Sunday, October 23, 2011

“Capable of the Universe”


Matthew 22: 34-46
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

One of the odd things about working in a church is that you start thinking about Christmas before the stores even deck their aisles. This week, I’ve been thinking ahead to how we will celebrate Advent and it’s also got me thinking about how we will celebrate Christmas in our home. Last year, our son wasn’t old enough to really know what was happening at all. This year, he’ll begin to absorb what Christmas is really about.

We’ll go to church, of course. We’ll talk about the baby Jesus. And, like most of you, we’ll have a Christmas tree with presents under it. But what kind of presents and how many is where it starts to get a little complicated for me. I grew up in a home where we were lavished with gifts on Christmas morning. We were not a family with a ton of extra money, since both of my parents were public educators and, later, my mom was a single-mom raising us on a teacher’s salary. But, at Christmas, you would have thought we were incredibly wealthy by the amount of stuff we had waiting for us under the tree.

I just don’t know if I want our kids to have that kind of Christmas. I think, more than anything, I want Christmas to be simple. I want them to remember things like the time we spent together as a family and the gifts we gave to others to be what they remember – not necessarily how much stuff they got.

But I’ll confess to have a small problem when it comes to making this a reality. And maybe this is what happened to my parents, too. I just want to buy my son things! I want to see his little face light up. I want to get him toys that I know he’ll really enjoy. And, since we are financially comfortable, I have the additional problem of actually being able to afford to do this!

Presenting someone I care deeply about a gift that I’ve picked out just for them is one of the many ways I can show them love. Love is powerful. Love trumps everything else. It’s hard to say no to love.

Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t seem to hesitate for long when he answered the Pharisees question about the greatest law. The law with the greatest power, the one that trumps every other law, is the law to love. It Jesus’s mind, it wasn’t rocket science. And we certainly have no reason to believe that the Pharisees would have found it scandalous, either.

Nor is the very idea of boiling down the Law to one simple idea scandalous. Lots of other contemporary Jewish leaders were doing it. Sometimes, we Christians are so enamored with Jesus that we like to pretend like he was doing something totally off-the-wall and different than every other Jewish leader of his time. But that’s often not the case.

There are lots of stories about Jewish leaders simplifying the Law. Here’s just one. “A heathen came to Shammai [a contemporary of Jesus] and said to him, ‘Accept me as a student on the condition that you teach me the whole Law while I stand on one foot.’ Then Shammai drove him away with the measuring rod that he held in his hand. Then he went to Hillel [another contemporary of Jesus], who received him as a student, and said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole Law; all the rest is commentary; go and learn.”[1]

So the fact that Jesus gives an answer doesn’t make this passage stand out as special. In fact, it’s kind of amusing that Jesus doesn’t even pick one answer! The Pharisees, who are looking to trick Jesus, make it very clear that they want to know the ONE law that is greatest. But when Jesus picks not one, but TWO, laws, they don’t seem bothered in the least. Seems to me that if they were trying to discredit him, they could have said “Ah, ha! He picked two answers, not one. Nanny nanny boo boo!”

But they don’t. Why not?

I think part of why they don’t is because what Jesus is saying – that we are to love God more than anything and also love our neighbors – I think that thoe statements are so deeply true, so simply powerful, so incredibly pure and reasonable that they trumps everything else. Jesus’s answer trumps that fact that these Pharisees are trying to trap him. It trumps the fact that he doesn’t answer the question with just one answer.

It. Just. Is.

It’s true. There’s no arguing with it.

And after Jesus says this, they have another little debate about whether Jesus is the Messiah. And, finally, after scene upon scene of arguments with the religious authorities, it’s over. They walk away. Nobody ever asks him questions like this again in the gospel of Matthew. They’ve given up on debating this guy.



Now, there is one thing that Jesus does with his answer that I think is pretty intriguing.

The first answer he gives, the one that says we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind – that would have been a no brainer. It’s part of the Shema – that great piece of religious heritage that Jews taught even the youngest children. They were to recite it at least twice daily. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord with all your soul, all your strength, all your might.” It comes from Deuteronomy 6, if you’d like to look it up. It’s not new. It wouldn’t have been shocking.

But we he adds the second commandment – to love your neighbor as yourself – that would have been a little more avant garde. Not that anyone would have debated that loving your neighbor was important. It was at the core of their faith. But, at least in Matthew’s version, Jesus says that this second law is like the first one. In other words, loving your neighbor is just as important as loving God.

