Sunday, November 30, 2014

"We Begin at the End"

Sunday, November 30, 2014
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

It is the first Sunday of a new year for Christians. Our liturgical year begins again with each Advent. It is always a bit of a shock to me to open up the Bible this first week of the year and discover we are beginning at the end. The end of the world, that is. How odd that we begin this season of waiting for the birth of snuggly little baby Jesus with portents of doom. But we do. We begin at the end. Every year, in fact. The Revised Common Lectionary, which is what we follow for our scripture readings each week, is a three year cycle. And each year the first Sunday of Advent has a gospel passage about the end times.

The sun and the moon are darkened. The world quakes. We await the Son of Man. And Mark’s Jesus admonishes us, “Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.”

Rabbi Marc Gellman has written a wonderful collection of modern midrash titled Does God Have Big Toe? Stories About Stories in the Bible. The art of writing midrash is an ancient Jewish practice. Scholars, rabbis, and everyday Jews listen to their sacred texts, ask questions, and then imagine new versions of the stories. God is still speaking through midrash, and Rabbi Gellman’s stories are no exception.

One of the stories in this collection is “The First New Year.” In this story, Adam is surprised by the setting of the sun in the Garden of Eden on that first day. The garden is suddenly dark, cold, and scary and the animals crowd around Adam for reassurance. Adam eventually falls asleep and is awakened by the warmth of the sun on his neck that next morning. He jumps up and rejoices with the animals. He assures them that the sun must be here to stay this time…..but eventually the sun begins to sink and they frantically try to build a barrier to keep the sun from setting. It doesn’t work, of course, and the animals and Adam are plunged once again into darkness and fear.

But this time God takes Adam aside and explains that everything is okay. This is just “time,” God says. The sun will do this over and over again and it will divide time into days and nights. There will also be weeks and months. Reassured, Adam starts keeping track of the passing of time – one day, two days, three days, a week, three weeks, a month, three months, and so on. All is well, until….

One day Adam notices he has marked off 11 months, 3 weeks, and 6 days. He becomes worried. “I’ve used up all the time!” he exclaims. “Tonight the sun will sink and it will never rise again because this is the end of time. I am going to have to wander around in the dark and it will be cold and I will trip over things. O, Lord, what will I do now?” Adam gathers together the animals and explains that he’s not sure if there will be a tomorrow. They huddle together for warmth and cry as they watch the sun set for the final time.

But then….the sun begins to peek up over the edge of the garden. Just as it always has. Just as it always will. And Adam hears God counting, “Ten years is one decade….ten decades is one century….ten centuries is one millennium….ten millennia….” And Adam falls asleep to the sound of God’s voice and the birds chirping.

Every time I read this story – every single time, gosh darn it – I cry with Adam and the animals as the sun sets. How silly is that? But there is something so powerful about that image of huddling with those you love at the end of the world. Especially because we know what’s coming next, right?

It’s Noah and the animals shut up tight in the ark, wondering if the rain will ever end. It’s Queen Esther standing afraid and brave outside the King’s door, preparing to go in and plead her case. It’s the Psalmist singing that we are all like grass, here for only a short while before the world changes again. And it’s Jesus’s disciples huddled together on the night of Good Friday, weeping - for the world as they know it has ended. And it’s the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning, only to discover that the ground has shifted right under their feet.

It’s death and it’s Resurection and it’s hopelessness and a sliver of hope. It’s broken and it’s being made whole. It’s the end and the beginning and it’s messy and it’s beautiful and it’s all wrapped up together.

I think that’s why we begin at the end every Advent. The temptation of Advent, for me at least, is to get really excited about a snuggly little baby all wrapped up in the hay. Because, really, who doesn’t love a baby? Who doesn’t love the hope that exists in that moment when you first hold new life? Eternity stretches out before you and everything is possible. This baby is perfect and it is all too easy to lure yourself into thinking the sun will stay high in the sky forever. But then you make it through the first sleepless night, the first high fever, the first time you can’t get the baby to stop crying and you don’t have any idea what to do. And you begin to realize…..the sun will set, the sun will rise. There will be endings, there will be beginnings. And they’ll all be messy and wrapped up together.

