This I Believe: Resurrection

Date: February 17, 2008
Scripture: John 11: 1-45
Sermon: This I Believe: Resurrection
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Each Easter morning we soar with alleluias as we proclaim

“Christ the Lord is risen today !
Mortal tongues and angels say.
Raise your joys and triumphs high
Sing glad heavens and earth reply.”

This is our celebration of the resurrection.

So the gospel tradition speaks of Jesus being killed, buried in a tomb, the tomb being empty on the third day, Jesus appearing to his friends and then being taken into heaven. (More on heaven and hell on March 9th.) This is the resurrection motif of the gospels.

Within the Christian tradition and belief system there are those who believe things actually happened this way. There are others who believe there is some actuality in this account but that there was significant embellishment of the story in the years following the actual events. Some contemporary scholars, such as John Shelby Spong, tell us that the people crucified by the Romans were buried in mass graves. So they speculate that Jesus was buried in a mass grave. And the story of the empty tomb and the interaction with the risen Jesus evolved to account for the incredibly strong sense of Jesus’ presence experienced by his friends after his death.

Thus in the Christian tradition there is a resurrection from literal to metaphorical. But the entire spectrum, the many facets of understanding resurrection, the mystery of resurrection, all point to the power of life over death. The concept of resurrection is a testimony to God’s commitment to life. Even in the most deathly of circumstances new life can emerge. This is the central message of Christianity. New life. Life overcomes death. There’s an old saying: communism puts a new suit on every man. Christianity puts a new man in every suit. Christianity is about new life and transformation.

The central image for Buddhism is desire. Eliminating desire. The key concept for Hinduism was developed by the Vedas and the Upanshads.. The core ideal for Islam is submission. Submission to God. The salient passage of Christianity is resurrection. Transformation and new life. To take away the image of resurrection, the belief in new life and transformation for people and for the world would be to cut the heart out of Christianity.

In the story of Lazarus we catch a glimpse, a preview of God’s commitment to life. Lazarus, Jesus beloved friend, is sick and dies. We are told that by the time Jesus comes to him, he has been dead for 4 day. It was believed that the soul left the body after 3 days. So by coming 4 days after the death, the writer confirms that Lazarus truly was dead. But even after that, the story tells us, that Lazarus walks out of the tomb. He lives. God’s power is stronger than death.
In our congregation we have experienced considerable death and loss over the past year. Mary Byrd, our church mother and matriarch died. Ken Kinzel, beloved newer member of the church was killed in Nicaragua. My father, who had been a consultant to this church from the Florida Conference, before I even became pastor here at Lakewood UCC, died. Bob Allen, Randy’s father, for a time a regular participant in worship, died. Jay Johnson, regular participant and supporter of the church, and beloved husband of Jean, died unexpectedly. These are people who were part of our core church family, gone.

Then there are others no longer present among us, due to health or relocation. Ken Hamilton and his snowbird parents, Ray Duplease and Dan Knight, Leroy Gates, Michael Crockett, Wanda Gammel, Jorges. And I got an e-mail this week that Vicki Couch will be moving to Atlanta.

This is an enormous amount of loss for our church family in this past year. These people are missed. We grieve the loss of their presence, their love, their support. And yes, their resources of time, talent, and treasure. This loss is extreme for our small congregation that was about 70 members strong.

Last week as budget and resource issues were discussed in planning for the year ahead, there was the sense that we may have lost our critical mass as a congregation. That we have been in the tomb for more than 3 days.

But the story of Lazarus reminds us that God is in the business of new life. There is nothing beyond God’s life-giving, life-transforming reach. Let’s look at how new life appears in the story.

One thing we see is that Mary and Martha do something. They don’t just sit on their hands and whine. They send for Jesus. They mobilize their resources. They reach out. God does not just magically appear and intervene. The people involved, Mary, Martha, and then Jesus, they do something.

For our church to experience new life and transformation, for this church to resurrect after so much death and loss, we must be willing to do something: participate, show up, pray. Help each other, get involved. We also need to invite people to church. People who are struggling. People who would appreciate a supportive community. People who are looking for authenticity and integrity and have given up ever finding it in organized religion. People who are hungry for new life and hope. People who are aching for things to be different in this world. People who are thirsty for peace and justice. People reeling after yet another school shooting. Invite them to find new life and hope in this faith community. Remember: we are a Christian church. Our core image for our faith is resurrection. Transformation. New life. For ourselves and the world.

