Sunday, March 24, 2019

“Letting Go of Expectations. Cultivating Space.”

Luke 1: 26-38
March 24, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

You may be scratching your head wondering, “Did the preacher get confused? Why are we hearing a Christmas text in the middle of March?” Tomorrow is the Christian holiday of the Annunciation. As in, the visit that the angel Gabriel made to Mary to announce to her that God had a plan to bring Jesus into the world through her. Now, we don’t really know when Jesus was born, but since the ancient Church selected December 25th...if you back up nine months from that you arrive at March 25th. In this way, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere also end up with the lovely symbolism of Jesus’s conception at the Sprint Equinox and his birth at the Winter Solstice. Neat, right?

The Annunciation doesn’t always fall during Lent, but this year it does. And although it may seem strange to think about Jesus’s birth just as we are preparing to remember the end of of his life, it seems to me that the image of Mary, surrendering fully to the Spirit to live is a perfect story for Lent.

Becoming a parent, no matter how you do it, is all about letting go of expectations. When I was pregnant with my first child, I tried desperately to wrap my head around all the changes we were about to experience...but I could hardly even imagine what it would be like to add a tiny human to our family.

When I read today’s text from Luke, I am struck by the way Mary so simply and elegantly lets go of expectations and creates space for the Holy to move. I don’t know about you, but if an angel showed up and gave me the same message Mary received, I would have a lot more questions. Mary is slightly incredulous in the beginning, “But how can this be?” But when the angel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God…” Mary says, quite simply, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

No more questions. Just acceptance. It’s astounding, isn’t it?

No wonder Mary has been venerated by the Church for millennia. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the role she plays in bearing Christ to the world. In the Eastern Church, she is called Theotokos - God-bearer. How’s that for a big title?

But rather than putting Mary on a pedestal as someone who lived long ago and far away...rather than seeing her as some kind of superhero...I’d like us to consider the ways we might also be called to be God-bearers, too.

In traditional Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a specific artistic portrayal of Mary that is prominent in many churches. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, describes this in his book, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today. The Archbishop explains that traditional Orthodox churches have a dome as their most prominent feature. This is where we find the image of Christ - Pantokrator, “the one who contains and holds all” - representing our connection with the heavenly realm. Then there is the nave, which is rectangular in shape and represents the earth with its boundaries and structures. This is where the people are located during worship, accompanied by images of saints who seem to blend in with the gathered crowd. [1]

Finally, there is the apse, which is located above the altar. This is where you will typically find an image of Mary with her hands extended in prayer. Drawn onto her torso is an image of the Christ, contained within her very body. Bartholomew says that this specific kind of image is called the Platytera (“the one more spacious than all.”) In Orthodox understanding, Mary is holding within her body God and the entirety of creation. Spacious indeed. [2]

Bartholomew says that “the apse in the middle serves to hold together the upper and lower zones, belonging to both and yet pertaining to neither, uniting both the heavenly and the earthly realms, while at the same time inviting people to reconcile Creator and creation in their own bodies as well as in their surrounding world. The icon of the Mother of God, who is normally depicted in the apse, assumes both spherical and rectangular shape. She is the personification of this vocation and reconciliation.” [3]

Mary personifies for us the call to reconcile all of creation. She is a model for us, inviting us into the work of reconciliation...bringing all things together as one.

Lent can be a time when many of us get a little more goal-oriented about our faith. We might try a new spiritual discipline...and then beat ourselves up a bit if it doesn't stick. Or we might really stay with it, hoping that some kind of transformation will occur. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. The image of Mary towering high over those ancient churches, silently holding the entirety of creation within her body, making space for all things to be made new through the power of God’s reconciling love….well, it’s quite an image for Lent, isn’t it?

“Let it be with me according to your word,” she said to the angel. And with that simple acceptance...that opening of space, the world was transformed.

We are invited to join Mary in this work of creating space. Attuning ourselves to the Holy, trusting that God is still working through creation to make all things new. We are invited to spaciousness...trusting that God still lives in us and through us. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

(Piano begins. Invite people to join us in singing Let it Be by the Beatles)

[1] Bartholomew, 32.
[2] Ibid., 33.
[3] Ibid.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

“Cultivating Courage. Letting Go of Fear.”

