Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Come and See"

“Come and See”
Sunday, January 18, 2015
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

As you might imagine, our household is a pretty active place. With two kids under the age of five, something is always being built…out of blocks, Legos, old cardboard boxes, rubber bands – you name it. Many times each day, David and I hear small voices say to us, “Mama! Daddy! Come and see! Come and see what we made!”

“Come and see.” Three short words that open up an entire world. They are an invitation, not just to look at something but to be in relationship. The words are offered from one person to another as a gift. “Come and see this thing that is important to me. I want to show you this part of me because I care about you and I want to deepen our relationship.”

When someone you care about says, “Come and see,” you go and see. Oh, maybe you don’t care so much about whatever it is you’re going to see, but you go because you care about the person. If it’s important to them, it’s important to you. So you stop what you’re doing and GO and SEE.

Last weekend about 12 of us went to see the movie Selma. It was absolutely masterful and if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend that you GO and SEE it (see what I did there?).

So much of the civil rights movement was about inviting people to come and see. When the organizers in Montgomery decided that the time was ripe for Rosa Parks to be arrested and begin the boycott, they invited the rest of the nation – “Come and see,” they said. “See what we live with here in Alabama. Come and see,” they said. “See our strength, our determination as we walk to work, to school, day-in and day-out for 385 days.” Just stop for a moment and think about that – walking or sharing a ride with friends everywhere you go for 385 days. “Come and see,” they said. And white people all over this nation began to open their eyes.

Seven years later, in 1963, Dr. King gathered with other leaders in Birmingham, Alabama. The city was nicknamed “Bombingham” because there were over 50 unsolved race-related bombings. “Unsolved” because none of the white officials made any attempt to investigate.  “Come and see,” they said from Birmingham. “See what we live with. See the footage on the nightly news as we are kicked, spat at, screamed at for sitting at a lunch counter. See us on the front page of your newspapers as those who have promised to serve and protect turn hoses and dogs on our children. Come and see.” And white people all over this nation began to open their eyes….and their hearts, just a little bit.
Two years after that, the setting was different but the invitation was the same. This time it was in Selma, Alabama. The issue at hand was the right to vote. Although almost half of the population there was black, there were only a handful of registered black voters in the county. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been there for several years, teaching nonviolent tactics, preparing the way for a massive action. King and others from the Southern Christian Leadership Organization showed up in early 1965 to see if the time was right.

There is a scene in the movie Selma where Dr. King talks with student leaders John Lewis and James Forman. They are giving him a hard time because the SCLC had failed so miserably in their recent campaign in Albany, GA. King explains that nonviolent resistance means doing things perfectly for a long time and relying on the powers that be to mess up….so that people can see how bad thing are. The sheriff in Albany, Laurie Pritchett, never messed up. This was different, King explained, than Bull Connor in Birmingham, who made a fool out of himself daily. King asks the student leaders, “What I need to know is this: is Jim Clark a Laurie Pritchett? Or is he a Bull Connor?”

They believe Jim Clark is like Bull Connor – that he is likely to overreact, to make things exceedingly difficult for the protestors. And so the people of Selma say to the nation, “Come and see.” The cameras descend as the marchers prepare to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7. And the troopers are there with clubs, and tear gas, and horses. They brutally attack the peaceful protesters. The white people of the U.S. gather around their TVs in their living rooms. And they see. And they are horrified. And when Dr. King issues the invitation to clergy around the nation, “Come and see. Come and march. Come and stand with us,” people of every race and creed respond.

It took three tries, but on March 21st thousands began the march from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery. And a week later, the entire nation watched as Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Alabama capitol, proclaiming, “We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around!”

Come and see. Come and see what we live with. Come and see our lives. Come, see, understand, care, do more, do better, pay attention.

These three little words – come and see – are at the heart of the Jesus story we heard from the Gospel of John this morning. The story of Jesus did not spread though billboards or glossy mailers or on the nightly news. The story of what Jesus of Nazareth was doing spread in a timeless way – one person to one person, one invitation at a time. I think it’s telling that Philip says so little to Nathanael about this Jesus. He could have told stories, given a treatise about who he thought Jesus was and what he thought Jesus was going that was new and special.

