Monday, June 27, 2011

"Unbound"

Genesis 22: 1-18
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

These are the opening lines to Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. Published in 1948 in The New Yorker, the story opens as the three hundred families in an unnamed village gather for the annual lottery. For reasons no one can quite remember and, according to customs they’re not so sure they’re still getting right, each family takes their turn drawing a slip of paper from a big black box. This year, it is the Hutchinson clan that draws the slip with the black mark on it. Each of the five members of their family then draws again, even little Davey, who’s not quite old enough to manage his slip of paper by himself.

This time, it’s Mrs. Hutchinson who draws the black mark. Against her protests, the town gathers to do what they’ve done every summer for as long as anyone can remember – as the stones pelt down on her body, she becomes the sacrificial lamb for this small fictional town.

I remember reading The Lottery as a kid and being pretty creeped out by it. Apparently, when it was first released in The New Yorker, it made people more than a little freaked out. It angered them. Shirley Jackson received hundreds of phone calls and letters that summer. Some people cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine. Others suggested that someone with a mind as dark as Ms. Jackson had no business writing. And still others wanted to know where they could find this small town because they wanted to go watch a stoning.

What is it about this story that hit a little too close to home in 1948? A generation that had sacrificed its young men and women to the gods of war was finally starting to settle into their homes in the suburbs. And now a new specter was looming – Communism abroad threatened the American way of life. A senator named Joe McCarthy took his seat in 1948, ushering in a time when many of this nation’s leaders were sacrificed to the gods of fear. Maybe it wasn’t such a great time to publish a story about a human sacrifice.

Of course, when would it be a great time to write about human sacrifice?

I’m not sure. After all, it always seems to hit a little too close to home. We read stories like The Lottery or the passage from Genesis this morning with a morbid fascination. We flip through our Bible’s thin pages slowly, as if driving by a horrible car accident on the side of the road. We know we shouldn’t linger to read and re-read these horrible tales…but, somehow, we can’t look away.

Today’s text from Genesis has various names. Jews have traditionally called it the Akedah – the binding of Isaac. Christians have traditionally favored “the sacrifice of Isaac” – presumably to help highlight a belief that this story foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has called it a “text of terror” and I’d say that’s about right. Unless you have a heart of stone, unless you’ve never loved someone, unless you’ve never looked into a child’s trusting eyes….there’s no way to read this text without squirming when you think of a father binding his son on an altar and holding a knife to his throat.

The author of Genesis is strangely silent about how this all worked, by the way. We don’t really know how old Isaac is in this story, but if he’s old enough to carry the wood for his own funeral pyre, I’d guess he’d be old enough to put up a fight when his dear father tried to kill him. But the author of Genesis doesn’t go into this, leaving me alone with my imagination running wild trying to envision this scene. I have to be honest, I can’t think about it for long or I start to get a really terrible feeling in my stomach.

The Bible is not for the faint of heart.

Nobody really thinks Abraham deserves a father of the year award, right? I mean, how ironic is it that we teach our kids to sing songs about how Father Abraham did this and that…and then it turns out he’s a child abuser? Because that’s what we’d call him today, right? If he came home to Sarah today in their split-level ranch and said, “Oh, guess what happened to us today, honey?” we’d expect her to run screaming. Or at least call Child Protective Services, right? This kind of behavior is simply not okay on any level according to our cultural or religious norms.

It’s great if you love God. It’s great if you want to make sacrifices for God. It’s great if you talk to God every day and listen to what the Spirit leads you to do. It’s great up until the point where God tells you to kill your kid – and then it’ll land you in a mental institution.

But as Gabe Frommer always warns us in the lectionary class, it does us no good to impose our cultural norms on people who lived almost two thousand years ago and a world away.

So, as uncomfortable as it may be to put ourselves in the shoes of a man who was willing to murder his own son, let’s try to see where Abraham was coming from.

In his world, human sacrifice was fairly common. He lived in a world with many gods, many religions….and pretty much all of these gods occasionally required human sacrifice. He also lived in a world where children were expendable – many of them dying before they were a year old, and certainly lots of them dying before they grew up. After all, Abraham once had two sons, but essentially sent the other, Ishmael, away to die because he was sick of having him around.

Did parents love their children? I’m sure they did, yes. But I also know they didn’t take 10,000 photographs of them before their first birthdays, Tweet about them 25 times a day, and plan their entire lives around their nap schedules. Not that I’ve ever done any of these things. It was a different time and place.

