Sermon 5.5.19 Following the Good Shepherd

Scripture Lesson:  John 21:1-19                                                                                                Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Apparently, scholars pretty much agree that the post crucifixion story that we heard this morning from the gospel of John was an add on.  It is thought that at one time the gospel ended earlier and that this story, and some other stories, were added on.  They were added because it was felt that they were needed by the faith community for whom the gospel was written.  I think this story also speaks to our needs today.  

I think if someone were creating this gospel today, they very well might choose to end it after the catch of fish and breakfast.  The disciples have gone fishing and caught nothing.  They are tired and frustrated.  This figure calls from the shore and tells them to cast the nets on the other side  of the boat and the catch is enormous.  This guy is great!  He can help you grow your business!  

That would almost be an Horatio Alger story.  Someone disadvantaged gets a little help and then through hard work becomes a huge business success.  

And the story goes on.  Not only is there an immense catch of fish, threatening to overturn the boat, but breakfast is waiting.  They get to shore and the fire is made and the fish is cooking.  It’s a free breakfast.  Wow!  This is a deal.  Not just a real meal, or a happy meal, or a square meal, but a FREE meal.  In today’s world, this could definitely be put across in a marketing plan to get more followers.  If someone was writing this gospel today they could very well end the gospel right there with a business coup and free food.  Now that is really good news!  

But the gospel writer or editor of the first century did not end there but went on; went on to give us a true Jesus ending.  An ending that reinforces what Jesus’ followers need to know and remember – then and now.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.  It’s a triply reinforced commitment to service; to other centered living, to the wellbeing of the vulnerable, to remembering those who are forgotten, to caring for those who are suffering.  It’s a call to compassion.  And, evidently, it is important enough to be repeated three times, yes, to balance Peter’s three denials, but also a nod to our tendency to forget things that may not be to our liking.  

This teaching shows Jesus’ concern for our well-being and wholeness.  Jesus knows that to be whole and healthy and joyful, yes, we need food for the body and other practical material necessities.  But there is no wholeness, no true peace, no well-being without tending to the spirit as well.  And we feed our spirits, we tend our souls, we nurture our highest good, in other centered living, in service to others.  

Scientists today have proven that a troubled spirit contributes to a troubled body.  Stress and anxiety are known to have bodily repercussions effecting things like blood pressure and the immune system that fights off sickness and disease.  Scientists have also documented that doing good and helping others has positive physical effects on the body.  

So full health, wholeness, and joy involve the body and the spirit.  Jesus can’t just give the disciples fish and send them on their way.  He loves them too much for that.  He must remind them of their calling to serve.  Too often the teaching of the church has focussed on what people will get from following Jesus and ignored what they need to give.  The blessings that Jesus teaches about come through giving.  This is reinforced again and again in the gospels and this is how John’s gospel draws to a close.  With a reinforcement of that vision of service.  That is the last thing, the thing that needs to be remembered.  

Maybe you heard the news story earlier this week about the two sixth grade students who were plotting to carry out a mass shooting at an elementary school in Tennessee.  One of the parents in our congregation drew my attention to the story.  The two students had drawn a map of the school and planned to hide weapons in the locker room.  The intent was to proceed with the killings on the last day of school and then for the two sixth graders to kill themselves.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/04/29/two-6th-graders-charged-connection-school-shooting-plot/3623155002/

Yes, this is horrific and disturbing.  And what may be even worse is that we are becoming to numb to such stories because they have become so common.  Here is my reaction when I hear of these terrible things.  Usually, my first thought, unbidden, is “people need the church.”  It’s my first reaction.  People need the church.  People need a solid community of shared values in which to deal with such horrors.  They need a community of support to face this kind of trauma, and re-trauma, and post-trauma.  People need meaningful relationships with caring honest people, a community of love and support and hope.  Oh, how we need hope!  People also need a community of common morals, values, and behavior based on reverence for life.  This is what we have at church.  Church can help us not only deal with these horrors but create communities and societies where these things are far less likely to happen.  Yes, church has this potential.  To be the catalyst for transforming society.  

I think the increase in violence and horrific acts and behavior in our society and the decrease in religious participation are related.  Our society needs what the church has to offer, what we have found here at Lakewood, and what thousands of people find in their churches and faith communities across the country.  

Yet many people in our country and community today have no idea what there is at church.  They are simply ignorant.  They don’t know that church is a community of belonging, support, and shared concern for the common good.  They don’t know that church is a place to learn and grow and pursue your highest good.  They don’t know that often what is lacking in their lives is a commitment to service because this is not engendered in society as a whole.  And without the teaching, feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep, we cannot be whole and live abundantly.  

I think many people have the idea that church is about having a certain belief system based on some special personal revelation.  And they don’t feel like they have had that lightening bolt spiritual experience so they think that church is not for them.  Church can be that.  But often church is about a slow, mysterious unfolding through our life’s journey that is transforming us into our best selves.  We find that when we tend and care and feed and help others, we come into our fullest wellbeing and joy.  Church is always to be a place to be encouraged to serve and a place to expect compassion and support.  Many people today simply do not know that.  

