Monday, December 24, 2012

"Christmas Comes"



“Christmas Comes” by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood – December 24, 2012
Sermon Text: Luke 2: 1-20

“In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”

In these days, a decree comes from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles reminding me that I should renew my license plates for another year. Dutifully, I attempt to log on to the BMV website to pay to have the privilege of legally driving my car for another year. Of course, I only do this once a year and I always forget my login credentials.[1] After about thirty minutes of trying to figure the system out, I sigh. It probably would have been easier to just write a check and stick it in the mail. Maybe next year I'll remember my login. Better yet, maybe next year I'll remember to just get out an envelope and a stamp.

After the license plate renewal, there are other things to tend to – other bills to pay, Christmas presents to wrap, lunches to pack for school, an e-mail to a friend who is having a difficult week, library books to be found and put in the car for their safe return, a kitchen table still messy with the remnants of dinner.

Tasks finally completed, I drag my weary soul up to bed and I notice the lights on our Christmas tree.

We have them on a timer so we don’t have to worry about turning them on and off. But, I think to myself, maybe next year we’ll skip the timer. Maybe I’d like to have the task of turning them on and off. Maybe if I took the time to take care of the tree, I would notice it more. Or maybe it would just turn into another thing on a very long to do list.

I wonder if Mary and Joseph knew their firstborn son was almost ready to make his debut when they were dragging their weary souls to Bethlehem. I wonder if they were expecting the Advent of Christ when all they were doing was following the rules, going to Bethlehem to pay their taxes.

There is a beautiful children’s picture book called The Nativity. It has the King James text of Luke’s gospel set to sweet illustrations by Julie Vivas. In it, the Angel Gabriel wears floppy, untied combat books which I find endearing. But one of my favorite things is this: the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary for the Annunciation of Christ while she is standing outside hanging her laundry out to dry.

Just going through her to do list. Checking things off. Probably thinking about all the tasks she needs to get done before lunch. When, BAM! Out of nowhere, an angel.

I don’t know about you, but I could really use an angel or two intruding on my life right now. Boots or bare feet – I’m not picky. But I could really use a break from the hum drum monotony of days that all seem to have to do lists that never get completed.

The things that do seem to break through and shake me to my core are tidings of bad news, not good. A world filled with violence. Friends struggling with life-altering illnesses and events. The death of a longtime church member. News of politicians who can’t seem to get along to save their lives. And, in the last week, argument upon argument about gun control. Speculation about the best ways to save our society from the wrath of ourselves. All of this and it’s 50 degrees outside one day and then thundersnowing the next which makes me weary as I remember all the damage we are doing to our earthly home each day.

Send me an angel, Lord. I need someone to break through the bad news. I need tidings of comfort and great joy.

And then, earlier this week, in a twenty-minute phone call with a friend, the angel showed up.

I was worrying aloud that I’d never find time to get ready for Christmas. We’ve been dealing with sickness upon sickness in our household lately – which is just par for the course with two children under the age of three, I suppose – leaving us all exhausted. I admitted to my friend that I wasn’t feeling very Christmassy this year and was really struggling to get my head in the game for Christmas week.

I don’t know if she was wearing floppy old work boots, but she was definitely carrying tidings of comfort and joy when she gently reminded me, “Sounds like you’ve already found some good news to share on Christmas Eve.”

Incredulous that she could find any good news in my whining and moaning, I said, “Good news? What?”

And she said, “The good news is that Jesus is born again each Christmas, whether we are ready or not.”

And there it is. Christmas comes – ready or not.

We who languish in to do lists that never seem to end will see the dawn of Christ. We who spend too much time absorbing horrific images on the news will see the reign of God birthed in a stable. We who feel like we’re on a freight train barreling towards some unknown destination will find ourselves stopped in our tracks by this Christmas.

An angel comes to us and says, “Behold, you will find him lying in a manger.” And suddenly the sanctuary will be filled with a multitude of the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace.”

Ready or not, Christmas is here.

The to do lists will need to be turned over and saved for another day because God comes in the form of an infant child. A nobody born to nobodies in a noplace. Born to a couple of kids who weren’t even married yet, traveling to Bethlehem to file some paperwork with the government. Going through the motions. Caught by surprise when the time for the birth drew near. And then suddenly, Emmanuel. God with us. Ready or not, Christmas is here.

The bad news of our world will be drowned out by the Good News of our God.

Perhaps Max Lucado said it best last week when he wrote a prayer in response to the violence in Connecticut. Lucado prayed, “Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod's jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.”

Mary and Joseph knew a few things about darkness and violence. The shepherds were no stranger to oppression and fear. And yet, in the midst of a time of great fear and anxiety, God showed up.

And God bless those shepherds – they paid attention. Just doing their stuff, watching sheep, and when an angel came with life-altering news, they paid attention. They packed up their gear and took off to Bethlehem. Risking ridicule, or at the very least, a serious waste of gas money, they took a chance to went to see the thing that had taken place.

They tuned off the 24-hour-news-cycle and put their attention in another place. They reminded themselves that their work could wait for a few hours and they took a break. They paid attention when the angel showed up and they were open to the Advent of Good News.

Christmas comes. Ready or not.

Perhaps you have prepared yourself quite well for this silent night. You’ve lit your Advent candles. You’ve stilled your heart and made room for the Christ Child to be born anew in our world. If so? Christmas comes.

Perhaps you’ve spent the last month partying like crazy. Office parties. Gift exchanges. Black Friday sales. Christmas trimmings. A beautiful tree. A hearth decked out with stockings. Christmas cards mailed on time. If so? Christmas comes.

Perhaps you’ve done little to prepare yourself. Your life has continued relatively uninterrupted by the Advent of the Season. You’ve had your nose to the grindstone – wrapping up tasks at work, caring for those you love, taking pleasures in the joy of curling up with a book by the fire, planning diligently for the year ahead. If so? Christmas comes.

Christmas comes to all because Christ does not need us to be ready.

Just as God does not need us to invite God into our schools by a schoolwide prayer, God does not need to be invited into our hearts to be present. God is already fully present everywhere.  Christ is born again this day and every day, like it or not. There is no way to “systematically remove” God from anywhere.[2] There is no way to deny the reality of Christ in our midst. It just is.

