Tuesday, July 20, 2010

“Freed for Unconventionality”

“Freed for Unconventionality”

Luke 10: 38-42 (feat. Col. 1: 15-20)

July 18, 2010

First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

This story about Mary and Martha gets a little old for me sometimes. I’m not gonna lie, I find it somewhat tedious. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard one too many sermon that make it sound like being busy is the worst thing you could be. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too many interpretations which put down Martha for doing “woman’s work.” Maybe it’s because I want Jesus to stop being such a cranky-pants, get some social skills and share his point of view with Martha in a kinder way.

I don’t know. It could be any of those things but what I’ve realized as I’ve struggled with the story this week is that there is one thing I’m certain troubles me about the story: there’s not enough information here to just take it at face value, learn a nice lesson, and move on with my life.

It’s a short, short little story, for sure. And I’d be willing to wager money (you know, if ministers did that kind of thing) that whatever the encounter between Mary, Martha, and Jesus was actually like, it wasn’t like this.

We have in the gospels, two stories of these sisters hanging out with Jesus. In this version, they are home alone and it seems like Martha owns the house. This is no small potatoes. In fact, I think Luke highlights that on purpose because it’s all very Luke of him.

Luke has a tendency, in both his gospel and the book of Acts, to lift up women time and time again. It’s one of my favorite things about Luke. I think Luke’s version of this story shows Jesus praising Mary’s work – sitting at his feet as a disciple – precisely because it was not “women’s work” at the time. Luke is lifting up the idea that women were valued members of the early Jesus community. They were leaders, teachers, disciples.

In fact, the very word that Luke uses to describe what Martha was doing suggests that she was doing some church work, too.

In your head, I’m pretty sure you assume that Martha is busy making dinner for Jesus. That may be the case, but according to the Greek, we just don’t know for sure.

What the text says she’s doing is diakonia. If that word sounds like deacon to you, you’ve got a keen ear. Diakonia is the Greek word for service, but not just everyday service like waiting on tables. It is, instead, the service of the church. Ministry. Martha was busy doing ministry. Perhaps she was busy folding linens for the interfaith winter shelter, or counting the money that would be donated to MCUM, or folding the church newsletter, or making a list of who she needed to visit in the hospital that a week, or writing a sermon.

I think it’s unlikely that Luke had in mind that she was making a meal for Jesus, because there were plenty of other words he could have used to say that. I think he meant that she was busy doing the work of the religious community that centered on Jesus.

Why, then, does Luke lift up Mary’s work of listening above Martha’s work of active service? I’m not 100% certain, but I have some thoughts. I’m gonna ask you to bear with me though and put a pause on that question for a minute because I also want to talk about these two women and their appearance in the Gospel of John.

In John’s version of this story, the women do not own their own home. They live with their brother, Lazarus. Already, in that one small detail, we can see that Luke and John were choosing to lift up different aspects of these two women and their relationship to Jesus. Luke gave them a setting that made them powerful, independent women. John gives them a more traditional women’s role.

Anyway, their brother Lazarus is the one whose death causes Jesus to weep (you know, that shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35 for those of you that like to play Trivial Pursuit). And then Jesus raises him from the dead. His sisters, Mary and Martha, play prominently in that story. And then, in the next chapter, John 12, they make a second appearance in a story that sounds a bit like the one from Luke.

In this version of the encounter, the three siblings host Jesus for dinner. Martha serves and, in John’s Greek, Martha diakoneo, a word that sounds a lot like the one Luke used, but has a different connotation. This word means served in less of a I’m-doing-the-work-of-the-church kind of way and more of a I’m-ministering-to-you-in-a-baking-the-bread-setting-the-table kind of way. And John makes it clear that Lazarus, the man, was the one who sat at the table with Jesus as his peer.

And what did Mary do? Well, Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with costly ointment and wiped them with her hair. As in Luke’s story, she sits at his feet (this time anointing, not listening) and as in Luke’s story, she is affirmed by Jesus when other challenge her actions.

Holy smokes – why I am telling you all this?

I’m telling you this because when we have texts from the gospels that don’t seem to match up, places where it seems certain there has been a bit of confusion and some heavy editing going on, I think it’s helpful to do some compare and contrast. Not because it’s a fun little academic exercise, though I’m sure it is for some. No, we do this because it helps us figure out what, if anything, this living text has to say to us today in the here and now.

Somewhere, somehow, some way, some version of this story took place. And then it got edited and passed down and mixed up.

What is the story behind the story? What happened that made it worthy of writing down?

Part of the answer to those questions, I think, it at the heart of what we can learn from this passage. And here’s what I’d like to offer as a possibility: God shocks us out of our proper roles through our encounter with Christ.