And just like those real babies in our lives, the Christ Child comes in a mixture of hope and hopelessness, peace and unrest, joy and despair, fear and love. This tiny infant is heralded with the songs of friends, family, and strangers. Zechariah, Mary, Simeon….they all know that this baby has not come simply to coo and grin. This baby is here because humanity has reached a point of ending and beginning.

Zechariah, John’s father, holds his newborn baby boy and sings out, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel….Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide us to the path of peace.”

Mary. Mary may be young, but she understands the magnitude of what she has been asked to do. As she contemplates the life within she sings, “God has scattered the proud and haughty. God has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.”

And there is perhaps no more poignant image of the ending and beginning all wrapped up together than Simeon, old Simeon, who was present at the Temple when Mary and Joseph brought their baby son. Simeon held the infant Jesus and said, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!”

In these songs I hear the voices of people who understand: it’s never as simple as “once upon a time” or “the end” as you close the book and put it back on the shelf. We are always beginning and ending….all at the same time. When you came in this morning, you should have received a piece of purple yarn. If you didn’t, please give a wave and the ushers will make sure you get one.

I’d like you to hold on to this piece of yarn. It’s has a beginning and an ending, yes? Now, take the yarn and bring the beginning and ending together. Tie it into a circle. This yarn is yours to carry throughout Advent. You may want to stick it in a pocket or bag. You may want to wear it on your wrist. But when you look at this piece of yarn, I hope you’ll remember that we begin at the end. Contemplate the places in your life or in your world where there is an ending. Relationships end, loved ones depart, priorities change, our bodies slow down, dreams die. In the wider world, we see shifts in leadership, we notice the rhythms of the world are altered.
Many of us gathered in this sanctuary earlier this week and prayed that the unrest in Ferguson would be a beginning and an ending. We heard the powerful words of UCC pastor and poet, the Rev. Maren Tirabassi:
I have a dream that Trayvon Martin
and Michael Brown’s names
will be remembered
the third Monday of every January
by our grandchildren
as the last to die,
and that their loss will be honored
as the reason our country
finally turned around.[1]

We pray and hope for an end. We understand that the evil of racism will be with us until we have a hard and firm ending. We plead with Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” Bring us an ending, O God, for we have had enough. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”

And yet, we hope for new beginnings. Like Isaiah, we remember, “Yet, O God, you are our Holy Parent; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” An ending is never just an ending. It is always a beginning, too. As you look at your yarn in the coming weeks, I hope you will see the beginnings happening all around you. New life, new loves, new dreams, new opportunities, new ways of being in the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and spoke, oh, millions of words during his all-too-short life. Why is it, do you suppose, that the ones we hear most frequently are about his dream? I think it’s because he was pointing towards all of the beginnings he saw in the world around him. He painted a vibrant picture of what the world could be. People were hungry for that. People are hungry for that. Our ability to see and name the beginnings we see – I do believe that is one of our most powerful weapons in fighting the great sin of racism….and every other systemic sin, too. In order to shake off the shackles of the past, we have to move toward a new beginning together. So when you look at your yarn, I hope you will honor the endings and beginnings, and remember that they are always tied up together.

On Monday night this past week, I was walking to my car on the way home from work. The moon was high in the sky and it was a tiny sliver. I was rushing home to hear the results of the grand jury investigation in Ferguson. I looked up at the moon, so tiny in the sky, barely a speck of light, and I thought, “I wonder if the moon is waxing or waning right now? Will there be more or less light tomorrow?”

It has been a dark week – a week of pain and anguish. I have sat with my friends who are Black and heard them say things like, “If I had a son, I’d get him a gun and teach him to shoot to kill,” and “We just all need to leave this country. We are systematically hated here,” and “I’ve decided I can’t have children. I can’t bring any more Black children into this world that devalues their lives.” These are not just random people on the Internet. These are some of my dearest friends. I have wept countless tears this week. I have prayed that God would tear open the heavens and shake this country to its very foundations.