Christmas comes no matter what. It’s up to us how to respond. Mary could have simply laughed at that Angel in funny-looking boots when he interrupted her laundry day. But she didn’t.

The shepherds could have ignored the angel who interrupted their work in the fields. They could have written him off as a hallucination. But they didn’t.

And we get to choose, too. The to lists will always be there. The bad news will probably never stop screaming at us from our TVs, our computers, our smartphones. We can ignore the Advent of Christ. We can turn our attention to other places because there will always be things ready and willing to drown out the faint flutter of an angel’s wings.

This is the part of the sermon where you’re expecting me to tell you to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. This is where I’m supposed to tell us to all just quiet ourselves for just one night and really focus on the Birth of Christ.

And I suppose I could do that. I could.


But for tonight, I am just going to rest in this good news instead: Christmas comes, no matter what we do or don’t do.

There is nothing we can do to negate the arrival of God in our lives. There is nothing we can do to shut God out of anyplace. There is nothing we can do to deny the reality that God is in our midst. This night and every night.

Christmas comes.



[1] After I published this sermon, I received a very helpful and friendly e-mail from Dennis L. Rosebrough, Deputy Commisioner for External Affairs for the Indiana BMW. He told me that you can actually log on without having to remember your password. There’s a big red button on the homepage! I just didn’t see it. Now I know for next year! Additionally, when I originally delivered this sermon, I made a comment about having to pay an online convenience fee. I must have confused the BMV process with some other online process, because Mr. Rosebrough tells me there is no online convenience fee. I apologize for my mistake.
[2] Mike Huckabee said this week that the shootings in Connecticut happened because we have “systematically removed” God from our schools. If you have not yet read Rachel Held Evans’ recent blog post in response to what Mike Huckabee said, you must. http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/god-kept-out

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Winnowing Ain't All Bad"


Sermon Text: Luke 3: 7-18

They came to John seeking good news. Seeking baptism. Salvation. John the Baptist. In the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.

A people who lived in dark times – surely we can identify with them. And we come to John as they came to John – seeking the good news. John speaks of the wrath to come, but we come today wondering how to flee from the wrath at hand.

John greets them with an insult – calling them a brood of vipers. He warns them that they are being watched to see if their trees produce fruit. He gives them the impression that they are bad people – people who have done many bad things.

So these crowds – the crowds who have come to see John prepare the way of the Lord – ask the next logical question, “What then should we do?”

What should we do if what you’re saying is true? If we are bad people and the children of bad people, what should we do?

Now, I have to take issue with some of what John is saying here. First of all, it’s not my personal pastoral style to call people names. Even though John has effectively scared these people into listening to what he has to say and even though what he has to say is, ultimately, good news – I’m not a fan of motivating people with fear. Fear begets fear.

In spite of John’s name-calling, I don’t believe God creates bad people. In spite of Friday’s events in Connecticut, I don’t believe God creates bad people. God creates people who make choices – many good, many bad, and some incomprehensibly evil. In spite of the choices we make, and for reasons I don’t fully undrstand, God loves us.

And although John seems to believe God is watching closely to see if the trees of humanity bear fruit, I don’t think God is sitting up in heaven somewhere with a sticker chart. God’s love is unconditional. God has dreams for what our world can be, but even when we fall way short of the mark, God’s love continues. God does not cut down trees that fail to produce fruit. God continues to water trees, send fresh sunlight to those trees, and send kind people to prune the trees. God never loses hope that all trees can produce delicious fruit, given the right conditions.

So, John and I are not exactly on the same page here in terms of what we believe to be true about God. You may or may not be in agreement with him either – and that’s okay. We can still engage with the text and find good news in it.

What John does next is simple and brilliant. He talks to the different people who have gathered to be baptized – average Joes and Janes, tax collectors, soldiers – and gives them concrete advice on how to live as children of the light in the midst of some very dark times. He tells those who have two coats that they must share with those who have none. He tells tax collectors to be honest and fair in their dealings with money. And he advises the soldiers to use their authority for good, not for evil.

These answers must have satisfied the crowds because they were immediately abuzz. People started to wonder aloud if John might be the Messiah, not just the one who points the way to the Messiah. But John quickly set them straight, reminding them that he was here to baptize with water but there was another coming who was greater than he. John goes back to the agrarian imagery again, stating that the Messiah would be the one who would go to the threshing floor to separate the good grain from the unusable grain and that he would burn off the chaff in an unquenchable fire.

Wait – what? Unquenchable fire? That makes me nervous. I always tend to automatically assume any talk about unquenchable fire is somehow directly linked to hellfire and brimstone. So let’s take a second and look at this image of Jesus winnowing the wheat.

John’s metaphor here is that Jesus is a laborer, preparing the wheat for use. Back before farmers used machinery to prepare wheat, they did it manually, with the help of animals. They would gather the wheat on the threshing floor – a large outdoor paved area located near a barn. They would use livestock to walk on the grain and separate the grain from the stalks and to begin to loosen the chaff from the wheat berries. After the grain was separated, the farmer would winnow it to remove the chaff from the berry entirely. This was why the threshing floors were outside. The typical method was to use the breeze to help blow the lightweight chaff away from the useable grain. Sometimes this was as simple as throwing the grain and chaff into the air by using a winnowing fork or fan to lift the wheat off the ground. The chaff would blow away and the wheat berries would land back on the floor. [1]  If you had a big bulk of chaff left around, you would probably burn it just to get rid of it.

Many of us are familiar with this separating the wheat from the chaff imagery, right? And I think the typical assumption is that there are good people and bad people and God is going to somehow separate them from each other and burn off the bad folks.

But that’s not how wheat works. Wheat is all one thing. Every grain of wheat has a berry that is useful for humans and animals. And every grain of wheat has an outer skin – a chaff that has to come off before the grain can be used.

Sounds a little bit like a lot of people I know. We are all a great mix of bad and good. And we all need help to allow the best parts of ourselves to shine through.

I’m not saying it’s fun to be thrashed about – and please notice something in the words of John – Jesus is not even the one doing the threshing. Instead, Jesus comes along after the threshing to pick the grain up off the floor and winnow it. Jesus lovingly sets aside the good parts of the wheat to be used and what happens to the bad stuff? It disappears – burned up in a fire that is unquenchable, always available – never to be spoken of again.