When societal conventions tell us that women are supposed to stay in the kitchen and instead they encounter Christ – some of us are shocked into plopping down at his feet, taking out a notebook, and furiously learning all we can. God shocks us out of our proper roles through our encounter with Christ.

When society norms make it clear that we should be saving up our money to care for the poor and not wasting it by pouring it out on Jesus’s feet in an act of worship – some of us surprise ourselves by giving ourselves away again and again to follow Christ. God shocks us out of our proper roles through our encounter with Christ.

I’m not sure what exactly happened with Mary and Martha to inspire these two stories, but whatever it was, Jesus affirmed some unconventional behavior that was inspired by an encounter with the Holy.

Which brings me back to that question I posed about Luke’s version – why does Jesus get all snitty with Martha who is arguably just doing what she’s been called on to do? Just recruiting those volunteers to host for coffee hour. Just signing up to read scripture. Just getting to church early to help teach the children. Why does Jesus discourage her work?

I think Luke is putting these words into Jesus’s mouth to drive home a point: listen up. Listen to what Jesus is saying. For five minutes, just stop going about business as usual and listen already.

Many of us have a tendency to get on auto-pilot and just keep moving through our to-do lists. I’m so bad about it that I have a little handwritten sign in my office that I made years ago. It says “am I doing the right things or just doing things right?”

Am I doing the right things or just doing things right? Am I serving on those church committees like a good little church member, or am I actively pondering the work of the Church in the world? Am I following through on my financial commitments to the church, or am I radically considering what it means to give myself away to Christ?

Or what if we broaden it out a bit? Are we coming to worship every Sunday morning because it’s what we’ve always done, or are we truly pouring ourselves out at Christ’s feet to worship? Are we teaching our children because they need something to do while we’re in worship, or are we truly providing a place for them to sit at Christ’s feet and marvel at the Holy?

In short, are we, the people of First United Church allowing ourselves to encounter Christ? Because folks, I gotta tell you, I believe Christ is here.

I believe the Holy – call it God, Father, Mother, Spirit, Christ, Yahweh, Jehovah, the Ground of Being, Wisdom, or other names of your choosing – I believe the One we seek to follow is in this place. God is in this church. God is in this world. God is every single place we go.

And what we are charged with is allowing ourselves to chance an encounter.

And when we do, we find that God shocks us out of our proper roles through that encounter.

A sure sign that a community has encountered Christ, I think, is that things look a bit different. A bit odd. A bit unconventional.

About a year ago, I had the chance to hang out with Doug Pagitt for a few days up in Chicago. Doug is the pastor of Solomon’s Porch, a church located in Minneapolis. He is also a sought-after speaker/thinker/author on the topic of what it means to be Church in the postmodern era. Doug’s got a great book, called Church Re-Imagined, where he and other folks from Solomon’s Porch share a week in the life of their community. They aren’t doing it to toot their own horn or try and say, “do this and your church will grow.” They are sharing simply because others have asked them to do so.

A lot of things at Solomon’s Porch don’t look much like our church. Their worship space looks a lot like your living room – it’s filled with couches and coffee tables and chairs. There isn’t a chancel or stage area. There aren’t any microphones.

Now, there are plenty of churches these days that have this casual atmosphere. But what I appreciate about Solomon’s Porch is the intention behind their d├ęcor. They aren’t doing it so it feels cooler or more comfortable to “the unchurched.” They have their space set up this way because they believe worship is “a time when people contribute to the creation of a setting in which we are transformed, not a setting in which people come to be served by professionals or volunteers.”[1]

The church-in-the round makes it possible for people to see each other’s faces. The couches and recliners make it feel more like home and less like a lecture – and this encourages people to move beyond the idea that church and “everything else” are somehow separate from one another. The lack of microphones and a stage make it clear that everyone’s voices are valued and that people come to learn from each other, not just the pastor.

In short, worship at Solomon’s Porch looks like it’s been shocked out of a conventional mode. Not because it’s more fun. Not because they’re trying to be hip. But because they have encountered Christ and are moved and transformed by that encounter.

I want to be clear – I’m not standing up here saying I think we’re doing it wrong. I’m not saying we should look more like Solomon’s Porch.

What I am saying is that God is offering us, both as individuals and as a community, an amazing gift. God is saying to us, just as God says to the people at Solomon’s Porch, “You don’t have to be bound by convention. You were created in my image and you are free to move beyond what society expects of you. In fact, you are expected to do so. You are freed for unconventionality.”

And in that spirit, I’m going to move us a little outside how we normally expect a sermon to end. Instead of attempting to give you some pithy piece of wisdom from the pulpit, I invite you to participate in this sermon. In your bulletin, underneath the sermon title is a question: “How might God be calling First United to live in unconventional ways?” We’re going to have our moment of silence now – Ed, can you wait to start the last hymn until I say something?