But he doesn’t do any of that. He says, quite simply, “Come and see.”

It’s an invitation that opens up a whole new world. It’s an invitation that begins a relationship. It’s ancient and it’s simple and it’s real and it still rings true today. Come and see.

This is how Christianity has always been passed on. Person-to-person. A simple invitation. I think “come and see” is so much more effective than, “Have you been saved?” or  “Do you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”

“Come and see” is an invitation to experience for yourself. To make up your own mind. Dr. King and the other leaders in the nonviolent resistance movement knew the power of making up one’s own mind. They advocated for legislation because they knew laws could curb evil behavior until hearts and minds began to be transformed. And they used nonviolent methods because they knew the surest way to convince white folks of the evils of racism was to invite them to come and see – and make up their own minds.

And all of this makes me wonder – how often do we invite people to “come and see”? How often do we talk about Jesus or God or our congregation and just say to a friend, “Come and see”?

I’m guessing not all that often. But I also know that an abiding truth of our faith is this: Christianity is passed from person to person. Always has been – always will be. People rarely wake up one day and say, “You know what? I need to go to church today. I’m going to try that one on the corner or look one up online.” I mean, yes, sometimes that happens. But more often what happens is that someone they know, someone they care about says, “Come and see. Come and see what this means to me. Come and see this Jesus who has saved me. Come and see this congregation that sustains and supports and challenges me along my journey. Come and see.”

Jesus said to Philip, “Follow me!” and he did. And all of us here have done that, too, in one way or another. We may all be in different stages on the journey, but we are all looking to Jesus in some way. Philip found his friend Nathanael and said, “Look! We’ve found him! The one we’ve been waiting for is here!” Nathanael was skeptical, “That guy from Nazareth? That backwater town?” And rather than try to explain it all or convince him, Philip issues that simple invitation, “Come and see.”

Who do you know that might need an invitation that would change their life? Or maybe you’re the one who needs to remember that you are still invited to have your life transformed.  

The invitation is still there for all of us, all these millennia later. Come and see. Experience this Jesus – a nobody from nowhere who has come to turn the world upside down, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim freedom for those who are imprisoned and recovery of sight to those who cannot see.

It was good news then and it’s good news now. We are all invited to follow and we are all urged to invite our friends.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Love Loudly"

“Love Loudly”
Sunday, January 11, 2015
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

I can’t stop thinking about Leelah Alcorn. Leelah was 17 years old. She lived in Kings Mill, Ohio. The weekend after Christmas, Leelah left her house and walked in front of a semi truck on Interstate 71 near her home. She died.

Leelah’s story is, tragically, not at all unique. People who do not conform to gender norms commit suicide at a staggering rate, to say nothing of the other violent acts committed against people who are transgender. A recent study shows that nearly half of all people who are transgender will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.[1] Leelah’s story is not unusual.

What is unusual is that Leelah left a heart-wrenching suicide note posted on social media and that note has gone viral. Leelah’s final words were a manifesto of sorts – a call to action.

In the letter, Leelah describes a life of loneliness and despair. She came out to her parents as trans* when she 14. She describes the joy she felt in learning that being transgender was a thing – after 10 years of just being really confused. But her parents were not supportive. They were Christian and told Leelah that it was just a phase, that it was wrong, that she could fix herself if she tried hard enough. They took her to Christian therapists who told her more of the same. Leelah became angry and acted out. Her parents responded by isolating her – taking away her phone, access to social media, cutting her off from her peers. 

After a long and lonely summer, Leelah spiraled into the deepest of despair. She writes, “There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say ‘it gets better’ but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.”

Leelah closes her note with these words, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s [messed] up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”[2]

Leelah’s words are a call to action. This beloved child of God has lost her life – mostly because others who share our religion were hateful to her. What can we, as Christians who understand that God has created people in across a healthy spectrum of gender identities called them all “good” – what can we do?