That means it’s a pretty big deal. A really big deal. In fact, the biggest deal you can think of.

What does Jesus know about loving your neighbor that makes him elevate it to this level of importance?

Well, these are words coming from a guy who is about to die for love.

For love of God, and for his love of what God can do in the world, Jesus is about to make the ultimate sacrifice.

For love of the people – to show them that he means business; to show them that there is more to life than just living; to show them that they can continue to make the Reign of God a reality even after he is gone; to show them that the evil, corrupt powers of their day really were bad, bad, bad…for all of these reasons, and – most of all – for love, Jesus gives up his own life.

Jesus knew some stuff about loving your neighbor. And I think one of the things that Jesus really understood at his core was this: loving your neighbor IS loving God. You can’t separate the two. God is not some abstract thought that exists out in the ether. God is not some kind, grandfatherly old man who sits on a cloud.

God is here and now. God is in every person you encounter. Every deed that is done. Every song that is sung. Every meal that is prepared. Every fight that is fought. Every candle that is lit. Every opportunity that is missed.

God is absolutely everywhere and in everything. There is no way to love God without loving all of creation.

And when Jesus spoke of love, let’s be clear: he was not speaking of flowery love poems or romantic passions or duty towards your family. Those were types of love, yes, but Matthew would have used the words eros or philia to describe these. Instead, he uses the word agape – an active, striving love. One that is contemplative, yet always moving. A love that is so deep it is unconditional.

Agape only exists when it is acted upon. You cannot have agape for your neighbor if you pass them on the street while they are in need. You cannot have agape for God if you fail to take time to bow in worship.

And this takes me back to my Christmas dilemma.

If I want to teach my children about agape at Christmas, do I do that by showering them with gifts that will break? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing a few gifts that help them know that I listen to them, I understand what will make them happy, and I want them to enjoy life. But I think that, if I fail to also teach them about the things Jesus talks about here – loving God and loving our neighbors – then I’ve missed the boat.

The allocation of our resources is one of the simplest and most profound ways we love. When we make a decision to give someone money or a gift that cost money, we are giving them part of our resources. When we give someone time – whether that’s me sitting down on Christmas morning to read books for a half-hour with my child or you coming in every Monday night to work the shelter – that’s giving someone a part of our resources.

Giving is loving. Active loving. It is the greatest thing we can do.

I don’t think Jesus tells us to love God and our neighbor because he’s trying to tell us how to stay out of hell when we die. I think he’s telling us something much more precious than that.

I think he’s telling us the secret finding salvation right here and now and for the rest of our eternal lives. I think he’s telling us how to be transformed through our living.

This tradition of loving through giving is alive and well in our congregation. Even our kids are catching on to it.

You might remember that after Vacation Bible School, the kids brought the offering that they had collected all week up to the front of the church to have it dedicated.

While we were standing at the back of the church, waiting to come forward, Nolan Soderquist pulled a five dollar bill out of his pocket and gave it to me. I said, “Nolan, what a generous gift! What should we do with it?” And he said, “I want to give it to God.” I said, “Let’s put it in the plate, then, and it will get to God.”

I learned from Nolan’s dad, Paul, that Nolan had decided to give this money to God because he had been taught to divide his income up into three parts. Nolan had earned $15 participating in as research study, so he saved five dollars, spent five dollars, and gave five dollars to God.

When Paul asked Nolan how he would get the money to God, Nolan said, “I’ll take it to church. They’ll know what to do with it.”

What we do with our money, as a church, matters because there are kids like Nolan counting on us to make sure their money gets to God. We are challenged to love God and love our neighbors – actively – with our resources.

Nolan didn’t look sad at all when he gave me his five dollars. In fact, he looked pretty darn pleased as he put it into the plate. Sometimes you hear people say we should “give until it hurts.” I prefer to think that we should “give until it feels good…and then give a little more.”

Loving feels good. Loving with our resources feels great. Coming together with a group of people who are committed to loving God and loving their neighbors feels awesome.

Now you may think that giving is supposed to hurt. You may have been taught that it’s an unsavory duty that must be done. You may think I’m being a little too newfangeled when I say that it can, and should, feel good.

