Sunday, October 25, 2015

“The New Guy”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood 
at First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
October 25, 2015
Sermon Text: Mark 10: 46-52

Image by Jesus Mafa
If Jesus is right – which he usually is – this new guy, Bartimaeus, is going to see a lot more than he probably bargained for this week. Tomorrow we’re walking to Jerusalem. The new guy says he’s coming with us. Jesus has been telling us and telling us that he’s going to be killed soon and then will be raised again – whatever that means. So I suspect this trip to Jerusalem may be our last.

Apparently, when we get to Jerusalem we’re going to be greeted by a parade. Jesus pulled me aside after dinner and said something about a colt and palm branches and that Bart was going to need a cloak. He left his behind earlier today on the side of the road here in Jericho. So guess who gets to go out at dusk, knocking on doors to see if they can find the new guy a coat? Me, that’s who.

The new guy really likes to talk. When I left them a few minutes ago they were chat, chat, chatting by the fire. I dunno why he can’t go find his own cloak. I mean, he can see now and everything. But I get it. Jesus wants to visit with him. He’s new. And everybody wants to have a little one-on-one time with Jesus.

Bart has a loud voice. It’s one of those voices that really carries, you know? Kind of gets under your skin? Which I guess is good for him because when he heard us walking down the street in Jericho this morning, he yelled out in that big voice, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” You couldn’t miss it.  

The people around him tried to shush him. I mean, really. Did they really think a guy as famous as Jesus would want to stop and talk to a blind beggar on the side of the road?

Of course, they don’t know Jesus like I do. I could have told you he was going to stop. That’s what he does. I mean, what else was he going to do, anyway? Because Bartimaeus just kept yelling louder (“Son of David, have mercy on me!” ) and LOUDER (“SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!”).

It was awkward, you know? He wasn’t polite like so many of the others who come asking for help. Like that guy from earlier this week, the rich guy. I never caught his name. He was polite. Walked up to Jesus quietly and knelt before him. Called him Good Teacher.

Bartimaeus? Not so much. He was brazen. He didn’t even kneel when he came over. And he called Jesus by an odd name – one I’ve never heard anyone use before. “Son of David.” I think that caught Jesus’s attention. Because he’s always talking about how he’s about to die and then be raised again. I don’t fully understand it. But I do understand that he’s special somehow. That’s he’s somehow come to set us free. To provide relief to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I guess Son of David – that messianic name – makes sense. I wonder if it’ll catch on.

So, anyway, Bartimaeus is yelling and we go get him and he jumps up and leaves his cloak behind on the side of the road. I mean, come on. It’s the only thing you own, dude. You couldn’t bring it with you?

Funny. That makes me think about the rich guy earlier this week. The one who called Jesus Good Teacher and asked him how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus told him he needed to sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and follow him. He couldn’t do it though. Can’t say that I blame him. I mean, most of us that are here following Jesus didn’t leave a lot behind, if you know what I’m saying. Not anything much that we wanted, at least. Most of us were running from something. If I had had a perfect life with all kinds of nice stuff….I dunno if I would have left it all behind.

But Bart left everything he owned behind! Kind of on accident, I guess. Ha! He did it without even being asked. And so now I’m out here knocking on doors at dusk because Jesus says he’s gonna need a cloak tomorrow. (As per usual, Jesus’s great ideas are more glamorous in theory than in practice.)

So Bartimaeus jumps up and leaves the cloak behind. And unlike the rich dude, Bart’s question wasn’t all esoteric. It was practical. He wasn’t worried about eternal life. He was worried about the next five minutes and then the five after that and the five after that.  He asked Jesus to restore his sight.

Now, I knew he’s do it. Jesus is really good at this trick. I’ve seen him do it tons of times. And not to get too philosophical on you, but Jesus is really good with sight in general, you know? I mean, not just the actual eyeball stuff, but the other kinds of sight….helping us see what’s important, helping us focus on what matters, helping us see God in every person we encounter….even the beggar on the side of the road sometimes.

