Monday, August 27, 2012

"At Home in God"

“At Home in God” by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood – August 26, 2012
Scripture References Psalm 84 and 1 Kings 8: 22-30
Ordinary Time

In case you missed it, there are quite a few people who have joined or re-jonied us here in Bloomington in the past few weeks. Over the summer it took me 15 minutes to get from here to Buccettos on the other side of College Mall and now it takes a solid half-hour to cross that intersection. The students are back, summer vacations are over, and the town is abuzz with people settling in to another academic year.

Bloomington is an interesting place to call home. Like any place, there are those who have been here since they were born. We even have some folks like that in our congregation. And there are those, like me, who have settled here as adults. And then there are all those people who are here just for a time – perhaps four years for an undergraduate degree, or two years for a master’s, or the full four-years-that-extended-into-two-more-for-a-masters-and-then-five-or-six-more-for-that-Ph.D.

Bloomington is a temporary home for many.

Right now, all over campus there are first-year students waking up to the delicious taste of freedom. Maybe their parents drug them to church all their growing-up years and they’ve decided to sleep in on this first Sunday after classes. Perhaps they’re walking down to the BBC to have one of those bagels they’ve heard so much about – venturing out with their new roommate. And we know that some of them were out late last night hanging out with new friends, really enjoying that newfound freedom, and they just went to bed a few hours ago. They’ll stumble out to lunch in a few hours and call it breakfast.

But for every student waking up to an exciting feeling of freedom, there is probably another student waking up to a sense of emptiness. Or perhaps they just feel conflicted. It’s exciting to move away from your parents, sure, but it’s also hard. Right now, some student is groggily rubbing her eyes and trying to adjust to the new sounds in her residence hall. She couldn’t wait to get away from the noise of her little pesky brother, but now that he’s gone she realizes she misses him.

Surely all of us who have moved away from home at some point remember this feeling. There is excitement as we move on to new adventures, but there is also longing for the old and familiar. Moving away from home is hard work.

Home, sweet home. Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like home. Make yourself at home.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to stand here for fifteen minutes and read you a bunch of clich├ęs about home. But, gosh, there are a lot of them, right? Home is such a powerful concept.

What is home, really? A place to sleep at night? Sure. A place where you are loved? In the best cases, yes. Our two-year-old has a habit of yelling at the dog when she comes into the dining room during mealtimes (as you can imagine, this happens with great regularity). I often tell him, “Honey, you can’t yell at Yankee. She’s just walking through the room. This is her home. She’s allowed to be here and she gets to feel safe in her home.”

Home should be a place where we feel safe. Where we can relax and be our truest self.

And home doesn’t have to be a structure with four walls. Home can exist in a lot of other ways. When I marry couples, I end the service with a blessing and I say, “Wherever you go in this journey called life, may each other’s arms always be home.” I love that part of the service. I didn’t think of it, by the way. I stole it from the Rev. Lynn James.

The arms of a trusted partner are a home.

Of course, not every home is happy. Realistically, we know that home – as in the place where you hang your hat – is not a happy place for many children or adults. There are those who are constantly on guard in their own homes – worried about the next blow or cruel word that will come their way. There are those who live in fear because they live in unsafe neighborhoods or war zones. There are those who cannot be themselves around the ones who are supposed to love them because their families will not accept them as they are. And, of course, we can’t forget those who have no home at all. I think that one of the most difficult things about being homeless must be that sense of insecurity all day and night – having no door to lock to keep you safe.

Part of the reason we long for home is this: there is no such thing as a perfect home because there is no such thing as a perfect person. Just as we are all a mess of brokenness and wholeness, our homes are a mess of brokenness and wholeness, too.

Our scriptures today deal with this idea of home. A home for God. Humans have always been obsessed with this idea of God’s home, I think. It’s one of the first things a child will ask about God, “Where does God live?”

Any parent or adult who has looked into the eyes of a child asking that question knows it’s not an easy one to answer. I mean, sure, we can say, “God lives in the church,” or “God lives in our hearts,” or “God doesn’t live anywhere, silly! God is everywhere!” But you also know you’re likely to get a few follow-up questions. Trying to pin down God is impossible – even for adults.