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

That’s the end of this passage. Most commentators I read this week were shocked by this ending to the passage. Good news? This is good news? Hellfire and brimstone and Jesus coming to separate the goats from the sheep? Well, no. Not exactly. That’s not really what this passage is about.

What this passage is about is John empowering everyone present – even those who were not typically thought of as “religious types” – to thresh themselves out and make themselves useful. And if that ain’t good news, friends, I don’t know what is.

To be told that we are all of us able to slough off our flaky parts and find meaning in our lives and work? To be told that we, everyday Janes and Joes, can bring about the reign of God by sharing? To be told that we, despised wealthy ones, can live into the Way of Christ by dealing fairly and honestly with our money? To be told that we, strong and powerful ones with authority, can show God’s love to the world by using our authority for good and not for wrong?

And, after a week like this one, in the face of senseless violence when we feel so helpless, to be led into the possibility of collectively redeeming the world by simply allowing our rough parts to be blown away on the wind of the Spirit?

That’ll preach, John. That. Will. Preach.

If this was the only thing we could take away from this passage it would be enough. To know that in the mist of heavy times, we are empowered to do good and that the gentle arms of Christ will lead us? That’s enough. But there is more.

Because John is not only inviting us to see the ways we can bring out the good in ourselves, John is also inviting us to baptism. In many cultures, baptism or a ritual washing, is a final step in a long process of becoming a part of a group. To be baptized is to join a family and to say, “These are my people. I belong to this family.”

Traditionally, Christians think of themselves as joining the family of all Christians when they are baptized, and this is true. But I also think baptism calls us back to remember that we are, first and foremost, a part of the human family. All of it – not just the Christians parts of it.

We are all a part of the human family, but sometimes we forget to live that way. God knows, we in this nation are guilty of this. We rush about from place to place, our heads stuck in our screens, sometimes scarcely noticing the humanity around us – let alone actually making the effort to enhance our connection to others. And then we wonder why we have an epidemic of gun violence. We live in a place and time where it is countercultural to remember our connections to each other.

We forget that we are all related. We divide ourselves off into nuclear families. We cling so tightly to our socioeconomic status, our race, our gender, our political views, our hobbies, our religion, our whatever that we forget we are really all related. But Dr. King said it best when he said “we are all caught in an inescapable network or mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”[2]

And that’s part of what John is inviting us to remember. When he talks to the people he tells them to treat those they encounter as if they were a part of the same family. He says to them, “Just give them your coat. Don’t expect it back. You wouldn’t expect your sister to return your coat to you, right?” I think John would have been standing up and cheering to see the IU students who gathered outside our church at 5:30am during finals week this past Tuesday to distribute coats and gloves and scarves to our guests at the interfaith winter shelter.

John tells us to remember that we’re all a part of the human family. Those of us who have authority are supposed to use it for good, not evil. In the midst of all the bad news in the media, did you hear about Officer Lawrence DePrimo of the NYPD? A few weeks ago, he was out walking his beat and used $75 of his own money to buy a pair of sturdy boots for a man experiencing homelessness.[3] DePrimo didn’t know he was going to be photographed and that the picture of him bending down to put the boots on the man’s cold feet would go viral on the internet. He wasn’t doing it to get credit. He did it because he remembered that we’re all a part of the human family. He did it because he knew that, to care for another person is to slough off a bit of your own chaff. He did it because he knew that it feels good to be useful. It feels good to remember your connection to another human being.

And in the midst of these dark days, on this third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink candle. The candle of Joy. It seems almost laughable to speak of joy right now, but as my dear friend and colleague the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen is saying from her church’s pulpit this morning, “How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.”

The people came to John seeking a word of salvation just as we come to this place seeking a healing balm. We are all of us wilderness wanderers and we come to John for the good news.

He does not disappoint. John’s good news for us this day is this: In the face of the great evil, there is not a one of us who is useless. When the news of the day makes us notice our own chaff - when we feel consumed by feelings of fear, anger, grief. When we wonder how we can ever make ourselves useful in this broken, broken world, Jesus the Good Farmer comes to us with his winnowing fork.

After we have been threshed about by the violence of this world, the Christ lifts us off the cold, hard ground and winnows us gently. Let the winds of God’s healing breath blow on all of us and let us be useful in the world.



[1] With thanks to http://doyle-scienceteach.blogspot.com/2009/03/separating-wheat-from-chaff.html and Wikipedia articles on “threshing floor” and “winnowing.”
[2] http://www.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/MLK/CommAddress.html
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/nyregion/photo-of-officer-giving-boots-to-barefoot-man-warms-hearts-online.html?_r=0

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Fantasyland"



Sermon Text: Luke 21: 25-36

If you were a fly on the wall of the Wood household at about 8:00 every night, you were have the opportunity to observe some really bizarre parenting. Our almost-three-year-old has started complaining mightily every night when it’s time to get ready for bed. This falls into the category of a developmental phase that I just KNEW was coming at some point but REALLY hoped would magically never happen to my child.

So the conversation most nights goes something like this:
Parent:             Okay, buddy. It’s time to head upstairs.
Child:              NOOOOOO! I don’t want to go upSTAAAAAAIIIIIIRRRRSSSSS!
Parent:             Oh, I know. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just stay downstairs all night long! What do you think we’d do down here? Would we sleep on the floor? Or maybe on top of the kitchen counter? Even better! Maybe we could go outside with a flashlight and play in the yard all night long, just looking around in the dark. Going upstairs is no fun. I wish we could play all night instead. Maybe when you’re grown up you can stay up all night long.

There is usually a lot of giggling happening by this point. We typically get a few more complaints out of him but he reluctantly gets ready to go to bed. Before we started doing this silly little fantasy tap dance we were saying things like, “Well, I’m sorry you’re upset, but we do have to go up now. I gave you a warning. We go upstairs every night. It’s important to sleep so we can feel rested.”

I had read in several books that if you just go with whatever you child really wants and make it into a big game, imagining wilder and crazier things with them, it will often alleviate their frustration. Somehow they feel heard and understood. I was very skeptical about trying this because my adult brain told me, “But if you say something like ‘let’s go outside with flashlights’ then he’ll just be even more angry that you can’t actually DO that, right?”

