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What Does Jesus Say about War?

Date: October 5, 2008
Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-4
Sermon: What Does Jesus Say about War?
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

It was an era of regime change. The end of the term of one ruler and the transition to new leadership. A time of relief, fear, and hope. But as so often happens in such moments of transition, the hard line holds sway. So, in 4 BCE [Before the Common Era], in the wake of the death of the tyrant Herod the Great, the King of the Jews appointed by Rome, various revolts and protests took place. To keep the Jews in line, the Romans proceeded to slaughter 3,000 people in the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem, steal 400 talents from the Temple treasury, and crucify 2,000 protesters. [My Enemy is My Guest, J. Massyngbaerde Ford, p.3]

This is the context into which Jesus was born: A society in a time of extreme unrest. Roman occupation was severe. Taxes were exorbitant and there was graft and extortion relating to taxation. People were sold into slavery due to unpaid debt, including tax debt. The Romans insisted on worship of Caesar which was an affront to Jewish religious tenets. The Roman occupying army demanded shelter, food, work animals, etc. from the indigenous Jewish population. There was class conflict between the haves and have-nots, and tension between the urban and rural populations. And add drought to all of that, and it was an extremely volatile mix. This is the context for the ministry of Jesus. [See Massyngbaerde, pp.2-6]

There were many responses to the circumstances. Some people simply minded their own business and tried to get by. Others, the Zealots, advocated violent overthrow of the Roman presence. It is thought that the disciple Judas was part of the Zealot movement. There was guerilla warfare perpetrated by those known as bandits who would kidnap, attack, and rob people. It’s not a coincidence that the story of the Good Samaritan takes place on the road to Jericho, known as a hotbed of such Robin Hood style bandits. [See John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, p. 141]

In response to the political/social context, there were also those who pursued non violent resistance. When the Romans put up a statue of the emperor to be worshipped in the Temple, the Jews presented themselves for slaughter, rather than worship the statue. They were left unharmed. [Crossan and Reed, p. 143] There were other unarmed protests. People would strike and refuse to grow crops, since so much of the harvest had to be given to the Romans. [Crossan and Reed, p. 144] There were many ways that people reacted to the presence of the oppressive Roman regime in the land of Israel.

The culmination was an all out armed rebellion in 66 CE [Common Era], which was put down by the Romans who proceeded to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. So Jesus was born into a context of extreme oppression, violence, and unrest.

Of course, in times of turmoil and peril, people look for a leader, a prophet, a king, a savior. The Jews turned to the scriptures with hope looking for a word of deliverance. They eagerly anticipated God sending help as Moses was sent to bring the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. Surely God would send someone to save them from Roman oppression.

They turned to the words of the prophets. The ancient texts see war as one of the ways God shows blessing or disapproval of the Jewish people. When they are faithful, God blesses them with success in war and armed conflict. When they are unfaithful, God uses the success of the opposing army to redirect the Jews to faithfulness. So war is seen as a tool used by God to influence the life of the faith community.

In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we see examples of the classic Hebrew perspective that God was punishing the people of Israel for their unfaithfulness by using the military conquest of others over Israel to deliver the punishment. In Jeremiah 15:13, we read, “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as plunder, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory, I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” War is used as an instrument of punishment. Later in the book of Jeremiah, restoration is promised. When the people return to faithfulness, God promises, “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, and I will being them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.” [Jeremiah 30:3] Some of the Jews of the first century were looking for such restoration.

In looking for deliverance, the Jews of the first century would have turned to the tradition of King David. The promised Messiah was to be of lineage of King David, not only by blood but in terms of power and character. And David is celebrated as the greatest King of Israel, a gifted leader of government and a heroic military leader. This is what the Jews of the first century were hoping and praying for in their difficult circumstances.

In the book of Second Samuel, we are told of some of David’s conquests as king of Israel:

Sometime afterward, David attacked the Philistines and subdued them. . .He also defeated the Moabites and, making them lie down on the ground, measured them off with a cord; he measured two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those who were to be spared. And the Moabites became servants to David and brought tribute. . . David also struck down King Hadadezer son of Rehob of Zobah, as he went to restore his monument at the river Euphrates. David took from him one thousand seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand foot soldiers. . . When the Arameans of Damascus came to help King Hadadezer of Zobah, David killed twenty-two thousand men of the Arameans . . . The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went. David won a name for himself. . .David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and equity to all his people. . . [2 Samuel 8]

It is easy to see the Jews of the first century in their situation of occupation praying for a messiah in the line of David to come and deliver them. To vanquish their enemies.

The situation in the first century was ripe for God to send a political, military leader to vanquish Roman victimization of the Jews. The people were ready for a leader who would draw upon the tradition of God’s military deliverance in the Hebrew scriptures. And lead such conquests against the Romans. Jesus knew this tradition. He was well versed in these expectations. Yet, we do not have any examples of Jesus drawing from the tradition of military conquest in Hebrew scriptures. He does not use this war tradition in his teaching. There is no support of armed resistance in the material we have about the ministry of Jesus. There were those in his day who advocated such a response to Roman rule, but we have no record of Jesus supporting those initiatives. So what does Jesus say about war? Even steeped in a tradition that saw war as a tool of God’s will, Jesus does not advocate for war or armed rebellion.

