Sunday, June 21, 2015

Interactive Sermon in City Park

Revelation 21:1-6 and 22:1-5
Sunday, June 21, 2015  
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

All month, we’ve been following the book of Revelation. We’ve tried to understand why it was written and to whom it was written. This past Thursday morning, many of us awoke to the news of the terrorist act at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. By noon, many of us were gathered together in our sanctuary with people from other congregations and the wider community. We observed silence for 10 minutes while our tower chimes rang.

For nine minutes, we lit a candle for each person who died on Wednesday evening. Now that we know their names, it is important that we say them out loud, remembering that each of these names represents an entire life – an entire universe – taken from us in an act of hate:
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Cynthia Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethel Lance
Depayne Middleton Doctor
The Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
The Rev. Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

For the 10th minute, we spent time in individual prayer. Many of us made confession for our participation in the death-dealing systems of our nation. Several of us knelt in the front of our sanctuary together, bowing ourselves low and begging for God’s help. We heard the words from Ecclesiastes earlier today, reminding us that there is a time for everything. And if there is, then when is the time for our nation to move past our original sin of white supremacy? When, O God? How long?

Towards the end of the service, a young woman named Jessica, who is a member of Bethel AME, said she felt led by the Spirit to share some words with us. And when she got up into the pulpit and opened her Bible, the words she shared were from the beginning of the Book of Revelation.

Revelation was written to bring comfort to a people who were oppressed, afflicted, persecuted, terrorized. God knows, people of color in our nation today need these words of comfort and hope. The majority of the book is filled with violence, which is part of the reason most of us don’t read it often in worship. But the other reason, I think is this: the people who created the Revised Common Lectionary mostly look like me. They are mostly white, middle-to-upper-class Protestants. What do they know of terrorist acts aimed squarely at their loved ones? Not much. And it is clear in Revelation that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors. It is hard to find a word of hope in this book if you know you are more closely allied with the oppressors than the oppressed.

But even those of us with white skin have some choice. We were born into a racist society, but we can choose to actively work alongside people of color in exposing and dismantling racism.

Today, we hear John’s final words of hope in the Book of Revelation. Just as the Bible begins in paradise, it ends in paradise. After all the terror, the violence, the horror…..John paints a picture of hope. From the 21st chapter: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

This morning, I want to invite you to live into God’s call to be co-creators of this new heaven and new earth. There are three stations set up around the shelter. You may wish to visit all three or just one or two. As you move about, I ask that you keep silence.

The first station is a hand-washing station. This is a place for confession. For many of us here today, repentance is the first step to repair. If we are to be about the work of building the Beloved Community, we must begin by recognizing our own sins. If you wish to confess, you might want to simply wash your hands or sit for a while by the water. There are also markers – you might want to write your confessions on your hand and then wash them off.

The second station is for building. You can use the sand to create land and then make a river through the New Jerusalem. As you do so, please spend time meditating on our foundation in Christ. What holds us up, keeps us steady, and is the very ground of our being in the midst of evil and pain?

The third station is the Tree of Life which spans the river in the center of the city. John says, “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Using the leaves and permanent markers, write a word or two of hope, or draw a picture. You may want to take your leaf home as a reminder or you may want to set it free in the park so someone else will find it.

Come, let us work together to build a new heaven and new earth.

STATION ONE: Confession

In the New Jerusalem:
“Nothing accursed will be found there any more….And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.”

As you confess your own sins and our communal sins, you may wish to wash your hands.

There are markers if you’d like to write or draw pictures on your hands before your wash them.

You may also wish to sit silently by the water.


“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”

Working silently together, use the sand to create a solid foundation for the New Jerusalem. You can add water to make the sand firm.

As you mold the sand, reflect silently on our foundation in Christ: What holds us up, keeps us steady, and is the very ground of our being in the midst of evil and pain?

Once the sand is formed, please make a river in the center of the city.

STATION THREE: Leaves of Healing

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

Using the permanent markers and working silently, write a few words of blessing or draw a picture of hope on a leaf.

