Sunday, October 18, 2020

“Teach Us How to Pray”


1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10

October 18, 2020

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood 

First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS


I had my prayer life broken at church camp. 


We were gathered in a basement, parlor-type room in a Methodist church in Baldwin City, Kansas. The camp I attended every summer divided us up into Care Groups - five or six youth along with a caring adult. I cannot remember the name of my Care Group leader that year, but I remember his face. He was affable, open. At the time he seemed oldish to me, but I bet he was under fifty. And he was caring. I remember learning a lot from him and enjoyed the time we all spent together. 


One day as we talked about prayer I shared how important my prayer life was to me. See, what you need to know is that I was also in a very close-knit high school Sunday School class back home. Every Sunday for four years we gathered in the basement of my own Methodist church with a different set of caring adults. We ate convenience store powdered donuts and drank Sunny Delight. And we prayed. Hard. 


We spent almost an hour every single week for four years sharing our joys and concerns with one another and then we closed our eyes, folded out hands, bowed our heads and prayed out loud for one another. It was a powerful experience. So powerful, in fact, that we did it during the week, too. Before school and during passing periods we would meet up in the hallways of our high school to quickly pray for a 3rd period math test, an unfinished English paper, a nerve-wracking audition. 


We prayed and we fully believed that God heard our prayers and could answer them. It felt good.  


And then, one summer, my Care Group leader ruined my prayer life with one question. As I told the group about how faithfully my friends and I prayed for and with one another he said, “I don’t actually think God works that way. I mean, what if there’s a tornado barreling down on your street and you are in your basement praying for it to miss your house and your neighbor is in the basement of their house praying for the same thing? Do you really believe God somehow decides to move the tornado and miss one of you and destroy the other person’s house? How would God decide who to choose?”


Okay, so it was more than one question he asked. But it broke my prayer life real good. And into the cracks of my broken prayer life rushed in a million other questions. Why would God choose to save this person from cancer but not that one? Why would God allow a war to happen in this country but not that one? Why didn’t God help some people who begged for better jobs, food on their tables, roofs over their heads, safety and health for their children?


I stopped praying for a long, long time. I’d say it took me over a decade to come back around to a place where I could pray differently. Where I wanted to pray again. Where I found a new way to understand the power of prayer. Where I got comfortable with having more questions than answers. 


And I never would have started praying again if not for companions on the journey. Companions like Hannah, who teaches us to pray in these ancient words from the book of First Samuel. 


Hannah, like many who pray, is a desperate woman. She longs for a child but no child comes. So many people have been in Hannah’s situation. To want something so desperately and to be disappointed again and again and again. It’s excruciating. 


And we know that Hannah, of course, struggled in a context different than ours. Because in the ancient world, Hannah’s worth as a woman was pretty much predicated on her ability to produce children - especially male children. Because women existed for the entirety of their lives under the cover of male possession and protection - first their fathers, then their husbands, and, finally, if they outlived their husbands, their sons. A woman without a male family member to care for her was incredibly vulnerable. 


I want you to pause for a moment and tap into Hannah’s desperation. Because her story is not just about wanting a child. It’s about wanting. And even if you’ve never wanted a baby like Hannah does, I’m almost certain you know what it feels like to want something desperately….and find yourself disappointed again and again. 


I invite you to complete this sentence: I felt desperate desire when _______________.  


You can comment on facebook or text me your answer at 785-380-7772 and we’ll share it without your name in the comments. 


(Pause)


Feel free to keep those stories coming. 


Hannah is desperate and she takes her desperation to the only place she knows of that’s big enough to handle it: God. 


God. That space vast enough to encompass all our concerns. 

God. That warm fire that sends tingles back into the frozen places of our lives. 

God. That sharp inhalation of surprise and awe. 

God. The one who has heard every cuss word humans have ever invented. 

Who isn’t afraid of our tears.

Who sits with us when we no longer have words. 

Who understands how prayer works even when we surely do not.


She leaves it all there in the temple. She prays so fervently that the priest thinks she’s drunk and admonishes her. Now that’s some serious praying, y’all, when the priest thinks you’re a bit extra. 


Kathryn Shifferdecker says that Hannah’s ‘bold prayer, like the psalms of lament, is based on the assumption that God hears, that God cares, and that God will respond.” [1]


God hears. God cares. God will respond. 


She leaves that day with a measure of healing. Nothing has really changed in her life. Not yet. She does not know if her prayers will be answered in the way she hopes. But she goes forth with the assurance that God has heard her prayer. And for Hannah, for now, that’s enough. 



I still don’t really understand how prayer works. If you’ve been praying in desperation for a long, long time and you’re not as fortunate as Hannah was, I want you to know that you are not alone. I don’t personally think God is a gumball machine God where we put a quarter in and get a toy. I’ve known too many people who did not have an outcome like Hannah’s. And I bet you do, too. 


But when people come to me and they feel desperate, I still encourage them to pray. And I still offer to pray with them. Because I still believe that prayer helps and heals. 



Earlier this week I gathered with one of you to pray. No longer huddled by the lockers between periods, my prayers for each of you usually happen when I’m walking my dog, or laying down to sleep, or firing off a text-message prayer in the kitchen while waiting for my tea to brew. The prayer I’m about to share with you was one of those prayers: a text-message prayer for one who was feeling exhausted after KSUnite was disrupted by hate speech this past week. 


And so I close this sermon on prayer with a prayer. Maybe it’s a prayer you need. If so, I hope you allow it to wash over you and sink into your weary places. And maybe it’s not where you are right now. If that’s the case, I hope you’ll fervently pray with me for those who DO need this prayer. 



God of justice, God of the long-game, God of comfort, God of strength:


We pray today for your beloved children who are working to end the sin of white supremacy and other injustices in your world. The work is so important, God, and we are so very tired. It’s scary to see the hate and fear out there. Sometimes we feel downright hopeless. Often we feel exhausted. It’s hard to know the path forward. What can we do to really make a difference? We feel like we are a drop in a vast ocean of hate and we wonder if this evil will ever end. 


And then we remember, O God, that we are not alone. We may only be a drop but when we join with others we become a vast sea of justice and peace and love. 


Help us to SEE all the other drops out there alongside us. Help us to rest when we need to (after all, you taught us that Sabbath is a command, not a suggestion…and even Jesus practiced Sabbath). Help us to conserve our energy and use it when it matters the most. Help us to curse and cuss with friends who really “get it” and never let us lose sight of joy. Keep our feet to the fire, God….both to keep us focused and warm. 


Most of all, God, give us hope. We confess that we have to have it to keep going. When we lose sight of it, please send helpers to remind us it’s still there. 


May your justice flow down like waters, O God. May the voices and actions of those who hate be drowned out by a mighty torrent of your truth and justice. May your righteousness wash over us all like an ever-flowing stream. 


Amen. 


NOTES: 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3857 


Sunday, October 4, 2020

"River of Hope"


Ezekiel 47: 1-12

October 4, 2020

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood 

First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS


If you drive up to Tuttle Creek and look at the area where water was released during the flood of 1993 you’ll see how the rushing water cut away the land beneath it, exposing rocks and fossils that hadn’t seen the light of day for, what? Millions of years? 


Water is an incredibly powerful force. A drop of water alone is small, insignificant. But a whole rushing river? Now that’s power. 


A few years ago now I read a book by John Barry called Rising Tide, all about the 1927 flooding along the Mississippi River. One of the things I learned from this book was how some of our methods of attempting to control powerful waterways can backfire. For example, when levee systems are built we inadvertently create a bigger and deeper river channel. When we increase the amount of water a river can hold it becomes more powerful and carves out an even deeper channel.


The bigger a body of water is, the harder it is to control. The deeper a river runs, the more powerful it becomes. 


This week marks the beginning of our annual stewardship campaign. A time when we are asked to prayerfully consider the ways we can each add our own drop or splash of water to the river of faith that is First Congregational UCC. In pre-pandemic times, when we would pass the offering plates during worship I would invite everyone to touch the plates as they go past as a physical act of remembering that we are all in this together. What we can do together is so much greater than what we can do alone. And whether it’s giving our time, energy, money, or skills….we are all like a river that runs deeper and stronger over time. When we commit ourselves to being a part of this community of faith we amplify our individual offerings, exponentially increasing our impact. [1]


I talked with the kids today about how we are like a mighty river because we are stronger together than we ever could be alone. And whether it’s giving our time, energy, money, or skills….we are all like a river that runs deeper and stronger over time. When we commit ourselves to being a part of this community of faith we amplify our individual offerings, exponentially increasing our impact. 


This past year, many of us have come to rely on our faith and this community of faith in new and profound ways. As we do our best to get out of bed each day in the midst of the pandemic, political unrest, systems of oppression and violence….it can be tempting to fall into a state of hopelessness and panic. Our faith in God can be a liferaft in the sea of despair. Desperately we cling to ancient words like the ones we heard from the Psalmist today: “Be still and know that I am God.” We pray with tears, with silence, with sighs too deep for words and, for a moment, we find peace and know that we are enveloped in God’s embrace. 


Or….we don’t find peace. And our faith can feel far away or small. We wonder, “Is God with us still? Where is God in this midst of all of this?” And we give thanks for a church  where it’s okay to ask those questions. We feel our hearts soothed when we connect with someone from church over the phone, or an outdoor visit, or in a Zoom small group. We share our fears, our doubts, our highs, our lows. Day by day we “bear each other’s burdens and share each other’s joys.” We continue to “pray for each other and serve in the name of Christ.” We continue to “give to this church and its mission and take our stand for justice and peace, confident God’s concern embraces the whole world.”

