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. []  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.

Sermon 8/8 Where’s the Wine?

Scripture Lesson: John 2: 1-11

Sermon:  Where’s the Wine?

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!”  This prayer is associated with St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish cloistered nun.  So, even then Christianity was associated with people who seemed, well, miserable. We’re often seen as the religion of “Thou Shalt Not’s”.  No dancing. No drinking. No smoking. And we can heap upon that the guilt, guilt, and more guilt, that Christianity has become famous for. And it doesn’t help that the main visual image for Christianity today is the cross, with or without Jesus, an instrument of torture associated with suffering and shame.  It’s no wonder people don’t want to come to church! Who wants to associate with a religion known for being so sour and dour?

But the original visual image for Christianity was the garden.  Abundance. Beauty. Animals. Plants. Nature. And Jesus in the midst of it all with his friends and followers.  

That is much more compatible with the story that we heard this morning from the gospel of John.  The story of Jesus turning water into wine is the first big splash in Jesus’ ministry in John. This is how Jesus makes his first impression.  It is his debut performance so to speak. And, as we know, a debut is a defining moment intended to set the tone for what is to come. So in this gospel, the first impression we are given of Jesus is not feeding the hungry, or curing someone who is sick, or forgiving someone who has sinned.  That will come later. The first defining scene is a wedding. A party. A celebration. Of love and family and community. And at this event, Jesus turns a LOT of water into a LOT of very good wine.  

Benjamin Franklin observed, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”  

In John, Jesus begins his ministry making people happy at a festive celebration that would go on for several days.  At a wedding, Jesus turns water into wine. A large quantity of water. Intended for purification. Evidently from a lot of sin and guilt.  Into wine. A lot of wine. Good wine. The best wine. Jesus is known for abundant life and joy. He was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton.  He was known for lavish eating and drinking. His disciples were chastised for not fasting. Jesus defied conventional expectations for someone devout and religious.  He was serious about turning mourning into dancing, as the psalmist says.  

So, Jesus walks into a bar with the disciples.  They sit down. Jesus winks at his friends and orders:  “Thirteen glasses of water, please.”

In the story of the wedding in Cana, the wine has run out.  This is a situation of scarcity and disappointment. Jesus turns the water into wine transforming scarcity and disappointment into abundance and joy and celebration.  He transforms the situation. Jesus offers an experience of God, God’s love and grace. The Hebrew Bible associates wine with the good life, abundance, and God’s new age.  Jesus is showing people that this is happening here and now, big time; 6 jars of water, each containing 20-30 gallons, turned into the finest wine. This is not a discreet gesture.  This is a flamboyant display to make sure they get the message of the extravagance and superabundance of the love of God. Here. Now. With you. Among you. Within you. There is a transformation from worrying about sin and scarcity to joyfully celebrating life, community, and love.  

This scene challenges our sense of order and what is possible.  It challenges our dour religious sensibilities that associate faith with guilt and sacrifice.  Here we see a wedding, a linking in love, a joining of humanity and the Divine, no one left out, no one lonely, all brought together, bonded by love and celebrating with joy.  Jesus offers a very positive, joyous expression of faith. It is not sour or dour. It is a party. Food. Drink. Friendship. Overflowing. New possibilities. Greater things.  Love.  

In a recent post from Matthew Fox, known for creation spirituality, Fox talks about falling in love with the universe.  Being intoxicated by creation. Experiencing life in its fullness and being blown away with awe and wonder. Fox cites the commandment:  “Thou Shalt Fall in Love at Least Three Times a Day.” He explains: “At first glance, this commandment sounds threatening to our relationships, but that’s because our anthropocentric culture has taken the immensely mystical experience of ‘falling in love’ and applied it exclusively to finding a mate. 

“In fact, we could fall in love with a galaxy every day (there are two trillion of them) or we could fall in love with a star, of which there are hundreds of billions in our galaxy alone.  Or a species of wildflower, of which there are at least 10,000 on this planet.  Or a species of bird, fish, tree, plant.  Or with another human being—preferably one different from ourselves or suffering differently.  We could fall in love with music, poetry, painting, dance.  If we fell in love with one of Mozart’s works each week, we would have seven years of joy.  How could we ever be bored?” []

That is the superabundance and joy that we see in the defining story of the wedding at Cana.  It is the kind of religious expression we see in Jesus. It’s the garden image again. Above and beyond what is expected.  An invitation to abundant joy at what is and that we are part of it, together, in love, in God.   

