Sermon 8.12.18 To Dream

Scripture Lessons:  Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6: 24-35

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Edward Curtis died on October 19, 1952 in a postage stamp sized apartment in Beverly Hills.  He was 84 years old.  He died virtually penniless.  His daughter, Beth, commented that, “her father had left this world as he’d entered it, without a single possession to his name.”  [Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Timothy Egan, 2012, p. 314]  Many people die in obscurity.  That is not unusual.  But Curtis, a Seattle photographer, had at one time been a nationally renowned figure.  He was personally acquainted with J. P.  Morgan, one of the richest men in America.  He had a close friendship with Teddy Roosevelt.  Despite having only gone to school until age 11, what led Curtis to the hallowed precincts of power?  What drove Curtis to spend months each year sleeping in tents, outside, battling the elements and enduring the discomforts of outdoor life when he had a successful business and a comfortable home with a wife and 3 children in Seattle?  

As a successful photographer, Curtis was selected by C. Hart Merriam, the cofounder of the National Geographic Society, to join a scientific expedition to Alaska to document the landscape and the people of the region.  Curtis agreed.  On that expedition, Curtis became aware that the indigenous peoples and cultures were dying out and would soon be gone.  The seed was planted in Curtis.  He would spend the next 30 years of his life documenting for posterity the native cultures of North America.  

Armed with photography equipment, notebooks, tent, bedroll, and a wax cylinder recorder for audio, Curtis and a skeletal staff, roamed the western north american content recording the culture and people who were being driven to extinction by Euro-American expansion.  And they did so at a feverish pace.  Because, as Curtis explained, his subject was dying.  [Egan, p. 52]  

While Curtis was dismissed by eastern academicians who wrote and taught about native Americans but had never been out west he gained the trust of the indigenous peoples and joined in their rituals and ceremonies and lived among them for many months each year.  But his biggest struggle wasn’t acceptance by the Indians, or the trials of outdoor life, but funding. The expenses were sizable – for assistants,equip- ment, supplies, and the printing of the actual books.  While Curtis was consumed by his work in the field, he had to repeatedly leave the work to travel to the east coast to seek funding from the wealthy elite.  Much more comfortable in his tent in the desert than in the posh parlor of a New York City mansion, he eventually gained the support of J. P. Morgan.  And he sought the support of the US government through then President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt.  Curtis became friends with Roosevelt and even photographed Roosevelt and his family.  

Curtis’s dream took its toll on his finances since he essentially earned no money from the project and spent his fortune on its completion.  And the project took its toll on Curtis’s family.  His marriage ended in divorce. 

But Curtis persisted.  Volume by volume the encyclopedia emerged.  Three decades later, in 1929, when Curtis was 61, the last volume was completed.  But with the stock market crash, the funding to purchase such an extravagant resource dried up and there was little room in the national psyche to pay attention to his work.  Even institutions of higher learning with extensive libraries largely ignored Curtis’s voluminous tomes.  So Curtis’s lifelong project ended with no fanfare or notoriety.  And he, and his encyclopedias, fell into obscurity. 

Curtis completed The North American Indian, a 20 volume ethnographic encyclopedia, documenting the cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America.  The idea of creating this record of the native peoples had sprouted within him and drove the rest of his life.  All of his decisions, activities, resources, his being, were devoted to this project. While the project consumed him, he fulfilled it with no acclaim or recognition.  It was his dream.  And he gave his life to his dream.  And that was what mattered.

Reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan made me wonder, what am I giving my life to?  What is my dream?  We live, day to day.  Many of us very busy with many involvements and activities.  But what are we really doing?  What end is all of our busyness serving?  What dream are we chasing?  We work.  To make a living.  That is, money to live.  Money to spend.  Which fulfills the dreams of others to be rich.  But what about making a life?  What are our dreams and what are we doing to fulfill them?  

We may not have one big overarching ambitious project, like Curtis, but we are each surely called to devote ourselves to living out our dreams.  How are we doing with that?  We show kids inspirational sayings like “Shoot for the stars” and “Dream big” but what do they see among the adults around them?  How are we doing showing those who are coming after us about living our dreams?  

This kind of issue concerned Jesus, too.  Threading we heard this morning follows the story of the feeding of the multitudes.  The people have just been fed bread and fish.  Now the conversation continues in the aftermath of that story and the people remain focussed on the food.  The literal food.  What is eaten.  Jesus is trying to use the story to get to deeper meanings but the conversation remains on two levels with Jesus trying to go deeper and the crowd stuck at the level of bread to put in their mouths.  So there is that beautiful, telling line, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  [John 6:27]  Jesus is encouraging the listeners to live deeper; to follow him in giving their lives to something more than just bread for the stomach.  In devoting themselves to the commonwealth of God and not simply procuring food to eat, they will find the food that truly satisfies.  We are created to do more than simply see that our bodily needs are met.  It is our nature to invest our lives in the common good.   We need that to live.  Our dreams feed us.  

The reading from Ephesians picks up on this theme.  The writer is encouraging spiritual maturity.  Jesus followers are to pursue the virtues of which the human spirit is capable though not always inclined:  humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, peace.  In addition, those in the community have been given gifts.  And what is the purpose of those gifts?  To make money?  To create jobs? To start a business?  That’s what our culture tells us to do with our assets.  But Ephesians tells us that these gifts are for ministry.  For serving others.  For building up the body of Christ.  Believers are not to be fooled.  We are told:  “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  [Epheisans 4:14]  Yes, think Q Anon.  Think fake news.  Think advertising propaganda.  And, yes, think religious manipulation.  There are all kinds of influences, subtle and not, that are trying to shape our thinking, our values, our character.  And Ephesians is encouraging us to be thoughtful and discerning.  To think deeply.  Don’t just take things at the sur-face.  Don’t just accept the cultural milk around you like a baby taking its mother’s milk.  That is fine for a child, but as adults seeking spiritual maturity, we are to seek the truth in love and grow into the likeness of Christ as we see it in Jesus.  