So when Abraham thinks he hears God saying, “Hey, I need you to sacrifice your son to me,” I feel pretty certain this was a surprise to Abraham. I’m sure he was initially shocked that he was being asked to do this. But I also know it wasn’t the same kind of shock it would if I thought God was saying the same thing to me. Human sacrifice wasn’t unheard of – it was just something you kind of hoped you’d never have to be directly involved in.

I’ve been thinking a lot about child sacrifice this week. Wondering, is there anything anyone could ever do to convince me to sacrifice my child? The short answer, of course, is no. No way.

But then I look around at our world and I see children being sacrificed every day.

The mother who sacrifices her unborn child to the meth gods because she can’t get away from her own addiction long enough to give her child the gift of a healthy start.

The father who sacrifices his son to the gods of masculinity when he tells him he’ll never find a girlfriend of make friends in high school unless he stops playing the flute and joins the football team.

The parent who makes a snide comment about her daughter right in front of her – sacrificing her child to the gods of humor just to get a quick laugh from a friend.

A generation of parents who have willingly sacrificed their children to the gods of patriotism – sending their children overseas to die in lands they will never visit for a cause many of us don’t understand.

And, of course, it’s not just parents sacrificing their children. It’s the Church, too.

You may have heard about Elevation Church in North Carolina. They made news this past Easter when 12-year-old Jackson Helms was removed from their worship service.

Jackson and his mom, Kelly, wanted to worship that morning. But when Jackson, who has cerebral palsy, made some noises during the opening of worship, they were quickly escorted out of the main auditorium and into an overflow area where they wouldn’t disrupt other worshippers. When Kelly contacted the pastor later that week to say that she wanted to start a ministry for families of children with special needs, she was shut down. The pastor told her that Elevation Church focuses on worship, not ministry.

A child of God, sacrificed by a church that values its praise band, multi million dollar sound system, and cool coffee bar more than it values the many gifts this family could bring.

And, of course, we’ve got generations and generations of children who have been sacrificed by the Church in the name of the Bible because their God-given sexuality wasn’t good enough for the Church. Christians who have worshiped the Bible more than they want to listen to God have excluded and harmed our LGBT youth – telling them they’re dirty, worthless, flawed, and going to hell.

You may have caught the name of Rev. Amy DeLong in the news this past week. An ordained United Methodist Minister, Rev. DeLong was on trial by her denomination on charges of being a lesbian and performing same-sex unions. No stranger to what it feels like to be bound and held at knifepoint by a church she loves, Amy has this to say about what it feels like to be a lesbian in the Church:





“On a daily basis, the only place my partner and I are treated unfairly, the only place we are seen as less than equal, the only place we are called names, the only place we are forced to lie about our love for each other, the only place we fear for our safety and feel crushingly vulnerable is in the church. The only people who have been mean to us simply because we are gay are Christians and more specifically Christians who call themselves United Methodists.”

Children of God, sacrificed by the Church in the name of the Bible.

So let’s not kid ourselves when we look down at Abraham as an abusive father who holds no relevance for our own lives. Because given the right circumstances – the right set of cultural norms – the right “people of God” surrounding us and telling us we’re doing what God wants us to do….given all those things, any of us could end up sacrificing a loved one in some very real ways.

That’s not a pretty reality. No wonder Phyllis Trible calls this a “text of terror.”

Ever terror-ful texts have their good news, though, and this one is no different. On the surface level, the good news is this, of course – Isaac doesn’t die! At the last moment, God provides an alternative and the child walks away whole.

On a deeper level, I think the good news found in the binding of Isaac is this: God is not bound by religion.

Whatever your religious norms, your cultural norms are telling you, God is not bound by those things. We worship a Stillspeaking God. A God that moves beyond the religious norms of the day. A God that refuses to be bound up by the way we expect our deity to behave.

When all the other gods of the world are saying one thing, we can look to our God to provide an alternative.

When other churches are telling us we need to hurt others in the name of God, we can count on Him to send an angel whispering – or maybe shouting! – an alternative plan.

When the “churchy” thing to do feels wrong, we can look to our God to send guides to sit alongside us and think through the implications of our actions – and save us from ourselves and our religion.

Our God will not be bound. Not by cultural norms. And, most certainly, not by the Church. Not ever.

This God who moves beyond boundaries – can’t be claimed by one religion – and refuses to be bound….this God lives and moves and breathes and loves and creates eternally.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Blessed"

Acts 1: 6-14 and John 17: 1-11
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Ascension Sunday
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor tells a powerful story about the death of her father. When he suffered a small seizure caused by his advanced brain cancer, Taylor and her mother called an ambulance. As the family gathered at the hospital, the scene unfolds the way so many of these vigils do.

Taylor writes, “one or the other of us would get up and go to my father, standing over him so the harsh examining room light did not shine straight into his eyes. One of us would kiss him all over his forehead. He was dazed from the seizure, but he knew who we were.”