Today, people experience so many disappointments.  We are consumed with scarcity in our lives. Scarcity of love, joy, money, friendship, purpose, security, beauty, connection, meaning, hope.  This contributes to rising addiction, mental illness, anxiety, violence, and suicide in our society. We’ve forgotten how to be in love with life, with nature, with each other as human beings together on this wondrous planet.  And this is just what our faith teaches IF we will pay attention and learn. 

When Jesus got the bill for the last supper, he was shocked at the expense.  Glaring at the disciples, he demanded, “Who ordered all that wine?”

It seems to be hard for us to get the hang of trusting in the way of Jesus to lead us to joy and love.  

We are part of a religious expression, as we see in the story of Jesus turning water into wine, that believes in transformation.  Jesus is showing us what life can be: a celebration of love and joy and community. We are part of a spiritual tradition that trusts in superabundance and solidarity.  We are part of a heritage that believes in new possibilities and greater things. Christianity began as a spiritual path of joy and abundance and celebration. It found its way into judgment and guilt because that’s how to control people.

But in the story of the water into wine, Jesus is clearly out of control.  His mother cannot control him. He is not controlled by the dictates of society or the desires of others.  He is in God’s hands alone, controlled only by inexplicable, extravagant love. Fitting for a wedding!

So, someone asks:  Does anyone know which page of the Bible explains how to turn water into wine?  It’s for a party on Friday.

Friends, today, there are people dying of thirst.  We are parched. Depleted. There is a deep scarcity of love, joy, meaning, purpose, worth, and community in our context.  Sadly, horrifyingly, El Paso and Dayton prove this. And our religious tradition offers us not just water but wine. Our faith invites us to thrive and flourish together – to be overwhelmed – with the goodness and beauty and joy of life.    

For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of joy, so let’s look to Mary, not just at the manger, but at the wedding in Cana.  In this story, she shows trust and confidence in Jesus. “Do what he says.” And she is not disappointed. Nor are the wedding guests, the host, or the servers.  There is more than enough of the best wine for a great party. No sour-faced saints. This story of water into wine reminds us that transformation and change are possible for us as well.  If we do what he says. 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 7.28.19 Saved!

Scripture Lesson: The Book of Jonah                                                                                     Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

The main take away usually associated with the story of Jonah is that God saved Jonah from drowning by sending a big fish, or whale, to pluck him from the depths of the sea and deposit him on dry land.  Jonah’s life is saved.  Whew!  When taught in church school to children this story is used to teach about a miraculous interventionist God who will save you when you are in perilous circumstances.  You can count on God to help you no matter how bad a fix you are in.  

When we teach this story to kids, we don’t usually make a big deal out of Jonah trying to get away from God and God’s assignment to go to Nineveh to save the great city.  We don’t emphasize that in the story God sends the tempestuous storm that threatens not only Jonah’s life but also the lives of the others on the ship.  We don’t go on about the fish spitting Jonah out on the shore near the city that he did not want to go to to deliver God’s message.  And we do not make a teaching point out of Jonah’s resentment and anger at the successful repentance and transformation of the evil city of Nineveh despite the brief message Jonah is instructed to deliver.  Hm.  Just a fish story – a big fish rescues someone who is drowning.  That’s sometimes where we leave it.  Especially for kids.  

Among the many messages and meanings in the book of Jonah, I think there is one needling issue that we can all relate to.  When good things happen to bad people.  Yes, Rabbi Kushner wrote a very helpful book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  While that problem confounds us, the situation of good things happening to bad people can lead to anger, resentment, and offense.  

And that is just what happens in this story.  Jonah is a faithful prophet of the Hebrew people.  He feels called by God to deliver God’s saving word to his people, the Jews.  But God calls him to go to Nineveh.  Nineveh?  The great city known not only for its size but for its wickedness and violence.  They are foreigners.  They are not allies.  They don’t even know that they need saving.  Why in heaven’s name would Jonah a prophet of the Hebrews committed to the well-being of his people want to go to Nineveh to proclaim God’s saving word and encourage them to repent and turn in a new direction?  Why would Jonah want to be part of this random act of salvation, helping facilitate When Good Things Happen to Bad People?  

