Sunday, January 20, 2019

“MLK for Today”

Sunday, January 20, 2019
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

A week ago, I was standing in the freezing cold on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with a dear friend, hands tightly gripping steaming cups of coffee. It was our last morning at the canyon and as we stood there watching the sun rise I thought about returning home and my thoughts leaped forward a week to today. The Sunday of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.  

Did you know that Dr. King loved nature? It’s true. Though he was a city-kid, born and raised in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, he made a conscious choice to get more in touch with the land (and his ancestors) when he sought out summer employment on a farm in Connecticut before entering college [1]. In his autobiography, he wrote of his time in seminary in Rochester, NY, where he would intentionally make a daily trip “to commune with nature.” “Every day,” he wrote, “I would sit on the edge of the campus by the side of the river and watch the beauties of nature. My friend, in this experience, I saw God. I saw him in the birds of the air, the leaves of the tree, the movement of the rippling waves.” [2]

Dr. King sat by the side of the river each day and found God there. How many of us have had a similar experience of seeking and finding the Holy in creation? Many of us, I’m sure.

Dr. King looms larger than life in our collective memories – have you seen the size of the statue at his memorial in Washington, D.C.? It inspires awe, as is fitting. But as we pause each January to remember this colossal prophet, we have to take care not to turn him into a caricature or object.

Dr. King was, after all, a human being, just like the rest of us here. He grew up squabbling with his siblings. He loved music and dancing. He told bawdy jokes with his best friends. He probably berated himself for his shortcomings as a father and husband, because none of us are as perfect as we would like to be in our closest relationships. He enjoyed good food and driving a new car. He struggled with lonely nights of the soul and deep existential exhaustion. He was a bold, unique, struggling, soaring, beloved human being…just like each of his here.  

Dr. King changed the world for the better because of his unique attributes and his relentless, faithful desire to be a part of building God’s Beloved Community here and now. It always breaks my heart a little to see his legacy boiled down to one speech when we remember him on MLK weekend each year. Yes, he had a dream. Yes, that dream was powerful and moving. Yes, it is right to remember his dream and notice how far we still are from that dream and to keep working to make it a reality.

But Dr. King was more than a dreamer. He was also a brilliant strategist who brought a laser-like focus to his ministry. He had that rare ability to dream big, paint a vision vividly with words, AND think like a master chess player about how to move forward step-by-step. He also had dreams that were more difficult for people to embrace than the ones we heard from the steps of the Washington memorial. If you’ve read some of his other writings, you know that he was quite radical. He advocated for billions of dollars to be used in a federal program for slavery reparations, he believed that creating a guaranteed annual income would solve many of our problems with poverty, he spoke out vocally and vehemently against the war in Vietnam, and – though he, himself advocated for nonviolence – he reminded people that riots are the language of the unheard. So much of what he said was bold, radical, difficult to hear.

Throughout his life and ministry, Dr. King stayed intently focused on what he called the great “triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism. Incidentally, those three areas are also what guide the work of our friends at Kansas Interfaith Action. KIFA has also added environmental sustainability into the mix and I think Dr. King would wholeheartedly approve.      

Despite Dr. King’s steady leadership, we still struggle with these awful triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism today. People of color in our nation continue to live with the pain and terror of centuries of white supremacy in action. There are the small, relentless acts of erasure like reading in a book that a European explorer “discovered” the Grand Canyon in the 16th century. They Ancestral Puebloans who lived there as long ago as the 12th century B.C.E would disagree. As would the Cohonina, Hopi, Havasupai, and Navajo or Dine people who all lived near the canyon long before European settlers arrived.

We continue to live with the sin of racism as we look to our southern border and see atrocities being committed against people from Central and South America as they seek safety and asylum. If Dr. King were alive today he would have no shortage of work in confronting white supremacy.

Materialism is still with us, too, of course. The latest hit TV show in 2019 is yet another home improvement show focusing on how to help U.S. Americans manage the piles and piles of stuff we accumulate in our oversized homes. Meanwhile, many federal employees are working without pay and I have several friends who are legitimately worried that they and their children may soon have no food to eat or may be homeless due to uncertainties about SNAP payments, federal lunch subsidies in public schools, and HUD funding.