Trickery, craftiness, deception.  There are those who will use these tactics to entice us to follow and to form our dreams around self serving aims rather than the common good.  To give our lives to personal gain and the lure of wealth instead of bettering the lives of others.  These are the things which do not ultimately satisfy.  The food that perishes.  And it is all around us. 

Our faith tradition invites us to choose the food that satisfies.   To choose service and other centered living.  To choose the health of the community and the earth.  To choose to dream big.  Of course, we want to be healthy.  But what about creating a society that fosters the health of all people?  Sure, we want meaningful work.  But what about investing in a community that encourages everyone to be engaged in useful, meaningful labor?  Yes, we want to enjoy a day at the beach.  But what about protecting the environment so that everyone can enjoy the beautiful outdoors.  I love to read a good book.  But what about making sure that everyone can read and has access to books?  We have been given gifts, skills, graces, time, voices, money, access, and power.  What are we doing with all that we have been given?  What dreams are we serving?  Are they in keeping with our faith?  Are they worthy of our calling?  Are they big enough?  Are they dreams that will satisfy?   

I don’t normally read the obituaries.  Maybe a couple of times a year, I glance at that page in the newspaper.  Well, I happened to look at the obits on Thursday August 2.  For some reason I found myself reading the obituary for David Allen Palmer.  And I was stopped by the first line.  “David Allen Palmer, 63, a new resident of Pensacola, FL, passed away July 31, 2019.”  Yes, the date said, 2019.  But it’s only 2018.  Yes, a typo.  Surprising.  But what if you knew about your death a year ahead?  What if you knew that you had a year to live?  A year to live out your dreams.  What would you be doing?  How would you spend your time and money?  What would you do with all of your resources and assets and gifts and graces?  How would you chase that food that does not perish?  

Maybe that is what impressed me so much about the photographer and ethnographer Edward Curtis.  If you had told him he had a year to live, I don’t think he would have changed anything about what he did.  He gave all he had to the encyclopedia of The North American Indian.  And when he wasn’t out actually documenting the Indians, he was chasing after funding so the project could go on.  He could not have done anything to be more devoted to his dream.  He could not have accomplished any more in achieving his dream.  He gave it everything.  

The last volume of the The North American Indian was about the native peoples of Alaska.  Curtis told of “how they made parkas from bird or fish skins, and heavier coats of caribou and bear hide.  Their socks were woven grass; a rain slicker was fashioned from seal intestine.  The people were tattooed and pierced and handsome. . .”  Curtis’ assessment of those very northern North American Indians?  “In all the author’s experience among Indians and Eskimos, he never knew a happier and more thoroughly honest and self-reliant people.”  [Egan, p. 296-297]  It was good to return to Alaska where his dream had begun and to have a positive experience when the overall story of the indigenous peoples was a tragic one.  

In this last volume of his encyclopedia, Curtis thanked those who had helped him with the project through the years and there were many.  The people “who never lost faith.”  Who encouraged him.  We need others to help us pursue our dreams and to support us along the way.  Curtis recognized this as he concluded his herculean project saying, “Mere thanks seem hollow in comparison with such loyal cooperation; but great is the satisfaction the writer enjoys when he can at last say to all those whose faith has been unbounded, ‘It is finished.’”  [Egan,p. 297]  Curtis knew the food that does not perish.  The bread of life.  May we taste that bread!  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 8.5.18 Stand Your Ground

Scripture Lessons:  John 6:1-21, Ephesians 3:14-21

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Stand your ground.  We are hearing a lot about this lately. The phrase has come to refer to laws that protect those who use violence in self defense when they feel their lives are in danger.  So, if I am afraid of you and think that you are threatening my life, then I have the legal right to kill you.  And to be immune from prosecution.

Stand your ground is a reference to Florida Statutes chapter 776 entitled “Justifiable use of force.”  The statute says in part:  

Home protection; use or threatened use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—

(1) A person who is in a dwelling or residence in which the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use or threaten to use:

(a) Nondeadly force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force; or

(b) Deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

There is that phrase, “has the right to stand his or her ground.”   While there may be a logic to this, there are also problems.  Like when a black person feels threatened by a white person.  If the black person kills the white person, they are much less likely to be protected by stand your ground than if a white person does the killing.  And people are already protected under the law if they kill in self defense.  And stand your ground has led to increased killings.  Some people with guns feel this law compels them to use their guns in self defense rather than simply walking away from a volatile situation.  Even in active shooter training, they tell you to run and hide.  The last resort, if you can’t run or hide, is to confront the shooter.  One on one, the same advice should apply.  Walk away.  Drive away.  Leave.  Get out of the situation.  That should end whatever the conflict is right there.  With stand your ground, people feel emboldened to confront.  To engage.  To shoot.  Some critics call it the “shoot first” law.  Florida was the first state to enact this legislation in 2005.  Since then, at least 34 states have followed suit.  We started a trend though not a good one.

The phrase “stand your ground” used to have more nobility to it.  It was about standing up for your principles.  Not backing down from your moral commitments.  Being firm in your righteous convictions.  

As Christians, we are called to stand our ground.  We are to stand our ground as we see it in Jesus.  Jesus shows us a reality in which everyone is fed with food and with love.  He shows us a reality in which people work together and all have a contribution to make.  In the story we heard this morning, it is a child that has the bread and fish that feed the multitudes.  Jesus shows us a world of simplicity, generosity, and abundance.  Just bread and fish.  Nothing fancy.  But more than enough for all.   This is our ground.   This is the ground we are to stand on.  This is what we are to claim and protect and foster.  This reality that we see in Jesus.  