Probably since the beginning of time, people have recognized that there are special places they can go to access the Holy. You’ve probably heard of this idea of “thin places” – places where the veil between the Holy and the Everyday is so very thin that it virtually disappears. Places where we are able to easily and more fully access that sense of connection with the One Paul Tilich called “The Ground of Being.” Places where the presence of God is so palpable that you just can’t ignore it.

Our Hebrew and Jewish ancestors found “thin places” all over the place. Before the construction of the Solomon’s Temple, people worshipped at “high places” in other cities. With the construction of the Temple, ancient Jews believed more and more that the Temple in Jerusalem was the best “thin place” of all and would make pilgrimage there during the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Modern Jews build temporary, but often quite elaborate, tents in their yards and on the grounds of their synagogues during the holiday of Sukkot. This holiday marks the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert and lived in temporary structures. The human struggle to have a place to call home and to know where God lives has been around for a long, long time, friends.

In today’s reading from 1 Kings we can see Solomon struggling with this child’s question, “Where does God live?” He prays, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.”

And our reading from the Psalms is said to be a pilgrimage song – one that the travelers might have prayed or sung as they approached the Temple in Jerusalem. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O God of hosts!”

Traveling is hard work. And it was even harder work when you had to do it on foot or with just the help of an animal. When I imagine a weary pilgrim approaching the Temple in Jerusalem the words, “My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the house of God” takes on a whole new meaning.

The psalmist says that those who rest in the House of God go from “strength to strength.” Something about being in this “thin place” – in the presence of God – makes it possible to run and not be weary, to walk and not grow faint, to rise up with wings like eagles.[1]

Of course, Solomon’s Temple was later destroyed. And most of us are not likely to go to Jerusalem during our lifetime. How can we move from “strength to strength”? Where can we sing this song of praise?

I’m not telling you anything new when I tell you that thin places don’t have to be places.

One of the most holy thin places in our own faith isn’t a place at all, but a person. I think that Jesus of Nazareth must have been a thin place. Please understand that I’m not saying Jesus was a portal to God in ways that were better than those of the ancient Jews. All religions have valid ways of encountering the Holy and, for those who follow Jesus, the spirit of Christ is one of our surest bets when we need to find a thin place.

There was something about him that was so imbued with the Holy that the very distance between that Realm of God and the Realm of the Mundane just collapsed right down.

When people were around Jesus they could see the truth – that there really is no distance between us and God. That God is at home in all of us and we are at home in God. And the thing about thin places is that they aren’t easily killed. I believe Jesus’s very thin-place-ness is the reason he could not be held by death. When someone or someplace or something is so very open to the reality of God being at home within them, there is no way to kill that person or place or thing because God cannot be stopped. Man, I just love the Resurrection. Gives me chills every time I think about it.

So how can we get there? How can we folks living in Bloomington, Indiana in the year 2012 access this lovely dwelling place that psalmist so beautifully writes about? Because I don’t know about you, but I want a piece of it. I want to find a way to go from strength to strength. I want to be connected to a force that is so eternal, so true, so real that it cannot be stopped.

When the news of crazy politicians just won’t go away, I want to find a way to dwell in the house of the Lord.

When the obligations of family and work and self and society are pulling me in forty different directions, I want to find a way to dwell in the house of the Lord.

When I am afraid, when I am weary, when I am sick, when I am lost, when I’ve said something unkind – I want to find a way to dwell in the house of the Lord.

“My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of God.”

And so I need to remember that I can make a pilgrimage at any time and in any place. I can stop what I’m doing and take a moment to re-center. Even if all I have time to do is say a quick prayer or listen to my breathing, I can make a pilgrimage to the house of God. Because the house of God is not so far away, my friends. We are at home in God and God is at home in us always. It’s just that we get distracted. We forget. We need to be reminded.

In our Called to Create Sunday School class last week, we talked about how difficult it is to be creative if you don’t feel loved. You have to take risks to be creative and you have to be willing to fail. And if no one has loved you in a way that helps you understand you will still be loved if you fail, it’s awfully hard to take those risks.

Have you known people who just seem to make themselves at home wherever they go? They seem secure and comfortable, even when in a new place? I think it’s something similar when it comes to being at home in God. When we remember we are always and everywhere at home in God, we are freed for hospitality. When we feel at home – when we remember that we are always at home, no matter where we go – we can create a home for others. We can move from “strength to strength” and extend hospitality to our neighbors, to strangers, and to our families.