Thanks be to God for a community of faith that sustains us even when faith feels stagnant. Thanks be to God for rituals that steady us even when we’re full of questions. Thanks be to God for the living water that flows from this congregation. 


The prophet Ezekiel knew about the power of water. Now, I’m guessing most of us gathered here today don’t know a whole lot about Ezekiel. If you were to dig really deep into your Bible knowledge you might recall that he’s the guy who has the vision of the valley of dry bones. 

Ezekiel lived in the time of the Exile, the 6th century BCE. Israel was conquered in a series of battles and the people were taken away to Babylon. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Several generations of people lived through this terrible national trauma. Many of the Biblical prophets wrote during this time - Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Obadiah, parts of Isaiah. Most of them were left behind in Judah during the Exile, but Ezekiel was taken to Babylon. When he spoke about the pain and anxiety and grief of Exile, he spoke about it as a person with firsthand knowledge. 

After 25 long years in Exile….25 years away from his homeland….25 years of living in an in-between time...25 years of worrying and wondering if this would ever end...25 years of feeling unmoored, adrift at sea….after 25 years of this Ezekiel spoke the words Tanya shared today. 

Ezekiel shares a vision of hope for the future. He casts a vision of a river flowing from the mount of the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. He shares that after 25 years of exile, God spoke to him and lifted him up, carrying him to Jerusalem where he encountered a man whose appearance shone like bronze. This man of bronze showed him the new temple and, from it, a river that flowed for miles and miles. 

As Ezekiel and the man traveled down the river, Ezekiel noticed it was becoming deeper and deeper, more powerful with every twist and turn. The river flowed to and through the Arabah, a dry-river-valley that extends from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the South. It’s a arid region, not a place you’d expect to find a river overflowing with living water. 

Ezekiel’s mighty river flows directly into the Dead Sea, which he describes as having “stagnant waters.” The Dead Sea is an incredibly salty body of water. So salty, in fact that many plants and animals you would normally find in a large body of water can’t live there. But in Ezekiel’s vision, this changes. The massive quantity of fresh water cascading into it shifts the balance. A place that was once unable to sustain life is suddenly teeming with new life. The water becomes fresh, Ezekiel says. Fish are abundant and all kinds of trees grow on the banks and bear good fruit. People come from near and far to cast their nets and give thanks for the sustenance found in this place. “Where the river goes,” Ezekiel says, “everything will live.” 

This river that begins as a trickle at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem….this river that slowly builds in power and might as it flows into the Arabah….this river that brings freshness and living water to the dry and stagnant places....this river transforms the world in ways that seem impossible. This river, which flows from the throne of God, is a river that uses its power for good. It brings healing, hope, new life everywhere it flows. 

Ezekiel shared this powerful vision of hope with people who had been living in Exile for 25 years. 25 years. 

25 years was not long enough to cause Ezekiel to collapse into despair. 

And I have a suspicion that the reason he was still able to find hope is because he was not exiled alone. His community was with him. Writer Ashley Fairbanks recently shared on Facebook that hope and optimism often feel, to her, like carrying a bucket of water. [1] She wrote that water walkers often carry buckets of water for impossibly long distances - and they do this because they don’t work alone. They carry the bucket until it becomes too heavy and then they pass it to the next woman who does the same.Together, they are able accomplish what would be impossible alone. . 

Fairbanks says we all have to support and cheer for whoever is carrying the bucket today. When hope feels out of reach we need to look around us for the person who IS tapped into the wellspring of hope that’s always running just beneath us. We can thank them for carrying the bucket of hope today and promise them that we will take our turn once we’re able. 

Ezekiel made it through 25 years in exile because he didn’t carry the bucket of hope alone. 

And, my friends, we don’t carry our buckets alone either. God is with us and we are in it together. 

Thank you, Ezekiel, for carrying the bucket of God’s hope to us here and now in 2020. Thank you for this vision of living water which still brings new life today. 

Amen. 

NOTES: 

[1] The first part of this sermon was shared as a children's sermon and the rest as the sermon.

[2] https://www.facebook.com/ziibiing/posts/10103756381684782 




Sunday, September 27, 2020

“Promise and Purpose: Joseph”

Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15- 21
September 27, 2020
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood 
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

Everyone I talk to lately seems to be struggling a bit to find balance. Living through a pandemic is no joke. Doing it in a major election year is no joke. I know so many of you are people with compassionate hearts and a deep thirst for justice and peace. And so you do your best to stay informed, stay engaged with the world around you. You get up each day and try to figure out how you can make a difference in your corner of the world. Thank you. 


Often, the relentless news cycle makes it hard to find balance, though, doesn’t it? How much information is the right amount of information to make us useful? When does it tip over into overwhelm and cause us to shut down? How can we sit with the heaviness we feel when we contemplate the immensity of over 200,000 lives lost in the United States alone in just the past six months? 