Lest you think that, I want to share something St. Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century:
Capax universi, capable of the universe are your arms when they move with love.
As capable as God are we.[2]

When we love with all our heart, all our strength, all our mind; When we remember that loving our neighbor this way is how we love God; When we remember that there is no such thing as passive love – only love that is fully giving and active….when we remember these things, we are capable of the universe. We are as capable as God.

Not a bad deal, right?



[1] Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Gospels Without Blaming the Jews, 79.
[2] “Capax Universi” by St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by Daniel Ladinsky in Love Poems From God, 134.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Re-frame"

Matthew 22: 15-22
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Ordinary Time – CROP and Bread for the World Sunday
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Have you ever been hungry? I actually haven’t, but I know some of you have.

Of course, I say I’m hungry all the time. As in, “Oh, look. It’s 3:00 and I haven’t had a snack this afternoon. Must be time for a muffin and some coffee.” Or, “I’m going to run in and get a granola bar while we get gas. I’m famished!”

This isn’t really hunger, though, right? I mean, it’s sort of the white people problems version of hunger. “White people problems” in case you’ve missed that term on the internet is a catch-all phrase for all of those little annoyances that we folks with privilege like to gripe about as if they were real problems.

So when I feel cranky because I want to get some lunch but I have to drive out of the way to get to a drive through because my son is asleep in the back seat – that’s not hunger, really. That’s just the white people problems version of hunger.

I read a book this week that talked about real hunger.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is a novel by Louise Murphy. Part fairy-tale, part historical fiction, and all horrific, it is the tale of an eleven year old Jewish girl and her seven year old brother – abandoned deep in a Polish forest at the height of the Holocaust so they will not be killed. Their Stepmother renames them Hansel and Gretel as she and their father drive away. In the forest, they stumble upon the house of Magda, a midwife shunned by the local village because she is believed to be a witch. Magda takes them in and protects them as the world collapses around them.

Hansel and Gretel know what it’s like to be truly hungry. Gretel watches her brother gather saliva in his mouth – she has taught him how to hold it there for about a hour and then swallow it bit by bit, slowly, pretending it’s a delicious soup. Hansel, just seven years old, knows that he can ball his fist up tightly in his stomach when he’s trying to go to sleep – just a little way to cut the stabbing hunger pains. Both children know there are rules to eating – that each child can do whatever they wish with their piece of daily bread. They may choose to eat it all at once, save it for later, or share it, but the choice is always theirs alone.

Real hunger. The kind that children and adults all over the world still live with each and every day.

On this Sunday, we participate in the CROP Walk, raising money for Church World Service to send aid to hungry people both in the U.S. and abroad. We also join with churches across the nation in celebrating Bread for the World Sunday.

Many churches will participate today in an offering of letters as a part of Bread for the World Sunday. This non-profit, faith-based organization is a treasure trove of information on hunger advocacy both here and in other nations. Each year, they create detailed packets of information that churches can use as members write handwritten letters to their representatives in the federal government, hoping to impact legislation in a way that will result in fewer hungry people in God’s creation.

Speaking of Bread for the World, I got an email from them this past week informing me that two Indiana politicians, Senator Lugar and Representative Stutzman, are introducing a piece of legislation that would dramatically cut assistance to families who receive aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – better known as “food stamps.” They sit on the Senate and House Agricultural Committees and the USDA is actually in charge of the federal food stamp program. So if anyone ever tells you that agricultural policy doesn’t matter, just remember that the USDA controls a program that feeds 45 million Americans – half of whom are children.

In partnering with these two organizations, we, as a community of faith, are attacking hunger on two fronts – Church World Service provides direct assistance to people who are hungry and Bread for the World impacts policymakers, seeking to stop hunger at its source.

Of course, one of the ways we, as a society stop hunger at its sources is through our government’s policies. Within the federal budget, dollars are constantly being allocated and reallocated to assist hungry people and increase access to food. When you and I pay taxes, some our dollars help people who are hungry. When we go to the polls each time there’s an election, our choices affect the lives of those who live with a constant gnawing pain in their stomachs.

Jesus had a few things to say about paying taxes in today’s lectionary passage from Matthew. Doubtless, you’ve heard the phrase, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” a few times in your life. Traditionally, this phrase has been used when people want to have some biblical proof that there is a Christian world and a secular world. We have said there are Christian values, yes, and those are important, but there are also secular values and it’s okay to be a part of that world, too.