During that moment of silence, can you ponder the question? You might choose to ponder it by sitting quietly at Jesus’s feet and listening. You might choose to ponder it by wastefully pouring yourself out in a posture of worship. And then we’ll sing. And then, for our benediction, I’m going to bring the mic around to a couple of people who would be willing to share what they heard during the moment of silence. Solomon’s Porch may not believe in mics, but I don’t think we’d be able to hear each other without a mic. Okay, so there it is. I invite you to listen during this moment of silence.

[1] Church Re-Imagined, 63.

Monday, July 5, 2010

'Names Have Been Changed..."

2 Kings 5: 1-14

July 4, 2010

First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

We come from a long line of storytellers and storyhearers. Those of us who are from this country grew up with stories about the U.S. – stories about those who gathered in 1776 to declare their independence from Great Britain, stories about Paul Revere’s midnight ride, Betsy Ross’s flag, Washington’s cherry tree, and more.

Those of us who are Christian follow in the line of the Jews who came before us – we are, as they are, people who primarily come to understand the Holy through stories given and received.

Christians hear some of these stories and find in them Gospel – good news. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a Christian to seek the good news in any story that’s being told.

Some of you pay close attention to the scriptures as they are read in worship each Sunday. Those of you that fall in that category surely noticed that there was only one reading today – from the Hebrew Bible. At a first glance, you might assume there is no Gospel for us today since we aren’t reading from any of the four gospels. But I beg to differ.

A preacher’s job is to present the Gospel in the sermon – regardless of where her text begins. The job of the Church is to seek and share the Gospel – to find it where the preacher may have missed it, to share with each other the places it hovers and dances, and to live out the Gospel in daily life.

Today I’d like to share with you a story. Some of the names (well, and a few other details) have been changed….not to protect the innocent, but to help each of us lean in and listen more carefully for the voice of our stillspeaking God. Listen now for the Gospel….


Once upon a time in a galaxy not at all far away there was a great man named Mr. Naaman.

He was a man of great power, wealth, and prestige. Mr. Naaman made his living talking at folks like you and me from his comfortable seat behind many a news desk on the cable networks. He was a political strategist – highly revered and feared by folks on both sides of the congressional aisle.

He worked for the GOP and was known in some circles as “slay-em-Naaman” because he was so brutal in the work he did. He understood politics and the climate of this country like few before or since. His keen mind, fiery words, and ability to be in the right place at the right time helped many Republicans win elections. In fact, he was one of the chief architects who made is possible for the GOP to take back Congress and the White House several times during his decades of work.

Mr. Naaman – though mighty, did have one small problem: he suffered from leprosy. A rare skin disease – often misunderstood. It grossed people out. They didn’t know how to act around him when he had his flare ups. He had been to the best doctors money could buy and no one could find a cure. It made it difficult to do his work – difficult to focus on the task at hand when he could hear the echoes of taunting schoolchildren in his head. If Naaman had ever found a genie in a bottle, clearing up his leprosy certainly would have been his one wish.

Now in his decades of political work, Naaman had surrounded himself with quite the array of people. Aides from all over the country, advisors, friends, enemies – he was the type of guy who’s Blackberry was never silent for long and had thousands of friends on Facebook.

His wife was no different – she had an entourage of people with her wherever she went. One of her aides was a young woman – just out of college. We don’t know her name – funny how that always seems to work with those aides, especially the female aids – but this particular young woman had first run into the Naamans at a Young Democrats event at the University of Chicago – of all places! She was so impressed by their power that she changed her registration to Republican and became a personal assistant to Mrs. Naaman.

Anyway, this aide knew that Mr. Naaman’s leprosy was the raincloud in his other-wise sunny life. One day she said to Mrs. Naaman, “If only Mr. Naaman would go to see Eli who works on the South Side of Chicago, I know she could heal him of his leprosy.”

Naaman’s interest was piqued. After decades, he was sick and tired of struggling with this disease. He had been everywhere and tried everything – nothing had worked. But instead of giving up hope, he found himself listening when his wife told him about this Eli woman one night before bed. I guess when you’ve tried everything, trying one more thing is just what you do.

So he went to see a man more powerful than he – the Senate Majority Leader. Mr. Aram, a Republican from one of those southern states that always elect Republicans, said, “Sure thing, my friend. I’ll set you up. I have some friends in Chicago. I’ll just draft a letter for you to take along when you head up there. I’m sure you’ll be able to get connected and get things taken care of.”

And so….off he went. One weekend, when his schedule was light, Naaman – a great man – took off on a pilgrimage to Chicago to try, once again, to rid himself of his leprosy. He packed carefully – taking along his finest suits. He took all his Platinum Visas, the number of his broker in case he needed to liquidate some assets, and a large amount of cash, locked up in a briefcase. He didn’t know how much this miracle cure would cost, but he wanted to make sure the doctors in Chicago understood he meant business.