If every member or household in our church family brought in one new family or member to the church a year, this church would be totally transformed. Just one new member or family a year. [You might have to get 5 or 6 people to visit, before you find the one who will stay, but] This is something we can do. We can invite people we care about to find new life and hope in this faith community as we have. This Lazarus story of the triumph of new life involves Mary and Martha and Jesus doing something. It also involves their faith and trust. When Martha goes out to meet Jesus as he approaches their home, we are told she says, “Teacher, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now [4 days later…] I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” “Seek and you shall find. Ask and you will receive. Your will be done.” Here we are shown that our faith and trust in God creates the climate for new life to emerge. We need to expect God to breathe new life into this church. We need to trust that God needs this church to further God’s mission, we need to work and pray, trust and expect this church to rise up with new life.

The New Testament speaks of the church as the body of Christ, each part with a different function needed for the well-being of the whole. This church has a particular needed role to fulfill in the larger body of Christ.

We are bonded by our commitment to God-centered living as revealed in the life of Jesus. This is our primary focus. Not dogma. Not creed. Not theological tenets. Not structure or hierarchy. Not tradition. Not racial, social, economic, or ethnic identity. Our common ground is our call to God-centered living modeled by Jesus. This makes us different from other congregations

As a result, our congregation is very diverse in other ways, as were the first Christian communities. This was probably the most clarion witness of the early church – the incredible diversity of the community. In a very highly stratified culture where you stayed in your place the early Christian communities were wildly diverse. It was shocking. In our setting, churches are often bonded by homogeneity of some kind – similar economic status, or educational background, or ethnicity or race. It’s far easier to function with that common ground. But we are seeking to relish our theological beliefs and celebrate the diversity God has created to enrich and nourish us. We are seeking the deeper experience of God in ourselves and one another that come with exposure to difference.

“It amazes me that Jesus could call a Matthew and a Simon both to be his disciples. Matthew was a tax collector, a conservative of the conservatives. Simon was a zealot, the liberal of the liberals…They were farther apart than Ted Kennedy and Rush Limbaugh could ever dream of being.” {Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, Christian Century, Sept. 18, 2007, p.7]

This makes us different from other congregations and needed for our special role.

Our church is also needed in the body of Christ because we are seeking to breathe new life and hope into Christianity itself. In our culture as a whole, Christianity is losing ground because educated; reasonable, thinking people are lesd willing to blindly accept the supernatural, the magical thinking required by most expressions of Christianity. This trend is masterfully presented by Bishop Spong especially in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

This week the St. Petersburg Times announced that only 22% of the public want only the theory of evolution taught in the public schools. And 50% want only faith based theories taught. [St. Petersburg Ties 2/15/08, Public: Faith trumps science , Ron Matusa and Donna Winchester]
Florida is way behind the curve here. In 100 years, friends, this will be laughable. Like the idea that the sun revolves around the earth. Overall in our society and culture, the postmodern, scientific, worldview will continue to gain ground, as it should because God gave us these incredible brains to use and develop and progress. God takes delight in humanity’s continuing intellectual achievement as a parent takes joy in watching a child learn to walk and talk and read and develop.

This church doesn’t ask people to park their thinking minds at the door when they enter. This church does not require people to ignore or deny their personal experience. This church does not demand acceptance of supernatural occurrences to have an authentic faith. This church accepts and respects the magical, miraculous faith experience of some while also respecting and affirming a more reason-based faith experience. We are a see in this post-modern, secular culture nurturing Christianity so that it grows and flowers and remains meaningful and relevant in the centuries to come as the world progresses.

This church is also needed because we truly believe that following in the way of Jesus, the values, the dreams, the lifestyle, we see in the Jess of the New Testament is a path for saving the world. It is a path for transformation of violence lest we bomb ourselves to oblivion. It is a path for the healing of the earth as we proceed dangerously toward ecocide. It is a path of personal engagement, compassion, and relationship in a world of growing population and depersonalization. It is a way of generosity and justice in a world where greed has become an epidemic. The Christian path, the way of Jesus is a lifestyle commitment that embodies God’s commitment to love the whole world and save the whole world. I believe that God wants to breathe new life into this particular, unique faith community because it is needed for God’s dreams to flourish and be fulfilled.

In turning back to the Lazarus story, we see new life emerge where people get involved and have trust, but we also see risk involved. Jesus goes to Bethany, the home of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, in Judea, where he is a wanted man. Notice that little verse, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” When Jesus goes to Bethany, he is risking his life and the lives of his disciples. Embracing new life, this core Christian motif of resurrection, involves risk and death. Transformation requires something to cease to exist as it was so something new can emerge, there’s that famous comment made by the caterpillar looking up at the butterfly, “You’ll never get me up in one of those things!” For this church to experience new life and resurrection, risk will need to be involved. We will need to give something up. We will need to face our fears. We have to free ourselves from the power of death and accept the risk and the cost for the greater promise and hope.

