Monday, June 23, 2014

"Into Hell...and Back"

Sermon Text: Romans 6:1b-11
June 22, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

As a child, I spent a lot of hours in the Sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church of Leavenworth, Kansas reading the hymnal. In our congregation, older kids stayed in worship and though I rarely listened to the sermon or paid much attention to the liturgy, I always enjoyed that weekly hour in the Sanctuary. I liked singing the hymns. I liked being greeted by people who reminded me of my grandma. I liked watching the littler kids fidget. I spent a lot of time just staring up at the stained glass and letting my mind wander. And I read the United Methodist Hymnal from cover to cover many times.

In my church, we said some kind of Creed from the hymnal each week. I remember reading the creed from the United Church of Canada silently over and over again and wishing that we would say it together some day. But, mostly, we said the Apostles’ Creed each week.

The Apostles’ Creed in the United Methodist Hymnal is kind of interesting. If you grew up saying it, you might remember that it has a line that says Jesus was “crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.” Except if you were United Methodist, the bit about hell was eliminated. Replaced by an asterisk that noted, “Traditional use of this creed includes the words ‘descended into hell.’”

I puzzled over this. I was glad that the words had been eliminated. I found the idea of Jesus hanging around in hell to be patently offensive. I had a very high Christology as a child….I equated Jesus with God exactly and I could not bear the idea of God in hell. It was frightening to me.

As the years went by, I began to pick and choose which parts of the creed I would say aloud. I remember dropping Virgin as Mary’s first name. I remember going through a period where I wouldn’t proclaim belief in the “resurrection of the body.” I think saying creeds every week in worship is a good practice if for no other reason that it can really make you think theologically. It can’t be a bad thing to encourage our kids to think seriously about whether they believe something and are wiling to say it out loud, right?

Of course, beliefs evolve. As a kid, I thought if I said the wrong thing I’d be sent straight to hell. I don’t think that’s true any more. In general, belief matters a lot less to me these days. I’m not too interested in what people profess as their beliefs. I’ve been around long enough to notice that what you do and who you are matters a lot more than what you say you believe.

If I were to read the Apostles’ Creed today, I might leave some things out. But I would keep that part about Jesus descending into hell. Because what I’ve learned from listening to my fellow travelers in life is that descending into hell is an important part of living.

Jesus is many things to us as Christians. And for most of us, he is a model of what it means to be human. To live fully and abundantly, to pour ourselves out in sacrificial ways, to call attention to injustice, to hope against hope for a better way, to preach the advent of the Reign of God. And as a part of his human journey, Jesus teaches us how to die….and then live again.

If he experienced hell somewhere along the way, I am thankful. Because most of us will live through hell at some point in time during our lives. And we need to have the hope and assurance that God goes with us…even into hell. Perhaps especially into hell. And back. God pulls us back into life.

There is truly nowhere we can go where we are separated from God…God is present at weddings and births and in fields of dainty flowers, sure. But God is also present in hospital rooms, on the battlefield, in natural disasters, acts of terrorism, unexpected disclosures from loved ones, funerals, divorces. To all of us who have been through hell, we hear these words of good news: Jesus has been there too. And back again.

This is what Paul was talking about in today’s passage in Romans, I think. Paul writes that we are baptized into death with Christ Jesus. What an odd thing to say. He continues to say that we have been buried with Christ and will be raised from the dead, just like Christ, so that we might also walk in newness of life.

Hagar and Ishmael understood what it was like to walk through hell and back again. Tossed aside like trash, these two were cast out into the wilderness and left to die.

UCC pastor the Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner paints the scene:
Abraham gives Hagar a little bread and water and throws her out into the desert with her son. In that wilderness the inevitable happens. The bread and the water run out. The young boy Ishmael starts to die of dehydration. Hagar will eventually die too, but Ishmael is going to die first, in her arms. As the crisis approaches, Hagar cannot bear it. Are there more tragically poignant words than hers: "Do not let me look upon the death of my child....Let me not see or hear his dying." 

