many, many mentions of trees in the Bible. As we heard this morning, life in God is like a tree that is watered and bears much fruit.   Strong, vital community life is represented in the image of the cedars of Lebanon. Jesus refers to faith like a mustard seed that grows into a small tree or bush. And there is Zacchaeus who finds new life when he is beckoned down from a tree by Jesus.  And there is the cross, hewn from the wood of a tree, that continues to sustain life and hope.  

When we think about the many inspiring images and associations we have with trees, it is not surprising that we have become a Creation Justice church committing ourselves to protecting the life of trees and planting more trees.  That will be one of our next initiatives. 

Just as the trees of the rainforests that encircle the globe to sustain and protect life on Earth, so the church is tasked with protecting and sustaining life around the globe.  This has been the legacy of Lakewood United Church of Christ for 52 years, and with the branch to remind us, it will continue to be an image that leads and guides the ministry of this church.  May we continue to branch out, to go out on a limb, serving and sustaining life on Earth. 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.

Call to Worship used in worship on Sunday 9.15.19.  It is an adaptation of an excerpt from the book The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge.  It was read responsively by the congregation.  

Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence;                                                                                                                     the green, filtered numinous light.                                                                                A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or mosque –             a living colonnade.                                                                                                      But the metaphor should be the other way around.                                                      The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees.                                                     The trees are innately holy.  

Sermon 8/20 Love – Jesus Style

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 5:38-48

Sermon:  Love – Jesus Style

In her masterpiece, Beloved, writer Toni Morrison declares, “Love is or it ain’t.  Thin love ain’t love at all.” The Sermon on the Mount is really a manifesto of love.  Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. It is an exposition of love applied in real time.  It is a collection of the teachings of Jesus that show what it means to live in God’s reality and to be guided fully and completely by love.  

The Sermon on the Mount is not about half way love, thin love.  Love when it is convenient. Love when it feels good. Love when it is easy.  Love when it doesn’t cost anything. No. The Sermon on the Mount is about real love, not fake love, not artificial love, not the illusion of love.  It’s about true love. 

The way of love expressed in the Sermon on the Mount was wildly radical in Jesus’ time and in the context of the writer of the Gospel of Matthew.  So we can’t just say, Well that was o.k. for those people back then but now things are different. Even in the first century the Sermon on the Mount was a complete reversal of the general value system of the day.  Jesus is rejecting the use of violence in any form. He is rejecting the assumption that wealth is a sign of Divine favor.  He is talking about repenting and changing behavior.  Turning to a new way of life, thinking, and being that is not based on violence, greed, or the degradation of others.  

Jesus was laying the foundation for a beautiful life for his followers and for the world.  Freedom from consumerism, self centeredness, hostility, guilt, anger, anxiety, and self pity.  A joyous celebration of community and solidarity and Creation. But make no mistake. It was subversive and it was not considered reasonable.   

Note that the Sermon on the Mount completely endorses pacifism.  No use of violence.  In any circumstance.  There was nothing reasonable about that in the first century or, it seems, in this century where churches employ armed guards for security on Sunday morning.   Pacifism was considered wildly radical and impractical then and now.

But why would you need violence?  If you love your enemy, you no longer have an enemy.  The enemy no longer exists if you love the person. The enemy becomes a friend or at least an acquaintance or a fellow human being in the human family.   So no need for violence when you no longer have enemies. But that kind of transformation is challenging. As Professor David Galston observes, “To try to understand my enemy is to accept that the force of love demands both my personal growth and the annihilation of my prejudices.”  [Embracing the Human Jesus:  A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, p. 109]  You see, it is radical and life changing, this Sermon on the Mount.   

And, that is how people thought of the church back in the first century.  Wildly radical. Life changing. Unreasonable. Subversive. And people were drawn to this alternative reality because it offered a new way of life.  They wanted something else. A new way to deal with the troubles of life and the injustices that create human suffering. And people found a life-giving alternative in the teachings of Jesus and the community that formed around those teachings.  

The Sermon on the Mount may seem like common sense, it may seem natural for the few people like  Katharine Conover who spoke last week in church having spent her life living by these teachings. But to those who have not made that commitment, the Sermon on Mount still seems way out.

I am wondering what things would be like if everyone who joined the church for the past 2,000 years memorized the Sermon on the Mount, as Katharine did.  What kind of church and world would we have if all the people who self identify as Christian could recite those chapters of Matthew? I think we would have a much different church to start with and I think we would have a much different world.  I don’t think we would have the violent society we have created and are living in today. I don’t think we would have the wars that we have today. I don’t think we would have the strangling greed that is sucking the life out of our country and world today.  I don’t think we would have the environmental cataclysm that is ravaging Earth today.  