Yes, standing our ground as followers of Jesus means committing ourselves to living by his values and promoting those values in society.  It means being in solidarity with those who are being oppressed and abused like the farmworkers.  I hope some of you will be at the rally this afternoon here in St. Petersburg in support of farmworker justice.  Yes, stand your ground for us means defending the people who are trying to immigrate into this country and protecting their children.  Jesus also shows us that standing our ground means being against the use of violence especially when used to serve what theologian Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence.”  Our society promotes the use of violence to achieve peace.  This approach is rejected by Jesus.  We know that our faith does not stand behind a law that increases violence and promotes racial bias.  We are the people of “blessed are the peacemakers.”  We are the people of every person “made in God’s image” not some people “made in God’s image.”

We are called to stand our ground for love and justice.  If you see something, say something.  If you see racism, say something.  If you see abuse, say something.  If you see people treated unfairly, say something.  Whether it be one on one or society at large, we are called to stand our ground with love like Jesus.   And in today’s world, there are many ways that we are called to stand our ground.

This morning, we also want to notice that oft over looked verse in today’s scripture:  “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  While this may not be historically factual, the writer of the gospel felt it was important to say this.  The people, the people who had been fed on the mountain, wanted to make Jesus their king.  They wanted to define his role and his power.  They were coming to take him by force.  Notice, he does not “stand his ground” Florida style and fight back.  He retreats.  Run.  Hide.  But still he stands his ground.  He will not let even his beloved followers impose a power arrangement upon him that is at odds with his values and calling.  He will not accept a label that is laden with the potential for abuse of power – remember David last week?  Jesus will not allow himself to be the king of just one people, one geographical region.  His message is universal.  By refusing to be king, he is refusing to accept this power structure, this power arrangement.  You see, other people are standing other ground:  they are hungry for power, or looking for economic profit, or seeking revenge.  There are many other things that people are seeking to defend and protect.  Jesus will stay true to Divine love and will stand his ground so that his influence is not limited by the desires of others hungry for what would be a false sense of security.  In the next scene we see Jesus portrayed as exerting power not only over people but over the sea and the wind and the storm.  That is more than any king could do.  Jesus will stand his ground for the good of all of creation.  And he will not be manipulated or capitulate.  

Yes, we are called to stand our ground with Jesus, working for a world of goodness, abundance, and peace.  And we do that in many, many ways.  We do that on an individual level, in our relationships and behavior toward others.  We also do it in our efforts to influence society, the government, and our life together.   This is who we are as Christians.  We stand our ground with Jesus.  But this work can take its toll.  There are many initiatives on many fronts that seem to call out for our attention.  Trying to stand our ground and make a difference can seem overwhelming, exhausting, and futile.  Where are the wins?  The present federal administration seems bent on wearing us down through repeated traumatization.  Some days you just don’t want to turn on the TV or the radio or check social media.  Like Jesus withdrawing up the mountain by himself, you just want a break from it all!

But let’s remember those beautiful words that we heard from Ephesians.  The writer is addressing second generation followers of Jesus.  They have seen the killing of the apostles and the martyrs.  They are a small group gathered in a home.  No large fancy temple.  In fact, the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.  What is the future of their religion?  What is the future of the church?  What is their future?  These people are unsteady; in a fragile state.  Maybe feeling overwrought and under stress.  And the writer offers a prayer of soaring sentiments: 

 “I bow my knees before the God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  Their numbers may be small but they are part of God’s great human family.   “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Divine Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”    They are not dismissed or denigrated for their fragile state.  They are offered empowerment to stay strong.  Rooted and grounded in love.  They will be equipped to stand their ground in love.  “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  This is an expansive, all encompassing vision.  They are part of a much larger reality.  Let that incomprehensible love work in you.  

These are words of hope and encouragement for us in these challenging days as we seek to stand our ground – in the way of Jesus, rooted in love.  Together, in God, there is more than what is needed for the living of our days and the standing of our ground.

This past week, I went to the Trump rally in Tampa.  I was asked, Why?  I have thought about that.  Trained as an historian, I like firsthand knowledge, when possible.  And I like facts.  So much is said about the president, good and bad, I wanted to see for myself.  I was also very interested in seeing first hand those who support Trump in a crowd setting.  What are the people like?  Again, firsthand.  Not filtered; even through an ethical, professional journalist.  I also went in my own little way, to stand my ground.  We say we believe in one human family.  We say the divine image is in everyone.   We say we are working for justice and peace for all people.  We say we believe in reconciliation.  Jesus interacted with all kinds of people, even those who were considered enemies and hated by others.  By going, by being there, by taking an interest, by listening, by being present, I wanted, in some small way, to be part of building a bridge and not a wall.  

It was an unforgettable experience.  I will be thinking about it for a long time.  I saw thousands of people who are angry and hostile.  They were yelling at each other in line to get in.  They were giving the finger and heckling the press.  There was a lot of rage.  And they were glorying in venting those feelings.  I felt sadness and compassion.  As a church, how can we stand our ground in love that reaches out to everyone, including these angry, hostile people?  Especially these angry, hostile people?  I don’t know.    

The writer of Ephesians ends the prayer for the struggling congregation, saying, “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.”  Here we are assured that the power at work within us, together, as a congregation, as a church, can do more than all we can “ask or imagine.” Just like the loaves and fish.  With faith we trust that together we can stand our ground.  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 7.29.18 What Good Is Religion?