Dr. King had an expansive understanding of militarism as not only nation-on-nation warfare, but violence of any kind. If he were alive today, I feel certain he would be working hand-in-hand with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. He would be concerned about the ways we fail to honor and care for our veterans. He would be nodding his head in agreement at the recent Gillette Ad encouraging us all to support healthier models of masculinity. He would be offering an encouraging word to Omaha elder Nathan Phillips who stood firmly in the redemptive power of nonviolence at the Lincoln Memorial earlier this week. He would giving thanks for the way Mr. Phillips embodied God’s spirit of defiant peace in the face of violent hate.

I have to admit. When I look at the world in 2019, I often wish Dr. King were still here to guide and challenge us. He would have turned 90 last week. But Dr. King was taken from us at the age of 39. And so we are left to wonder…what can we do today to continue to live into his radical, hopeful, Jesus-oriented legacy? What can we learn from the way he lived his life?
First, I think we can learn from King’s conviction that God is involved in human history. King did not envision God as an old white guy watching us from a distance. No, King’s vision of God was much more immanent – more present in the here and now. King maintained that God cares deeply about what happens to creation and that God is intimately involved with the day-to-day happenings on Planet Earth.

King did not, however, think that God’s involvement happened in some sort of magical, lightning-bolt kind of way. Instead, he believed that God needs humans to get the work done. King’s vision of God relied on humanity to make the Beloved Community real – to change consciousness, to change laws, to change culture.

A second thing I think we can learn is that people of faith can play a critical role in the wider world. King understood that the issues of evil at play in our world must be addressed in a systemic way, not just by individuals with generous hearts. King said, "Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial." [3] He never feared being “too political” because he was walking in the ways of Jesus, who probably would be crucified again if he were with us today.

Third, King would tell us that we should not be distracted from working on behalf of what is right just because it seems impractical or unpopular. This can easily be seen in his devotion to bringing the troops home from Vietnam. No one in his closest circle of advisors supported him when he decided to speak out against the war. They told him it was unpopular and would have a negative impact on their public image. King chose to speak out, even though it cost him credibility.

Finally, King understood that – when the going gets tough – you need something larger than yourself to sustain your work. King is a model for us not only because he was an amazing leader, but because he found the strength, courage, and ideas for his work from his Christian faith. He was just a person – he got tired, he got frustrated, he had days of despair when he thought nothing would ever change. And when he felt that way, he relied on his faith to sustain him.

Let us remember his wise counsel as we go forth to do what sometimes seems to be an impossible task: "When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." [4]
[2] King, Autobiography, 298.
[3] Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, Washington 38.
[4] ("Where do we go from here?" August 16, 1967)

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

“The Night the Stars Sing”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Luke 2:1-20, Isaiah 9: 2, 6-7
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

It’s a little-known fact that if you listen closely as the winter solstice approaches, the stars begin to sing.

A few days ago I stepped out onto my deck around 6:30 in the morning and a bright star in the southeast caught my attention. On this cloudy morning, there was a small pin-hole in the clouds with a brilliant yellow-blue star peeking through. So lovely, it made me stop and catch my breath and gaze upwards.

And that’s when I learned that if you listen closely enough, the stars are actually singing as they wing their flight over all the earth.

The celestial song was one without words, the kind that seems to penetrate your gut and heart more than your ears. My dog paused next to me there on the deck and as I laid a hand on her warm back I felt certain she was a part of the song, too. She and I stood together, gazing up at that morning star in the eastern sky, breathing in, breathing out….at one with all creatures across time who have dared to look up at the night sky and ponder their place in this swirling universe.

Breathing in, breathing out….craning our necks to glimpse the holy. Breathing in, breathing out…filled with that fleeting sense of peace that comes on a silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.

Breathing in, breathing out….believing for just a moment that one day peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling...and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.

As soon as the moment caught me, it was over. The dog nudged me insistently, ready to go back inside and eat breakfast. The song of the stars dimmed and my ears were once again filled with the ordinary sounds of the teakette, the furnace, my thoughts.

I went inside and prepared my tea, thinking about Charles Wallace - who you might know from Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, but I was actually thinking of a slightly-older Charles Wallace from A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Charles Wallace also knew that the stars sing at this time of year. The novel begins on Thanksgiving night an the Murray family receives some frightening news. Charles Wallace says he needs to go out to the star-watching rock in their backyard. “I need to listen,” he says simply. And he knows that his ears will be the most open under the night sky.

While gazing up at the night sky, listening to the stars sing the Old Song, Charles Wallace somehow manages to conjure a unicorn (just roll with it) named Gaudior. “Gaudior. That’s Latin for more joy,” Charles Wallace murmurs.