After the storm, being tossed into the sea, and spending three days in the belly of the beast, tossed up on the shore near Nineveh, Jonah sees that he really has no choice in the matter.  But he is still resentful, inflamed with indignation.  He walks into Nineveh and declares the message God gives to him, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  That’s it.  No “Thus says the Lord.”  No fire and brimstone.  No long drawn out prophetic recitations of the evils done by the Ninevites.  No imaging of the scenes of destruction.  Just one short sentence.  “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

But that is all it takes.  The people of Nineveh repent.  The king gets on board.  The repentance is so all encompassing even the animals of Nineveh participate in the rituals of repentance wearing sackcloth and fasting.  The entire city completely repents and turns to the God of the Hebrews.  The city is transformed.   In the eyes of God, this is a triumph.  In the eyes of Jonah, well, since he wants to die, he doesn’t seem to consider it much of a success.  

In this story, we see a God that will go to any lengths to dispense grace.  Goading a reluctant prophet.  Using the natural forces of wind and water to form a storm that threatens life.  Sending a fish to help the process.  All to save Nineveh, the great, wicked, violent city.  God’s sights will not be diverted from the mission of salvation.  And this recalcitrant prophet, Jonah, will certainly not get in the way of God’s purposes.  

When good things happen to bad people. . . This is a story of mysterious, unpredictable grace.  The wrong people, the unlikely people, get on board with God.  We are scandalized by grace.

Divine Love will go to any lengths to dispense grace.  We see this same impulse in Jesus.  Reaching out to those who others think are unworthy, should be forgotten, and are not important.  Yet Jesus is not reluctant or resistant like Jonah.  Jesus is all in.  Send me where the need is greatest.  Why bother being a reluctant prophet?  Why try to undermine grace?  When, as the story of Jonah and of Jesus show us, grace will prevail.  And it will be dispensed from the most unlikely sources.  To those who may not even know their need.  And it may very well prevail in spite of well-intentioned people who are actually in the way.  

In the story of Jonah we see that there is no escaping grace.  The immensity of God encompasses all of the people and the animals of the great city of Nineveh, as well as the fish of the sea, the wind and the waves, and that surly, quarrelsome prophet, Jonah.  Our small-mindedness and resistance is no match for divine grace.  So, why waste our energy and resources digging in our heels?  Look at all those people and the animals of Nineveh?  They immediately and wholeheartedly succumb to grace.  They don’t try to hold out, defend themselves, or bargain.  They simply accept, say yes, and give thanks!

Grace may be amazing, but it is not exceptional.  It makes no exceptions.  No one is exempt from grace.  Grace is also enigmatic,  awe-inspiring, and wonder-full.  Its impact is immense.  It is life saving.  And it encompasses everything and everyone.  We can’t escape it.  

Several summers ago, we went on a whale watch boat tour from Long Beach, California.  They don’t make any promises about seeing a whale, but we saw several in the waters off the shores of California among the oil drilling platforms.  We saw the humpback whale and the right whale.  It was stunning.  They were beautiful.  Then, when we should have been heading back, the boat headed further out from shore.  The announcer told us to get up and look off the side of the boat.  There was a huge light blue patch in the water that looked almost like a sand bar.  It was long and oval shaped.  And as we got closer, we were told that this was a blue whale.  The largest whale in the seas.  It’s really gray but it is called the blue whale because of the light blue patch seen in the water when it is swimming near the surface.  We got quite close to the whale.  We were standing on the deck of the boat.  Our son, Malcolm, and I were standing next to each other.  We clasped hands and wept.  There was nothing that could be said in the presence of this the largest living creature on the planet.  This was simply an unforgettable moment.  The immensity of it inspired awe and wonder.  

There was room in the belly of that whale for everyone aboard our tour and maybe even the boat itself.    And even that huge creature dwarfs the scope of the capacity of grace to impact all of life and creation itself.  So why bother trying to opt out or jump ship – grace will still take you in and save you.  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 7/21 Walking on Water

Date: July 21, 2019

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 14:22-36

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells 

Fifty years ago yesterday, a human being walked on the moon for the first time.  There has been much in the news about that memorable day. How many of you remember that day?  What do you remember about it? Where were you? Did you watch it on TV? What did you think about it?  For those who did not see it live, have you seen video of the first moonwalk? What were your impressions?                 

Impressions shared from the congregation – 

I heard a report on NPR this past week that mentioned that when the astronauts got home, they toured the world giving talks about their experience.  And apparently everywhere they went, in every country, the attitude of the people was, “We did this!” All of humanity took ownership of this milestone in human history.  It wasn’t, “Look what the Americans have done.” It was look what WE have done, we, the human family. It created a great bond among people of earth.   

