We Are the Vine

Sermon May 10, 2009

The solution percolated in the imaginations of farmers in Zentsuji, Japan for about 20 years. Then it finally came to fruition.

Here was the problem. Japanese refrigerators are small and space is at a premium. A watermelon takes up a lot of room in the fridge. And there is a significant amount of wasted space surrounding this large spherical fruit.

The creative farmers of Zentsuji finally developed a technique for growing square watermelons. Not only do they fit better in the fridge, they are easier to stack, and they don’t roll when being cut.

While still on the vine, the growers place the developing melon into a tempered glass cube which happens to be the exact dimensions to fit into the standard Japanese refrigerator. The melons naturally assume the shape of the box.

The only problem with the melons appears to be the cost. They cost the equivalent of $82 each, compared with about $15-$25 for a regular round watermelon.

There is a picture of the square melons on the bulletin board, and for you skeptics, be assured, it has been verified by

In the scripture lesson we heard this morning, the story takes place at the end of Jesus’ life just before the crucifixion. He is telling them those most important things that they need to know before he dies.

In the story, Jesus uses the image of the vine as a metaphor for the relationship between God, Jesus, and those who follow Jesus. God is responsible for the vine. And Jesus is vine. The disciples are the branches, attached to the vine, nourished by the vine, dead without the vine. And the job of the branches is to bear fruit.

Sometimes to bear fruit pruning is necessary. Removal of whatever stands in the way of fruitfulness consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus. This can involve the removal of attitudes, behaviors, assumptions, habits, fears that prevent us from living fully in the spirit of Christ. Whatever prevents us from living the gospel, needs to be pruned. And all of us are in need of pruning in one way or another from time to time.

This beautiful vine imagery assures us that when we live connected to God, the source, through Jesus, we will thrive and flourish and be fruitful. We will be nurtured and tended so that we grow in ways that reveal the best of the human spirit. We will bear the fruits of the Jesus life: love, compassion, justice, forgiveness, generosity, empathy, and humility.

In the gospel of John, Jesus is the vessel of the spirit of God while he is alive. According to John, when Jesus dies, that spirit is given to his followers. They become bearers of God’s spirit. They, as the faith community, provide the connection to God and the nourishment needed to bear fruit. As Jesus says it, they are friends, in other words, they are equals, this is not a dominant and subservient relationship. They will carry on his ministry in full measure.

As the gospel of John tells it, after his death, Jesus comes back to the disciples and breathes the spirit upon them. They are given what he was given. They are to carry on his ministry and mission to the fullest.

So today, it is the church, the body of Christ as Paul refers to it, that manifests the presence of Jesus Christ in the world, that is a vessel of the spirit. The church, then, has been given the function of the vine, in the beautiful imagery of the vines and the branches. The church is to be a connection to God. The church is to nourish and sustain the members of the faith community so that they can be fruitful. The church is to cultivate our connection with God so that we bear fruit in the spirit of our best humanity. The church is to help us see the pruning needed for this to happen. The church is to help us flourish and thrive in the spirit of Christ.

It is important to remember that the branches are to bear fruit for the world. So part of our focus needs to be those who are not part of the vine. It is appropriate for the church to be looking outward, to society and the needs of the world. This is important, lest we become simply self serving, betraying the spirit of Christ and in need of pruning.

But this outward focus is to be balanced with concern for the faith community itself. It is important that we think about the role of the vine, sustaining the branches, the people of the faith community, so that we can bear fruit for the world. It is important for the vine, the church, to keep the branches thriving and healthy and bearing fruit.

In this spirit, on this Mother’s Day, we will hear from several mothers in our congregation about what they feel they need from the church, the vine, in order to flourish, thrive, and bear fruit.

Parenting is one of the most challenging callings of the day, and parents in the faith community are striving to raise children who will live the values of Jesus, cultivating peace, justice, compassion, generosity and mercy in the world. This is definitely an exercise in swimming up stream even more than in ages past, because today children are unavoidably saturated with media messages promoting other values and agendas. Parents are hungry for the support of the church to help them maintain a strong sense of spirituality and connection to God and maintaining a commitment to live the values of Jesus. As one of our mothers put it: “. . .I hope the church and the church family helps me guide my children through the word of God, and [that] I hope the Church will help strengthen my children’s faith, be it in God, Jesus, or just humankind.” The church, as the vine, has an extremely important role to play in nurturing and supporting mothers, fathers, and families.

Let’s hear from some of our mothers about what they feel they need from the church:

These mothers have helped to remind us that the church, like the vine, has an incredible role to play in sustaining and supporting the members so that they can bear fruit. This is a high and holy calling. It is beautiful to be reminded that we have been entrusted with this sacred charge. Though church may seem sidelined in society, we know that the church, embued with the divine spirit, has enormous power and potential.

In testimony to the significance of the church, I share with you an email I received from Robin Nijbroek, a member of the church whose family is spending the year in Suriname. I had invited her to share her thoughts about what she needs from the church, and this is her response:

believe it or not, but i have not checked my email since last tuesday. [dana and becky have been visiting and they just left (it is 4 am on sunday morning– i am too sad to go back to bed while ravic is taking them to the airport so i am checking email. )] anyway, i wish that i had gotten this email on time so that i could have written an appropriate reply. the church means so much to me and i dont think i realized how much until i got here. when people ask what i miss about home, church is the first thing i mention. i am especially missing church on days like today when i know you are doing something that would be so meaningful to me. [please tell judy that i love getting the sermons.

and] happy mother’s day to you! [we have a dog here that wandered onto our property and quickly got herself pregnant. she just had her puppies yesterday. she is a mutt in the truest sense of the word but it is still one of the most beautiful things you will ever see- to see those tiny things with their eyes still closed searching to find her milk. wow. ]
give my love to everyone there.