So I invite you to remember to make a pilgrimage, friends. When you start to feel lost – when you start to feel a little too exposed to the elements – when you feel like you can’t find your way home, make a pilgrimage to the house of God. It’s not so very far away and it’s always worth the trip. I promise.

[1] Isaiah 40:31.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

“Eat Mor Love”

Ephesians 4: 1-6 and 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
August 2, 2012
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

I became a vegetarian five years ago, but there are a few things I still miss. Every time I walk past Chick-fil-A in the mall I get a craving for a delicious chicken sandwich. When I tried a Chick-fil-A original chicken sandwich for the first time in high school, it was love at first bite.

And the only thing better than a Chick-fil-A original chicken sandwich is, perhaps, a chicken biscuit for breakfast. With waffle fries. Because who doesn’t want to eat waffle fries for breakfast?

Of course, when I stopped eating animals I quit going to Chick-fil-A. Except, I’m not gonna lie, I did occasionally stop by for some waffle fries or a diet lemonade. And every time I did I felt a little guilty because I know that the owner of Chick-fil-A is a very conservative Christian who likely thinks a majority of my friends are going to hell. Who are we kidding here? The owner of Chick-fil-A thinks I’m going to hell, too.

So when I saw a little news article from NPR a couple weeks ago about a recent interview with Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy where he affirmed that his company is, indeed, firmly in support of “traditional marriage,” I thought, “Well that’s not exactly NEWS but I’m glad it’s making national headlines. Maybe some more people will realize that Chick-fil-A is anti-gay and stop buying their food.”

And that did – indeed- happen.

Another thing happened, too. By simply giving an interview where he said something that truly was not news, Dan Cathy somehow pushed his company into the center of that giant storm we US-Americans lovingly refer to as “the culture wars.”

Here’s what we know to be true, in case you’ve been blissfully watching the Olympics and not paying any attention to the culture wars this week:

Chick-fil-A is a privately-owned company headquartered in Atlanta. The family that owns Chick-fil-A is devoutly Southern Baptist and proud of their faith. Chick-fil-A has a charitable foundation called WinShape which has the goal of “shaping winners” (editorial comment: creating winners seems like a distinctly unbiblical goal to me, given that we worship a man who was hung on a cross).  WinShape gave $2 million to anti-gay groups in 2010, according to their tax documents.[1] One of these groups is Exodus International. You may have heard of them. They believe they can cure people of homosexuality. Another group is the Family Research Council, which has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.[2]  Some other hate groups you may have heard of? The Aryan Nation, Westboro Baptist Church, and the KKK.[3]  The Family Research Council actively preaches that GLBT people are pedophiles and should be exported from the United States.[4]

Does Dan Cathy have the right to his own opinion as informed by his holy scriptures? Of course he does. Just like we all do. And does he have a right to give his hard-earned money wherever he wants? Yes, of course he does. Just like we all do.   

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to give my own hard-earned money to hate groups. So there will be no more waffle fries or diet lemonades for me. As a side note, I highly recommend the waffle fries at Bubs over by the Showers Building. They are scrumptious.

Do I really believe that by buying an occasional waffle fry my money is going to somehow trickle down to these extremist groups and change the growing acceptance of GLBT people in this country? No, I don’t. I could probably still buy the occasional diet lemonade there and nothing bad would come of it.

But I won’t. And here’s the main reason why: GLBT youth are four times more likely than their peers to commit suicide.[5]

And here’s another reason I refuse to fund hate speech – even in the tiniest way.

In the past week:
A 33-year-old lesbian woman in Lincoln, Nebraska was assaulted in her home where her attackers carved hateful speech into her arm with a knife and tied her up.

A 17-year-old lesbian girl was attached in Louisville, Kentucky while walking down the street with three other boys who were left basically unharmed.

And a 25-year-old gay man in Oklahoma City had his car fire-bomed. He was treated for first and second degree burns. The car had hate speech written on it.

Those three things happened in the last seven days, my friends, while the rest of us were happily watching synchronized diving and women’s gymnastics.

So, no. I won’t take a chance on pennies or even fractions of pennies from my purchases at Chick-fil-A going to fund groups that speak hate.

There is too much hate in this world already.

It costs me nothing to say this or do this. I save money by not shopping at Chick-fil-A. And, honestly, I get points from most of you for standing up here and saying it.

But here’s the other thing the whole Chick-fil-A debacle reminded me of this week. Well, to be more accurate, the passage from Ephesians reminded me of it.