You may wish to take the leaf home or give it to a friend who is not here. Or you may want to take it out into the park and leave it so someone else will find it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"No More Tears in Heaven"

Revelation 7: 9 -17
Sunday, June 14, 2015  
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Grief is a funny thing. It’s not easily controlled, no matter how hard we might try. Although most of us are probably familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief  - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – it doesn’t seem to be quite that linear in my observation of it. Although grieving people share commonalities, they also are each unique. There’s no one right way to do it. And sometimes we even surprise ourselves. We think we’re past it and it hits us like a ton of bricks. We expect we’ll sob uncontrollably at the funeral, but no tears come. We go through a job transition, the loss of a friendship, a divorce, a move and we don’t even know to call what we’re feeling “grief.”

Grief just is what it is. We don’t really control it. All we can do is ride the wave and hold on tight to the things that sustain us and help us keep getting up each day to face the world. 

One of the holiest things I do as a pastor is walk alongside those who are grieving in the hours and days and weeks after a death. Every time I do a funeral, I read passages of Scripture and I always read part of the text we heard from Revelation today, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” And I read words from the very end of Revelation, too, “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.”

Revelation is filled with horror, to be sure, but there are also parts of the book that cast a vision of what things might be like some day when the horror has passed. John wants his hearers to look forward to the time after the great battle. He paints a picture of a new heaven and a new earth where pain will be no more. There will be no more hunger, no more thirst. All will worship God and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of those who weep and mourn.

When I was in seminary and did the required residency as a hospital chaplain, I received detailed instruction on the use of Kleenex from our instructor. She told us, “When someone starts to cry, do not hand them a Kleenex! If you hand them a Kleenex, you are basically saying, ‘Stop crying. It makes me uncomfortable when you cry.’” Those of you who have cried in my office may have thought I was strange because I didn’t offer you Kleenex but now you know why. I try to keep it conspicuously available, right there next to the couch, so you can reach it if you need it. But I try not to hand it to you. We need to be able to cry with each other.

I don’t think God wiping away every tear is supposed to be about a vision of God saying, “Suck it up. Stop crying. Pull it together.” Instead, I think this is a vision of comfort. A vision of a time and place where those who mourn are held secure in the arms of a nurturing, protective God. A time and place where all who grieve will find solace and relief.

Of course, John’s vision was cosmic and way beyond the constrictions that we deal with in the real world. Since it’s doubtful we are going to be worshiping at the feet of the Lamb anytime soon, what are we called to do and be as people of faith living in the here and now? It seems we have to draw upon all of the Holy within us to be the Holy for those around us when they are grieving.

And this is not easy work. It is incredibly difficult to know what to do or say when we are confronted with a person who is grieving. Sometimes we aren’t even aware they are experiencing grief. Earlier this week, I solicited stories from people in our congregation and beyond about their experiences with grief. One person mentioned to me that it’s been incredibly difficult for them in the wake of their recent job loss because most people don’t even seem to notice they are grieving. We might not think of job loss as something that can cause grief. We might not even notice a friend in need of comfort.

A few weeks ago Sheryl Sandberg wrote a beautiful piece about grieving. Sandberg is best known for her work as the Chief Operational Officer of Facebook and the author of Lean In. But she is also a human being and one who just lost her husband, Dave, on May 1st. He collapsed while running on a treadmill while the family was on vacation. Sandberg wrote about the challenges of being around other people during this period of mourning. She says she has noticed discomfort and fear in her coworkers’ eyes because they don’t know what to say or do around her.
Sandberg reflects, “I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was ‘It is going to be okay.’ That voice in his head would scream, ‘How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? ‘I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

One of the things that makes offering support so challenging is that no two people handle grief the same way. Some might want their tears wiped and others do not. Some might not even shed a tear. A person told me this week, “I am a stoic person in grief. I don’t cry, wring my hands, or grab someone to hand on to. I don’t want hugs. I just want to handle my grief in my own way on my own time. Maybe I am just different.” Well, we’re all different, right? There’s no one right way to handle loss and pain.

Another person told me about how difficult it was, after their child died in a car accident where they were a passenger, to have people pressure them to press charges against the driver. The parents did not want to place blame – they wanted to forgive and move forward. The incongruence of what they desired and what others around them thought they should do was painful. We are all different.

But even with our differences, there are, I think, a few things that are almost universally helpful if we want to comfort those who mourn.