After a time, Taylor’s husband, Ed, made his way over to her father. As she watched, her husband knelt down on the floor by his father-in-law’s bed and slid his hand underneath the weak man’s hand. Her father’s lips moved. Ed stood up and said one last thing in her father’s ear and then walked back over to Taylor.

“What was that?” she asked, when he sat down beside her. “I asked him to bless me,” Ed said. “I asked him to give me his blessing.”

Faced with the loss of this man he had long admired, the man who had helped create and raise the woman who became the love of his life, Ed wanted one thing before he died: his blessing.

You might think – well, that’s selfish. Why would you bother a dying man by asking him to do something for you?!? But I would argue that the beauty of a blessing is that it’s not so easily put into a tiny box. A blessing – given or received – is a precious gift.

It blesses the recipient, of course. But it is also a holy and sacred gift to be the blesser. That moment they shared in that hospital room blessed them both.

Our lectionary passages today come to us on the final Sunday of Eastertide. For seven weeks now, we have raised our Alleluias. We have shouted and celebrated with the rest of the universal Church, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”


Easter is a heady time.

The regular rules and rhythms of the world seem to slip away as we gaze at the resurrected Christ. All too soon, we realize the weeks have flown by and we stand here at the end of the season. Suddenly, the scripture from the first chapter of Acts confronts us.

Jesus is alive, yes, but he’s going away. We stand with the disciples, gazing up at the sky, wondering what it is we’re supposed to be doing now that Easter is coming to a close. The instructions from Jesus to the disciples are clear: get moving. Travel around. Be my witnesses here and everywhere. Stop standing around and staring up at the sky. Stop worrying about me. Just get to work.

The instructions to us are less clear. Contrary to sermons you may have heard on this passage before, we are not the ones being told to be Jesus’s witnesses to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.

I don’t think that’s a bad idea, of course, but we weren’t there when Jesus ascended into the clear blue sky and his instructions to his disciples were not meant for us – but for them.

I do think, though, that we have a lot in common with the disciples. Like them, we often wonder, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the earth?” Like them, we wish that Jesus were closer to us – in the flesh and blood, where we can see him, feel him, talk to him, understand him. Like the disciples, we are prone to staring up at the sky, scratching our heads.

The Book of Acts makes it clear that the original followers of Christ and, by extension, all who followed after them (and that means you and me) are meant to be the continuation of Christ’s spirit throughout the earth.

It’s a tall order to fill, but we’re left with no other alternatives. Jesus has flown away and we are the ones remaining to do his work.

I think we can learn something about what it means to be Christ’s spirit in the world by taking at look at our other passage from the lectionary. It always seems a little surreal to me to hear Jesus’s prayer there at the end of his life.

He knows he’s about to die. He knows it’s going to be terrible. And what does he pray about, there in those last days? Not himself, my friends. Not in the gospel of John, at least. There is no prayer in the garden in John’s gospel. No plea for the cup to be taken away.

Instead, we see John’s Jesus at his most humble. Sure, he says he’s been given authority over all people, but that’s really just par for the course for John’s Jesus.

But the bulk of his prayer is about his friends. He is worried about them. He asks God for their continued protection. He asks that they can feel God’s love, even after he is gone. He hopes aloud that they may be one. He asks that God sanctify them and glorify them.

Faced with imminent death, Jesus bestows a blessing on his followers. In the face of betrayal and abandonment, Jesus blesses his friends.

If we are to be the spirit of Christ in the world, we need to spend less time staring up at the sky wondering where he’s gone and when he’ll return. If we are to be the spirit of Christ in the world, it might help to begin by paying attention to Jesus’s tendency to bless everyone he met.

Lepers, dirty children, women that no one wanted to talk to, sinners, tax collectors, do-gooders, those who had it all put together and those who clearly did not – not many of these folks escaped an interaction with Jesus without being blessed.

It seems to me this is part of the reason everyone followed him.

Being blessed is, quite possibly, one of the purest sensations of goodness you can have in the world. I’m not talking about a compliment. I’m not talking about praise. I’m not talking about a good performance evaluation at work or an A+ on a paper. I’m talking about a blessing.

A blessing is spoken or a gesture or some combination of the two. A blessing is a pause in a hectic world. A blessing is a moment of connection between two people and the Divine that is within and surrounding them.

A blessing is the recognition that the recipient is good. Not in the sense that they did something right, but in the sense that all of creation is good because it simply exists. God created it and therefore, it is good. Remember the story from Genesis you learned as a child? God looked and saw it was good. All of it.