In fact, in the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, we see Jesus stage a counter military parade which he knows is leading him into the hands of those who want to kill him. He rides on a humble donkey, not a stately stallion, the preferred mount of military conquerors.

So, the fact that Jesus does not talk about war and violent resistance in a context ready to erupt in violence tells us something about what Jesus says about war. He does not advocate war. However justified it may be in that particular context, Jesus does not advocate war.

Now, as we examine the teachings and ministry of Jesus, there is more that can be noted about a perspective on war. Jesus does not just eschew armed violence. He does not just take the ethical standard, “Do no harm.”

Actually, what is seen as extraordinary about the teachings of Jesus, is that he is remembered for going beyond do no harm, to “Love your enemies,” [Matthew 5:44] “Pray for those who persecute you,” [Matthew 5:44] and “Turn the other cheek.” [Mathew 5:39] Not just don’t kill them, and don’t mistreat them, or tolerate and accept them. But actually love your enemy. Choose to do good to your enemy. Care for your enemy. Choose to behave to your enemies in ways that are kind, caring, compassionate. This is beyond don’t fight back. This is intentionally seek the good of your enemy, of those who would harm you. So what does Jesus say about war? Love your enemy. And as the bumper sticker says, “When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemy,’ he probably didn’t mean kill them.”

We see more of Jesus’ sentiments about violence and war in several stories in the gospels that involve a centurion, a Roman soldier. Given the context, the Roman soldiers were the ones enforcing the harsh occupation policies of the Roman government. So the Jews did not like the soldiers who were agents of fear and intimidation. What is Jesus’ approach to these soldiers? This can be seen as an embodiment of the dictate, “Love your enemy.” When a Roman soldier comes to Jesus begging that Jesus heal his servant, the story includes the testimony, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” [Matthew 8:5ff, also Luke 7:9] This is an affirmation that the centurion, a Roman soldier, has more faith in God than the Jews of the day. This would be heard as the enemy is more on God’s wavelength, than we the chosen people, the people of Israel. This would be heard as an extreme affront.

In another story, after Jesus has died on the cross, but has not yet been removed, we are told, “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly, this man was God’s Son.’” (Mark 15:39, also Matthew 27:54, and see Luke 23:47] So an enemy centurion voices the identity of Jesus before the disciples who have scattered, and before the women who go to the tomb. Again, this would be heard as a significant affront.

In these stories, we see that Jesus does not hold the policies of the government against those who enforce them. The stories show that there can be good even in those considered in enemy. The story of the healing of the servant shows the compassion of the solider. And that those considered enemy can be people of faith. It is almost as if the soldiers are victims like the Jewish people. So what does Jesus say about war, we are shown that he has compassion and understanding of the soldiers. And he sees them as human beings, not tools of policy, and not as statistics, or acceptable collateral damage in the resolution of conflict.

So what does Jesus say about war? Treat the soldiers like human beings. Have compassion on the soldiers for they, too, are victims. See the humanity of those caught up on systems and cultural institutions far beyond their control.

So what does Jesus say about war? Even given the context, and the tradition, we do not see Jesus advocating war or violence in any way. We see Jesus advocating love of enemy.

Now we can say this is fine utopian thinking, but just not practical and practicable in today’s world. But the time has come to rethink that, as well.

Is it practical to stockpile weapons that can destroy the entire world? Is it practical to spend billions of dollars maintaining those weapons? Is it practical to spend billions on weapon development for killing people when there is need for money and scientists and engineers and others to direct their efforts to meeting human need and developing new sources of energy, and medical treatments, etc.? Is it really wise to direct so much of our resources, human and financial, toward developing methods of armed conflict to solve differences? Wouldn’t it be more practical and wise to put resources into developing non violent means of resolving conflict? If we put even a fraction of the money and time and skill that we are putting into armaments, into think tanks, study, and experimentation with strategies for resolving differences without violence, we could make significant changes in our culture of violence.

In the book, God’s Politics, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community, shares a story about Archbishop Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church:

. . .Archbishop [Rowan] Williams offered an observation that became for me the most insightful statement of the year-long- run-up to the war with Iraq. He said (quoting psychologist Abraham Maslow), ‘When all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail.’

The United States has the biggest and best hammers in the world. But they are the only ‘tools’ we seem to know how to use. And all we seem able to do is look for more nails to pound.

[p. 110]

You see, we have created a culture of violence and conflict. We have chosen to teach history primarily from war to war, rather than from social advance to social advance. I know, I was a history major in college. You basically study one war after another, with some culture and social movements thrown in along the way. But it is definitely war centered. We have created this way of looking at history, and we can transform it.

We have chosen to create media that glorifies violence as entertainment – on TV in movies, and in video games. We are brought up to expect violence and war as an acceptable, justifiable, inevitable means for resolving differences, in the family, in the community, and in the world, between nations. No one blinks an eye at the Martin Luther King parade when the sanctioned vendors are selling toy guns and swords, at the event honoring a man whose core philosophy was non-violent resistance.

We have developed a culture that fully expects and accepts violence. And we can transform it into a culture of peace. This may not eliminate violence entirely, but we can intentionally promote the transformation of our culture to one of peace. We can teach history differently. We can change our media and entertainment industries. We can transform our culture to value cooperation over competition. We can celebrate everyone having what they need to live, instead of glorifying greed and wealth. We can dismantle our cultural fixation on celebrities who are rich and lift up as celebrities teachers, artists, scientists, engineers, and social workers, and people who are working for the common good. Put those kind of folks on the cover of People magazine.