It’s a catastrophe that’s hard to fathom. 


Our hearts break and we cry out, “God, have mercy. God, be with us. God, help us.”




One of the things I find helpful is to balance my consumption of current events with older stories. Poetry, art, music, ancient stories that have been passed down from generation to generation ground me. They feel as though they are somehow etched into our DNA. These older stories can sometimes provide the anchoring we need in the midst of a non-stop news cycle. These old, old stories remind us that now is not forever and that we are not the first ones to deal with many of the issues plaguing us today. Within their lines and songs are deep truths about what it means to be human - the unending cycle of tragedy and triumph, sin and repentance, division and reconciliation, slavery and freedom. 


Can I tell you an old story this morning? Can we let the urgency of today slip away for just a few brief moments? Not that today’s stories don’t matter - they do, of course. But it is good to remember the old stories, too. To be anchored in deep truths so that we can have the stamina and courage we need to meet the stories of today. 


Today I’d like to tell you the story of a man named Joseph. 


Joseph has 11 brothers and one sister. And It turns out that Joseph and his brothers don’t get along because Joseph is their father, Jacob’s, favorite son and gets special treatment. Like, you know, that awesome coat there’s a whole musical about. 


Joseph also has dreams and he’s kind of an oversharer. Perhaps the right word is “precocious.” In his dreams he is always the special one and he tells his brothers about these dreams. They get pretty tired of it and eventually they plot to kill Joseph. But Reuben, the eldest brother, intervenes and decides it would be better to just steal his special coat and throw him into a pit. 


While he’s in the pit, the brothers sit down to have their lunch and they hatch a new plan. They can sell Joseph into slavery and make a little money. Plus, they’ll be rid of him for good. Joseph is taken to Egypt, enslaved, and the brothers tell their father Joseph has mysteriously died. 


Years pass and Joseph rises to prominence in Egypt. He is still a dreamer and he has found favor with the elites by interpreting their dreams. He helps the Pharaoh plan for an upcoming famine because he sees it coming in the dreams. When the famine arrives, the Egyptians - thanks to Joseph - have rationed food so that they will have enough in the lean years. 


People in surrounding areas who have not planned ahead flock to Egypt for help. And that is how Joseph, having last seen the faces of his brothers jeering at him as he stumbled away with his captors, comes face-to-face with ten of his brothers once again. Only this time the roles are reversed. 


Just as he had dreamed as a child, Joseph is finally lording over his brothers, quite literally. As the second-most-powerful man in all of Egypt, his brothers do not recognize their baby brother. My guess is he was long-thought to be dead and mostly forgotten. 


But not forgotten by his father, Jacob, who still lives in the land of Canaan and still hopes against hope that his favorite son might still be alive. And not forgotten by God, who was quietly working in and through Joseph’s life in ways that even Joseph doesn’t quite understand. 


Joseph recognizes his brothers immediately and decides to have some fun at their expense. If you’ve ever had a hard time forgiving someone for the pain they’ve inflicted upon you….if you’ve ever dreamed of revenge, well, know you’re not alone. Just look at what Joseph does. 


He accuses them of being spies. And when he learns that his father is still living and his younger brother Benjamin, his only connection to his deceased mother, is still alive, he concocts a plan that will both punish his other brothers and reunite him with his father and Benjamin. He throws the whole lot of brothers, all ten of them, in jail for three days. And then he releases 9 of them - all but Simeon, who he keeps as collateral. “Bring me your little brother Benjamin,” he says, “And I’ll return Simeon to you.” 


The brothers weep and moan. Surely they are being punished for their ancient sin of selling the long-lost Joseph into slavery. Joseph, overhearing their struggle, turns his face and weeps - ancient wounds reopened, fantasies of what his life might have been if that one moment had just got differently. 


Before they return to Canaan, Joseph has their bags filled with grain. And then, just to mess with their heads and make sure they’re good and scared, he has the money they brought with them to buy the grain placed on top. When they return home they discover it and are terrified. Now they’re really going to be in trouble when they return.


The brothers try to explain the situation to their dad, who - having lost one son already, is not too pleased that Simeon is missing. The brothers say that they have to return with Benjamin but Jacob is not having it. Finally, they convince him to let Benjamin go...but only because the grain has run out, everyone is starving, and Judah pledges his own life as surety for Benjamin’s. He promises Benjamin will return. 


Back to Egypt they go. Again, they encounter the mighty Joseph-that-they-don’t-know-is-Joseph. Joseph is thrilled to see Benjamin but does his best to conceal it. A big party is thrown and everyone feasts together. Joseph orders their sacks to be filled with grain once again and that they should not only be given their money back but extra. 


Overcome with a desperate need to keep Benjamin close, he does the only thing he can think of. Joseph frames his little brother - placing a silver cup inside his bag - and then sends his stewards to go and confront him, telling the men that Benjamin will have to be returned to Egypt - permanently. 