As the rest of the novel unfolds, we witness the characters tapping into the deep, all-encompassing Joy that is at the very heart of the cosmos. As Charles Wallace and the unicorn travel across time and space they seek connection with this Joy - the Joy that the stars sing of, the Joy that is a part of the ancient harmonies, the Joy that has existed since before time began and will never cease even after this world has ended.

Over the aeons, humans have tried to name this Joy, but, really, the song of the stars is fairly impossible to capture with words. When we name this Joy as God it’s an approximation. Incomplete, but it will have to do since our human voices don’t resound quite the same way the stars do.

Christmas Eve is one of those times of the year when we pause to bear witness to Joy - that ancient song, that deep abiding thrum of the stars - as it bends near the earth.

For on this night, we wait expectantly for the miracle promised. A baby, takes his first breaths earth-side. Looking up at the stars above, listening with the fullness of his tiny, new, human body. Breathing in, breathing out. Tuning his ears and heart and life to that ancient song that the stars sing.

For on this night:
Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing and voices ring
With Peace to all on earth
We sing to bear witness to Joy, come to us in human form. Emmanuel. God with us. Joy sings from the stars. Joy fills our lungs. Joy is here, now. This holy night.

And with this realization comes another, sweeter truth: all nights are holy.
The stars shine even during the day when we cannot see them.
Emmanuel - God with us - is not only for tonight but for each and every moment of eternity.

God is present not only in the child born in Bethlehem so many years ago, but in the joyous faces of children as they race downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa has arrived. Christ is not just a person who lived long ago, but a mighty force living and breathing hope into the lives of children who travel many miles to find safety, only to be met with scorn and terror. And Christ, of course, is not only found in children, but in each and every person we encounter - those who look like us and those who don’t, those who are easy to understand and those who seem incomprehensible.

Father Richard Rohr says that which we call Christ isn’t limited to a stable in a faraway place all those years ago. Instead, Christ is “the transcendent within everything in the universe.” Christ is that which transcends understanding, circumstances, explanation. And the purpose of religion isn’t about dogma, Rohr says, instead religion is re-ligio….re-ligament….re-connection. [1]

Re-connection with that powerful and abiding Joy that existed even before the stars began to sing the ancient harmonies. Joy that can be found here and now. Joy that will continue to reverberate even when we are all long gone.

Near the end of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace and the unicorn, Gaudior, are on a difficult mission. As they gallop through a starry galaxy, Charles Wallace struggles to stay awake and Gaudior cautions him, “Do not go to sleep.” An exhausted Charles Wallace replies, “I’m not sure if I can help it.” [2]

“‘Sing, then,’ Gaudior commanded. ‘Sing to keep yourself awake.’” And with that, “the unicorn opened his powerful jaws and began to sing with the stars.” [3]

Singing in harmony, the boy and the unicorn “moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and [Charles Wallace ] realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy.” [4]

We sing this night because the universe has not yet lost its Joy. We sing this night because Joy came to us in human flesh so that we might remember it has always been with us.

We sing this night with the stars. We sing the ancient harmonies because Joy lives and moves and has its being in us. Even here, even now. Thanks be to God.

[1] Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: Another Name for Every Thing
[2, 3, 4] L’Engle, Madeleine. A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

“Praying Twice: In the Bleak Midwinter”

Philippians 4:4-8
Sunday, December 9, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I spent most of this past week in rural northwestern Oklahoma with my extended family, preparing for and attending the funeral for my father, who died somewhat unexpectedly at home on November 30th. My siblings and I divvied up tasks and one that fell into my hands was creating the playlist for the visitation at the funeral home. I know there are some folks who just have silence or quiet instrumentals playing in the background as people gather to pay their respects, but we knew right away that my dad would have wanted some specific songs in order to make it feel just right. So I crafted a playlist filled with loud rock and outlaw country….Queen and Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Waylon and Willie and the boys.” And as the sounds of Slash’s guitar filled the chapel at the funeral home I thought, well, maybe it’s a little weird to have Guns N Roses playing at a visitation...but my dad never did much of anything in a “typical” way, so we all just smiled and said, “He would have loved this.”

Music has the power to take us where words cannot go. It moves our spirits to the depths and heights of holiness. The movement of the Holy can be felt in the quiet singing of a parent as they rock a baby to sleep….and in the voices of mourners who gather at a graveside signing “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.” Music makes us laugh and cry. Music helps us find stillness and makes us jump up and move.