First, be aware of your place in the drama. A few years ago there was an article in the L.A. Times about this. The authors talked about concentric rings around the person or persons who are going through a trauma of some sort. So let’s imagine a scenario where a woman has had a miscarriage. They are at the center of the circle. Others surround them – perhaps the woman’s partner, if she has one, and then her other children, if there are any; her parents or other close relatives; her closest friends; the medical staff that cares for her; he coworkers and acquaintances; strangers on the street.

Being around someone who is suffering can bring up all kinds of our own stuff….bad memories, anger at injustice, frustration with God, annoyance at how difficult life is. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the rule is this: you can only say those things aloud to the people in the bigger circles. So the woman at the center? She can complain to everyone. But the people who surround her need to work to comfort those who are in the interior circles. “Comfort IN, Dump OUT,” is the rule of thumb.

Another thing we can do: show up. Be there. I heard from several people who told me they really appreciated friends who simply acknowledged the loss and asked, “How are you today?” They told me: don’t worry about “bringing it up” – the person is already hurting. They’re already pondering their grief. You aren’t going to reopen a wound by acknowledging it. And don’t stop asking after a week or a month. I’ve often heard that it can be a powerful thing to have a friend remember the anniversary of loss. A simple note in the mail saying, “I remember your mom died a year ago and wanted to say I am thinking of you” goes a long way. Or how about a text saying, “I know this Friday is the anniversary of your divorce. Want to get together for dinner?” Showing up matters.

I think we are often nervous about showing up because we don’t know what to do once we’re there. We are so scared we will say the wrong thing, we say nothing. We are so aware that there is nothing we can do to fix the we do nothing. But the ministry of presence is real and powerful.

One of my clergy colleagues who is also a dear friend lost her mother to cancer a few years ago. Recently, she shared a beautiful poem called “The Guest” by Patricia Fargnoli. I’d like to share it with you:

In the long July evenings,
the French woman
who came to stay every summer
for two weeks at my aunt’s inn
would row my brother and me
out to the middle of the mile-wide lake
so that the three of us
would be surrounded by the wild
extravagance of reds that had transformed
both lake and sky into fire.

It was the summer after our mother died.

I remember the dipping sound of the oars
and the sweet music of our voices as she led us
in the songs she had taught us to love.
“Blue Moon.” “Deep Purple.”

We sang as she rowed, not ever wondering
where she came from or why she was alone,
happy that she was willing to row us
out into all that beauty.

My friend said she was so thankful for her friends who showed up after her mother’s death and kept showing up…to row her out to the middle of that lake and sit with her. She has no memory of what these people said. In fact, it often seems to be best to show up and say very little. For those of us who like to talk or fill the silence when we are anxious, this can be very hard. But it’s worth working on because it matters so very much.

It seems to me that we worship a God who sent a guide for us when it comes to all of this. Jesus not only walked the way of suffering and showed us how to march steadily through terror with grace. He also walked alongside those who mourned. When the crowd threw the stones at the woman, he moved into the sand – between the woman and the crowd – he placed his body right there in the midst of the ugliness. He showed up. When his dear friend Lazarus died, he rushed to be with him. He stood at the door of his home and cried with his sisters, Mary and Martha. When he neared death, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it with his friends. He talked about it openly and pushed them to recognize what was happening. Jesus was unafraid to sit in the midst of sorrow – to row that boat out to the middle of the lake and simply be with those who were grieving.

It is difficult work to do, but our faith in Christ makes it easier to bear. We have a model and we have a calling – to comfort those who mourn, to care for ourselves in times of distress. We await the day that John describes - when there are no more tears. But here and now, in the in-between time, we are the hands that comfort, the arms that hold, the ones who simply come and sit. We give ourselves fully to one another by showing up and refusing to run away from grief.  

Sunday, June 7, 2015

"Beastly Idolatry"

Revelation 13:1-18
Sunday, June 7, 2015  
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Earlier this week I heard an interview on Morning Edition about violence in Baltimore. Ari Shapiro was interviewing former Deputy Police Commissioner John Skinner about a recent spike in the rate of violent crime in Baltimore.[1] When asked to comment on what the root causes might be, Skinner mentioned several possibilities. First, it’s summer and violent crime often rises in the warmer months. Second, when several murders happen, there are often aftershocks from retaliatory violence. And third, he named the recent uprising in Baltimore as a cause. He said that he felt that the “criminal element” in Baltimore felt empowered by the “riots.” And since police are now scared to do their jobs, they are dialing back. It was 30-60 seconds of radio that highlighted so much of the fear we deal with in our nation these days.