Church, faith community, body of Christ – we are the vine! As those creative, imaginative Japanese farmers developed the square watermelon, let us in the spirit of Christ, address our energies, our intellects, our creativity, our imaginations, our hearts, to the flourishing of this precious vine, so that the world may taste the sweet fruit we bear of the sacred self-giving love of Christ Jesus. Amen.

Are You a Christian?

Date: May 3, 2009
Scriptures: Acts 4:5-12 and 1 John 3:16-24
Sermon: Are You a Christian?
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

There is a scene in the novel, Life of Pi, in which the main character, Pi, a teenager, is walking down a beach promenade with his parents in their home city of Pondicherry in India. As they walk along, they happen to run into the local Muslim imam, the local Catholic priest, and the local head of the Hindu temple, the pandit. Quite unexpectedly, they all coalesce as they walk along. All three religious leaders, much to the surprise of Pi’s parents who are non- religious, know their son well. And to everyone’s surprise, it is discovered that Pi is a devoted practitioner of all three religions. He has linked himself with all three faith communities. He is observing the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

The three religious authorities proceed to have a conversation about the attributes and criticisms of their varying religions. The comments include:

Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.

And Muslims have many wives.

There is salvation only in Jesus.

Where’s God in your religion? You don’t have a single miracle to show for it.

It isn’t a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time. We Muslims stick to the essential miracle of existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing – these are miracles enough for us.

A whole lot of good it did for God to be with you – you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet?

The word of God? To that illiterate merchant of yours in the middle of the desert? Those were drooling epileptic fits brought on by the swaying of his camel, not divine revelation. That, or the sun frying his brains!

Things finally deteriorate to the point that the three religious authorities conclude:

With their one god Muslims are always causing troubles and provoking riots.

Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls.

While Christians kneel before a white man! They are the nightmare of all non-white people.

A few pages later in the novel, the highly embarrassed Pi takes severe lampooning from his older brother who challenges him:

‘So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the hajj this year?’ . . . bringing the palms of his hands together in front of his face in a reverent namaskar. ‘Does Mecca beckon?’ He crossed himself. ‘Or will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pius?’ He drew in the air a Greek letter, making clear the spelling of his mockery. ‘Have you found time yet to get the end of your pecker cut off and become a Jew? At the rate you’re going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life.’

So, is Pi a Christian? Is he a Hindu? Is he a Muslim? He is observing the dictates of all three, so which is he?

When questioned, the adolescent Pi replies, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” [Life of Pi, Yann Martel, pp. 64-70]

In the conversation between the priest, the imam, and the pandit, the Catholic priest is the one who reminded all that, “There is salvation only in Jesus.” Here we have the quintessential Christian claim of exclusivity. There is only one way to truly love God. And it is the Christian way. Through Jesus.

We heard this claim articulated in the scripture we heard from Acts: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” And there are numerous other verses in the New Testament with similar sentiments:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [John 14:6]

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already. . .[John 3:17-18]

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16]

And there are many other examples of similar sentiments.

As we consider these New Testament scriptures, we want to remember that they were written down more than thirty years after the death of Jesus. So decades had gone by, and the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were facing certain challenges. And they needed their faith to speak to those challenges.

In 70 CE, the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The Temple was demolished and later the entire city itself. Scholars tell us that the city was completely destroyed in 139 and a pagan city built in its place. The surrounding area was called Palestine, a reminder of Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. Within one hundred years, the governor of the region had never even heard of Jerusalem, so complete was the destruction. [Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, p. 26-27.]

The destruction of the Temple had a profound impact on the Jews since their religious practice was centered on the Temple. The leaders wanted to hold their religion together in the face of this horror. So they had to reconstruct their religion without its focal point, the Temple. They needed to make sense of what had happened. Were they being punished for neglecting the Law? The leaders decided they needed to get back to strict adherence to the Law to regain God’s favor and to bring cohesion to their community, since they no longer had the Temple to fulfill that role. Now the Jews who followed Jesus took the perspective we are free to love God and neighbor; we don’t need the Law anymore. This was at odds with the agenda of the religious leaders who were trying to save their religious tradition by focusing on implementation of the Law. So the Jesus Jews were targeted. Shut them up. Cast them out. Turn them off. For they were seen as undermining the very survival of the Jewish faith.

The Jesus Jews responded by notching up in their expression of their convictions, too. We’re right. Jesus is the one. He is the Messiah. He’s the true way. Listen to us. They want vindication of their beliefs and their sacrifices and their deaths. So, they promote the idea that believing in Jesus as Messiah is the only true way to love God within the Jewish tradition. If you don’t love Jesus, you don’t love God.

This is basically a family fight within Judaism. They are not confronting paganism and other religions. This is a conflict within one religion, and those are often the nastiest, most hostile conflicts as we see, for example, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics.

These verses then, from the New Testament, which refer to the extreme exclusivity of the Jesus movement, emerged in a very specific, intense, emotionally charged situation. They were then universalized by the later church to cultivate the supremacy and exclusivity of the Christian religion. And that has led to severe consequences which don’t particularly reflect love for God or neighbor.