Well, this will not do. Judah, after all, made a promise to his father that Benjamin would return. He explains as much to Joseph. Judah pleads to give himself in exchange for Benjamin. “If Benjamin does not return to our father,” he explains, “It will kill him.” 


Joseph, perhaps hearing the desperation in Judah’s voice, cannot keep up the ruse any longer. He sends everyone except his brothers away and reveals his true identity. The years of pain and grief and anger and anguish have caught up with him and he says, quite simply, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”


So many things that could be said. But he says the two things that really matter to him. First, that he is still Joseph. That has not changed despite years of distance, years of estrangement in another land. And secondly, “Is my father still alive?” No longer a child, but a grown man, he still yearns with hope for that one thing: his father’s arms. 


Once Joseph finally calms down enough to begin to explain all that has transpired he does something that I’ve always found fascinating. He tells the deepest truth of his soul - the thing that has allowed him to keep going all these years in the face of great adversity. Joseph says that it is his belief that it wasn’t really his brothers who were responsible for his life, but God. That in the midst of all this pain and agony, God has been working to guide Joseph and use even the painful parts of his life for good. 


Now that all the secrets have come out, and meaning has been made, there’s just one thing that remains: Joseph must be reunited with his father. When Joseph and Jacob are reunited - well, you already know what it looks like, right? Two big guys falling on each other’s necks and weeping. Finally, Jacob lets go and looks full into his beloved son’s face, saying, “I can die now, having seen for myself that you are still alive.”


And that seems like a good place to stop, but, honestly? It’s hard to know exactly where the story ends. Because there’s more. More tragedy and more triumph, more pain and more reconciliation. That’s what it means to be human and living in the ever-encircling embrace of God, right? That there’s always more. Our stories intertwine and echo down through the generations, going on and on.


I love how Joseph’s story points to The More in several spots:

When Jacob is on his deathbed he calls Joseph to his side and demands that he bring along his two sons. His vision dimmed by his old age, Jacob kisses and embraces his two grandsons. And Jacob says to Joseph, “I did not expect I’d ever see YOU again….and, look here, God has also let me see the faces of your children as well.” 


Amen. 


And then, at the very end of the book of Genesis, we are told that Joseph lives to the ripe age of 110 and lives to see several generations come after him. On his deathbed, he said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God is not done with us yet. I believe - I know, in my heart of hearts - that one day our people will leave Egypt again. We will be brought out of this place and brought up into the land that the God of our ancestors promised to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah, and to our own parents. Our people will be brought into that land flowing with milk and honey. God will not forget his promises to us. And when that day comes, you will carry up my bones from here. My bones will also travel that freedom road.” 


Which leaves me, of course, thumbing ahead in my Bible to the book of Exodus to see what’s next. Is Joseph right? Do his bones really travel with the Israelites when they leave Egypt? What’s the next part of the story? Is there More? 


And so the cycle continues….on and on….tragedy and triumph, sin and repentance, division and reconciliation, slavery and freedom. It’s a story of more...and more...and more. And God is with us through it all, weaving our stories together in love, traveling with us through the past, the present, the future. 


Love without end. 


Amen. 





Sunday, September 13, 2020

“Genesis: In All Things”

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8

September 13, 2020

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood 

First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS




In All Things

by St. Francis of Assisi


It was easy to love God in all that 

was beautiful. 


The lessons of deeper knowledge, though, instructed me 

to embrace God in all 

things. [1]




I’ve been chewing on this poem all week. So short, but so much there to savor. 


St. Francis of Assisi knew quite a lot about finding God in the easy and beautiful parts of life. He was born to a wealthy merchant family and lived the first part of his life privileged and with ease. But even as a child, there were signs that he was also intimately aware of human struggles. 


There’s a story about how, as a boy, Francis was selling cloth at the market with his father and, after a day’s work, ran to find a man who had been begging for money earlier in the day. The young Francis emptied his pockets, giving away all the money he had taken in that day. He was mocked by his friends and punished by his father who didn’t understand why he would do such a thing. 


Francis eventually chose to live in poverty and was cut off from his family and friends. He intentionally walked into the pain of the human experience because he believed he might more fully experience the presence of God in ALL things...not just in the beautiful and easy parts of life. 



I appreciate so much how St. Francis devoted his life to nurturing a relationship with God. Though his own life changed so dramatically over the years, God was a constant force of love throughout it all. It seems that it didn’t matter to Francis if things were going splendidly or his life was on the rocks….God was there through it all, reaching out to Francis in love, and Francis was humbly aware of God’s love and willing to receive it. 


This Sunday we are beginning our journey through a new year in the Narrative Lectionary cycle. We will be traveling through vast portions of the First Testament this fall, exploring God’s promises to humanity...and our purpose and calling as we respond to God’s grace in our lives. 