Luke 13: 31-35
March 17, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

A boy who appears to be about 12 stands up on a high dive. He’s never jumped off of one before and it didn’t look that tall before he climbed the ladder. But now that he’s up there looking down, down, down at the deep blue below him, things look different.

He knew, as soon as he climbed up, that he had made a mistake. Bravery isn’t his strong suit. In fact, those closest to him know that he’s a chronically anxious child. When he was three or four, his parents found him down in the basement one day with all of his stuffed animals hunkered down in the laundry room with his bike helmet on. When they asked him what he was doing down there he said he had seen some gray clouds outside and wanted to be ready if a tornado came.

No one would describe him as brave. Not in the least. In fact, you might describe him as cranky, exhausted, sad and angry. But when you’re a child that can effortlessly run 14 different kinds of worst-case-scenarios simultaneously, it turns out you have to be brave just to get through each day. So he is brave….just not in ways most of us would notice.

...back to the diving board. Because right now the boy is about to learn something new about bravery. His usual method of dealing with anxiety is to avoid all danger at all costs. But now, standing high on this board, avoidance isn’t really an option. There is no “chicken exit”.....there’s just of two ways. Leaping off the board into the water. Or slowly backing back down the ladder, which is already full of other kids waiting for him to jump.

He quickly runs through all the worst-case-scenarios he can think of. Realizing there are no perfect options available, he jumps off of the board, feet first into the deep blue below.

When he lands in the water, his first thought isn’t “I did it!” Or “Wow! I am SO BRAVE! I can’t wait to do that again!” Nope. His first thought is, “Okay. That’s over. And I’m never doing that again!”

But somewhere in the back of his mind is a dawning awareness of something he wouldn’t hear put to words until a therapist says it to him several decades later: “Having courage isn’t about being fearless. It’s about doing the brave thing even when you’re scared.”

Courage isn’t bearing fearless. It’s about doing something brave….even if we’re terrified the whole time.

I think most people would look at the life of Jesus and say he lived a courageous life, don’t you? And although there aren’t a lot of places in the Gospels that tell us about the inner-workings of his mind, there are some hints that he may have struggled a bit with the work that was his to do. Jesus often seemed to be utterly exhausted and frustrated and sad and angry. Of course he was. He was pushing so hard against established norms. He had people criticizing him every step of the way. And he was constantly on the move from place to place.

Biblical scholars tell us that a key turning point in the Gospel of Luke comes in chapter 9, verse 51 as Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That is to say, as Jesus turned toward the violence that awaited him there. Luke’s Jesus knows that his ministry will eventually end on the cross. He knows that he will be killed by the Romans.

And yet he is able to find the courage to set his face to go to Jerusalem, steadily walking towards violence and agony and pain.

What I want to know, when I’m studying Jesus’s life, is this: HOW did he do that?

Today’s brief passage from Luke is a bit of a puzzle. Scholars believe there may be two fragments smushed together here, making for an odd text. But there are two parts of this text that I want to pull out and turn over a bit this morning, because I think they help answer the question of just how Jesus was able to cultivate courage and let go of fear.

First, when the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him, Jesus retorts, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish my work.’” In other words, Jesus knew was his work was….and he knew it was about something bigger than him. In the face of threats, he was clear that he was called to keep doing the word of healing….and his allusion to “the third day” seems to hint at an understanding that Herod couldn’t really touch his essence. Herod might kill the person of Jesus, but Jesus understood on a deep, cellular level that through the power of Resurrection-Love his Spirit was unbreakable, untouchable.

He took strength in those two things. First, a sense of clarity about his work. And second, the deep knowledge that his existence could not be muted...even by Herod. Even by death.

The other image that stands out to me is the mother hen. Jesus, mourning the mess of Jerusalem (“the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are send to it!”). Jesus says he wishes he could offer it some protection. He wishes he could gather the children of that city under his wings as a mother hen would do, keeping them safe and secure.

Preaching professor David Schnasa Jacobsen says that image that Jesus invokes, the image of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings, is both fierce and vulnerable. [1] If you’ve ever reached under a broody hen as she protects eggs, trying to take one from her, you know the ferocity of a mother hen. She will throw her whole body at you, pecking your arm fiercely as she defends those eggs.