We are called to speak the truth in love.

Speaking the truth? Not a problem. I LOVE to speak the truth. Sometimes I even love to yell it.

Speaking the truth IN LOVE? Well, that’s a little harder.

Would it be easier to rant and rave and yell and say what I really think in my head about all the people who purposely went to Chick-fil-A on Wednesday to show their support for the company? Why, yes. Yes, it would.

But then I open up the Bible and I’m reminded that it’s all so much more complicated than that. Earlier this week I sat at my kitchen table with two Jewish friends and told them that most days I feel like I have more in common with them, faith-wise, than I do with many people who call themselves Christian.

And yet, the author of Ephesians tells us we’re supposed to remember, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

How on earth can I feel comfortable being called to unity with people who are preaching hate? How can I ever hope to find peace with the idea of calling myself a Christian when every single article I read about Chick-fil-A this week only mentioned Christians as a hateful?

Fortunately, the author of Ephesians doesn’t leave me hanging but gives me some concrete tips about this wild idea of unity among a very diverse group of people.

The author of Ephesians says, I “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

It seems like good advice for the people of Ephesus and good advice for me, too. I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not it’s good advice for you.

In order to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, we are first to live with humility. Being humble means that I am to be acutely aware, at all times, of who I am in relationship to other people. I am to remember that I am not the only person who matters. I don’t have the lock down on truth. In fact, the best way to be humble is to come to every conversation with these four words in the back of my head, “I could be wrong.”

Four tiny words, but, oh, my, what a difference they make when you’re having a discussion with another human being. “I could be wrong.”

Even about the things I most deeply-believe. Even about the things that seem obvious to me. Even about those things I’m pretty sure God said in black and white. “I could be wrong.”

Can you imagine what would happen in the culture wars if every person had that mantra in the back of their head when they approached someone on the other side?

The author of Ephesians says we are also to be gentle. It’s actually a lot easier to be gentle when you’re humble because you’re less likely to shout at someone or firebomb them or be violent with them in any way if there’s a recording in the back of your head reminding you that you could be wrong.

Being gentle doesn’t mean we have to be quiet or silent. It means we have to be respectful – even of people that we think are totally crazy and evil. Because, guess what? God loves even those people. And when God speaks to them, God speaks gently. Sometimes firmly, sure. But it is absolutely possible to be firm and gentle at the same time.

Perhaps you’re gentle by nature and if you are, I envy you. I am not. I’m more of a yeller. I love today’s story from 2 Samuel because I’ve always envisioned Nathan sort of shouting at David, “YOU ARE THE MAN!” Perhaps with a big “Ha, HA!” at the end.

But then I re-read it after pondering this whole gentle thing and I thought, wow, how much more powerful would it have been if Nathan had said, instead (in a whisper), “You are the man”?

I confessed to my mom a few weeks ago that I sometimes find it hard to keep a calm voice when my two-year-old is really pushing my buttons. I told her that I had no memory of her ever yelling at me as a child. I asked her how she accomplished this seemingly impossible feat. And do you know what she said to me? She said, “Well, I guess I just have never found yelling to be very productive.”

She’s right, of course. It’s not. Speaking gently is almost always more productive.

Finally, the author of Ephesians says to be patient. And this is, I think, perhaps the hardest part of all. The waiting for a resolution. The Greek word here can also be translated as longsuffering, endurance, or perseverance.

It’s about showing up to the conversation.

Even when I’m tired of arguing, I’m supposed to show up. Even when the other person is yelling at me, I’m supposed to show up. Even when I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall and I worry that if either of my sons turns out to be gay someone will hurt them someday because the world isn’t changing fast enough, I’m supposed to show up. And keep showing up again and again and again.[6]

And I believe we’re supposed to hope against hope that the people on “the other side” show up, too. With any luck, they’ll have read their Bibles and they’ll show up with an attitude of humility and gentleness. But even if they don’t – even if they show up filled with hate, we’re supposed to remember that Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world.

And Jesus loves adults who act like children. Even them. Even me.

And we’re supposed to love them, too.

Because there’s already too much hate in the world. And hate has never been very productive.

We are called to speak the truth – but not with words of hate.

We are called to speak the truth in love.

[6] If you want to read a beautiful story about “showing up” even when you don’t feel like it, I commend to you this lovely blog post by Glennon Melton: