Monday, May 24, 2010
May 16, 2010 – 7th Sunday of Easter
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
My son, M, will be three months old tomorrow. He’s officially moving out of his “fourth trimester” – that time during infancy where a newborn is busily adjusting to life “on the outside.” As I’m sure you can imagine, David and I have been reading all kind of research about parenting and child development and – as near as we can tell – these first couple of months are really important for babies. Having just gone through the trauma of coming into the wider world, they rely on their parents to provide stability and comfort. They come to us totally helpless and need constant nurturing if they are to develop a general trust in the world that will serve them their entire lives.
David and I see parenting as one of those God-given gifts and responsibilities that we have been blessed to receive. M, like all children, is a beloved child of God. Now sometimes, at three in the morning, this is all a bit much to remember, but we do our best. As his parents, it’s our duty to take care of him to the best of our ability – to make sure he’s well-fed, warm, safe, and surrounded with love.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a group of mothers about the surprises that come with being a parent. One of the women said that what surprised her the most after she became a mother was how angry she felt whenever she heard that someone had mistreated a child.
I couldn’t agree more. Sure, I’ve always shook my head and wondered aloud how people could hurt a child, but there is something about being a parent that makes it even more incomprehensible. There is something about being in a relationship with just one child – a relationship that is so filled with wonder and mutual delight – there is something about that relationship that makes me think about all children in a different way.
I feel a new responsibility and care for other children – complete strangers, even – that I never felt before.
The scripture reading from Acts today is one of those that is just filled to the brim with plot.
I can image at least 20 different directions you could take a sermon on this one small passage. It is filled with characters – you’ve got the slave-girl who is possessed by a spirit that enables her to tell the future; you’ve got her owners who are taking in tons of money by using this girl; you’ve got Paul and Silas and their friends who the slave-girl proclaims to be “slaves of the Most High God,”; you’ve got the magistrates who make no secret of their disgust for Paul and Silas – calling them outside agitators and sneering at their Jewish heritage; and then after the scene shifts to the prison there are still more characters!
There are other prisoners – we don’t learn much about them; there is the jailer who becomes suicidal upon learning that the prison has been broken open by the earthquake; and finally, you have the jailer’s family who are all baptized alongside him after he accepts Paul’s offer of salvation.
I mean, really – how many sermons could you find in this one story? It is absolutely rich with characters, images, plot, and plenty of ideas about what it means to be a follower of Christ.
One of the threads that I see running throughout this story is the overarching theme of enslavement and freedom.
The story opens with an enslaved girl who follows around Paul and friends calling them slaves. After freeing her from her possession by a spirit, Paul and Silas becomes captives themselves – shut up in prison because they have pushed up against the power structure in Philippi and because they are Jews.
And it’s not just the obvious places that this theme trickles through the story, either, we also see that even the jailer – the one who holds the keys and keeps Paul and Silas in prison – is not free himself. He is bound up by his fear that he will be killed if his prisoners escape. Even the jailer – the one holding the keys – asks for freedom in the end, coming tentatively to Paul and Silas and saying, “what must I do to be saved?”
It seems that everyone in this story is seeking freedom. Freedom from demons and captors, freedom from anti-Semitism, freedom from a brick and mortar prison, freedom from expectations, freedom from fear and oppression in general.
Paul and Silas may have been the only ones praying and singing hymns to God at midnight, but it’s easy to imagine any character in this story singing that they want to break free.
And in this story, there is one character that breaks in time and time again to offer that freedom.
The author of Acts makes it clear to us that God is the source of freedom for everyone in this story. God breaks into their world in weird and wonderful ways to offer liberation.
It turns out that the enslaved girl had it right all along, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” God offers salvation – freedom from captivity – and….this is the really amazing part…God offers it to those who are in jail and those who put people in jail.
Now, many of us sitting in these pews today might not know someone who is in jail. And you might not know any jailers, either. But that’s not because imprisoned folks aren’t out there.
In fact, there are over 2.3 million people in the United States that live in a prison and about 5 million more who are on probation or parole.  The number of people imprisoned in the U.S. has increased – get this – 500% in the last 30 years.
This is a major moral, theological, and human issue sitting right on our doorstep. And, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think about it that often. And I think that’s a problem.
I have a feeling I would be thinking about it more often if I wasn’t white.
Because here’s the deal – my son, my dear, sweet, innocent M who is three months old tomorrow – he has a one in 17 chance of going to jail at some point in his life. Now that number seems pretty high to me. High enough that it makes me wonder if I should be thinking about our prison population more often.
