Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Refining Fire of Graduate School

“The Refining Fire of Graduate School”
Malachi 3: 1-4
December 1, 2009 – Second week of Advent
Christian Theological Seminary, Sweeney Chapel – Sermon by Caela Simmons Wood

The date was Monday, August 27, 2007 and I was in the common room here at CTS.

Some of you in this room were there with me. I sat in the company of strangers who were about to become fellow travelers along this wild and crazy road called seminary.

I’m a conscientious little student, so I paid a lot of attention at orientation that day. I was eager to soak up tidbits of information that would help me acclimate to my new environment.

I gazed out the windows above the fireplace at the big green leaves. It seemed as if I was miles away from my former life in a full-time job I didn’t enjoy. No deadlines, no stresses, new friends – a welcoming environment complete with a green canopy overhead.

Life was good.

And then Dr. Wheeler got up to speak. Now, I’m not saying that he shattered my sense of excitement about beginning my studies at CTS. It’s just that he shattered my little illusion that everything in my new adventure would be invigorating and life-giving.

After welcoming us to CTS and talking about how wonderful things would be here for us, he paused, looked right into my soul and said these words: “Now, I don’t want you to think this is all going to be easy. This is not Sunday School. It’s graduate school.”

Graduate school. Ah, graduate school….


Oh, dear God. What have I gotten myself into? GRADUATE SCHOOL?!?

The trees gently swaying in the August breeze above the common room faded away. In fact, I think large rain clouds may have opened up and turned the sky black.

My sense of tranquility was shattered as I realized exactly what I had gotten myself into: graduate school.

Late nights reading, papers that don’t want to be written, deadlines, deadlines, DEAD-LINES.

I sighed and resigned myself to the work ahead.


Sometimes, my little sense of paradise gets shattered a bit.

That’s pretty much what happened when I looked up the text in Malachi today.

Here we are, moving from November into December. Last week, we paused to give thanks with family and friends. This week, our minds shift to Advent – the joy of anticipating the Christ child, Christmas carols humming around in our heads, dreams and plans about symbols of our love and affection wrapped neatly under the tree.

And right in the middle of my little candy-cane coated fantasy, the words of Malachi reach out and grab me.

And they turn the sky black.

There are deadlines in this text, all right. But they aren’t the kind that come on a syllabus.

Instead, the prophet writes to his community with a stern warning about the ultimate deadline: God is coming and when the Holy arrives, no one will be able to stand in the midst of that overwhelming presence.

The Holy One is like a refiner’s fire, Malachi says, and like a launderer’s soap.

God is coming to purify the people into silver and gold and to scrub them clean on a big washboard.

This does not sound like a pleasant process. In fact, it sounds even worse than graduate school.

But I think I may have made a slight mistake in calling this a warning.

It may be unpleasant, but it doesn’t seem to be something Malachi’s original hearers were dreading. Instead, God’s judgment is welcomed. In fact, just before this passage begins, the people have been griping and complaining that God hasn’t judged the people faithfully. They see a lot of crazy stuff going on in their world and they are inviting YHWH to come and bring some refining fire and laundry soap.

The prophecy that a messenger will come to refine the people, then, isn’t as much a warning as a promise. A promise that God is faithful and will do what has always been promised: send a messenger to transform the people.


But who is this messenger? In the context of Malachi, it is explicit: the messenger is Elijah – the great prophet who is no longer with the people but who is prepared, at any moment, to come again. In Christian interpretation, this passage was tied – early on – to John the Baptizer. We can see that clearly in our reading from Luke today. John is portrayed as the one who goes before the Lord to prepare the way.

The messenger is one who is coming. One that God sends to be the representative of the Holy One among the people. By identifying this messenger with Elijah, Malachi creates an air of expectation. What will this messenger look like when he comes – will we know it is Elijah? Or perhaps God will come to us in a different form this time – where should we turn our gaze?

I think there are probably a million answers to that question. Our gaze should be constantly roving, seeking new places and faces where we can encounter the Holy One of Israel. The simple truth is, we can’t predict what God’s messengers will look like – and so we have to be constantly on the alert, seeking God in each new generation.


In my own life, I have seen God most clearly not only in individuals, but also in communities.

Communities of faith, communities of family, communities of healing, communities of laughing, playing, singing, learning, crying, striving…..these have all been places I have encountered the Sacred.

And as I stand here at the end of my seminary career, I am aware that this place – Christian Theological Seminary – has been such a place for me. These hallways, these classrooms, this chapel, these grounds, and – most of all – these people….they have all been messengers of God in my life.

Now before we get all cheesy and misty-eyed, let’s remind ourselves of what Malachi’s messenger looks like.

Yes, the messenger is welcomed by the community. Yes, the messenger is proof that God is faithful and has not forgotten the promise to judge righteously. But this is not all candy-canes and Christmas carols.

This is not Sunday School, folks. And it’s not even graduate school. It’s something more painful than that.

Now, I know a lot of graduate students. I’m married to a man who was in college and graduate school longer than he was in elementary and high school. I live and work in Bloomington. Many of the people I encounter on a daily basis are graduate students. And I’m pretty sure all of them would tell you that graduate school does, indeed, feel a lot like being thrown into a refining fire and scrubbed raw with soap.

The hours of reading, studying, pondering….outlining papers, padding papers, throwing away papers and starting from scratch.

It’s a refining experience, to say the least. In one side goes a student who shows promise. And after years of toil in the flames of day-to-day worries and big-project deadlines comes something new – a scholar.

Those of us who are preparing to complete our final deadlines can see the flames starting to die down. We are at the point where we have become just about as refined as we’re going to get in this particular place.

But what has been produced here at CTS is not just a group of scholars, but a group of new beings. We are not the same people we were when we gazed up at the trees on orientation day.


Our seminary experience has thrown us into the fire more times that we’d like to admit.

I wailed and moaned my way through systematic theology. Those of you who had the pleasure of knowing me that semester deserve a special shout out if you are still my friend after listening to that much complaining. I griped about the reading. And, in the end, I griped my way through writing my own statement of faith. And then I put it away…because I figured, hey, I’m done with that. Let’s move on.

But a funny thing happened on the way to ordination – it turns out that I didn’t put that paper away after all.

Those words, the ones that I had painstakingly groped towards during systematic theology – they were still there inside me. They came jumping out of my typing fingers and onto my screen as I was preparing my papers for my ordination examination.

My theology – my own theology! – is something that actually exists and can sometimes even be clearly articulated. What a gift! What a pleasant surprise at the end of a semester in the refiner’s fire.


Many of you can also identify with another refining moment of the seminarian’s career. It is the depths of a seminary student’s own private hell. The place that many of us fear more than any other. It’s an acronym with just three little letters and they are some of the scariest in the English language. Say it with me, friends, if you know where I’m headed: C….P….E.

That’s right. Clinical Pastoral Education. It is, in my mind, the ultimate example of the refining fire of the seminary experience. We go into it for no other purpose than to be refined. We know up front that it’s going to be painful…and, yet, we pay good money to take the course. Why do we do this?!?

Well, aside from the fact that many of us are required to do it by our ordination committees, we do it because we know we need what it has to offer.

We know that there are parts of us that need to be burned off. There are things that we think, feel, say, and do that are harmful to ourselves and to others. They need to be carefully examined. They need to be scrubbed on a washboard until they fall off. They need to be tossed into the flames for a while before they start to fade.

Anyone who has had a positive CPE experience will tell you it was worth it in the end. The anxiety, the tears of frustration, the sleepless nights and the too-long naps on the couch at the end of the day….all of them served to make us into new beings.

God came into our lives in the person of a CPE supervisor, in the community of a CPE group, in the place of a hospital or other CPE setting…and we were forever changed.

We are not yet perfect people – perhaps we can’t even really claim to be silver or gold – but we are transformed because God was faithful to us. God sent us messengers that have made us into new beings. We survived the fire and the scrub-brush…and we emerged transformed.


Some of us are here at the end of our time in this particular refining community. Others have yet a little while to go. And still others have the privilege of staying in this place indefinitely. All of us, though, have to grapple with what Malachi has to say to us today.

I believe that Malachi calls us to take stock of the transformative communities that have shaped our own lives….and to take it a step further.
Through the words of Malachi, I hear this as the good news today: God calls each of us continually refine ourselves and to help create communities where others can seek transformation.

Those of us that are leaving CTS in just a few weeks can’t stay out of the refiner’s fire too long. We must seek new places and experiences to continue our journeys of transformation.

And all of us must ask – what is our role in creating transformative communities in the world?

Where is God calling us to travel?

How can we encourage the creation and growth of places that are able to bring God’s transforming presence to the world?

This is not an easy task. It’s probably more like graduate school than Sunday School.

But, I have to admit – a little graduate school didn’t ruin my life. In fact, it made me into a new being. And, for that, I give thanks to God.