Music binds us together across generations, cultures, time and space. This is why we carefully choose music for all those important moments in our lives...weddings and funerals, holidays and celebrations. Music moves us gently and fiercely through miraculous and mundane moments….singing in the shower, candlelight at Christmas Eve.

It is that presence of the Holy in both the miraculous and the mundane that is on my mind this second Sunday of Advent as we light the candle of peace. Because our lives are made up of all of these moments - miraculous and mundane and everything in between. We move through our days….the alarm clock sounds again, the coffee pot is turned on once more, there are bills to pay, e-mails to read, floors that need to be swept. So much of what we do is routine, ordinary, mundane. But then there are those moments where time seems to stand still. The phone rings and it’s someone delivering bad news. A letter arrives and the course of your life is changed. A child laughs and you suddenly remember a part of yourself you had forgotten. The Sacred breaks through, reminding us that the Holy has been with us all along...even in the sweeping and dusting and typing and driving. There is nowhere we can go where we are far from God’s presence….the trick is finding some way to remember this truth.

I have a working theory that perhaps what we humans need to do the most in this life is learn how to be aware of God’s presence. For if we can find God in the face of the person we are talking to, surely it will change the words that come out of our mouths. If we can find God in the soil and water, surely it will change the way we live on the Earth. If we can find God in ourselves, surely it will change the voice inside our head that is so demanding, right? If we knew - really knew - that we were accompanied by the Holy everywhere we go, then we would be seeking peace in every thought, every deed, every moment of our time here on earth.

Advent is a time of preparation and waiting. A time to intentionally cultivate practices that bring about that awareness of God’s presence in the moments both miraculous and mundane. It is a time for seeing peace and a time for pondering the great mystery we call Emmanuel - God with us.

As we wait, we sing songs that help us prepare. Last week the choir shared a not-very-well-known Christmas carol called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and Pastor Sue shared a reflection on it. This week, we examine a song that’s probably better-known to you because we sing a verse of it every Sunday during Advent and Christmas. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1872, set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906.

The text brings our attention to that interplay between the miraculous and mundane, as Rossetti paints a picture of God being with us in ordinary and extraordinary ways. The first verse is so very down to earth….”In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen...snow on snow on snow.” You can feel the dreary sameness of day after gray day that Rossetti would have experienced in December in her native England. We know this feeling. It’s familiar, typical, mundane.

But into this bleak sameness, God breaks forth. The prophet Isaiah speaks for God, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

God enters into the ordinariness of our everyday. “Angels and archangels may have gathered there. Cherubim and seraphim thronged the midnight air.” When a child is born it is both the most ordinary thing in the world and the most miraculous thing imaginable, isn’t it? Every day in every place babies are being born...and have been for millions of years. There’s nothing unusual about it. And yet….each and every birth is a miracle...hard to believe, hard to understand, breath-taking in its glory.

And so before we fly off with the angels and their harps winging through the air, Rosetti brings back down gently to earth….delicately dancing us between the miraculous and the mundane. She writes, “But his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.” Suddenly we are back in the warmth of a simple home….livestock chewing their hay, night settling in, fire glowing in the hearth. Angels bend low, an exhausted mother sings a fierce lullaby of love, a weary and proud father leans in close, a midwife brings more water and hums along with the lullaby. The whole world in this particular moment revolves around this small new life….miraculous and mundane wrapped up together in swaddling clothes.

You know, it occurs to me that our two highest holy days in the Christian faith revolve around Jesus’s birth and death. At Christmas, God comes to us in human form…miraculous and mundane and snuggled in tight with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. At Easter, we witness Jesus’s brutal death and bear witness to the claim that even death cannot separate us from God’s love through Christ Jesus. Birth and death - sacred moments that cause our spirits to sit up and pay attention to God.

It is often in these sacred moments that we feel God’s presence….and where we find peace in the midst of a chaotic world. But, you know, we don’t have to wait for these major, earth-shattering events to remember Emmanuel - God With Us. We can seek peace in each and every ordinary day, too. I think this is what Paul meant when he said we are are “pray without ceasing.” It’s not just about bowing your head and having a little talk with God. It’s about living our whole lives in such a way that we are consistently oriented towards the Holy. It’s about seeking peace in the miraculous AND the mundane parts of being human.

Advent is a great time to practice this. Despite the hustle and bustle of December, we who follow Jesus are compelled to find some space to turn inward, center ourselves, and do the work of preparing the way for the Christ child. My friend, the Rev. Ashley Harness said it this way, “The spiritual practices of Advent are really about gestating the divine here and now.”

God calls us to do the important work of bearing Christ to the world this Advent season. We are invited into practices that cultivate and honor peace. You may pray without ceasing as you listen to the music of the season. You might dive more deeply into creating places for quiet and stillness as you pursue a prayer or meditation practice. You may feel led to spend more time in nature or take up a practice of journaling or daily Bible study. Or perhaps God’s peace will be found in the mundane everyday tasks of chopping vegetables, doing laundry, raking leaves….all of these things can become prayer if you approach them with an awareness of God’s presence. I was at a retreat with the Benedictine sister in Atchison a couple of weeks ago and the spiritual director who led the retreat told a story about her mom. Mary Kay was one of eight children and every morning her mom ironed the kids’ uniforms for school….and each and every morning she used that brief moment of ironing to pray for each child by name as she ironed their clothes. I found that so touching….if a mother of eight can find the time to pray for each of her children each morning then surely each of us can find a way to seek peace this Advent, can’t we?

Friends, peace lives among us. It may be covered up by all the noise and violence and pain, but you can rest assured that it is here. The peace of Christ is seeking us this season and we are invited to nestle in close with Mary and Joseph and the angels as we await the return of Emmanuel - God With Us.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

“Praying Twice: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”

Rev. 22:1-7
Sunday, December 2, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

(A version of this sermon was delivered by Sue Zschoche on Dec. 2, 2018.)

If you have a smartphone or tablet with you in worship this morning, I’d like to ask you to get it out. And if you don’t have one, no worries. I feel confident someone near you will have one and you can share. So find a buddy. Buddy up.

Type into your browser It’s printed in your bulletin under the sermon title if you want to see it written out.

Okay. Made it there? You’ll want to flip your phone into horizontal mode so you can get a better look at it. What you’re looking at is the stained glass window at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Johnson County Kansas. What you can’t really tell from your tiny screen is the SCOPE of it. This window, is roughly the size of a basketball court - 100 feet by 40 feet - and was designed to tell the story of the Bible from beginning to end.

When he speaks about the window, Pastor Adam Hamilton says, “The biblical story begins and ends in a garden.” And so there are three trees in the story. Over on the left, there’s one of the trees that’s found in Genesis.. The tree that got those early humans into so much trouble.

In the glass, the tree is depicted as an ancient tree with old, weathered bark and golden leaves that seem ready to drop at any moment. I also notice that it’s heavy with fruit….which is, of course, odd, because I’ve never picked a ripe apple from a tree with bright yellow leaves. To me, this is a reminder that we’re looking at metaphors here, we’re digging into symbols. So even though the tree is bearing fruit, it’s also about to drop it’s leaves.

Abundance happens even in the midst of what seems to be death and loss. Which is, of course, exactly like the story of that first garden….even when the humans disobeyed and were kicked out of the garden, God lovingly knit them clothes to wear out in the big, scary world. Abundance and fruitfulness even in the midst of what seems to be death and loss.

We also see in the stained glass the river that flows next to the Garden….that river that Eve and Adam must have traversed as they were sent out of the Garden. The river that, along with the cherubim, guarded the Tree of Life, keeping the humans away from it as they were sent east of Eden.

On the right hand side of the window we have Tree of Life from Revelation. Bright green, brimming with life and, as with the first tree, heavy with glossy, round, beautiful fruit. Here at the  very end of the Bible, we find this tree in a city, not a garden. But this city certainly has a garden-like feel about it….big green trees, rivers bright as crystal flowing through the middle of streets (seems like an inconvenient place for a river, but we’ll go with it).

In a Salvador Dali-eque move, the Tree of Life in Revelation somehow manages to straddle the river of the water of life. Trees don’t typically straddle rivers but if we’re thinking symbolically, again, it makes sense. Because here, at the end of our sacred texts, the message is crystal clear. “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Here in this New Jerusalem, we will study war no more. Night shall be as day. God will wipe away every tear from human eyes, and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. For the former things are passed away and we are enveloped completely in God’s love and grace and care.

In the middle of the window, we have the third tree. Do you see it? That’s right: the cross. For many Christians, the cross represents that which holds the two gardens together. The human sinfulness on the left paired with goodness and paradise on the right. Or the brokenness of a violent world, an instrument of torture and hate somehow bringing about new life and resurrection. The fear and terror that the disciples felt upon seeing their friend murdered somehow being transformed into good news when they discovered even death has no power over God’s love.

The tree on the left is all about the pain we experience as humans. The tree on the right holds up a vision of God’s true intentions for us. The Prophet Jeremiah describes it like this: For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

And the tree in the middle represents all that comes between...our imperfect striving, the mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection, the things we struggle to understand about the pain that humans inflict on one another, the tentative hope we feel each spring when we notice the first crocus trying to peek it’s way through the still-frozen ground.

Three trees that hold together the entirety of our Holy Scriptures - Genesis to Revelation.

This Advent we will be focusing on “songs of the season” during worship and our first song is one that isn’t very well known:  “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” The text was written by an anonymous English poet and it’s a love song to Jesus, the One who keeps our dying flame alive, the One who cheers hearts, brings comfort, feeds our spirits.

It may seem odd that a song about an apple tree would become a Christmas song, because we don’t usually think of apples in the cold of winter. But it turns out that in England, there is an old tradition of wassailing (Christmas caroling) in apple orchards. Going out in the cold months to pray for blessings upon the cider trees. And so, in England, at least Christmas and Jesus and apple trees do go together just fine.

But there is something else about this image of Christ as an apple tree that resonates with me, and I want to share it with you. In the book Glorify, UCC pastor Emily C. Heath poses this question: “What is the fruit of an apple tree?”

Heath says, “If you’re like most’ll give the obvious answer: an apple. But I was once listening to a talk by the Rev. Jack Stephenson...He asked this same question and then said something that struck me: ‘The fruit of an apple tree is another apple tree.’” [1]

The apple itself, that delicious fruit we enjoy, is really just a vehicle for the seeds.

The fruit lasts only a short while, but the seeds contain the future.

Just like Jesus Christ, whose earthly life was short. But the seeds that he planted have grown and borne fruit for the ages.

And we are still a part of that great network of life - reaching backwards and forwards, holding together the past and the future, the world as it is and the world as it could be, the pain of who we are and the people God dreams for us to be, Genesis and Revelation, beginning and end, Alpha and Omega - like Christ, we are called to hold it all together, planting seeds of life even in times of death and loss.

Seeds of hope. Seeds of peace. Seeds of joy. Seeds of love.

Let us journey into Advent together with Christ, the apple tree.

[1]  Emily C. Heath, Glorify, chapter 8.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

“You give them something to eat.”

Mark 6:31-44
Sunday, November 18, 2018 - 20th Anniversary of Second Helping
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

If you were to open your bible and take a peek back at the beginning of the 6th chapter of Mark, you’d see it’s been a long and tiring week for the disciples. Early in the week, they watched their teacher, Jesus, ridiculed by folks in his hometown. People there scoffed at this man they had known as a young boy, “Who does he think he is?”

Jesus then sent the disciples out, two by two, to minister and teach in nearby villages. They were busy healing, teaching, visiting the sick, caring for anyone who had a need...which was, as it turns out, lots and lots of people. It was grueling, exhausting work. And it was done on a shoestring budget. They took nothing with them….no bread, no bags, no money in their belts. They were totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers as they traveled.

Over all of this hung the choking cloud of terror, as the disciples looked over their shoulders, remembering how Herod had brutally executed Jesus’s cousin, John, as a party trick. John had garnered too much attention….had threatened the powers that be. And his reward was a certain death. Surely the disciples knew that with each miracle, each healing, each parable, each act of power….surely they knew they were being watched. And surely they wondered where this was all heading and whose head would be on the chopping block next.  

Seeing his friends were exhausted, Jesus offered a soothing balm in a simple sentence. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”

It’s time for a break. Catch your breath. Put your feet up. Sabbath.

But...this time sabbath wasn’t quite meant to be. Because a great crowd of people followed them...eager for more teaching, more healing, more, more, more. And Jesus had compassion on them and taught them late into the day. As the sun began to set, one of the disciples whispered in his ear, “Hey, it’s getting late. We need to send these people home so they can eat dinner.”

And Jesus, I imagine him smiling just a bit with his eyes as he turns to the disciples...Jesus utters a hard word. Something I am certain they were not excited to hear. “You give them something to eat.”

“You give them something to eat.”

You do it. They’re hungry? Feed them. You’ve got this. What’s that, you say? We’re out here in the boonies without so much as a Walmart or QuickTrip? What’s that, you say? You’re tired and it’s been a long time? What’s that, you say? This is impossible?

Jesus doesn’t budge. ”You give them something to eat.”

These are scary words. Powerful words. And…if we’re being honest, not at all surprising, coming from Jesus. Jesus was never in the business of consolidating power or wow-ing everyone with his unique skills and gifts. Jesus was never content to be the only one performing miracles. Jesus never wanted to be the only one tapped into God’s power.

Jesus was always giving power away. Always inviting people into ministry alongside him. Always pushing his followers to see that they, too, could grow closer to God, perform miraculous acts, bring God’s Realm of Justice and Peace a bit closer. The Jesus movement was never about lifting up one person or even a small was always about reminding every single person present that they were made in God’s image, called to do awesome acts.

The Jesus movement has always been about calling each and every follower into a life of ministry.

Whether we like it or not.

Twenty plus years ago, Jesus spoke those same words to people in our community. “You give them something to eat.” YOU do it.

Yes, I know you’re a part of a smaller congregation and this feels like a big task. Yes, I know there are more questions than answers. Yes, I know you’re tired. Yes, I know there are lot of bureaucratic hoops to be jumped through. But, yes, YOU. You give your neighbors something to eat.

I remember when I was first in conversation with the search committee of this congregation, back in the fall of 2013. One of the first things I noticed about First Congregational was that it had a long-standing feeding program. I was shocked to discover that a church with only 70 or so people in worship each Sunday was also feeding 30-40 people every Sunday night. I wanted to know more about this congregation and this ministry.

When I came here for my initial interview weekend, the search committee sent me to Second Helping incognito. I sat down at a table and made small talk with the other guests. I ate a warm meal. I learned more about the Manhattan community from listening to our neighbors gathered around the tables. And I learned a lot by watching the volunteers as they worked. I noticed that there were smiles all around. It felt like a big family gathering. People knew each other’s names. Volunteers knew whether someone preferred Ranch or Italian dressing. People took the time to tell jokes, check in with each other about life, and everyone had more than enough to eat.

It was then that I realized Second Helping is not just about addressing physical hunger. It is also about creating and honoring relationships. It’s about the good feeling you get at the end of the day when the night settles in and your belly is full and you can remember the laughs you shared around a table with other humans. It’s about doing life together, remembering we are not alone, and waking up each day with the expectation that we will see Jesus in the face of our neighbors.

It was also clear to me that first night that Second Helping is a labor of love. And that this is a congregation where people take seriously the work of following Jesus. This is not a church where people are content to show up, sit in pews, sing a few nice songs and go home….immediately forgetting everything they just experienced.

This is a congregation where people are trying to live the lesson encapsulated in the panel from“The Family Circus” comic that hangs on the bulletin board in our kitchen. The family is leaving church and the little girl is telling her siblings, “Grandma says this is where our religion begins - when we come out of church.”

Following Jesus is this delicate, mysterious, marvelous balance of being fed and feeding our neighbors. We gather around our holy texts, sacred music, spiritual practices so that we can learn, grow, deepen our faith. We come to worship and find ourselves challenged, nourished, encouraged, fed….and in our gratitude for God’s goodness, we look at the world around us with new eyes and see opportunities to gather at tables, feed each other, see Christ in our neighbor, and advocate for a more just world.

Man, it’s GOOD to follow Jesus, isn’t it? It gives me all the warm, tingly, thankful feelings inside.

Second Helping began in 90s in the way so many ministries begin. A few people in our congregation paid attention to the world around them and started asking questions. They looked at the world as it was and held it up against God’s vision of what could be….noticing the distance between the two and perhaps hearing that pesky voice of Jesus calling to them, they started to wonder what they could do to bring the Realm of God more fully into focus.

One of the great things about this 20th Anniversary Celebration has been hearing stories from so many people during the adult Sunday School class organized by our Boards of Mission and Christian Education. I learned that Second Helping, like so many other compelling stories, began as a resurrection life from loss, birth from death. Jean Hill shared with us that the idea grew out of loss. Shortly after her father died, their family discovered they were going to need some new holiday traditions. As they served food at the community Thanksgiving meal, they wondered, “Where do all these folks eat the other 364 days a year?” That voice started whispering to Jean, Judy, and Virginia, “You give them something to eat.”