For generations, people have understood this story to mean that, when in Rome, it’s okay to do as the Romans do.

Yes, we are called to be people of faith, but we are also allowed to do what our governments ask. Even within the Society of Friends, which has a strong tradition of pacifism, there have been voices that, for centuries, have called upon this biblical phrase to argue that tax resistance – that practice of withholding taxes that might be used for military defense – is not expected of Christians.[1]

Well, I hate to break this to you, but I think that interpretation is pretty much wishful thinking.

When we take the time to really dig in and look at this story, including its context, what we come away with is much more nebulous. It’s hard to conclude what Jesus really thought about the question posed to him about paying taxes…but it is easy to learn a few other things.

Jesus is in Jerusalem and is approached by an odd group of folks. American Baptist Minister Paul Simpson Duke calls this pairing of the Pharisees disciples and Herodians a “bipartisan group.” These are not two groups that would have spent time together, but they are willing to “reach across the aisle” to entrap Jesus.[2]

The group lays into Jesus with flattery and then dishes out their actual question, “So, is it okay with God if we pay taxes to the Emperor of Rome?” I don’t think, for a minute, that these folks really cared too much about Jesus’ answer. They weren’t planning on altering their 1040s based on his response. Instead, as in the Matthew passage we read a few weeks ago on the question of Jesus’ authority, their sole motivation is to embarrass Jesus, and perhaps even find grounds for arresting him.

Jesus is in a bind. Aren’t you glad you’re not Jesus? If he says “yes, pay your taxes” then he frustrates and alienates devout Jews who were chafing at Rome’s occupation. If he says “no, don’t pay them,” he risks immediate arrest for treason.

Recognizing that he cannot answer truthfully, one way or another, Jesus sidesteps the question and offers a more powerful response that is more far-reaching in scope. First, he disarms his opponents by shaming them publicly. He asks them for a denarius – a Roman coin that was a large sum of money. Most of the onlookers standing around would not have access to this kind of cash and Jesus didn’t either.

They produce it quickly, revealing themselves to be members of the wealthy elite. If this were the Occupy movement, Jesus would be handing them a sticker to wear that says, “We are the 1%.”

Jesus asks them who is on the coin. They answer, “Caesar.” And he says, “That’s right. So give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give God what belongs to God.”

On one level, it seems simple. If Caesar is asking for taxes, payable only in Roman coin and Jesus says to give those coins back to Caesar, then, yes, you should pay your taxes.

But, it’s the second part of Jesus’ answer that really messes things up. Sometimes I wish he would just stop, but he always keeps on going. Notice how the second part is the stuff that rarely gets quoted? We usually just say, “Render unto Caesar – dot, dot, dot.” But it’s that last part, “Render unto God what is God’s” that complicates things. Because Jesus, like any other religious Jew would have believed that fully everything in creation, including those coins bearing Caesar’s image, belonged to God.

So it’s hard to know what he meant, but if I were pressed to interpret, I think I’d stake my money on saying he meant one of two things: 1) no, don’t pay your taxes. That money really belongs to God and should be used for God’s work, or, 2) I’m not even going to answer your question because I think it’s a bad question and it’s not worth my time.

This passage is not about whether or not you should pay your taxes. It’s about a way bigger question than that.

It’s about who we choose to follow during our time on this earth – do we blindly follow the people who are in power? The Pharisees and Herodians of our day? It’s about figuring out where our allegiances lie. It’s about remembering that everything in creation – all of it – ultimately belongs to God. Not to Caesar. Not to the person holding the coin. It belongs to God.

Jesus re-frames the conversation. Backed up against the wall, Jesus refuses to allow his opponents to control the direction of dialogue. He asserts himself and brings the attention back to where it belongs – to God and to our response to living as faithful children of the Most High.

It makes me wonder – what would happen if Christians re-framed the conversation in 2011?




What if, the next time we got in a debate with someone about tax law, the debt ceiling, the cost of the wars, the allocation of funds to people in need – what if the next time that happened, we didn’t just start talking about statistics and realities? What if, instead, we started talking about the Realm of God?

What if we talked about our call to be stewards of the great resources given to us? What if, when forced as a nation to make difficult decisions about where to allocate our dollars, we Christians reminded everyone that all of this – all the dollars, all the food, all of it – belongs to God?