“Out of Sight ≠ Out of God’s Mind”

“Out of Sight ≠ Out of God’s Mind”
Mark 12: 38-44; Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; 1 Kings 17:8-16
November 8, 2009 – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Caela Simmons Wood

When Jack and I picked a date for me to preach in November, I said, “Just not pledge Sunday, okay? Because I did pledge Sunday last year and the year before that I did the Sunday after pledge Sunday it was still about stewardship.”

I thought I could safely slide by, preaching the week before pledge Sunday, and not have to deal with the well-loved topics of stewardship and money.

After all, you’re tired of hearing about money, tired of being challenged to think about how you use your hard-earned dollars. And so, I have some good news and some uncomfortable news for you this morning.

The good news: this is not a sermon about the stewardship campaign. I will not be talking about how to ponder what you give to First United Church.

The uncomfortable news: it’s still a sermon about money. More specifically, it’s going to be a sermon about the wider concept of stewardship. Instead of pondering the stewardship campaign, we’re going to ponder stewardship in a broader sense – taking care of God’s creation.

Creation includes everything, really: the Earth, animals, children, our partners and spouses, our shared projects and endeavors, our friends, our neighbors – even the people we don’t think about very much.

“And why,” you might ask, “are you going to confuse things even further by asking me to think about all of this other stewardship stuff today? I already have enough ‘stewardship’ on my brain just trying to think about my giving to the church. Why are you confusing the issue?”

For that, my friends, I have a simple answer. The Bible made me do it.

Seriously, the Bible made me do it!

Jack and I are both lectionary preachers. We do our very best to examine the texts given to us by the Lectionary committee and address them in some way. In doing so, we not only ensure that this congregation encounters a lot of the Bible, but we force ourselves, as preachers, to deal with texts we’d rather just ignore.

And when this particular preacher took a look at the lectionary texts for this Sunday, the Sunday where I was not – NOT! – going to preach on stewardship, it just got awkward. I couldn’t figure out another direction to take it. And here’s why:

There are three fascinating stories in today’s lectionary – one of them you heard earlier in the service (Ruth and Naomi working together to figure out how to become financially stable in a world where Ruth needed a man to make that happen).

One of them you heard just a moment ago – Jesus’s thoughts about a widow who put her last two cents into the offering plate at the temple.
And the other story, the one that we didn’t hear today aloud, can be found in 1 Kings 17 – the story of Elijah and a nameless widow who is so poor that she’s planning on making one last loaf of bread and then dying.

The element that ties these stories together is the character of “the widow.”

You don’t have to read too much of the Bible to quickly discover that “widow” is not usually used the way we often think of widows today. When I think of widows, I think of someone who has outlived their spouse – someone who is grieving deeply and profoundly because their partner-in-life is now gone.

Widows in the Bible usually stand in for something else, though. In a patriarchal society where women were cared for by the men in their lives, a widow is someone who is financially vulnerable. A woman who is living on the margins of society, totally dependent on the goodwill of others to get by. It is a woman who, like the widow Elijah encounters, is so hard-up that she is scrambling for twigs in the gutters of the city, just so she can light a small fire to eat one last tiny loaf of bread and die.

A widow in the Bible is a woman like Naomi, counseling her daughter-in-law to offer herself to their next-of-kin so that she can get married and have someone to take care of them both.

A widow in the Bible is the nameless woman Jesus observes in the Temple – putting the very last money she has into the offering plate.

Widows in the Bible are symbols for the marginalized. The last, the lost, the least. Those people who lurk on the fringes of society. The people that “the rest of us” don’t notice when we’re walking down the street. And here we have three of them in our lectionary texts – refusing to be ignored, standing right in our faces, saying, “Look at me. Learn from me.”


The Mark passage, usually known as “the widow’s mite” is actually a favorite for stewardship season.

Unfortunately, it usually gets used in all the wrong ways, I think. Stewardship sermons about the widow’s mite usually go something like this: “Jesus was in the Temple, griping about all the fat cats who ran the place when he saw a widow - a woman who didn't have anything - put her last two cents into the offering plate and praised her. Therefore, we should all be all like the widow and give until the very end. Open up your checkbooks, pass the offering plates, turn in your pledge cards, thank you very much!”

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get to that interpretation when you actually read the passage in Mark. For starters, Jesus never praises the widow. No, seriously, go look it up in Mark 12, if you don’t believe me. I was shocked, myself, to discover that this week. All Jesus does is observe the woman giving her last two coins to the treasury and note that she has done so. He notices that what she has given is substantial – even though it’s small in numerical value, it’s huge in terms of sacrifice because it’s all she has.

But his comment isn’t meant to make us all want to be like the widow. Instead, Mark tells this story to make us critical of the economic and religious systems the widow inhabits. A little earlier in the passage, Jesus teaches that the religious leaders “devour widows’ houses” – meaning they force the people who are already impoverished to sell what little property they have in order to pay their dues. They force people to give more than they really can, just so they can walk around in fancy robes and eat at big parties.

And so when I look at this text and try to figure out where to place myself, I am stuck with a reality that I don’t much like. If I have a place in this text, it’s not as the widow. I am not economically marginalized. I am not the victim of a system that takes advantage of me. If I have a place in this story, it’s among those that make Jesus cranky.

And this becomes the point where I really wish I wasn't preaching this sermon! This text - and the multiplicity of the marginalized in today's texts - calls me to account. It forces me to think about stewardship in ways that are even more uncomfortable for me than writing a pledge card.

It makes me think – it’s not enough for me to think about how my family uses our resources on pledge Sunday or on Sundays in general. It reminds me that stewardship is much larger than church campaigns with catchy themes. It’s about all choices I make as I use my resources on a daily basis.


It’s not my place to tell you what to think about this text or how to engage it. I wouldn’t presume to do that because I’m already stressed out enough wrestling with it myself. All I can do it show you a little of where it's leading me and hope that you might take the time to do the same work for yourself.

There are three things that I had to wrestle with when confronted with these texts this week.

First - God cares about how I use my resources. Period. There's just no way around it.

As I child, I may have learned that you’re not supposed to talk about money in public, but apparently the authors of the Bible didn’t learn this rule of social etiquette. Or maybe they just don’t consider Scripture to be public, I don’t know.

Again and again, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures smack us with stories about our financial resources. They confront me when I get squeamish thinking about money. They remind me that God really and truly cares about what I do with my debit card.

The second thing I’m left with is even more unpleasant: Whether or not I realize it, I am a part of systems that oppress people who already have little.

Last weekend, I had a realization of this when David and I were doing our weekly grocery shopping at Kroger. I overheard a couple in the produce section say to a friend they encountered, “Yeah, we don’t usually shop here. We’re Wal-Mart people and it’s just so shocking to see how expensive everything is here at Kroger!”

And immediately, there is was. Just trying to mind my own business, looking at bananas, and I’m confronted with the part my dollars play in the larger economic system. My brain and heart immediately went 1000 directions at once: “Do those people realize that when they get those low, low prices at Wal-Mart it’s probably because people aren’t being paid a fair wage?” And then, almost immediately, “Wait a minute, Caela, don’t be so quick to judge – I’m pretty sure you’re nor really being so virtuous by shopping at another major chain store either. Plus, those bananas you’re about ready to buy probably came all the way from Chile and used up a million gallons of gas to get here.”

The choices I have to make about how to spend money are overwhelming – where to buy, what to buy, when to buy, how to buy. It’s a daily struggle. And whenever I start to feel good about a decision I’ve made, I’m almost always gripped by the realization that I could be doing more.

And this leads me to the final thing I pondered this week: how does what I see affect my choices?

I can choose to see or not see the marginalized. I can choose to see or not see the effect my living has on people our society has labeled invisible and on our Earth. But God sees. And God wants to help me see.

There is a plethora of information out there mean to help educate me on how to spend dollars in a just way. I could probably research every purchase I make – from the big ones, like a car, to the tiny ones, like a cup of coffee – to try and figure out the effect my choices have on the rest of the world.

I truly believe God sends prophets to help us figure out how to negotiate our way in the vast economic systems we inhabit.

But trying to figure out which voices are prophetic and which ones are out to serve themselves is difficult. For example, I just read an article online this week about how major national retailers are advertising their products as “local” because “buying local” is now the big rage. People feel good about their consumer choices when they support a local business, and the big chain companies are catching on. The result is that companies like Frito-Lay are making ads that feature potato farmers and pitch their food as locally grown. And Winn-Dixie, a supermarket chain with over 500 stores, now advertizes itself as “local flavor since 1956.”

Trying to sort out the truth from the hype is almost enough to make me want to throw up my hands, swipe my debit card, and give up.


But just when I’m about to give up, the words of Scripture call me back outside myself. They remind me that I am not alone in the struggle. I may choose to live my life as if the marginalized in our world are “out of sight, out of mind.” But God refuses to do that.

These stories remind me that even those I choose to ignore are never out of God’s sight. God sees the people who struggle to find a way in a world that turns a blind eye. God sees the systems that oppress. God sees my role in the oppression, too.

And God calls me to stop whining about too much information; pause; and prayerfully make the best choice I can.