And in the church, we can promote the anti-violent teachings of Jesus, instead of endorsing the current status quo of our culture of violence.

We do not have to accept this culture of violence that we have created. We have made it, we have a hand in perpetuating it, we can be agents of transformation, as well. Swords into plowshares – it’s not a new idea, but a concept to be embraced with new urgency given the monumental increase in our capacity for destruction.

Transformation is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus. He was advocating a realm where all are cared for, where resources are used to sustain and improve life. Jesus crossed the boundaries that separate and divide people, challenging greed, prejudice and the things that contribute to violence embodying a community in which every person is treated with dignity. Jesus shows us supportive community where all flourish. And Jesus delivers this message in a context of violence, oppression, and military occupation. This tells us something about war. War detracts from creating beloved community. War diverts us from pursuing the realm of God.

So, as Christians, we ask ourselves, really, what does Jesus say about war? Here we close with two quotes from the Gospels. From John: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” [John 10:10] And from Luke, “Forgive them, God, for they don’t know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34] 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.

Getting a Handle on Humility

Date: September 28, 2008
Scripture: Philippians 2:1-13
Sermon: Getting a Handle on Humility
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Cartoons sometimes show a little devil on one shoulder of a character enticing the person to do something bad, and then an angel on the other shoulder reminding the person to do what is right. But often our choices are not exactly between good and bad, right and wrong. I imagine a little figure in me that wants to control me. This tyrant also expects me to look out for myself. Afterall, no one else will. Look out for number one. Keep an eye out for anyone trying to take advantage of me. Prove myself so that others will not mess with me and will know that I am competent. This tyrant wants me to get credit for what I do. Expect to be thanked and appreciated. This tyrant coaches me to make sure that others know when I am right and they are wrong. It advises me to parade my superiority. This tyrant is competitive and wants me to keep ahead of others, even if it means putting them down.

This tyrant also expects me to be successful and well-liked. Keep up with society’s expectations and exceed the expectations of others. Pleasing family, pleasing society, pleasing coworkers, pleasing friends.

It’s a hard life, being ruled by that tyrant. And we each have a force like that inside us. Trying to control us. And it is cultivated in many ways in our culture. Look out for yourself. Pamper yourself – you deserve it. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you. Make sure you are doing your best, proving yourself, and being properly acknowledged and rewarded – whether it be in school or in the workplace or in the family or in a volunteer organization.

It is hard to please this tyrant. You have to watch your back. And your front. Keep things in line. Live defensively. Stay in control. Keep everyone else in their place. But there is another way.

In the early Christian church, once Christianity became mainstream religion, it became imperial – associated with political power and the agenda of the state and the values of Roman society. Christianity lost much of its initial unique, counter cultural identity. This led to the movement of many Christians out to the desert to live in monastic communities and isolated communities that were interested in maintaining the heart of the Christian way of life, a way of compassion, mercy and service.

From the wisdom of those desert Christians, comes this story:

Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spread out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’”

[Quoted in “Gentle and Humble of Heart,” by Michael E. Williams, Weavings, May/June 2000]

Now how is it that humility can free us from the snares of the messages of society, others, and ourselves that keep us bound and struggling? The messages to keep up. To measure up.

The word humility comes from the Latin word humilis, with the root humus, not the Middle Eastern chick pea spread, but humus as in fertilizer, earth, ground. So to be humble is to be down to earth. And when you are down to earth, there is not very far to fall. So, you don’t have to keep yourself up on that pedestal, afraid of the fall.

Then we are freed to be in intimate, right relationship with ourselves, others, and God. Let’s take a moment to explore each of these relationships.

When we seek humility, we dethrone that tyrant of self centeredness. Then we can look at ourselves honestly. We can see our strengths and weaknesses. We can be self aware without fear. And we can accept ourselves as the human beings we are. To be human is to be imperfect. To make mistakes. And to have gifts and skills and talents to share. Every human being is like that. When we bring ourselves down to earth, we can see and fully appreciate ourselves as we are. We don’t need to put on airs with ourselves or others. We don’t need to maintain a mask of pretenses. We can be honest about who we are. And know that we are loved by God as we are.

When we pursue humility, we find that it affects our relationships with others. Down to earth, gentle with ourselves, we learn to be more accepting of others. We expect others to have strengths and weaknesses as we do. We expect others to be imperfect and make mistakes. When we cultivate humility, we don’t have to prove ourselves or maintain our position over others, or try to be better than others. So, we might find that our friendships deepen. That our relationships become more intimate. We are no longer protecting ourselves and holding ourselves back, and others don’t feel judged by us. And so they feel more free to be themselves. We will no longer be driven by the desire to control others and get them to do what we want. Humility fosters community and appreciation for others. It fosters deeper relationships with family, friends, and our sisters and brothers in the church.

When we pursue humility, we find ourselves more aware and sensitive to God’s presence in our lives and in the world. Instead of seeing only ourselves and looking out for our own interests, we see God’s hand at work. We sense God’s presence in us, because we are not filled with our own self centeredness.