If Christians memorized the Sermon on the Mount, or even read it, learned it, and just aspired to live by it, I think we would have a very different world than we do today.  

But the church, overall, has neglected the moral and ethical imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount.  The church with rare exceptions doesn’t insist that people memorize the Sermon on the Mount. The church, except in some small groups, does not emphasize these teachings.  If anything, the church has held them up as pie in the sky, impossible ideals. For another time and place. Maybe back in the first century or in the great beyond. But not for here and now.  Jesus meant them for here and now.  

There are very few Christians like Katharine Conover who have memorized the Sermon on the Mount and tried to use it as a practical guide for living.  And the church as an institution has largely ignored it. And we are all suffering because of it.  

When we look at the world around us today, some scholars praise all the progress that has been made – in nutrition, fighting disease, access to creature comforts, etc. [Example:  Yuval Harari] They say there are so many fewer threats and dangers than in ages past. I guess they don’t know it takes just one person to start a nuclear war. . . And these scholars point to continuing scientific development that is making human life better. 

But all of the facts and figures defending the progress humanity is making ignore the moral failings and suffering that surround us.  Anxiety and fear are growing among us. Many people feel that the overall quality of human life is diminishing. People are scared and worried.  There may be more material prosperity today but that does not mean there is more happiness and peace in the world. It may actually mean the opposite because people feel they have to protect and defend their assets.  

It’s one thing to be afraid of a plague or something you really can’t do anything about.  It’s different to be afraid of violence, crime, guns, nuclear violence, and environmental catastrophe which are all things that we have in large measure brought on ourselves and that we can do something about.  

We have immense powers of communication but is this helping us?  We can send messages instantly anywhere in the world on our electronic devices but our day to day connections with others and with the world itself are weak.  People feel lonely, isolated, and alienated. All of these messages that we are sending electronically have the potential to bring people together, to create common bonds, to increase understanding, to help people work together.  But these messages, as we know, can also create division, and fear, and hostility. Words have power.  

In her acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Toni Morrison emphasized the power of words.  She said: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence. It must be rejected, altered, and exposed. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language ― all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”

Unfortunately, sadly, in betrayal of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, much of this oppressive language can be found in the church today or it is endorsed by the church.  

Given the perils were are facing, people are seeking alternatives.  We are seeking to get out of the rat race. We are seeking a different way of being in the world.  We are looking to build our lives on a different value system.  

And, here, in the church, we have what we are looking for.  It is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. We are given a template for a different reality where people do not shoot each other at Walmart, or at school, or at the synagogue.  Where people do not denigrate the value of life, human or otherwise. Where people solve their differences with words not weapons.  

The Sermon on the Mount is wisdom teaching of Jesus that is teaching about a new lifestyle.  It is the very lifestyle that many of us are looking for. The point is to integrate these teachings into our times, our lives, and our challenges.  We could say that to be Christian is to bring these ancient wisdom teachings into our context and apply them.

What we are looking for is all in those three precious chapters from Matthew.  There we find the wisdom to end gun violence. There is the wisdom to end greed.  There is the wisdom to end global climate change. There is the wisdom to end domestic violence and war.  There is the wisdom to end the inhumane treatment of immigrants and inmates in prisons and jails. There is the wisdom to end racism and sexism and oppression based on gender identity and sexual orientation.  Any problem you can think of that is facing us and causing suffering in our society could be transformed if those who self identity as Christians would learn and seek to apply the Sermon on the Mount. If every elected official that identifies as Christian read the Sermon on the Mount regularly I believe we would have a government that is working, actually taking action, in the interests of all the residents of this country and for the good of the world.  

The Sermon on the Mount is exactly what was needed in the first century and it is just what is needed now.   

Toni Morrison’s most recent book is Mouth Full of Blood published in 2019.  It is a collection of meditations, essays, and speeches written over 4 decades.  In this book, one reviewer says, Morrison interrogates the world around us. [https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1117374/a-mouth-full-of-blood/9781784742850.html]  Morrison tells us: “Our past is bleak. Our future dim. But I am not reasonable. A reasonable man adjusts to his environment. An unreasonable man does not. All progress, therefore, depends on the unreasonable man. I prefer not to adjust to my environment. I refuse the prison of ‘I’ and choose the open spaces of ‘we.'”

The progress we are desperately seeking has been laid out for us in the unreasonable, subversive teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  May that be our foundation for creating a new reality of love. Real love. Not thin love, which is no love at all. 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.