Hagar's suffering, her desolation, pierces my heart. I am a mother – in fact, I'm the mother of a 13-year-old who is probably just about the age of Ishmael. I simply cannot bear the suffering of Hagar. Hagar cannot bear it, either: so the scriptures tell us she carefully lays her child under a bush and sits down about a bowshot away, so she doesn't have to hear her boy cry or see him die. 

A bowshot away. As I was preparing for this message, I became interested in what would constitute the distance of a bowshot - it would have to be some distance, for a mother's ears are pretty keenly tuned to her child's cry. Before I had my own child I used to marvel at how mothers could hear their children crying in the soundproof nursery in the basement of the church while they were on the second floor singing hymns in the sanctuary. Hagar's going to have to go some distance to not hear through a mother's ears the cry of her dying son.[1]

Can you see the hellish scene in your mind’s eye? A mother, distancing herself from her dying child because she cannot bear to see or hear his cries? She is powerless to save him. And so Hagar does the only thing left to do. She weeps.

There is power in the image of her tears leaking down into the dry desert land. In a dry and desolate place where the water has run out, this mother is still able to drip tears into the dry air. And as she cries a voice comes to her from the heavens. Though Hagar distanced herself and could no longer her hear son’s cries, God still hears his cries. When Hagar opens her tear-blurried eyes, she sees a well of water. Has it been there the whole time? Hagar returns to her son, lifts him from his misery, and gives him cool water to revive his body and spirit. Sustained and comforted, the pair – mother and son – walk away from hell. They move on, never to return. The boy grows into a man. He learns to hunt – to take care of himself and his mother. He marries. Becomes a father. And the promise given to Abraham, that he will become a great nation, is fulfilled in unexpected ways.

Story after story in our sacred texts follow this same cycle. Death and rebirth. A descent into hell and the return. I am always moved when I watch the film at the Flint Hills Discovery Center and the narrator explains that the four seasons on the prairie are death, fire, rebirth, and growth.

I find myself wondering….what new and amazing things could happen if we would allow old things to die away with dignity? Not to glorify death or suffering, but to simply realize that it is a part of living. And that death is always followed, in some way or another, by new life and growth.

Earlier this week the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the Washington Redskins can no longer hold a trademark on their team name. As a side note: this major civil rights victory was partially brought about by our sisters and brothers in the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC who voted unanimously to urge their 40,000 members to boycott the Redskins.[2]

Imagine what a powerful thing it would have been to see the spokeperson for the team stand up and say something like this, “We applaud the ruling of the US Trademark Board. We recognize that the time has come for us to hold a funeral for this offensive name. We look forward to rebirth under a new name.”

Wouldn’t that have been cool? Alas, that did not happen. But we all know it’s coming at some point. The days of unapologetically using racially disparaging terms are over, thanks be to God. The funeral is only a matter of time. And after that death will come new life.

Sometimes things die out because they are wrong, unjust, unfair. We moved as a nation to a point where we understood that miscegenation laws were wrong. We came to understand that love is love, regardless of race or ethnicity. And we are now moving towards a day where we can say the same thing about same-sex love. I know you will gladly join me in a grand and mighty funeral procession when the day comes that unjust laws preventing marriage among loving adults are laid to rest.

Of course, things don’t always die because they’re something wrong with them. Earlier this week I sent a letter to our former church in Bloomington requesting a letter of transfer for our membership. I was surprised at the sudden grief I felt writing that note. It seemed so final. I joined that church nine years ago…and now it’s over. We’re moving on to a new life in a new place. Sometimes funerals happen just because we are moving on to new adventures.

And sometimes, of course, things die out simply because their time is past. There’s nothing bad about them, per se, but it’s just time for them to cease or take a rest. This is an area where, strangely, we often don’t do a great job in Christian churches. We have a hard time letting go. We want things to continue on just because they’ve always been that way. We find it difficult to remember that sometimes it’s a good thing to say, “That’s been a good ministry, but it’s time to have a memorial service for it and see what’s next.” We need to let go of the old and trust that new life is waiting around the corner. This is hard to do.

