Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Love Song" - Christmas Eve Meditation

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
December 24, 2016


A few weeks ago, one of my children asked me, “Mama, why are all the songs on the radio always about love?”

Such a great question. I don’t remember exactly how I answered. I think I laughed a little and said something lame like, “Well, love seems to be awfully important to most people, doesn’t it?”

How do you begin to explain to a child that Love goes so far beyond all those pop songs on the radio? That Love is the single greatest force unleashed in the universe?

We teach our children about the power of Love by showing them, of course. But we also teach them through stories. I think of Aslan, that great lion from the world of C.S. Lewis...and when I sit with Susan and Lucy, burying my hands in his soft fur I can feel a bit of the magnitude of what it means to love. I stand with Hermione and Ron and marvel at the love of Harry’s parents and how it lives on in such a young boy. I continue to watch the unveiling of that long-ago-and-far-away galaxy of George Lucas and have a feeling that something about The Force is also rooted deeply in that great Force of Love.

It’s not just our songs that are about Love. Our stories, too.

The story of our faith began with a love song: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….”

The chorus of God’s creative act of Love echoes through the millennia as we hear the songs passed down through the First Testament.

From Sarah and Abraham, who were beloved of God and cast their lot with the One for whom all things are possible.

To the strong hands of Shiphrah and Puah - the Hebrew midwives who put their own lives on the line because of their love for the next generation, refusing to kill the baby as Pharoah had ordered. To the words of Love whispered by that baby’s mother as she gently hid her son in the reeds, praying that some Divine Force might continue to protect the one she had named Moses.

To King David, who was loved unfailingly and sometimes by God, even though, God-love-him, he never quite seemed to learn how to love well himself.

To Queen Vashti who refused to dance because she loved herself. And Queen Esther who bravely loved her people. To Job’s dear friends who did their best to love him in the midst of strife but mostly just caused more problems.

The prophets sing to us of Love - “Comfort, O Comfort my people….” says God through the prophet Isaiah. And they reveal to us the natural byproducts of walking the ways of love.

With Amos, we sing of God’s justice that comes through Holy Love: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

With Isaiah, we sing of the peace that comes in God’s Realm of Justice, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb…..and a little child shall lead them.”

That great symphony of Love crescendos until it is almost overpowering. The heavenly chorus of God’s love roars and cannot be contained. And we hear our ancestors singing to us a new song. One that rises out of the terror of Empire and oppression. One that will not be silent, even in the face of great adversity and anxiety.

Quiet now, can you hear it?

“In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be taxed…”

What an odd way for a love song to begin. It’s so secular. So rooted in the yuckier parts of human life. Taxes? How can anything holy begin with Empire and taxes?

But this is not a Love song content to float in the clouds with heavenly harps. This is the song of a Love that comes to dwell with us. A love that breaks into the midst of our everydayness - our faults, our fears, our mess. The love of a God who cannot stand to be far from her children, a God who must come to us now and dwell within us.

A God who created us in his image and now creates himself in ours. Emmanuel. God with us.

When “Love came down at Christmas” it came not in the form of some mythical creature or pyrotechnic salute. Instead, the One Called Love arrives looking like us. It is the fulfillment of a love story that has existed since before time began. It is the promise to all future generations.

So, here and now, on this holiest of nights, we sing together. With Mary, we raise our voices in a song for justice. We remember the Love Song she sang when she learned she was to become a mother:
My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour….
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has cast down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek.

It seems to me that if Mary sang that song before Jesus was born then she likely also sang great songs of Love rooted in Resistance to him when he was young. Lullabies about turning the world upside-down. The sweet voice of a strong mother infusing radical hope for the entire world into a tiny brown body in the middle of the night. Strength for the days ahead. Love that is bigger than Empire and oppression because it is rooted in the One who always sides with refugees and foreigners, the silenced and the marginalized, the forgotten and the pushed aside.