And speaking of philosophy – does anyone else think it’s interesting that the new guy’s name is Bartimaeus? Bar Timaeus. Son of Timaeus? Come on – tell me you’ve heard of Timaeus? It’s that really famous bit by Plato….all about the meaning of life and seeing what really matters. An apt name is all I’m saying.

So Jesus restores his sight and everyone oohs and ahhs and then Jesus tells him, “Go! Your faith has made you well.” Only Bart doesn’t go. He stays.

Again, I probably shouldn’t be surprised because people are often doing the exact opposite of what Jesus tells them to do. Like the rich guy. Jesus told him to follow and he went away, grieving. And Bart, he stayed with us, even though Jesus told him to go.

I dunno, maybe Jesus secretly finds this amusing. I mean, he’s always celebrating opposites. It’s like opposite-day all the time around here. “The first will be last, the last will be first….Those who want to be the greatest must become least and servants of all….And a little child will lead them….” That kind of stuff. He’s into opposites. I tell ya, you never know what to expect. It never gets dull with this guy.

So Bartimaeus is sticking with us, it seems. And all I can think is this: does he really know what he’s getting into?

I mean, why is he doing this? He could just as easily stay here in Jericho and start a new life now that he can see and everything. He’s putting himself at considerable risk coming to Jerusalem. According to Jesus, some pretty intense stuff is gonna go down there this week. And I’m not going to lie to you….I’m a little nervous about it. I’m not entirely sure I’ll make it out the other side.

And yet, the thing is – if Bart is right about this “Son of David” stuff – I don’t want to miss it, you know? Because if Jesus is really the Chosen One, the Anointed, the Messiah, the One We’ve Been Waiting For….I mean, how could I miss that? Everyone needs someone to follow. And if you’re really lucky, you find that one person or idea or whatever that gives meaning to your life, helps you really understand all the pain and agony of this world…the person or idea or whatever who makes each day a little more bearable, and helps guide your decisions.

Anyway, there I go getting all philosophical again. But that’s what Jesus is to me, I suppose. Not just a friend – not just a guy. But an idea. A way of life. A revelation.

So, yeah. It seems like Bart is sticking with us and Jesus says I gotta go find him a cloak. Where’s the rich guy when you need him? I bet he has several extra cloaks laying around. Maybe Jesus could have taken it a little easier on him, “If you want to find eternal life, go and give away 10% of your cloaks and then come and follow me.” Ha.

Oh, Jesus. Why do you have to make everything so darn hard? I mean, you kind of pushed that rich guy away with your big demands. If you could have just convinced him to stick with us and give us a little, we’d be better off. I probably wouldn’t be wandering around looking for a cloak for Bartimaeus.

Jesus. He really pushes my buttons sometimes.

But then I think about what he looked like just before I left a few minutes ago. Sitting there by the fire with Bart. They were joking around a bit and Bart laughed at one of Jesus’s jokes. It’s probably one I’ve already heard a hundred times…but they’ll all be new to Bart.

So Bart laughs and then looks down at the fire. I bet that’s really cool – seeing the flames dance when you’ve maybe never seen a fire before.  

And Jesus looks down, too. And I can kind of – I dunno – sense that he’s thinking about the rich guy. Just sort of wishing he was here with us. Maybe even wondering if he was too hard on him.

It’s getting dark out now. The stars are coming out a bit. “God took Abraham outside and said to him, ‘Look toward the heavens. Number the stars, if you are able. I will make your descendants as many as those stars in the heavens.”

Abraham, the old guy. Who would have thought he could have children at all? And yet I am reminded of what Jesus keeps telling us. What he told us right after the rich dude walked away. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.”

And…I dunno, on this perfect night just before we head into whatever the week holds in Jerusalem, I find myself thinking, maybe Jesus is right this time, too. After all, if I can start over again and if Bart can see again and if a nobody-of-no-account from a dingy little town like Bethlehem can threaten the Roman Empire enough that they sit up and take notice….well, maybe there’s hope for all of us.