But if M were Latino, he would have a one in six chance of going to jail. And if M were black – it would be one in three.
A one in three chance that he would end up in jail. Just think about that for a brief second. Think about our kids playing and learning down the hallway right now. Imagine the little boys you just saw up here on the steps for children’s time a few minutes ago. And imagine that if we were a black church, instead of mostly white, we would live to see a full one-third of those little guys behind bars someday.
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to think that these are things we should be pondering more often. If the God we worship and the Christ we seek to follow make promises of salvation – and salvation in this story sure looks a lot like freedom – how can we sit around and not care about the more than 6,000 children in this country serving life-sentences….almost 2,000 of them with no possibility of parole?
What is our responsibility to these children? How should we relate to them as fellow humans? As gifts from God? What is our calling, as Christians, as we come face to face with the realization that our nation imprisons more children than any other? How do we proclaim a religion of freedom in the face of this stark reality?
The Children’s Defense Fund is a non-profit organization, founded by Civil Rights activist Marian Wright Edelman. The mission of the CDF is to leave no child behind – and they have been a consistent source of advocacy and research on child welfare since 1973. I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Edelman speak a few years ago at the United Church of Christ General Synod. She spoke about the “cradle to prison pipeline” that exists in this country.
Due to pervasive poverty, inadequate access to health coverage, gaps in early childhood development, disparate educational opportunities and myriad other problems, there are some children in this country who are never given a fair shake. 
There are some gifts from God that we – as a society – do not treat as small creatures filled with sacred possibility.
There are parents who – just like me – want nothing more than to feed, clothe, shelter, and protect their children….but – unlike me – are unable to do so. And it’s impossible to ignore the harsh reality that most of these children don’t look much like M because most of the kids in the cradle to prison pipeline are children of color.
Faced with the reality that our country is still racist – despite the election of a president who has one white parent and one black – I often feel totally overwhelmed. The enormity of our communal sin drives me into despair.
Just in the past few weeks we’ve seen the state of Arizona pass legislation that forbids teaching ethnic studies and a classy television gubernatorial ad with a candidate proclaiming proudly, “This is Alabama, we speak English.”
Like Paul and Silas, we seem to be stuck in a dark prison cell and it feels like there is nowhere to turn but prayer and quiet humming of songs that might lift our spirits. As we wait for an earthquake from God – a earthquake that will shake the very foundations of cultural assumptions and social norms – what else are we to do? Like the jailer we cry out, “What must we do to be saved?”
Some of us await salvation from un-asked-for and sometimes unexamined membership in the ruling class. Just because we were born white we are granted enormous privileges that others don’t have. M didn’t do anything special to earn a one in 17 chance of going to prison instead of a one in 3 chance – he just happens to have two white parents.
Others of us are working to deal with deep-seated stereotypes and ways of being that were taught to us as children. We await salvation from racist ideas that creep into our hearts unexpectedly, shocking and shaming us.
And still others of us struggle daily in the face of racism because it is directed at us. Like Paul and Silas, we are seen as outsiders simply because of who we are as people.
Racism is one of those cruel sins that just keeps on giving – it harms those who have power and those who have had it taken away.
And as I sit in the cold dark reality of the prison cell that is our culture and our racist heritage, I quietly pray and sing hymns to God.
I am waiting for an earthquake.
I know that God is active in our world through the work of people. Big, important people like Marian Wright Edelman. People like Candace Kuby who studies and observes the way young children experience racism and Lanier Holt who examine the way racism and the media interact. People like Norm Overly who work as CASA volunteers – helping children on that cradle to prison pipeline bust out before it’s too late. People like Chris Clouse, Sara and Micah Mobley, Chad Nunley, Linda Plaford, and other teachers who work with children in our public schools each day.
I am waiting for an earthquake.
I know that God is a character in today’s story just as God was a character in Paul and Silas’s story. God is the one who comes to offer salvation – and let’s not forget that salvation in this story looks a whole lot like some unlocked chains – God comes to offer salvation not just to those who are in prison but those who put them there.
I am waiting for an earthquake. And I know that one day, the very foundations of our racist society will shake and be broken.