Scripture Lesson: 2 Samuel 11:1-12:14a

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

What good is religion?  It’s not just a question for a skeptic or an atheist.  Considering the number of churches and religious institutions and faith communities in the US anyway, it seems like a good question.  What good is religion?  There’s a lot of it around us, but what good is it?

I think a major function of most religions, certainly Christianity, is to bring out the best in people; it is to encourage our goodness.  Religion is a way of dealing with life that fosters hope and joy and community.   A purpose is to help people be loving – of themselves, others, and Creation.  I think religion is to help people be good and have a good life.  

After a yoga class I went to recently, one of the participants mentioned that they were going to a steakhouse for dinner after class.  She glanced at the teacher and said, “I know that would not interest you,” because the teacher is vegetarian.  The teacher explained that she doesn’t eat meat because her spiritual practice involves “do no harm” so she doesn’t eat animals.  As an aside to the teacher, who knows I am a Christian pastor, I said, “I’m vegan out of reverence for the Earth.”  Then the teacher mentioned to all that she doesn’t kill bugs in her house either – at least not many.  She takes them outside.  Again, as an aside, I told her that we often take them outside, too, because we believe life is sacred.  So while the yoga teacher and I have very different religious leanings, our religious commitment is bringing out the good in us in similar ways.  

That is what religion is really all about:  bringing out the good in us, in life, in relationships, and all the good around us.  

This morning we heard a portion of the story of King David.  Now here is a figure absolutely steeped, from birth, in religion.  He is part of a devout Jewish family from the tribe of Benjamin.  His family is making sacrifices and following all the necessary observances.  Things are not going well with Saul’s reign and a new king is needed who will get things back on track.  Get Israel back in tune with God.  Clean out the corruption and violence and problems that have arisen and get the people back to living in a wholesome and righteous manner.  As the story is told, Jesse’s family is pegged to provide the next king for Israel.   And who gets picked to do this?  Not Jesse’s son, Eliab.  Or Abinadab.  Not Shammah.  None of the seven sons.  But the youngest son, who was keeping the sheep, David, he is the one who is fingered by God through the prophet Samuel.  A humble, unassuming figure because “God looks on the heart.”  [1 Sam. 16:5]  David is chosen because he is someone who will depend on God and someone God can trust. 

And it goes really well for a while with David.  He is sound through the challenging transition ending Saul’s reign.  When David is anointed king he brings people together.  He is successful militarily against Israel’s foes.  He establishes the city of Jerusalem known as the city of David.  And he is talking about building a Temple for God.  Things seem to be on track.  We’re told that, “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”  [2 Samuel 5:10]  He is a shining star just as was hoped.  

And then we hear of David and Bathsheba.  Such a promising start goes so awry.  And even that awesome, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of Israel doesn’t seem able to keep David and his regime in line.  What good is religion?  It didn’t stop David from lusting after Bathsheba.  It didn’t stop him from summoning her.  What could she say, no, she would not come when called by the king?  Religion did not stop David from “taking” Bathsheba as it is stated in the text.  

Seemingly unable to control himself, David is also unable to control the consequences of his actions.  Bathsheba becomes pregnant.  Now there is a problem.  At least for David.  He has taken another man’s wife.  He has violated the ownership rights of another man.  And so he is looking for a cover up.  There has already been a problem for Bathsheba.  She has been raped;  but that is not the main issue here.  Women’s problems are seldom the main issue in a patriarchal society, but more on that in a moment.  So, in light of this pregnancy, David digs his hole deeper by pursuing a coverup.  He calls Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, home from the battlefront.  Uriah comes when called, just like Bathsheba, just like anyone summoned by the king.  But, again, things are out of David’s control.  Uriah is supremely noble.  One of David’s elite 30 soldiers among thousands.  His name means “God is my light.”  For Uriah, religion is bringing out his best.  He will not have a conjugal visit with his spouse when the ark of God is still out on the battlefield along with the other soldiers.  This would be disrespectful, dishonorable, disgraceful.  He is calm and principled.  So Uriah sleeps out in the yard, not inside in his soft, comfortable bed, with his soft comfortable wife.  

Now what will David do?  Something righteous?  Something good?  Come clean?  Nope.  David arranges for Uriah to return to the front and be killed in battle.  Then he takes Bathsheba as his wife. 

This whole sordid episode is a turning point in David’s monarchy and in his life.  After this, David’s life is wracked by problems and tragedy.  Bathsheba’s baby dies, though she becomes the mother of Solomon, the next king.  David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped by her brother who is killed by another brother out of revenge.  David’s son, Absalom then stages a take over, including raping 10 of David’s wives, and is killed.  Pestilence invades the land.  It’s simply downhill after Bathsheba. 

Now, back to patriarchy.  There are scholars, white, male, who, through the centuries, have blamed the whole Bathsheba saga, the beginning of David’s downfall, not on the glorious, victorious king, but on Bathsheba.  She lured the king.  She enticed the king.  She asked for this.  She brought David down.  Here’s a sample of this view from a commentary:  “No one of good moral character could have acted as she did in her seduction and conquest of David.  She doubtless exposed herself that the king might be tempted; she willingly came to the palace when she was sent for; and conspired with David for the murder of her husband.”  [Cited in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 2. p. 565]  Talk about blaming the victim!  That is not religion bringing out the good in people, but religion with a twisted imagination fueled by patriarchy.  (And there’s a lot of that. . .)

So, how will this whole mess be resolved?  Uriah is dead.  Bathsheba is pregnant.  Religion doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in King David.  What now?  We are told that God sends Nathan the prophet to David.  Nathan is to help David see the error of his ways.  Nathan is to expose the truth to David.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t envy Nathan.  I would not have wanted that assignment!  But Nathan proceeds.  He shows us religion bringing out the truth.   The stark honesty that is needed.  Nathan shows us religion bringing out the truth of the abomination that David has committed.   But it is about more than exposure.  Nathan also leads David to admission of guilt.  To repentance.  To redemption and restoration.