Maybe I’ll even find this stupid cloak before it gets really dark.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

“Curse God, and Live”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood at First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
October 18, 2015
Sermon Text: Job 1: 1; 2: 1-10

There’s something strange that happens to my watch when I go inside a hospital. It always seems to stop working.

I find that when I sit in hospitals and ask questions like, “What time did the doctor come by earlier today?” or “What time did you eat lunch?” no one really knows the answer. We all sort of look at the clock, think hard, and then shrug and admit that we just can’t remember.

In a hospital, minutes drag on or rush by. Days and nights get all mixed up. You get discharged on a Sunday morning and are shocked to see people walking into a church as you drive home. Is it a Sunday? You had no idea. You’ve completely lost track of the days.

Outside the hospital, the world keeps spinning. People get up and make their coffee and head out the door to work. Presidential hopefuls participate in scheduled debates.  Hometown teams continue their march through the playoffs. Life just keeps ticking.

But for folks in a hospital waiting room, none of this seems to matter much any more. They are consumed with matters of life and death – either for themselves or someone they love dearly. It’s hard to imagine making coffee or caring about the debates or the playoffs.

The ash heap where Job sat, scratching himself with a broken piece of pottery seems to exist out of time, too.

I doubt that Job could have told you what day of the week it was as he sat there amidst the total destruction of his life, mourning. He started to feel a strange itchiness on his skin and absentmindedly reached for something to scratch himself, scarcely realizing that this tiny itch was the beginning of a physical malady that would take him to death’s door and back again.

The best stories are the ones that seem to exist outside of time, and Job’s is certainly a story that could exist in any time or place if you just changed a few details.

The questions this story presents are immense – and although this is one of the older books in the Bible, believed to be written some 2500 years ago – we still don’t have the answers to the questions it poses. Especially the big one. You know what it is: “why do bad things happen to good people?”

We don’t know the answer to that question. Honestly – I’m not even sure it’s the right question. I tend to think that God isn’t in charge of suffering, but that suffering just happens sometimes, and God, like the rest of us, can only control of how he reacts to the circumstances that present themselves.

The story of Job doesn’t answer the question of why bad things happen to good people. At least not in any serious way.

One thing you need to know about the Book of Job right from the start: Job was not a real person. Uz is not a real place. God did not actually sit around up in heaven and make some sort of cosmic wager just for kicks.

This story still speaks to us because all of us have known a Job at some point in time. All of us have known people who were blameless, righteous, good, people and still, despite their loveliness, had terrible things happen to them.

In the beginning of the book, we see God hanging out with other divine creatures and a character named ha-satan. This is not the Devil with pointy red horns that you might be picturing. Satan is simply the Hebrew word for an adversary or accuser. Or, as a seminary professor once told me, the best translation might be the Prosecuting Attorney. Now that’s not to say anything negative about prosecutors! It’s simply to say that the role of this character in Job is to accuse, just like a good prosecutor. And the Prosecutor’s accusation in the opening chapters of Job is that Job is really only a good guy because he’s had it easy. The Prosecutor maintains that if God were to allow Job’s picturesque little life to be wrecked, he would cease being such a goody-two-shoes.

That’s the case against Job. And in this fantasy story, God says, “Sure, let’s give it a try.”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that God comes off as a jerk in this story. And if you thought that the point of the Book of Job was to answer the question, “Why does God allow suffering?” then, yes, God seems like a terrible, terrible God in this story. Because God not only allows for Job’s suffering, but encourages it.

I honestly think that one of the things that happens when we examine Job is that we get to let that “why does God allow suffering” question take the back seat simply because the answer given in this book is so far off from the loving, compassionate, healing God that we know to be real.