As Advent begins, it seems we are praying for an ending. We are praying for a beginning. God, help us to remember that the endings and beginnings are always messy and tied up together. 


Monday, November 24, 2014

"New Year in November"

“New Year in November”
Sunday, November 23, 2014
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

When was the last time you were surprised? Truly, deeply surprised? When was the last time your world was turned upside down, or you were caught off guard and felt your heart quicken? This may have been a really nice surprise: a friend got you an unexpected gift, your boss offered you rare words of encouragement, your child brought you a fistful of daisies. Or it may have been that other kind of surprise….you know, the really terrible kind: a car accident, a phone call in the middle of the night, a job loss, bad behavior from a dear friend or family member.

Earlier this week I was pondering what it feels like to be surprised and I suddenly remembered a few videos I had seen online of young children receiving cochlear implants and being able to hear for the first time. Maybe some of you have seen these videos, too. Babies and toddlers and young children hearing their parents’ voices for the first time. The looks on their faces? Sheer surprise in its purest form. They had absolutely no idea what was about to happen and their faces are often a mixture of disbelief, shock, joy, and amazement. One of my favorites was of a little girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who just laughed and laughed because she could hear her own voice for the first time ever. Her dad says, off-camera, “You couldn’t hear yourself before?” “No!” she gleefully exclaims with delight and just giggles with joy.

Surprise is a powerful force. It can be exhilarating or terrifying….usually it’s a mix of both, I suppose. Physiologically, a surprise seems to register the same way for me whether it’s good or bad. Whether it’s a surprise birthday party or a near-miss in my vehicle, a surprise means I catch my breath, my heart starts to race, my stomach starts to church, and I feel a little shaky. It’s a full-body experience.

Jesus knew the power of surprises in storytelling. That gotcha moment when things don’t go the way you thought they were going?  That’s compelling. That’s what you talk about after the show, right?

We have been working our way through a series of parables in Matthew’s gospels for the past few weeks and they all have something in common. Two things, in fact. First, they are all interpreted as being about the End Times. Second, they all contain surprises. The guy who wasn’t dressed correctly for the wedding feast is bound and punished – that wasn’t what we were expecting from a merciful God, right? The poor bridesmaids who didn’t bring enough oil are kicked out of the wedding party – it seems unfair. It’s not the way we thought the story would go. The servants who are entrusted with their master’s wealth and the one who protects the single talent by burying it is cursed while the ones who took a risk and invested the money are glorified? Not what I was expecting. I didn’t see it coming.[1]

I’ve heard many-a moralizing sermon about today’s passage from Matthew. We social justice, do-gooder types seem to love to alternately toot our own horns or beat ourselves up because we’re not doing enough good. We love to preach works righteousness and aren’t usually too heavy on the grace. We’re always working harder (or at least talking about working harder) to fix the problems around us. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I do think we need to work hard.

So for many Christians focused on social justice, this passage has become a favorite. After all, it’s not too heavy on grace, amiright? This illustrates why it’s so important to resist the temptation to be a needlepoint Christian. It’s not helpful to pick one verse or one passage and embroider it all over our lives as if no other passage matters. Doesn’t matter if it’s John 3:16 or Micah 6:8 or Jeremiah 29:11….no one story is enough to encompass the entire story of who God is or what God is doing in the world.

If I were going to pick a theme passage for my life and hold it up at a football game or bumper sticker it on the back of my car, I don’t think it would be this one: “’Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Just doesn’t quite have the spirit I’d like for a needlepoint pillow on my sofa, you know?

These passages in Matthew wear me down. They make me feel a little like I can’t get anything right. A little, “What’s the use in trying if I’m just going to miss the point and get stuck in the outer darkness weeping and gnashing my teeth?” You know?