Now it is all well and good to see the positive side of humility, but how do we pursue this humility? It’s nice to say conceptually that we want to be humble. But how do we go about it? How do we dethrone the tyrant on self centeredness and pride and control that can hold sway over us?

Here the writer of Philippians helps us. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. . . look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” [Philippians 2:3-4] The sure cure for pride and the tyranny of looking out for number one, is humility. And we can pursue humility, not as some philosophical ideal, but concretely, but putting others first, and looking for the good in others.

The writer of the letter to the Philippians is concerned about the harmony and unity in that faith community. Evidently, there are competing leaders and competing agendas. People are fighting to stay on top, as the one with the most insight, the one with correct beliefs, the one with the more important spiritual gifts, etc. See, they, too, are being driven by those tyrants of self-centeredness. Stay on top. Don’t let anyone get past you. Maintain your position. We’ve heard those voices.

And the writer proceeds to tell the people in the church what will diffuse this destructive spirit. Consciously choose to focus on the interests, the needs, the well being of others. This is what can help us to depose the tyrant of self centeredness so that we can relish the wholeness of humility.

Now some of us have been taught that humility is pathetic, weak, and servile. That was the attitude in the ancient world of the first century. Humility was not a virtue in the Greco Roman world. But if we look closer, we can see that humility has a strength all its own. Moses laid aside his self interest, his desires and hopes that he would lead a quiet shepherding life in the provinces. He went back to Egypt to do God’s bidding and stand up to Pharaoh. Moses ended up leading his band of slaves out from under the control of the most powerful ruler on earth at the time. That’s hardly weak and pathetic and servile. Yet, it is humble, because Moses was not doing his own bidding, but the bidding of God on behalf of those who were oppressed. That’s where God’s strength is revealed.

Jesus was completely humble. He was not at all ruled by the tyrant of self interest. We see this in the story of the temptation in the wilderness and in his willingness to be subject to the authorities of his day that resulted in his crucifixion. We see it in his eating with the lowly and the poor. Washing the feet of his disciples. Healing those who were lame, outcast, and dirty. Jesus was completely filled with God, and ruled by God’s will, not the tyrant of self interest. And he continues to influence the lives of millions of followers and to impact the world today. That is hardly pathetic weakness.

Mahatma Gandhi is remembered for his simple, humble ways. Wearing simple clothing, eating basic food. Living as a poor person. In 1931, Gandhi went to visit Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy. At that time, Gandhi had a goat that he took around with him. Mussolini’s children saw this poorly dressed man and his goat and laughed. They were reprimanded by their father: “That man and his goat are shaking the British empire.” [The Little Brown Book of Anecdotes, edited by Clifton Fadiman, page 230]

Humility is not weak and servile. Humility deposes the tyrant of self will. We are no longer controlled by our own desires and pride and fickle interests, which can never be satisfied. We no longer have to be in control of things. We don’t have to prove ourselves. We don’t have to maintain our superiority. We don’t have to pander for praise. Through humility, we wrest ourselves from the tyrant that tells us to look out for number one, and keep everything under control. When we embrace humility, we dethrone that tyrant. We are free. We become agents available to be used by God to embody love in the world.

We will find that when we pursue humility, by investing ourselves in the interests of others, we find the sense of purpose, and fulfillment that truly satisfy. We don’t become no one, we are not negated or erased by humility. Humility fills our lives with new power and purpose. We find that God wants to use us for far greater purposes. Humility frees us to be part of God’s hopes and dreams for us and our world. We become part of something so much bigger than just ourselves.

But it can’t happen when self interest controls us. We must stay on the look out for that tyrant, and invest ourselves not in judging others but in investing in the interests of others. Then we become so much more than we were. Because humble, down to earth, we no longer live in fear of falling or being put down. We are more secure and can take bigger risks.

Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations penned these lines:

Thou takest the pen – and the lines dance.

Thou takest the flute – and the notes shimmer.

Thou takest the brush – and the colors sing.

So all things have meaning and beauty in that space beyond time where Thou art.

How, then, can I hold back anything from Thee?

This is the life of humility. Dethroning the tyrant of self interest and control. Living in ways that do not take advantage of others. Living that is not at the expense of the well being of others. Investing in others. Looking out for the interests of others. Seeking the greatness of others. Placing ourselves, our skills, our strengths, our abilities, and our weakness, in the hands of God. Trusting God to use even us fulfill God’s designs and dreams for this world.

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.

Divinity and Diversity

Date: April 27, 2008
Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9
Sermon: Divinity and Diversity
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

A massive new study by Robert Putnam, best known for his 2000 book Bowling Alone shows that the greater the level of diversity in a community, the less people will vote or volunteer, give to charity or work on community projects. “People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ – that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes. Some commentators think that the findings undermine arguments for diversity or multiculturalism – a conclusion that Putnam feared. Others argue that di-versity is a fact of life and that ultimately diversity aids problem solving, since people from different cultures bring different perspectives. (Boston Globe, August 5)

Anxiety is the heightened sense of fear, apprehension, threat or danger. It is a natural response, partic-ularly to stressful situations. It can motivate a person to focus and respond appropriately. Test anxiety can lead to greater preparation and focus. Anxiety produced by a threatening situation can lead to the appropriate fight or flight response.

But anxiety can also result from social alienation, bullying, perceived threats, insecurity about the future, terrorism, global warming, crime, unemployment. The fomenting of fear contributes to the anxi-ety in our culture. According to the National Institutes of Health 40 million people in the United States over the age of 18 suffer from clinically diagnosed anxiety. That’s 18% of the population. And 8-10 out of every 100 children and adolescents suffer from diagnosed anxiety. There has been a sig-nificant increase in anxiety among children, and college students of today compared with students of the 1950s. (University of Maryland.edu) With the increase in the drugs used to treat anxiety, it has become a Common parlance in the fare of comedians: Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Kloapin, Xanax, Valium, Ativan. Anxiety in our culture is real and it is growing.

In the story of the tower of Babel, the people are afraid and anxious. They have been instructed to disperse and populate the earth. But they are afraid. They want to stay together. Security in numbers. They migrate together and find a suitable place to settle and get started. “Come, let us build ourselves a city otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) Their response to their fear is to build a city, a sturdy, solid city of bricks. To dig in and become established so they won’t have to spread out and populate the whole earth – The tower will symbolize their power. They will be secure. They will be entrenched.

We have explored why the people built the tower and what it represents. Now let us turn to why the language of the people was confused and the people were scattered. One view is that this can be seen as punishment for their pride and arrogance. They think they know best and ignore God’s commands – to populate the whole earth. They want to make a name for themselves. Soar above their mundane existence to celestial heights. They want to transcend the limits of their creaturely condition. They are self-satisfied with their accomplishments. So in punishment for their arrogance, pride, and self-centeredness, they are scattered.

This effort to build the tower is also symbolic of concentration of power, centralization, control, and hierarchy. This inevitably leads to abuse of power, oppression and corruption. As British historian, Lord Acton of the 19th century has said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So the language is confused and the people scattered to prevent the corruption that accompanies hierarchy and the centralization and concentration of power.

This is an interesting indictment for us to consider, when we live in a country that prides itself on free-dom and democracy, the sharing of power, while spreading the American way of life worldwide, com-plete with Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. We are exporting our pre-packaged culture, products, lifestyle, and language, fostering uniformity. This movement was symbolized by the destruction of the World Trade Towers. This uniformity and centralization is the very thing that is destroyed in the Babel story because it will inevitably become corrupt and lead to tyranny. You can believe that Osama bin Laden knows scripture.

Another answer to the question, why was the language confused and the people scattered in the Babel story involves honor and reverence for God. These people felt they could take care of themselves. They could take themselves to God, if they desired; they did not need to wait for God to come to them. They did not need God. They had technology, thank you very much. Which can be extremely dangerous unless accompanied by reverence for God and God’s moral vision – ask the people of Afghanistan and Iraq for a start.

So as we reflect on the story, we see God confusing the language and scattering the people really to save them from themselves. But there is more.

In the creation story of Genesis chapter one, after creating the human creature, God instructs, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” In other words, spread out, scatter. God wants humans to care for all creation. To do that, they must soar throughout the earth to protect and keep it all.

After the story of Noah and the flood, God instructs Noah and his family, “Be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth, multiply in it.” Again, God’s desire is for humans to spread over all the earth to tend and nurture it. To preserve all of creation.

Then comes the story of the tower of Babel. The people have one language. They migrate together. They find a good place to settle. And they desire to build a city with a tower and live there so that they will not be scattered across the face of the earth. (Gen 11:4) So the very thing God wants them to do, for the good of all creation, they are refusing to do. The well-being of the whole creation depends on the people inhabiting the whole earth to tend and keep it and they are refusing.

The creation itself is characterized by vast diversity – in the land forms and contours in the waters, in the climates and biomes, in the life forms. There is diversity beyond our wildest dreams. When hu-manity spreads it will have to diversify to live in the differing areas, and widely ranging circumstances. The polar regions with extreme cold and extreme darkness and light require a lifestyle vastly different from adaptation to life in the tropics, and those in between. So spreading around the world necessitates that humanity diversify.

This not only ensures the perpetuation of the human species, but it potentially may prevent the other problems like concentrated power associated with the building of the city and the tower. Spreading and diversifying could stem pride and arrogance. It could dampen the tendency for widespread domi-nation and control. It could lessen the developing of the illusion of independence and isolation from God leading to dependence on human ability and technology with a higher moral authority.

Spreading and diversifying was meant to curb the human impulses that could lead to destruction and put creation at risk. Diversity is also intended to give humans more of a sense of the richness of God and creation. No one language alone captures it all. No one culture fully expresses the divine image in the human creature. One view of the world expressed in one language is far too limited to communi-cate the glory of God and creation.

In the story of Babel, the language is confused and the people scattered. This may look like the work of an angry, punishing God. But the greater purpose is ensuring the future of the whole creation. Di-versity is not intended as a burden producing conflict and strife. It is intended as a gift to protect all of creation; to enrich human existence; and to glorify the sacred – in the many ways it may be named or known. Diversity is a blessing given by a love that is greater than all we will ever know and, sadly, we have squandered the gift, and used it to oppress and destroy not only our own species, but the whole of creation. We have used this glorious gift to promote anxiety and fear.

KIM, I DON’T KNOW WHERE TO GO FROM HERE SO I WILL CONTINUE AND THEN YOU CAN CUT AND PASTE.

This must bring great sadness to God. As author Jonathan Swift has said, “We have just enough reli-gion to make us hate, but not enough religion to make us love one another”

As Christian people, followers of Jesus, we must promote God’s vision of the blessing of diversity. We must be committed to this vision. We must be dogged in our efforts to value, affirm, and appreciate the vast diversity God intends not only in the land, plants, protysts, fungi, and non-human animals. But we must particularly celebrate the miraculous diversity of the human species and culture.

There are those who maintain that if we tolerate differences, appreciate diversity, celebrate multicultu-ralism – we have no convictions. If you have an open mind, they say, your brains fall out. On the contrary – to have an open mind about diversity and difference is to have deep moral conviction, faith, and belief. It is a commitment to God’s vast vision for all of creation. It is praise of God’s glory!

There are those who would make us afraid of the “other,” of those who are different, “foreign.” An-xiety is created over the diversifying of the United States. The greater fear should be the fear of ho-mogeneity, uniformity, and centralization as Empire, which has far more potential for destruction. It is in direct conflict with the vision of God. There is a bumper sticker that says, “I love my country…but I think we should start seeing other people.” If you want to reduce your anxiety and anxiety in this world, don’t circle in isolation. Look out. Seek out people who are different than you. Learn about another culture. Study another religion. Learn a new language. Relish the richness of creation. Cele-brate God’s wondrous imagination and glorious vision for creation! And we may reduce the need for Prozac.

Amen

The Church of 2048

Date: April 13, 2008
Scripture: Acts 2: 42-47
Sermon:The Church of 2048
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

How many of you remember 1968? That is the year that Lakewood United Church of Christ closed its charter and was officially established.

What was going on as this small group of Christians, even smaller than the church is now, responded to God’s call to form a church? What was the context in which these courageous souls made a commitment to go out on a limb and form a new faith community?

As recent newspaper articles remind us, Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Robert Kennedy was assassinated, as well. Richard Nixon was nominated for president. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted. My elementary school took us on a field trip to see it. Johnny Cash recorded Folsum Prison in 1968. It was the year of the Prague Spring when Czechoslovakia tried to assert its freedom and was squashed by the no longer extant USSR. The Broadway musical HAIR opened. Yale went co-ed. The Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the war on poverty, the environmental movement were all in full swing.

In 1968 when Lakewood was founded, there were high hopes for eradicating many social problems – like poverty, racism, environmental destruction, and war. And a small group of people went out on a limb founding this church.

In 1968, Christianity was the dominant religion in the United States. Yes, there were Jews, but Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, weren’t even on the main stream map. Christianity was considered part of day to day culture in the United States. In 1968, Sunday morning worship did not compete with soccer games, fun runs, or charity golf.

Alvin Toffler, iconic futurist published Future Shock in 1970. We learned that the accelerating pace of social and technological change would overwhelm people. They would become disoriented, suffering from what Toffler called “shattering stress” How many of us feel like we are taking a shower in Niagara Falls? As Toffler predicted, we have experienced “too much change in too short a period of time.”

For the most part, the church has been caught in this swirl of change, this paradigm shift and is dizzy and reeling. Conservatism and fundamentalism have become more entrenched and more prominent, and more appealing as people seek stability and assurance in these shifting sands of change. The liberal church became less relevant as its social agenda was increasingly promoted by secular groups and movements.

So what’s ahead for society in the United States and in the church? Population increase will continue from 200 million in 1968 to 300 million in 2006, to a projected 438 million in 2048. We are told that the population will be older, with increases in life expectancy. The US population will not only be older but more diverse. By 2048, 48% of the population will be white Euro-American. The largest non-white minority will be Hispanic. Most of the 52% of non-whites will be immigrants. The economy will be global. The underclass will be larger. Society will be more fluid. Religion we are told will have a growing role in public discourse and world affairs, but will not be monolithically Christian. There will be more technology – developing faster. So younger people today who feel pity for us older folks who can’t keep up, are going to be left in the dust in later years We are told we will have more leisure (sure, that’s what they said in 1968) and no seafood – you won’t be fishing in your free time in 2048 because the world is projected to run out of harvestable seafood stocks by 2048

So what does this all mean for the church as we move toward 2048? Christianity in the US will be a decidedly minority movement, in a diverse culture, experiencing the dislocation and disorientation of racing social and technological change. This is already happening. The shifts and decline in mainline Protestantism have mostly to do with the changes in society around us. And we are in a period of trying to discern a new place, a new role, social events, brunches, etc
Sunday morning your choices were pretty much to sleep, read the newspaper, go to the beach. You didn’t mow the lawn because then people would see that you weren’t in church.

In 2048, the options for things to do other than church will have greatly expanded. So, what will church be like? Here, let’s look back, way back to Acts, when Christianity was a small, fringe movement, in a culture dominated by other forces. In the first century Christians were by far the minority. Christian values were decidedly different from cultural values. Because that’s the kind of context the church will be facing in the decades ahead. In Acts, as we heard this morning, the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Day by day they devoted themselves to these activities (not just Sundays). And they shared goods, resources, and money in common. And many signs and wonders were done. We know that the early Christian community was marked by extreme diversity – people of different backgrounds, cultures, and classes mixed together in the individual churches. And their commitment to caring for one another in the spirit of Christ considered strange and dangerous and subversive. Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief tells us of how early Christians were considered peculiar and threatening.