Death, fire, rebirth, growth. Notice that death has to come first. We see in the cycle of the great prairie that the burning fires in the spring radically alter the landscape and give birth to new ecosystems. The great grasses that have nurtured livestock for centuries on these hills cannot grow without the fire that comes each spring at human hands. We have to be willing to say goodbye, to risk the fire, in order to move towards rebirth and growth.

This is scary stuff. It’s hard to let go. It’s hard to subject ourselves to radical change. And yet I am reminded of those words that Christians have been saying for centuries, Jesus Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

If we seek to follow the one who did all of that…suffered, died, was buried, descended into hell, and rose again….is there any limit to what we can survive? Is there any limit to the new life that is waiting to burst forth into our world? I’d say there is not. Thank you, Jesus, for going ahead of us into hell…and back.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

"Name - Bless - Connect"

Sermon Text: Genesis 1: 1-24a
June 15, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

My eldest niece is fifteen years old. She was born on April 15, 1999. Two days after she came home from the hospital with my sister and her husband, Columbine happened. I was a freshman in college. My mom was still a public school teacher. I remember feeling outraged, horrified, terrified. I didn’t want my mom to go back to school the next day.

It was certainly not the first incidence of violence in a school. But it was the first to catch my attention in a major way. Many of you probably saw the map being passed around this week of all the school shootings that have happened since Sandy Hook, back in December 2012. A group called Everytown for Gun Safety came up with a statement that there have been 76 school shootings since Sandy Hook. Immediately, naysayers jumped in, noting that ONLY fifteen of those have been similar in nature to Sandy Hook – meaning a shooter at large in or near a school attempting to harm people at random. The other 61 were drug-related, gang-related, or accidents.

I’m sure if you asked the mothers and fathers of the kids who were killed in those “other” 61 shootings they would tell you they don’t count quite as much. Right?

Earlier this week I googled, “number of school shootings since Columbine” and found a Wikipedia article listing all of them. I tried to count them all. I came up with 146. I may have missed a few as I was scrolling.

How many is too many? Does it matter if it’s 15 or 76 in 18 months? Can we really be okay with 146 in 15 years?

If I seem angry, I am. I am outraged, frustrated, guilt-ridden, terrified.

My sister-in-law Sheri is from a smallish town in New Brunswick called Moncton. She lives in the States now with my brother and their two kids. You’ve probably never heard of it. But you may have heard of it in the past week because on June 4th the entire city was on lockdown for over 24 hours while the police looked for an armed shooter. Three Royal Canadian Mounted Police (affectionately called Mounties by those up north) were killed in the line of duty. One of them, Douglas Larche, was the husband of Sheri’s friend Nadine. They have three daughters ages 4, 6, and 8. The other two men who were killed were named Fabrice Gevaudan and Dave Ross.

When the funeral was held for the three fallen officers, Mounties from all over Canada streamed into Moncton to honor those who died. In Canada, police officers don’t often get shot. Here in the U.S. I counted 24 officers who have died from gunfire in 2014.[1] Oh, sure, we have a lot more officers in the U.S. I mean, you can split hairs and do the math any number of ways. But…still….how many is too many? How much is enough?

In case you couldn’t tell already, this is a messy sermon. There are so many directions we could go today…here we are in the park, celebrating the Earth and our communion with animals. It’s also Trinity Sunday. It’s also Father’s Day. I apologize that I’m not going to do those things justice today.

But I couldn’t let go of those two images that I saw over and over this week….the thousands of Mounties lined up, processing in to Moncton to honor those who died. And the map of all the school shootings in the U.S. since Sandy Hook. They wouldn’t let me go.

Many of you may be getting nervous right about now. Is this going to be a sermon about gun control? It’s not. I don’t pretend to have the answers when it comes to guns and violence in our society. I’m not here to make policy recommendations.

My role is to preach the Gospel….and I don’t know about you but when I turn on the news, I need the Gospel.

And today the Gospel comes to us in one of our stories of creation. The creation stories we have in our sacred texts are not mean to be science texts. If you want to know the physical origins of humanity and the Earth, please don’t go reading the Bible. The people who shaped and retold these stories didn’t even have “science” the way we understand it as a concept.