When we think about the story that we heard this morning about walking on the water, we think of Jesus overcoming the elements, calming the stormy sea.  We hear Jesus’ command Peter to step out of the boat. There is obedience and trust until fear leads to foundering and Peter is saved by Jesus. Fear, the great enemy of faith.  

But in addition to all of these messages and teachings from this story, there is more.  At the beginning of the story, Jesus sends the disciples across the sea of Galilee in a boat.  This is the first time they are sent on without Jesus. Obviously, Jesus has faith in them. He would not send them out if he was concerned for their safety.  He has confidence in them. Yes, there will be threats. The sea represents the forces of chaos in scripture. There are threatening forces. But Jesus has faith in the disciples.  He feels they have all the power they need. The presence of God is with them and within them. It seems he has more faith in them than they have in themselves. . . What if we take from this story that we have been sent out into the world together as a community with everything we need to live with love, compassion, peace, and justice? 

Also, we want to notice that the image of the boat is a common symbolic image for the church.  So in this story, we see Jesus’ faith in the church. The disciples are together in the boat. They have each other for community and solidarity and support.  Sure, they will be buffeted and there will be conflict and threat, but they have each other, they have the community, they have the presence of God in the faith community.  So Jesus has faith in their strength and solidarity. But again, they waffle. And Peter wants to get out of the boat, exposing himself to more peril and danger. He does not feel secure in the boat.  But when he gets out, he realizes that the situation is worse. What if we recognized and trusted that we need the faith community for our fundamental well-being?

The disciples seem to want some kind of magical display, some kind of spectacle to engender enough faith; to give them enough reason to trust.  But Jesus seems to be showing them, by sending them out together, that they have what they need in one another and in their solidarity, to face the challenges of life – accidents, disease, aging, difficult circumstances, conflicting values.  Jesus believes that in their community, they have the resources they need to live everyday life imbued with divinity, with a sense of the sacred, as part of a transcendent reality beyond them and within them and among them. In Jesus’ eyes, they have been given what they need to face the challenges of life.  So, if Peter, if the disciples, had enough faith, they would have believed from the boat and trusted that all would eventually be well. They wouldn’t have needed a test, a spectacle. The walking on water. Jesus had faith in them, in the boat, as a group, as a faith community – you are enough, you are what you need, God is with you.  There is nothing to fear. What if we truly had faith in what we have been given; no otherworldly spectacles and signs and wonders needed?

In this story, we see that Jesus came to equip and empower his followers to be agents of peace and love in the world.  He gave them all that they needed for this mission. He sent them. They were in the boat. They were fine. Yes, there were the stormy seas but they were safe.  They had been given what they needed. But because of fear, panic, anxiety, and doubt, they did not trust. They wanted to be rescued. And they wanted some kind of spectacle to engender their trust.  So, Jesus does it their way. He rescues. He gives them a spectacle in hopes that they will learn to trust the power of the love within them and among them each and every day.

In the book. Living Buddha, Living Christ, Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a reflection on this story of walking on water:  “When I was a young monk in Vietnam, each village temple had a big bell, like those in Christian churches in Europe and America.  Whenever the bell was invited to sound (in Buddhist circles, we never say ‘hit’ or ‘strike’ a bell), all the villagers would stop what they were doing and pause for a few moments to breathe in and out in mindfulness.  At Plum Village [a Buddhist community], every time we hear the bell, we do the same. We go back to ourselves and enjoy our breathing. Breathing in, we say, silently, ‘Listen, listen,’ and breathing out, we say, ‘This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.’

“Our true home is in the present moment.  The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.  Peace is all around us – in the world and in nature – and within us – in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed.  It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice. We need only to bring our body and mind into the present moment, and we will touch what is refreshing, healing, and wondrous.”  [Quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship: Year A, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 216]

Fifty years ago, a human stood on the moon; touched the moon.  It was not some kind of magical miracle wrought by otherworldly forces.  It was an accomplishment based on the application of knowledge and scientific achievement, trial and error, creativity and ingenuity, money and luck.  And from that experience, we got a new image of the earth, the picture taken from space considered the most recognized visual image in human history. From this endeavor to go to the moon, we learned about the earth.  We saw that this earth is a precious, tiny blue green marble floating in a vast ocean of space. And we are together, on this earth, our boat, in the sea of the cosmos. What we see is our need to band together as a human community, as a planet, to survive and to thrive.   

We are the people who have walked on the moon and in so doing gotten a clearer view of our reality here on earth.  Every moment is a gift. Reality is infused with divinity. Life and creation are sacred. Humanity is a community.  And like the disciples in the boat, we have been given everything that we need. We are capable of amazing things! We must not cave in to fear.  We must trust and work together for good, for peace, in the midst of the chaotic forces around us – even though sometimes this seems as impossible as walking on water.   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 7/14 Still Under Attack

Date:  July 14, 2019

Scripture Lesson: Daniel chapters 3 and 6

Sermon: Still Under Attack

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

I don’t know about you, but I did not wake up this morning afraid of being thrown into a fiery furnace or scared of being eaten by lions.  I don’t think a lion has been seen in these parts recently, unless it was at Busch Gardens. So, it’s easy to see how these two famous Bible stories are dismissed as quaint, simplistic folk tales that witness to a more primitive view of faith in an interventionist God. 

Given this background, it’s actually a bit surprising how timely these stories are to our situation today, even though we don’t have any lions, or even Florida Panthers, around.  

The root of the conflict in the two stories are problems around ethnocentrism, bigotry, and intolerance.  In the stories from Daniel, there is conflict between those who are the dominant group and the captives, the foreigners.  The natives have it in for the foreigners. Daniel and his people are Jews, transplants, outsiders. And they are being groomed by the king for positions of authority, prestige, and power.  But the hometown people resent this. And so they target these foreigners. They scheme to get the foreigners in trouble. And what are these foreigners doing? They are working hard and doing their jobs.  They are not defiantly making trouble. And yet they are targeted by the natives, the citizens, the insiders.  

This ethnocentrism specifically takes the form of religious intolerance in the stories from Daniel.  Daniel and his people merely want to continue to practice their religion even though they are in this new culture.  They want to continue to worship and pray to their God. In a cultural situation where the worship of many gods is accepted, this should not be a problem.  What is one more? But the Jews do not want to worship the gods of their captors because that is against their religion which has only one God. They only want to worship and pray to their God.  

So, the locals knowingly get the king to carry out laws which conflict with the religious beliefs of the Jews.   The Jews are only to pray to their one God so the local leaders get the king to make a law ordering people to pray only to the king for thirty days.  This law is specifically designed to entrap the Jews, specifically Daniel who has risen to great power through his hard work and reliability and wisdom.  In the furnace story, the young men are targeted for refusing to worship a statue. Ethnocentrism and jealousy take the form of religious intolerance in laws created to target foreigners.  

How this resonates with our situation today!   We see this kind of religious and ethnic conflict happening all over the world even in our beloved United States which was intended to be a beacon of religious tolerance and freedom.  And yet there are issues over turbans and headscarves and prayers and public displays. Where is the spirit of tolerance and acceptance and respect for religious freedom that marked the founding of there United States?

This impulse to target foreigners is what is behind the ICE raids taking place today in 10 cities across the US.  We hear this anti foreigner sentiment expressed daily here in our United States – not only by fringe hate groups but by main stream politicians and even by the president.  They’re taking our jobs. They don’t belong here. They are undermining our cultural unity with their strange ways. They are causing trouble. So, let’s make laws that they will necessarily break so that we can arrest them and get rid of them.  How familiar is that???? That is just what happens in the book of Daniel. But we don’t want to put these foreigners in a lion’s den or a furnace – just cage them up in a detention camp, thank you very much, and deny them the most basic necessities so that they are made to feel subhuman and undeserving.  Of course, is it seems lost on many that this strategy makes the perpetrators appear subhuman not the victims.   

These stories from Daniel display the spirit of intolerance shown to foreigners and how dangerous it is and we see this same dynamic playing out in our midst today.  THAT is scary.    

This brings us to another theme in these stories.  Power. The dictatorial, absolute power of the king in each story appears clearly foolish and absurd.  All peoples, all nations, all languages, bow down. This is ridiculous. Humanity has supposedly progressed to the point of realizing  that social groups are most effectively managed by law and representative governmental arrangements not by dictators with authoritarian powers.  And yet we have a president who esteems dictators with authoritarian control and seeks such a role for himself. But as these stories show, this kind of concentration of power always leads to a bad end.  As Lord Acton said in a letter written in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So these stories bear a warning about absolute power.  