He arrived and went straight to the medical school at the University of Chicago. He met with the Dean there – it’s not hard to get an appointment when you’re last name is Naaman. Plus, he had the letter from the powerful Senator, and that didn’t hurt either.

He settled in to the doctor’s cozy office and handed her the handwritten note. She read it…but he didn’t quite get the reaction he had hoped for. Her helpful attitude turned standoffish.

Rising, she brusquely said, “Well, Mr. Naaman, I think we have a misunderstanding. I don’t know what fight your Senator-friend is trying to pick with the University, but we certainly don’t appreciate being set up for failure. There is absolutely no one here who would be willing to attempt to even look at your skin disease. Can’t you see that, if we were to do so, we would look incredibly stupid? Don’t you know we need federal dollars for research? I’m quite sorry that you have this condition but there’s absolutely nothing we can do.”

With that, she ushered Naaman out, plopped down in her chair and began to fidget. After a few minutes of chewing at her nails, she grabbed her jacket and rushed out the door, telling her secretary she’d be back after lunch. She walked south of campus, found a park bench to sit on, and pulled out a cigarette.

She’d been there just a few minutes when a woman came up and sat beside her on the park bench. Thinking that a woman who looked like this was probably looking to bum a cigarette, the Dean offered her one. The other woman – dressed in mismatched clothes from Goodwill, stinking to high heaven – declined the cigarette, but asked the Dean what was wrong. For reasons she didn’t understand – maybe it was just the stress of the day, maybe it was the way this kind stranger’s eyes seemed to truly care – the Dean told her about the strange encounter in her office with Mr. Naaman.

The stinky woman had a name, of course, and we do happen to know it. It was Eli. She said to the Dean, “Don’t stress, lady. Why don’t you send him to my place down on South Cottage Grove? Let him come to me, so that he can see there really are miracle-workers in this world.”

With that, she hobbled off down the street, bobbing her head to the music blaring from her headphones.

The Dean figured, “Hey, why not?” So she quickly called her people and had them call Mr. Naaman’s people to tell him about this Eli woman and her offer. If he was crazy enough to give it a try, good for him. At least he was out of her hair.

Naaman was, of course, desperate enough to pay a visit to Eli. In fact, when he texted his wife to tell her about the strange message from the Dean, she reminded him that her aide had specifically told him to go see “Eli on the South Side of Chicago” – he had just gotten a little off course along the way.

So he ventured down South Cottage Grove, asking folks on the street where he could find a woman named Eli. Well, he didn’t ask, his aides did. Eventually, they were directed to Eli’s place. It was one of those bars-over-the-window, bright red and yellow, misspelled-sign-out front payday loan-slash-liquor store kinds of places.

Nervously, the great Naaman checked his pockets to make sure his credit cards were still there. He left an aide at the car to guard his stash of cash. And then he buzzed the doorbell to the storefront and waited for Eli to come out.

Instead, a young man came to the door. Speaking to Naaman from behind the bars he said, “Eli told me to expect you. She says to go take a dip in the Chicago River seven times. Then you’ll be all better.”

Naaman stood there, stunned for a minute, and then backed away. His confusion turned to frustration and his frustration, anger. “Just who does this lady think she is?” he yelled to his aides. “Doesn’t she know who I am? Doesn’t she know how embarrassing it is for me to even come here? Doesn’t she know I don’t believe in all this stupid God-stuff anyway? I thought she would at least come out here and tell me something that made sense – maybe lay her hands on me like I’ve seen the preachers do on TV and cure me!”

He got into the Town Car and slammed the door, raging on. “And the Chicago River?!? You’ve got to be kidding me! I mean, she could have at least given me a great river, like the Mississippi.”

One of his aides spoke up – we, of course, don’t know his name…we never seem to know the names of the aids. He said, “Mr. Naaman, I’ve been working for you a long time. I’ve seen you do some pretty incredible things. If she had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it, right? Why not do this easy thing?”

Naaman listened. That’s how you get to be great, you know – you listen to your advisors. And he snuck down to the Chicago River and gave it a try. He immersed himself seven times, just as the woman of God had told him to do.

When the great Mr. Naaman arose after that seventh dunking, his skin looked like the skin of a baby – soft, warm, clean, lovely.

He stood there – alone – a great and powerful man who had tried everything to be freed from his one shame. He thought that if he just tried hard enough, worked hard enough, shoved enough money at the right people….eventually he would find a cure.

He had no idea he would find it by listening to the words of a woman of God in a bars-over-the-windows storefront in a run-down neighborhood.

And he had no earthly clue it would be free.

Standing there, Mr. Naaman remembered something he learned in Sunday School – back when he still paid attention at church. His teacher had told the children that Gospel means Good News.

As he dried off his unblemished skin in the glow of the setting sun he finally understood what she had been trying to tell him.