But a mother hen is also incredibly vulnerable. That beak can peck hard, but it’s little match for a fox or a hawk. If a predator comes near, the only real defense a mother hen can offer her chicks is her own fragile body. And so she courageously places herself between danger and her babies, putting her own body on the line to protect them. Puffed up and alert, she is the very image of fierce vulnerability.

Fierce vulnerability.

“Having courage isn’t about being fearless. It’s about doing the brave thing even when you’re scared.”

If we wish to cultivate courage and let go of fear, we need role models who can show us what it looks like to live the courageous life. People who exemplify Christ’s fierce vulnerability.

Our friend Stephanie Mott was one of those people. Each time Stephanie came to preach here she would lean over to me near the beginning of worship and whisper, “You know, every time I come here, I feel the Spirit moving. This place feels like home.”

When Stephanie passed away unexpectedly on March 4th we lost a strong and gentle warrior-leader. A woman who exemplified Christ’s fierce vulnerability.

A few years ago, Stephanie was the subject of a mini-documentary called “Authentic Woman.” [2] In fewer than ten minutes, she drops so much wisdom about life and love and what it looks like to courageously live as our authentic selves.

Stephanie talks about the first 42 years of her life, when the world only knew her as a man who was an alcoholic and a college drop out and homeless. Eventually, she ended up at the Topeka Rescue Mission and discovered a faith community that welcomed her and created space for the Spirit to help her imagine a new life.

In the documentary, she sits right about there in that pew, wearing a butterfly lapel pin. She speaks of going to church and meeting another transgender woman there. Stephanie said that through being in this other woman’s presence...seeing her, reaching out and feeling her presence...she began to understand there was a different future available to her.

When Stephanie first visiting that church in Topeka, the preacher preached on a text from 2 Corinthians 5, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation...see, everything has become new.” Like the butterfly who gives up its former form and is transformed into a new creation, Stephanie began to walk in her authenticity. She recalls receiving communion at church and the pastor putting her hands gently on her shoulders and saying, “God bless your daughter for the faith she has shown in you.”

Stephanie says that’s the moment when Stephanie was born.

All that came after….the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, the books, the speaking tours, the countless miles crisscrossing Kansas, the newspaper interviews, the tweets, the creation of the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project, the service to so many city, state, and federal agencies….all of that was Stephanie’s fierce and vulnerable gift to the world.

Stephanie said she couldn’t have lived authentically if she hadn’t gotten sober...and she couldn’t have gotten sober without living authentically. And that neither of those things would have been possible without her faith.

There is something about being sheltered under the wing of a mother hen that can make us bold. There is something about knowing that we, like Christ, are a part of something much bigger than our own fragile lives that can give us courage and strength to do magnificent and mighty things. When we know our work and we are willing to commit our lives to that work boldly, as Stephanie and Jesus did, we become aware that God goes with us, giving us wells of courage deeper than we could imagine.

It’s not that we become fearless. The fears may still be with us. But as we walk in the strength of the we cultivate courage, the static and noise from our fears starts to recede.

We stand high on that diving board, looking at the deep blue stretching out below us and we take the leap, even as the butterflies rage in our bellies.

And we begin to trust that all things are made new through Christ. Even us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

“Get Lost. Get Found.”

Luke 4:1-13
March 10, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

It’s hard to get lost these days. Many of us carry tiny but powerful supercomputers in our pockets that are attached to data from satellites that invisibly fly over our heads day and night, insistently pinging our coordinates as we go about our daily lives. A few years ago now I was talking with someone who was on their way to a conference in a big city. They were a little nervous because they hadn’t spent a lot of time in big cities and were worried about how to navigate public transit or even figure out how to walk from place to place.

I explained to them that you can literally just hold your phone up to your face and say, “Siri, where can I grab dinner?” And your phone will just tell you! You can also get bus times, reload a transit card, or quickly summon a private driver to just drive you right up to the curb wherever you need to go.

Amazing, really.

It’s hard to get lost in other ways, too. I am old enough to remember a time when we scheduled long-distance phone calls.

Every Sunday night, my family would talk on the phone with my grandma, who lived four hours away from us. We would pass the corded phone from family member to family member, each taking our turn. I assume my mom didn’t talk to her mom throughout the week - just on Sunday evenings.

Nowadays, my mom and I talk or text almost daily. And I’m certain if we went more than a couple of days without connecting she would start to wonder why she hadn’t heard from me. We live in a time where many of us pretty much figure we’ll know where our loved ones are or at least be able to reach them quickly if the need arises.