Instead, our ancestors, who told and retold these stories were trying to do something else. They were trying to answer that never-abating question of humanity, “Where did we come from?” But they weren’t thinking of cells and blood types and genetic markers.

Instead, they were struggling to figure out their place in this world. Aren’t we all?

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, suggests that the creation stories in Genesis are counter-cultural.[2] They are the protests of the people of Israel who are being held captive by the Babylonians. The Babylonians had their own stories of creation…stories that were violent and bloody. But the Israelites told stories that were full of naming, blessing, and connecting.

In the beginning….God created. And then God named. “God called the Light ‘Day’ and the Dark ‘Night’…. God called the Dome ‘Sky.’” And in our second creation story – we didn’t read it today, but you may remember it…it’s the one with Adam and Eve – we see that Adam, too, is called to be a Namer. Adam’s first task as a human is to name the animals and enter into relationship with them.

There is power is naming. When we name something we say, “I see you. I recognize that you are there.” In a world where people often feel isolated and invisible, this is no small thing. And we are in a long-line of Namers, going all the way back to Adam and Eve and God at the dawn of time.

One of the things I love about First Congregational is that we use names. People wear nametags to make this easier – thank you! I was moved the first time I went to Second Helping and saw that we have a volunteer position at that meal that is called “host.” This is a person whose very job it is to know names, use names, greet people, offer hospitality, say hello. Oh, I know this may seem small to you, but it is not. There is almost nothing sweeter than being greeted by name. It matters. God knows this. In the beginning…God named.

And in the beginning…God blessed. Over and over again we heard the refrain: “and God saw that it was good.”

One of my colleagues, JT Hills, serves a church in Tell City, Indiana. When we were talking about violence earlier this week, JT wisely said this:

What if, instead of learning every detail of a shooting, we went out to care for the people in our lives? What if church was the place where people could come lay their burdens down and be accepted, welcomed, and loved for who they are? What if we loved all the people we met? What if we were the example to give other people about how to care for one another? What if we did all of these things instead of just saying we did these things? What if we were authentic in our action that springs forth from faith?

Maybe we don't agree on what to do about guns and violence. But maybe we can instead get to the root of violence and respond in love. Maybe we start with telling our youth that we are here to listen, that we are here to help in those darkest of moments.”

JT’s focus is on the power the Church has through blessing. And, in particular, JT was thinking of the youth in his congregation. Which made me, of course, think of the youth in our congregation.

I would say we are incredibly lucky to have a core group of amazing youth here…but luck isn’t the right word for it. We have a youth director, Tracey Weston, who has been actively blessing the youth of our community for a decade. Tracey loves these kids. And the kids love each other.

Many of the youth who are a part of our youth group don’t belong to families that are an official part of our church so their names may not be familiar to you. When I heard that, that was my first clue that we are doing something hugely important with our youth program. We are pulling in kids from outside of our church. They are coming here to gather with Tracey and the other youth because they find First Congregational is a place where they can be named and blessed. Kids, just like the rest of us, need to be loved. I am so thankful that we are actively loving our youth in this community.

Finally, in our creation stories we see a God who connects. As God creates each part of the Earth, components are linked together….the land, the sea, the plants, the animals, humanity…all come together in a beautiful swirling mass and God looks on all of it and pronounces it good. And when God creates Adam from the dust, God immediately realizes it is not good for a person to be alone, so God creates the animals. But even that is not enough, so Eve is created from Adam’s body. They are inextricably linked, right there from the beginning.

And aren’t we all? Inextricably linked, I mean. Not actually carved out from ribs.

We are. We are all deeply connected, whether we choose to recognize it or not. And being connected is hard. Especially when we so often deeply disagree with one another. I have seen so many people I respect arguing and arguing over how to make this a more peaceful world for our children….they want to get to the same place but are deeply divided over how to get there. I say, keep arguing, because at least if you’re arguing you are connected. And there are positive, productive ways to argue. We in the Church need not be afraid of arguing. We just need to do it with integrity and love, ever-mindful that the person on the other side of the table is just that…a person. A beloved child of God. A sinner and a saint. Messed up and forgiven. Just like us.

Connecting is another thing I see happening here at First Congregational. Do you know about the Ministry of the Decorative Scissors that happens in our building once a month? If you don’t, you need to sit down with Sue Gerth and hear all about it. It is a connection point for people in this community. People come to craft all day long…but the crafting is really just the means to an end. The real goal is connection. It is a place where people can come as they are and be welcomed, accepted, and affirmed. It’s truly amazing.

Naming – Blessing – Connecting. In the midst of a complicated world filled with violence, we are called to follow in the footsteps of our Stillcreating God to do the same. We name those we encounter. We bless creation and the people in it. And we walk, ever mindful that we are never alone – we are always connected to the Earth and each other. We don’t do it perfectly, but we wake up each day and try to do it again. It is hard work. I am thankful that we are in it together and that God goes with us, naming – blessing – connecting each day.

*** For the framework of naming – blessing – connecting, I am indebted to my colleague and friend the Rev. Mike Mather and the people of Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, IN. They have been naming – blessing – connecting for a long time and it has been my privilege to learn from them.***


Monday, June 9, 2014

"Pentecost Dreams"

Sermon Text: Acts 2:1-21
June 8, 2014: Pentecost
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Back when I was in seminary, I spent a summer in CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s kind of like a short residency in pastoral care for those on their way to ordination. My CPE unit happened in a hospital on the far west side of Indianapolis. Right where the city starts to become rural again. I spent 40 hours a week for 10 weeks in the hospital. A lot of the time was spent in chaplaincy. I went into strangers rooms and sat with them. I did some praying. I did a lot of listening.

But another key component of CPE is intensive work with a group of peers. Six of us gathered in a windowless conference room every day that summer. We talked about God, our families, our ministry. It was a little like group therapy boot camp. Often unpleasant but always enlightening. Our supervisor was named Beth. Beth had this unbelievable ability to ask a brief question that caused the ground to fall right out from under my feet. She was like a ridiculously demanding personal trainer…for the soul. Like all great teachers, I loved and despised her in various moments. I would not have traded the things she taught me for the world.

On the first day of CPE, we were all sitting together in this windowless room and she asked us, as our first exercise, to go around the room and introduce ourselves. Only instead of sharing our favorite ice cream flavor, she asked us to share, in one sentence, our truest thing about God.

Now, just sit with that a minute. Your truest thing about God. What if we went around the room right now and shared? Don’t worry. I’m not going to make you do that!

So we sat and we thought. My truest thing came to me right away and then I had to ponder it for a bit….turn it over and see if it was really true. What I said that day was this, “I believe God is a dreamer.”

Now, depending on what day you catch me, this may or may not be my truest thing about God, but it’s still there near the top of the list on most days.

God is a dreamer.

When I read our sacred texts, when I hear the stories of Jesus-followers from centuries ago, when I read words by contemporary theologians that make my heart tingle, when I join my voice in song with the rest of you on Sunday morning….I experience God as a dreamer.

Story after story has been passed down to us about our God dreaming reality into existence. In the beginning…..God dreamed. After the flood….God dreamed. In the desert….God dreamed. As the Israelites struggled and fought with themselves and others…God dreamed. As a young woman encountered an angel who told her, “Don’t be afraid”….God dreamed. As that infant grew into a man and told incredible stories of the world being turned upside down…God dreamed. As that man died at the hands of a cruel government…God dreamed. And when Jesus’s closest friends discovered that death could not hold him….God dreamed.

God dreamed some wild stuff. Some of it defies explanation and seems, literally, incredible.

Today’s story is no exception. Here we have the friends of Jesus, heartbroken and wandering, trying to figure out what to do now that Jesus has left the building. They gather together for the Jewish celebration of Shavuot – the holy day that marked fifty days after the Passover Feast.

This ragtag group of followers were all together in one place. I imagine them deflated. Unsure of what should happen next. Suddenly, a rush of wind fills the room, fills the disciples, and the air is filled with the sound of many people talking in various languages that they previously did not know. And as the cacophony of their voices filled the streets below, Jews from all over the known world who were present in Jerusalem came to the house to see what was going on. At first, they laughed, saying, “These guys must be drunk. How can they be speaking my language?”