Nope. It doesn’t make him more angry. It calms him down. It’s astounding. I don’t pretend to really understand how it works, but when it comes to parenting I don’t really need to understand why something works. If it works, we keep doing it until it stops working. So we’re going with this whole fantasy thing.

Today’s passage from Luke takes us into the realm of fantasy, too. Last week I thought to myself, “Oh, good. Advent starts next week and we’re doing the Gospel of Luke this year, so that will be nice.”

But I had forgotten that Advent with the Gospel of Luke begins with a big apocalyptic bang. This is not a touchy feely text. Instead it’s filled with signs of the end times and warnings about tribulation.

Why on earth would the season of Advent begin with a text like this? Well, for starters, this is a text about waiting. And Advent is, of course, the season of waiting. Waiting for Christ to be born in our midst. Waiting for the strange warming that comes to our hearts when we greet the Christ child in the manger. Waiting for that kindling of hope that comes with the realization that God comes to us again this year in unexpected ways.

Apocalyptic texts like this one are all about waiting, too. Written to give hope to those cast out into the margins of society, apocalyptic is meant to strengthen people living in the midst of chaos. It asserts that there are unseen rules governing all of creation. It asserts that judgment is coming on those who live in ungodly ways. It promises that the poor and the least and the lost will one day be lifted up in glory.

David Lose, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary up in St. Paul, brings forward another reason this Luke passage is appropriate for the beginning of Advent. Lose says that in order to really grapple with this text “we should first and foremost admit that it will sound to most of our hearers – and, quite frankly, also to us (if we really listen to it) – as sheer fantasy.”[1]

Now, lest you think that calling a biblical text fantasy is heretical, hear him out. Here’s a long quote. I’ll let you know when it’s over:

Notice, however, that I didn’t say it’s not true, but rather that it’s fantasy – as in fantastical, beyond our experience, extraordinary, not of this world. And, I would argue, precisely because it is not of this world, because it is beyond our physical and material existence and experience, it has the power to redeem us. That is, I believe the Bible not because it tells me of things I have seen and know for myself but precisely because it describes a reality that stretches beyond the confines of my finite, mortal existence and therefore has the capacity to redeem me…and you…and this life and world we share.[2]

End quote.

Fantasy has the power to redeem us precisely because it is not of this world. I don’t understand how this works any more than I understand why spinning tall tales for my two year old helps him make peace with the idea of going to bed, but something about this rings deeply true for me.

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, my soul aches as I try to hold together all the things this season brings.

Cheerful holiday gatherings : tense interactions with those we are supposed to love best.

Hymns and prayers urging us to slow down and savor this time of waiting : a sense that December 25 will be here before we know it and there’s still so much to do.

Letters in the mail urging me to do my part to help those in need : catalogs begging me to buy my children more and more toys they don’t need.

News stories of violence in lands far and near, super storms, fiscal cliffs : the warm smile of a perfect stranger who opens the door for me at Target as I rush in out of the cold.

Being human means holding together all of these things.

Living fully into the season of Advent means letting go of much of the familiarity of the rest of the year. This season calls us into a unique time.

It’s a fantasyland, really. We crane our necks to witness the birth of a poor nobody child in a barn. We give beyond our means. We wait for the sound of hooves on our rooftop and leave out cookies for a jolly old elf who comes bearing gifts. It is a time unlike any other in the year.

Like fantasy, I think Advent has the power to redeem us precisely because it is not of this world. If we allow ourselves to live more fully into this fantasy time – to lose ourselves in the midst of the radical, life-giving promises of Advent – we will find ourselves changed.

I have some dear friends at Broadway United Methodist Church up in Indianapolis. At Broadway they have a saying, “Live as if the gospel were true.”

It doesn’t sound like much, right? I mean, surely, as Christians, we should be living as if the gospel were true.

I’m not here to tell you what I think your gospel should be. And, yes, I really do think we can each have our own. In fact, I think it’s one of the great quests of the Christian life to find your own gospel and proclaim it to the world. After all, we have four books that are titled “gospel” in our holy scriptures. That alone should tell us there is room for all kinds of good news in this world.

My gospel is constantly evolving, but the core of it is this - I believe the opening lines from the creed of the United Church of Canada, “We are not alone. We live in God’s world.”

We are not alone. To me, that is some of the best news I can imagine. We are not alone. On days when I am living as if that were true, I feel a little less despairing. I feel more loved. I feel stronger. And, in turn, I am able to be kinder. I am able to remember my connections with others. I am able to find more patience with the things that frustrate me. And in the face of deeply frightening situations, I am able to find a sense of peace, knowing that I am not alone.

And we live in God’s world. The beauty that I encounter belongs to God. The horror that I sometimes find still rests in God. There is nothing in this world that can be separated from the love to God. It all exists in God and God exists in all of it.

So what is your gospel? And do you live your life as if it is true? Don’t worry – I’m not asking you to answer that question right now.

What I am asking is that you consider yourself invited to live more fully into the fantasyland that is Advent.

As you hold together the highs and lows and wrongs and rights and darkness and light of this odd season, give yourself over to the fantasy of it all. Set aside some of your need for concrete answers and facts and rest in the beauty of asking why or how….and finding no answer. Seek out your gospel – whatever it may be – and live as if it were true.

Fantasy has the power to redeem us because it is not of this world.
Advent has the power to stir our souls because it is not ordinary time.
The gospel has the power to save precisely because it is incredible.

This Advent, may your imagination run wild and may you live as if the gospel is true.





[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=645
[2] ibid.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"The Redeemer"


November 11, 2012
Sermon Text: Ruth 3:1-9, 4:13-17

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away there was a woman named Naomi who had two sons. She and her husband, Elimelech had moved from Bethlehem, in Judah, to a foreign land, Moab, because there was a famine. After they moved to Moab, Naomi’s husband died. Her two sons were grown and they married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. After they had lived there about a decade, Naomi’s sons died, too, and she and her daughters-in-law found themselves in the midst of a nightmare situation. They were three women, living alone, far from family that would take care of them.

Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem in hopes of finding food because the famine was over. She encouraged her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab, their home country, because she knew she had no way of providing for them. In the day and age which they lived, women were utterly dependent on men and Naomi, being an older woman, had no way to produce more sons for Orpah and Ruth to marry.