But then I remember…..these stories all have something in common: a surprise twist. Everyone in this parable is surprised. The goats have no idea they are goats. They didn’t know they were neglecting Christ when they failed to go down to the local jail, or didn’t call their senator about the Farm Bill, or forgot to drop off the clothes at Goodwill, or ignored the issues surrounding water safety and access all over the glove. They had no idea they were messing up. This is perhaps not too surprising.

But you know what is surprising to me? The sheep also had no idea. They didn’t know they were sheep at all. They didn’t know they were seeing Christ face-to-face at the Breadbasket, or in the hospital bed, or in the long committee meetings for community organizing. They had no idea they were getting it right.

Now that is surprising to me. And the part that really gets me? It’s this: I think perhaps one of the points of this story is that none of us really know whether we’re sheep or goats. We mess it up? We don’t notice. We get it right? We don’t notice. We probably think we’re getting it right when we’re really messing it up and vice versa. We don’t know. But you know who does know? Christ. Christ knows.

I don’t know if that makes you feel good or bad. It makes me feel a little of both at the same time. It makes me feel, in my body, the same way I feel when I am surprised: my breath gets a little short, my palms get a little sweaty, my heart thumps around in my chest a bit.

This particular Sunday is Reign of Christ Sunday. You may also know it as Christ the King Sunday. As such, it seems like a pretty good time to ponder what it might mean to claim Christ as our Ruler.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the middle of an intense debate among some colleagues about whether the language of Christ as “Ruler” matters to us and to the people in UCC churches. I don’t know how often you think about Jesus Christ as your Ruler, if you do at all. For me, the language is still relevant. I think a few years ago I would have told you it didn’t ring true for me at all, but these days I find myself trying to live more fully into that claim about Christ.

I typically use the language of Ruler instead of Lord because I don’t think of Christ as a male and a Lord is a male ruler. Now, Jesus? Yes, it seems to me that Jesus was a male. But Christ is not the same as Jesus. Christ is the eternal force who existed before Jesus of Nazareth was born and continued on after Jesus’s body was crucified. Christ is the force that cannot be extinguished and that force does not have a body or gender for me. James Cone speaks of Christ as a “liberating event” and I love this image of Christ as an event.

So what does it mean to claim Christ as Ruler? Well, for me it means that my ultimate allegiance rests with God and my ultimate work in this world is to do all within my power to bring about God’s Reign on Earth. It means something decidedly counter-cultural.

There are so many entities in this world that compete to become our Ruler. To Christ is our Ruler is to say that the Black Friday sales at Walmart and the Thanksgiving sales at Target are not our Ruler. If Christ is our Ruler then our President is not our Ruler. If Christ is our Ruler then the stock market is not our Ruler. If Christ is my Ruler then my grades, my weight, my promotion at work, my publications, my bank account balance…none of these things are my Ruler.

What about you? If Christ is your Ruler, who or what else is not your Ruler?  (time for responses)

We are already moving a bit into a space for reflection and you may have noticed you have two post it notes stuck to your bulletin. Which brings me to the title of the sermon: New Year’s in November.

Did you know it’s actually New Year’s Eve right now? The church year ends today. Next week it will be Advent, which is the beginning of the church year. So I thought that today we might make time for some New Year’s Resolutions. Not the ones about the number on the scale, or the cleanliness of your house, or spending less time on Facebook.[2]

Those two post it notes are for you during this time of reflection. One is meant to be about your own life: In the coming year, how can you live your life in such a way that the Reign of Christ is ever more present in the world around you? What concrete change can you make? No one will see what you write on that piece of paper unless you want them to see it.

The second note is about our life together: In the coming year, how can we as a community of faith live in such a way that the Reign of Christ becomes more of a reality? What can we do together?

During the reflection time and the offertory, I hope you’ll take a moment to write on each note. The individual one is yours to take home and stick somewhere where you’ll see it each day. The second one, the one about our life together, I hope you’ll be willing to share it with the rest of us. As you leave the Sanctuary today, I invite you to stick your post it to one of the doors as you exit the Sanctuary. You can put your name on them if you want people to know it’s from you. That might be a great idea because then you could connect with others who share your interests and passions.

