Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Meditation

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
December 24, 2015
Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

Did you have a favorite Christmas ornament when you were younger? I can still remember mine. It was a round, ivory-colored, plastic ball with the front cut out so it made a window. Inside the ball, there was a scene with two little children looking out a window into the night sky as Santa and his reindeer flew over snow-topped houses towards the moon.

I would sit by the tree and look at that ornament for what felt like hours. In reality, it was probably only 15 minutes, but, you know, you have a different sense of time when you’re a little kid.

What captivated me about that ornament was that I could imagine myself into it. There was a place for me. I could sit by the window with the other children and look out. Or I could jump beyond the window into one of the other houses off in the distance. Or I could even be a part of Santa’s team, flying through the night sky on my way to deliver joy to houses all over the world.

There was a place for me in the story. Even me.

One of the things I adore about Christmas is that is comes every single year. No matter what. Doesn’t matter if we’ve been naughty or nice. Doesn’t matter if things are going well or the world is falling apart. Doesn’t matter if it’s 25 degrees and snowing or 55 degrees and raining. Christmas comes. Every year. Without fail.

And every single year, it feels a bit like this to me….I go into the dusty crawl space of my soul, which is growing older with each passing year, and I see the boxes carefully packed up and marked: Christmas.

I shake the dust off and open them and the words echo back once again….
“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:  Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers….”
“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God…”
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered….”

The stories are like a snowglobe. Magic.

Ah, a snowglobe is magic, isn’t it? You shake it gently and the scene is transformed. It’s mesmerizing. Because what happens with a snowglobe is the same thing that happened with that ornament when I was a child: we can imagine ourselves into the stories.

There is a place there for us. Even us.

The years pass and we are changed. The world is gently turned this way and that and we are transformed.  And so, each year, I find myself noticing different things in the stories. The words on the page remain the same, but I am changed, and so they are never quite the same from year to year.

We humans have been imagining ourselves into these most sacred of stories for….well, forever. After all, we know next to nothing about when and where and how Jesus was actually born. Chances are good that he came into the world like any other baby and no one much noticed.

But for the authors of our Biblical texts, this wouldn’t quite do. No, Jesus needed a birth story fit for a King. And so they spun stories that can compete with those of J.K. Rowling and J.J. Abrams….
the story of a young woman who sang a song of power and justice,
the brave carpenter who chose love and fidelity over personal honor,
the shepherds who dropped everything and ran to see this new thing that God was doing,
the wise Magi who refused to bow to the powers of their day, sheltering the young child from the wrath of an angry King.

These are stories fit for a King. And when we hear them, we sit up and take notice. We hear them and say, “Oh, my. Why, this. This is beautiful. I want to hear more….”

And the imagining ourselves into the text didn’t stop once these stories were written down and canonized into the Bible, either. As long as humans have been telling and re-telling this story, we’ve been making adjustments. A lot of people, myself included, love the innkeeper in the story….only it turns out there’s actually no innkeeper mentioned. We added him in later…and for good reason. He provides another opportunity for us to imagine ourselves into the story of Jesus’s birth.

Many of us have probably heard of Las Posadas, a celebration that originated in Mexico and has since spread to many communities all over the world. During Las Posadas, people gather for nine nights in a row and re-enact the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph, looking for shelter. At each home, they sing a song back and forth. The pilgrims ask for shelter and the innkeeper denies. Back and forth until….suddenly, the innkeeper realizes that it’s Mary and Joseph and that the Baby Jesus is about to be born.  They throw open the doors, welcome the weary travelers, and have a grand party together.

I’ve never had a chance to participate in Las Posadas, but I imagine it to be a holy experience. There is something about putting yourself fully into the story in that way that transforms you – creates a new level of understanding within your being.

This Christmas, I invite you to consider anew the story of Christ’s birth. Take that snowglobe, give it a good shake, and then stare at it intently. Where do you find yourself in the story?
Are you an angel, come to give good news to a world that desperately needs it?
Are you a young girl, staring at a pregnancy test wondering how in the world things are going to work out?
Are you Joseph, feeling somehow puzzled or betrayed and wondering how to cope with unwelcome news?
Maybe you’re the innkeeper, trying to find the strength to fling your doors open wide to refugees, people living in poverty, people who might not look or think or act like you, or who might not be voting for the same candidate you are.
Or maybe you are the midwife who helped with the birth, the animals who moved aside to make room in their manger for a newborn baby or the star in the sky guiding the way,

Oh, there are a million ways to imagine ourselves into this story. What matters most, I think, is that this is a story that still cries out for a response. It’s not meant to be passively received and then tucked away into the basement once again, to wait for next year. It’s an invitation. An invitation to live and move and breathe and have our being rooted deeply in the One who sent Jesus to us to remind us that we are created in God’s image….that we are beloved, just as that newborn baby was beloved….that we are imperfect, just as all characters in every good story are….and that, above all else, we are accompanied by God: the One who came to us all those years ago and comes to us still. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

“Prepare the Way: Prayers into Action”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
December 6, 2015
Sermon Text: Luke 3:1-6

Another week, another shooting. More than one, actually. The world continues to be beset by violence. Politicians continue to wring their hands and tweet their prayers. Nothing much seems to change.