Orpah listened to her mother-in-law and decided to stay in Moab. But Ruth – Ruth had other plans. She told her mother-in-law, “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

I often encourage people I marry to write their own wedding vows, but, really, I can’t think of any vows better than these. Ruth, for whatever reason, was faithful to Naomi. Naomi, who had nothing to offer. Naomi, who was an outsider in the land of Moab. Naomi, who had lost everything. Naomi, who could not care for Ruth. Ruth chose her anyway and refused to leave her side.

Many people love the story of Ruth and Naomi. It’s a beautiful tale of fidelity and it’s one of the few Biblical stories about women. Now as a modern-day feminist, there are some things in this story that make me a little bonkers. I wish, of course, that these two women could strike out on their own, find jobs, provide for themselves, and sing a nice rousing rendition of “I am woman, hear me roar!”

Of course, this is not what happens. Instead, what we have is the story of two brilliant and self-sufficient women working the system of their day and place to their advantage. In their culture, widowed women were some of the most helpless beings on the planet. Without men to provide food and shelter, they were cast out into the margins of society.

Being a widow was terrifying, but there was one hope for these women. Because the God of the Israelites cared for widows, the people of Judah were required to care for them, too. Over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures we hear God’s call to care for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. And please note that after they returned to Bethlehem, Ruth was not only a widow but also a foreigner.

There were customs in place to provide a safety net for women like Ruth and Naomi. If a man died and left his wife behind, his next-of-kin was supposed to marry her and provide for her. Of course, Naomi’s sons were both dead, so there was no brother-in-law for Ruth to marry. But Naomi was a resilient and hopeful woman, so she set her sights on a man named Boaz who was a relative of her deceased husband. It was kind of a long shot – especially since Ruth was a foreigner – but Naomi knew it was their only chance, so she sent Ruth out day after day to pick up leftovers in Boaz’s field and to try to capture his attention.

Now when I was a little girl and was taught this story, someone erroneously told me that Boaz noticed Ruth because she was pretty. I guess everything has to be a Disney fairytale, huh? But, really? That’s not true. I mean, Ruth may have been pretty, I don’t know. But that’s not what Boaz cared about.

Instead, Boaz was drawn to Ruth because of her fidelity. He watches out for her when she comes to his fields day after day. He tells her she can act like one of his female servants and tells her she can drink all the water she wants. He even instructs his field hands to leave some extra food laying for her on the ground so she can find it easily. Ruth is surprised by his kindness and asks why he is kind to her when she is a foreigner. He says that he’s heard of her faithfulness to her Naomi. He is impressed that she has stayed with Naomi and that she was willing to come to a foreign land to care for her. He is impressed by Ruth’s character.

Ruth’s fidelity and steadfastness seems to inspire the same in Boaz. It’s amazing how we can be so influenced by the company we keep, isn’t it? When we surround ourselves with people who seek to be kind and true, we often find ourselves working harder to do the same.

So when Ruth comes to Boaz at night and slips under his blanket, I’m sure he is shocked.

Naomi has sent Ruth here in desperation. Naomi feels certain that if Ruth will simply offer herself – her body – to Boaz, he will surely want what is being offered. She can only hope that he will also be a decent man and offer her marriage after they spend the night together.

There is so very much at stake in this moment. To be a woman in a place surrounded by men – at night – this is the kind of thing that almost never ends well.

To put yourself out there and hope against hope that you’ve guessed right and that this man is a good one – that’s what Ruth had to do. In going to Boaz at night she put everything she had on the line. I think we can all imagine the horrible things that could have happened. At the very leas, he could have shamed her. He could have seen to it that she and Naomi were banished from Bethlehem and left with no other options.

But Boaz did none of these things. Instead, he talked to her. He listened to her plans. He told her, once again, that he greatly admired her faithfulness and capabilities.

Ruth basically proposed to Boaz, saying, “Please? Won’t you take me in? You’re the closest relative I have.” And Boaz, rule-follower that he was, responded by saying that he thought there might be another, even-closer, relative. He promised to check on things the next day and work them out.

When I was re-reading Ruth this week, I just happened to pick up my copy of the Common English Bible, a new translation that was published in 2010. I love to read different translations of familiar texts because I often find an entire story can turn on a word or a phrase. And that’s what happened this week.

In the NRSV, Ruth asks Boaz to protect her because he is her “next-of-kin.” But in the CEB, she says, “you are my redeemer.”

Boaz is her redeemer. And yes, of course, of course, this smacks of patriarchy and it makes my 21st century feminist ears bleed. But taken in its context, it opens up worlds and worlds to me about who God is and who we are called to be.

To be someone’s next of kin is to be their redeemer. To be family is to be faithful. In this way, Boaz isn’t the only redeemer in this story. Ruth is a redeemer, too. She could have easily left Naomi and found a way to take care of herself. Instead, she stayed with her kinswoman and vowed to take care of her, no matter what.

Boaz, inspired by Ruth’s faithfulness, does the same. He sees that he has the opportunity to help these women and he wants to. But first he has to check with the other guy. Because there is another kinsman who is technically more closely related than Boaz and according to their customs, he has the right to take Ruth if he wants her.

So Boaz, the redeemer, goes to this other nameless man and says, “I am thinking of buying the land that used to belong to Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband. But I need to check with you first – do you want it?”  And this nameless man jumps on the opportunity. He is more than happy to discover he can own some new land.

But then Boaz says to him, “Oh, by the way, the land also comes with Elimelech’s daughter-in-law, Ruth.” And the nameless man backpedals, saying he doesn’t want the land after all.

Given the opportunity to be the redeemer, this other man doesn’t take it. Given the opportunity to care for a person who has been dealt a bad hand, he refuses. Given the chance to engage in a new relationship with a person who needs him, he backpedals. He has the chance to be a redeemer, and he takes a pass.

We don’t know his name. He is not the redeemer in this story.

The redeemer in this story is Boaz. He is the one who willingly takes notice of a woman that no one else noticed. He sees her for the person she is and he praises her for her faithfulness. He recognizes her need and does what he can to keep her safe.

I ran across this quotation earlier this week in a book I was reading for fun: Clarissa Pinkola Estes says "Mend the part of the world that is within your reach."

I believe this is what it means to be a redeemer. We are to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. We are to keep our eyes and hearts open and look for those who may need help. And then we are to do whatever is within our power to love and care for them.