Albert Schweitzer, the famous physician, musician, and theologian sparked the early 20th century quest for the historical Jesus.  He tells us:  “He [Jesus] comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not.  He speaks to us the same word:  ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they will pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”  [Quoted in Texts for Preaching:  A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C, from Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 403]    Schweitzer tells us that in our obedience we find Jesus.  In our service and other centered living which liberates us from the tyranny of the self, we come to know Jesus.  As we receive the goodness and generosity of others, we come to know Jesus.  

People are desperately in need of the orientation for living that Jesus teaches.  There is a hunger for this in our land.  We see the evidence in the lack of moral fiber, the lack of commitment to community values, in the greed and power abuse and violence around us.  It’s in everything from the shootings at schools and religious services to the congressional hearings and regressive, immoral actions of the Florida legislature to the movies and entertainment we consume.   The need for the church is evident in the crazy, sick headlines that assault us continuously.     

Ok.  But there’s a good chance many people don’t go to church because they don’t know what goes on at church or what it’s about and no one has ever invited them.  So, people need church but how are people going to find their way to church?  To a community of support and compassion?  How are they going to know that this is a place of spiritual healing and wholeness?  Friends, we have to tell them.  Yes, tell them.  The church can produce swank ads and flyers and billboards but what is most effective in drawing people to church is – word of mouth.  I know that it can be uncomfortable to bring up church with coworkers, new neighbors, strangers, friends, but our society needs us to get over this and find ways to invite people to this space of healing and growth.  

And if you would like some pointers about doing this, I encourage you to speak with the elders of this congregation because they are stars at inviting new people to church!

To be well, as individuals and a society, yes, our material needs must be met but so must our spiritual needs.  In many ways, we are not doing very well at either in today’s world.  The church is so very needed.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.  

We close with words from a song I heard recently at a folk festival:

There’s no retirement in the service of the master:                                                           There’s no end to the things that he can do.                                                                                   If you live your life in service to another,                                                                               Every day will bring blessings anew.  

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.

Unfortunately, we have not been successful in finding an attribution for the song quoted at the end of the sermon.  If you have any information about it, please contact the church.  Thank you!

Easter Sermon 2019 – Walking on Eggshells?

Easter Sunday Intergenerational Service                                                                                  April 21, 2019                                                                                                                                    Rev. Kim P. Wells

Last year, a bird made a nest in a bush right outside the office window here at church.  First there was the nest.  Then there were eggs in the nest.  Then there were baby birds in the nest.   And one day, the nest was empty.  It was beautiful to watch the process of new life unfold.  The babies had to come out of their eggshells to enjoy this big beautiful world.  We see this same process with the little lizards, anoles, that we have in our yards and with many other animals.  The eggshell holds the new creature until it is time for a new stage of life and then the shell cracks open and new life emerges.  

Easter is in the springtime because spring is the season for new life.  Farm animals have babies in the spring.  Butterflies come out of their chrysalises which are like a shell.  Plants also emerge with new life in the spring.  Seeds and bulbs break open under the ground, like an eggshell, and then new plants appear.  Flowers open.  Bushes blossom.  Trees get new leaves.   Easter has to be in the spring because Easter is a celebration of new life.  Easter eggs remind us of animals being born out of an egg into this wonderful world.  New life.  

At Easter in church we listen to the story of Jesus’ being killed and buried in a tomb.  The tomb was thought to be like a small cave.  The dead body was put inside and a large stone was used to close up the opening.  In the story we tell at Easter, we hear about how Jesus’ friends go to his tomb three days after he was buried and the stone is moved away and the tomb is empty. 

The Easter story tells us that Jesus’ body was gone from the tomb but that his spirit lives on in new exciting ways.  It was as if he cracked out of an eggshell to a new life.  And his friends and followers emerged into new life, too.  They came out of their shells of fear and sadness and were excited to spread love in the world the way Jesus did.  Jesus lived on in his friends.  His love could not be contained in the tomb.  It had to break out into the world.  And that love still lives on in the world today.  

The story of Easter and the symbol of the eggs remind us that we, too, can break out of our shells to enjoy new wondrous life in this world.  Jesus invites us to a new way of being in the world.  He shows us how love can transform our lives. Jesus wants us to break out of our shells so that we can live a beautiful life in this amazing world.  Jesus wants us to live in peace.  He wants everyone to be treated fairly and to have what they need to live.  He wants us to learn and grow and help others.  He wants us to take delight in the incredible wonder of life and this glorious world.  

To do that, to be part of that kind of reality, we have to break out of our shells.  Sometimes we think things, say things, and do things that hold us back from experiencing life in the new reality that Jesus shows us.  When we break out of our shells, these things change.  

When we join Jesus and live in his reality, we are no longer afraid of other people.  When we meet people who don’t look like us, or talk like us, or eat the food we eat, or wear clothes like ours we know not to be afraid of them.  Maybe you have felt afraid when a new student comes into your class at school and the student seems different in some way.  New life in Jesus show us that every person is a child of God.  Every person needs food and love and a safe place to live.  Every person has the ability to do good things and to do bad things.  People are very much alike.  When we break out of our shell of fear and are part of the new life Jesus offers, we no longer judge people by how they look but, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, by the “content of their character.”  New life out of the shell shows us that diversity is beautiful and it makes life better for everyone.  

When we join Jesus to live in his reality we break out of our shell and live in peace.  We learn that when people disagree or have different ideas, they don’t have to get out a gun or start a war to work things out.  In Jesus’ reality, even when you want to do something good, you don’t use violence to make it happen.  Movies for all ages brainwash us into accepting violence as a powerful tool for doing good.  It’s not like that in the new reality of Jesus.  

In the world of Jesus, we create a peaceful world using peaceful means.  Hitting someone doesn’t make things better.  It degrades the hitter as well as the one who was hit.  Jesus shows us that in the new world, people resolve differences through peaceful, nonviolent means.  They talk things over and work to find solutions that will work for everyone.  Peer mediators in schools are wonderful models of how this works.  We aren’t going to have safer schools by giving guns to teachers.  We aren’t going to have a more peaceful world by maintaining a huge supply of nuclear weapons.  In Jesus’ new reality we see that you cannot use violence to create peace.  When we break out of our shells into the new world of Jesus, we see this truth.  We work to create peace through peaceful means.  

When we break out of our shells into the new reality of Jesus we see money in a new way.  We see money as a tool for meeting our needs and the needs of others.  It is useful for helping us get the things we need to live well like food and clothes and a place to live and health care and education.  But money does not give us meaning or purpose.  Every person is special and important regardless of how much money they have.  Everyone can live with meaning and purpose regardless of economic status.  

In Jesus’ new reality, we see that there is plenty of money in the world for everyone to have what they need.  We do not need to be driven by greed.  We can be generous and giving so that everyone is taken care of. There is more than enough money in the world to restore Notre Dame Cathedral and to make sure every person has access to food and health care.  What about being happy about paying our taxes because they are paying for great schools and wonderful libraries and the arts and preserving nature and providing health care and protecting the vulnerable and funding renewable energy and efficient transportation?  April 15 should be a celebration in support of the common good.  When we break out of our shell into new life with Jesus, we can see things about money in a new way.  

When we break out of our shell we become part of a new world; God’s dreams made real.  We join Jesus in creating a wonderful world for every person and all forms of life.  We treat ourselves and others and creation with compassion and reverence.  

I recently heard about a couple that participated in an adult education class at their church about homosexuality.  In the class they learned about being gay and what the Bible has to say about it.  They learned about accepting this as part of the wonderful diversity of creation.  

Sometime after the class the couple’s adult son, who lived in another city, called his parents, to finally reveal to them that he was gay.  His mother said, Yes, we know.  We took a class about it at church.  It’s ok.  After a brief chat, he called back later in the day.  He asked, Do you know what I told you?    Yes, we know.  It’s ok.  And that was it.  The son was stunned.  These people had broken out of their shell and were in the new wondrous world of love that Jesus shows us.  

Birds and other animals break out of their shells to experience new life.  We have to break open an Easter egg to get to the candy.  Easter invites us to break out of the shells that prevent us from living life full and free.  We can imagine the floor of the church littered with eggshells as we emerge into a new life – of peace and purpose, joy and wonder.  And don’t forget – eggshells make great fertilizer.  They help things grow.  So let’s break free and grow into new life with Jesus.  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 Palm Sunday 4.14.19 The Death of Jesus

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

To me, Christianity is based on one simple fact.  Yes, a fact.  Jesus was crucified.  Killed.  Dead.  A first century Palestinian Jewish teacher was put to death by the state.  Capital punishment.  As I said, for me, that is the central fact that is the basis for the Christian faith.  

What was crucifixion?  It was not just a random killing.  Jesus didn’t die by accident.  He wasn’t offed by one of his own.  He was killed by the state.  It was a government sanctioned sentence that was carried out by the civil authorities of the Roman Empire.  It was the worst form of death imaginable at the time.  It was a humiliation.  The memory of those crucified was deleted.  They were liquidated.  Obliterated.  People didn’t mention the names of those who were crucified it was so horrific.  This form of capital punishment was used widely by the Romans.  One ruler crucified several hundred people, another eighty.  After the death of Herod, around the time of the birth of Jesus, 2,000 Jews were crucified.  In the book, Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered, theologian and biblical scholar Arthur Dewey tells us, “For the most part, the Romans carried out this form of execution on lower classes (slaves, violent criminals, unruly elements), non-citizens, and traitors.  Serving as a political and military punishment, allegedly an effective deterrent, crucifixion was a very public display.” [p. 17]  The practice was ended by Constantine in the 4th century.  

We are given the impression that Jesus was considered a traitor against the Roman Empire or maybe an unruly element?  Somehow his message, his teaching, his activities were considered a threat to the stability of society.  I can’t imagine that Jesus was killed for healing people, or for giving them food, or for praying. So it must have been for challenging the power structures of his day; both the religious and civil authorities.  