We begin, of course, at the very beginning. Genesis. Not just an awesome band from the 80s, you know. Genesis as in generations, generativity. Our ancestors - created by God and creating with God. Our origins. Our beginning as humanity. 


A deep dive into Genesis always requires a lot of unpacking because there’s so very much baggage that we’ve picked up along the way with these texts. And so, as we begin with one of the creation stories, a briefr word about what I believe this story is and is not. 


Is this story a scientific account of how humans came to be on this planet? No, it is not. Just as we wouldn’t pick up a book of poetry to find a recipe for dinner tonight, we shouldn’t come to this book when we need facts about biology.


Instead, the creation stories in Genesis were written by our human ancestors as they tried to understand big questions like why are we here? Where did we come from? What’s our place in this world? Big questions. Important questions. And so, though this isn’t a science textbook, it DOES contain vitally important truths about things that really matter. And so we give thanks for the wisdom in these pages AND the continued generativity of truth that we experience when we dive into these sacred texts together. 


Reading these texts in community is important because most of us, if left to our own devices, will continue to simply read them as they were originally taught to us. And most of us learned things about Adam and Eve that simply aren’t in the text at all. For example, people often call this story “the Fall” and say it’s about “Original Sin.” But Biblical scholar Frank M. Yamada points out that the language of sin doesn’t appear in the text. [2] And the concept of original sin wasn’t invented until centuries later!


Also absent in the text: the Devil. Not there. You can go back and check. There’s a snake and the Hebrew word to describe the snake is cunning, which might have had a very positive connotation. Wise and knowing. Fun fact, courtesy of Biblical scholar Beth L. Tanner: the same Hebrew word is used in the Book of Proverbs and translated as”sensible” or “prudent.” [3]


It turns out the snake is pretty smart, after all. The snake tells the humans, “Go ahead and eat this fruit. You won’t die. You’ll grow in knowledge.” 


And it turns out, the snake is right. After the eat the fruit, they don’t actually die like God said they would. They simply have their eyes opened and learn more. This story reminds us that although we often think of learning as a positive thing, it can also carry with it lots of pain. Many lessons are hard-won. Many of us have been talking a lot lately about all the things we are learning in 2020. Most of us have had to learn how to do lots of new things and live in entirely new ways. And this has not always been fun or easy. At times we want to say, “Okay! Enough learning. We’re good. Just let us stop learning for a bit!” Perhaps there are things you’ve even learned in 2020 that you rather wish you hadn’t. Ignorance can be bliss, and all that. 


Frank Yamada reminds us, though, that this story helps us to remember something important. He says, “Genesis 2--3 suggests that knowledge, a necessity for human life, is something that is acquired painfully. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is certainly not the mark of human maturity. When humans understand what it means to be fully human--that is, when they have complete knowledge--the realities of life come into full relief in all of their complexity and difficulty. Knowledge is both enlightening and painful.” [2]


It’s puzzling that God tells the humans they will die if they eat the fruit...God seems to be wrong, lying, or unreliable. How do we explain that? Was God just trying really hard to get them to avoid the pain they were about to experience? What’s going on there? 


We don’t typically think about God being wrong, lying, or unreliable. 


Except….you know, sometimes maybe we do feel like God is like that. Surely you’ve been mad at God before, right? When things fall apart? When you don’t understand what’s happening or why? When you desperately wish everything could be different? When you’re DONE LEARNING and ready to just STOP GROWING for a while?


I think it’s only natural - only human - to squint our eyes and wonder about God’s reliability from time to time. Perhaps our faith ancestors wanted to get the story straight by naming right here in the beginning of the Bible how utterly normal it is to look at God sideways from time to time. 


That most foundational of all relationships - the relationship between God and us - isn’t always smooth-sailing, you know. God may have created humans and called us all “good” but there are plenty of stories in the Bible where God gets frustrated with us, disappointed in us, sighs and shakes her head at our actions. We may call God our source and ground of being, but our sacred texts are full to the brim of humans questioning God, yelling at God, even cursing God. Even here in the very beginning of our Bible, we can see the relationship between the Creator and the Created is going to be bumpy. It’s not all roses. 


Bumpy….but not fragile. 


Because the thing that comes shining through in this story is that we - that is God and humans - are in it together for the long haul. We may not always understand each other. We may cause deep signs of dissatisfaction from time to time. But we are a we. Together. Us. Creator and created. Family. We can never be torn apart. 


Even in this story, when the humans disappoint God, when it doesn't go the way God had planned. Does God throw up his hands and say, “That’s it. You were a terrible mistake. I’m done with you.”? No, God does not say that. God does get pretty mad at the snake and does some cursing there. 


But, like a loving parent, God gives the humans a lecture and then packs them up and lovingly weaves new clothes for them to wear. The humans have outgrown the garden and are onto the next phase in their journey. And God goes with them, perhaps pacing the floor at night and wondering what kind of mischief they’ll get into next. 