What if we kept talking about our call to be stewards of creation? What if we reminded those around us that God created everything and called it good? What if we reminded others that we are called to care for creation and tend it carefully, with great love and respect? What if we moved people toward a vision of a place where no child goes hungry because we’ve figured out how to share after all these millennia of turmoil?

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s hard for me to imagine. But when I see Jesus in action there in the Jerusalem Temple; when I watch our fearless leader go toe-to-toe with the oppressive powers of his day; when I hear his gentle, yet firm, voice say that we are to give back to God what is God’s – I can imagine us re-framing the conversation here and now and for many years to come.




[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Render_unto_Caesar...#Justification_for_obeying_authority.2C_paying_taxes
[2] http://www.goodpreacher.com/journalread.php?id=2299

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Lessons in Leadership"

Exodus 32: 1-14
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Ordinary Time –
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

When I began college, there was a new academic program at my university that was getting a lot of buzz. They were heavily recruiting many of us to take the introductory course in Leadership Studies, and I did. I decided not to pursue the program further because I came to the conclusion, over the semester, that some of the skills you need to be a leader can be learned, but most of them you either have or you don’t.

For the better part of the past two months, the Revised Common Lectionary has been following the tale of that great Jewish leader Moses. He’s always been one of my favorites. I can’t help but love him – his humble, yet royal, beginnings; his willingness to stop and look at a burning bush; his unwillingness to see himself as special and set apart; his fierce anger; his uncertainties; his heartfelt conversations with God; his mistakes.

He’s a leader for the ages. One that will never be forgotten.

In today’s passage, we see Moses during one of his truly mountaintop moments. He is, quite literally, on the mountain with the Holy One. He’s been up there for quite some time, receiving the Law from Yahweh. His followers linger below. Moses’s brother, Aaron, has been left in charge and, like a substitute teacher on his first day in a new classroom, he’s certainly feeling the pressure from his students.

The people are worried. Formerly enslaved people, they know little about how to exist on their own. Traumatized by generations of mistreatment, they are fully accustomed to being told what to do. They traded in their masters for Moses and, along the way, have grown dependent on his leadership. Now that he’s been gone for a while, they’re unsure if he’s coming back and, like a young child left too long at a new babysitter’s house, they allow their anxiety to rear its ugly head and they throw a little tantrum.

The go to Aaron, their second-in-command, and command him to make them some new gods. The fear behind their outburst is that God has abandoned them. They have followed this strange deity and his messenger to the middle of nowhere. They have traded in some measure of security for absolute uncertainty. And now that Moses is gone, they feel certain God is gone, too.

If you asked most biblically-literate folks what idol the Israelites created in the dessert, they’d tell you it was a golden calf. But I would also submit to you that they had an idol long before they made that calf. Moses had come to represent God to them. So much so, that when Moses was gone, they thought God had left the building, too.

Aaron, primarily motivated by his own fears and insecurities simply does what the people ask him to do. He doesn’t even stop to think it over. He doesn’t consult with anyone else. He just does what they ask. He makes them an idol. Certainly not the poster-child for leadership, huh?

Who knows what motivated him, precisely? Some would argue that he feared for his life. It was an unruly and large group of folks. Maybe they would have killed him if he hadn’t complied. Or maybe he wanted to be more popular than his brother. Or maybe, just maybe, he simply loved the people and wanted to make them happy. Anyone who’s ever given a child a second or third cookie just because they looked so cute when they asked for it knows what it feels like to just want to give someone you love what they want. Maybe that was Aaron’s motivation.

Regardless, he catches the people’s contagious anxiety. Fearful that he is now left completely alone to tend to these people, he does what they ask – even though it’s not good for them.

A change of scene to the mountaintop and we, the hearers, discover what we should have remembered all along. The people are not alone. God has not left them. God is right there with them, watching their anxiety. And God is not pleased to discover they have so quickly lost faith in the presence of the Holy.

God goes on a little rampage, speaking frankly to Moses. And then, the moment we’ve all been waiting for is here: Moses takes the lead.

Let’s remember that God chose Moses to lead because God saw something special in Moses. Long before Moses knew he could lead the people, God did. I have to wonder, though, did God ever expect Moses to turn around and lead God?

Because that’s what happens here.

We have a tendency to still want to think, for some strange reason, that God is unmovable –  but this passage (and several others in the Bible) say just the opposite.