Thus, Jesus was crucified.  That was not supposed to happen to a respected wisdom teacher, a rabbi, a sage.  Yet there it is.  The people are left to make meaning out of this death which is so shameful the person is intended to be forgotten, removed from memory, reduced to nothingness.  Yet this death was remembered because the people who were Jesus’ followers and those after them chose to make meaning out of this death in ways that served their circumstances and communities.  They dealt with this trauma by remembering, they recovered by making meaning out of this death, meaning that was powerful in their context.  Decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul and the gospel writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each make meaning of this death for their particular communities and circumstances.  They use the cultural traditions of the hero’s death, the martyr, the memorial meal, and the tale of the suffering of the innocent one.  They address their contexts where some expected the end of days any time, some were facing persecution, some were still coming to terms with the crucifixion of 2,000 of their countrymen, and they were dealing with the razing of the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Each of those involved in making meaning of the death of Jesus was creating a story to meet the needs of their circumstances for their people.  As Dewey puts it, “The ancient writer was not interested in passing on ‘the facts’ but in determining what was meaningful for his community.” [p. 125]

It is interesting that for Paul the death of Jesus meant a whole shift in his understanding of God and thus his perception of reality.  Dewey tells us, “In accepting this shamed criminal the God of Israel had taken an outrageous step.  God had accepted the impure, the socially damned and disadvantaged.”  This was a big transformation in the imaging of God for Paul.  Now he saw that God was on the side of the marginalized, the victim, the outsider.  No more preferential treatment for the Jews alone in Paul’s view.  The crucifixion revealed a God who loves everyone. Dewey tells us, “Paul turned the social stigma of Jesus’ death into an opening for those who were shamed in the eyes of the people of Israel. . .  He turned a social and political liability into a conduit of benefit and hope.”   This is one example of how the people of the first century made meaning out of the death of Jesus.  They used interpretation, imagination, reflection, and creativity to find culturally fitting ways to redeem the death of Jesus.  

As I said at the beginning of this sermon, to me, the crucifixion of Jesus is the central fact that defines Christianity.  So, like the ancients, we face the challenge of how to make meaning out of this death in our context, in our circumstances, in our situation.  Jesus was crucified as a criminal.  Put to death by the state.  This innocent person whom we consider the fullest human embodiment of Divine Love. We are challenged to use our imagination, interpretation, reflection and creativity to make meaning out of this death for our day and time.  

Maybe there is some inspiration for us in the case of Emmett Till, the young man from Chicago who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.  After his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, it was taken back to Chicago for burial.  His mother insisted on seeing the brutalized body of her son: the odor, the huge tongue protruding from his mouth, the right eyeball laying on his cheek, the left eyeball gone altogether, the broken nose, the top of his head split open, a bullet hole near the temple. [p. 71]  Then, she insisted that the casket be open for viewing for the funeral.  Thousands of people saw that mangled face and head and that vision was a pivotal moment in the emerging civil rights movement in this country.  

Emmett’s mother, Mamie, tells us, “I knew that I could talk for the rest of my life about what happened to my baby, I could explain it in great detail, I could describe what I saw laid out there on that slab at A.A. Rayner’s place [the funeral home], one piece, one inch, one body part at a time.  I could do all of that and people would still not get the full impact. . . They had to see what I had seen.  The whole nation had to bear witness to this.  I knew that if they walked by that casket, if people opened the pages of Jet magazine or the Chicago Defender, if other people could see it with their own eyes, then together we would find a way to express what we had see.” [p.72-73] 

In the book The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy Tyson shares the courage of Emmet’s mother:  “‘I had no idea how I could make it through,’ Mamie recalled. ‘But I knew that I had to do it.  And I knew that it wasn’t going to get any easier as we prepared for what was ahead.’  Now that she had the world’s attention, she had to decide what to do with it.  As she looked into the glass-enclosed coffin, she knew that a political and spiritual struggle lay ahead to make her son’s death meaningful in ways that his life hadn’t had time to be.”  [p. 74]  This was in intentional effort to make meaning out of the death of this child; meaning for that time and those circumstances.  “From this tragedy,” Tyson tells us, “large, diverse numbers of people organized a movement that grew to transform a nation, not sufficiently but certainly meaningfully.” [p. 202]

As we think about the death of Jesus, crucified over 2,000 years ago, we as Christians are confronted with the challenge of how we will make meaning of his death today.   What meaning do we need from the death of Jesus to help us deal with the death of innocents today?  People dying at the hands of the state, whether through war, or police brutality, or abuse in prison, or policies that leave people too poor to take care of themselves, or environmental problems that lead to death through storms or toxins in the water and air, or deaths of children in government care in our communities and at our border?  What about refugees and journalists and other innocent victims dying here and around the world?  How does Jesus’ death help us to confront the death of innocents in our midst?  That is what we must ask ourselves as we remember the death of Jesus, the central fact of our faith.  

You can have Christianity without heaven.  You can have Christianity without hell.  You can have Christianity without Jesus being God.  You can have Christianity without a virgin birth.  You can have Christianity without a stable in Bethlehem.  You can have Christianity without the literal resurrection of the body of Jesus.  But you can’t have Christianity without the crucifixion of Jesus.  That is the core fact that we have as the basis of our religion.  How do we make meaning out of that heinous, humiliating death at the hands of the state?  This is the question that faces us.  

In his retelling of the story of the death of Emmett Till and it’s aftermath, Timothy Tyson draws this conclusion:  “Emmett Till’s death was an extreme example of the logic of America’s national racial caste system.  To look beneath the surface of these facts is to ask ourselves what our relationship is today to the legacies of that caste system – legacies that still end the lives of young African Americans for no reason other than the color of their American skin and the content of our national character.  Recall that [writer William] Faulkner, asked to comment on the Till case when he was sober, responded, ‘If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture where we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive and probably won’t.’  Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is really so different now.”  [p. 209]  Thus ends Tyson’s reflection on Emmett Till.  

We desperately need to seek meaning in the death of Jesus for our time and our context so that it speaks a word of hope and new life for us.   Facing the continued ravages of racism and other oppressions, facing obscene economic injustice, facing toxic tribalism and globalization, facing the collapse of the eco system on Earth as we know it, facing the challenges presented by technology and genetic engineering, facing the neglect of children and elders, what meaning can we find for our day in the death of Jesus?  We must make meaning that will transform our reality so that we find a way to value the lives of all human beings, treat Creation with reverence and respect, and prevent the suffering and death of innocents today especially children.  May the ancients be our inspiration in this holy work of imagination and faith.  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 3.31.19 “Honestly”

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32                                                                                  Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Apparently there is a syndrome on social media, especially Facebook, where people post cute pictures of themselves with their boyfriend or girlfriend and all their friends think they are in a happy relationship.  The friends comment on how sweet the picture is, etc., but really, the relationship is awful.  Maybe the woman is abusive or the guy is cheating but in the world of Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, they look like happy lovers.  And that’s what their friends think.  So there is the false social media world of the relationship that looks pretty and fun, and then there is the real situation of suffering and pain.  For those involved, the false social media relationship can make it harder to get out of the real relationship.  

It’s not hard to see how this kind of dynamic develops.  We want to look like we are having fun.   We want to appear successful.  We want to present an image of being happy and prosperous.  Regardless of the truth.  There are pressures in our society pushing us to cultivate such an image even when it is false.  We live in a context that thrives on competition – in the economy, in sports, in games, in relationships, in so many ways.  Advertising defines what we are to aspire to.  There are winners and losers.  We want to be winners or at least look like winners. So we create a facade, our face to the world, that shows our success and hides our pain and our shortcomings.  We cringe at shame, humiliation, giving the wrong answer in front of the class, not be chosen for the promotion, not getting the medal.  We are trained to make it look like we are on top.  We perpetuate this by giving children awards and medals and trophies at every turn as they grow up.  We’re saying, you’re a winner.   It is important to be a winner.  You have to be a winner.  And all of this implies that it is not ok not to win.  Not winning is bad.  It’s not ok to come in second.  It’s not ok to be last.  It’s not ok to do it wrong.  It’s not ok to not get picked.  That’s bad.  You have to be a winner.  

Think of the president’s impression of John McCain.  Why should McCain be celebrated for his military service and character.  He was not a winner.  He got caught and was a prisoner of war.  That doesn’t go with being a winner.  

So we post pictures on Facebook and Snapchat of a gorgeous girlfriend even if she poisons our spirit because we want to look good and successful at work and at play and maintain our precious image. 

It takes a lot of energy to maintain these facades; to perpetuate these images of success and happiness that obscure the truth.  But we maintain these images, like ramparts, like a fort around us, to protect us.  It takes a lot of work to maintain these defenses.  

But what happens is that these walls, these facades, that shield the truth also block out joy and grace from life.  They deprive us of the abundance of love and mercy that enrich the human spirit.  They cut us off from our truest selves, from others, and from the love, acceptance and understanding we desperately want in this life.  

The line, “he came to himself,” from the story we heard this morning, the prodigal son or maybe more accurately the prodigal father, may very well be my favorite line in all of scripture.  He came to himself.  There in a foreign land, swilling pigs, abhorrent to him as a Jew forbidden to eat pork, lonely, hungry, spent, this young man “came to himself.”  He acknowledged honestly the truth of his situation.  He saw things for what they were.  He admitted to his dissolute living and to how he had betrayed his father, his family, his heritage, his religion, and his culture.  He admitted to himself that he had betrayed and dishonored himself.  

And this young man decided it was time to make amends, to head home, to take responsibility for situation, to be honest not only with himself, but with those who had loved him.  Did they still love him?  Would he be accepted?  Would they refuse him and drive him away after he had offended his father by asking for his inheritance – akin to wishing the man dead?  Would his family receive him?  The servants?  The neighbors?  In honesty and vulnerability, he heads home to face what he has to face because it can’t be worse than the mess he has gotten himself into.  