The good news I found this week is that God believes I can do it.

God believes you can do it.

God believes we all can do it.

God entrusts us with the awesome responsibility of caring for creation. God is there to comfort us when we fail, encourage us when we ask the hard questions, point the way to prophets of truth, provide communities that help us discern the right path, and rejoice with us when we get it right.

And God wants to open up for us the awesome joy of being a part of being stewards of creation - because there's nothing that feels better than when we get it right.

“Can You Be Good Without God?"

“Can You Be Good Without God?"
Mark 7: 24-30, James 2: 14-26, Proverbs 22
September 6, 2009 – Proper 18
First United Church – Sermon by Caela Simmons Wood

Unless you’re new to town, you probably know that some of the Bloomington Transit busses have ads on them that proclaim, “You can be good without God.”

The Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign took out these ads in hopes of spreading a positive message about atheism and sparking “lively public discussion about the secular nature of morality.”

As I’ve watched the whole thing unfold in the media, I’ve found it interesting that most of the conversation has centered around the ads that say, “You can be good without God.” There is another ad that says, “In the beginning, man created God.” As a person of faith, I find the idea that humans created God to be troubling and a perhaps a bit inflammatory. But the idea that you can “be good without God” doesn’t really bother me.

After all, I’ve known plenty of people who were plenty good, but didn’t profess a belief in any deity. And I’ve known plenty of people who go to church every Sunday, but you sure couldn’t tell it by the way they acted the other six days of the week.

Morality and religion often go hand-in-hand, but I think that when we center the conversation about religion around morality, we’re missing a big part of what it means to be a person of faith.

As a Christian, I have to say that my decision to follow Christ isn’t primarily about figuring out how to do the right thing.

I had plenty of elementary school teachers who taught me lots about how to treat other people and the planet without saying a word about Jesus.

If being religious was primarily about figuring out how to be good, I’d probably try and choose a religion that was a little more easily understood than Christianity. After all, why go to all the trouble of trying to figure out the mysteries of why the four gospels can’t even agree with each other about who Jesus was if I could just “be good” without God?!?

Following in the way of Christ isn’t primarily about being good. It’s about being radically transformed.

It’s about a yearning to be united with a power that is so extreme, so radical, so pure – even death cannot contain it.

It’s about cracking open an ancient book and puzzling over stories like the doozey we have in Mark today.

It’s about experiencing the reality of the Holy One in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup – having your breath taken away as you sense your connection to all the other people who have come to the Table filled with a yearning to be made whole.

It’s about surrendering yourself to the realization that you were created by a divine force that your eyes cannot see, your ears cannot hear, and your hands cannot touch – and resting in the assurance that this Sacred Glimmer is the being that loves you more than anyone else in all of creation.

Following in the way of Christ isn’t primarily about being good. It’s about being radically transformed.


Our texts for today dance around this question – what is religion for, anyway? During the children’s sermon, the kids read us some Proverbs from the 22nd chapter of that book. The Proverbs are, in a lot of ways, like those posters that your elementary school teachers hung up around the walls of your classroom to help you learn how to behave. Short sayings – rarely more than two lines long – that could easily be recited and passed down from elders to children.

Some of these sayings were about God, “The rich and the poor have this in common, the Lord is the maker of them all.” And others could easily be put on the side of a bus by the Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign – they don’t say much about God at all, such as, “The clever see danger and hide, but the foolish keeping going and suffer for it”

If you were trying to sort out what it meant to seek God and just had Proverbs to go on, you might walk away with the understanding that religion is primarily about teaching you how to be good with God.

But the next story for today, from Mark 7, would send you in an entirely different direction! The main character in this story, a nameless Syrophoenecian woman, doesn’t seem to care much at all about being good.
She is driven into the standoffish presence of Jesus by sheer desperation. Her daughter is being tortured by a demon and she doesn’t know who else to turn to. We have no indication that she seeks to become a follower of Jesus – only that she believes he can do something alleviate her family’s misery.

Jesus heals her daughter – not because of the woman’s faith, as is reported in Matthew’s version of this story – but simply because she stands up to him when he tries to wave her away.

Incidentally, I’ve got to say that if you slept through the Gospel reading this morning, you’re probably lucky. Jesus is at his most troubling in this passage, calling this poor mother a “dog” and initially refusing to help her. There are multiple theories out there to try to explain away Jesus’s bad behavior – none of which are totally satisfying to me. If you want to know more about them, please come talk to me.

Regardless of Jesus’s behavior, though, the woman’s desperation and persistence sheds light on our ponderings about whether you can be good without God. This godless woman didn’t care an ounce about being good – she even smarted off to an esteemed Rabbi when he was rude to her. Her desperation drove her to transformation...and her encounter with the Holy provided much needed relief for her daughter.

And then we come to our final text for today – the passage from James 2. The author certainly has a few strong opinions about the relationship of morality to religion. James says that we’ll never get anywhere if we just learn all the right words but never do anything. Or in another translation, it says “faith without works is dead.”

There is something about morality – choosing to “be good” – and faith in God that go together. They are not easily separated.

James says, “You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.”

Sure, you can have faith, but if you don’t do anything with it there’s no point in having it. And you can be good without God, but you’ll be missing out another part of the equation – that transformational, soul-shocking, life-changing, world-turning-upside-downing thing called faith.

James says, and I agree, that the whole point of following Christ is to have both – a model for how to be good and a faithful relationship with the One who shocks us out of complacency and into our true calling as beings created in the image of God.


Sara Miles is a woman who knows a thing or two about how faith and works are not easily separated.

The back cover of her book, Take This Bread (which is available in our library) summarizes her story nicely, “Early one morning, for no earthly reason, Sara Miles, raised an atheist, wandered into a church, received communion, and found herself transformed…A lesbian left-wing journalist…Miles didn’t discover a religion that was about angels or good behavior or piety; her faith centered on real hunger, real food, and real bodies. Before long, she turned the bread she ate at communion into tons of groceries, piled up on the church’s altar to be given away. Within a few years, she and the people she served had started nearly a dozen food pantries in the poorest parts of [San Francisco].”

Miles was raised by atheist parents and taught how to be good without God. Miles says, “My parents went to foreign films, took us to Europe to visit friends, and taught us to read between the lines of a newspaper, but they skimped, to say the least, on religious education. I had a book of Greek myths…but no idea who Abraham or Isaiah or Mary were. ‘Some people,’ my father said to me once, as if patiently explaining the customs of a faraway tribe, ‘believe that Jesus was a god.’ He paused. ‘And some people think he was just a very, very good man. A teacher.’”

But even without a religious upbringing, Miles learned to value other human beings and do the right thing. She traveled to far off countries, reporting on areas wrecked by wars. She surrounded herself with people who appreciated her love and care. She gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Katie, who taught her about what it meant to truly be alive.

And then, Miles writes, when she was 46 years old, “early one winter morning…I walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming Christian – or, as I thought of it rather less politely – a religious nut.”

Miles sat in the worship service and tried her best to be invisible, but found herself moving with the others as they moved “in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda.” Before she knew what was happening, someone put a piece of “fresh, crumbly bread” into her hands and passed her a “goblet of sweet wine.”

When she ate the bread and drank the cup, she says, “Something outrageous and terrifying happened to me. Jesus happened to me.”

She was in tears, feeling like she had just “stepped off a curb or been knocked over.” She left the church bewildered. She knew nothing about Jesus. Nothing about Christianity. But something real happened to her when she ate the body and blood of Christ. She says “that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb.”

She kept going back. Shyly at first – sitting in the back, eating the bread, drinking the wine, crying and running away. After about a year of this, one of the priests noticed her regular attendance and - you know how we are when we notice someone’s regular attendance and put them to work – he asked if she would be willing to serve as a deacon and serve communion.

She agreed to serve, and it was out of this powerful experience of giving away the bread and cup that she began to have a vision.

Her vision was of something “sort of like Sunday communion” where people from all over would come to the altar table and receive, not the elements of Holy Communion, but onions and cereal and potatoes and flour and butter to stock their pantries. No identification would be needed, no limit would be set on the amount of food that could be taken, and it would all happen around that beautiful altar table in the sanctuary where she had first experienced Christ.

As you can imagine, when the nice “church people” at St. Gregory’s heard what she wanted to do, they were less than thrilled. The devil was in the details and people were worried about all kinds of things. What about when people came outside of the regular hours? Would these poor people be hanging around the church day and night? And how would they manage to keep the kitchen clean when they couldn’t even keep it clean without poor people mucking it up? And, perhaps most importantly, how on earth could she be thinking about serving poor people from their new altar – hand-built, polished hardwood in the style of an early Palestinian altar that cost $6,000?!?

To their credit, the people of St. Gregory’s eventually got over their fear of outsiders and learned to truly practice what they preached every Sunday during communion – an open table, meant to feed and nourish all who came seeking sustenance.

Miles opened her food pantry and served people groceries right out of the sanctuary and right off of that $6,000 altar table.