So in this grand drama, the Prosecutor wrecks Job’s life – destroys everything he owns and kills his beloved children. And Job responds quite calmly, saying, “I came into this world with nothing and I’ll leave this world with nothing. God gives and God takes away – blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So the Prosecutor comes back for round two and afflicts Job with intense physical suffering. That’s where we find Job sitting in the pile of ashes, scratching himself with a piece of broken pottery.

Job’s wife comes up to him as he’s sitting there, in the midst of their ruined life. Remember, his fate is also her fate. She, too, has lost everything, including her children. And she has one simple response to the situation. She says, “Why are you still trying to be perfect? Curse God, and die.”

She knows what we know from the very first sentence of this drama: namely, that Job is perfect. He can’t seem to help it. He is described as being without fault.

Regardless of what happens in the rest of the book, Job maintains his “good person” status. His wife doesn’t think all this goodness is getting him much of anywhere at this point, seeing as he’s sitting in pile of ruins and using a broken piece of their former home to scratch his disgusting skin. She’s gotten a lot of flak for this short piece of advice over the millennia, beginning with her husband, who laughs her off for the time being.

But do you know what? She’s right. She really is. She knows her husband well and what she knows is this: even if he does curse God, he will still be good. Even if he dies, he will live.

Of all the righteous and God-fearing men in this book, this nameless woman may have the best piece of wisdom of all: Even if you curse God, you can still be good. Even if you die, you will live.

Although Job laughs at her from the ash heap when his sickness is just beginning, he changes his tune as the days go by.

Job does curse God. If you want to read some intense, angry, cursing of God, just read the rest of the Book of Job. For thirty-some chapters, Job and his friends argue back and forth about what’s going on. And Job’s constant refrains are some variation of “God is ruining my life. Why is this happening? I don’t deserve it. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Job says some things about God that I am certain my Sunday School teachers would not have allowed me to say out loud as a child. Job says some things about God that many sick or dying person has said (or at least thought). And do you know what? It’s okay. It’s okay that he says these things. He has every right in the world to be angry, given the situation.

I read somewhere once that when people are telling you they’re angry at you, you should be thankful. The rationale is, “If they’re coming at you, at least they’re not walking away.”

Job was certainly coming at God.

The Hebrew word his wife uses when she says he should curse God is actually not curse at all. It’s the Hebrew word for bless – barak. It’s a euphemism that is used several places in the Bible. It’s as if it’s too scary to actually say the words, “curse God” so, instead, they would just say “bless God” but everyone knew what they meant – wink, wink.

I wonder, though, if God doesn’t experience it as bit of a blessing when we curse her? When we are engaged enough to come at her with everything we have? When we are honest enough with ourselves about what’s happening in our lives to be as magnificently angry as we have every right to be? Because when we simply are who we are – when we feel what we feel – and when we bring that to God, we are engaging. We are coming at God. We are not backing away.

You can say a lot about Job’s behavior in this story. But one thing you cannot accuse him of is walking away from the relationship. Enraged and confused and afflicted and broken down, he stumbles blindly, relentlessly, desperately towards God. The one thing Job begs for in the midst of his deep anger is to talk to God directly. Cursing and crying and groping, he seeks God’s face.

God is blessed by Job’s curses. God rejoices that his beloved child is continually stumbling towards God, not away from him. God can handle what Job is dishing out. God can handle anything you have to dish out. Despite the difficulties of this very old story, there are gleaming, solid pieces of truth to be found in it.

And one of those truths is this: no matter what happens, no matter how broken things become, God does not turn away from us. We can stumble and curse and shout all we want and God is simply standing there, walking towards us with open arms, ready to engage. Ready to be in relationship.

Ready to lead us through cursing to blessing, from death into new life. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

“Brooding Before Jesus”

Sunday, October 11, 2015
Mark 10: 17-31
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Earlier this week, I was in my kitchen at home, standing near the window, and saw something out of the corner of my eye in our yard below. A flutter of orange. “David!” I called out, “One of the chickens is loose in the yard!”

We have a small flock of backyard chickens – Sprinkles, Cupcake, Blondie, Oreo, and Peaches. They have sturdy coop and a large run that they can access whenever they want. We used to let them free-range in the yard…but then we got a dog. More precisely, a bird dog. So, yeah. They don’t free-range any more, which is why I was so surprised to see one of them on the loose.

Turns out, it was Oreo who had escaped. Oreo is….an odd bird. She’s been broody for almost a year now. When a hen becomes broody, she obsessively sits on top of a clutch of eggs. Now, we don’t have any roosters. So Oreo can sit on those eggs from now until kingdom come and nothing is going to hatch. Ever. But she doesn’t realize that. And so she sits.

And because she rarely gets off that clutch, she rarely eats. And because she rarely eats, she is a scrawny little bird. Small enough, in fact, that she was able to slip out of the chicken run through a small hole in the chicken wire. In the yard, she was free as a bird (see what I did there?) but she was also in grave danger. If we had put out dog out into the yard, it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. Living beyond boundaries has risks, you know. When David went out to put her back into the run she tried to squeeze back through the hole and got stuck. He had to help her back into safety.

And so when I hear today’s passage from Mark, and think about a camel trying to somehow get through the eye of a needle, I see Oreo in my mind’s eye….squeezing  through that bit of fencing on her way to freedom and danger.

We don’t know much of anything about the man who comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit boundless life?” He kneels and calls him “Good Teacher.” He comes in respect and questions earnestly. He’s not trying to trick Jesus or make a fool of him. He truly wants to know the answer to this question.

It seems to me that the man is a bit like my Oreo. Kind of an odd one. A little broody. While his peers are caught in an endless cycle of wake-up-go-to-work-make-money-spend-money-pay-bills-check-facebook-fold-laundry-make-the-kids-lunches-watch-the-news-fall-asleep-wake-up-do-it-all-again this man is a little different. A little odd. A little broody.
Can you see him now, hovering over his clutch of eggs? He’s worried about things. And not just small things. Big things. He’s up at night pondering the big questions. And the biggest question of all he brings to this odd teacher from Galilee. He bows down before him, calls him Good Teacher, and says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, when I hear this question my mind immediately goes to the afterlife….what happens to us after we die? But eternal simply means without beginning and without end. Boundless. Limitless. So take of his question what you will. I’m not 100% convinced he’s asking about what happens after death. He might just be a little like my Oreo. Peeking through the chicken wire and wondering, “What happens if I break out of these confines? What would it be like to be out there in the Big Beyond?” We don’t know what’s constraining this man, but we can imagine all kinds of things. Most of us know what it’s like to feel trapped, don’t we?

Jesus, being the Good Teacher that he is, is happy to enter into dialogue with the man. He says, “You know the rules…” and he lists them. The man says, “But I’m already doing all of that. I’ve done all of those things since I was a boy!” And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

And then he says, “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.” And this man – this broody, worried man – hangs his head low. He went away grieving. He is unable to do the thing Jesus asked him to do because – and here we find out one more thing about this nameless man – he had many possessions.

Too many to sell, I suppose. Too overwhelming. Too odd, even for this odd man who was already out of step with his peers. Too demanding. Too scary. Too much. The security and dependability of the always-available chicken feed and water is too appealing. The protection of the chicken wire begins to look more like a comfort than a constraint. Jesus the Good Teacher has taken it too far. The price is too great.

As we move through our stewardship campaign this month, we are asking ourselves to dream with God. What might the future of this congregation look like? What things can we accomplish together with God’s help? How can we let our light shine more brightly in our community and in the world? Those are the big questions. And underneath all of those questions about our capacity for ministry together are the dollars and cents facts and figures that our very capable leaders brood over – financial reports and pledge cards and endowment policies and bills from the plumber, the electrician, the gas company.

It makes me a little glad Jesus isn’t the one doing a Moment for Mission today. Because I fear that if I asked him how much money I should be giving to our church and to the Crisis Center and the Breadbasket and Shepherd’s Crossing and Emergency Shelter the answer would be overwhelming. Too demanding. Too scary. Too much.

A funny thing about this story, though: while the subject at hand is money, there are several other things happening in this story.

For starters, and I’m indebted to David Lose who called my attention to this one, the format of the story suggests that it is primarily about healing.[1] All of the healing stories in the Gospels follow a formula. Someone comes, they kneel before Jesus, they call him by an honorific name, and ask for help. In today’s story, Jesus interacts with the man and offers an answer to his question. But instead of going away healed, as so many others do, he goes away shocked and grieving. It’s like a healing story gone awry. And if it’s a healing story, then there has to be something that ails the man.

His question is about breaking out beyond the boundaries – “How do I find life that has no beginning and no end?” And Jesus’s answer is that he needs to sell everything he owns. It makes me think a bit about our possessions and the way they possess us. We covet and buy all these things because they think they will make us happy. And maybe they do, for a time. But they are also a lot of work.

Maybe you’ve heard of Marie Kondo, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which became a New York Times bestseller this past year. Her methods for figuring out how to get rid of things we own have become so popular that her name is now a verb. The other day, I heard someone say, “Yeah, I really need to go through and Kondo my closet.” Apparently, it’s so difficult to get rid of things that we have to buy another thing (a book) to teach us how to get rid of our stuff. The things we possess often possess us.

And so Jesus’s prescription for this man who possessed many things was fairly simple: get rid of it all. But he couldn’t take the pill and so he went away still sick.

The other thing that’s happening in this story is that they’re on The Way. In verse 17, “As Jesus was going on the way, a man ran up to him…” Biblical Scholar Mark Vitalis Hoffman notes that “The Way” is code-language in the Gospels.[2] Jesus’s earliest followers said they were followers of The Way. Jesus said, “I am The Way.” Whenever we see stories about Jesus or his followers on The Way, we know it’s a story about discipleship. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?

After all, the cure for whatever ails the man actually had three parts: 1) sell what you own, 2) give the money to the poor, 3) follow Jesus. The path to limitless life is found by following Jesus.

Those of us who live in the 21st century don’t have it as easy as the people in Mark’s Gospel. They could just follow Jesus in the flesh and blood. We don’t have that option. And so, those of us who find this Jesus character compelling have to find other ways to follow.

We all have spiritual practices that breathe new life into us and enable us to experience the Holy more fully. A few weeks ago, I preached about prayer. Last week, several of us walked in the CROP Walk. Some of us are music-makers, casserole-bakers, Sabbath-keepers, labyrinth-walkers, hospital-sitters, kindness-givers. A rich Christian life draws upon many spiritual practices as we work to follow The Way.

As we consider our financial gifts to this church during stewardship season, I invite us all to consider more fully the deepening of relationship that comes with generous and sacrificial giving. In my own life, the practice of regularly, intentionally giving away a significant portion of my income – both to the church and other worthy non-profits – has been utterly transformational. It has reduced my anxiety, rearranged my priorities, and given me a true feeling of freedom. For some strange reason, the more I’ve given away, the less worried I am about what I have. The more focused I am on the needs of others, the less I feel trapped by the what-ifs of my own financial situation.

I fear, my friends, that Jesus may have been on to something when he told the man to give away his possessions.

I, for one, am awfully glad he’s not here today because I know I can’t bear to give them all away. But I also know that I can continue to push myself to do more. And I can prayerfully consider how to continue the work of allowing God to radically reorient my own values and fears and desires.

After all, I can see Jesus standing there. We come to him asking how to be free. And he looks at us and loves us. He loves us before we can even respond to the prescription he’s about to give. And whether we can swallow the bitter pill of giving it all away, or go away grieving, or land somewhere in between, I believe he is still standing there. Looking at us. And loving us. And continuing to invite us to follow him. Even when it’s hard. Amen.