Like Christ, we live in a world that feels utterly unpredictable. The powers that be grumble and connive, playing with lives as if they were mere toys. We often feel helpless, wondering if God even hears our prayers for justice - wondering, if Christ came to make things better, where is he now?

Christ comes us to again each Christmas as what theologian James Cone calls “a liberating force.” A force singing loudly and lustily of Love. Love that cannot be stopped. Love that is bigger than fear. Love that fights until the end and beyond for those who Empire has pushed aside.

And as this Love is born anew we are both the mother and the midwife…..providing sustenance and care as this kicking, crying Love-Force enters our world once again.

As the tiny spark grows into a roaring flame, we sing and we sing and we sing and we sing.

We sing of Love. We sing of Justice. We sing of Peace. We sing until our voices are hoarse. And still the chorus of Love cannot be stopped because there are more who come after us, still singing of God’s love.

The greatest force in the universe. That which cannot be contained. That which has no beginning and no end. That which comes to us on Christmas and every other day. That which will reign forever and ever and ever.

Amen.








Sunday, December 4, 2016

“Reoriented”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
December 4, 2016 - Isaiah 11:1-6 and Matthew 3:1-6

For a season that’s supposed to be about quiet and stillness and waiting, it always seems a bit jarring to me when John the Baptist comes screaming in. So much for silent night, holy night - John is in your face. He looks like he’s mistakenly dressed up for a costume party that doesn’t exist. He eats weird. He’s certainly not quiet. Or patient.

John rockets into our midst like some kind of uninvited guest, screaming words no one much wants to hear: REPENT! FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD DRAWS NEAR!

If this were a holiday party - if we were in polite company - we’d probably chuckle awkwardly and pass him another cookie. Anything to get him to be quiet. No one much wants to deal with a Wild Man in a month that already feels a bit unhinged.

Of course, this isn’t a holiday party. It’s church. And I hate to tell you this, but you’re not in polite company. Because Jesus is here and he has a lot of strong suits but minding manners isn’t one of them.

And so here we sit. Confronted with John. John with the messy hair, wild eyes, too-loud voice. Every year in Advent. Year after year after year.

I guess maybe that’s because we seem to need reminding? I know I do. It’s all too easy to slip into the comfortable, cozy bits of Christmas. New slippers, hot cocoa by the tree, the warmth of candles. And the tinsley bits are also fun. New gadgets, new toys, new cocktails, new friends, new traditions.

But if we allow ourselves to go too far into the delightful parts of the season we start to lose focus. And so John comes screaming back in on his rocket of repentance reminding us that there is more to this season.

Advent is an invitation - or perhaps even a command - to radically reorient ourselves. That’s what repent means, after all. And it’s no accident that John gets in our face with a call to repentance. If the “kingdom of God is drawing near” - if the Realm of God’s Justice and Peace is about to ride in on a shooting star, then we need to get ready. We need to dust off our Hope-glasses and prepare our hearts to receive the new life being born in our midst. For most of us, this means we need to think seriously about recommitting ourselves to metanoia - repentance.

Repentance is not about feeling guilty or ashamed. It’s bigger than just saying “I’m sorry that I did X and I’ll try to do better.” It may include all of those things, but metanoia is about turning. Turning around. Re-orienting our entire lives towards something different. It’s a little like a radical rebirth.

It seems to me it’s no accident that Christ came - beckoning us into reorientation, renewal, rejoicing - in the form of a tiny human. Anyone who’s ever spent much time with a newborn knows that they have a way of reorienting everything. Speaking of screaming in on a rocket! Babies are relentless. Delightful creatures, surely….but also very powerful. They have the ability to completely reorder your time, priorities, and life. They turn our worlds upside down in surprising ways.

Babies make us ponder the past, present, and future in disorienting ways. I can remember being awake in the middle of the night with my babies - feeling a connection to all the generations of parents who went before me doing the same thing, noticing acutely the sensations of being in the moment with my own child, and desperately pondering the future - wondering if there ever might be a time when I wasn’t awakened 6-8 times every night.