I don’t mean to make light of this argument between the humans and God. God is clearly displeased that the humans chose to do exactly what they were told not to do. And we can hear our faith ancestors grappling with all those big “why” questions when they put words into God’s mouth. “Why is it so hard to be human? Why do we have to work so hard? Why are so many parts of being human, like giving birth, difficult and dangerous? Why does it sometimes seem like even the earth is against us, when crops are hard to grow?”


The people who shared this story centuries ago seemed to believe the answers to these questions lie in the basic truths of what it means to be a human. To be human is to struggle sometimes. To be human is to mess up sometimes (okay, often, if we’re being honest). To be human is to have lots of questions about why it all has to be this way. To be human is to have companions for the journey - other humans plus animals and the natural world. To be human is to be curious. To be human is to have the desire to explore. To be human is to always be growing and maturing and developing. To be human is to know - really KNOW - that sometimes growing and maturing and developing is INCREDIBLY hard work. 


To be human is to always, always, always be accompanied by God. The One who loves us fully even when we’re at our most people-y. When we whine and complain. When we cry and yell. When we do exactly what we were told not to do. When we stamp our feet and refuse to make things easy on ourselves. 


I can imagine a version of St. Francis’s poem written from God’s perspective instead of ours:


It was easy to love humans in all that 

was beautiful. 


The lessons of deeper knowledge, though, instructed me 

to embrace humans in all 

things. 



I believe that God continues to embrace us in all things. In the beauty and the frustration. 


This story of our genesis reminds us that we humans are not alone. We live in God’s world. Who has created and is creating. Who loves us fully. Who journeys with us through every single season of life. Who watches us grow and change and mature. Who cheers us on when the work of being human is so very hard. Who wants the best for us, always. Who accompanies us always and everywhere. 


As it was in the beginning. Is now and ever shall be. Love - complicated, wondrous, overflowing love without end. Amen and amen. 




NOTES:

[1] found in Love Poems from God by Daniel Ladinsky

[2]  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=35 

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1462 






Sunday, August 23, 2020

"Stories of Unraveling: Terror and Possibility"

Exodus 1:22, 2:1-20

August 23, 2020

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood 

First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS


My husband has sometimes joked that I became a pastor so I could have a good excuse to visit newborn babies and their families. Ahhhh...the feeling of holding a newborn child. They are often wrapped up tight like little gifts and when you have the honor of having a tiny baby placed in your arms….well….it’s a profoundly spiritual experience. 


Newborns somehow feel connected to ancient rhythms and truths even though they’re so new….like they’ve just arrived here on earth and aren’t bogged down yet with distractions and mistakes and history. Instead, their lives just stretch out before them. 


Okay, okay, I don’t want to totally romanticize this too much...especially for those of you who are currently caring for a baby around-the-clock. I know they also cry and eat constantly and need their diapers changed at all hours….and I know that even the most dedicated and head-over-heels-in-love caregiver will eventually get tired of holding a baby...because, you know, you also have to shower and eat and sleep and things like that. 


But even with the exhaustion that comes from caregiving….a newborn baby is a gift from God. If you imagine God carefully wrapping a beautiful package for us…beautiful ribbons, shiny paper...and then handing it to us….I can hardly think of a better gift than a fresh, new human. 


They are possibility and hope incarnate. Feeling the quiet, warm weight of a newborn in my arms has a way of grounding me, bringing me back to the essence of life, connecting me deeply to the Spirit of Life being born anew each day. 


And babies have the ability to awaken fierce urges in us bigger humans. We know, instinctively, that our job is to protect and care. We find reserves of strength we never knew we had as we rise to the task of nurturing, feeding, teaching, protecting the new lives that are entrusted to us. We lay awake at night worrying that we don’t have what it takes to care for these little ones….and we sometimes find ourselves filled with terror at the immensity of shepherding these gifts through a dangerous world. 


Possibility. Hope. Terror. 


These themes are what we hear from the pages of the Book of Exodus today.  Just like we feel them rush through us when we hold a newborn...they are all jumbled next to one another in this ancient story, too. An ancient story that is filled with gifts for us because it contains timeless truths that still feel so relevant for our lives. 



The story begins with terror. “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” We have to back up a few verses to figure out why this is happening. We are told, “Now a new kind arose over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.’”


The new king - the Pharaoh - “does not know Joseph” which means he has forgotten that his kingdom and his people were, once-upon-a-time, saved from a terrible famine by an Hebrew man named Joseph. He has forgotten that these two groups of people are intimately connected. He has forgotten that they need each other to survive. And so he goes the way of every paranoid, fearful leader before and after him….dehumanizing, othering, drumming up fear and telling everyone they need to be worried that the Hebrews are going to take over.