 Source: www.thesentencingproject.org
 This list comes form the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign report from the CDF. http://www.childrensdefense.org/helping-americas-children/cradle-to-prison-pipeline-campaign/
Isaiah 43: 1-7
January 10, 2010 – Baptism of Christ Sunday
First United Church – Sermon by Caela Simmons Wood
Other churches I’ve been a part of have a tradition of standing for the reading of the Gospel text each week. I think the idea is that whatever is being read from the pulpit when it’s out of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John is so wonderful – so filled with good news – that it is literally uplifting. It’s supposed to lift you out of your seat into a standing position.
This sounds like a lovely theory, but it’s never worked out for me. Sometimes, the reading from one of the gospels doesn’t much sound like Gospel at all. Our four gospels are called such because they are said to contain Gospel – which means “good news” in Greek. And those four particular books of the Bible do contain good news…just not all of the time. It’s always a little hard for me to get excited about standing up when Jesus calls that one woman a dog, or when John the Baptist gets his head chopped off, or when the women leave Jesus’s empty tomb and refuse to tell anyone that he’s been resurrected because they’re afraid.
And then there’s the issue of ONLY standing for the reading from the gospels. As if there weren’t any Gospel news in other parts of the Bible! Just as there are some parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that seem to be decidedly NOT good news, there are plenty of parts of Exodus, Ruth, Jeremiah, Psalms, Acts, Revelation and all the rest that ARE good news.
That’s why I think I’ve always liked it best when people start the reading for the day with, “Listen now for the gospel….” or “Listen now for the word of God…” It makes me sit up and pay attention. It’s like we’re all on a treasure hunt together, searching for a word of encouragement from God. We have to pay attention, or we might miss it.
And I have to admit, I’ve always had this little fantasy that one day – maybe just one day – people sitting in the pews would hear the Gospel – the good news! – within the text for the day and would jump to their feet. Uplifted by the word of God buried in the text. It would look a little like that that legend about Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus – people just standing up because they were moved.
If that were to ever happen, I have to imagine that it would happen with a text like the one from Isaiah 43 that we just heard. It may not be a part of the four gospels, but is there any question that these seven short verses from the prophet Isaiah are filled with good news?
The Gospel truth found in the words of Isaiah is that the people Israel are loved by God.
These words are given as a gift to a people who are often bullied by the bigger kids on the block. They have been through tough times and are likely to see more. They often found themselves wondering, “What did we do wrong? Why is this happening to us?”
And the Gospel of Isaiah is that God loves the people and promises to go with them.
Notice that Isaiah doesn’t promise them a rose garden. He doesn’t say that nothing bad will ever happen to them. Instead, he promises that come what may, they will be accompanied by the love of the great Holy One of Israel. He promises that the waters will not overwhelm them and the fire will not consume them.
This is not a new concept in the Bible. You know the words well, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For thou art with me…”
· God is with the people Israel for the same reason God is with the laid off factory worker trying to swim upstream in a global economic system that doesn’t much care about the rent that’s due next Thursday.
· God is with the people Israel in the same way God is with the parents of a special needs child as they struggle to find shelter in a hailstorm of administrative paperwork and claim forms.
· God is with the people Israel just as God is with the ninety-two year old retired football coach as he takes step after fumbling step through the hallway of the nursing home – striving to walk through the fire of an aging body without being consumed by the flames of despair.
Why does God walk with all of these people? Isaiah makes it plan, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
God loves you. And God shows that love today in the same way God showed that love during Isaiah’s time:
God creates us, forms us, redeems us, goes with us, honors us, gathers us.
This is no Hallmark greeting card kind of love, filled with promises made to be broken.
This is real love. This is active love. Love that reaches out, again and again, even when we are walking through fire and swimming upstream through a raging river.
This is love that will not let us go.
God reaches out again and again and I do believe that, no matter what we do, God will never stop trying to claim us as children. But I also know that, from my own experience, the whole relationship works a lot better when I allow myself to be loved. When I am open to receiving God’s love, it seems all the more real to me.
It makes me think of a great story by Robert Fulghum of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten fame. (Fulghum is, by the way, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, so he has pondered a thing or two about God.)
Anyway, one of his stories that I love is the one about the kids playing hide and seek. Fulghum is looking out his window one day and notices a kid who has been hiding in a pile of leaves for a long time. The other kids are about to give up searching for him – he’s hidden too well. Unsure of how to be helpful, but desperately wanting this kid to understand that the game just doesn’t work if everyone hides too well, he yells out, “GET FOUND, KID!” And the kid scurries off.
God is not like those kids playing hide and seek because God doesn’t give up. No matter how well we hide, God seeks us out. But the joy in being in relationship with the Holy – the thing that makes the game work – is most easily found when WE are found.