We digress a moment here to the older brother.  He doesn’t come to himself.  He maintains his defenses.  He stays in the reality of merit based transactional relationships.  He sees himself as a hired hand.  He sees his father as stingy.  He insults his father by refusing to come to the party for the brother.  He is filled with resentment for what he perceives as his maltreatment.  And this defense, this false image he has created, meant to protect him, keeps out the love and joy and acceptance he so desperately wants.  

The father, unashamedly, loves his two sons, goes out to his two sons, is generous to his two sons.  He has no defenses up.  His heart is on his sleeve.  He is not protecting or maintaining any false image.  He is open and authentic.  He is filled with love which flows freely from him.  He knows grace and joy as well as heartbreak.   

When we are honest and act on that honesty, when we are willing to be vulnerable, when we let the defenses down, we open ourselves to grace and joy and love.  We can have compassion on ourselves.  We can also have compassion on others.  When we open ourselves, rather than enclose ourselves within false images and narratives, when we are honest, we can say, Wow, I really screwed that up.  Instead of, It’s his fault this happened.  We can say, I’ve put you in a tight spot.  I’m sorry.  Instead of, You should have known better.  We can say, How did I get myself into this?  Instead of, How could she do this to me?  We can learn and grow and become more fully ourselves.  Creating a culture of authenticity, integrity and honesty facilitates the flow of love and grace and joy in our lives and in the world.  

To cultivate this kind of honesty runs counter to our culture.  We are all about images and impressions, Our daughter sent us a funny picture of a young man in the waiting room of a hospital dressed in a three piece suit.  He is the uncle awaiting the birth of his niece or nephew.  The caption indicates that he is dressed this way because “first impressions matter.”  

It’s not just politicians and celebrities that are putting on a show.  People, everywhere, every day are putting on a show, and social media gives the perfect staging opportunity.  

This Lenten season, we are talking about All Things New.  The story of the father and sons from Luke reminds us that for things to be made new, we must embrace honesty and vulnerability.  This is what opens us to the grace, love, and acceptance that we are all seeking in this life.  The journey to authentic living involves coming clean, admitting the truth of who we are.  That may mean coming to terms with our power for good – our gifts and skills and assets.  That may mean taking responsibility for the more untoward, problematic aspects of our character.  Honesty embraces it all.  Then, to be new, we learn to function from that place of honesty, with ourselves and others.  We are willing to take the risks involved.  The younger brother went home and was received with literally open arms.  He could have met rejection.  He could have met his death at the hands of his father or a neighbor or his brother – after his betrayal and the pain he had caused the father.  It can be difficult to live from a place of honesty and vulnerability but it is the only way for love and joy and grace to get into our lives.  And that is what makes us truly alive.  

This aspect of making All Things New functions on a collective level as well as an individual level.  In society, we can spend a lot of energy and time protecting the past; creating images and illusions about who we are as a culture, as a community.  We are seeing this play out related to Confederate monuments and the naming of buildings.  If we want to heal the racism in our country, we have to be willing to “come to ourselves” and be honest about the legacy we have inherited.  Without that honesty, the walls of protection prevent connection and reconciliation, grace and understanding.

We went to the Will MacLean Folk Music Festival several weeks ago.  A well known Florida folk musician, an elderly man, sang a song that he wrote about how disturbed he is that the Confederate flag is being used by neo nazis and skin heads to promote hate.  The song conveyed his indignation that the symbol of the Confederate flag is being used to foster violence and bigotry.  He sang of the nobility of the Confederate flag as a symbol of men giving their lives for their convictions; an honorable cause defending hearth and home.  But there is no acknowledgement in the song that the Confederate flag is a symbol of a culture and economic system based on people owning people.  It is about some people benefiting from the free labor of other people who are possessions.  The Confederate flag cannot be dissociated from slavery.  That is the honest truth.  

When we can be honest as a society, we can begin to open ourselves to the process of healing and transformation.  What would happen if we were honest with ourselves as a society about fossil fuels and global warming?  This could lead to something new.  But there are still many walls of protection round the current fossil fuel mindset.  What if we were honest about economic inequality?  What if we were honest about gender bias and sexual identity?  Amazing healing could take place freeing America from bondage to false images and narratives that keep people down instead of lifting them up.

The younger brother in the story from Luke comes to a reality based assessment of his situation in his many hours spent tending the pigs.  To come to ourselves, to be honest, to examine our hearts, to be self aware takes time.  It takes reflection.  In our busy society, bombarded with messaging 24/7, it can be a challenge just to step off the media mill and think.  Remember.  Ponder.  Let meanings and patterns surface.  But this is essential to our health and highest good.  

Edward Abbey, a 20th century environmental writer, reminds us, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”

“He came to himself.”  When we come to ourselves we can be part of creating a new future for ourselves and for society.   Honesty and vulnerability create openings for grace and love and  joy.  The process can lead to celebration.  A party.  