God gives us the power of redemption. Because we have been redeemed by God – rescued from self-loathing, loved as we are, caressed and fiercely loved by the One who knows all of our weaknesses – because we have been redeemed by God, we are freed to redeem others.

There are people all over this world who are in need of redemption. Our world, our nation, our state, our community, our neighborhood are just overflowing with people in need of salvation.

But before you get on your white horse and go looking for a princess to save, let me give you a word of caution: all of these people, no matter how disparaged, have within them the ability to redeem themselves. All of these people have within them the ability to redeem themselves.

They do not need me to come swooping in on a white horse and tell them how much easier their lives would be if they would just be like me. That’s not what Boaz the Redeemer does. Boaz watches Ruth from afar and he learns from her. He sees in her this fierce fidelity. He recognizes that which his Holy in her and, in turn, uses the power and privilege he has to shine a light on the Holy that lives inside this woman.

No one else was looking for God in the person of Ruth. No one else was expecting to learn from her. Boaz saw her. Boaz trusted in what she had to offer. And then he became her partner and together the two of them found redemption.

To be a redeemer is to recognize the Holy in another person. It is to humble yourself and recognize that all of us, no matter how privileged or poor we are, have something to offer and all of us, no matter how privileged or poor, have something to learn.

Today and every day, we are all given the chance to be a redeemer. It is my prayer that we will open ourselves to the possibility of walking in the footsteps of Boaz and Ruth.


Monday, October 22, 2012

"Ransomed"


by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood – October 21, 2012
Sermon Text: Mark 10: 35-45

For the past month or so our lectionary cycle has had us steadily marching through the meaty middle of Mark. Right before today’s passage begins, we have Jesus – for the third and final time – attempting to explain to his disciples what it means to be the Messiah. Explaining that he will be betrayed, tortured, killed, and then rise again.

In today’s passage, after Jesus predicts his death for the third time, his disciples James and John respond by saying, “So, Jesus, we were wondering – after all this torture and death and resurrection business, we were really hoping we could be awesome with you for all eternity.”

Wait, what? Is that really what they said? Yes, yes it is.

Jesus just told them he’s going to be tortured and killed and their immediate reaction is to wonder if they can somehow ride on his coattails into glory.

In his sermon on this text, Martin Luther King, Jr. called this desire to get ahead, to be up in front – leading, being showered with accolades – the “drum major instinct.” And he says we all have it – at least to some extent. It seems to be simply a natural part of being human, this desire to be loved and to be given attention. He reminds us that from her first cry, a baby is seeking love and attention. As adults, King says, we still never really get over it. He says, “We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it. Now if you don't believe that, you just go on living life, and you will discover very soon that you like to be praised.”[1]

So true. So true. I’d like to think that if I was with Jesus that day, I would have taken the time to think about something other than myself, but I don’t know – I might have been right there with James and John. Scared about the future, worried for myself, wondering if I could find a way to the top of the heap when all the craziness shook out.

Dr. King says it doesn’t have to be a problem – this drum major instinct – if you can find a way to keep it in check, and I believe he’s right.

Jesus presents an alternative vision for greatness when he responds to James and John. Jesus doesn’t scold James and John for acting out of this natural human desire to be applauded and praised. Instead, he gently and brilliantly teaches them there is another way to be great.


In the midst of a world that told the disciples that greatness was hierarchical and only the people at the top of the heap were worthy of love and affection, Jesus calmly and quietly presented another way to look at things. In short, he did what Jesus was always so very good at doing: he turned the world upside-down.

That guy was always taking the norms and just flipping them over.

Want to live forever? You’ll have to die first. Want to be rich? You’ll need to give away all your possessions. Want to be first? You need to be last, actually. Want to sit with me at the head of the table in heaven? Well, I don’t actually know much about the seating chart up there, but if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you a new way of being great.

As I was driving through Brown County this past week, I saw a small country church and the sign said, “Jesus gives hope and peace.” Jesus gives hope and peace.

In the midst of a world where we are bombarded by messages telling us that we need to get ahead, Jesus gives hope and peace. When we are told we need to be worried about getting that promotion, making tenure, buying a bigger house, throwing the best party, getting the best grade on that project, looking better than all our friends, owning the coolest new gadget….Jesus gives hope and peace.

That’s what the Messiah does, folks. He gives hope and peace.

He tells James and John that if they want to be great, they have to be wiling to drink the cup that Jesus drinks and be baptized the way he is being baptized. That’s code for, “You have to be willing to die.” And after you do? “Well,” he says, “I still can’t promise you’ll be sitting at the head of the table because I’m not the one making those arrangements.”

The hope and peace that Jesus gives to James and John is the same hope and peace he offers to us today – we don’t have to buy into this notion that being great is all about being number one.

We don’t have to be worried about whether we get to sit at the head of the table because, truly? It doesn’t matter.

We are freed from running around and around on the giant gerbil-wheel of life, trying to get ahead. We are freed from constantly comparing ourselves to everyone else and wondering if we’re better than them. We are freed from worrying where we get to sit at the table because it turns out we’re not supposed to sit at the table at all.

The great people? The truly great people? They aren’t sitting down at the table. They’re the ones cleaning the table, cooking the food, serving the food, and washing the feet of the weary travelers who have come to eat dinner.

On Tuesday night this week, when the presidential debate was happening, one of our members posted this little gem about her husband on facebook: "While folks are talking about how they will ‘help’ people, Lanier Frush Holt is leading the first shift at the first night of this year's Interfaith Winter Shelter. Now that is sexy, folks."

And, of course, Lanier wasn’t the only one here. Do you remember just how many of you stood up last week to be blessed as we begin the shelter season? And there are so many more who work tirelessly behind the scenes – giving money, offering prayers, giving praise or a kind word to those who work the shelter week in and week out.

This service business can sometimes feel pretty thankless and lonely, but I want to say to you today, Jesus says you are great.

Jesus gives us a new way of thinking about greatness – one that is rooted is selfless service to the other. Now you might not always get thanked when you serve other people. It’s not the praise that makes you great, it’s the deep and true connection you have with the other – and with the Holy – when you reach outside of yourself to be a part of something bigger.

Jesus says that to be the Messiah means that he’s come to give his life as a ransom for many.