We are a nation that is absolutely terrified of crime. If you’ve not yet read Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking work, The New Jim Crow, you absolutely must. She does a solid job of showing how our desire to be “tough on crime” has led to all kind of negative effects for people of color, particularly black men, who have been portrayed as “criminals” in the media for so long, they are practically synonymous with the concept. It’s horrifying to realize what we have allowed to happen to entire groups of people because we have mostly bought the lie that they are “criminals.”

Of course, the fear of crime goes beyond the complications of race. Even without those issues, we are a nation all tied up in our fear of criminals of every race. Last Sunday, David and I went out to Milford Nature Center with our kids. While we were at the playground we saw a man there with a woman and several children. He was open-carrying a gun. I posted a sarcastic status update to Facebook saying, “Nothing makes you feel safer than running into a stranger open-carrying while you’re at the playground with your kids.”

Most of my friends were horrified – those who live in states with stricter laws governing guns can’t even imagine the world we live in here in Kansas. But one of my friends from childhood defended the man, saying she carries a gun to protect her children and that there is nothing inherently frightening about a person with a gun at a playground. Instead, what she is worried about is a stranger abducting her children at the playground…and that’s why she carries a gun.

I walked away from that conversation feeling sad. I can’t honestly imaging living in such fear that I would feel like I need a gun on me at all times. I mean, yes, bad things can happen to our children. They are, of course, more likely to be killed by gun violence, or hurt in a car crash, or abused by a family member, than abducted by a stranger at the playground. There is no shortage of things to worry about when you’re a parent. I guess we all just focus our worries on different things.

Today we continue our journey through John’s Revelation and heaven knows there are all kinds of monsters and Bogeymen in this book. Since we’re skipping around a bit in Revelation, a couple of brief notes about the structure of this book. On either side of the book – at the beginning and end – are exhortations to the readers to be faithful. Just inside those brackets we have a grand drama unfolding. Near the beginning we have some visions of God as Creator and Redeemer. Near the end we have that vision of a New Heaven and New Earth. In the very middle of the sandwich we have a whole lotta visions of destruction and chaos.[2] And that’s where we are today, right in the middle of the destruction and chaos.

The two beasts in Chapter 13 are generally recognized by scholars as not-very-well-disguised Roman Emperors. The beasts represent Empire, power, political authority. Good news for us: we do not need to be on the lookout for a ruler with the number 666 who is coming to ruin the entire world. The guy already lived and died and his name was probably Nero.

Although this passage, like all of Revelation, was written about a specific time and place and for a specific group of people living under oppressive conditions, I think there are still lessons here for us today. This passage is all about allegiances. Who do you follow? In whom or what do you put your trust? Who is your ultimate ruler?

None of these questions are foreign to us. After all, we are still people and just like people living at the end of the first century, we are still prone to idolatry. Now before your brain goes right to a Golden Calf and thinks, “Well, that’s an antiquated idea!” let’s get on the same page about what idolatry might mean.

I like how Paul Tillich spoke of idolatry. Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being,” as in our ultimate foundation and Source. For Tillich, then, anything that we elevate into that Ground of Being position becomes our god. So there’s only one thing that should be our absolute foundation and source: God. Anytime we elevate anything else to that level of importance, we are making an idol. Doesn’t have to look like a Golden Calf. Doesn’t have to have a physical representation at all, actually. So let’s ponder this for a minute: what are some things we have seen made into idols in our world today? (Pause for answers)

I have this thought that’s been with me recently that one of our biggest idols here in the United States is safety. We actually have it written into our founding documents in a way: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To say that we value our lives above all else and that we are deserving of our lives as an inalienable right is to say that we place a very high value on safety.

And of course we do. Most of us love life and would do almost anything to hold on to it. Of course, there is a noticeable tension between this love of our own lives and the person of Jesus, who died at the hands of the government. We lift him up as a hero, but most of us have very little interest in taking up our own crosses. I’m not saying I want to, either, or even that I could find the strength to do what Jesus did. I’m just noticing that tension…between our love of our own lives and our desire to follow the One who took death upon himself to show us how to live.