They welcomed the sick, those without money, those in distress and offered help for free. No dues. No fees. Unlike Roman religious practices. They helped orphans living on garbage dumps. Gave out food and medicine. Helped those in prison. They cared for the sick without fear of contagion. They drove out “destructive energies that cause mental instability and emotional anguish,” Pagel tells us (p.7) their actions were based on a spiritual experience with a God who loves humans and evokes love in return.

And this movement of generosity, compassion and service, was considered “an enemy of the public good; of the gods; of public morals,” of all that patriotic, religious Romans held sacred (Pagel p.11) Christianity was looked upon as a criminal cult. People were kicked out of their families, lost jobs, friendship, and social standing for becoming Christian. So Christians had to depend upon one another to survive.

This glimpse at first century Christianity, as we heard about in Acts shows us the church as a minority, subversive movement, which is the way we are heading in 2048. The basic values of Christianity – love of neighbor, service, other-centered living, generosity, compassion, justice, concern for the poor, the dying, the forgotten – these basic core commitments will be strange and alien in 2048. And yet, this kind of movement, and these values, will be needed more than ever as people experience the disorientation and dislocation that comes with increasing technological changes and depersonalization, and individualism.

As Toffler puts it, looking ahead from 1970, “Society needs people who take care of the elderly and who know how to be compassionate and honest. Society needs people who work in hospitals. Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive. They need emotional and affectionate skills. You cannot run the society on data and computers alone” (from Wikipedia, Alvin Toffler)

So the church of 2048 will be high touch to balance high tech. People will go deeper in their discipleship because Christian values will be more at odds with society –
by volunteering,
by reaching out to the poor,
by giving of money,
by lifestyle changes that are environmental,
by cultivating diverse community,
by advocacy in the public realm
People in church will have more contact with each other, not just once a week or once a month, but virtually daily – to sustain faith and hope and humanity in the face of increasing alienation in the culture. This contact will be more face to face, high touch, and through electronics, high tech. The church of 2048 will involve more teaching, training, and learning, because we won’t be able to assume that people know about the Christian story and the Bible. and church history. And knowing this story and tradition is essential to connecting to God and the hope and promise of Jesus Christ needed as people feel more adrift in changing times. This means we will need to become more comfortable talking about our faith experience without being preachy or pushy. We will need to be able to articulate how our faith grounds us so that we can offer that lifeline to others.

So, in many ways, the church of 2048 will look like the church of Acts.
High commitment.
Alternative life style.
Family centered.
Life-line of hope ,
Counter culture community.
Distinct minority.
Subversive generosity.
Compassion and service.
Diverse.
Welcoming of the poor, the sick and those in distress.
Definitely out on a limb compared with current Christianity.

If the church is not bringing God’s moral vision to bear on the greed, individualism, separation and anxiety being created in our culture, then it will not be needed. If the church is not a community of support and hope to those alienated by corporate America, advancing technology, and increasing violence, it will not be needed. If the church is not reaching out with a story of love and compassion inviting others to find their place in the drama, then it will not be needed. If the church is not engendering respect for nature and all species, it will not be needed.
If the church is not a community of healing and wholeness in an increasingly fractured and divided world, it will not be needed.

Lakewood United Church of Christ was founded by a faithful community responding to God’s call. This church is here because God needed it and wanted it. This church is the fulfillment of God’s hopes and dreams for a faith community to embody the love and justice of Jesus. And Lakewood has gone out on a limb to be that community. For Lakewood United Church of Christ in 1968, going out on a limb meant being multi-racial. In the 1970s it meant reaching out to the poor by helping to found Habitat for Humanity and working with the farm workers. In the 1980s going out on a limb meant making a commitment to justice and peace and establishing the first sister church relationship recognized by the State Dept. with St. Job’s in Leningrad, USSR, now St. Petersburg, Russia. In the 1990s going out on a limb meant an expansive welcome to all people as seen in our mission statement.

What does going out on a limb mean in this first decade of the 2nd millennium? What will it mean in the teens, the 2020s, the 2030s, and 40 years from now in the 2040s? We’ll never find out, if we don’t go out on the limb now with a commitment to deep discipleship that will transform us and the world. We have the template in Acts. And we have a bold, courageous history from the past 40 years

Zaccheus went out on a limb to see Jesus. Jesus went out on a limb giving up his life for God’s love. Will we go out on a limb to be a community of healing and hope empowered by the spirit of Christ? Out on a limb – that’s where the best fruit is. Amen

We Will Walk With God

Date: April 6, 2008
Scripture: Luke 24: 13-35
Sermon: We Will Walk With God
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Some of you may remember the classic movie, “Guess Who is Coming to Dinner” featuring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier. It’s about a white family, and the daughter invites her fiancé’, a black man, to dinner. But, of course, it was about much more than three white people and one black person eating food together. Because much more than eating happens at a meal. There is conversation. There is sharing. Things emerge and develop beyond the food. In fact, in Africa, there is a proverb, “Relationship is in the eating together.” By eating dinner together bonds develop; links are made; stories are shared; and the world is changed.