Let us listen for the voice of our Still-Surprising God during this time of reflection.

[1] Thank you to Greg Carey for enumerating theses surprises in Matthew’s gospel
[2] I am indebted to Karoline Lewis of for this idea about making Reign of Christ-centered New Year’s Resolutions.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Waiting With Christ"

Sunday, November 9, 2014
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

There’s been a lot of name calling happening lately. We don’t have a TV, so I’ve been spared the nasty ads leading up to the election, but I have heard from lots of you that they’ve just been terrible. My assessment is that 99% of the adults in this room voted in the election this past week and I know things did not turn out as many of you had hoped. This is, of course, the case in any election. There are always winners and losers….and there are always some who are elated by the results and others who are crushed. It’s never fun to be on the side of the losers.

We seem to be in a particular moment in time where the divide between people who fall on different parts of our political spectrum is massive. We seem to have an incredibly difficult time even understanding how “those people” could vote for “that other candidate.” After the election results were posted this week, I had at least one Facebook friend who said, “If you voted for Brownback, just go ahead and remove yourself from my friends. I don’t want to know you any more.” And I had another friend who said, “If you voted from Brownback, please, can you just tell me why? I want to understand. I promise not to argue with you.” A lot of people replied…but my friend wasn’t able to find one person who voted for the Governor. Interesting, right? We are so neatly divided that sometimes we can’t even find someone to talk to about our differences.

This week, our Scriptures speak to us of wisdom and foolishness. Seems pretty timely, given the amount of head shaking I’ve seen this past week. “I just don’t get it. How could anybody be that stupid to vote for so-and-so?”

The problem, though, is that I’m not so sure I agree with the author of Matthew about who is foolish and who is wise. This is a bizarre little passage, to be sure, and we’ve got to wade through a lot of strangeness to grapple with it.

For starters, there are some very real historical obstacles. The folks back in Jesus’s day didn’t do weddings quite the same way we did. From what I have gathered, it typically went something like this. The Groom and his family would get together at the Groom’s family’s house. They Bride and her friends and family would get together at her house. Hence, the bridesmaids in our story. They are the friends of the Bride waiting with her. When the Groom came over, he and the Bride would consummate the marriage while the friends and family waited outside. Hey, I said it was kind of different from how we do things now. After the couple finished, they would have a big party. The party might last for days. No one wanted to miss the party.

So….here we have ten of the Bride’s friends, waiting for Groom to show up and get the party started. They all show up to wait. They all bring their lamps, just in case they have to wait into the evening hours. But the wait is long. They fall asleep. And the Groom doesn’t show up until after midnight. They jump up and get themselves ready, but half of the Bridesmaids – the “foolish” ones – find they are out of oil for their lamps. So they ask the “wise” ones to share. But the wise Bridesmaids say no and the foolish ones are out of luck.

Who is really foolish and who is really wise? Wouldn’t it have been reasonable to expect the Groom to show up before midnight? Wouldn’t it have been reasonable to expect those who had plenty to share a little with those who didn’t have enough? And, perhaps most troubling of all, wouldn’t it have been reasonable to expect the Groom to be gracious….to let the foolish Bridesmaids into the party even though they were late?

Well, these folks apparently don’t live in a reasonable world. And we who live in Kansas can certainly appreciate that, right? We don’t live in a reasonable world, either.

We live in a world that expects those who start out with nothing to fend for themselves and claw their way to self-sufficiency. We live in a world that rarely asks those who have more than enough to share what they have. After all, why should I share when I was smart enough to pack extra? It’s not my fault that those stupid people didn’t think ahead.

We live in a world where two adult earners making minimum wage stand no chance of paying their bills each month. We live in a world that is more concerned about the right to bear arms than our children’s right to safety in their schools and homes. We live in a world with very few safety nets. A world where a job loss, car breakdown, or bad diagnosis is often all that stands between the haves and the have nots. A world where we spend more money on prisons than schools. A world that sends our young women and men into the hell of warfare and then fails to support them when they come back home.

I could go on. But perhaps I’ll stop.

After all, you don’t need me to tell you that we live in a world that seems fairly unreasonable much of the time. Suffice to say that I feel a little cranky about us putting all the blame on the five foolish Bridesmaids. Maybe I’m defensive because I would have likely been one of them. I don’t know. Maybe I’m cranky because I really would have expected the wise women to share.

More than anything, though, I think this parable really gets under my skin because of Jesus. What the heck are you doing here, friend? Really? Just because the five women are a few minutes late you’re going to shut them out completely? That doesn’t sound like you to me. Not one bit. I would have expected better from you, Jesus. Tell me this isn’t really what the kingdom of God looks like. A commenter on a blog post about this passage said something like, “I know Jesus and I know he would be sticking his foot in that door to hold it open for me just a bit.” I agree. The Jesus I know doesn’t shut people out because they are late or under-prepared.

It’s interesting, of course, that this parable falls right in the middle of several Matthean parables about the End Times. That is another thing that makes it hard for us to understand.

I’m going to hazard a guess that most of us in the room right now don’t wake up and wondering if Jesus is coming back in the clouds today, or next week, or even next year. But the people Matthew was writing for? They did think about that. Many of the people who wrote and heard the Scriptures from the Second Testament absolutely lived in anticipation of Christ coming again during their lifetimes. And so, we can kind of understand the urgency, right? Be prepared. Be alert. I want to be ready….I want to be ready….

It makes me think, though, about the places we do seek Jesus. How often do I remember to take the time to see Christ in my neighbor? How often do I open my heart and set aside my prejudices and truly allow myself to encounter Christ in an unexpected person or place? Not as often as I’d like. I’m pretty foolish when it comes to seeking Christ, actually, which is why I am so dependent on Christ’s community – the Church. I need to be reminded – regularly – that Christ is here and now. Christ isn’t likely to come back in a flash of light, I don’t think. But Christ is present wherever we foolish humans work to bring God’s Reign of Justice and Lovingkindness to our Earth. Christ is present in those places where the world is flipped upside-down – where the last are first and the least are most. Christ is present in all of those places where the people with power get together and protectively, selfishly say there isn’t enough to go around….Christ is right there saying, “Wake up, friends. There is enough. Take a risk. Do unto the least of these as you would do unto me, remember?”

Even though this passage is pretty out-dated and hard to access….even though I find this version of Jesus to be incredibly off-putting….even though I’m not certain I agree that the wise were wise and the foolish were foolish….I just can’t leave this passage alone. I keep turning it over and over in my mind, hoping there is a Word here for the Church today.

Despite the millennia between the passage and us, there does seem to be at least one theme in this passage that translates easily to humans throughout the ages: waiting. We all know about waiting. It doesn’t matter if you’re 2 months old or 102 years old. You know about waiting. A tiny baby waits to be nursed or waits for kind and loving hands to gently pick her up when she feels alone and discombobulated. A young child waits for a new toy to arrive in the mail or for summer camp to begin. A teenager waits for a text or a glance from a love interest. College students wait anxiously for those grades to be posted at the end of the semester or to see if the envelope from the grad school of their choice is thick or thin. As we become adults, we are still no stranger to waiting….we wait for our paychecks at the end of the month, we wait for our kids to come home at midnight, we wait for a phone call from the doctor, we wait for our elderly parent who lives alone to answer the phone on the fourth ring, we wait for our tax returns, retirement, that glorious vacation we’ve always dreamed of….the next election.

We all know about waiting. It’s a life skill that is good to have.

And we all know about needing Christ in the midst of that waiting. Waiting, whether it’s for something good or uncertain, provokes anxiety. It’s hard to wait. It’s easier if we remember we are not alone.