It’s a very privileged thing to believe we have an inalienable right to be safe. The vast majority of people who have ever lived on this planet would find the idea laughable.

For most of history and, still today in many places in our world, safety is elusive. There are too many diseases, famines, wars, and real Bogeymen to do anything much but wish for safety. The idea that we can somehow making all of the right choices to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe? That’s a very privileged concept.

As conversations about privilege and race have unfolded over the past year, professional and amateur sociologists have noticed something fascinating about how those in the privileged group often react when they are forced to grapple with their own privilege. When those of us who are privileged are poked, we often say we feel “unsafe.” You’ve probably witnessed this yourself. Bring up race and racism in a large group and some White people will start squirming in their seats. Keep talking about it long enough and someone is likely to say, “This conversation is making me feel unsafe.”

I think what they really mean, of course, is that they feel uncomfortable. Goodness! Yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk about racism and all kinds of systemic evils. Uncomfortable? Absolutely. Unsafe? No, probably not. Those of us who are White are not likely to experience actual violence or risk our lives in any significant way by talking about difficult issues. We are still safe in those moments – but we may feel uncomfortable.

But those three words, “I feel unsafe,” hold a massive amount of power in our culture.

Because we seem to believe everyone has the right to feel safe, to be safe. And that right should not be infringed upon. That’s why we allow people to carry guns on playgrounds. Because people should have a right to protect their families. To feel safe. That’s why have poured billions of dollars into the ever-growing prison-industrial complex. Because if we can be “tough on crime” we can be safe.

Perhaps we should rebrand ourselves as the “land of the free and the home of the safe.”

Except, of course, freedom and safety are often in conflict. Right after that NPR story about crime in Baltimore, there was another short piece about recent federal legislation that governs how telecom companies track and share information about our phone calls with the government. Since 2001, we have given up more and more of our freedom in hopes of attaining safety. I feel so many conflicting emotions about this and I’m sure many of you do, too.

And then there’s Caitlyn Jenner, who made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair this past week. That’s another story about safety versus freedom, isn't it? When she lived as a man, Bruce Jenner spent so much of her life trying to stay safe. She didn’t want to rock the boat, cause harm, make waves. She thought if he could just keep her secrets, she would be safe.

But an early-morning phone call from TMZ a few years ago shattered that illusion. The media knew about medical procedures Jenner had undergone as a part of having her true gender affirmed….and the media was about to leak that information to the world. Once Jenner lost that faith in her ability to live a safe existence, she was thrown into a world where freedom seemed more attractive.

In the Vanity Fair interview, Ms. Jenner says, “Bruce always had to tell a lie. He was always living that lie. Caitlyn doesn’t have any secrets. Soon as the Vanity Fair cover comes out, I’m free.” I had a chance to read the whole article and I thought that one of the most touching moments was when Jenner was looking at her 1976 Olympic Gold medal and told the interviewer that that day back in 1976 was pretty great, but that the best days of her life had been the time spent in her own home being photographed for Vanity Fair.

Freedom is glorious. And freedom and safety are often in conflict.

We, of course, worship a God who promises us freedom. We are set free in Christ to love and to serve. We are named and claimed as beloved children of the God of Grace and Love. We all have idols. We are all tugged this way and that. The various powers and principalities of our day compete for our allegiances. We buy lies. We sell lies. We are, none of us, perfect.

And yet, in all that imperfection, even when we are bowed low before the idols of our lives, the Holy One of Moses and Esther, Naomi and Jonathan, Mary and Martha and Lazarus…the Holy One who is the very Ground and Source of all our being, reaches out to us again and again. Calling us away from the illusions, the lies, and idols. Gathering us in and bringing us back to our source and our very essence.

We were not created for safety.

We were created to live into the freedom that is only possible when we remember each and every day that we are children of God, beloved in Christ, set free to be agents of healing and transformation for the whole world.

Even when it’s not the safest route to take. Amen.

[2] With thanks to Ronald L. Farmer, Revelation (Chalice Commentaries for Today) for the structure.