John’s directive: REPENT! FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD DRAWS NEAR! has the same omnipresent quality about it. We are suddenly in the past, present, future all at once. We recall our past failures - collectively and as individuals. We are certainly in the moment - how could you not be when someone dressed up for a costume party that doesn’t exist comes interrupting your picnic on the riverbank? But John also grabs us firmly by the chin and points our faces towards the future. “The Realm of God draws near.”

The Kingdom or Realm of God is not some far off destination that only exists in the afterlife or the Second Coming of Christ. Instead, God’s Realm - that Beloved Community where the wolf lies down with the lamb is approaching here and now.

It was as inconceivable in John’s time as it is in ours. They may not have had the twenty-four hour news cycle, but they certainly had their own share of heartbreak. A marginalized people living in a time where justice was elusive at best. John’s people - Jesus’s people - must have scoffed at the invitation to hope that God’s Realm of Justice and Peace was near.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that God’s Realm somehow exists here and now - even in the mess that is our world. It’s like the two worlds Nate talked about last week. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of what could be - what lies beneath the surface. For good and bad are always mixed up. Even in times where evil seems to reign, Love still has its say. Things are not always as they seem.

The author of Isaiah knew this. He speaks of the “stump of Jesse.” A mighty tree cut down. At first glance, we see a tree stump and assume it’s dead. But foresters know that new life can come even from a tree that’s been chopped down and used up. In fact, there’s an ancient form of forestry still practiced today called coppicing. Trees are sometimes cut down so that they will regenerate - sending out shoots and giving birth to new trees. Here on the prairie, we know about a similar practice used every spring - the burning of the fields. New life springs forth from what looks like death. Things are not always as they seem.

The pathway to peace is not always smooth. We know that times of peace often come after times of great disruption. Those who live to see days where “no one is hurt on my holy mountain” have often also lived through times of great pain and violence.

Even in the hard times, God does not leave us helpless, abandoned in the midst of great hacked-down forests. Instead, God sends prophets to call us back to ourselves. God reorients us. Grabbing us gently, but firmly by our shoulders and turning us around to where we need to be.

Last weekend I had the chance to see the new Disney movie Moana, a story about reorientation and remembrance. Moana, a teenage girl who is learning how to become chief of her people, grows up with a special bond with her grandmother who is the self-described “village crazy lady.” Undeterred by her grandmother’s quirks, sits at her grandmoter’s feet, absorbing the stories of her people. She allows herself to be shaped and reformed as she learns where her people have been and dreams of what they might be. She reinvents herself: becoming a way-finder, using the stars as her guide as she travels across the sea. It’s a story about remembering who you are and trusting in that knowledge as you take bold risks.

Most of us aren’t likely to get on a boat and use the stars as our guide as we reorient our entire lives. But all of us would do well to pay attention the John the Baptist. I know, I know. He’s a little weird. And it would be much more pleasant to just shove another cookie in his mouth to silence him.

But to ignore John is to miss the invitation to total reorientation that comes in Advent. The invitation to remember who we really are. To remember that we are beloved children of the Most High, called to walk in the ways of our faith ancestors - relentlessly proclaiming the advent of God’s Realm. A place where the lion lays down with the calf. A Realm of Peace that is more than just the absence of conflict - but a place where justice rules.

As we journey through the season of Advent, we put on our Hope Glasses to help us see the path we travel. We receive God’s gifts of Peace and Joy. The final destination is Love. In a world that is wrecked with anxiety and fear, Love is our guide. We reorient ourselves like sunflowers, turned gently but firmly towards our Source.

And we follow the star to the place where Love lies. The place where Love is born again and again and again. Thanks be to God.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

“Gaining Our Souls”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
November 13, 2016 - Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19
This is a challenging sermon to preach. Challenging because every person in this room needs something unique today. This has been a week of great pain for many here. I have tried my best to listen, love, leave space for the tears, anger, confusion, and anxiety. I know many of you have been doing the same with each other and with others out there in the wider world. Thank you.