This idea, that Christianity is the only way to love God, that it is the right way, that it is the only path to heaven, has caused much strife in human history, including much behavior that is very “unchristian.” This belief in the supremacy of Christianity has fueled violence by Christians against Jews for over 1000 years, including the holocaust in Nazi Germany. In 1543, the revered leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther, “wrote On the Jews and Their Lies, a treatise in which he advocated harsh persecution of the Jewish people, up to what are now called pogroms. He argued that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated.” [Wikipedia, “pogrom,” accessed 4.29.09] The belief in the supremacy of Christianity fueled the crusades and the killing of Muslims. Do you think the US would have engaged in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the same intensity if the populations of those countries were predominantly Christian? I doubt it. In addition, it was the belief in the supremacy of Christianity that fueled the fire of Empire and led to the decimation of indigenous populations in the Americas. When you look at this heritage, it is hard to see Christianity as a religion centered on love of God and neighbor.

The concept of the exclusivity and supremacy of Christianity has led to unintended consequences that are drastically at odds with what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus that we have in the New Testament.

Nowhere do we see teachings that if people don’t accept the way of Christianity, they are to be punished, tortured, or killed by Christians. In fact, in the life of Jesus, we see the exact opposite. We have the story of Jesus telling his followers, if you are not welcomed in a town, shake the dust off of your feet and move on. [Matthew 10:5-14, Mark 6:6b-13, Luke 9:1-6] No defense, and certainly no violence is encouraged.

In an article reflecting on, “Who’s Taking Blame for Christian Violence?,” journalist Calvin White, writing for the Toronto Star, reminds us:

Contrary to what some might like to insist, Christianity is not the religion of ‘an eye for an eye’ but it is the religion of Jesus, who refined those earlier directions and distilled the ten commandments into two. One was to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Pretty definitive isn’t it? As is the edict of turning the other cheek.

Jesus expected to be betrayed. He expected to be arrested by the authorities. There was no exhortations [sic] to prepare for battle. There was no bloody attempt to stop the proceedings.

Even as Jesus was brutalized while carrying his own crucifixion cross and being nailed onto the timbers, there was no violent counterforce from his disciples. Not even an outcry.

No matter where one reads in the accounts of Jesus, the only conclusion one can come to is that Jesus was about love. [“Who’s Taking Blame for Christian Violence?,” Calvin White, published on Tuesday July 26, 2005 by the Toronto Star.]

In the stories we have of Jesus, we do not see him insisting on right belief, correct doctrine, or specific religious observance, before receiving God’s blessing and grace. While the Jewish religious institution sent the message you have to do these sacrifices, say these prayers, give this money, follow this rule to be right with God and neighbor so that God will bless you, Jesus just gave out grace. You need food, here it is. You need forgiveness, here it is. You need healing, here it is. Embodied in the life of Jesus is expansive love for everyone, of his faith, other faiths, and no faith. No questions asked. No testimony of faith required. No rules to follow, no tax or tithe necessary. There is no quid pro quo, and there is no demand that people endorse a certain religious persuasion. And there is certainly no endorsement of violence in the name of Jesus.

In considering this claim of the superiority of Christianity, we want to remember that when Jesus was alive there was no Christianity. He was born, lived, and died a JEW. Not a Christian. Christianity did not develop as a completely separate and distinct religion until after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple. So Jesus could not have promoted the exclusivity of Christianity because it did not exist during his lifetime.

And yet, this concept has become a core belief of the Christian religion. In the memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, talks about her spiritual journey. She tells us, “Culturally, though not theologically, I’m a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo Saxon persuasion. And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian.” [Eat Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, p. 14.]

The early faith community developed and perpetuated the notion of the exclusivity of Christianity as the only way to love God in response to their specific situation. There were reasons at the time and in that context. We now know that promoting the Christian-only view of salvation actually undermines love of God and love of neighbor and is fomenting violence, injustice, inequality, disrespect, and death. These are the very things Jesus wanted to eradicate, not to promote. We are in differing circumstances today. The time has now come for the faith community, the church of Jesus Christ, to present an alternative to the view that Christianity is the only true way to God. This is needed to reduce the harm and violence done in the name of Jesus and to extend the love and support of the faith community to those like Gilbert who are attracted to Jesus’ teachings of love, justice, and community, but repelled by the exclusivity and consequent violence that has been done by the church.

The Christian claim of superiority and exclusivity is keeping people out of the church. Thoughtful people have a hard time endorsing an institution that has caused such harm in the name of the exclusive claims of Christianity; harm which is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. In addition, someone who has a sister who is married to someone Jewish, a daughter who has become Hindu, a neighbor who is Muslim, a co-worker that’s Buddhist, and they are all good people, can have a hard time with a religion that relegates loved ones and friends of a different religion to second class status.

We have a friend who went to a church where the pastor warned the congregation against the practice of yoga because, they were told, this was not just about exercise, but it was Satan luring them away from Christianity.

The exclusivity claim is keeping people away from the church- people who need the church, and people the church needs.

Remember, there was also a time when the church endorsed slavery.

The time has come for us to proclaim that Christianity is about embodying love and you can definitely do that without promoting the exclusivity of Christianity. You can love God and neighbor, without condemning other religions or insisting on the superiority of Christianity. In fact, in today’s world especially, one could argue that it must be done that way.

There is a story in the gospel of Matthew in which the people are separated into two groups. Those who responded to the needs of the “least of these” – helping those who were hungry, naked, or in prison, and those who did not respond to those needs. [Matthew 25:31-46] The parable of the last judgment teaches us that it is our behavior that determines our path. The belief in the superiority of Christianity can lead to behavior that is not loving or compassionate or Jesus-like. It is time to bring Christianity back to love of God and neighbor, all neighbors, regardless of race or creed.

It is not essential to believe that Christianity is the only true religion to be a Christian. In the scripture we heard from the first letter of John, the writer challenges us: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” This is getting at the core of Christianity. This is getting at the essential heart of the teachings of Jesus. Love God by loving your neighbor through concrete acts of compassion, generosity, and justice. That’s the core message of Christianity. That’s what defines a Christian.

So, are you a Christian? Am I a Christian? Was Pi a Christian? Look at the love and you will know. 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.

True Confessions

Date: April 29, 2009
Scriptures: Luke 24:36b-48 and Acts 3:12-19
Sermon: True Confessions
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

In Kurt Andersen’s novel, Heyday, set in the 1840’s, there is a troubled soul, Duff Lucking, who sets fires to buildings out of vengeance and retribution. The fires have resulted in numerous deaths. He doesn’t get caught because he is a firefighter, and knows what he is doing. At one point he has a sort of religious awakening of sorts and, since he is a Catholic, he decides to go to confession.

Duff goes to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, on the first Friday of the first month of Lent, when the Bishop himself hears confessions for just one day. Duff stands in line with 400 others. It has been 8 years since his last confession and he wants to make “a clean breast of it.” [p. 173] Of what? Of the fire set in the sugarhouse, in which three men died fighting the blaze. The fire to a distillery. Three other fires. And there were the Catholics he killed in the war in Mexico, before deserting and joining the ranks of the other side, against the Americans. Oh and there was just one more thing. Duff tells the bishop, “A mortal sin, when I was thirteen. I told you about the abuser, the vile old banker who ravished my sister when she was a girl? I avenged the crime, Excellency. I killed the man. And I am sorry to God for that sin, as I am for all the lives I have taken – in the war, I mean, in Mexico. And deaths I may have been responsible for. And for all of my other sins. I pray and promise I will never take another life again. I am a repentant sinner, and I wish with all my heart for God’s forgiveness.” [p. 175]

After the confession, we are told: “Bishop Hughes instructed Duff that for the rest of his life he must say an entire rosary twice each day, the Act of Contrition twice each day as well, and a novena once a month.” And he is to perform “works of mercy in the name of Jesus Christ to please your Lord God and Savior. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Excellency.’”

“And no more fire-setting, eh? You’re finished.”

“Yes, Excellency.”

Duff waited for some additional penance. But he heard only an energetic clearing of Hughes’s throat.

“O my God,” Duff, said, “I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because they have offended thee, my God who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

“Ego te absolve,” replied the Bishop, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [p. 176]

That was it. Duff confesses, the Bishop absolves him, tells him to say some prayers, help others, and don’t do it again. To me, this seems like a fairly small consequence for the crimes committed. You can read the novel to find out whether he sets any more fires or is responsible for any more deaths.

So just what is reconciliation and forgiveness? In this case, it doesn’t involve any kind of public admission, any kind of restitution to those harmed, no process of setting things right with the individuals, the property owners, or society. I think it makes the church’s forgiveness seem cheap and easy.

There was a Baptist who moved to an all Catholic town. Every Friday night, he would grill steak on the barbeque. This drove his Catholic neighbors crazy during Lent when they weren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays. The neighbors discussed what to do, and decided to convince the man to become a Catholic, and he agreed. On the big day, the Baptist stood before the priest who sprinkled Holy Water on him saying, “You were born a Baptist; you were raised a Baptist; you are now a Catholic.” The town breathed a sigh of relief until the first Friday in Lent when the familiar smell of grilling steak wafted through the town. “He’s forgotten,” the Catholics said. “We’ll go remind him.” So they walked to the new Catholic’s house and into the backyard, where he was grilling a huge, juicy steak. He stood before the grill with a cup of water and said, “You were born a cow; you were raised a cow; you are now a fish.”

Part of the trouble I have with confession in church is that it can seem so superficial, so platitudinous. Words are said, but does it really mean anything? Is there justice or conversion involved? Someone from the church family recently asked me about having a confession in the service and you can see my ambivalence about that. I’ll say a bit more later.

In the story that we heard from the gospel of Luke, the disciples are together and they are undoubtedly revisiting their betrayal, abandonment, and desertion of their beloved master and teacher at the crucifixion. They all fled. Not one was there for Jesus in his hour of need. And Peter outright denied even knowing Jesus. Can you imagine the psychic pain they were experiencing?

Think about when a couple has a knock down, drag out fight in the morning then both go off to work for the day, and one is killed in a car accident. The other is left with the regret of that last encounter with a loved one. For the rest of that life, there will be that sharp-edged, cutting memory never to be erased. It’s hard to find peace in that kind of circumstance. It can be done, but it is very difficult.

So here are the disciples, living with this kind of pain and despair. And there is this story, of Jesus, appearing among them, saying “Peace be with you.” Not saying, “What happened to you, you worthless bunch of slugs? Where were you when I needed you most? What happened to you, when the chips were down? You can’t be counted on for anything. You’re useless, disloyal, and untrustworthy. You have as much value as grass that’s trampled underfoot!” No. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And in the days ahead, the disciples are transformed. They are released from their fear and shame and become courageous witnesses to the power of the gospel.

This story conveys the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way it needs to be embodied. Jesus comes back to let his friends know that they are forgiven. He brings them the peace they so desperately need. He spares nothing. Even coming back from the dead. Then he tells them to forgive as he has forgiven them. Go to any lengths necessary to set things right. Be as lavish and generous in their forgiveness as he has been with his.

And in the story from Acts, we see that the disciples have taken this message to heart and are offering forgiveness to those who were involved in the death sentence of Jesus. They are embodying the forgiveness they have received from Jesus. They are going to any lengths to be forgiving.

Traditionally in church we follow the gospel directive that before you come to the altar you should set things right if you have any unresolved problems with others. So there is the time for confession in the service and the passing of the peace. But realistically, this is not an actual process for setting things right in our relationships. It could be the opportunity to solidify our conviction about our desire and intent to seek reconciliation, but true forgiveness and reconciliation usually involve more work, more time, and more mess. And does it mean anything to seek forgiveness from God if that forgiveness does not result in a process of reconciliation with those we have wronged?

And in our case, that can be quite sticky. There are the workers in sweat shops that make our clothes, and those in the fields who pick our food, there are the soldiers and civilians being killed in the military action that we fund, there is the damage to the earth itself that we cause with our consumptive life style, there are the children who will go to bed hungry in this country and around the world as a result of our failure to overcome the distribution issues, and on and on.

Does engaging in confession in church do anything about the 29.4% of the national budget being spent on the military [St. Pete Times 4/28/09] while children comprise 36% of Americans in poverty but only 25% of the population? [Sojourners Magazine, 1/09] Does saying something in church do something about that?

And what about reconciliation in our personal lives? Making peace and restoring relationships with those we have wronged in some way, and who have wronged us. This is complicated and difficult.

In Montana, families of crime victims and families of perpetrators came together to abolish the death penalty in Montana. Crime victims’ families, death row inmates’ families, former death row inmates who were proven innocent shared experiences of forgiveness, redemption, justice. They told their stories, demanding an end to the death penalty in their state. This is the kind of difficult, significant sharing that can lead to transformation and reconciliation. It is not simple or easy. [Sojourners Magazine 2/09]

I am not saying that it shouldn’t be done. Of course, I believe we should always be working toward reconciliation each and every day. But it can be a life journey.

For me, I don’t want saying a prayer in church to trivialize the complexity of living a life of forgiveness and reconciliation and the transformation that is involved.

While I may have some doubts about the role of a ritual of confession in church, I do see that the church is needed for the pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation. The disciples reinforced each other in their common witness. And they invited those who had a hand in the death of Jesus, not just to receive a verbal reprieve, but to become part of the faith community, to be brothers and sisters with Jesus’ friends, and to live a life of transformation and reconciliation in community. They are not assuming that this will be quick or easy.

The church is needed to make sure that we don’t just utter a prayer and go our merry way, but that we pursue a transformed life.

Indeed, the church is desperately needed to foster forgiveness and reconciliation. The church is needed to help us to see the power and hope and new life that are possible through forgiveness. The church is needed to inspire us and affirm our ability to engage in the process of forgiveness of ourselves and others. The church is needed to help us see where forgiveness and reconciliation are needed in our lives and in society. The church is needed to train our vision to see those who are victims and wronged by us directly and indirectly. The church is needed to train us to treat others with dignity and respect so that there is less hurt and abuse in our midst. The church is needed to help us learn to engage in conflict in productive, constructive ways that do not involve violence. The church is needed to help us know that we are frail human beings, capable of incredible wrong. And the church is needed to help us see that we are vessels of the divine, forgiving love that is desperately needed in the world. The church is needed to remind us that regardless of what we have done to ourselves, others, or the earth, reconciliation and peace are possible. The church is needed to be a community of support encouraging reconciliation, right action, moral behavior, and enacting grace.

During World War 1, Harry Emerson Fosdick published a prayer for the Germans: “O God, bless Germany! At war with her people we hate them not at all. . . We acknowledge before Thee our part in the world’s iniquity. . . We dare not stand in thy sight and accuse Germany as though she alone were guilty of our international disgrace. We all are guilty.” Charles Biddle, an American pilot, responded to Fosdick’s prayer by pledging to kill as many ‘Huns’ as he could, saying that ‘if Christianity requires us to forgive them, I am afraid I am no Christian.’ [Christian Century 5/5/09, p. 8]

Fosdick is articulating the challenge of the Gospel dictate to love your enemy. And the man who responds is honest. He shows an awareness of the challenge of forgiveness and reconciliation, and he consciously decides that he does not want to go there. There is integrity to that. The damage the church does is when we ignore the call of the gospel and undermine the powerful significance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

There was an old man who died and there was a wonderful funeral with the preacher extolling all of the good traits of the deceased — what an honest man he was, and what a loving husband and kind father he was. Finally, the widow leaned over and whispered to one of her children, “Go up there and take a look in the coffin and see if that’s your father.”

The fact is, we will all sin. In personal ways and as part of society. The gospel calls us to transformation and reconciliation. And in that process, we find peace.

Jewish rabbi and theologian Martin Buber tells this story of his grandfather:

My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher, and he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. [Quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship- Year B: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild]

When we talk about forgiveness and the grace of God, people should see it in us, as they witnessed it in Jesus and in the disciples. We have powerful testimony to share of how we have given and received forgiveness. We have incredible tales to tell of reconciliation in the face of tremendous loss. We have amazing stories to tell of new life and hope and transformation. May we not simply pay lame lip service to the power of God’s grace, but may we live that grace with infectious joy and peace. 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.

A Few Drops of Water

Date: January 11, 2009
Scriptures: Mark 1:4-11
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Over the winter break, our daughter, Angela, who is a fourth year student at New College in Sarasota, has been working on her graduate school applications. Her desire is to enroll in a dual masters program where she can get a master of divinity degree and a master of social work degree equipping her to serve as a pastor in a ministry incorporating social service. Angela hopes to be accepted into the joint degree program offered by Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City.

On the Columbia application, the first essay question is “Discuss why you want to be a social worker.” Angela begins her essay, “The main reason I want to be a social worker is because of the ideology of my family.” Since Angela asked for our suggestions, I pondered this word, “ideology.” The “ideology of my family.” This is not how I would say it. That is not the word that I would choose. “Ideology.” So what word would I choose in its place?

As a disclaimer, let me say that I thought Angela would be here this morning, but she ended up going back to Sarasota. I have read this sermon to her, and she has gladly given permission for me to share what she wrote in her essays.

As Angela’s essay about social work continues, she describes her commitment to the “just distribution of resources,” “the necessity of helping others,” [her father and I would like to see a little more of that around the house] and not taking her “privileged position as a white middle class person in America for granted.” She refers to her “responsibility to serve others.” She continues, “There is nothing as meaningful and important as serving others.” As I read this, I felt this is not ideology. This is the result of being formed and shaped by the church. This commitment stems from baptism into the community of Christ. This is gospel values instilled by the church of Jesus Christ. Angela’s commitment to service can be traced back not to ideology, but to a few drops of water, sprinkled on her head when she was baptized into the Christian church.

The story of the baptism of Jesus marking the beginning of his ministry, reveals the salient characteristics of the Christian church which nurtures and shapes us. First of all, the story tells us of the crowds that were being baptized. These were people who were already part of the Jewish community who were coming to John the Baptizer to repent, and re-turn their lives to God. This is a religious experience in the context of the faith community. Jesus has been nurtured in a Jewish home that was part of a wider religious tradition. And his baptism was in a communal context. As his ministry begins, he calls followers to join him. The Christian faith is not an individualistic or solitary spiritual path. Christianity is about being shaped by the faith community.

In Jesus’ baptism, we also see that John is offering a baptism of repentance. Christianity, like the Judaism, is God-centered. The focus, center, beginning, and end is God. It is about living in a way that is pleasing to God, as revealed to the faith community. So baptism is about community that is God-centered. It is not self-centered, doctrine-centered, market- centered, success-centered, achievement- centered, greed-centered, or any other kind of centered, but God-centered.

We also see in the baptism of Jesus that this is a baptism of forgiveness. People are being baptized for the forgiveness of sin. It is a way to be cleansed. To start anew. To reconcile with God and neighbor. The Christian community is to be grounded in reconciliation and forgiveness. With self, God, and neighbor. This is the community of second chances, tenth chances, ninety-third chances. We never give up on the power of forgiveness and transformation. We never give up hope. This is a core aspect of the Christian community into which we are baptized.

There were some who questioned why Jesus had to be baptized if baptism was for the forgiveness of sin and Jesus was sinless. He had never strayed from God, so why did he need to be baptized as a sign of his desire to return to God? So the baptism of Jesus can be seen as another example of Jesus’ solidarity with all kinds of people, especially sinners and outcasts, those who were suffering, those who were victims of injustice, those who were marginalized, or otherwise downtrodden. He was in solidarity with the common people. He was not above others, but with others.

When we are baptized, we become part of the faith community that shapes us and forms us in the ways that we see in Jesus’ baptism. We become part of a community. We are encouraged to be God-centered. Through baptism, we become part of a community committed to forgiveness and reconciliation. And we are committed to being in solidarity with others.

The baptism of Jesus shows us these salient features of the Christian faith community. If you want to hold on to a grudge, be ruled by greed, seek power, prestige and popularity, you are in the wrong place. Don’t come to church.

As I read the nine single-spaced typed pages of Angela’s essays, the influence of her baptism permeated every page. In one place she reflects, “I know that here is nothing as meaningful and important as serving others,” In this, I see not her family ideology at work, but the faith community into which she was baptized shaping and forming her. This perspective comes straight from this church.

In another part of the Columbia application, the question is posed, “What attributes might you change to strengthen your ability to be helpful to others.” Here Angela confesses wanting “to minimize her materialistic desires and indulgence in consumerism.” Again, I see the faith community into which she was baptized forming and shaping her. Not only in the values she espouses, but in her trust that she can change and be transformed. She has faith in what God will still do with her. She concludes, “I want to change my lifestyle because I know that true happiness does not come from expensive lotions and gourmet restaurants. I want to live more simply and be fulfilled through my work, my friends and my family. . . I want to be completely happy on a smaller paycheck and a simpler lifestyle. I want to live in solidarity with those who have less. I think that this change in lifestyle and in priorities will make me a more effective social worker. It will allow me to focus on my job and my education and be more satisfied with my life overall.”