We also live in a time where it’s hard to disconnect from the frantic pace of the world. And by “the world” I mean THE WORLD. News from all over the globe, much of it bad, arrives nonstop. Even if we do our best to unplug from time to time, we may still look up and discover the news is shouting us at us from a TV screen at the gym or the doctor’s office...or even while we’re just trying to put gas in our car!

So, yes, it can be awfully hard to get lost - at least in some ways - these days. But it can also be all too easy to get lost.

Nonstop demands on our time can create a frantic pace and sometimes we fall into bed at the end of the day wondering, “what did I do today?” We can make a series of small, seemingly-insignificant decisions over a long period of time and suddenly look in the mirror one day and realize we hardly recognize ourselves. We can all-too-easily let go of relationships that have value, values that give strength, stories that heal. We sometimes look at the world around us, coming in through that relentless news cycle, and say to ourselves, “How on earth did we wind up here???”

All of this is to say: we are not that different than Jesus or the people who lived in his time. It can be hard to find space….and sometimes we have to go to extremes to cultivate a sense of wilderness wandering. It can also be all-to-easy to lose ourselves in the daily grind of life.

Those of us who gathered this past Wednesday for Ash Wednesday participated in a ritual that reminds us of some of these complex tensions that we humans carry within ourselves. It’s can be challenging to get off the beaten path AND it can be easy to get lost. We are unique creations, not one of us the same AND we are all knit together in our common humanity. We burn brightly, full of vibrant life, imbued with the very image of the Divine AND we are dust and to dust we shall return.

The season of Lent is a time to lean into these complex tensions as we prepare for Easter, that season of impossible possibilities.

Our theme for Lent this year is “cultivating and letting go” and each week we will be talking with the children during worship about that theme as we build our community art installation. You are invited to make some space for art and reflection this season, stopping by the art station during Fellowship Hour or throughout the week to fold origami, using the papers we wrote on this morning during worship. In this way, we will come together to ponder what we can cultivate and let go of during this season.

The story about Jesus in Luke 4 that we heard just a few moments ago is often tied closely with Lent in our minds. Jesus’s time in the wilderness of 40 days correlates with the 40 days of Lent that come before Easter each year. And in case you’re doing the math on that and coming up with more than 40 days, it’s because Lent is technically the 40 days preceding Easter PLUS the Sundays, which are meant to be “little Easters” and don’t count as a part of the 40 days.

Often, when we look at this passage we focus on the temptation aspect of the story. The ways that the devil tempts Jesus to save himself, make himself great, prematurely entering his glory. We often think about the ways Lent can be a season of steadfastly resisting temptations - like chocolate or pizza - and a time of training ourselves to make our “no” our “no” so that our “yes” can be our “yes.” The Luke passage tells us that Jesus ate nothing during his time in the wilderness, and so the tradition of Lent as a time of fasting has ancient, biblical roots.

These are all rich, important ways to engage with this passage.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to see Jesus’s time in the wilderness from an Indigenous perspective. Kaitlin Curtice is a member of the Potawatomi Citizen Band, an author, and a Christian. She writes about hearing this story of Jesus in the wilderness anew as she notices its connections to the practice of the vision quest that is common in several Indigenous cultures. Each culture has its own name for a similar ritual, whereby a young person goes into the wilderness for a period of several days, typically alone, typically without any food or water. It’s a coming of age ritual and the Lakota call it Hanbleceya, which, in English, could be translated “crying for a vision.” [2]

Crying for a vision. Going to extremes to see anew.

Curtice says that in Indigenous cultures, young people “enter the wilderness because they know that on the other side they will come out a new version of themselves.”

When we go into the wilderness, we intentionally get lost so that we don’t accidentally get lost.

We let go of some of our familiar comforts and push ourselves into new and unfamiliar territory so that we are forced to pay attention and see our lives anew. We intentionally cultivate space and unfamiliarity so that we can remember who we are.

That’s what happens to Jesus when he is in the wilderness. Tempted by a force that the author of Luke calls “the devil,” Jesus could easily lose himself in a hall of mirrors. After all, the version of Jesus that the devil paints isn’t too far off base. There are kernels of truth buried within.