We only get through hard weeks together. One day at a time. One hour at a time.

I want to say this about today’s sermon: please remember that when I am sharing about my own experiences and other people’s experiences, I do so in a descriptive way, not a prescriptive way. It is not my job to tell you how to feel or act.

I believe the preacher’s job is to sit with our sacred texts and the news of the day and listen closely for some Good News from our Stillspeaking God. And then share that with the gathered community. Sometimes I do that by sharing a bit about my own process of coming to these conclusions. Sometimes I share others observations or stories (always with their permission). That doesn’t mean your journey needs to look like mine or theirs or you need to come to the same conclusions.

**************

I have a confession to make. Last Sunday, when we gathered together, my first breath prayer was “Dear God, bring justice for our nation.” I stopped that prayer about five or six breaths in because I suddenly realized that I might not want to live through what justice looks like. And as I looked around this room at all of you, whom I love, I didn’t want to see you in pain when justice came.

When I say “justice” here, I pretty much mean: “you get what you deserve” or some version of “you reap what you sow.” There’s so much about this in the Bible. Too much to unpack today, really, but the long and short of it is this: time and time again, the Prophets spoke of God’s justice coming….wrongs being made right, the world being turned upside down, punishment for those who had exploited other people coming swiftly and with no mercy.

The flip side of this, of course, is God’s grace. Which, in the First Testament, frequently was spoken of in the same breath as God’s justice.

So my confession is this: I believe that justice for the United States might look a lot like what happened this week. And it seems that things may get much worse before they get better. And I trust that what lies on the other side is a world that’s better for all of us because I still think that the universe bends towards justice. But some days I don’t much want to watch all the pain and agony and fear and violence that will likely come between now and then.

Please know that I personally don’t blame Donald Trump for all of this. The election of Trump is but one event in a long string of events that makes us who we are as a nation. These problems have been with us since before 1776. I know we are a diverse congregation and I think it’s important to remember that some here today may have voted for Trump, or not voted at all, or don’t see what all the fuss is about.

What I've learned, from trying to listen very hard, is that many who voted from Trump did NOT do so because they wanted to bring about a more racist, xenophobic, sexist, hateful nation. Of course, the IMPACT of their decision to vote for a man who has been clear about his desire to take away the rights of those who are already marginalized is clear.

Though many who voted for Trump did not INTEND to cast a vote for hate, the IMPACT has been an uptick in hate crimes, violence, suicides, and a lot of people (people in this room, I might add) being very worried about their safety.

I did not make it 12 hours after the election before I heard from a friend who was receiving death threats from strangers on social media simply because they are a person of color. Since then, of course, hate acts have been reported widely. Children are being bullied and threatened at school. People are being screamed at from vehicles. Women are being threatened to have their hijabs ripped off and used as nooses.

The IMPACT is devastating. For those of us with mountains of privileges and protections, the world still turns and it may be tempting to rush to a cheap and forced unity. But for many people in our nation, our community, our church the election of Trump feels like a giant catastrophe in the midst of a world that already felt very unsafe.

(Deep breath)

Here’s what I also believe to be true. And I cannot take credit for this statement because I heard it from UCC pastor the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. She said, “God knows what to do with catastrophes.”

(Deep breath)

God knows what to do with catastrophes. Can I get an Amen?

I mean, at the very core of the Christian faith, that’s really it, isn’t it? The world turns, humans mess stuff up, disaster strikes, catastrophes kick us in the gut, violence comes for us, death comes….and yet, God knows what to do. We don’t have to look any further than the story of Jesus’s death to see this. God somehow manages to take the greatest evil, pain, hate, violence and use it for good. I don’t personally believe God causes the catastrophes, but I believe God works through us to redeem them.

This is why I was awfully glad to see our lectionary texts from Isaiah and Luke today. Isaiah, as you may remember, wrote as a prophet during the time that the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. They were forcibly removed from their homeland after their Temple was destroyed and sent to a foreign land for 48 years. That’s a long time. It was pretty catastrophic.