What I love about this passage is not only that Moses changes God’s mind, but that he does it in such an artful way. Clearly, God knew what to look for when selecting Moses as a leader.

Moses responds to God’s wrath with two questions. Anyone who’s ever learned anything about how to teach knows that questions are the way to go. Moses asks God to remember that these people belong to God, not Moses. And he appeals to God’s pride, cautioning God that many will be watching how God responds to this incident and hoping that they will see a God of grace, not a God of destruction.

Finally, Moses makes a direct plea – asking God to remember that God has already promised the ancestors – Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Israel and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah – that their lines would continue.

God cannot transfer this covenantal promise to Moses – it’s already been given to the Hebrew people.

And it works. At least for the time being, God relents. God listens to Moses. God is moved by a mere mortal. Leadership at its finest.

I wonder if they ever used this passage in any of the classes in Leadership Studies at my alma mater. If they didn’t, they sure should have.

************

Moses was and is revered by the Jewish people for his leadership. Jesus loved him, too. Generations of Christians have learned from him.

We humans love to examine our leaders. On really good days, we learn real lessons from them and are inspired to emulate them. On not-so-good days, we are crippled by them, using their amazing superpowers as an excuse to sit around and do nothing, because, after all, I’m no Moses. Or Steve Jobs.

It’s been astounding to watch the outpouring of support for Steve Jobs these past few days. It’s not exactly a great time to be a billionaire CEO in our culture, but there was something about Steve Jobs that many seem to have truly loved.

Sure, many of us simply feel a connection to him because he has touched so many facets of our every day lives. The first computer I ever had in my home was an Apple IIc. Steve Jobs designed it in his garage and it came into my home. In so many of our homes today you’ll find tangible evidence of his legacy – iPods, iPads, iPhones, macbooks and more. Even those of you who don’t have any Apple products have been affected by the way his company has changed the way media is consumed and shared in our culture.

Steve Jobs, in his simple black turtleneck and jeans, was, for many, evidence of what can happen if you mix creativity with genius, business-savvy with bravery, understanding the consumer with caring about the details. He seemed to have it all. A unique gift to the rest of us.

As far as I know, Steve Jobs wasn’t Christian. I think he may have dabbled in Buddhism. But he emulated, in his life, one of the key characteristics any Christian leader should have: freedom from fear.

Jobs went to Reed College for one semester and then dropped out. He was a little scared when he did it, but he knew there was something else out there for him. In his 2005 Commencement Address to Stanford University, he explains how so many of the things that happened in those years after he dropped out made him into the person he would later become. He says he couldn’t connect the dots, while looking forward, but looking back he could see he was headed on a path.

It takes courage to move forward into the unknown. It takes strength to shush the voices that tell you you’ll never find a job if you drop out of college. It takes guts to talk back to God when you’re standing on a mountaintop and God is really angry.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.

Another brave man died this week. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was the last living co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Like Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy before him, he moved forward into immortality this week. He was one of those other great leaders in the Civil Rights movements. You know, the ones you can see standing next to Dr. King in all the photos if you know to look for them.

Shuttlesworth was a little spicier than Dr. King. Civil rights biographer Diane McWhorter said that, “Shuttlesworth was in the vanguard of direct action, pushing towards confrontation. King was the person who could really deal with white people and was more conciliatory.”[1]

Shuttlesworth’s obituary in the L.A. Times noted that, by his own count, Rev. Shuttesworth was bombed twice, beaten unconscious, and jailed more than 35 times.

How’s that for fearlessness? Shuttlesworth was able to lead, free from fear, because of his abiding faith in God. Shuttlesworth, unlike the Israelites in the desert, never lost sight of God’s abiding presence.

Again, from the L.A. Times obituary:
Shuttlesworth often said that he "tried to get killed in Birmingham" to draw attention to the injustices. His rough-edged approach alienated many of the more bourgeois elements of the movement, but he made no apologies. God, he said after the explosion that nearly took his life, "made me bomb-proof" and blew him into history.

But we’re not all called to be Fred Shuttlesworth or Steve Jobs or Moses, right? Right. We’re not.

On our best days, though, we can look to these fine leaders as inspiration and listen closely to what God might be calling us to do.

I do believe we are all, at one time or another, called to lead. Whether it’s leadership in your profession, leadership in this community of faith, leadership in your family, or the simple, elegant leadership of simply living your life in a way that bears testimony to God’s grace and love – we are all called to lead. God needs leaders.