But in this wilderness place, Jesus is awake and aware enough to resist the temptation of taking the easy route. He is grounded firmly in the truth of who he is and he is ready and willing to walk in the strength of that truth.

It’s no accident that Jesus’s baptism and genealogy come just before this wilderness wandering. When Jesus is baptized, he is reminded who he is at a deep, cellular level. As he emerges from the waters, we are told that the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove and a voice extends from the heavens, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased!”

Immediately after these words, the author of Luke shifts gears into a long genealogy of Jesus, going back some 75 generations. At the very end, the last words we hear just before Jesus goes into the wilderness are these, “son of God.”

“You are my child,” God says. I am within you, a part of your very essence. You are of me and I am of you. We can never be separated.

Armed with that foundational knowledge resounding deep in his body, Jesus walks into the wilderness - alone but never alone - crying for a vision. Ready to be reminded of who he is and what work is his to do. Jesus gets lost on purpose so he can avoid getting lost on accident. In letting go of familiar comforts and safety, he grows in wisdom and strength.

One of my favorite stories to return to is one by the Rev. Robert Fulghum. He writes about how he was at his window one day, watching the neighborhood kids play a game of hide and seek. One child has hidden under a big pile of leaves just under Fulghum’s window. He has hidden too well. No one can find him and the other kids comb the neighborhood, growing frustrated and about to give up. Fulghum ponders how to help, finally shouting “Get found, kid!” at the top of his lungs, probably terrifying the poor child. He says, “It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.” [3]

When I think about Jesus out there in the wilderness, trying to find the vision...when I think about all of us in our wilderness wanderings, trying to be brave and carve out space when it can be so daunting to feel unmoored….I imagine God shouting at us, in a good-natured way, “Get found, kid!”

And when I think about us sleep-walking through out days on autopilot, bringing very little intentionality to our lives, I imagine God smiling and saying, “Get lost, kid!”

Get lost. Get found. Sometimes they seem to almost be the same thing.

[3] Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

“Built for Mercy”

Luke 6:28-38
February 24, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

At this very moment there are over a thousand United Methodists gathered together in St. Louis for a General Conference. 864 delegates from all over the globe plus alternate delegates, observers, reporters, lobbyists, and other interested parties are gathered for four days to receive recommendations created by a special commission charged with forging a resolution to decades-long conflict in the UMC over human sexuality and gender identity.

I was raised in the United Methodist Church. I attended a United Methodist seminary. Many of my friends are United Methodist clergy and my mom is currently in St. Louis serving as an alternate delegate to this conference. For the past several weeks, I’ve been praying - daily and emphatically - for those who are gathering in St. Louis. Because when a gathered body of Christians gets together to make decrees on whether or not some human beings have inherent dignity and worth, I think we should all be praying mightily that grace and love and justice and mercy will prevail. The United Methodist Church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and is also spans the globe. Their discrimination against LGBTQ is a major problem with dire consequences that affect all Christians, not just United Methodists.

And so, on this morning when Jesus has several challenging things to say to us about how we deal with the more painful and ugly parts of our humanity, I want to begin this sermon by pausing for a moment to hold our United Methodist kindred in our prayers.


God who draws us beyond boundaries again and again, draw your infinite circle of love tightly around St. Louis in these coming hours and days. May those who are LGBTQ know they are fiercely loved and created in your image. May the delegates there feel your warm embrace and may the power of your love cause them to be bold and brave and strong for their work. May they seek to love even their enemies. May they walk in the ways of your mercy. May justice prevail. Amen.

Just as the United Methodist delegates are currently leaning into pain with the hopes of coming out the other side in a few days filled with hope for the future….we, too, are called on a similar journey if we wish to engage seriously with the second part of Jesus’s Sermon the Plain that the lectionary committee served up to us today.

A quick recap for those who weren’t here last week….Jesus has just come down off of a mountain and comes to stand on “a level place” with his disciples and people from all over the world. Jesus does not pontificate from on high but comes into the everyday mess and muck of humanity to gently but firmly teach us hows and whys of finding our better selves. In a continuation of earlier themes from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continues to give preferential treatment to those on the margins of society. He lifts up the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the despised. And he cautions everyone who has it good to remember that no one has it easy forever. Our accomplishments and failures do not determine our worth as human beings...only God has the power to name us as blessed….and God is very much about the business of blessing.