And into the midst of this pain and horror, the Prophet Isaiah spoke words of hope and comfort. Some condemnation, too, because he believed the way to redemption was through building a more just society.

What Isaiah did for the people during the Exile was help them see beyond the pain to a future place where justice and peace were real. This is called the Prophetic Imagination and it is one of the things getting me through each day right now.

I heard the Prophetic Imagination very clearly earlier this week in Tai Amri’s words to our youth group in the open letter he wrote to them. He titled it, “Another World is Possible.”

In the letter, Tai Amri reminded our youth of this:
We hear a lot about Dr. King’s Dream, but what we hear are the little specifics, white children and Black children holding hands and blah, blah, blah. We often miss the big picture. The big picture was that Dr. King believed, as I do, that there is a world possible right here that is far different than the world we live in today. In that world: there is no hatred over religious and political differences; everyone is loved and cherished for who they are, no matter the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender expression; and people aren’t treated differently because of how much money they make or what job they work. That Dream is possible, but only when we all put our hands into making this Beloved Community come true.

We cannot lose sight of the dream of the Beloved Community - that Realm of God’s Justice and Peace where the lion lays down with the lamb, and the people build houses and inhabit them, and the swords are beaten into ploughshares, and no one can hurt on God’s holy mountain.

No matter what happens, we must not lose sight of that vision.

It is our heritage as people who are trying to walk in the way of Jesus. It comes to us from our ancestors and it cannot be taken from us. When we are sad, angry, anxious, joyful, or just kind of “blah” we must keep the vision of God’s Beloved Community at the forefront each and every day. Perhaps most especially when we are hurt, angry, and anxious.

Because Tai Amri also reminded the youth of the words of Dr. King’s teacher, Howard Thurman, who helped teach King to be on guard against hate. Tai Amri said this:
While hatred is a natural emotion, acting from it and allowing it to take root will never accomplish the goals we want them to.

If we are to live into this vision that God has for her people, it will require every bit of strength we can muster. As we do this work together, we must rely on each other. We must take turns and never forget that keeping Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion. We must learn to act with courage even through our fear - for courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is standing up and doing the brave thing even though we are terrified.

As we keep our eyes on the prize of God’s Beloved Community - that other world that is possible, that Holy Mountain that Isaiah spoke of, that Dream that belonged to Dr. King - as we stay focused on that vision, I was also reminded by Tai Amri that we need to listen to our Elders. Those who went before us and those who have been bending the arc of the universe towards the Beloved Community for a very long, long time.

Many of us are just now learning what it feels like to live in constant anxiety. This is difficult. The good news is this: if we are willing to listen with open hearts and minds there are many who are out there ready to teach us how to survive and thrive.

One of my dear friends, Jacinda, who is a black woman, is an Elder for me. She helps me learn how to live through and make sense of a painful world. She said this earlier this week about the hate speech and acts happening in schools this week:
Just a note about the heartbreaking stories coming out of schools: this has always happened.  Always.  I went to a fundamentalist Christian school as a small child and was called a n***** pretty much every single day I attended, and that wasn't even the worst of it.  My older daughter, when she was two (yes, two) was subjected to a bunch of racist chatter in preschool.  Ask your Black parent friends and they'll tell you.  Your kids will live.  We and our kids have, going back to forever.  We survived.  We'll all survive.

We survived. When Jacinda tells me that, I believe her.

History seems to loop back on itself. The pendulum swings one way and then the other. We cycle through peaceful times and painful times. This particular moment is particularly terrible for many of us in this room.

What I am learning about surviving through these painful times, from my friends who have been marginalized and oppressed for a long time is this: we have to find a way to build up a callous without becoming calloused.

Callouses are a little gross, but also very helpful. Anyone who has ever taken up playing the guitar or lifting weights will tell you they are a good thing.

If you’ve never faced adversity before, it is awfully hard to weather your first big storm. Your capacity for resilience isn’t where it needs to be.