While I may not be afraid of lions or a furnace, I am afraid of concentrated power in the hands of the federal government.  This week I sent an email to someone about the ICE raids with instructions about how to respond if confronted by ICE agents.  I was very careful in the email not to mention any names, not to make any personal references. I just gave the list of instructions and said here is some information that might be helpful.  I did not mention anything else because I was afraid that my email might be read by federal authorities and I don’t want to be leading ICE to potential targets. To me, that is more scary than the lions!  But that is where we are today.  

These stories from Daniel also address civil disobedience.  The people are told to kneel down and pray to the golden statue whenever the band plays.  Is this law merely based on the egotistical bravado of the king or is is specifically designed to entrap the Jews who are only to pray to their one God?  Either way, it is problematic for the Jews. So, Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not comply when the band plays. This is breaking the law in that context.  But they refuse to comply with a law that is in conflict with their religion. This is civil disobedience. It is nonviolent, passive resistance.  

In the second story, the king makes a law about only praying to him.  When Daniel and other Jews pray to their God, they are defying this law which was intended to snare them.  So, their defiance can be seen as civil disobedience.

In a way, this is like taking the knee.  The national anthem plays and people are supposed to stand out of respect.  It’s not the law, but it is accepted practice. But now many are kneeling during the national anthem in defiance.  They are not breaking the law, but they are defying convention to make a public statement. And while it may not lead to death, it can ruin a career.  This is nonviolent, passive resistance.  

The examples from Daniel have inspired others to take up civil disobedience.  It is interesting to note that these stories from the book of Daniel were inspirational to Mahatma Gandhi as he fought for civil rights first in South Africa and then in India.  In referring to Daniel, Gandhi commented that he had, “found much consolation in reading the book of the prophet Daniel.” Gandhi saw Daniel as, “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived.”  In coming up with a strategy to resist the pass laws directed at Indians in South Africa, Gandhi advised people to “sit with their doors flung wide open and tell the gentleman [South African authorities] that whatever laws they passed were not for them unless those laws were from God.”  [The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6, p. 771] This was inspired by Daniel praying three times a day to his God with the windows open.  

So, when you think about is, it’s surprising how these ancient folk tales from Daniel, entertaining for children in Church School, deal with themes that are current for us today.   So what do they say to us? Well, here we turn to Jesus. Jesus knew these stories from Daniel. He knew other stories, like the story of Esther, where the Jews are targeted for death because of their religion and their beliefs.  And what do we see in the ministry of Jesus? Jesus specifically reaches out to and interacts with people from groups that have targeted the Jews. He reaches over those divisions of ethnicity and religion that have divided people.  He specifically makes references to stories in the Hebrew scriptures that involve Gentiles and foreigners showing that they are to be embraced and welcomed and treated with respect and dignity. Jesus, despite the harm done to his people because they are Jews, does not allow racial, gender, ethnic or religious divisions to get in the way of loving our neighbor.  When you think about what other groups have done to the Jews, in Jesus day and before, his welcome and embrace of all people is all the more radical.  

So, here we get our inspiration for the ordering of our loyalties.  Sure, we are to be dedicated to our families. Yes, we put trust in our governmental system.  Or we used to. It is appropriate for us to support our national leaders. We may get behind a particular political party.  Our country is important to us. Our culture and language have value. We have respect for the rule of law. But the message of Daniel and the witness of Jesus backs up the sentiments of the Psalms [146]:

Do not put your trust in princes,

in mortals in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;  

on that very day, their plans perish. 

Happy are those. . .  whose hope in the Lord their God. . .  

who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.  

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;

the Lord upholds the orphan and the widow. 

Scripture teaches loyalty in that kind of God.  The book of Daniel and the gospel of Jesus remind us that there is something GREATER than human leadership, a governmental system, a political party, nationality, empire, law, religion, and even family.  Our tradition compels us to put our ultimate trust in God – however we may understand or define God – in something beyond our individual experience, in something eternal and all-encompassing. In something within us, at our very core, that binds us to the greater whole of reality.  So our concept of God needs to be worthy of this kind of ultimate loyalty because God is what is to be given our ultimate devotion, loyalty, and reverence.  

We see this orientation in the stories of Daniel and in the life of Jesus.  And we notice that it got them into trouble because there will always be human constructs that vie for our ultimate loyalty and devotion.  But Daniel and his people and Jesus remain true to God as they understand God despite the pressures of their contexts. Daniel ended up in the lion’s den.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego ended up in the furnace. Jesus was crucified. Maybe if we’re not in some kind of trouble, we don’t have our loyalties properly aligned. 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.