God is so much about the business of blessing, in fact, that Jesus wants us to very seriously consider what it might look like to not only accept the Good News that we are made in God’s image in an intellectual way….but in a way that deeply transforms our living.

To be blessed….to allow ourselves to embrace that notion that we humans carry within us the imprint of the Divine… apparently not just about feeling good. It also carries with it some very difficult demands. Demands that Jesus is now ready to explicate.

If we’re truly going to understand the revolutionary power behind Jesus’s words here, I think we have to grapple with some of the very basic concepts that are the building blocks of Jesus’s sermon.

Building Block #1: Enemies
When Jesus is speaking of our enemies, I think it’s critically important to realize he’s not talking about people that annoy us. He’s not talking about John in accounts receivable who chews his gum too loudly over in the next cubicle. He’s not talking about our neighbor who consistently refuses to rake their leaves, thereby rendering our own raking pointless as soon as the wind comes sweeping down the plains. He’s not talking about our cousin Rachel who shows up at Thanskgiving dinner espousing political views that are counter to ours. He’s not talking about the faceless person in the SUV who cut us off in traffic yesterday. Those folks can all be annoying….and I feel certain that Jesus would approve of us loving them.

But when Jesus says we are to love our enemies, he is talking about people who are more than annoying. He is talking about those who wish us grave harm, those who abuse us, those who question our humanity, those who want to do violence to us, those who want to see us annihilated, those who hate and despise us.

Now….it occurs to me that some people in the room today may not actually have enemies. Some people may not know what it feels like to be despised or hated. But there are others here who absolutely do know what it feels like to be hated… know that there are people who want to see you fail, who are trying to make your life a living hell, who curse and revile your very existence.

If you know what that feels like, then you have enemies. Enemies that Jesus says we are supposed to love.

That brings us to Building Block #2: Love
Jesus wants us to love our enemies….so what does that even look like? You know, if you try to look up the definition of the English word love, you’ll mostly find a definition about warm fuzzy feelings, attraction, enjoyment. That kind of thing.

But the Greek word used here, agape, actually has very little to do with our emotions. Agape is not primarily about warm fuzzy feelings or even liking another person. Instead, agape is about our behavior. Agape is rooted in the love God has for humanity. Out of that unbreakable, unconditional love we are called to extend charity, grace, mercy to every person we encounter. No exceptions.

A note on abusive relationships, because when Jesus says “pray for those who abuse you” it seems we could quickly veer into dangerous territory. God does not want us to stay in abusive relationships. Full stop. You can leave an abusive relationship and still pray for the person you’ve left behind. By asking us to pray for those who have abused us, I think Jesus is inviting us to consider how God can partner with us to find our own healing.

Agape also frees us to love people we don’t like. We don’t have to have any warm fuzzy feelings at all. We can disagree with people vehemently. We can even condemn their behaviors, calling them towards their better selves….while still loving them. Because agape is not primarily about being nice or making other people smile. It’s about witnessing the God-given dignity in each person, holding their complexity in the light of God’s love, and choosing always, always to emulate God’s mercy.

Which brings us to Building Block #3: Mercy
The crux of this entire passage is verse 36: “be merciful, just as God is merciful.”

This entire endeavor of loving even our enemies is about imitating God. If we are blessed, if we are imprinted with the very image of the Divine, then we are both empowered and expected to emulate God. We aren’t called to agape because it’s easy. We are called to it because it is our birthright as humans created to point the way to the Holy. We are called to it because we were built for mercy.

Mercy is at once simple and confounding. Mercy is the radical resistance to giving people what they deserve. We live in a world that is so firmly steeped in the notion of quid pro quo that it becomes easy to even realize it’s there, operating in the background. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. If you work hard, you should be able to get ahead. If I do the right things, I should be rewarded.

But this is not God’s way. God is like the merchant at the end of today’s passage….we go to the market and walk up to a stranger in a booth, ready to buy grain. We ask her to please fill up a container with grain. She fills it, taps it down, filling every nook and cranny, making sure we get the very most grain possible in that container. She shakes it, adds a little more, and then carefully pours just a bit more on the top. We pay her the negotiated price, she dumps the measure of grain into our apron and we carry it home, wondering just what we did to deserve her kindness. After all, the price was set. Five dollars for a container of grain. The merchant would make more money if she just hastily poured some in...maybe even filling it slightly less than full. Why on earth did she go to all that trouble to make sure we received more than we deserved?