That image, Jesus as a ransom for many, probably conjures up images immediately in your head of Jesus dying on a cross to somehow magically wipe all our sins away in some big cosmic chess game that God made up. I want you to walk with me for a minute into this ransom image, but first, I want you to put away the image of God and the cosmic chess game with the weird rules.

Instead, let’s look at it from a sociological perspective.[2] In the Ancient Near East, a ransom would have been given to purchase slaves. Typically, if a person was used as a ransom, the worth of the person would have been calculated and you would often get a one-to-one trade. This person for that person. Now, I have to say, I really don’t like talking about trading people and owning people – obviously, that image is pretty abhorrent to our modern sensibilities, but it is the language being used here, so hang with me.

Jesus is being given as a ransom to buy some people out of slavery. But notice that he’s not being used to buy just one person or two or three. Jesus is so great, so grand, so amazing, so wonderful that he is able to be a ransom for many people. There is something about Jesus that enables him to buy back many many people from slavery.

Slavery to what? Slavery to whom?

Well, in my experience, Jesus has the ability to ransom us from all kinds of slavery. That’s what makes him our savior. That’s what I’m mean when I say Jesus saves.

In this particular instance, I think Jesus is rescuing us from being enslaved to that drum major instinct.

Jesus sees two of his dearest friends, James and John, struggling so mightily with this human desire to be praised and given attention. Instead of scolding them, he lovingly shows them a new way.

He guides them gently through the pain of the cup and the waters and he shepherds them ably to the shores of a new world where they can be freed for service. He reminds them that all they need to do to be truly great is forget themselves a bit and seek out ways to serve others. He reminds them that they are linked to every other living creature in this world through the love of God. He helps them remember that as nice as it feels to be praised, it sometimes feels even better to praise someone else.

If we are called to follow in the Way of Christ, then we are called to preach this message – this good news – to the world around us. In the words of Dr. King, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.”[3]

We need to say together to the world, “Do you want to be great? Do you want to be praised? That’s fine. That’s natural. We know a way you can be great. This guy Jesus told us about it. He told us that it feels really good to serve other people. He told us that the more and more we worry about others, the less and less we’ll feel anxious about ourselves. Here – come and walk alongside us. Come serve at the homeless shelter. Come with me to my shift at Community Kitchen. Here – come with me to the Habitat breakfast or the MCUM luncheon and learn about these amazing organizations and help me as I support them. Do you want to be great? Come to the nursing home with me, or the jail, or down to Seminary Square. Sit with me for a bit as I talk with these people that the rest of the world has forgotten.”

The Church – and when I say the Church, I mean the “big C,” universal Church, not specifically First United Church – has spent too many millennia obsessed with being great according to the world’s standards. We Christians have, on many occasions, found ourselves way too worried about filling up our pews, building bigger buildings, adding more people to our roll books, and stuffing our coffers.

I want you to invite a friend to church – not to sit in the pew with you and share our belief system, but to walk with us in the CROP walk, to give blood in a blood drive, to clean a cot for a guest who doesn’t have a home, to donate cloth diapers to parents struggling to make ends meet, or to do some new thing that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

We, too, can be like Jesus. We, too, can be a ransom for many.

We can call out to those who haven’t yet discovered how good it feels to serve. We can be a place for those who want to serve and don’t know where or how to plug in.

As we have been saved, let us reach out to others and share the secret: “Do you want to be great? We follow someone who taught us that we have to serve others, just like he did. Come along with us. Let’s be great together.”

Monday, September 24, 2012

"There Are No Stupid Questions"


September 23, 2012
Sermon Text: Mark 9: 30-37


When I sit down with a Biblical text to prepare a sermon, I find that my head is filled with questions as soon as I start reading. When I read this week’s passage from Mark, the question that immediately popped for me and wouldn’t let me go was this: who acts this way?

I was reading along and got to the part where Jesus asks the disciples what they had been arguing about on the road to Carpernaum and they were embarrassed to answer because they had been debating about who among them was the greatest. Who acts this way? I mean, really – a bunch of grown men and they’re squabbling like a bunch of children over who is the coolest? Who has the most points? Who gets to stand at the front of the line? Who acts this way?

I mean, sure, we all think about it. Whether or not you’re conscious of it, you are constantly sizing yourself up against the people around you and debating internally about who is better – you or them. Comparing yourself inside your own head from time to time, sure. But to actually talk about this out loud? With your adult friends? Who does this?!?

So with that question looming in my head, “Who acts this way?” I sat with the text this week.
It pestered me. And then an answer came to me. I know who acts this way. I’ve seen these people. At times, I’ve even been these people. People who are worried about their status are people who are scared.

What were the disciples scared of? It us right there in the text what they’re scared of. They’re scared of Jesus.

He told them, once again, about how he would be killed and then be raised. And, yet again, they didn’t understand. But – and here’s the key part – they didn’t ask any questions because they were afraid.

Afraid of what? Jesus, I think.

Although we often love to think of Jesus as a dear, sweet friend or just generally a perfect person who was always a joy to be around – honestly? That’s not the case.





Jack preached a few weeks ago about the passage in Mark 7 where Jesus calls a woman who asks a question a dog – only, the real Greek word is much worse than dog. Presumably, the disciples were around when he acted that way. And then again in Mark 8 the disciples are confused and Jesus says to them, “Why are you still talking about this? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” In short, “What are you? A bunch of idiots?”

And then in Mark 9, a man in a crowd asked Jesus to perform an exorcism and he responded with this sweet reply, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you. Bring him to me.”

So, yeah. I can see why the disciples might be scared of asking Jesus a question. He doesn’t really have a track record of responding with patience and an open heart when asked questions.

Who acts like this? Who sits around, obsessing about whether they’re good enough? People who have been treated poorly. People who have seen their teachers, their parents, their friends, their partners or spouses react explosively when asked questions. People who have been made to worry about their worth as human beings. In short, all of us, in varying degrees.

Alyce McKenzie says that the disciples in this passage were worried about four things:[1]
1)    fear that they have fallen in Jesus' estimation
2)    insecurity at their failure to heal the boy in chapter 9
3)    resentment toward one another as Jesus chastises them 
4)    eagerness to compete to regain his approval

Together, those four worries spell out FIRE – fear, insecurity, resentment, and eagerness to regain Jesus’s approval. McKenzie says the disciples were unable to put away their heated thoughts to really understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.