But we spend so much of our lives being told we’re bad. Just listen to the parent with the preschooler standing in line at Kroger next time you’re there. Just listen to the grown child speaking impatiently to their elderly parent as decisions are made about the future. Just listen to the teenager complaining loudly about her disgusting thighs as she tries on a swimsuit at Target. Just listen to the voice in your own head throughout the day.

It’s easy to find people telling us we’re bad.

And it’s also pretty easy to find people telling us we’re good in a conditional way. When we nail a presentation for a big client at work. When we fold the laundry and vacuum the floor before the rest of the family comes home. When we buy a new dress and get a new haircut.

Sure, it feels good to be recognized and given praise when you’ve done something right. But praise is really just the flip side of criticism. It signals that the love being given is conditional. If someone tells you you look beautiful because you’ve lost 5 pounds, it might mean they didn’t think you looked so great when you still had those 5 pounds. Just ask anyone with an eating disorder how dangerous praise can be.

Do you know what feels better than being praised? Being told that you are inherently good, unconditionally loved beyond measure…just for existing.

Being told that, no matter how little money you make, no matter how many times you let your addiction get the best of you, no matter how many mean things you’ve said and wish you could unsay – you are still loved. You are still blessed.

I’m a huge Elton John fan and, at the risk of having you all think I’m the biggest cheeseball that’s ever lived, I’ll admit to you that most of my son, M's, lullabies have been Elton John tunes. One of my favorites, the one that I’ve been singing to him since before he was born, is Blessed.

It’s the perfect song to sing to an unborn child:

“Hey, you. You’re a child in my head.
You haven’t walked yet.
Your first words have yet to be said.
But I swear – you’ll be blessed.”

Blessing doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not a child comes out of the womb with a perfect Apgar score or a full head of luscious hair.

Blessing is about the recognition of the holy. The realization and verbalization of that spark of divinity that exists in all of us. On my most difficult days as a parent, when I’m not much thinking lovey dovey thoughts about a challenging toddler, I hum this song in my head. I breathe deeply and try to remember to bless my child.

He is, after all, the very spirit of God – living and walking and breathing right next to me. And that is a blessing.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that blessing is something anyone can do. “Anyone can ask and anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not. All I am saying is that the world needs you to do this, because there is a real shortage of people willing to kneel wherever they are and recognize holiness.”

Blessing seems to be something that we usually rely on professionals to do. Like Taylor, I’ve been paid to offer blessings at weddings, at funerals, at the bedside in the hospital, at a baptism, and many other places. I count myself lucky when I remember one of the things I get to do for a living is offer blessings.

But clergy aren’t the only ones who are called to offer blessings. Any and all of us who are trying to be the living spirit of Christ should be offering blessings each and every day. When was the last time you took a moment to look someone in the eyes and say, “God’s peace be with you”? When did you last tell a child, “God loves you”? Or tell a grieving widower, “May the grace and holy love of God surround you in this time of sorrow”?

If you’ve ever done it, you can probably help me attest to the power that blessing holds for the blessER as well as the blessEE.

Something about taking on this yoke makes you remember how important we are to one another. Something about being audacious enough to bless the other makes you recognize the holiness in yourself, reaching out to the holiness in the other. Something about feeling the Spirit of God channeling through your words and your hands helps you recall you were made for more than just sending e-mails, washing cloths, driving a car, running to the store. You were made to be a blessing. You were made to be blessed.

I realize that getting into the swing of offering blessings might not be easy. It feels awkward to do this, especially if you’ve never done it before. Start small. Barbara Brown Taylor even suggests blessing a stick, if you’re particularly nervous.

“Bless you, stick, for being you.”
“Blessed are you, a stick, for turning dirt and sun into wood.”
“Blessed are you, Lord God, for using this stick to stop me in my tracks.”

Once you feel comfortable enough to try blessing another human being, maybe you could try doing it while we greet each other. At other churches, that milling about time is sometimes called “the passing of the peace” and people will often offer a hand and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” No one would think you were weird if you tried it.

Babies and animals are other great starters, if you’re nervous. “Bless you, sweet child, for brining the light of Christ into the world.” “God’s blessing on you, loyal pet, for your furriness and drool.”

Once you get really practiced, you can move on to the harder stuff. Maybe someday you’ll find yourself waiting for someone to die, unsure of what it is you could do in that moment. Maybe you’ll find yourself kneeling down at the side of their bed and asking for a blessing.

When we are confronted with holiness – when we are confronted with the reality of the resurrected Christ – we sometimes want to stand and gape as we stare up at the sky. Do this if you must, but not for long.

There are too many holy things in the world waiting for your blessing. Go, and bless.