Three years ago on a Sunday in Advent, Christians gathered on a Sunday morning just after the massacre at Sandy Hook. Pastors attempted to grapple with the seemingly-impossible task of reconciling a week dedicated to Joy with the incomprehensible evil unleashed earlier that same week.

Another year, another attempt to do something similar. How can we have the audacity to gather here and speak of Peace in the midst of so much violence?

On the other hand, how can we do anything else?

Last Sunday we spoke of Hope. On Tuesday night, we gathered with 30-some people from the wider community in Pioneer Hall. As we sat in that room, built by people who traveled across this continent to seek freedom for enslaved Americans, the spirit of hope was strong. We shared names of those who have died from AIDS-related complications or who are currently living with HIV and AIDS. And we sang the words of a hymn was perfect for that evening and takes on new meaning once-again this morning, “Let us hope when hope seems hopeless, when the dreams we dream have died.”

When our dreams are on the verge of death, when hope is elusive, that’s when we have to gather, once again, to cry out to our God, to offer each other words of encouragement, and to light a candle in the darkness. It is the time to listen closely to the voices of prophets – those in the past and those living still.

The Prophet Isaiah: “The people who are walking in darkness will see a great light.”
The Gospel of John: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Jesus: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

When the world grows dark and fear presses in on all sides, we who follow the one who is called “Light of the World.” We light candles for Hope. Candles for Peace.

But we do more than light candles and pray. We are called to action.

Today’s text from Luke is one of those calls to action: “John the Baptizer went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Crying out: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John didn’t say, “Pray for peace.” John said, “Make peace.” And, yes, we can get into semantics about prayer being action and action being prayer. I do believe prayer is absolutely vital for any person of faith. It is what keeps us grounded and sustained for the work. It's where we begin. But if we’re using a narrow definition of prayer as “talking to God” then prayer is simply not enough. I do not experience God as some magic unicorn in the sky who listens in to all our prayers and then selectively decides where to intervene.

Prayer has to be more than talking or listening to God. Those are both important things, but we are also called to much more. John says we are to prepare the way for God. And not in some loosey-goosey, wishy-washy kind of way. Nope. We don’t get off that easy.

John tell us we have to move mountains! We have to carve out new highways for God. We have to bring in truckload after truckload of fresh fill dirt to bring the low places up. We have to chip away relentlessly at the mountains that stand in the way of justice until the mountains themselves are brought low. We have to bend and bend that arc of justice until the crooked paths are brought into alignment. We have to scratch and buff and shine and polish until all of the rough parts of this Earth are made smooth.

Please note that John does not say God will be doing all of these things without our help. John says it is our work to do together. We are called to work in sweet and holy partnership with our God. We do not do this work alone.

It’s an intimate and never-ending dance between God and her holy creation. Each of us, it seems to me, is imbued with the Holy God of Love. We are created in God’s image and that spark of the Divine will never leave us – no matter what we do. God is in each and every person – even the ones we don’t much like, even the ones that are outcasts, even in you and me.

But God is also somehow beyond all of that. If you were to somehow round up every human on the planet and put them in one room and say, “Now that all the humans are here, have we captured God?” I think the answer would be no. God is not some dude in the sky, but God is also – it seems to me – more than just the sum of our parts. Don’t ask me to explain it. I don’t understand it fully. But I experience God in each human I encounter and I experience that God is somehow more and beyond humanity.

So when the New York Post screams, “God isn’t fixing this!” they seem to be sort of right and sort of wrong. I don’t think God is swooping down from the heavens to fix everything that’s wrong with our world. If God could do that, she has some pretty serious explaining to do about why she hasn’t done so yet because violence is nothing new.

But I also think it’s entirely appropriate to call upon God as we humans figure out what the heck we’re going to do to bring peace to our world. As we pray with our feet and our hands and our hearts and our voices, we rely on God to support, sustain, and inspire us. We find God in the words of our Holy Scriptures, the stories we share with one another. We find God on the breath of the breeze and in the infinite complexity of a snowflake. We find God in the smile of a stranger and the laughter of a child. We find God in the heart of those we call beloved and within ourselves.

We cling to that small light in the darkness and hold it up, shining brightly, brilliantly in protest against violence, fear, hatred, and everything else that threatens God’s Holy Peace.

It’s a joint venture. We need God. God needs us. We cannot separate ourselves one from another. It’s both-and. We do not do it alone and God cannot do it without us.

As the days grow shorter and the darkness closes in, we await, once again, the coming of Christ. In ways I don’t fully understand, God seems to have come into the darkness of the world in the form of a tiny infant, born to unwed parents who had no place warm to stay. That young child spent his formative years as a refugee. And as he grew into an adult, his cousin John urged his followers to prepare the way for God to be born anew, once again into their midst.

And so we who find meaning in following Jesus gather, once again, to await Christ’s coming. We wait in Hope. We pray for Peace. We look expectantly for Joy. We seek to reform our very lives in the spirit of Love.

Come to us, O Holy One. Show us your ways of peace. Inspire us to action. Sustain us when we are weary. Be with us now. Amen.