The food pantry is still going strong today and if you go to St. Gregory’s website, you can see a video of how they serve people each week. It’s a jubilant atmosphere that looks a lot like a farmer’s market, not a food pantry.

Was Sara Miles able to be good without God? You bet. But, in the end, her conversion to Christianity wasn’t about a desire to be good. It was about a hunger so deep and so real that she didn’t even know it existed until she walked into a church and was fed the body and blood of Christ.

In that moment – in that simple act of being nourished – her life was radically transformed.

Sure, she could have continued right on – being good without God.

But why on earth would she have wanted to?

“God Still Loves a Cranky Teenager”

“God Still Loves a Cranky Teenager”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
August 30, 2009 – Proper 17
First United Church – Sermon by Micaela Wood

When I first went away to college, I took one of those “freshman seminar” kinds of classes. I think this one was on leadership development. One of the things we did that first semester was take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I’m sure many of you have probably heard of it. This assessment tool helps you figure out what your personality is like. You may discover that you are an introvert – that you feel more energized when you are alone – or, if you’re at the other end of the spectrum, you’re an extravert – someone who gets their energy from being around other people.

When you take the test, you end up with a four-letter result that tells you about your personality. I had taken the test several times before, in high school, so I wasn’t too surprised to find out that I was an ENTJ. If you don’t know what those letters mean, don’t worry – you’ll still be able to follow the story.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m preparing to graduate from college. I’m in the process of beginning to discern my call to ministry and I am required to complete a psychological assessment. Part of the program is completing the Myers-Briggs test again. I go about it in a ho hum kind of way, assuming I’ll be an ENTJ, just like I always have been.

Imagine my surprise when I discover I am no longer an ENTJ, but an INFJ! My personality type has somehow changed. I don’t feel like a different person. I don’t think I’m acting all that different than I always have, but the test says I am fundamentally changed.

My immediate reaction is one of pride. Although I hadn’t intentionally set out to become a different person during college, there is a part of me that suddenly realizes that was always in the back of my mind. College is a time for self-discovery. A time where you try new things and attempt to discover who you will be for the rest of your life.

College – and young adulthood in general – is about naming yourself. It’s about deciding who you will be and communicating that to the rest of the world.

There is nothing earth shattering about any of this, of course. We know that the process of growing up is about differentiation – that process by which we become our own person. We go through fits and starts as we try to sort this all out. Can you remember a time in your teenage years where you angrily thought (or maybe even yelled!), “I don’t want to be just like you!” to your parents?

Or maybe you have watched your own children go through this process. One moment they are cuddling you on the couch and the next they don’t want anything to do with you. They are off and into the world, trying to claim for themselves who they will become.

This is a painful process, right? It’s painful for everyone involved. In the process of naming ourselves, we often hurt those we love the most. And sometimes we hurt ourselves, too. Desperate to start on a new, self-defined journey, we often run too far away from the places and people who gave us life.

Sometimes we sever ties that can never be reconnected.

Differentiation – the ways that we claim ourselves as unique creatures and name ourselves – is something we all go through. Sometimes it’s graceful and sometimes it’s ugly.

This morning, we have a front-and-center seat to a process of differentiation that has deeply affected all of us.

In the Gospel of Mark, we hear a story about “the tradition of the elders” – that is how this morning’s passage is titled in the NRSV. In this story, we see Jesus arguing with the Pharisees about whether or not you need to wash your hands before you eat a meal.

Now, on the surface, this looks like a pointless argument. After all, when we discovered germs about a hundred years ago, any real arguments about whether not you should wash your hands before you eat were pretty much shut down. Washing your hands is a good thing.

Of course, most arguments aren’t really about what they appear to be about on the surface.

Before becoming a pastor, I worked for several years in university residence halls. After sitting through about a million and one roommate mediation meetings, I can tell you that arguments that started like this – “She’s always borrowing my jeans without asking!” – were almost never about the jeans.

And so it is with Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees. There is a much deeper issue at hand here and it has to do with differentiation.

On the surface, Jesus is arguing about purity laws. The Pharisees were a group of religious leaders in the Jewish community who advocated for the renewal of Jewish commitment to the Law.
They encouraged people to follow two kinds of laws – those that were written down and those that were passed on by oral tradition. Oral laws were no less important than those that were written in the Torah.

Our gospel writers portray Jesus as someone who was constantly fighting with the Pharisees. Many scholars today, including many Jewish scholars, think this was highly unlikely because Jesus’s teachings have so many similarities to those of the Pharisees.

We know that Mark’s gospel is our earliest gospel, but it was still written about a generation after Jesus lived. What we have in today’s passage is most likely not an argument that Jesus actually had with the Pharisees.

One of the ways we know this is because other Jewish writings from the time of Jesus’s life do not indicate that laypeople were required to wash their hands. Priests were expected to stay more ritually pure than everyday people, so they were to wash their hands, but laypeople like Jesus and his disciples were exempt.

If handwashing for laypeople was a non-issue when Jesus was alive, how on earth did this story get into the Bible?

This is where the deeper meaning comes in. The reason this story is in the Bible is because it’s about an argument happening within Mark’s own community. We’re not sure where Mark wrote his gospel, but because he has to explain aspects of Jewish law, we’re fairly certain it was written to a group of Gentile Christians.

During the time that Mark was writing, the differentiation between Christians and Jews was not nearly as distinct as it is today. The history of differentiation between the two is one that unfolded over many years.

It’s not a pretty story. It’s a story of lots of deep arguments, like the one we see here.

And, in the end, two groups of people who worship the same God ended up parting ways permanently – claiming allegiance to two separate religions and, in many instances, warring against each other.

When we see anti-Jewish language in our Christian Scriptures – when we see Jesus calling the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” – what we are really seeing are the birthing pangs of our own religion.
We are seeing a teenage girl screaming at her mother and slamming the door to her bedroom. We are watching a young man go away to college and refuse to come home for Christmas.

It’s not pretty. But it’s our own history, so we have to find a way to look at it and claim it as our own.


Our Jewish and Christian sisters and brothers living in the first century of the common era were living in desperate times. Under the rule of the Roman Empire, they were unable to practice their faith openly. Around the time that Mark wrote, the entire capital city of Jerusalem was completely destroyed. Wiped out. It was a time of great fear.

One of the things we do when we are scared is try to buckle down and create boundaries.

Boundaries have a way of keeping us safe – or at least making us feel safer.

Jewish identity markers, like the purity laws and dietary laws, were one way of helping Jews feel safe in the midst of the Roman Empire. By naming themselves, claiming their own identity, they could isolate themselves just a bit from the larger culture and pass down their values and heritage to their children.

As more and more Gentiles – that is, non-Jews – joined the movement to follow Jesus within Judaism, conflicts arose over the nature of this new group of Christ-followers.

What initially began as a group of Jewish people following the Way of Christ was becoming less-and-less Jewish. Arguments sprung up about whether or not Gentiles needed to become Jewish – did they need to be circumcised? What about following the dietary laws?

It is into this context, that the writer of Mark tries to speak.

For Mark, this story settles it once and for all. He says that Jesus declares that all foods are clean. Interestingly, Matthew’s version of this story doesn’t have that particular line. But Mark is clear – the battle is over – Gentile Christians have won and all of those silly Jewish customs don’t matter anymore.

But of course, the argument wasn’t over at all. This was just the beginning of Christianity’s young adulthood.
As early Christians sought to name themselves and differentiate, they usually did a terrible job of it. In seeking to define themselves, they almost always did so by defining themselves over and against the Jewish people.

Christianity – a religion started by Jewish people who wanted to follow in the ways of a Jew from Galilee – became more and more defined by being nothing like Judaism.

I know, I know – it doesn’t seem to make any sense. But it’s not all that different than an 18 year old registering to vote and deciding he’s going to register as a Republican because his parents were both Democrats. Or the 20 year old daughter of staunch pacifists who decides to register for the Army because she’s sick and tired of everyone assuming she’s a pacifist like her parents.

We do some crazy things when we’re trying to name ourselves. Trapped and flailing, we often don’t know how to put into words who it is we are or want to become. Sometimes the only words that come out of our mouths are, “Well, I’m not sure how I feel about that issue, but I know that I don’t agree with so-and-so.”

Or how about this one? “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I’m not like all those other Christians. I don’t hate gays and I don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God and I don’t think everyone who isn’t Christian is going to hell and I don’t….”

I don’t.

I’m not like those other people. I’m different. Look at me. See me!

Who am I? Well, I’m not sure yet, but I know I’m not like them.

Naming ourselves is hard work. When we’re first starting out, we get it wrong about as often as we get it right.

Like the early Christians, we often try to differentiate by defining ourselves against other groups of people. In the end, we end up running so far away from home that we often can’t find our way back.

It hurts and it’s no fun to watch.

Which leaves me wondering – of course – if there is a better way.
I sure hope so. I definitely don’t think I have all the answers on how to get there….but I do have one idea that might help us.

What if we begin by noticing all the ways we define ourselves as “not like that”?

When we say, “I’m not some bleeding-heart liberal who thinks that socializing our healthcare system in the solution.”

When we say, “I’m not like all those crazy conservatives who think Obama is trying to kill granny and take away her medicare.”

When we hear ourselves saying, “The great thing about Jesus is that he came to free us from the Law. So now we don’t have to be like those Pharisees who follow every tiny rule – we can just believe in Jesus and be saved through grace.”

When someone asks us what our church is like and we say, “Well, it’s not closed-minded like a lot of other churches.”
I’m pretty sure that if I start to notice the ways I define myself as “not like that” I’ll notice that I do it more than I’d like.

And then I’ll run into a problem…if I’m not going to define myself as what I’m NOT, I’m going to have to figure out what I am.

That’s a scary idea. And it’s going to take some definite work.

But here’s the good news – we don’t have to go it alone. God rejoices in journeying with us.
The God who created us all to be different types of creatures – who told Adam to name the great diversity within creation – that God goes with us as we journey towards naming ourselves.

We are created in God’s image – and we are emboldened to name ourselves by claiming our own connection to God.

God lures us out of our safety zone, daring us to find ways to differentiate without harming others. When we are tempted to take the easy way out and say, “I’m not like this or that” God goes before us, setting a model of who we can really be and whispering words of encouragement as we struggle to say our names aloud.

“Called to Build People”

“Called to Build People” – 2 Samuel 7:1-17
July 19, 2009 – 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Micaela Wood

The king was sitting in his house – exhausted. His body was physically spent from all the battles he had fought. His soul was spent from dancing with abandon as the Ark of the Covenant was brought to its new home in Jerusalem. And he was emotionally spent from the argument with Michal the night before.

And now he settled into his house. Exhausted, proud, and planning.

Always planning.

Even in his worn-out state, King David was never one to sit still for long. As he gazed around his home, he was filled with pride. He – who had once been a lowly shepherd boy tending stinky sheep in a field – now lived in a house made of cedar. He was the king of a nation that was on the rise. They had even reclaimed the Ark of the Covenant – God’s house! – and brought it to the new capital city of Jerusalem.

David’s pride turned to gratitude as he thought of the Ark. He immediately blushed and felt embarrassed that he had allowed himself to get so puffed up, thinking about his fancy house. Of course, none of this would have happened without YHWH. He would not be where he was – in this fine house made of cedar. He would not be king. Jerusalem would not be secure. The people of Israel would not be filled with pride and joy.

And then it hit him – here he was living in this fancy house, but the presence of the Holy One was stuck in a dinky little tent. How could he have missed this?!?

The balance was all wrong. YHWH needed a new home. A place much nicer than the king’s palace. And now that David was firmly established in the land as a competent ruler, he would be the one to make a permanent house for the Lord.

He called for one of his advisors, the prophet Nathan. Excited – King David shared his idea. Nathan was on board. He saw no reason why YHWH wouldn’t want a fancy house, too. He gave King David the green light and the king fell asleep dreaming up floor plans for the new temple that he would build.

Nathan went home and drifted off to sleep, but he couldn’t get much rest.

He kept tossing and turning all night long. He had difficult dreams and awoke in the morning feeling uneasy. As began his morning prayers, he pondered the words he had heard in the night from YHWH. He knew he had to go back to King David and deliver a message that would make the king unhappy.

When Nathan arrived at David’s house, he explained to David that he had spoken too soon. YHWH insisted that there was no need for a house at this time. Instead, God flipped the proposal, saying that God would build a house for King David out of people.

God would create a dynasty for the king that would last for all time and everyone in David’s lineage would be blessed. And in this dynasty would be a son – and it would be his task, not David’s, to build a house for God.

The prophet Nathan spoke all of these words to King David.


I can identify with King David’s excitement over creating something new and wonderful for God. Anyone who has ever been a part of a building campaign, or a new church start, or the revitalization of a church, or a successful service trip knows the joy that comes with the sense that you are a part of a new thing being done in the name of the Holy One.

When David and I lived in Dallas, we were a part of a unique congregation filled with people that we loved dearly and we were proud to be a part of it. While we were members, the church decided to build a new building. We watched with great excitement as blueprints appeared in the narthex. We chatted at coffee hour about how wonderful it was that the new building would be “green”. We couldn’t wait to worship, learn, and serve in this new place.

But it wasn’t meant to be. We left for Indiana before the building was completed.

It seems that we were called to be a part of the growing excitement, a part of the planning, a part of the hoping – but not a part of the realization of our work. It was difficult to leave knowing that we wouldn’t be there to see the opening worship in that new space.

I know, I know, it’s just a building. I’m not particularly proud of the fact that I was so proud to see it built. But I was.

And so I can identify with King David when he dreams his dreams of a new house for God.

I can identify with his longing to make something new and pretty – something that will show the rest of the world just how much he loves God. And just how much the people of Israel are able to accomplish together.

And I can identify with how his heart must have broken when he heard that news that it wasn’t meant to be.


I can also feel his quiet astonishment when he recognized the amazing promise that was being presented to him as a counter-offer.

Instead of building a house for God, God was offering to build a royal house – a dynasty – for him. God’s abiding presence would be with David and his offspring for all eternity.

And since we are heirs of King David through our commitment to Jesus, that means us. God’s promise that we will never be abandoned is still with us today.

So as we left Dallas and the faith community we had come to love, there was sadness and emptiness. But we were assured of God’s promise that God would be with us no matter where we went.

And before long, we found a new family of faith. We dreamed new dreams of the work we could do together. We never forgot our church in Dallas, but we didn’t wallow in misery, either. We were not alone – the presence of God was in this new place, too.



As I pondered these two stories this week, I began to wonder: how do we deal with the reality that we are sometimes not the ones called to build a house for God?

Sometimes we devote our lives to a task and it turns out we are not the ones who will finally see the dream become reality.

Sometimes we work and toil and fight and dream and plan and pray only to discover that our true task all along has been to prepare a new generation to complete our work.

Those huge tasks – you know, like building a house for God – are often ones that take more than one generation to complete.

It makes me think of Moses looking into the promised land and realizing it was not his calling to take the Israelites that far.

And I think about Martin Luther King, Jr. using that same imagery the night before his death when he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop….And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

And I think about women holding up signs in 1923 when the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced. And I see them waving those signs with excitement in 1972 when the amendment finally passed Congress. And I see them laying down their signs with tears of frustration in their eyes in 1982 when the deadline for ratification passed. And I see them today, still working on a dream that is both their own and one for the next generation.

How many huge tasks are there today that people in this very congregation are working on?

We have people who have dedicated their lives to caring for the planet we live on. We have people who work towards equal rights for GLBT citizens. We have people who have dedicated hours to delivering meals to those who are hungry, reading to children who have no one to read to them, dreaming up ways to end poverty in Monroe County, speaking out on behalf of women and children who have been abused, and working tirelessly to ensure that those without health insurance in our community can still get the care they deserve.

There are many dreams within these pews. Many houses for God that are struggling to be built.

And so I ask the question again – what do we do when we come up against the realization that perhaps it is not our call to build the temple, but, instead, to prepare a new generation to build that temple?

How do we find a balance?

How do we continue to work and also commit ourselves to bringing along a new generation?


This past week, many of us spent every weeknight working to bring along a new generation of Christ-followers. We had about 25 children join us for Vacation Bible School each night and about that many more adults encouraging these kids to seek holy space for God in our world.

Halfway through the week, I started wondering – how can we make space for these children’s voices to be heard during the sermon on Sunday? I posted my pondering on facebook and was surprised to hear from one of my high school teachers who had this wisdom to share, “Perhaps the children ARE the temple and all you need to do is listen to them and discuss how they experience God in their lives.”

Such a simple idea, but such a great place to start. So, as you can see, we’ve brought the kids back in from their classes and we want to take a couple of minutes to hear from them. Any kids out there in the congregation, you’re invited to come up here, too.

Ask the kids:
1) How do you explore God in your life?
2) How can the church help you as you explore?

Listening is a holy act – difficult to do and requiring much practice. One of the ways we can practice listening is by making sure we heard what was said. So in the time we have remaining, I want to ask those of you who just listened to our kids to get into small groups of 3 or 4 with those sitting near you and tell each other what you just heard the kids say.

(adults talk in groups)

Finally, as we close out our conversation, you may be thinking: what’s this all have to do with me? As we go forth from this place today, I invite and challenge you to think about the ways you are working in your own life to ensure that coming generations will feel their call to build the temple.

Go with the knowledge that God is with you as you work to create space for the Holy – just as God is with all the generations before us and all the generations yet to be imagined.

“Surprised by God’s Grace and Abundance”

“Surprised by God’s Grace and Abundance” – Acts 10: 44-48
May 17, 2009 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
First United Church – Sermon by Micaela Wood

These past few weekends, I’ve been traveling to Chicago each Friday morning and returning on Saturday night to take a class called Restoring Urban Communities. We meet at Bethel New Life, a large non-profit on the west side of the city.

When I was there just over a week ago, I did something really stupid. My friend Amy and I went outside to eat dinner. I sat my wallet down on the bench next to me when we ate, and when I got up to leave I just left it there.

A few hours later, I discovered it was missing. I called David and he turned off the credit cards. I went back to Bethel the next morning, hoping that maybe someone had been kind enough to turn it in or – at the very least – steal the cash and cards but dump the wallet. No such luck – my wallet was gone.

When I came home from work on Monday afternoon this past week, David said I had an odd package in the mail. It was hand-addressed, kind of bulky, and didn’t have a return address. So I did something else really stupid, I opened it. When I ripped it open, I found my wallet. There was no note.

I was speechless.

I couldn’t believe that some total stranger had the decency to mail my wallet back to me from Chicago.

After I got over my initial shock, I realized that this meant I didn’t have to go to the BMV and wait in line to get a new driver’s license… I think this was the point where I started jumping up and down with joy.

Later that evening, I checked my e-mail and found a response from Sara Frommer to the question I had sent to the church listserv earlier that day – “when have you been surprised by God?”

Sara’s story was about a time a few years ago when she was laid up at Bell Trace. Her roommate was shocked at how many people came to visit her – how faithful they were and how they seemed to know just what she needed. Sara told me about visits from her literacy learner from the VITAL adult literacy program – and many from people at this church.

Dave Edgerton brought her yarn for knitting and responses to a manuscript she was working on. Marcia Stalnaker brought her library books to read. Sandy Pate came with her young children to read to Sara. And I got the feeling there were many more who cared for her but didn’t make it into the brief e-mail conversation we had.

I shared my story about the wallet with Sara and we commented on how we both often see the work of God in the people around us. Sara said this: “You hear people talking about being God’s hands and feet. I believe it.”

Me, too.

Surprised by God’s grace and abundance in a visit from a friend. The kindness of a stranger.

Surprised by God’s grace and abundance:
• The creation of something from nothing.
• The gift of children when we thought there was no way.
• The voice of a leader speaking truth to power and leading us out of enslavement.
• The still, small, silence after the whirlwind while we cower in a cave.
• The unexpected return home when we thought we’d be in exile forever.
• The cry of a baby born in a stable.
• The unbelievable presence of a trusted friend that we watched die a violent death just a few days earlier.

Surprised by God’s grace and abundance. It is our heritage as people of faith.

Our scripture tells us again and again that God is not someone who can be boxed in. Just when we think we have God figured out, God moves in an unexpected way.

Of course, surprises are both good and bad, as one member of our congregation reminded me this past week. Part of the trick of being surprised is figuring out if the surprise came from God, someone else, or if it’s just a random occurrence.

There are no easy answers. But I think one of the challenges for us humans is to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open. If we can attune ourselves to the surprising acts of God’s grace and abundance, we can be travelers on a journey that will take us to places we didn’t even know existed.

That’s what jumped out at me when I read this morning’s text from Acts 10.

Peter and his Jewish friends went to the home of Cornelius – a Gentile, non-Jew. They didn’t really know what they were going for, but Peter had had this wacky vision that convinced him to go. He was open and attuned to the ways God might be moving in his life and he was willing to follow.

Once they got there, they remained open to the possibility that God was working in the lives of the Gentile people in Cornelius’s house. Their openness led to the baptism of all those present. A movement that had previously been almost exclusively Jewish was suddenly opened up to a whole new category of people.

Surprised by God’s grace and abundance? I’m pretty sure they were.

Now, to understand the full impact of what was going on here, let’s take a little scene-by-scene exploration of what has happened in the book of Acts up until this point. You’re going to have to forgive my lack of art skills – this would be a place where it would be handy to have a screen so we could project things.

You might also want to grab a pew Bible as we take this tour and open it up to Acts.

Any high school English teacher would be proud of the author of Acts, because the author outlines the structure clearly at the beginning of the book. Chapter 1, verse 8 is the key to understanding what’s about to happen in the book of Acts, ”You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This book is going to be about the work of the Holy Spirit and it will show us how it spreads from Jerusalem, to the nearby regions of Judea and Samaria, and all the way to the ends of the earth. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to follow the works of the Spirit and see where they lead us.

As we read along, it becomes pretty clear that baptism is one of the ways we can track the work of the Holy Spirit…so let’s follow the baptisms along.

Scene 1: Acts 2. It’s the Pentecost story. Jewish people from every nation were gathered in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in tongues. We’re told that about 3,000 of them responded by being baptized – which was, for them, an outward sign of God’s grace within them and their desire to be a part of this new Christian movement. I bet the people who did the baptizing slept well that night! That’s a lot of dunking.

Scene 2: Acts 8. We’re in the city of Samaria – north of Jerusalem. There is a magician named Simon. You can tell he’s a magician because he’s got a tophat in my drawing. Simon realizes that his magic tricks aren’t the real deal and that he wants some of what the apostles have to offer, so he asked to be baptized. Notice how we’ve moved out of Jerusalem into Samaria, just like verse 1:8 said.

Scene 3: Acts 8 still. We heard this story last week. A man from Ethiopia is on his way to Gaza, southwest of Jerusalem. Philip approaches him while he is in his chariot and they have a conversation. The man asks to be baptized and Philip agrees. Here we notice that we’re not only outside of Jerusalem – in Judea – but the man from Ethiopia is from even further away. Also, his is almost certainly not a Jew but a Gentile who is interested in Judaism.

Scene 4: Acts 9. Saul, a devout Jew, is travelling to Damascus – far to the north of Jerusalem. On the way, he encounters the risen Christ. He is temporarily blinded, but gets his sight back again when Ananias lays hands on him. He responds by being baptized and immediately changes his tone about followers of “the Way.” He begins preaching about Jesus to others.

Scene 5: Finally we arrive at Acts 10. Cornelius, who is a part of the Roman army and is not Jewish, has a vision of an angel (he looks like an apple in this picture, but those are supposed to be wings) who tells him to go and find a man named Peter who is staying in Joppa. Around the same time, Peter is in Joppa and has a vision that convinces him that God “shows no partiality” and there are no unclean people. Some men that Cornelius had sent to Joppa arrive and ask Peter to come with them to Cornelius’s house in Caesarea.

Scene 6: Peter and his Jewish friends arrive at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea. It’s a little awkward because no one is really sure what they’re supposed to be doing there. They’re all just doing what God told them to do. They share their visions with one another and then Peter begins to tell the gospel story to Cornelius and all his Gentile friends and family.

As Peter is talking with the folks at Cornelius’s house, the Holy Spirit falls on them just like it did in Acts 2 in Jerusalem. They begin speaking in tongues – which they see as evidence of the Holy Spirit being present. Initially, the Jewish friends of Peter are shocked because they had thought God’s gift of the Holy Spirit was only for them. But Peter is used to being surprised by God and says, “It’s cool. They’ve received the Holy Spirit just like us. So let’s baptize them!” They are all baptized and everyone lives happily ever after.

Scene 7: Well…not quite. Right after the Gentiles are baptized, Peter returns to Jerusalem and has to explain to the other Jewish followers of the Way what exactly is going on. The ongoing controversy over what to do with Gentile followers of Chris is only getting started. The rest of Acts is the story of the gospel being spread beyond Judea and Samaria – to the ends of the earth. And as the movement spreads, more and more Gentiles hear the gospel and want a part of it.

This question of who can be included in this new movement of Christ-followers is one that isn’t easily solved.

One of the key factors in Peter’s willingness to baptize the Gentiles at Cornelius’s house is that he gets a serious sense of déjà vu when he sees the Holy Spirit poured out onto the Gentiles.

Because he was present at the Pentecost in Jerusalem, he knows exactly what he is seeing and there is no question in his mind that this means God wants to include Gentiles in the new movement. In fact, this story is sometimes referred to as the “Gentile Pentecost” – the moment where the Holy Spirit was given to a group of Gentiles.

This lovely symmetry between the two Pentecosts reminds me of another response I got to my e-mail inquiry earlier this week.

Dave Edgerton says that God has often surprised him through “felicitous little coincidences” (a phrase he borrowed from an article he read). Dave says that when his father died on a winter morning at Bell Trace, it was a gray day and there was snow visible outside the window.

The family was gathered around and at the moment Dave’s father passed away the sun came out and “the room was filled suddenly with dazzling winter sunlight.” Dave says he was crying, of course, but when the sun started to shine theatrically, Dave couldn’t help but laugh. Dave says he saw God as “the Performance Artist.”

No doubt Peter would have seen God the same way. A performance artist – sweeping into the realm of human history through the Holy Spirit – causing people to react in stunning ways and opening the door for God’s own grace and abundance to burst through and be recognized through the act of baptism.

God’s over-the-top performance left little question that accepting the Gentiles into the fold was the only way to go.

Who are the people standing outside our fold today? Who are the people that – if they were here among us and showing evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit – we would be in shock?

Who are the groups that would cause us to ask, “Even them, God? Even they should be baptized and welcomed into our community?”

This particular congregation of Christ-followers – First United Church – has historically led the way in welcoming people into our congregation.

But the thing about God is that there are always more surprises ahead.

Like Peter, we are called to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open. We are called to be on the lookout for God’s performances – whether they come in flames from the sky or a quiet visit from a friend.

God is always seeking new ways to pour out more grace and abundance than we can even imagine.

Will we join Peter in opening our eyes, ears, and hearts so we can go places we never even imagined?

“A Tent Held Up by Words”

“A Tent Held Up by Words” – Exodus 20: 1-17
March 15, 2009 – 3rd Sunday in Lent
First United Church – Sermon by Micaela Wood

There is a snippy little white dog in the neighborhood where I run. The first time I met this dog, I was out for a run with my beagle, Yankee. The dog came charging out of its backyard and chased us down the street.

After several anxiety-causing interactions with this little bundle of energy, I began to dread running down his street. But one day, something different happened. As we rounded the corner, I braced myself for that mess of fur to come tearing after us. I saw him fly out of his backyard toward us. This time, though, he stopped short and stayed in his own yard.

As he stood there yapping at us, I scratched my head trying to figure out why he wasn’t chasing us. Then I saw a small little sign, close to the ground in their yard – they had installed an invisible fence.

Now, when we run past we smile and wave at the little white dog and he yaps and wags his tail at us. I don’t have to worry about him chasing me or getting hit by a car. A boundary has been set for him.

Boundaries are a good thing. They provide structure and guidance for little white dogs and for humans of every shape and hue. They create order in world that is full of chaos. They allow us to live in community with each other.

Boundaries – especially the boundaries set by God for God’s people – can be a visible reminder of God’s liberating nature and guide us to abundant life.

Most of us learn boundaries by living in community.

They are taught to us by our parents – “it’s not polite to stare.”

They are taught to us by our schools – “the faster we all line up and get quiet, the sooner we can go to lunch.”

They are taught to us by the larger society – “I saw that you’re new to the neighborhood, so I brought you some cookies.”
And they are taught to us by our religious institutions.

Many of us have known today’s passage from Exodus 20 nearly all our lives. My first memories of it are from a poster hanging in my Sunday School room when I was a child. On the poster were two big stone tablets, listing all ten of God’s commandments with big Roman numerals.

They came to me entirely out of context – just floating words on the wall.

Interestingly enough, they come to us in the Exodus setting out of context, too. These ten commandments are called the ten words in the Jewish tradition. Scholars haven’t been able to pin down their origin, but the ten words seem to have been used regularly in ancient Jewish worship. The flow of the pronouncements makes it easy to see how a group could recite them. Early hearers could count them carefully on their fingers and pass down these guiding words from generation to generation.

The ten words of YHWH appear both in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. In both passages, they are nearly identical, suggesting that the Israelites did indeed know them well and passed them along with great consistency.

In their Exodus setting, however, they come to us in a jarring fashion. Moses has been traveling up and down a mountain, talking to God. At the end of the chapter 19, Moses has just traveled down from the mountaintop once again to deliver a message to the people. Abruptly, we read “then God spoke all these words…”

God’s voice breaks forth out of the blue, reassuring the people with words that have long been written on their hearts: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

As Christians, we come by these ten words second-hand. They originally belonged to the people of Israel and we share them with Jews around the world today. Too often, Christians have claimed that we are the only ones who can claim a relationship with God. Passages like the one we heard from John earlier today are used to support a view that Jesus was anti-Jewish, which is completely inaccurate since he remained a faithful and engaged Jew throughout his life. But that’s a sermon on John for another day.

Thinking back to the ten words, though, it seems strange to me that so many of the people who want to post the ten commandments on the lawn of the courthouse are the same people who say that the “God of the Old Testament” is no longer relevant because Jesus came and established a new and better covenant. If that’s the case, then why are they so attached to the ten commandments?

Fortunately, in the past fifty years, there have been a number of Christians saying we can do better than this. We know that we can honor the relationship between God the Jewish people seriously without feeling as if our own relationship with God is threatened. We understand that there is a rich tradition in Judaism that can teach us.

Traditionally, Jewish scholars have numbered the ten words differently than we Christians. For Jews, the first word is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

They then combine what we see as the second and third words “you shall have no other gods” and “you shall not make for yourself an idol” into one proclamation. On the surface, “I am the Lord your God” doesn’t seem like much of a commandment at all. Rather than telling us what to do, it simply makes a statement of who God is – a God of liberation.

But to say that God is our God is more than just a statement about God. It also radically alters who we are.

To say that God is our God means we will never see ourselves, the world, or our place in it in the same way again. Walter Brueggemann, a UCC scholar I often like to consult, says that the people of Israel had been set free from the oppressive bondage to Egypt so they could form a new, liberating, covenantal bond with YHWH.

For the Israelites, that first word was radical statement of belonging. A people who had, just very recently, belonged to the powers-that-be in Egypt are now being claimed by a new power – YHWH. The one that is.

This first word is followed by nine others that are meant to set boundaries and guide the community’s relationship with God and with all of creation.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a preacher in the Episcopalian tradition, uses the image of a tent for the Israelites’ relationship with YHWH. She says that the promises of God – the promise of many descendents for Abraham and Sarah, the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey – these promises are the canvas of the tent. They clothe the Israelites in the wilderness and provide hope.

But the ten words YHWH gives to the people – the boundaries YHWH sets for living – these are the tent poles. They provide the structure and support for a life lived in YHWH’s promises.

Of course, these ten words are just the prologue. God reveals a total of 613 laws to the people Israel throughout the Torah. Now you may be thinking that 613 seems like a lot to remember, but think of it this way – when we look at the ten commandments, we see that nine of them can be kept while you’re sleeping.

No other gods? Check.
No graven images? Can’t make one during a nap on the couch.
Don’t take God’s name in vain? Not a problem unless you talk in your sleep.
Honor the Sabbath? Well, I know that taking a nap on the Sabbath is one of my favorite ways to rest.

In all seriousness, though, we Christians have a tendency to think of the laws of the Torah as cumbersome. But I think that’s primarily because we were not raised in the Jewish faith. We did not grow up learning these guidelines from our parents. They are not the poles holding up our tent.

Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt, explains that even non-religious people keep thousands of laws. Each of us has to learn what is and isn’t acceptable in our society. But we learn it in a way that it doesn’t feel overwhelming because we learn it over a long period of time from people we love.

And so it is with the words given by YHWH to the people of Israel. Passed down from generation to generation, the guidelines don’t chafe and tug. They are simply the poles that support a tent holding up a community of faith.

The ten words – these boundaries – are essential for living. After all, what good is a tent without poles?

We, as Christians, are privileged to be invited into that tent. Through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we became grafted into the tree of Israel. A great image that I’m borrowing from the Apostle Paul – you can look up the full story in Romans 11 if you’d like. Just as the tree of Israel has not been chopped down, the tent of Israel – it’s promises and laws – has not been torn down, it’s just been enlarged. Through Christ, we are invited to experience a relationship with YHWH – the one who is – through the gracious gift of God’s words of boundaries.

Now, let me ask you a question. Have you ever known someone who needed some poles for their tent? Some boundaries?

My cousin Eldon was one of those guys who needed boundaries, but he lives in a new tent these days. Eldon – who we sometimes call “Big E” for short – is from Oklahoma. He speaks with a long drawl. He rides big motorcycles and is about twice the size of me. He has a shiny bald head and lots of tattoos.

Eldon’s face lights up like a child on Christmas morning when he talks about his march out of Egypt. You can see the parted sea reflected in his eyes as he remembers the day his shackles were broken.

Just over three years ago, Eldon was in bondage. He lived to get to his next high. He was addicted to drugs, alcohol, women, and fighting.

One day he was at work and was about to get in a fight with his boss. He paused for a moment. He had never prayed before and didn’t really believe in God anyway but in that split-second a voice came to him out of the blue.

Eldon tells me it sounded a lot like his own voice, but he knows it came from somewhere outside of his body. The voice said, “You do not need to fight him. Go to a meeting.”

Instead of hitting his boss, he punched his time clock and went to his first twelve-step meeting – Alcoholics Anonymous. The voice of God – from out of the blue – gave Eldon clear boundaries to follow: fighting is not good, going to a meeting is better.

As the days went by God continued to give Eldon boundaries and Eldon kept following God’s voice – picking up manna and quail along the way.

Eldon left the job that was making him so angry.
He left the woman he was living with because she didn’t want to quit using.
He put down the beer that would be “just one” because he had learned that he could never have “just one” again.

Eldon followed that voice all the way into a halfway house. And when he got there, he looked up at the stars through a hole in the roof of his tent.

He blessed the name of the Holy One and gave thanks for the promises that were too many to count. And he gave thanks for the boundaries that made his tent a home.

Not all of us will have an experience as dramatic as Eldon’s. But at some point in our lives, we will all find ourselves both enslaved and set free.