But if you have brushed up against oppression and closed doors and hatred and fear for your entire life - well, you build up a callous. You become tougher and you learn to keep getting out of bed each day - despite the anxiety, anger, hopelessness.

The trick is to find a way to do this - to nurture those callouses that we need in order to keep going - while remaining tender, open to new possibilities, ever-focused on God’s vision of the Beloved Community.

We have to learn to build up our callouses without becoming calloused.

The passage from Luke today is apocalyptic. Written to give comfort to people who were hurting, oppressed, despairing, terrified. It doesn’t particularly sound like good news to me when Jesus tells his followers that they will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned, betrayed, killed.

But that last line reminds me of what my friend Molly said earlier this week. Remember? “God knows what to do with catastrophes”?

Jesus says, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”

Amen. May it be so.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

“Semper Reformanda: Write the Vision”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
October 30, 2016 - Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

We seem to have lost our way. As a nation, I mean.

I can’t be the only one in this room who has recently had hand-wringing conversations about how messed up the United States is right now. As a child, I learned all the appropriate patriotic stuff in school. I was taught that this was the greatest nation in the world. The first to be founded on democratic ideals - with liberty and justice for all. Our ancestors were people who stood up for what was right - often at great cost - to ensure that we could all be free.

Of course, things are never quite as simple as they seem when you’re in elementary school. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it really wasn’t until university that I started to put together a more nuanced version of what it means to claim this nation as my home.

Because, of course, it’s hard to really argue that we’re the greatest nation on earth. You can take essentially every single measurable item you can think of and we won’t be number one. Except perhaps in military spending and number of people locked up in prison. We’re number one at those.

And, yes, we were founded on democratic ideals. But this idea of freedom was initially for a very limited group of people - white, propertied males. And though people have fought and bled to expand the promise of freedom to others, it’s been a long-time coming and is still very much a work-in-progress.

And, yes, some of our ancestors did stand up for what is right. Some of them even did it for the right reasons. But even those who did the right things for the right reasons often did it in problematic ways. We don’t have to look any further than the founding of our own congregation to see that reality. Yes, we should be proud that our faith ancestors came here from “back East” as a part of that great movement of Congregational Abolitionists - people who left everything they knew to come to the Kansas Territory to ensure it would enter the Union as a Free State. A noble and important cause. But! At the same time they came to this place they knowingly displaced people who had already been living here for generations. The Kaw Nation already claimed this place as their home. Who were these white folks to show up and start building houses and churches and railroads without their permission?

So it’s complicated. And when I hear talk of “making America great again” I usually wonder - so at what point in history, exactly, are we planning on turning back the clock? To 2010 when some of us in this room wouldn’t have been allowed to marry the person we love because they’re the same gender as us? To 1950 when people who look like me wouldn’t have been allowed to divorce an abusive husband or make basic decisions about my own healthcare? To 1920 when people who are black had to use separate bathroom facilities and couldn't vote in most parts of the South? Or further back, I guess? Do we need to go further back to find some mythical time when this nation was perfect?

That mythical time doesn’t exist, of course. And I don’t mean to be overly hard on the U.S. That mythical time doesn’t exist anywhere. Because as long as humans have been alive, we have been terrorized by our own fear and anxiety. That’s not new. That’s just being human. It takes a lot of work to continually appeal to our mammalian brains and override our amygdalae. It’s natural to be afraid and self-centered. We’re hard-wired for it.  It’s a lot of work to choose to think of others first and to be brave.

It’s not uncommon for humans to lose their way.

The prophet Habakkuk wrote in a time when his nation had lost its way. We don’t have a lot of clear historical information about who exactly Habakkuk was or his context, but it’s pretty clear from the opening words of this book that he and his people were lost:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ And you will not save?

We may not know much about Habakkuk, but I kind of love this guy. I love his cranky back-and-forth banter with God. He reminds me a bit of Job. He opens with gusto: “Hey, God. What’s up with this? Why is everything terrible and you don’t seem to care? Can’t you see us suffering over here?”