When we’re obsessed with our status, with our ranking, with the way other people perceive us, it really does take a lot of energy away from other, more important, things.

Jesus deals with this whole issue by reminding the disciples that if they want to be big stuff, they need to make themselves small – vulnerable. “Those who want to be first must be last and servant of all.” Then he picks up a small child and says, “If you welcome a child, you welcome me. And if you welcome me, you welcome God.”

I like how Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:“ If you want to enter this kingdom, there is a way: go find a nobody to put your arms around and say hello to God.”[2]

Very young children, in general, are not obsessed with status. And the good Lord knows they are not afraid to ask questions, am I right? We make them obsessed with status by harping on them when they’ve done something wrong and excessively praising them when they do something right. Children who are told they’re stupid over and over again really start to worry that they might be. And on the flip side, children who are praised for every tiny thing they do start to worry that if they don’t get everything just right they might not be okay.

I was at Target earlier this week and overheard a conversation between a mom and a young boy who looked to be about 8. He was asking his mom over and over and over again for some toy and she was ignoring him. Finally, she looked right at him and said, “What a stupid question! Why on earth would I buy you anything? You haven’t done anything to earn that toy!” The boy mumbled something about having read a book recently. The mom laughed and said, “Oh, big deal. You don’t get a toy for reading a book. Are you kidding me?”

My heart broke a little. I wanted to take the woman aside and help her find a way to speak to her child with more respect. But, of course, I couldn’t figure out how to do that.[3] I prayed about it instead. I prayed that that little boy hears kind words sometimes, too. I prayed that he would have teachers or other trusted adults in his life who would treat him with dignity and as a child of God. I prayed that he would grow up and somehow find a way to feel okay about himself. I prayed that he would realize that his mom is wrong. There are really no stupid questions. It’s always okay to ask. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it’s no, and those are all okay answers. But it never hurts to ask.

Before we are broken by the words of others, we don’t worry so much about stupid questions. Spend some time with a 2 or 3 year old and you’ll see this right away. “Why? Why? Why?” All day long they ask questions. And they seem pretty oblivious to their peers’ accomplishments or failings. They don’t seem to compare themselves to the other kids around them. If there’s something they want to do and they can’t do it, they just keep working at it over and over again until they get it right. The other kids don’t laugh at them because the other kids aren’t comparing themselves, either. They’re just working on their own stuff, too.

So how do we raise our children in a way that helps them feel secure enough to ask questions? And how do we adults dig in deep to undo the damage that is done to us on a daily basis because we live in a world obsessed with status?

Well, for starters, I think we read our kids books like the one I shared during the children’s story today.[4] We remind those around us – children and adults – that we will still love them, even if they do something awful. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there are no consequences for bad behavior. One of the things I love about that children’s book is that there are consequences for the things that happen – the child still has to take a bath, the mom gets the baby back after the sister gives him away, the mom gets hurt and mad and yells and has to clean up the vase that is broken. There are consequences, but there is still love.

There are times, of course, where relationships are broken to the point where we can no longer offer love. At least not the same kind of love that initially created a relationship. These are the places and spaces where God’s love steps in. This is why we must tell our children and remind each other that the best mama of all, the papa who truly loves us no matter how big we mess up is God. For there are mess ups in this world of ours that are much, much bigger than breaking a vase. And there is a God who is much, much kinder and expansive that our human parents and partners. Thanks be to God for that reality.

Another thing is this: we have to stop thinking about ourselves so darn much. Jesus, for all of his crankiness in the preceding chapters, is so dead on right when he tells the disciples they need to start welcoming children. They need – we need – to stop thinking about ourselves. We need to welcome the least, the yuckiest, the nobodies, the people who can’t do a darn thing for us. We need to pick them up and hold them tight. When we do that, we cease to obsess over our own place in the world and we turn outward, finding God in our midst in places we hadn’t imagined possible.

And here’s the final bit: I think we have to take risks on a daily basis. We have to put ourselves in environments where we are loved pretty close to unconditionally and then we have to put ourselves out there and risk failure. We have to surround ourselves with teachers who truly believe there are no stupid questions. And I have some good news for all of you on this front: I have been a part of First United Church for seven years now and I can tell you from experience that this is such a place. I have heard from people over and over again that they feel safe to ask questions here. I have never seen anyone shamed or dismissed for asking a question in this place. Soak it up, folks, because it is a blessing to be in a community like this one.

As we sit in the time of silent meditation after the sermon today, I want to invite you to take a risk and ask a question. You have a slip of scrap paper in your bulletin. If you’d like, I invite you to write a question on there. What would you ask Jesus if you had the chance? Dig deep. Ask something you’re scared to say out loud. If you’re feeling really brave you can even put your name on it, but you certainly don’t have to. During the closing hymn, I invite you to bring the questions up front here and leave them. God won’t laugh at them, I promise.

After the service, if you wrote a question, you may come up and take away someone else’s question. If there’s no name on it, you can pray about it. Pray for them to find the way to ask it out loud in a space where someone can help them discover the answer. If there is a name on it, you can pray, but you can also feel free to contact the person and be in dialogue about their question.

This is a place where there are no stupid questions. This is a place where the rankings of the world shouldn’t matter. This is a place where we strive to welcome the least, and even as we fail on a daily basis, we rest assured that we worship a God who looks forward to us trying again tomorrow.






[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/20/2009&tab=4
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All” in Bread of Angels.
[3] After I preached this sermon, I was blessed to be in dialogue with a woman who heard it and had some feedback to share. She reminded me that it’s so important to remember that when we see a parent have a moment like this with a child, we have no idea what the rest of the day has been like or a whole host of other thigns about that child or that relations. As a mother myself, I know that we all speak in ways we regret sometimes. At least I know I do. I need the grace of God and the community around me to support me as a mother and help me find ways to be more gentle with my child, just like this mother does. So today I lift up that mother in prayer. I was so brokenhearted for her child that I forgot to pray for the mom. I pray for her healing of past wounds, lots and lots of patience, and that she has a community to love and support her so she can find the strength to love her children – no matter what comes – to the very best of her ability. Because we all love our children and we all need support to do this difficult work of parenting.
[4] “Even if I Did Something Awful” by Barbara Shook Hazen.