Yes, religion is about bringing out the good in us, about helping us to be our best selves.  But it is also about finding our way back when we have erred.   In Judaism and Christianity, religion is about restoration after we have strayed.  It is about an on ramp back to goodness when we have hurt ourselves, others, and our relationships.  It is about healing when we have caused or contributed to pain and suffering.  In some ancient versions of 2 Samuel, the scribes left a gap in the text after David’s confession.  There was an indication that Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance, was to be read there.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.  . . .”  After the reading of Psalm 51, the text of 2 Samuel resumed.  

What good is religion?  Yes, it inspires the good, but it also provides a way back.  Our faith tradition provides a path of restoration.  And that may be its most important function.  In today’s world, we seem bent on punishment, retribution, and revenge.  Think of that ubiquitous question on most job applications:  Have you ever been convicted of a felony?  That seals it.  Yes or no.  And if the answer is yes, there is little chance of a way back; of being fully restored to a constructive role in society.  Your personhood is not restored even after you have served your sentence because you are still not allowed to vote.  There is no way back to full humanity, healing, and wholeness.  But our religion does provide that way back.  Our faith helps us find a way to healing and wholeness even after the most painful experiences.  We are part of a religion of forgiveness which can lead to the restoration of our full humanity.  We can once more see the image of God within ourselves after we err, and in others who have done heinous things.  In Christianity, our only permanent label is child of God created in the image of God.  And our faith always provides a way for us to see that in ourselves and in others.  The scene of Jesus on the cross is definitive:  Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.  David asks for forgiveness because he didn’t know what he was doing.   And he receives the forgiveness he needs.  He finds a way to go on, with Bathsheba, no less, after arranging the murder of her husband.  And, we can imagine that Bathsheba, too, must in some way forgive David, for she somehow finds a way to go on as one of his wives.  

What good is religion?  Yes, it encourages and fosters the good.  But it is also about finding a way to go on, a path of restoration, when we are less than our best selves.  And we know that humanity is capable of great evil.  And it can be that the more power we have, the more harm we do.  We remember the words of British historian, Lord Acton, in 1887:  “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  David is a case in point.  We can also see this among the wealthy, dominant, white, elite portion of the US population.  Often the power carried by that status leads such people to think they are subject to different rules, different standards, different morals.  How is it that our government thought it was ok to take children away from their parents – babies, toddlers, kids, teens?  They expected a “pass” because they are the government.  But the courts and people of this country are seeking to rectify this immoral policy.  Power corrupts and we can succumb to doing great wrong.  Whatever our transgressions as individuals or as a society, there is a way back.  Our faith tradition gives us a way of reconciliation and healing.  

Recently a friend, who is agnostic and not religious, told me the story of her cousin’s murder here in Florida many years ago.  Her cousin and his girlfriend were college age.  They were out on a date.  They were abducted and taken to the woods.  The woman was raped and then killed.  And the man was then killed as well.  It was a horrific, random act of violence.  The murderer did not know these people.  It was an act of pure evil.  The families of the two young people were wrought with unimaginable grief.  My friend told me that she noticed that the two families handled things differently.  And that has remained notable to her.  The woman’s family was angry and wanted revenge.  They wanted the killer to get the death penalty.  They remained broken and hostile.  They never seemed to heal after this experience.  The man’s family, his parents, my friend’s aunt and uncle, were part of the Salvation Army.  They were very involved in the church.  They were people of faith.  Yes, they were devastated by the murder of their son and his girlfriend.  But they sought healing in their faith.  They prayed.  They offered forgiveness to the killer.  They told the judge that they did not want him to receive the death penalty.  It would only mean another death and it wouldn’t bring their son or the girlfriend back.  They also started a support group for others who had family members that had been murdered or had been victims of violence.  This work helped them to heal.  They found solidarity with others.  They were able to express their grief and seek the solace of forgiveness with others.  They were able to go on with their lives and find the good in themselves and others again.  Sadly, there was little reconciliation between the families of the two victims.  The parents of the woman could not understand the attitude of the parents of the man.  They could not see the value in forgiveness.  They could not let go of their hatred and anger.  

So, what good is religion?  As the story of David, Jesus, and the stories of those around us continue to reveal, religion gives us a way back to life.  It gives us a way forward after devastation.  It is a path of restoration and renewal because we are going to do things that are wrong, that cause pain, that separate us from our best selves and from others.  This is inevitable.  It is the consequence of freewill.  It is our nature.  Our religion gives us a way back through forgiveness of ourselves and others so that we may once again know love, goodness, and joy.   That is good religion.  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 7.8.18 Rev. Victoria Long

Scripture Lessons:  Deuteronomy 10:17-21 and Matthew 5:43-48                          Sermon:  After the Fireworks                                                                                     Pastor: Rev. Victoria V. Long

I suspect many of you had a wonderful 4th of July celebration this past week. Let me confess, I am always confused as to is it better to take the two days before or the two days after a holiday that falls on a Wednesday? I guess it depends on your level of celebration.

This celebrating the birth of our nation caused me to go back to readings, writings  and songs, to revisit much that is attached to this day.  One spoke to me in new and deeper ways than it did when I first encountered it some four years ago. A blog offering by Mary Luti, in which she spoke about each nation’s story gives you insight into who they are.  This thought became the seeds for this homily today.

Our Deuteronomy text tells of a people, a yet to be formed nation. It reminds them they had been saved from oppression so it will be central to who they are to become:  A people who care for the least of these.