Meanwhile, another family in our small congregation was also seeking new holiday traditions. Melissa and R.C. Jones, who have since moved away but came back for a visit last month, had a blended family and all of their children spent Thanksgiving with their other parents. Rather than having a small Thanksgiving meal at home, just the two of them, Melissa and R.C. decided to expand their sense of family by volunteering at the community Thanksgiving meal. Like Jean’s family, the Jones’s also encountered Jesus there and heard him saying clearly, “You give them something to eat.”

One of the themes that came out again and again in these Sunday School classes was growing our sense of community. The answer to that question I had five years ago, “How is a congregation this size feeding people dinner and lunch every week?!?” is pretty simple. Second Helping is a community-wide effort sustained by numerous community partnerships...and it has been, since the very beginning. Our crew of coordinators work closely with volunteers from the Manhattan Mennonite Church, the ESA sorority, K-State, and more to staff the kitchen on Sunday nights. And every week we are blessed immensely by the efforts of the Food Recovery Network at K-State...students who are currently delivering around 500 pounds of food to area churches like ours each week.

In the early days of dreaming, organizers reached out to other local service agencies to learn more about needs in Manhattan and create partnerships. One of the things we learned early on was that, for our original target audience, can openers were a prized-possession. So we bought a bunch of them and attached invitations to them, handing them out to folks who were living in tents at night and hanging out downtown during the day.

Despite all of the intentional outreach to a targeted population, do you know how many people showed up at the very first Second Helping meal?


But still….that voice of Jesus wouldn’t go away. And so the workers kept showing up at the table week after week….and gradually a few new friends showed up, and then more, and one day we looked around and our tables were full. Over time, other churches in the area started setting places at their tables, too. By 2014, when Common Table was formed, there was a hot meal in Manhattan five nights of the week. One of the immediate goals was to work towards having meals seven nights of the week, and that goal has since been reached.

Last week in Sunday School we were joined by others from the Common Table and we had a chance to learn more about meals at the other sites, food insecurity in Manhattan, and future goals….like the long-term vision of having all the meals take place under one roof seven days a week.

As I sat in class last week, I looked at the panel gathered...representatives from so many area churches, K-State, nonprofits, and just “regular ol’ people from Manhattan” heart warmed to see the way all of these people have been knit together because they heard a voice saying, “You give them something to eat.”

Jesus comes calling when we are least expecting it. Sometimes we hear his voice and feel a flash of excitement as a new vision starts to coalesce. Other times our stomach drops as we think, “Oh, no, Jesus. Not me. Are you sure?”

Wherever and however we are when the call comes….it keeps coming. Jesus knits together strangers, families, friends and calls us outside of ourselves. “You give them something to eat,” he says. And a small band of ragtag followers gathered in a deserted place gather up what they can find...five loaves, two fishes, a few can openers, a building sitting empty on Sunday nights with a decent kitchen, time, energy, curiosity, open hearts…..we gather up what we can find and then we sit down at tables together - hungry to see what God can do.

And once again we find ourselves surprised by miracles in the desert. We watch as Jesus takes the loaves into his hands, blesses them, breaks them, gives them right back to us.

And as the baskets are passed we find ourselves wondering why we were so surprised to see there were leftovers to spare...after all, this is who our God is. And this is how it has always been. There is room for all at Christ’s table and more than enough to go around….we are both witnesses to and participants in miracles.

Even here. Even now. Thanks be to God.


One:    For those who see a need and ask, "How might we serve?"
Many:    We give you thanks, O God.
One:    For those who are willing to walk into an unknown space in hopes of finding kindness there,
Many:    We give you thanks, O God.
One:    For those who labor in the fields, drive trucks, stock shelves, and shop for groceries.
Many:    We give you thanks, O God.
One:    For those who continually invite in other partnerships, always asking, "Who else might serve with us?"
Many:    We give you thanks, O God.
One:    For those who plan meals, schedule volunters, prep salads, bag lunches, wipe tables, and offer a warm greeting,
Many:    We give you thanks, O God.
One:    For the steadfastness of your love, which binds us together with neighbors near and far, which calls us outside of ourselves, which inspires us to take risks in the name of love, and sustains us when we are weary,
Many:    We give you thanks, O God.
One:    Bless this Second Helping ministry, O God. Push us to help create a world where no one is hungry and all have what they need. Bless all who gather at tables together. Amen.