I am resolved to love loudly. More loudly than I have in the past. It’s one thing to know deep in your heart, that God loves all. It’s another thing to shout that from the rooftops every time you get the chance. The voices of hate are strong in our world. Those of us who preach a gospel of love are going to have to continue to love loudly, boldly, persistently.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark is loud. The baptism of Jesus was no quiet affair. People flocked to John out there in the desert, seeking the baptism of repentance. Jesus, too, came to John at the edge of the Jordan and asked to be baptized. John agrees and immerses Jesus in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down onto him like a dove. A voice from heaven cried out, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The heavens were torn apart. The Greek word used here for “torn apart” is used just one other time in Mark’s gospel – at the very end when Jesus is on the cross. After Jesus breathes his last, the curtain in the temple is “torn apart” – same word – and the Roman Centurion professes his faith that, “Surely, this was the Son of God.”

It’s a stunning parallel construction: as Jesus is dunked down into the water, he experiences a death of sorts, but also a rebirth. The sky is ripped apart – the separation between heaven and earth is breeched. And this loud voice from heaven calls out, “You are my Son!”

And then again, at his death, we see the same thing unfold. Just after he dies, the separation between heaven and earth is again breeched. This time, one who shouldn’t believe, one who symbolizes the powers who killed Jesus with contempt – this is the voice we hear, affirming the Jesus was God’s beloved child.

It makes me wonder if Leelah Alcorn was baptized. I assume she was. She came from a family that spent a lot of time in church. She complained about having to attend church every week as a teenager and hating having to be around all those people who thought she was an abomination.

I wonder about all those people who were present at her baptism. Did they make the same promises we made to Harrison earlier today? Did they promise to be for her a family in Christ whose love for her could not be broken?  If so, they did not follow through on those promises. Their love of orthodoxy, their decision to make the Bible into an idol – those things kept them from keeping their promise to Leelah. And the price was her life.

We must take these promises seriously, friends. When we promise an infant or a young child or an adult that we will not allow our love for them to be broken? That’s no small thing. It is difficult work – and I cannot imagine any work more important than committing to love someone in the spirit of Christ.

Because I believe in my heart of hearts that when Leelah Alcorn came out of those baptismal waters, there was a brief breech in the separation of heaven and earth, and a voice from heaven cried out: “This is my child, the beloved. With her I am well-pleased.” For that is the gift of baptism. To be affirmed. Made new. Loved fully and loudly.

And I believe in my heart of hearts that when Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of that semi truck, she was not alone. God was right there with her, weeping with despair. And after she breathed her last, the veil was ripped in two and heaven and earth became indistinguishable for just a moment. And we, the Roman guards who have witnessed her death are left behind saying, “Surely, this was a daughter of God.”

This week in the office, Sandy and I have fielded several phone calls and walk in visits from people who are offended by our Black Lives Matter signs. I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering whether the signs could potentially do more harm than good. After all, what good does it do to make racist people angrier? But then I sat in my office and watched as a Black teenager walked past. He noticed the sign. I don’t know what went through his mind, but my prayer is that he experienced the statement as an affirmation, as a blessing. My prayer was that he would see those words and know that – although we live in a nation that loudly spews hate at people of color – there are places in his own community who are determined to love loudly. To shout out the truth that Black lives matter. That he is a beloved child of God and with him, God is well-pleased.

During our time of reflection today, you are invited to reflect with your feet. I invite you to come forward to the baptismal font, reach in, and take two stones from the water. As you do so, please read the words on the sign and write them on your heart. You may even wish to say them out loud. One of the stones is for you to keep – to remind you that you are loved loudly by a God who will never allow her love for you to be broken. The other stone is for you to keep until you find someone else who needs that reminder – and then to give the stone to that person and offer them words of blessing. If you would rather stay in your seat, please just give me a wave and I’ll bring a stone to you. Come now to the fount of blessing…know that you are loved.