But then Peter began to speak. Oh, all of us preachers wish we could preach like Peter. The guy just had a way with words. And he knew just when and how to quote scripture. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost is straight out of the prophet Joel and it is a radical vision.

Peter proclaims that God’s Spirit will come to all people. Sons and daughters will prophesy. The young and the old will see visions and dream dreams. Those who have been enslaved, both men and women, will receive the gift of God’s Spirit, and they will prophesy. And everyone who seeks a new life will find salvation.

Peter and Joel’s shared vision is radically inclusive. The idea of enslaved people being recipients of God’s Spirit? Radical. The admonition to listen to our sons and daughters? Radical. The call to look with both the young and the old, finding new dreams and visions? Radical, radical, radical.

Pentecost is all about the amazing power of God to dream new dreams into existence. In the midst of any great trial, God is there with us, dreaming new dreams.

When we’ve hit rock bottom and we’re not sure how to get back up, the Holy Spirit is there filling in the empty places and propping us up so we can continue to stand. When the phone call comes and the voice on the other end says the dreaded word “cancer,” the Holy Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. When depression sets in; when the argument with someone we love feels too big to heal; when we have no idea where our life is headed; when the one we can’t possibly live without has ascended to heaven; when our hatred of ourselves seems too real to overcome….the Holy Spirit is there, quietly and mightily sustaining us.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

Pentecost is the advent of the Spirit in our midst. And Pentecost is not a one-time event. Preaching professor David Lose reminds us that Pentecost – that outpouring of the Holy Spirit – happens several times in the Book of Acts alone. Just remember Philip’s baptism of the man from Ethiopia; or Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus; or Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, when he discovered God had much wider plans for the followers of Christ than anyone had previously imagined.

In all of these cases, the Spirit comes along and breaks things wide open. The Spirit comes to places of great emptiness and longing and brokenness and rushes in like a mighty wind. And the gift of the Spirit is one of sustenance. The Spirit is a not a “fixer” – wielding God’s power to deftly wipe away any and all problems. The Spirit’s method is, at once, wild and gentle. The Holy Spirit comes like a straight-line wind in a big field at the beginning of the storm, knocking us off our feet with surprise. But the Holy One also comes in a spirit of gentleness, breathing on us a cool and refreshing breeze, inviting us to be partners in dreaming a new way of live into reality.

Pentecost is the time for dreaming, my friends.

I don’t know about you, but I am out of practice when it comes to dreaming. When I was a child, I spent a lot of time seeing visions and dreaming dreams. What happened?

As an adult I find that I often have to remind myself that it’s okay to take time to dream. It’s more than okay, actually. In fact, I think we are called to be dreamers. If we are called co-creators with God and God is the biggest dreamer of all, well, then, I think we are called to be dreamers, too.

We are called to set aside our fear of change and wonder what it might be like to live in a different world. We are called to say, “Shhh. Be quiet for now,” to those insistent voices in our heads that say, “But what about this? But how can you make that happen when that? This is never going to work.”

We are called to gather together as a church to encourage dreaming. Wild and crazy, preposterous dreaming! We follow the One who laughed in the face of death, flew up into the heavens in a cloud, and sent God’s Spirit to fill us….to make us overflow with the Gospel….to cause us to shout it out in languages we can’t even understand.

As you and I settle in with each other, I ask you to pay attention to your dreams. Don’t shut them down. And if you are so bold, would you please share them with each other and with me? I desperately want to know what visions you have for this congregation, for our community, for our world. I promise not to laugh. And if you don’t mind, I may share my dreams from time to time, too.

You may be thinking – who, me? I couldn’t possibly. Dreaming is for….fill in the blank. Kids? Those who know more about the subject? People who don’t have so many things to worry about?

Oh, I don’t know. I mean, look at the story we have from the First Testament today. Moses, the big leader, asks God for help because he realizes he can’t go it alone. And God takes some of the spirit that had been bestowed on Moses and shares it with others. Then, at the same time, there are two “nobodies” back at camp who begin to prophesy. The other leader-types get indignant, saying, “Moses, make them stop!” but Moses affirms that even the nobodies are called to dream dreams and see visions. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” he admonishes.