For the church, for us, this can mean a personal cost in making a sacrificial pledge that means giving something else up. This can mean moving away from “We’ve always done it that way,” a comfortable, familiar way of doing things. It can mean trying some new things which end up not working – learning from that. But risk and cost is involved in experiencing resurrection and new life. During the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about practicing “dangerous unselfishness.” [I Have a Dream Speech] That is what is needed for new life, transformation and resurrection to take place. That’s what we see in the life of Jesus: dangerous unselfishness. That’s how Christians are called to live.

At the beginning of the service we listened to the chorus from Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony. The soaring melodies, the strong, vibrant choral singing include the words, “Prepare to live.” Often our mindset is to so focus on avoiding death that we forget to live.

The central Christian image of resurrection is an image of LIFE. It is desperately needed to move us as individuals, as a church, and as a society away from the grip of death and beyond. What we have accepted as conceivable limits God is seeking to breathe new hope and new life into us, into the church, and into the world today. Resurrection: this is the core message of Christianity. It is an invitation to life: full, abundant and transformed. This is what God promises us and I believe for our church. Amen

The Perils of Darkness

-A woman and her little boy were battling the crowds on the E train. They were on one of two working escalators with zillions of others. Moving along, the little boy looked up at his mother and asked: “Are we in line?” His mother said, “No, there is no line. This isn’t school. This is life.”

Recently, we have read the horrific tales of the day darkness descended on Interstate 4. The combination of intensifying fog and smoke from what was intended to be a controlled burn combining forces to create perilous conditions for drivers on one of the most highly traveled highways in Florida. The smoke and fog was so thick that vision was completely obscured, as if the lights had been turned out. Visibility zero. Cars rammed into each other constantly like the bumper car ride at a fair. Only there was not laughter. No funloving drivers whooping it up. The air was filled with the sound of crunching metal against metal, moans of agony, howls of disbelief and cries of suffering, pain, and death. There were drivers who exited their crashed vehicles only to be killed by oncoming traffic because there was no visibility and by the time people realized it, it was too late. Obscured vision and darkness created the chaos of death and destruction. People heading for another day on the job, or on vacation eager to taste Disney’s delights, were suddenly immersed in tragedy.

We know the perils of darkness. We know what is like to loose our way. We know the pain of unexpected disruption and intrusion. When the routine visit to the doctor leads to a series of tests, and an appointment with a specialist, and then surgery and radiation. And the end of what we thought was interminable day to day life as we knew it.

We know the darkness and disruption of a tragic, unexpected death. With hopes and dreams of years ahead suddenly erased with one blow. At the hands of a drunk driver. Or a freak accident. Or perilous conditions on the highway.

We know the deep darkness of discovering that a beloved son or daughter has become an addict. Living a life controlled by a substance that destroys. Living with risk that is perilously close to death. The child we knew gone, possessed by darkness.

We know the darkness of feeling utterly alone when our parents have died. And our siblings. We feel left alone, abandoned, orphaned. Part of us gone with them. Loss that requires a shift of identity that can be so painful.

We know the darkness of failure. Academic failure as our future dreams evaporate because of the test we failed, or the score on the exam, or the deadline we missed. Closing doors to our cherished plans. If only. . .

We know the deep pain of failed relationships. The darkness of emptiness and anger in the wake of divorce or a relationship breakup.
We know the pain and darkness of money issues. Facing bankruptcy. The shame. The indignity. We know the sense of inadequacy when we cannot provide for our families. We know the fear of being on the edge financially and not having needed resources for shelter or medical care. We know the insecurity when employment is unstable, and job loss looms.

We know the deep darkness and resignation when our country embarks on yet another war. Is there no other way? Is our greed so great? Has our hubris totally blinded us? When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

We know how it feels when darkness descends. To feel enveloped, swallowed by the weight of fear, helplessness, or failure. In the story we heard this morning of the transfiguration, the disciples and Jesus also know of darkness. They know of increasing threat. Already Matthew has shared Jesus’ warning to his followers that he is sending them out as sheep among wolves. Already Matthew has told us that John the Baptizer has been killed. Already Matthew has told us that the Pharisees are conspiring against Jesus, and plotting to destroy him. And in just the previous chapter, Matthew has Jesus reveal to the disciples that he will undergo great suffering and be killed. He has told his followers that they should expect a similar fate. The weight of darkness has become crushing.