Fear leads to othering leads to dehumanizing leads to...eventually….genocide. The whole process can take a long time, but we know that once you start down the pathway of othering...dehumanizing...there is a very real risk it may end in violence. This is why it’s so terribly important that we take care to recognize and speak up against dehumanizing language in our own time. This is an ancient story, but the truths in it still feel all-too-relevant, don’t they?


And so, if you’ll imagine with me God carefully wrapping a beautiful package for us… beautiful ribbons, shiny paper….and then handing it to us. The gift is this story and there are at least three timeless truths in it. 


And here we are at truth #1: tyrants will always cause terror. 


Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you” and it seems to me he could have also said, “tyrants you will always have with you.” In every time...in every culture...there are always going to be cruel, oppressive leaders who inflict violence and harm. They will try to divide and conquer those they rule over...making groups suspicious of one another. They will do anything, and you know I mean ANYTHING, to consolidate their power. They make their decisions out of fear, they cheat and lie and steal, they are not to be trusted. And all too often they shamelessly use violence to ensure their own survival. 


Some of them are even cruel enough to kill babies. 


It’s enough to make you weep, just thinking about it. 




Let’s reach back in the box though. The beautiful gift wrapped by God….because there’s a second truth in this story, too. Tyrants will always be there with their terror...but resisters are always a part of the story, too. 


This story is chock-full of some of my favorite resisters in all of the Bible. Three of them we already heard about when Cassidy read the scripture - Moses’s mother, sister, and Pharoah’s daughter who found him in the river and brought him to safety. The courage and strength of these three! As a parent myself, I can scarcely imagine how terrified and out-of-options you would need to be to do what Moses’s mother found the strength to do. She hid her newborn son from the authorities for as long as she could - several months - and then she let him go, trusting he would find other arms to protect him from violence.


Imagine her, carefully wrapping him like the precious gift that he was, and placing him into the basket to float down the river. The Hebrew word there is actually “ark,” just like Noah’s ark. Ancient ears would have heard the connection between these two stories - both of them stories of radical trust as desperate humans put their most precious cargo into an ark and hoped and prayed God would make a way out of no way. 


The baby’s sister, Miriam, also played her part in the resistance. She followed her brother as he floated down the river, working to protect him in her own way. A child protecting another child. She resisted the evil around her by staying with her brother and carefully guarding her own life as she hid among the reeds and watched from afar. 


And then there’s Pharoah’s nameless daughter. What compelled her to draw a Hebrew baby from the water and take him in as her own? We aren’t told of her motivations. But perhaps she saw her father’s evil cunning and perhaps she wanted to push back against his reign of terror. Or perhaps she was simply filled with compassion for this helpless baby. Either way, her actions marked her, too, as one who resisted terror and turned toward possibility. 


There are two more resisters who play a major role in this story...we didn’t hear about them in today’s reading but you’ll find them in the first chapter of Exodus. Shiphrah and Puah. The two midwives who resisted. When Pharaoh tells them to kill all the male babies of the Hebrews, they refuse to do so. And when the king calls them in to inquire why the Hebrew baby boys are still living, they say, “Gosh, you wouldn’t believe it! The Hebrew women have babies so quickly that we can’t even get there before they give birth! So we aren’t able to help you, sorry!”


Resistance takes many forms, then as now. Sometimes it looks like doing the impossible….sending your baby into the world trusting someone else will care for and protect them. Resistance is seeing a child in need and reaching out in compassion to care for them, even when it’s not “your responsibility.” And this story helps us remember that children can resist, too! Without Moses’s sister, Miriam, Moses would not have been reunited with his mother to be nursed and cared for. What an incredible, miraculous twist in this story! And Shiphrah and Puah help us remember that sometimes resistance is a simple but bold lie. An absolute refusal to cooperate with tyranny, violence, and terror. 


All of these acts of resistance work together for the greater good. Even though the people resisting had no way of knowing what other resisters were doing, their individual acts of faith were woven together by God to form a tapestry of hope. A tapestry of possibility spread over the infant Moses like a protective tent...shielding him from the terror of tyrants, keeping him safe and secure as he grew in wisdom and maturity….and eventually became the leader who would come to free the people of Israel from tyranny's grip.


But no one could have known that when he was just a baby. 


Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’s mother, Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter….none of them could have known what their individual acts of resistance would lead to. And that brings us to the third timeless truth that is a gift for us in today’s passage: We never know how one small act of resistance can change the world. 


This story reminds us that we all have a role to play in resisting evil. And no matter how small our contribution, we can act with the faith that we do not act alone. When we resist violence, evil, tyranny we join in an unending line of those who have been pushing back in big and small ways since the beginning of time. 


And all of our acts of resistance are woven together by God into a tapestry of hope. A tapestry of possibility that spreads over all vulnerable people like a protective tent….protecting the world from terror...allowing the prophets and leaders of tomorrow to grow and flourish.


Terror we will always have with us, it seems. Thank God for these ancient stories of our faith….that remember us that possibility is always, always with us, too. Thank God for stories of hope.