I have to agree with Moses on this one. Would that we all could be prophets…dreamers. Would that we all could see and share our visions. Because even when we feel like we have very little power to change the insurmountable obstacles that exist in this world, we still have the power to dream. And a dream has the power to change the world.

May the Holy Breeze of Penecost fill our broken places with a renewed awareness of our Stilldreaming God. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Sermon Text: Acts 1:6-11
June 1, 2014: Ascension
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

The author of the Book of Acts wastes no time getting to the good stuff. Nine short verses in and Jesus is flying through the air on a cloud (I imagine, Superman-style) leaving his friends behind, speechless.

For the early followers of Jesus, the story of his Ascension was handy in several ways: First, on a very practical note, the early Church needed some way to explain what happened to Jesus after the Resurrection. Since there were stories about Jesus’s once-dead-now-alive body being sighted after his crucifixion, the early followers had to have some way of explaining what happened to that resurrected body….because he wasn’t around any more. Second, in a more metaphorical sense, the story of Christ’s Ascension tells an important truth about who the early followers of the Way found him to be….their Lord, Ruler, Supreme Authority, Leader. By telling the story of Christ’s ascent into the Heavens over and over again, Jesus’s early followers were clearly communicating that they experienced the Risen Christ as their Ruler – one with authority. It’s no accident that Jesus ascended into the sky just as Elijah did before him.

So since we’re talking about a guy who was previously dead flying up into the sky on a cloud, now might be a good time to pause and talk a bit about difficult texts in the Bible. When we start talking about miraculous stories in the Bible…things that defy our understanding of how the world is supposed to work on a regular basis, there are lots of different ways to deal with our discomfort. Many modern people have said, “Okay, that’s ridiculous, Jesus didn’t fly up in a cloud. This is a silly religion,” and have checked out. That’s probably not you or me because we’re still here, listening to these stories and finding meaning within them.

Some folks REALLY need to find a way to make the miracle possible. So they jump through all kinds of hoops seeking to find a way to explain the miracle. Other folks just say, “Well, the Bible says it, so it happened. It’s a miracle, after all. It’s not meant to be explained.” Other people don’t feel like they need to have an answer. They think, “I wasn’t there. I don’t know. Doesn’t matter to me.”

I am not here to pass judgment on whatever way you make peace with the miraculous stories in our holy texts. I think there are probably lots of good ways to deal with them. But deal with them we must because our tradition is full of them.

The general method that is working for me these days is to ask myself, “What truth is being taught in this story?”

When I start to wonder, “Did this REALLY happen?” I remind myself that something doesn’t have to have literally taken place to be true. There are deep truths contained within many stories that did not literally take place. Marcus Borg often writes about this way of looking at things. His fancy word for it is post-critical naïveté.  It is the ability to re-encounter our Christian stories as deeply true without needing them to be factually true.

So the question for me is always, “What truth is being communicated through this story?”

As Jesus ascends into the clouds, I see several truths. I see a group of people left behind, startled and probably feeling a little nervous and discombobulated. I see that Jesus has left the building, so to speak, and his followers are trying to figure out what happens next. I also see that the author of Acts has already given us clues about what is supposed to happen next. We are told that the disciples will have the job of being witnesses…to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth. And we are told that God sends messengers to the disciples to tell them, “Hey. Stop staring up at the sky. Don’t worry. Jesus isn’t gone for long.”

What does it mean to follow the Ascended One? What does it mean to say that we experience Christ as Elevated in that way? The early followers of Jesus thought he’d be back right away…but he wasn’t. At least not in the ways they anticipated. Do we, 21st Century Christians, experience Christ as Elevated, Ascended in some way?

I’ve been thinking a lot about elevation lately. I’ve been getting a feel for the hills in Manhattan on my bike. We bought a house about 4.5 miles away from the church and when I rode in the first time I thought, “Hmmm…there are a lot of ups and downs here, but I generally feel like I am going down to come into town.” Sure enough, when it was time to get home, the overall trend was upwards. People think Kansas is flat, but we all know that is not the case in this part of the state. There’s nothing quite like climbing up to the Radio Tower Hill at the Konza Prairie to remind you that this area is not flat at all. It’s a view to be savored.