I have watched this week with great fascination as the Occupy Wall Street movement has crept across the nation. One of my UCC clergy friends, Rachel, was at the protests on Wall Street this past Wednesday evening. A slight woman in her early 30s, she absolutely looked every bit a leader while standing there among the crowds wearing her clerical collar and holding up a sign that said, “On earth as it is in heaven.”

She said she and her friend intend to make other signs that take from the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Rachel said she saw a woman with a sign that said, “I’m 84 and mad as hell” and another, 40-something woman who had a sign that said, “Wall Street woman questioning my own corruption.”

On a good day, leaders inspire us to get off the couch and do some leading of our own. On a good day, we forget our excuses – that we stutter, that we’re only 23, that we’re too busy going to doctor’s appointments, that we’re not sure people will follow us.

On a good day, we remember that God needs leaders and we tentatively step forward to answer the call.

On a good day, we remember that our strength comes from the never-absent presence of the Holy One. God is on the mountain, yes, but God is here with us, too.


[1] http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-fred-shuttlesworth-20111006,0,752108.story

Sunday, October 2, 2011

“Craving Christ”

Philippians 3: 4b-14
Sunday, October 2, 2011   
Ordinary Time – World Communion Sunday  
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
My least favorite classes in seminary were theology classes. I know, I know – it seems like something a minister should really enjoy – but formal theology has never held much allure for me. I enjoy thinking about God, sure. I love that part of it. I love asking questions, wondering things, talking to others about how they experience the Holy, and looking around for glimpses of the Divine in my daily life. And those things are all theology, yes.


But when it comes to the “book learnin’” part of theology – well, that’s where it starts to fall apart for me. I grow weary of people with fancy titles telling me in their big, authoritative voices what is true about the nature of God. I am quickly bored when I’m stuck in conversations about very detailed aspects of God and Christ. I remember an hour-long classroom discussion in seminary about the Virgin Birth and whether or not it was “real.” I just remember sitting there, wondering, “How could that possibly matter?”


And yet, I recognize that it does matter – deeply – to some people. It may matter to you. And I am thankful that there are people who want to do this kind of work, because I do learn a lot from hearing what other people are pondering when they share it with me in a down-to-earth, open way.


I remember, as a teenager, occasionally getting roped into conversations with peers where they wanted me to prove that God exists. I hated those conversations.


It’s not that I couldn’t make an argument, it’s just that my argument always eventually ended with something like, “Well, I don’t know! I just know that God is real and that’s the way it has to be and if you don’t think so, then, honestly I don’t care.”


I did always like that little quotation of C.S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”


I have always had a faith that could be expressed in words, but was better expressed by a feeling – a deep knowing – a sense that this is simply the way things are. And, I guess, because, for me, faith was not something I rationally concluded, I never spent a lot of time trying argue with others about it. It just sort of seemed like something you had or you didn’t.


******


I think this is why I tend to have a love-hate relationship with Paul.

Paul occasionally makes me bonkers with his carefully-crafted theological arguments. His complicated vocabulary, his need to spell it all out, and his authoritative voice make me want to run and hide. I get especially frustrated with his my-way-or-the-highway attitude – his tendency to think that his opinions are fact and his inability to listen to anyone else.


But there are things I love about Paul, too. I love his story. I love the beginning of this passage from Philippians,


If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

And, more than almost anything else, I love the very nature of Paul’s relationship with Christ. Because when Paul says, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” he doesn’t mean that he and Jesus were best buddies who liked to get together at the local tavern and share a drink on Saturday night. And he doesn’t mean that he was there when Jesus died on the cross. And he doesn’t mean that he followed Jesus around listening to him teach.


Paul never knew Jesus, the person. He only knew Christ, the Eternal Spirit. Everything that Paul has to say about Jesus Christ is based on that encounter en route to Damascus. A vision. Some would say, a delusion. He had no “real world” experience of the one he was following.


This used to bother me a lot. I thought, well, just who are you? Saying all these things about someone you’ve never really met with your holier-than-thou tone of authority? Where do you get the idea that you have the right to tell me what to do when you have no more of a connection to Jesus than I do?