This week I heard Terry Gross of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” interview Lori Gottlieb, a therapist who writes the “Dear Therapist” column for The Atlantic.  Gottlieb has recently written a book called,  Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.  In the interview, there was a conversation about Gottlieb asking her therapist, Do you like me?  Gross followed up asking Gottlieb if she is asked this question by her clients.  Gottlieb explains:  “But I think that one of the things that people worry about is that if they tell the truth of who they are, that they can’t be loved. I think that when they come into therapy, they’re telling you all of these things that they won’t tell the people that they want to be loved by in the outside world, because they’re afraid that those people won’t still love them if they know this.  I think what they discover in therapy is that the truth of who they are is what draws people to them.” Gottlieb talks about how she likes her clients when she gets to know who they really are.  Until then, she doesn’t know if she likes them because she hasn’t really gotten to know them.  Until she sees more than the facade, the image, the impression, how can she like them?  About one client she says, “When he tells me the truth of who he is, then I start to like him.”  She goes on to explain that when you know someone, when you see who they are, then the way is opened to understating and acceptance.  You see some of yourself in others.  We discover our common ground as human beings.  According to Gottlieb, what people want is to be understood, accepted, liked, and loved.  This can only happen when we are honest and vulnerable with ourselves and with others.  When the walls come down, then the real me can like the real you.  And it is authentic and genuine.  [https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/03/28/707561940/a-psychotherapist-goes-to-therapy-and-gets-a-taste-of-her-own-medicine  March 28]

May our faith encourage us to “come to ourselves.”   May we dismantle the walls of protection and illusion that separate us from others creating openings for the flow of love, forgiveness, acceptance, grace, reconciliation, and joy!  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 3/24 Taking Time

Date:  March 24, 2019  Third Sunday of Lent – All Things New

Scripture Lessons:  Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:1-9

Sermon:  Taking Time

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

 

In the book, The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben, a forester from Germany, tells us much about the life of trees and there are many surprises along the way!  Here’s one. Think of a pencil. Very narrow in diameter. Think of a tree with a trunk that narrow. How old might that tree be?  We would think, very young. But in the forests of beech trees in Germany, a tree no thicker than a pencil and 3-7 feet tall is actually about 80-120 years old.  And it is just a thin little thing.

The growth of the young trees is prevented by the shade of the larger trees around it.  Young trees get very little light on the bottom of the forest floor with the thick tree canopy above.  So, they grow slowly. This means that the inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. This makes the tree flexible and resistant to breaking.  It also has greater resistance to harmful fungi. Young trees will continue to grow slowly until a mature tree near them goes down. Then there is a break in the tree canopy and more light gets through to the young trees.  They will grow more quickly for about 20 years. Then the other surrounding trees will extend their canopies, again blocking out much of the light. The midsize tree must then wait for another nearby tree to go down, and it will get more light and grow to maturity.  A beech tree reaches maturity at about 200 years old. And the old trees, with an extensive root system and access to great amounts of sunlight, are full of energy and highly productive. They grow more quickly than young trees. What Wohlleben and others have observed is that the slower the growth when young, the greater the longevity and productivity of the tree.  So trees are intended to be slow growing so that they grow to be strong and stable. As healthy mature trees, they provide oxygen, bear fruit, provide shade, enrich the soil, prevent erosion, provide homes for other animals, and countless other functions. But the process of growth and fruiting in a healthy tree, let alone a forest, can be very slow.

In the reading we heard this morning from Luke, we heard the story of a tree, a fig tree.  And evidently this fig tree is not doing very well. It is not bearing fruit. For three years it has not borne any fruit.  This tree was needed to bear fruit. Figs were a staple in the diet of the time not an exotic holiday item like they are for us today.  They were an important part of everyday eating and daily nutrition. But this tree is not giving any fruit. It is wasting space, soil, water, and resources that could be used by other trees and plants.  So, the owner wants to cut it down. But the gardener has other thoughts. Give the tree another year. The gardener will loosen the soil, feed it with manure. Maybe give it some more water and compost and mulch.  But the gardener wants to give the tree some help, some support, some nurturing so that is has every chance to be healthy and to bear fruit. The owner agrees to a year of remedial treatment.

A year.  To a people who like things fast, and the faster the better, a year is a long time.  We don’t want to wait for a whole year, 365 long days, to see some evidence of change or remediation.  Imagine if your lawn service told you, we are going to fertilize your lawn and it will look better in a year.  Or if you went to your hairstylist and he recommended a new style, and if you come back for regular trims, it will look great in a year.  A year? Or if you took your car in for a repair and they told you it would take a year to properly remedy the problem. We want service work done yesterday!  We want fast results. Whether it is weight loss or learning a new language. Whether it’s repairing the plumbing or improving our golf game. And don’t talk to us about waiting in line.  That is considered torture. Just ask the people who waited several hours to get out of a parking garage here in St. Pete after a soccer game recently. It’s even led to law suits. We don’t like to wait.

We value speed.  We want fast transportation, fast internet, fast service, fast results, fast healing, fast, well, everything.  “Presto chango,” that’s how we like to see change. the snap of the fingers, the wave of the hand, and it’s all done.  Remember the scene in the first Mary Poppins movie when they are tidying up the nursery. That’s how we like our transformation and change, swift and painless.