In the ancient world, in some cultures, and still today, sharing food is a basic requirement of civil society. The dictates of hospitality cannot be violated. A stranger is to be offered food, a meal, no matter what. An interaction or a chance meeting near mealtime means eating together. This is unquestioned. To neglect this basic social requirement would be as egregious as say, spitting on someone in our culture. A very serious affront. Eating together signifies many different things. It shows the universality of our basic human need for food, whether you are rich or poor, young or old, regardless of language or culture, all people need to eat to live. So sharing food affirms our common humanity. Eating together is also about security. In the ancient world, the stranger was always invited to eat. This way you knew who was in your territory. It was for your safety. And it was for the safety of the stranger, because they would have need for food and shelter and protection from possible threats. The cross-cultural commitment to sharing food and hospitality was your assurance that you would be cared for if you took a journey.

By eating together, trust, understanding, and community were fostered between friends, families, and strangers. These are important connections and bonds that weave a web of care and compassion. It may be necessary to mutual survival, not only in the ancient world but maybe more so in today’s world with our increased capacity for violence and destruction.

We see this theme of eating together and sharing food appear again and again in the Bible. Abraham invites three strangers into his tent. They end up being angels with a message from God of blessings. Elijah shares food with the widow of Zaraphath. They are sustained throughout the drought. Esther invites her husband, the king, to dinner and saves her people. There is that wonderful verse from Psalm 23: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Table fellowship is a way to reconciliation and peace. The Exodus, the saving story of slavery to freedom, is marked by a shared meal, the Passover.
In the Christian Testament, Jesus is repeatedly involved in situations involving shared food. There is the wedding at Cana and a turning of water into wine. Eating with Simon, the Pharisee. Eating with Mary and Martha and having his feet anointed. Eating with Zaccheus. Eating with the disciples. Sharing food with the multitudes. In fact, Jesus is accused of eating with the tax collectors and sinners – the wrong sort, and of being a glutton and a lush.

And then the Christian Gospels are filled with stories about eating and feasts and who would and wouldn’t come, and who does and doesn’t share food. Always showing that God’s realm is like a feast where everyone is welcome.

It is in the sharing of food, our common human need, that we experience God’s presence in human community. Eating together celebrates our commonality and the generosity of the Giver of Life who sustains that life with food. It is in this context that community develops. And God ,is experienced.

So in the Emmaus story, these nobodies, Cleopas and a companion, experience Jesus’ presence, not in the talking or the teaching, but in the eating. As they share a meal Jesus affirms their common humanity, their common need. Over food, there is the opportunity to share stories and develop understanding that fosters community, reconciliation, peace, and the healing of the betrayal and desertion and crucifixion begins. Jesus does not starve them or punish them

And so the core sacrament, the shared tradition, the common bond across culture of the Christian church, the body of Christ, is the sharing of bread and the cup. And this extends, in many church contexts, to shared meals.

It is in sharing food together that we have the context that celebrates and reveals God’s goodness and love. It is in the context of eating a meal that we are fed physically and spiritually. It is in the context of breaking bread that healing and reconciliation can occur.

Sadly, in our American culture and in the church, eating together is no longer common or customary. Families used to eat together, without interruption. Then came the phone, the activities, clubs, and sports over the dinner hour, and TV and the advent of the TV dinner. The focal point of the meal was no longer conversation, but watching TV. Complex work schedules, school schedules, etc., have all conspired against families and friends eating together. This has contributed to the weakening of family ties, community, and church.

When we neglect the opportunity to eat together, our sense of our common humanity erodes. The context for building relationship and community diminish. We lose the natural setting for experiencing God’s presence in food and fellowship. We miss the revelation of God’s goodness and grace. We neglect the gathering where reflection and conversation create community and reconciliation. It is over a meal that Jesus and his friends make peace. It is over a meal that the divine is experienced. It is over a meal that Christ comes to me through you. It is over a meal that compassion and healing emerge. And yet in our cultural context the sharing of food happens less and less.

Some years ago a group from the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ went to visit our partner church in Argentina. When they returned, they told us that when they start a new church in Argentina the first thing they build is the kitchen so they can come together to eat. Later they build the sanctuary. It is in the eating and the accompanying fellowship that they experience Christ’s presence.

If Cleopas and his companion had only walked and talked with the stranger, they would not have experienced the presence of the risen Christ. New life and hope emerge when food is shared. This is why it is important for us as Christians to continue the ministry of shared food.. Not only in the ritual context of communion, but with shared table fellowship in our homes, in restaurants, at picnics. This is where we will see Christ, where God’s love and generosity, compassion and grace are revealed. This is where we will foster God’s reconciliation and peace.

I recently read the story of a person here in the United States looking for a church home. After numerous visits, the decision was made not by location, theology, facilities, programs, or music. On one church visit, after the service a couple of people were making plans to go out to lunch. As they were talking they noticed this new visitor and said, “We’re going out to lunch. Would you be our guest? Can you join us?” The visitor had other plans that day, but was so impressed by the welcome, the hospitality, the offer to share a meal, that he joined the church.

We have eaten together at Christ’s table in this service. But that is just the appetizer. The taste. The sample that invites us to share table fellowship together, eating with one another,. including and inviting others, so that we experience the presence of Christ more deeply; so that our hearts burn with his love, and our eyes are opened to God within us. So, make sure, sometime soon, someone is coming to dinner!. Amen