More and more, lately, though, I like this about Paul. I like that he is, essentially, like us. He didn’t know Jesus in the flesh and blood. He didn’t listen to him teach. He wasn’t there when they crucified our Lord. And that doesn’t stop him. He is so wildly, completely, head-over-heals in love with Christ that he just moves ahead – proclaiming the love of God found through Christ to everyone he meets.


Did he get some stuff wrong? Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did. I’m pretty sure some of the stuff I say from this pulpit is wrong, too. I’m pretty sure lots of ideas that we humans have had about Christ have been wrong.


I’m also certain that even those who knew Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh got it wrong from time to time. We can never fully know another person. We will always be coloring our interpretation of them through our own experiences and desires. Eyewitness reports aren’t necessarily more accurate than divinely-inspired historical reflection.

Paul didn’t know Jesus in the flesh, but this never stopped him from loving him fully in every sense of the word. And I can get behind a guy who loves Christ with complete abandon.


When I was in high school, I went to a regional youth event and one night, during worship, a young woman stepped up on the stage and did the most amazing thing I had ever seen. In front of thousands of people, she stood bravely on that stage and gave us an incredible gift. A Jars of Clay song played over the loudspeakers and she communicated the lyrics through sign language, using her hands and her whole body. She looked positively enraptured. As she signed the words, “I want to fall in love with you” over and over again, it was clear to me that she truly did want to fall in love with Christ. She was already in love with Christ, yes, but she was also longing for something more.


I felt my heart swell as I identified so strongly with the girl on the stage. Like her, I felt devoted to Christ, and sometimes it seemed to just flow out of me. But I also wanted more. I loved Christ, but I wanted to fall even deeper in love.


Years later, I can’t say that things have changed much for me.


I still find myself craving Christ. Like Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him.” I can’t rationally explain to you the source of this desire. I can’t logically outline what I believe to be true about who Christ is. I have some guesses. I have some deeply held beliefs. But I do know that I absolutely long to fall more deeply in love with Christ.


It’s a craving. It’s something I can’t get rid of. And the more I find opportunities to satiate my craving for Christ, the bigger the craving becomes. It’s like being in love when you’re a teenager. When you fall in love, you just want to be around that person all the time. You want to know them. You want them to know you. And the more you’re with them, the more you want to be with them. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.


There was a time in my life where I wasn’t so enamored with Christ. I was annoyed that some of my ideas about who Jesus was didn’t line up with the tenants of traditional Christianity and I began to question whether or not I was really a Christian.


If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it. All of us who were raised “in the Church” owe it to ourselves to question whether or not this is really the place for us. That’s one of the things I love about doing Confirmation with youth – it’s an honor to witness these youth struggle mightily with the question of whether or not they are Christian.


My biggest struggle hit me when I was in seminary in Texas. I began to think that I might be more comfortable making meaning of my faith through a Jewish community. After weeks of struggling, I decided the best way to know was to give it a try, so I went to a Friday night Shabbat service at one of the Reform Synagogues down the road.


I was absolutely terrified as I walked into the building because I was just certain that it would immediately “feel right” and I would have to figure out how to become a Jew….and I knew that would be complicated.


Imagine my surprise when the very opposite happened. There was nothing wrong with the service, but it just wasn’t right for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it just felt like something was missing. It didn’t feel like home. I didn’t leave with a longing for more.


I spent the better part of the next few weeks trying to figure out what it was that just didn’t click for me in this other religion. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the missing piece, for me, was Christ. I still didn’t fully understand what that meant, but I knew that, wherever I ended up, Christ needed to be there.


My longing to seek Christ and understand this force in the world was too large to just push to the side. I didn’t have any answers to my troubling Christological questions, but I left this experience with a renewed sense that the quest really mattered. Paul says, “It’s not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”


We are on this crazy ride together because we are loved by a power that will not let us go.


That’s not to say that it’s all some intense love fest where we obsessively think about Jesus all day long. Well, maybe you do, but I don’t. More often, it’s like a good marriage or partnership – something that you take for granted, even though you know you shouldn’t; something that you love to come home to at the end of each day. When I bless marriages and same-sex unions, I say, “May your arms always be home.”


At its best, I think our relationship with Christ, with God, with the Holy is meant to be like that.


It’s meant to be the place that feels like home. When words fail and we can’t describe exactly why it is that all of this matters to us, this craving – this desire to seek the face of God – is enough. Like Paul, we are pressing on towards the goal of knowing Christ and being known by Christ. It is my sincere hope that this craving is never satisfied.