Since I started running and cycling, I’ve learned a few things about elevation. I never used to think about hills much when I drove everywhere. It’s amazing how I can drive the same route every day for a year and never notice a hill, but as soon as I’m on my bike or on foot the hill is quite obvious. When I first started cycling and running, I tried to avoid hills if I could. I would re-route myself to sneak out of having to deal with them. Of course, I quickly learned that there really is no way to avoid a hill. If you have to get from Point A to Point B and Point B is higher than Point A, you are going to have to climb at some point in time. You get to choose the route, but you’ll be climbing either way.

I’ve learned that my equipment is my best friend. I invested a few years ago in a quality bike and learned how to use all those gears…and that made all the difference in the world. The other day I got a flat tire on the way home from work and, boy, was that a good reminder of just how important my equipment really is.

So it is as we seek to follow the Ways of Christ: the equipment matters. If we try to go it alone we will find that we are ill-prepared. But if we surround ourselves with community for the journey….if we bring along people who can uplift and support us, we find that the work is made easier. That’s why I come to church. I need this community to travel with me. I can’t do it on my own.

Of course, there are times on any journey where you feel like you’re alone. Your community may be far away. Your equipment may fail. In those moments, I have found myself digging deep as I struggle to continue the climb. I remind myself of those opening words to that wonderful creed from the Church of Canada that we often say here, “We are not alone. We live in God’s world.”

We are not alone. God is always there with us. The disciples were not left alone when Jesus ascended into heaven. There is no place we can go to get away from God. When we are in the midst of a particularly brutal part of our journey, sometimes we just have to gut it out and remind ourselves, “I am not alone. I am not alone.”

I once knew a woman who was in the midst of transitioning from male to female and she felt totally alone. Her family had completely abandoned her. She was jobless and homeless. Pretty much all she had in the way of love and support was her church. One day she posted on Facebook about how difficult life was and one of her friends from church responded and said something like, “I wish there was a way to fix all of this, but there’s not. In times like these, sometimes you just have to grab ahold of Jesus and hold on as tight as you can. Just keep holding on.”

I thought to myself: truer words have never been said.

In the midst of the deepest crises of our lives, sometimes the only thing we can do is find Jesus and hold on tight. Tight, tight, tight.

And the One who descended into the deepest depths of Hell that can be experienced on Earth, the One who was betrayed, murdered, and ridiculed….well, he’ll just hold right on to us, too.

Because if Christ has been to the darkest depths of Hell-on-Earth and also ascended to the highest heights of Heaven, then I do believe Christ can go with us anywhere we find ourselves.

We are not alone. We live in God’s world.

As I pondered elevation and Christ’s Ascension this week, I couldn’t help, of course, but think of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” If you aren’t familiar with it, I urge you to find it later, but the opening stanza is this:
You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

“Like dust, I’ll rise.” If that isn’t the voice of the Resurrected and Ascended Christ, I don’t know what is.

Like Jesus, Angelou spoke with the authority of one who has been marginalized and dismissed, yet still keenly understood her worth. In the face of a world that constantly told her “No, no, no,” because she was a Black woman, Angelou kept saying “Yes, yes, yes,” pedaling and moving forward. She understood her worth as a Beloved Child of God and inspired countless others to do the same. Our worth does not come to us because of our race or our gender or our wealth or our abilities or our health or anything else…our worth is secured because we are Beloved Children of God. Period.

As we sit in the reality of the final week of the Great Easter Season, it seems to me that Angelou’s poem is a Great Easter Hymn.

We are the ones called to witness to the Great Love of Jesus and to be Christ in the world. We may lose our way from time to time, but still, we rise.

We are the ones urged and cheered on as we work day after day to ascend to the heights Christ calls us to reach. And we are the ones comforted and consoled when we find ourselves in the depths of destruction. Like Christ, we die. Like Christ, we rise.

As we gather at the table today to remember the Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ – still, we rise. Thanks be to God.