Being part of a church that took in the homeless; opened a thrift store to help low income families; protested the war in Iraq; advocated for equal rights in marriage for all couples including same gender couples; sold t-shirts saying love thy neighbor, thy homeless neighbor, thy Muslim neighbor, thy black neighbor, thy gay neighbor, thy white neighbor, thy Jewish neighbor, thy transgendered neighbor, thy Christian neighbor, thy atheist neighbor, thy racist neighbor, thy addicted neighbor; being part of a church where you can be in relationship with all different kinds of people, with a vital worship life, these kinds of experiences and ministries have shaped Angela and are shaping all of us.

Being baptized and part of the church is being part of a community that will continually influence, form, and shape us, hopefully in ways that please and delight God.

Angela was not shaped by the “ideology of her family,” but by the gospel of Jesus Christ lived out in this faith community into which she was baptized. This church has had an incredible impact on Angela, and those of you who have known her for some time know that the word “incredible” is not overstating the case. We should feel proud of that. This is the community shaping each one of us and calling and leading us to serve God in every setting and context in life. Through baptism into the church we are each nurtured and formed for the ministry that God needs of us in the world.

We are not all called to be pastors or social workers. What kind of world would that be if that’s what we all were? But we are all called. God needs people in volunteer work and legal work, in teaching and in business (maybe especially in business), in medical care and in lawn care, in friendships and in families, embodying God-centered community, reconciliation and solidarity. The church does God’s work of forming and shaping us for compassionate service and ministry. We are all baptized for ministry in the church and in the world. God is at work transforming lives and transforming the world – through a few drops of water. Believe it. We are beloved. God is pleased with us. 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.

Finding Our Truest Happiness and Peace

Date: January 11, 2009
Scriptures: Mark 1:4-11
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Part 1

How many times have we heard people say, in the face of some undeserved suffering, “It’s just my cross to bear.” A child is born with Down’s Syndrome. It’s a cross to bear. An injury leaves a person incapacitated in some way. It’s their cross to bear. A loving parent deals with a child on drugs. It’s their cross to bear. We use the expression to refer to undeserved suffering or hardship. Usually a situation in which the person suffering had little or no say in the circumstances. There is much inexplicable and undeserved suffering in this life, and it deserves compassion and empathy. And Jesus’ suffering on the cross certainly was undeserved and unjust. But when we read in the gospels Jesus’ invitation to the crowds, “Take up your cross and follow me,” we want to look more closely at the meaning and intent.

Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion was not the result of random bad luck or bad judgment. Jesus taking up the cross was a result of his complete and total faithfulness to God. He chose to align himself with the purposes of God. Each step of the way, in his ministry, he is going off to pray. This is to keep him on the path that God intends for him. This is so that he stays in on track with the wider purposes of the creator of the cosmos. Jesus eventually faces the cross because of his choice to be faithful to God, not because of random fate.

Part 2

When we hear this invitation to “Take up your cross,” we are being beckoned to live our lives consistent with the purposes of God. We are not being asked to literally pick up a heavy wooden cross. We are not being asked to suffer randomly. We are not being invited to be crucified. We are being called to completely align ourselves with God’s purposes for our lives, each one of us as individuals.

To “take up your cross” is to fulfill God’s hopes and dreams for you, that only you can realize.

Jesus took up his cross because he chose to embody God’s love, forgiveness and peace and in his situation, that led to crucifixion. The call to us to “take up our cross” is also the call to embody God’s love, forgiveness and compassion. This is an intentional choice to devote ourselves to God’s dreams for creation and the human community. “To take up your cross” is to choose to alleviate suffering, embody compassion, honesty, generosity and service. It is to choose to resist oppression, injustice, greed, violence and abuse.

The gospel invitation to “take up your cross” is an invitation to choose the Christian life, a life of service in the spirit of Christ, accepting whatever consequences that may entail.

Part 3

For Jesus, the choice to follow the will and way of God with complete devotion did lead to his actual physical death in a heinous, humiliating manner. It was capital punishment by cruel and unusual means. For most of us, the choice to “take up our cross” will not have those consequences, but there will be costs. To live by the values of the gospel, treating all people with dignity and respect, leading a life directed by the desire to give not to get, this leads to a life very different from the images that our culture espouses. In our culture, we are admonished to look out for number one, pamper ourselves, seek comfort and privilege. We are encouraged to avoid pain and suffering, and to make sure we are getting as much as we can – of money, power, of whatever else we want. Afterall, we are entitled to it. This is a far cry from the gospel perspective of what can I offer, how can I serve, how am I needed, what can I give, where is there suffering I can share, how can I live in solidarity with those who are oppressed, where can I work for justice, how can I make the world more peaceful?

When we embrace devotion to the way of God, when we “take up our cross,” we will pay a price. Maybe it will be in terms of worldly success or popularity. It may be in relationships. It may be in the way others think of us. It may be in monetary terms.
Recently someone from our church who has been unemployed for many months was offered a managerial position at a Walmart. Knowing its sketchy reputation, she did some research into the labor practices, etc. of Walmart. She decided not to take the job because she knew that as a manager, she would be responsible for making employees do things she did not believe were fair or just. This is an example of the cost that comes with taking up your cross. She gave up this job, and has not been able to find another one with commensurate pay, even after several months of looking.

Part 4

When Jesus invites us to “take up our cross,” there definitely is a cost. But the goal is not to make people suffer or be miserable. Ultimately the promise is that by taking up our cross we will save our lives. The call to the life of service, compassion, and generosity, is a call to our highest good, our deepest well being. When we devote ourselves to the will and purposes of God, we find our greatest happiness and joy. We find our healing and wholeness. We find purpose and meaning that satisfies.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that serving others does not degrade a person, but ennobles a person.