Baptism is one of the most visceral and ancient ways that God finds us. Long before the time of Jesus, Jewish people were participating in a ritual that looked a lot like baptism. I’d be willing to bet it happened in other religions, too. Something about the rushing of waters takes people back to an elemental place.
A place where we remember who formed us and who names us. A place where we can surrender ourselves to that Great Love and say yes to God.
Baptism is a way that we accept the good news that God has already said yes to us.
God is standing out there – the great Seeker – ready to find us. Sometimes we bring children, tiny babies even, to the community of faith. We present them as children already formed, named, and loved by God. We say to God, “Here is my child. We know that you promise to keep finding her for the rest of her days.” The water is an outward and visible sign of something that has already happened – this child has been claimed as one of God’s precious children.
Other times, we come to God as adults. Maybe we’ve been hiding in a pile of leaves too long. Or maybe we’ve just been going about our lives, not realizing we want to be found. We bring ourselves to the community of faith where we discover that we are already formed, named, and loved by God. We say to God, “Here I am. I am so glad that you claim me as one of your own.”
Jesus knew this feeling. Just like many of us, Jesus was baptized – claimed as God’s own child. And when he came out of the water, he heard words that sound strikingly similar to those from the prophet Isaiah, “You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus got found. And it gave him the strength and courage to go on doing what he needed to do in the world.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying baptism is some kind of “you have to have it or you’re doomed to be separated from God forever” kind of thing. People who haven’t been baptized are no less loved by God.
Baptism is one way that we, as a community, come together to celebrate something that is already a reality: God the great Seeker never loses a game of hide and seek. Every child is already found.
In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson has a great story about baptism. I wish I could take credit for having a good enough memory of the book to have made this connection, but I’m indebted to Kate Huey, who reflected on today’s Luke passage on the UCC website.
Gilead is a lovely, gentle book about an elderly retired pastor named John Ames reflecting on his life and ministry. John tells the story of being a pastor’s son and getting together with a friend to baptize a litter of kittens. When John’s father finds out that they’ve been baptizing kittens, he chastises them telling them they must respect the sacraments. John recalls, “I did no more baptizing until I was ordained.”
And now, near the end of his life, he reflects on the many humans he baptized during his years as a pastor. But he also remembers the kittens.
"I still remember,” John writes, “how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind….There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”
The act of blessing gives one the sensation of really knowing a creature. Of seeing them for who they really are. Seeing them in the light of the reality that they are a beloved daughter or son of the Most High.
Fully loved, named, redeemed, claimed, sought after, and found.
What a privilege to offer a blessing to another creature of God. To look at another soul, touch them, and say, “The divine
that is within me recognizes and blesses the divine that is within you.”
On this Sunday as we gather to celebrate the Baptism of Christ, we also gather to celebrate and remember our own baptisms. And we are called to do one more thing, I think. We are also called to be in ministry: to go and bless others.
What a privilege to touch another soul and say, “You are loved.” What a joy divine to recognize the holy in another person.
As we prepare for a time of silent reflection, I invite you to consider reflecting with your feet and hands as well.
Those of you that were here at this time last year will remember this little exercise. Up here in the front, we have a bowl prepared with water. In the bottom of the bowl, there are glass stones. If you’d like, I invite you to come to the water, dip your hand in, and remember your own baptism. Remember that you are God’s beloved child – that you are always found and never lost – and that God is well-pleased with you.
As you remember your own baptism, I also Invite you to reflect on this question: “How can I recognize the sacred in another person? How can I offer a blessing?” You may find that you want to go offer a blessing right now – in this very sanctuary. And, if you do, I say go for it! Or you may find that you need some more time to ponder that question. That’s okay, too. Just remember the wet cats, though, and how good it feels to “really know a creature” and do offer your blessing at some point. It is one of God’s great gifts to us.
Finally, I recognize that some of you have not been baptized, thus making it difficult to “remember your baptism,” huh? No worries. You are not excluded from this time of reflection. Please do whatever makes you most comfortable. You may want to come to the water and reflect on the reality that God loves you and has named you. You may want to offer a blessing. You may want to sit quietly. And if, in all this baptism talk today, you are starting to feel like baptism is something you want to know more about or something you want for yourself, please talk to Jack or me. We would love to be with you on that journey.
As always, let’s be on the lookout for people who might need assistance – some folks may need you to take some water to them and there are small cups for that purpose. Children may need help reaching the bowl.
Come now to the water – Remember that you are always found.