And I think that’s where I come back to the incarnational reality of Christ in our midst. Jesus Christ is not some far-off spirit in a cloud somewhere. Jesus did not die and go away forever, nor do I believe he is stuck in Heaven, completely inaccessible to us in the here at now. Jesus is here with us. Waiting. Like any good friend, Christ waits with us….for the good stuff and the uncertain stuff. One of my favorite contemporary thinkers, the Rev. Dr. David Lose, hit it on the head this week when he reminded us that in the book of Matthew this passage falls during Jesus’s own “in-between time.” It falls during his own time of waiting…during that time after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. Jesus knows what it’s like to wait.

This is good news. We are not alone! Thanks be to God.

And with this good news comes a responsibility, too, I think. The responsibility to remember that we are, all of us, called to be the very body of Christ in this hurting, uncertain, unreasonable, waiting world. This is difficult work and it’s incredibly challenging to sustain…especially when you feel like you’ve been spending hours and hours of your precious time and energy working for justice, only to discover that there’s no quick fix or that the system is so messed up it all seems completely hopeless. Doing the work of Christ in our world is not easy and it certainly resembles a marathon more than a sprint. I have this vision of us all lugging around giant fuel-tanker-sized containers for our oil. The night may be awfully long and we may be waiting a very long time.

Our work, I think, is to wait with each other. And to try and do a better job than the ten Bridesmaids in this story.

Can we make a deal? Can we try to be a little more kind and generous than the supposedly-wise Bridesmaids in this story? For better or for worse, it is our work to wait with each other….no matter how wise or foolish the other people seem. Our task is to show up.

In the words of Dr. Lose, “We are those who sit vigil for each other at times of pain, loss, or bereavement. We are those who celebrate achievements and console after disappointment. We are those who give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid. We are, in short, those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers, then and now. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of our Lord.”

Thanks be to God for those who wait with us – foolish and wise. It’s just good to know we’re not alone while we wait.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Sunday, November 2, 2014
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Back in May there was an article in the New York Times that caught my eye.[1] It was all about the use of #blessed by celebrities and everyday people on social media. In case you don’t get the whole hashtag thing, basically it’s a way of earmarking something that you post on Twitter. When you put #blessed there, it means that anyone searching for #blessed will find your post.

So people will often post things like, “So excited to start a new job on Monday! #blessed” or “Welcomed our baby girl to the world at 8:43am #blessed.” The article in the New York Times discussed how #blessed has become a bit of a joke because of it’s overuse. Some people see it as the ultimate humble-brag. You can brag about something, but appear to be humble because it’s not really about you, it’s about God and what God is doing in your life.

The problem, of course, is that this just leads to rampant bragging about everything imaginable. Celebrities are #blessed because they won an award or scored the big touchdown. Comedian Erin Jackson says, “Now it’s just like ‘Strawberries are half-price at Trader Joe’s. I’m so blessed!’”

In a world where blessed has become slang for “I’m having a good day!” what are we to make of today’s passages from Genesis and Matthew, both of which are deeply rooted in the language of blessing?

Our story, as people of faith, begins and ends in blessing. The first chapters of Genesis are full of abundance. It’s as if this magnificent, generous creator-God is just overflowing with blessings that spill out onto the blank palate of the Earth. Trouble follows, of course, as it always does. We are whisked through the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel.

And then we come to Abraham. The story of the father of our faith begins with a commandment and a promise. “Go from you country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

This commandment is wild. Leave behind everything you have – all of the things that really matter to you….to go to a place that…well….I’ll show it to you eventually, don’t worry.

But the pay off for this gamble is also huge. You will be blessed. Your name will be great. And lest we think that the whole deal here is that Abraham is being blessed just to sit around and count his riches and good fortune, God is very specific about the purpose of these blessings. Abraham is being blessed so that he can bless others.

God is big on blessing. Our first stories about God in the Bible, those creation stories, are filled with blessing language. After God creates, God blesses and gives the command, “be fruitful and multiply.” Blessing is about having enough, being enough….more than enough. Blessing is about relationship and future-hope and abundance.