But true change, lasting growth, takes time and effort as the gardener in the story from Luke knew; as we learn from the trees that make it possible for us to live on this planet. Lent is a season for repentance, for re-turning to God. This is a process of conversion, of transformation, of change, and that takes time. Once the need for change is identified and the commitment made to address the situation, often a long, slow process of conversion ensues.  The thoughts, attitudes, and assumptions, that go with our ingrained behaviors take time to identify and change.

When we think about the world, our culture, the state of our society, our community, ourselves as human beings, the condition of Creation, we see the need for change on many fronts.  Our faith calls us beyond our default cultural programming to think about meaning and purpose, service and living for others, being part of a larger reality as an embodiment of love. Embracing these alternative values doesn’t happen at the touch of a button.  It takes time for these counter cultural attitudes to take root and become established and secure. It takes time for us to see the transformation. It can take a long time to bear fruit and to see the results of our efforts.

People who seek recovery from addiction know of the long process involved.  Maybe you stop using in one drastic, swift step, but living into a new reality, new behaviors, new ways of engaging with others and the world, new approaches to facing challenges, these things take time and effort.  Twelve step groups can be a life line in this process of transformation. And it is a journey that lasts throughout life, because the twelfth step involves helping others along the path. Bearing fruit. For the good of others.  This is an example of a life long process of renewal and growth.

When we think about the ways we need to change, the commitment and intent may come quickly, but often the road to fulfillment is long.  In our society in which we are captive to speed, we can become disillusioned and discouraged at the slow pace of transformation. We may backslide or give up.  And that is why we need each other so that we don’t give up.

In the story from Luke, we see that the fig tree is not left to its own devices.  The gardener agrees to tend to the revitalization of the languishing fig tree. The gardener will aerate the soil and provide nutrition and tending.  The tree will receive support and encouragement in its restoration process.

Believe it or not, for a forest to be healthy and fruitful, the trees need each other.  Living trees depend on each other for protection and support. To be long lived and healthy, trees benefit from the other trees around them, from the messages and chemicals that ward off danger and share scarce resources.  Trees send messages to each other through smell, electrical signals, chemical signals, pheromones, and scent compounds, about threats and attacks. It is thought that trees even communicate through sound vibrations. And the fungi on the roots of the trees also communicate among the intertwining root systems to protect the health of the forest.  Trees share not only information but nutrients. They are actually quite social life forms.

Individual trees working together to create a healthy forest have a big impact on the world around them.  Together, they can create an ecosystem, moderate heat and cold, store water, and generate humidity. These are things that trees do together as a community.  They need each other to be healthy and thrive.

From the story about the fig tree and from the actual trees of the forests of Earth, we learn that being healthy and fruitful requires community.   The Bible, our faith tradition, and experience teach us that true change, conversion, and transformation, of heart, mind, and behavior, takes a community of encouragement, cooperation and accountability.  We need each other in our efforts to change the world and ourselves. We need to band together for mutual support, nurture, tending, and care. We may see a need or make a commitment but then we need others to help us live into our restoration so that we can bear fruit in our society and in the lives of those around us.  But this is not solitary work. It takes a communal effort. We need each other, we need the faith community.

The faith community helps us to see the Divine dreams for us and our world.  Then we see where we are, as a society and as individuals. Our faith encourages honesty about our situation.  Who we are. Who we are called to be. And the gap in between; sometimes quite large. Then the faith community provides encouragement and support as we work to close that gap, to become our best selves, to live into our highest good, to bear fruit for the good of others and the world, a lifelong journey.  

As the Civil Rights movement was ramping up in the 1960’s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a book entitled, Why We Can’t Wait.  In it he tells us, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”  King knew that the moment for decision, the moment to commit to ending racism, was long overdue. He also knew that once the commitment was made, the process would be long and slow.  He knew it would not happen overnight. He knew that attitudes and behaviors ingrained over generations would not be easily changed. He knew that the process of becoming an anti racist society would be arduous and take time.  A lot of time. Because he knew that eradicating racism from our society would be a long, challenging, but ultimately rewarding journey, he was adamant that we get underway. He was anxious to embark; to see the commitments made so that the process of transformation and conversion would proceed.

Maybe King would not be surprised that we haven’t come further on this journey.  He knew how deeply entrenched racism is in American culture and he knew that cultural programming is slow to adapt.  

So, let’s take a moment to think about the kinds of changes that we want to see, in the world, in our culture, in our communities, in our relationships, in our individual lives. How do you want to bear fruit for the good of the world and those around you? What kinds of changes would you like to see? In this season of thinking about All Things New, what would you like to see made new?

CONGREGATIONAL  RESPONSES

These are beautiful visions and dreams and commitments.  And because they represent significant transformation and change, we know that they will take time.  Maybe a really long time. Maybe beyond our lifetime. May we encourage and support one another along the way.  May we care for each other and tend each other, as we engage in the process of growth and renewal so that we may bear fruit that feeds the needs of the world. There is no time to lose.  

Alexander Smith, a 19th century Scottish poet, reminds us, “A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself.  He plants it for posterity.” Amen.

The technical information about trees in this sermon comes from The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben.  It is well worth reading though Wohlleben does have a fondness for anthropomorphizing trees.  

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