What I remembered most about Mary’s writings was a story I had never heard before.  This is an American founding story.  Let me share it with you from the installation of Nancy Taylor, pastor of Old South Church in Boston.  Old South is a church steeped in early American  history.  And this is the story Nancy told…

“As you know, the Pilgrims were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.”

Nancy goes on to say,  “I didn’t learn that beer-run story in school. I learned another story, that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. Here they built a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope to the world that became a nation of unique and superior virtue with a sacred responsibility to extend our aspirations to other nations. The story I learned set our country apart from other countries. It conveyed the conviction that America was exceptional.”

The America I have lived in for some 60 years certainly seemed to lead with those values.  I believed, even when we came up short, we were “trying” to be civilized. This was a country people were trying to be a part of, one seldom heard of “Americans” wanting to forgo their citizenship and move somewhere else.  Sure, I was always aware we had problems, but I still believed this was the BEST place on earth to live.

As a child I remember memorizing and singing anthems in school with words that shout, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee…” Or “God bless America, my home sweet home…”  And the pledge of Allegiance with a flag that hung in the sanctuary across from or next to the Christian flag with words that said, “One nation under God.”  All this intertwining of God and Nation, when one is just forming ideas, concepts and attaching meaning to a world.  Not a surprise that many Christians think America was “ordained” by God to be THE nation.  God’s presence in the world.  Patriotism and love of God intertwined in some sacred covenant.

As I wrestled with celebrating this Fourth of July, I remembered that our founders were agitators, treasonously so, from the perspective of Britain’s king (and many of their fellow country persons). Passion and provocation fashioned this country. Folks with an attitude and called by God; surely nothing can go side ways with a people holding these truths.

I discovered in my readings the word “nation” comes from a Latin word meaning “to be born.” It is used as away to describe a grouping based on tangibles like race and/or folks who are related by blood.   People who join because they are like one another.  It is this understanding of nationhood that Hitler reflected when he reputedly claimed that the United States was “not a nation (Volk), but a hodgepodge (mischung).” 

But, it is the Declaration, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood.  We began this journey as an “us.”  

Many churches on these national holidays sing our anthems instead of hymns.  Others have members of the congregation wave flags that are given out as one enters the sanctuary.  Sermons that weave in the themes of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and the debt we each owe to this nation.  We have been taught to love our country and our God.  To pledge our allegiance to our flag somehow has become intertwined with our allegiance to Jesus.  This integration of our patriotic feeling mingled with our Christian faith makes it very easy to conflate those two and wrap the cross with the American flag.  Many of our country’s folk feel God surely is an American.  I have friends, family members, who may not be able to articulate that, but make no mistake, this is their belief.

I know I am preaching to the choir when I speak of a Jesus who held an allegiance to the God of his understanding.  This commitment placed him squarely in the midst of the least of these.  His understanding of what it means to live into the Micah command…  “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what is required of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  

This example of “how to be” requires relationship.   Jesus hung out with all the folks you’re not supposed to. He sat down and ate with the poor, the sick, the orphans, and the widowed. The thief, the tax collector, those in prison and those not invited in the temple.

Think about this man, Jesus, who lives,  believing he IS the son of God.  Talk about privilege.  Talk about a brand recognition.  And what did he do with it?

He found individuals, sometimes small groups and sat down and had conversations.  He asked questions of his new acquaintances and listened to theirs.  Broke bread, drank a little wine. Entered into relationships.  Confronted systems of power one conversation at a time.

Which brings me back to the 4th.  This year I worked, so my celebration was limited.  Hotdogs and baked beans were shared with others who were working on this holiday.  Fire works and a beer at the end of the day.  Fireworks, that by and large made a less than expected impact.  Folks went expecting big and impressive but, due to weather or product, they failed to live up to what was hoped for.  Individuals, couples or families left the event  and returned to their lives.  The parallels with all that and our political environment were not lost. 

And a deepening of an awareness that this country is on the edge of something. What?  That is something I wrestle with daily.   Who we are as a people?  Who we used to be and who are we becoming?  Where we are going?

And the nagging never answered to my satisfaction question rises – what can I do to make some kind of difference?

My job allows that I spend a great deal of the day driving from facility to facility which gives me time to mull things over.  Such as, what if the primary story about the beginnings of our nation’s narrative started with a beer run?  That we entered this story at a place where individuals worked together to solve a problem.  

An ordinary story, about ordinary people, about to embark on an extraordinary adventure.

What if we had shared the story of running out of beer rather than the creators of “a city on a hill.”  A mythic tale that places us above everyone else.  Apart from, different, better, blessed, ordained by God.  Maybe, what is exceptional is not what makes us different but all those things we hold in common?

What if, from our earliest learnings, we had been taught, that because of our shared needs we pulled together so that every one’s needs were met?  What if, we, too, attempted, in real and intentional ways, to find what we hold in common as a place to start.   This only changes if individuals become present to one another.  This is what Jesus exampled to us.  There is a time and place for outburst, but one does not need to lead with that response at every turn.

I have two folks whose leanings are polar opposite to mine.  One, I see weekly and the other is a person, from my distant past who I engage with on social media.  I have committed to being more intentional in our conversations around the things that divide us.  Not in confrontational ways, but in ways that offer opportunity for further dialogue.

Let me be frank. I am much more skilled at releasing my anger and informing you of just how foolish your point of view is, but that response does nothing to nurture fragile friendships.  I have committed to listen and hear what is at the core of their anger, their fear or their dis-satisfaction.  It is my hope they will hear me as well.

This is where change can happen; the uniting of individuals offers a chance for healing.  What if each of you reached out to “that” person in your life-friend, family member, neighbor and began your own response.