Mercy. That’s mercy. Giving others not what they deserve but better than they deserve. Treating others the way we wish we would be treated. Extending radical and confounding hospitality. Suspending harsh judgment. Giving freely, expecting nothing in return. This is the way of God. She is the merchant who freely pours out more than we’ve asked for, more than we’ve earned, simply because mercy is her essence.

And it is in this way that Jesus asks us to shape our lives. Doing the confounding, difficult work of agape….not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s very, very hard.

In this invitation is a reminder of blessing. Jesus would not ask us to do this if he felt it were impossible. He invites us into the task of transforming the world because he sees God in us and believes we have the capacity to bring about God’s realm here and now.

And so...we build the road by walking. We mend the world by choosing to love….in big ways and small, again and again and again. And we do so because God first loved us.

May it be so.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

“Name. Bless. Connect.”

Luke 6:17-26
February 17, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

If you’re the type of person who loves trivia nights at the local bar or just enjoys watching Jeopardy at home, you might want to take notes on the first part of today’s sermon because I’m going to lay some serious Bible trivia on you.

Fun fact #1: you might not have heard a sermon on this passage from Luke in a while. For churches like ours that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, we only come to a particular text in the Bible once every three years.’s been longer than three years since we last heard this text because of the long Epiphany season we are having this year. Since Lent and Easter fall later in the calendar, we have a longer Epiphany season which means we get to hear some texts we haven’t heard in a while.

Fun fact #2: if this passage sounds familiar to you, but also seems like it’s awfully short, that’s because most of us are more familiar with the version from Matthew. If you want to look it up to compare and contrast you can grab your Bibles and look up Matthew 5.

In both versions, Jesus begins a longer teaching with a series of statements about who is blessed. In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount goes on for three chapters. In Luke, it’s usually called the Sermon on the Plain and it’s a little shorter.  

In Matthew, there is a longer list of beatitudes….and we don’t have the “woes” immediately following. In Luke we just have a few short statements of blessing, followed immediately by cautionary statements. That word, “woe” is meant to be an attention-grabber. A “hey, watch out!” or “Warning! Danger ahead!”

Biblical scholars have frequently noticed a key difference between Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit” and Luke’s “blessed are the poor.” Those feel different, don’t they? The poor in spirit is a broad category that could include people who are feeling down and out for any number of reasons. “The poor,” when given without any other qualifiers as it is in Luke, typically makes us think of those who are economically vulnerable, who may not have enough resources to meet their basic needs.

Some have noticed that Luke’s version of the beatitudes is a continuation of earlier themes from this gospel. You may remember a few weeks ago, when we looked at Jesus’s opening sermon in Luke 2, his mission statement, he pulled directly from the prophet Isaiah….”the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

And in those words from Isaiah, we also hears echoes of Jesus’s mother’s song in Luke 1. Mary sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty.”

So the author of the Gospel of Luke continues to build on this theme of God lifting up the dignity of the poor….first, Mary’s song; next, Jesus’s first sermon; and now with this sermon on the plain.

And that’s another fun fact: in Matthew’s Gospel the beatitudes are given on a mountain, the Sermon on the Mount. But let’s notice where we are in Luke. Jesus has just come down from a mountain, where he went to pray. But now, we hear Jesus “came down and stood among them on a level place.”

Further, he is not with just his disciples as he is in Matthew. In Luke, there is a much larger crowd of people, including folks from “all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Those last two places, Tyre and Sidon, are important because they remind us that Jesus came not only to teach faithful Jews, but also to reach Gentiles and other outsiders.

That Jesus, I tell ya. Every single time we try to draw a circle and mark some people as outsiders, Jesus reminds us that every single person is made in God’s image, and erases the circle. Every single time. Following Jesus always means seeking Christ in the face of every other person we encounter...whether we want to or not.

And because we often fail to do just that, I find the fact that Jesus delivers this sermon down on “a level place” to be very good news, indeed. Biblical scholar Ron Allen explains that the Greek word translated “level” here “often refers to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning.” [1]

In other words, Jesus sees us humans struggling in the mess and muck of our lives and Jesus comes and meets us right in the middle of it. Jesus doesn’t hover above us on a cloud. Jesus doesn’t look the other way. Jesus comes right into the middle of our messed up lives, meets us here, and begins to teach.