Like ancient Israel, we may be enslaved to imperial powers that treat us unfairly and with contempt.
Like Eldon, we may be in bondage to addictions that are beyond our control.
We may find ourselves at the mercy of global markets that do not care about our 401Ks.
We may find ourselves trapped in an abusive relationship or beholden to a horrible medical diagnosis.
Or we may lose ourselves completely – rendered unrecognizable by mental illness.

It is in these very moments of wilderness wandering that God speaks to us out of the blue. Our God – the God that frees us – liberates us with words of boundaries.

And it is in this carefully crafted tent of freedom – clothed in the glory of God’s promises and held aloft by the firmness of God’s care – that we are able to truly live.

"I Am Baptized"

“I Am Baptized” – Mark 1: 4-11
January 11, 2009 – Baptism of the Lord
First United Church – Sermon by Micaela Wood

On David’s birthday this past summer, he and I were in Los Angeles visiting my brother. We have a long history of traveling on David’s birthdays – one time to Ireland, and several times across country in a U-Haul when completing a move – and this was no exception. As we woke up with L.A. sun streaming through the windows I said to David, “Happy birthday. How does it feel to be thirty?”

With barely a pause he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about starting my public ministry.”

It took me a half-second to realize he was not actually referring to a major life change, but was – instead – just cracking a joke.

Jesus was about 30 years old when he started gaining a public reputation as a holy teacher and I guess my husband was feeling inspired to follow in his footsteps that morning.

Thirty years is a long time.

Now, I know that 30 years seems longer to me than it does to some of you because I haven’t yet made it to that ripe old age and some of you barely remember it.

But any way you look at it, a lot happens in a person’s life before they turn 30.
They have had countless experiences that have formed them into the adult that they will likely be for the rest of their lives.
They have developed relationships with people that have nurtured and sustained them on their journey.
They have completed things that make them proud.

People who are 30 are no longer children – by our standards or by the standards of people who lived during Jesus’ time.

In fact, 30 was getting up there in the ancient middle eastern world. The majority of people died before they reached adulthood, so making it to 30 was no small feat.

Jesus was somewhere around 30 years old when we first meet him in Mark’s gospel.
He has survived childhood.
He likely has relationships that are important to him.
He has probably done some things that make him proud.
He has had countless experiences that have shaped and formed him into the person he will be for the rest of his life.

And he appears to us as a complete stranger.

Luke and Matthew tell the story of Jesus’ remarkable birth in Bethlehem with a cast of bright stars, shepherds, angels, and magi close by. John takes Jesus’ birth narrative way back – to the beginning of time when Jesus was with God at the very creation.

But in Mark – our earliest gospel – we see none of these stories about Jesus’ ancestry, origin, birth, or childhood. Instead, Jesus comes to us as an adult. We do not know who his family is – something that would have been of paramount importance in his culture. We do not know what he does for a living. We know almost nothing about him.

And yet – the author of Mark tells us in the very first sentence that his story is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”

That’s no small potatoes.

The phrase “son of God” is probably something we should look at for a minute because it has become so loaded with multiple meanings over the years.

Most of us Christians probably think that Jesus was referred to as the son of God because some of the gospels tell us that the Holy Spirit miraculously impregnated Jesus’ mother, Mary. This is one meaning of the title “son of God” but Mark’s use of the phrase “son of God” means something different.

In ancient middle eastern culture “Son of…” was simply a way of saying “this is a person that has the same characteristics as someone else.” So to say that Jesus was the “son of God” was to say that he was God-like, divine in some way.

In a society like Jesus’ where reputation and honor was based almost solely on family status, convincing people that this 30-year-old unknown son of a carpenter from the sticks was God-like was no small task.

We’ve seen how Matthew, Luke, and John tell the story – highlighting Christ’s presence with God from the very beginning, showcasing the angels and important visitors, telling the story of a miraculous star in the sky heralding the child’s birth.

So if Mark doesn’t have any of those birth stories, it seems to me that what he does say about Jesus in this first chapter must be very important. It must be something that will really wow us. Something that will begin to make us take notice of this no-name guy from Nazareth.

Mark’s opening salvo is the story of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer.

This incident from Jesus’ life is important enough that Mark believes it should be the opening act. The first thing we need to know if we’re going to understand who Jesus is.

Jesus’ baptism is the moment that begins to lay the groundwork for Mark’s argument that this 30 year old no-good-family-connections, carpenter-from-the-middle-of-nowheresville is the closest thing to God we’ve ever seen.

What is it about this story that is so compelling, so important to understanding who Jesus is?

One of the things that impresses me about the story is the way this baptism truly created a thin place – a place where the holy breaks in and grabs us, saying “Look! Pay attention! God is present!”

The scene as Mark paints it is full of everyday, mundane things:
people taking a trip to the country to hear a traveling preacher,
a murky river flowing through the crowd,
a man wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey.

It is all so earthy. So connected with the day-to-day muck of being human.

And yet – in the midst of all this humanity, something holy breaks in. After John baptizes Jesus, dunking him under that cool dirty river water, “the heavens are torn apart and a spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, saying ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Something holy breaks in to stir the monotony of daily life. God is about to do a new thing. This 30-year-old no-name guy from Galilee is the son of God.

I don’t know what Jesus thought when he got up that morning and went to the countryside to hear John the Baptizer preach.

I like to imagine that he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into. He was 30.
Maybe he was looking for a change in his life.
Maybe he had settled into a routine but wanted to shake things up a bit.
Maybe he ate his oatmeal while watching the Today show and thought, “I hear this John guy is doing something different.”
Maybe he packed up his work bag and locked the door behind him but found his feet taking him away from the office and towards the River Jordan, thinking, “Today is the day to find something new.”

I don’t know. Maybe he knew exactly what he was getting into. But maybe, just maybe, he didn’t.
Maybe the voice from heaven was as much a surprise to him as it was to everyone else.
Maybe he didn’t know the depths of God’s love and affection until he saw the dove descending from the sky.
Maybe he didn’t know he was a child of God until that very moment.

That moment when a regular day down by the river became an opportunity to touch the holy.

I guess part of the reason I like to imagine Jesus being not so sure about what was going to happen that day is because it makes me aware that holy moments like the one by the Jordan River can happen in my life, too.

I might wake up thinking I’m just going to have an average day and, instead, find myself hit over the head with a dove descending from above carrying a gigantic sign that says, “God loves you! Remember?!?”

I may find myself sitting in the chair in my living room, beating myself up about some stupid thing that I’ve done, wondering why I’ve messed things up again, only to discover a small voice telling me that God is well pleased with me.

We may not know what we’re getting into when we wake up in the morning and go about the business of being human.

Now, this may seem like a total departure from the subject at hand, but stick with me. Martin Luther – you know, the one that lived in the 16th century and stirred up a lot of trouble with the Roman Catholic Church – Martin Luther likely did not know what he was getting into when he first started voicing his complaints about the institutional Church.

Before long, he found himself imprisoned in Wartburg Castle in central Germany. He was taken there for his own protection – after being kicked out of the Catholic Church there were lots of people who wanted to harm him. He hid there in solitude for almost a year.

Day after day he worked away on his translation of the Second Testament into German, but he also spent a fair amount of time just wallowing in his misery. His health was poor and he was lonely. He argued with God and felt abandoned. His spiritual journey was at an all time low.

Throughout this year-long struggle, Luther found his hope in three small words. Every day, he would write the words “I am baptized” on his desktop.

“I am baptized.” That reminder that he was God’s beloved child and that God was well pleased with him were enough to sustain him during the darkest night of his soul.

If remembering his own baptism was enough to sustain Martin Luther, what might it mean in our own lives? If the story of Jesus’ baptism is important enough that it is how Mark begins to tell us Jesus is the son of God, what might it mean in our own lives?

I believe that baptism is an outward sign of what is already internally true for every person – is it the way that the church gathers together publicly to witness to the astounding truth that we are all children of God and that God is well pleased with us.

Through our baptisms we do what Jesus did: we accept God’s love and feel it rushing over us in one of the most vital elements in all of creation – water. Through that water and the spirit the mundane mingles with the holy and, before we know it, we are in over our heads, going places we never thought we’d be going, doing things we never thought we’d be doing.

And – through it all – we carry in our hearts those three words Martin Luther wrote on his desk while in prison: “I am baptized.”

God has called us by name. We are God’s own children. God loves us and is well-pleased with us.

As we prepare for the moment of silent reflection that comes after the sermon, I would like to invite you to reflect with your feet and your hands.

Up here we have a bowl filled with water and, in the bottom of the bowl are glass stones. If you would like, you are invited to come up front, dip your hand in the water, remembering your own baptism. As you do so, remind yourself that you are God’s beloved child and God is well pleased with you. The stone is meant to be a token and visible reminder of God’s love for you.

Also, if you or your child have not yet been baptized but would like to be, I invite you to speak with me or with Jack any time. We love to do baptisms and we know that First United Church would be honored to be a part of that holy experience with you.

Come now to the water. Remember that you are God’s own child.