The UCC likes to say “we have a freedom for, not a freedom  from.”  We like to think we are a people  of  “soft verbs.”  We like to describe ourselves as “how to be”  folks, and not a people who tell another “what to do.”   One of the most powerful explanations of how we are to be in relationship with one another, individually as well as corporately, and at our center is that we seek to live in covenant with one another.  Covenantal language is a language of us and not me; it is a language of implied sacredness, for it is both vertical and horizontal.  It is our intention to “seek to walk together,” it examples how and not what to do! 

I still have hope in this nation of ours. My patriotism remains but it must be a compassionate patriotism, an empathetic patriotism, a patriotism that loves all this country offers and a willingness to be open to all those who seek to call it home. 

GMA reported this is the top beer drinking holiday week of the year.  So, armed with this data, my plans include finding something cold to drink and listening  to one of my favorite country music songs,  “God is Great, Beer is Good, and People are Crazy.”  Then pulling up that friend on Face Book try to find the right invitation when instant messaging him. 

So, now you know… this is what I see happening, after the fire works – maybe, just maybe a conversation begins.

May it be so! 

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 7.22.18 The Racial Divide

Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:11-22

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Last Labor Day I went over to Tampa to see a Lego art exhibit on its last day.  Surprisingly, there was a long line; down the block and around the corner.  I got in line.  In front of me was a younger man and woman.  They were white.  Behind me was a middle aged woman, I would say in her 50’s, with a young boy about 10.  They were well- dressed, the boy in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, clean and neat.  The woman in a skirt and blouse with a purse over her shoulder.  Her hair was combed.  She, too, was clean and neat.  The woman and the boy were black.  We spoke briefly, about the heat, about the wait, and about Legos.  Behind the woman and the boy was another white young woman and man.  So, as we stood in line, someone with a clipboard came down the line, approaching each person, asking if the person was a registered voter and if they wanted to sign the petition to get voting rights for felons on the ballot.  The woman with the clipboard made her way down the line, person by person, trying to get signatures.  She came to me.  I told her I had already signed.  Then she went to the young white man and woman behind the black woman with the young boy.  Then she went to the person behind them and on down the line.  Yes, she went past the black woman as if she wasn’t there.  As if she were invisible.  Non existent.  I watched and it took me a bit to take this in.  Had that really happened?  The black woman said to me, “I guess she doesn’t think I’m a registered voter.”  I was too stunned to say much.  The more I thought about it, the more horrified I was.  

The woman with the clipboard hadn’t said anything.  She hadn’t made an unkind gesture.  She had not given a nasty look.  She didn’t do anything racist and yet passing the black woman and ignoring her completely was clearly racist.  I have continued to think about the woman with the clipboard.  If someone showed her a video of what happened what would she have thought?  Did she even know she passed the woman?  Did she know that this came across as a racist act?  Does she think of herself as a racist?  Is she a member of a white supremacist group?  Or is she just a regular person trying to be good and do the right thing?  

My surmise is that the woman with the clipboard has no clue about what happened.  She would have no recollection of the occurrence.  And that she does not consider herself a racist.  I think she would see this as just some kind of unintentional oversight.  It was hot, she was tired, it was a long day.  She just inadvertently missed someone. . . 

For the most part, I believe people don’t want to be racist.  They don’t want to perpetuate the discrimination and bias that has caused so much pain to individual people and to society as a whole.  Who here wants to be racist?  No one.  Of course.  And I think that’s the majority of people.  The legacy of slavery makes us feel sick.  We wince at the statistics that show the continuing disadvantage of black people in America today.  

We don’t want to be racist.  But we live in a racist culture and we are part of it.  There are a host of reasons for that and they go back centuries.  Much of the impetus for racism has been and is economic.  As philosopher and social activist Cornel West tells us, racism is based on economic exploitation.  If there was no economic advantage to racism, it would virtually disappear.  

And racism in our culture is maintained and passed on from generation to generation in countless subtle and not so subtle ways.  It’s part of the air we breathe and not only here in the south.  Racism and its ill effects have been part of American identity since the Europeans came to these shores.  For hundreds of years it has been ingrained in US identity.  It is woven into the fabric of US culture.  

TV personality Rosanne Barr was recently fired for making a racist comment.  She explained it was in part due to the medication she was taking.   Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, the drug Roseanne had taken, responded:  “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

No, racism does not come from a pill.  It comes from conditioning.  From subtle and not so subtle messaging received everyday in countless situations much of it unnoticed and seemingly innocuous.  Like at school.  One day we watched as a little black girl was taking her time getting to the school bus to go home.  The driver was yelling at her in front of the other kids to hurry up, they didn’t have all day, etc.  And then to a white girl, nicely asking her to hurry so they could leave.  Or the Tampa Bay Times recently.  On one page, a picture of all the pretty white debutantes for this season.  Turn the page and there is a picture of a group of black girls huddled around a table attending remedial summer school.  As Rogers and Hammerstein put it, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”  And all of us in this country are very carefully taught to accept racism as normal; so normal that often we don’t even see it, around us or within us. 

Two weeks ago when I was visiting in New England, our daughter, Angela, and I spent a day sightseeing.  We went to Louisa May Alcott’s house, Nathanial Hawthorne’s house, and the old North Bridge where the Revolutionary War started.  This was all in Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts.  Angela’s fiance is going to be working at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington.  So while we were out there, I asked to see the church.  She drove there and we parked.  It was after 5:00 and the church was closed.  No one was around to let us see the inside.  The windows of the sanctuary were above my sight line so I looked around and found an old bench laying in a pile of debris.  I pulled the bench over to the sanctuary window and got up on the bench to look in.  Some of you may have seen this image as I understand Angela posted it on Facebook.  I saw the inside of the sanctuary.    Then I got down and put the bench back where I had found it.  In reflecting on this, I wonder if I would have had this same experience if I was black.  Lexington is one of the richest small towns in America and the population is 1.5% black.  If I was black and I got the bench and climbed up and looked in the window would my picture have been a cute image on Facebook or a police mug shot?  I don’t know.  Frankly, if I was black, I probably would not have ventured on to the bench.  

This situation in our country has evolved over many centuries and we all suffer for it.  We all pay the price.  We are all victims of the ill effects of prejudice and discrimination; each one of us individually and our society as a whole.  Some people think it lifts them up to not be at the bottom, to have someone under them.  But actually that only brings everybody down and it brings no one up.  The ill effects of racism make us less than we can be, less than we should be, less than we want to be.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We are all under threat from racism.  It is having ill effects, social and economic, on all of us and on our culture as a whole.  And it is depriving our society of the full contribution of people of color.

Is there any hope of overcoming this ill which plagues our life?  There is a word for us from Ephesians.  To this new community of faith, the writer has a word that speaks to us today.    The newly emerging church is gathered around Jesus as the embodiment of the universal love of God.  Jesus has captured hearts and minds with his love for all people.  No exceptions.  That is the foundation of community life for these new communities of Jesus followers.  So, they have gathered; drawn by this message.  And they are in a situation of deep division.  They are in a setting characterized by entrenched polarization.  There are deep seated religious and ethnic tensions.  Between Jews and Gentiles.  Jews and non-Jews.  The circumcised and the uncircumcised.   We don’t tend to think in these categories today, so the depth of the hostility and rancor between the two groups may not come across to us.  But we heard the words:  aliens, strangers, no hope, far off, hostility. The writer of Ephesians doesn’t have to go into a long explanation of the situation.  Just reference the division and everyone at the time knew about it.  It’s like saying Hutu and Tutsi, or Palestinian and Israeli, or, before last week, Russia and America.  Jew and Gentile.  Sure some Jews and Gentiles got along but there was a deep-seated division between the groups.  But the writer of this letter emphasizes that the faith community gathered around the witness of Jesus is not subject to this division.  This new community is fully open to both groups with no favoritism or status difference.  In fact, the writer tells us that the point of this faith expression is to be part of forming a new creation.  In this new reality, there are no longer Jews and Gentiles; people from separate antagonistic groups who perhaps tolerate each other.  No.  The people gathered around the Jesus way are part of a new creation, a community where whoever you are, you are brother and sister, family to one another.  Commitment to Jesus takes down the walls that separate, divide, and define.  There are no longer two or more hostile factions.  There is one community overcoming social, religious, and cultural conditioning meant to reinforce bias and prejudice.  This new community is about religious conditioning reinforcing that all are one.  There is one human family.  All are brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins.  And the Jesus community has the power to create this new reality.  

The writer of Ephesians uses building imagery.  The household of God.  Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  With Christ Jesus as cornerstone.  The whole structure joined together grows into a holy temple.  Built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.  This building imagery reminds us that such an endeavor takes time.  It is a process.  It takes skill, intention, and resources.  People must choose to create this structure.  This new creation.  This new reality.  Of reconciliation and peace.  It is not something that is easy or fast.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Like racism, this alternative has to be carefully taught and conditioned.  

This past week, we saw the marking of the fifth anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement.  We saw the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s hundredth anniversary and a soaring speech by former President Obama; all of these things reminding us of the building that is still in progress, the work that still needs to be done.  While we may be tempted to to see homogenization under the dominant culture as a cessation of hostility, these visionary movements remind us that we are about a new creation.  Not just no violence, but a new creation built on reconciliation, and community, and mutual service.  

The building of a new creation, a new reality, that is free of racism, is consuming work.  Remember how pervasive racism is in our culture.  It has been ingrained into most of what we know.   Therefore,  we must be thorough in our efforts to confront racism in ourselves and in the world around us.   We can think of statuary, language, political tactics, educational strategies and materials, and yes, police training.  Building this new creation, this truly free society, involves examination, repentance, reflection, listening, understanding, and engagement.  Continuously.  Courageously.  It won’t happen by taking a pill.  Remember how Ephesians mentions that we are the temple, we are the vessel, the dwelling place for the universal love of God.  That is how we can do this work.  It is not our work alone.  It is the power of love working in us.  And it is a big building project!  It’s not like these high rises that pop up downtown every time you turn around.  No.  Think medieval European cathedral.  Buildings that took centuries to construct and are under constant renovation.  

But we are made for this.  We are animals, part of the biological realm.  And we know that biological adaptation happens slowly, gradually.  As we intricately examine our lives, communities, economy, institutions, and culture, we will root out racism, ethnocentrism and prejudice.  We will dismantle the walls that divide and separate us and prevent us from being one human family.  And we will build a culture that celebrates diversity, respects all life, welcomes difference, and affirms our common humanity as part of the web of creation.  Our future depends on it.  

We know how to do this work.  It is part of our heritage.  It is in our DNA, though it appears to be recessive!  The Christian church started out as a sect within Judaism.  The first Jesus followers were Jewish.  It was a huge transformation to expand the community to include Gentiles, non Jews.  There was a wall that had to come down, of separation, of division, of hostility.   So, let me ask you, How many of you, here in the church today, are of Jewish heritage?  How many are of non Jewish heritage?  See?  The wall came down.  The reconciling work was done.  We are the evidence of the new creation that is possible.  Let us take up our tools, whatever they may be, and recommit to continuing to build one household of love; a dwelling for all people.  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.