And, Holy Moly, what he’s teaching here is mind-boggling. When he says that the poor,  the hungry, the weeping, the excluded are blessed, he is saying they are respected, dignified, worthy, beloved, made in God’s image. The word here, “blessed” isn’t like they’re lucky or #blessed. It’s way deeper than that. It hearkens back to the passages from the First Testament that we heard a few minutes ago. Jeremiah says those who trust in God are blessed. The Psalmist is talking about the same thing when they write “blessed are those who turn away from the advice of the wicked.”

This “blessed” is not about being popular, good-looking, lucky, or having the best toys. This blessed is being a person who is deeply respected, admired, looked up to as a pillar of the community. A leader. A person that we can learn from. A person that we should try to emulate.

The poor are leaders, Jesus says. The hungry are teachers. The weeping deserve our attention. Those who are despised because they follow Jesus should be our heroes.

And the caution is for those who are rich, who are full, who are laughing, who are spoken highly of….the caution, the warning, the “woe” is a reminder that so many of the things we think of as our “worth” are temporary. Our successes, our health, our wealth, our beauty, our good fortune...none of these things are forever. And none of these things have anything at all to do with whether or not we are blessed.

In God’s realm, every single person is blessed because every single person has something to share, something to teach, something to offer. We humans keep looking to a small group of people who mostly look the same….wealthy, powerful folks in fancy suits to solve all of our problems.

But when we place our trust in a small group of people, we are doing two things. First, we are forgetting the wisdom of the prophet Jeremiah, and so many others, who teach that our trust must be in God and God alone. Jeremiah says that when we trust in God we become like healthy trees planted next to the water….trees who have roots that go down deep, trees that grow in strength and beauty, trees that flourish in good years and persevere in hard times because their foundation is firm.

Second, when we only see a small group of “acceptable” folks as our respected, admired, wise leaders we miss so much wisdom from others that we think don’t look the part. We might even start to believe that we don’t have anything to offer.

I want to close with a brief story from the Rev. Mike Mather, who is a dear friend of mine and the pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Mike recently published a book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places, which includes many stories from his decades of ministry in communities filled with people who are often cast aside and overlooked.

When Mike became a pastor, he wanted to help the people who lived near his church. He had been taught that Christians should see needs and then meet them. He did all the regular things we think of churches pantries, free Vacation Bible Schools, basketball leagues for “troubled” youth, tutoring programs, etc.

But over the years, Mike began to see that Jesus calls us to celebrate the gifts each person has to share. Every person, created in the image of God, has talents and skills to offer. Every person wants to be useful and needed. So Mike started asking what people had to give, not just what they needed. When people come in to ask for financial assistance, Broadway doesn’t give them rent money….but they will ask them what they love to do, what they’re good at, what they might be able to teach someone else. And then they will give them seed money to start sharing their talents with the community.

When Mike met a teenager who was in danger of flunking out of school, he asked him what he enjoyed and was good at. What he might be able to teach someone else. He learned that Adrian knew a lot about fixing bicycles. So Mike connected him with an adult in the neighborhood who was also good with bikes. Eventually, Adrian and his new friend created a bike shop. They taught bike repair classes to folks in the neighborhood and got a lot of people’s bikes up and running. As his confidence grew and he was able to channel his skills into something useful for the world around him, Adrian’s troubles at school lessened. Imagine that.

What Mike did wasn’t rocket science, exactly. Any of us could do it. But many of us would see only the need, not the gifts. Many of us might see only a poor kid….not a blessed being created in the image of God.

Mike says that our job as followers of Jesus is to name, bless, connect. We need to look around and name not only the problems in our communities, but the opportunities, too. We need to remind one another that we are blessed - created in God’s image. And then we need to help each other connect to others who might benefit from someone we have to offer, or who might help us grow.

Name, bless, connect. This is what I think Jesus is doing in this sermon on a level place. Naming the pain of those who struggle and the naïveté of those who think they have it good. Blessing every single human present from places near and far. And re-connecting each person to their foundation, reminding them to put down roots in God’s love and be like trees firmly planted by streams of living water.

Name, bless, connect. May we continue to follow Jesus’s lead as we seek blessings in all we encounter.