For our 40th anniversary as a church, we chose the theme “Out on limb for 40 years.” We wanted a graphic to go with the theme. I spoke to our son who is an artist about the theme and doing a graphic. “Great mom. I’ll do a tree and at the end of one branch I’ll put flowers and fruits and lush leaves because when you go out on the limb, you find the good stuff, the beauty, the bounty.” This was perfect for our anniversary, for the life of our church, and as an image for the Christian life. When we “take up our cross,” we find the beauty and bounty of love and community. God does not ask us to :take up our cross” to suffer undeservedly, but to find joy and wholeness.

Dr. Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, once gave a lecture on mental health followed by questions from the audience. One person asked, “What would you advise a person to do if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?”

Most people expected the psychiatrist to reply, “Consult a psychiatrist.” To the astonishment of the audience, Menninger responded, “Lock up your house, go across the railway tracks, find someone in need and do something to help that person.” [The Sowers Seed, p.44]

The invitation to “take up your cross,” is an invitation to life. This call to service, to give, to attend to the needs of others, is for our own good, for left to ourselves, we are so easily sucked down the whirlpool of our own self interest and self centeredness. As one person put it, “The trouble with a living sacrifice is that it keeps crawling off the altar!” [A_Z p. 115] We can so easily be taken in by the messages of entitlement promoted around us. And then we feel we are being cheated. We are not getting our due. We need to fight for ourselves. And our world gets smaller and smaller. Our souls shrivel. Our relationships dry up. It is so easy to become a victim of the tyrant selfishness, seeking our own good at the expense of others, lusting after control, desperate to dominate.

There’s a story told about a south sea island where the inhabitants trap monkeys for food. They have an ingenious way of ensnaring the primates. The people take clay jars, with long narrow necks and tie them to the trees in the habitat of the monkeys. Then the jars are filled with grain. At night the monkeys come down from the trees and reach into the jars to get the grain, but when they try to take their hands out of the jar, it is impossible because they have the fistful of grain. All the monkeys need to do is let go of the grain, and they can get their hand out of the jar. But they refuse to turn loose the grain. So, in the morning, the people find the monkeys with their hands in the jars of grain, and they are captured. [Stewardship p. 74]

To “take up your cross” frees us from being trapped by selfishness and self interest. From holding on to what ensnares us and deprives us of life full and free.

It is interesting that the motion for salvation in sign language involves the breaking of chains. The sign begins with two fists side by side. The idea is two links of a chain, bondage. Then the fists are separated and the arms raised. The chain of bondage is broken. This is salvation. It is freedom from that which keeps us in bondage. When we take up our cross by devoting ourselves to God and emulating the serving life of Jesus, we are saving our lives, we are breaking the chains that keep us bound, including the bondage to self interest.

Medical researchers and scientists have found that there are also physiological benefits to helping others and serving. They have found that doing good, volunteer work, helping others lowers blood pressure and increases the body’s immune system. [See the Healing power of doing good]

So this invitation to “take up your cross” is intended for our well being and our healing, and flourishing. It is not a sentence to drudgery and suffering and deprivation. “Take up your cross.” This is an invitation to life. This is an invitation to peace.

This Lenten season, we are exploring the way Christianity offers peace to the individual and to the world. Last week, we explored the tradition of imaging a disarmed, nonviolent God. Today we see the peace and well-being for ourselves and the world that comes with invitation to “take up your cross.”

But this teaching is not unique to Christianity. With so much benefit derived from serving others and devotion to a higher power and purpose, it is not surprising that the sentiment “take up your cross” is found in many other religions as well. The word “Islam” means submission. Islam is based on complete submission to the will of God in every aspect of life. In Buddhism, the idea is referred to as renunciation. By renouncing self centeredness and desire, the path to peace and wholeness is attained. Pema Chodron, a contemporary Buddhist teacher puts it this way: “Renunciation is realizing that our nostalgia for wanting to stay in a protected, limited, petty world is insane. Once you begin to get the feeling of how big the world is and how vast our potential for experiencing life is, then you really begin to understand renunciation.”

In the Baha’i faith, this principle of devotion to a larger reality is of significance as well. In The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, we read, “O Son of Man! If you love Me, run away from yourself; and if you seek My pleasure, regard not your own; that you may die in me and I may eternally live in you.” [World Script. P. 639] In the Talmud, teachings of Judaism, we read, “Torah abides only with him who regards himself as nothing.” [P. 639]
To “take up our cross,” is not to denigrate the self, it is not an endorsement of abuse or self negation. It is honoring the image of God in each and every person, including ourselves. And affirming that image as one of compassion, mercy, generosity, love, and service.

To “take up your cross” is to choose devotion to the will and way of God and in so doing, find your highest good. For few of us will that mean facing our literal deaths, instead, for most of us, it will mean every day acts of mercy and justice offered year in and year out. To “take up your cross,” is a life long process. Preacher Fred Craddock offers this image:

We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table – ‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’
But the reality for most of us is that God sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. . .Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time.” [Quoted from Leadership, Fall 1984, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, p. 629]

We are given these lives to spend. Take up your cross is the invitation to spend your life, in service to others. And so to find your highest good. As humanitarian Albert Schweitzer put it, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know, the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

This Lenten season, may we take up our cross and find our truest happiness and peace.

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