God’s goal seems to be to bless the whole world. God blesses Abraham and Sarah so they can bless others. We humans, of course, tend to try to limit God’s extravagant generosity because we worry that there might not be enough for all of us. “Reign it in God! There might not be enough to go around! Maybe there some people who don’t deserve quite so much!” But then Jesus shows up and gosh-darn-it if he isn’t full of blessings, too.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit (or, in Luke, the poor), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…”and on and on. Blessed…blessed…blessed…

All jokes about social media and half-priced strawberries aside, I truly do believe that one of the most powerful things we can do as human beings is count our blessings. Not so that we can feel better than everyone else. Not so that we can rest on our laurels and stop working hard. But because it is in remembering our blessings that we, along with Abraham and Sarah and all the saints who have gone before us, remember that there’s a second part that comes after being blessed….we are blessed to bless others.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m exhausted, down in the dumps, frustrated, angry, and feeling decidedly un-blessed…..well, those aren’t times when I necessarily feel like I can bless others. And that’s okay. I’m not saying we can’t ever feel that way. But, after a while, I get tired of being miserable and I want to find a way to crawl out of the hole that I either fell in, was pushed in, or dug for myself. I want a way out.

And that’s when I notice that even in the deepest, darkest of pits, I am not alone. God is with me. And God is still offering blessings. God may not be able to control everything and make sure nothing bad happens, but God can sit with me and point my eyes to the top of that pit where I can see a little speck of light. And God can coach me, cheer me on, help me remember to be aware of the blessings I do have in my life. God will give me shoulders to stand on while I climb out.

God is like this awesome, life-sustaining, supernova of blessing – just overflowing goodness and holiness and blessing and super-abundant hope into our world. Sometimes it’s easy to see it and grab onto it. Other times? Well, we have to work a little harder.

Wherever you are – whether your down in a pit or flying high on a mountain top – Christ is with you and the Spirit’s super-nova-esque blessings are overflowing. Our job – no, our privilege, really – is to grab on to those blessings, count them as our own….and then extend ourselves in blessings to the world. Because once you start filling up with blessings, a funny thing starts to happen. You, too, start to overflow – just like that never-ending super-nova of blessing that comes from our Source. And you bless the world and then it just keeps going and going and going like a chain reaction. Blessing upon blessing. Hope upon hope.

Now, there is a catch. At least in my own life, I have discovered that this blessing chain reaction has an enemy. I’ve hinted at it already. You can probably guess what it is. Fear. Fear of scarcity. What if I give away too much? What if there’s not enough to go around?

This is a normal, natural human fear. Of course it is. That’s why our Bible both begins and ends with what Walter Brueggemann calls “the liturgy of abundance.” From the fruitful world created in Genesis right on through to the New Heaven and New Earth unveiled in the last chapters of Revelation, the Bible is overflowing with stories that are meant to help us defeat this fear of scarcity.

In my own life, giving away my hard-earned money has been one of the most powerful tools I’ve found for combating this fear of scarcity. I can’t quite explain it, but there is something about giving away my money that makes me feel rich. Makes me feel blessed. Makes me feel at peace and not so worried about making ends meet.

David and I have had a practice of giving away 10% of our income since we were married, back in our college days. Back then, 10% felt monumental, even though it was a tiny sum. But, every month, we would write two checks. One to the church and one to a community organization. Being able to write those checks to the church I loved and those nonprofits that I knew were providing critical support for people with very real needs? I felt like a million dollars. I felt like an heir to some great fortune and, I guess, in a way I am.

We all are. No matter how much or how little we have, we are all able to do something to help those around us. We all have the ability to combat the great lie of scarcity, to say no to fear and yes to abundance and blessing.

We are all children of blessing. We are all heirs to the promise given to Sarah and Abraham. We are all blessed and we are all created in the image of that great super-nova of blessing…commanded to be a blessing to others. What a task. What a responsibility. What a joyful privilege to be called to live in this way.