So midway between Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion, in the middle of two teachings about his impending passion, in between the light of his birth and the light of the resurrection, we are told this story of Jesus and three disciples on the mountaintop. A moment of light amidst gathering gloom. With darkness past, and darkness ahead, there is a mountaintop moment of light.

Cast with what were familiar images from Hebrew scriptures we are told a story of a mountain top, which is where Moses found God, and which other religions also recognize as holy places and temples of the Gods. We are told of the appearance of Elijah and Moses, pillars of Jesus’ Jewish faith tradition. We are told of Jesus’ face radiating with light, as Moses face shown when he encountered God on the mountaintop. We are told of the cloud, again a parallel to Moses. The mountain, the shroud of clouds, the light, the voice, all call forth the Hebrew conception of the presence of God. The light bathes Jesus who appears transfigured, changed. The presence of God changes him as it does all of his followers including us.

This mysterious story with obscured images and veiled meaning, conveyed by the ignorance of Peter, God bless him, expresses God’s in-breaking presence. Never fully understood. Yet it is an assurance that God is with us as we face the darkness. We are given this story which is a reminder of Jesus’ need for reassurance, for affirmation of his mission, for validation of God’s presence. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

The artist Rafael’s last masterpiece was of the transfiguration. In the painting, the background is filled with ominous dark clouds that look like a storm brewing. The three disciples on the mountain top with Jesus are lying on the ground shielding their faces. But that is only the top half of the painting. The bottom half of the painting shows us the story of what we are told is going on at the bottom of the mountain. A desperate father has brought his son to the other 9 disciples to be healed of epilepsy. The father has heard that Jesus is known for healing and comes with great faith and hope. Yet the disciples do not heal the child. They do not seem to think that they can heal the boy. There is turbulence and fear and desperation in the dark bottom portion of the painting. Yet the canvas is dominated by a light bathed Jesus at the top center of the picture. He hovers above the ground eyes looking up and arms raised almost in a “hands up” position indicating submission, surrender, acceptance. In the midst of the darkness, the light of God shines. With looming darkness at the bottom of the mountain, with the way to another mountain, Calvary, ahead, the light shines. The starlight-drenched baby of Bethlehem is drenched in light once more. A foreshadowing of the resurrection.

The painting reminds us that the light of God does not banish the darkness. The surrounding continues cloudy and ominous. There is the necessary descent from the heights with conflict and despair awaiting at the foot of the peak. God does not eliminate fear, pain, violence, and struggle, but God’s light shines amidst the darkness. As the scripture tells us, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. God is present in the darkness. God sees Jesus and his followers through the darkness, but does not eliminate or prevent dark times.

This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical season of Epiphany, the season of light, of celebration of God’s presence revealed. This week with Ash Wednesday we begin the season of Lent, marked by the color purple. A time of penitence, repentance, recognition of separation from God and re-turning to God. It is a dark, somber season of reflection and germination as we prepare for the new life promised in the resurrection of Easter. As these seasons change, we need this celebration of the transfiguration reminding us that God is present, God’s light is shining for us, even in the deepest darkness. We go through the darkness of Lent with God, recognizing God’s grace and love. Renewing our dependence on God instead of ourselves which can only lead to a hopeless abyss.

The transfiguration assures us as it did Jesus that God is with us, regardless of what lies behind us or ahead of us. In fact, it is affirmation that God is with us precisely because some kind of darkness inevitably does lie ahead of us. God’s light is with us in the darkness. In fact, light is most clearly seen in the darkness. Maybe it is but a faint glimmer. Maybe it is a lightening bolt. Maybe it is a pinpoint like a star. Maybe it is the intense colored hue of sunset light. God’s light shines and assures us as we face the dark times of this life. And that light is our hope providing clarity, freeing us from fear. Giving us the courage for passionate engagement with life. Empowering us to face the unknown. Strengthening us when the way ahead looks perilous. Sustaining us in the face of despair. Equipping us to be agents of reconciliation, peace, and compassion in the spirit of Christ. We are not left to our own devices. God knows we need the light.

The story of the transfiguration not only shows us God’s light sustaining Jesus and his friends on their difficult journey, but helps us to know how to recognize the light. We notice that Jesus and his three companions show up. They are present. They have left something behind to go up on the mountain. We see that they have separated themselves from the demands of everyday life. They have created time and space in their lives to look for God’s light. If we are so busy and harried we may not see the light God is trying to show us, even if it appears as a blazing neon sign. We need to be paying attention. The story also shows us that the people involved had the knowledge of their faith tradition to help them recognize and identify God’s presence. They know of Moses and his encounters with God, on the mountain, his face shining. So they recognize how God is appearing in Jesus. They know of Moses and Elijah and so recognize their presence. Knowing our faith tradition, our scriptures, and our stories, helps us to see and recognize God’s presence and light. This gives us a language for interpreting our experience. It helps us recognize the light. Yes, God can find a way to communicate with us, to show us light, regardless of our background, heritage, knowledge, or religion, but being immersed in a tradition helps us to focus on the light, and recognize the presence of the Holy One, and trust the experience. Worship, prayer, church, scripture, Christian fellowship all help us to see God’s light and know it for what it is.

This Sunday we celebrate the light of God which transfigures in the midst of darkness and obscurity. The light which overcomes the domination of suffering, the paralysis of fear, the unrelenting rule of violence, the shroud of despair, the tyranny of self-centeredness and self destruction. God loves us so much, God does not leave us to face the darkness alone. God reaches out to us to empower us and transform us as we journey through the darkness. God is persistent, relentless really, in the quest to be our light, to illumine our path, so that we may know the fullness and joy of the living of our days. Look for the light. As those magi scanned the sky night after long night looking for a sign of God’s presence. Trust God. For when we try to make our way alone, we will find ourselves lost and failing. The light is there. Seeking to transfigure our lives. Amen.

Keep Listening

Date: January 13, 2008
Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Sermon: Rev. Kim Wells

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has become an architectural icon, having begun to list even while it was under construction.

But even more noteworthy in Pisa, in my opinion, is the Baptistery. It is a beautiful round building modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It is set apart from the front of the cathedral. Outside, the baptistery is adorned with columns and arches in a Moorish style with John the Baptizer atop the dome. Inside, the baptistery is a large, spacious octagonal room bathed in light. In the center of the space, raised three steps, is an 8 sided baptismal font, the size of a small swimming pool. It was designed to accommodate adult immersions. There are four corner basins for infant immersion. The marble mosaic flooring of the chancel is stunning. The whole building feels ordered, radiating beauty, housing holiness. It is stunning, far more beautiful to me than the adjacent cathedral.

As we visited these monuments at Pisa, my daughter Angela asked what the baptistery was for; after all, there was a whole, huge, gorgeous cathedral. What was the point of the baptistery?

This beautiful sacred space was designed, created, and set apart to be used only for baptisms. The sacrament of baptism was considered so significant, there was a separate church built just for that ceremony. In the first century of Christianity, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus was one of the most important high holy days of the year, far more significant than the celebration of Christmas.

Baptism signifies God’s incomparable love. It is a human action intended to acknowledge God’s divine love and claim upon our lives. It is the mark of entrance into the faith community where God’s love is fully embodied, nurturing, supporting life, and a source of comfort and joy. Baptism is about belonging to God and God’s people gathered as the church.

In baptism God declares you are loved and you will be cared for by the church. At the heart of baptism is recognition of God’s love and care. Love so incredible, an incomparable pure gift. Love over which we have no control. Incomparable, unconditional love. Love not as a reward or payment and not given for good behavior or faithful service. Love not offered in response to right belief or moral conduct.

Baptism is about God’s love given. Simply given. And we have no choice in the matter. We do not determine God’s love. We can’t influence it. We can’t choose it. We can’t start or stop it. We don’t change it. God loves us. And God seeks us out. And claims us in baptism. To the church of Pisa this made baptism worthy of its own stunning space, set apart for only that special purpose.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism we hear of God’s love affirmed at baptism. We are told that a voice is heard: “This is my child, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” God’s love for Jesus is declared. But God also expresses satisfaction with Jesus. Well, what God wouldn’t be pleased with such a child who healed people, forgave people, multiplied food, embodied justice and was willing to die for the cause. It’s everything God wants from a Messiah, according to Isaiah and the prophets.

But when we look at the wider context of the baptism story, we see it as the beginning of the Gospel. It comes before the story of the temptation in the wilderness, before any teaching or preaching or healing, or dying, before Jesus has begun his ministry, before any stories about what Jesus has done. We are told God declares, “This is my child, the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” With no indications what’s behind, God’s love and blessing is given. And with no indications of what is ahead, it is received.

In that moment of baptism, Jesus is surrendering himself to God’s love. He is letting go of his control and entrusting himself to God. In the depths of the Jordan, the self-centered and self identity is drowned. In the flowing current, any self-serving agenda is carried away. God is pleased because Jesus is putting his life into God’s hands. He is willing to be who God intends. He is acceding to God’s will for his life. This pleases God. Not what Jesus has done, his deeds, but his willing spirit; which will, of course, lead to incredible deeds of powerful love.

It is this surrender when we acknowledge God’s love. When we acknowledge and celebrate God’s love, we learn to trust God. We learn to surrender ourselves to God because we know God only wants our highest good, our deepest joy. When we acknowledge the gift of love we have been given, we can surrender to that love which supports and nurtures us, empowers and embraces us. Gathered in by that love, we want to please our beloved. We want to delight the source of life and joy.

We become part of God’s dreams. We witness to hope in the face of despair. We witness to peace in the face of cruelty and violence. We share the light of justice, exposing oppression, bigotry and greed. We are freed from al other societal and cultural constraints. We are part of God’s powerful loving of this world. When we know we are beloved by God, it is our joy and delight to love as God loves.

When we surrender to God’s love; when we trust God; when we abandon our self-centeredness, we please God. When we are open to becoming the precious, unique individual God intends for each one of us to be, we please God. When we listen and tune out all the other voices, – the voices that say “You’re a failure.” “There’s nothing you can do.” “It can’t be changed.” “You have no choice.” “You’re not good enough.” “No one cares.” There will still be the voice that can’t be silenced; can’t be muted; can’t be turned off. The voice over which we have no control. The still speaking voice uttering love.

The L’Arche Communities were established by Jean Vamier as a refuge for people with mental handicaps, who are limited physically and intellectually. They live in community sharing their lives with those of “normal” abilities. Vamier tells this story about one of the residents.

“In one of our communities there is a man called Pierre who has a mental handicap. One day someone asked him, “Do you like praying?”
He answered, “Yes”.
He was asked what he did when he prayed.
The answer, “I listen”.
“And what does God say to you?”
“God says you are my beloved son.”
(Quoted from Resources for Preaching and Worship Year A: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild. P 48.)

It is all we need to hear. Interestingly, the Baptistery at Pisa has amazing acoustics. In its way it is an architectural marvel. A whisper uttered from the center of the rotunda reverberates and echoes throughout the expansive space. “You are my beloved.” That’s all we need to hear. Everything else will follow.

You, too, are baptized. Keep listening. Amen

Let It Shine!

Date: January 6, 2008
Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17; Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 17:1-12; Luke 24:1-12; Revelation 21:22 – 22:5.
Sermon: Let It Shine!
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Any creche display or Christmas pageant is not complete without the Magi – later referred to as the 3 kings. We image three exotic, stately figures clothed in rich robes. These Magi, we are not actually told, were three. That has been inferred from the mention of the three gifts but the Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian religion which originated in present day Iran. Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, who is generally thought to have lived in the 10th or 11th century BCE. This religion is based on the worship of the one Creator God, Ahura Mazda. The sacred texts are called the Avesta. The Zoroastrian world view presumes the presence of Asha, which is truth and order. And the presence of chaos present as falsehood and disorder. These two forces, Asha and Chaos, are in conflict. Through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, humans can align themselves with Asha and keep Chaos at bay.

Asha, the presence of truth and order, can be observed in the laws of the universe, the planets, stars, and astral bodies, and in the changing of the seasons. So Zoroastrian priests, or magi, were astrologers. They were also seen as magicians, sorcerers, and wise men. They were experts in the interpretation of dreams.

As Matthew’s gospel begins we are told that Magi from the east followed a star which led them to Jesus. These Magi are clearly foreigners. They are markedly different from the Jews of Palestine, Jesus’ cultural context. In world view, heritage, culture, and beliefs, these Magi are separate, distinct from the Jewish context into which Jesus is born. They are strangers from a strange land. They are entirely “other.”

So why are we told this story at the beginning of a gospel about the Jewish Messiah? A book addressed to a Jewish context and rising out of the Jewish tradition. A book aimed at solidifying belief that Jesus is the Messiah in the lineage of David, who was promised and awaited for centuries. Where does this story of the Magi fit in?

And not only are we told of the Magi following a star to Jesus, of a different culture, in a strange land, countries away necessitating a journey of months, if not years. We are told of religious leaders in Jesus’ context, experts in the Scriptures, who are blind to what is happening in their own back yard. Why does Matthew tell us this story?

The story of the Magi shows devout people on a search, a quest. They are responding to a longing, a deeply felt desire. They are following a star they believe leads to the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams. The desire for a sense of the sacred, for authentic life and for the true human community is not limited by culture, geography, time, or religion. It is a universal human longing. The abundant life rooted in communities of justice and compassion that is manifested in the life of Jesus speaks to the longings and desires of the whole human family, not just what has become the Judeo-Christian tradition. So, this story shows the common longing of all of humanity, the common quest, the shared hope. Present in every culture, every era, every religion, we share the desire for thriving life and wholeness.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
— (United Church of Christ Hymnal p. 591)

We share the hunger to be part of something beyond ourselves. We pursue that desire in countless, different ways, but it is our common bond as human beings. So this story affirms our oneness as a human family with common hopes and dreams.

This story of the Magi also shows us foreigners being drawn into the narrative of another religion. We are shown a God that is bigger than one religion or one spiritual path. We are shown a God that is beyond just one religious tradition. We see respect for different belief systems. These Magi come to worship Jesus; to pay their respects; to offer lavish gifts befitting someone of extreme significance. Then they go back to Persia, now Iran, back to their religious context of Zoroastrianism, back to their jobs as priests, diviners, astrologers, and dream interpreters. They don’t stay in Palestine. They don’t become Jewish or Christians. They go home a different way. Who would not be changed by such a quest? But they go home. To their religion and their culture. Jesus can be honored and appreciated, respected, and revered, beyond the Christian faith and the church as he is a light that shines beyond one faith tradition. The mercy, compassion, justice, and power seen in Jesus can be appreciated universally.

In this story, then, we see Jesus as a point of commonality and reconciliation of all peoples. We see the recognition of our universal human longings for the sacred, for abundant life, and compassionate community. We see recognition of generosity and justice as the path to the fulfillment of our common hopes and dreams. We see universalism in this story that transcends time, culture, geography, religion.

I think it is very important for us to hear the messages of the story of the Magi in our current context. Far from being a magical tale of far off exotic royalty, this story offers intense and significant insight for us today.

The autumn issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin is devoted to peace. In the introduction to the Journal, Professor Donald Swearer explains that there is a basic assumption about the exclusivity of Christianity. “Focus on peace building comes at a time when the world’s religions are castigated by vocal critics as instigators of divisive exclusivism, promoters of hatred, and perpetuators of violence. These critics site the examples of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, Buddhist-inspired nationalistic chauvinism in Sri Lanka, the legacy of the Roman Catholic-Protestant animosities in northern Ireland, Roman Catholic-Orthodox-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, and the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and globally” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Autumn 2007, pg.1.)

The perspective presumed that God is revealed in Jesus Christ and that Christianity is the only valid path of salvation. We live in a setting that assumes the superiority of Christianity. And we live in a time when the bond between Christianity and the agenda of American Empire have become inextricably linked. This context has dulled our vision and distorted our perception of God’s greater hope and dreams. Like the religious leaders in Matthew’s gospel, our political/cultural context is affecting our vision. The strange priests from the east perceived God’s presence and activity and were led by a star to Jesus. The chief priests and scribes, trained to look for their Messiah, couldn’t see it, because they were blinded by the power structure, the political context, and fear. We face the same challenge today.

Friends, if the people of Iraq were Christian you can bet the United States would be proceeding in a very different fashion. In my travels this fall, while waiting to board a plane, I got to talking with a group of women who had been to a Christian Women’s Conference in Jacksonville. When they heard I was a pastor they went on about the wonderful experience they had had. The powerful expression of faith. The incredible evidence of the Holy Spirit. They were pumped. Then one woman mentioned that at the same hotel at the same time there was a convention of Muslims gathered to celebrate one of their holy days. The women had on their scarves and long dresses. There were a lot of them all over the hotel. And this Christian woman went on about how strange it felt. How it felt uncomfortable. How odd it was to have those Muslim people there while we were there. In a discreet, diplomatic way, I asked why. And she replied, “To them, we’re the enemy.” Then I asked, “Were you treated in a hostile or disrespectful manner?” “Oh no,” she said. “They were very nice and friendly.”

How incredibly ironic that Jesus, who revealed our common longings; Jesus who showed a God larger than any one tradition; Jesus was sent to reconcile all humanity, has become a source of separation and division.

The story of the Magi invites us to see beyond the exclusivism of cultural Christianity which serves the agenda of Empire. God’s light is not limited to one religion or nation or time period. God is not confined by culture or class.

The story of the Magi shows us the fulfillment of God’s vision that all nations stream to the divine presence and the promise to Abraham that his lineage will bless all nations. Right from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew the writer refuses to let God’s revelation of presence in Christ Jesus to be confined to one culture, time, place, or religious tradition. In Christ Jesus, God shows God’s presence – with all of humanity for all time.

As this New Year begins, may we have the courage to search for the divine presence. To risk getting lost. To experience new places beyond the familiar and comfortable. To overcome our fears. To offer our best to the quest. To be surprised. To let Jesus really save us. Then, with the Magi, we too will be overwhelmed with joy. Amen


Date: Dec. 30, 2007
Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23
Sermon: Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Currently the United Nations Refugee Agency is serving 32.9 million refugees world-wide in more than 150 countries. Over 9 million refugees are children!

There are many reasons that people become refugees. One factor may be drought and lack of food. Another may be a result of natural disaster like the mudslides in Indonesia or flooding or hurricane. People may become refugees out of a desire for more opportunity and a better life. People may become refugees because of violence and war. It may be due to a political regime. There are many different reasons that people feel compelled to leave their homes and get re-established someplace new. While there are different situations that drive people to be refugees, for the most part, they are looking for the same thing: safety, security, and protection. A refuge. A haven.

In the story we heard from the gospel, Jesus is still a babe and his parents flee to save his life from an insecure ruler who is threatened by the birth of a new king. Herod was a brutal ruler known even for killing his family members. There is no evidence of the slaughter of innocents referred to in Matthew. But the story serves Matthew’s purposes of showing that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted. Mary, Joseph and Jesus are led to safety and security in Egypt. Their lives are spared. God’s purposes are protected. Even the most heinous death-dealing humanity can concoct cannot kill God’s plans to save us. Jesus is preserved for his future mission. God prevails. In this story we see God’s purposes protected and nurtured.

Relatively speaking, we live in circumstances of stability and security. We are not living under a direct death threat from an autocratic dictator. We have not lost our homes to natural disaster. We have not been driven out of our communities by war. We are not displaced refugees. And yet we experience a sense of dislocation and disorientation when we look at the world around us. What is happening? World leaders assassinated openly. Shootings in sleepy downtown St. Pete. A school board in favor of teaching creationism in the science curriculum. Prisons full. The death penalty reinstated. An 80% increase in child deaths due to neglect and abuse in Florida. (St. Pete Times 12/29)

Insecure rulers still misusing power and not just in marginal banana republics, but right here in our preeminent empire. You wonder what’s going on in the world. Where is the progress and maturation of the human species that we thought we would be witnessing?

While we may not feel directly, personally threatened, what about God’s purposes and intentions? Are they under threat? You bet! There are forces at work trying to thwart God’s intentions for peace and harmony in the world. There are selfish, greedy interests undermining God’s desire for justice. There are initiatives ignoring God’s commitment to anti-violence. There are threats to God’s sacred creation. While we may not feel personally under attack, the purposes of God revealed in Jesus are threatened. The heart of God exposed in the self-giving life of Jesus is under attack. The hopes and dreams of God, so openly shared by Jesus, are challenged,

In the story we heard from Matthew’s gospel, we are told of Jesus threatened. Powerful forces sought to extinguish the light of God’s hopes and dreams for creation. But there was a haven, a refuge of protection. God prevailed. The forces of this world could not overcome God’s intentions.

Friends, today, too, God provides a haven, a refuge. Today, too, God protects God’s hopes and dreams and visions. Today, too, God nurtures God’s mission. This is happening in the church and in the faith community. This is why the church exists. To be that haven, that refuge where god’s hopes and dreams are kept alive. The church exists to protect God’s intentions. The church was established to nurture God’s mission of loving the whole world. The church is the haven where the life-giving truth of service, of living for others, and of caring for the earth, is intended. The church is an asylum from the craziness of the world. It is the place we are cared for so that we grow in God’s image. It is not a club, not a business, not a social service, not a therapy group. It is the church. It is the safe harbor from which we venture out into the world spreading God’s love and then return to be tended and restored only to return to the world once more with God’s love. Here we steward and treasure the teachings and ministry of Jesus and here we tend the flame of the Christ light that we each carry into the darkness of the world. As a church we seek to protect and nurture God’s plan to save the world.

This week we have celebrated once more the revealing of God’s love and light in the birth of the baby Jesus. Friends we must nurture that life. We must provide protection for that love and light to shine. We must maintain this church as a refuge, a haven for God – with – us, Emmanuel. This is why we are here. This is why God has brought us together. To be that refuge. To provide that protection. To see that God prevails. No matter how intense the attacks from the world may be. No matter what the risk or sacrifice. The church must guard and nurture the Good News that God is with us. We are not alone. And God will prevail. That is our purpose. May the hopes and dreams of God that we see in Jesus, never be threatened or suffer neglect in our midst Amen