Besieged in a world gone mad, the prophet takes his weary self up to the top of the rampart - the city’s protective walls - and stands watch. He stands watch for God’s answer. Waiting. Waiting.

We don’t know how long he waits, but he eventually receives a word from God. An answer to his complaints. And the word is this:
Write the vision. Make it plain enough that someone can read it even when they’re on the run. For there is still a vision for this appointed time. It speaks of the end. It does not lie. It if seems to be slow in arriving, wait for it. It will surely come.

And this vision comes from…..where? From God. The vision comes from God.

The vision for God’s Realm of Peace with Justice is not to be found in the U.S. Constitution. It’s not to be found in the Declaration of Independence. I’m not saying those documents don’t contain important truths. They do. But it is my belief that when we are sitting around, dreaming of who we might be as a people - it is not those documents that call us into being and show us the way. God’s vision is way too big to be limited by paper documents enshrined in the Library of Congress.

When I feel frustrated, confused, enraged, hopeless. When I’m cranky and mad at God, wondering how in the world we got ourselves into this mess and how in the world we’re going to get ourselves out of it….when this is my state (as it often is these days) I find that I need to get myself up to the rampart to watch and wait for God to speak.

It’s funny how getting up high, somewhere with a different vantage point, can really shift your perceptions. I’ll never forget the first time I flew in an airplane. I was fifteen years old. And when we took off and flew higher and higher, I craned my neck to look out the window. Everything looked completely alien to me. The trees - the trees that loomed so large when I was on the ground - suddenly looked like little models. Toys! And the massive highways that carried big cars and trucks from place to place suddenly became minuscule. After a while, I couldn't make our houses or cars or people at all. All that was left was clouds.

When you shift your vantage point, everything changes. I think it’s wise to take ourselves up to the rampart from time to time. To seek out the prophets who hang out there, looking at the world from a very different angle. Because the prophets - like them are not - are the ones who speak to us clearly of God. They are the ones who share God’s vision and make it plain enough for us to understand. They are the ones who move us forward, always dreaming and scheming of how we can make the world more closely align with God’s Realm of Justice and Peace for All.

You may have noticed in the bulletin that there’s some Latin in today’s sermon title. “Semper Reformanda” means “always reforming.” Karl Barth brought this phrase to prominence after World War II. He and other European theologians were grappling with how to repent for their failure to stop Nazi Germany’s rise to power. Barth spoke of the church as being reformed, but always reforming. The Reformation, which we celebrate and remember today, was not a one-time thing.On Reformation Sunday we remember our heritage as Protestants - literally Followers of Jesus Who Protest. Our faith ancestors were trouble-makers. The legend of Martin Luther nailing his complaints on the door of the church lives on because it makes such a dramatic scene. “The church is messed up and we’re not gonna take it anymore!” he said. And people listened. The man was bold enough to believe that he could go up against the entire Roman Catholic Church and change it. And he was right.

The Catholic Church changed as a result of the vision set forth by Luther - a complicated and very imperfect priest. And new churches were formed, new ways of understanding God were born. The Reformation is not something that happened once. That spirit of renewal is still alive today in churches around the world where people aren’t afraid to ask big questions, make serious complaints, and dare to dream that God’s not done working through the Church just yet.

There are prophets all over the place. In fact, there are some sitting in this room today. Prophets are not always the old white dudes who get most of the credit in our history books. Prophets are also people like Malala Yousafzai, who was only 11 years old when she started speaking out against the Taliban and what they were doing to girls in her country. Though she was young and completely unknown, she spoke with great clarity and power. She said, “I am those 66 million girls deprived of education. I am not a lone voice. I am many. Our voices are our most powerful weapon. One child. One teacher. One book. One pen. They can change the world.”

The thing that prophets have in common is this: they have a vision and they can make it plain. They are singularly focused on a vision of what the world can become. And that singular focus - that ability to paint a picture of what can be - that makes all the difference in the world.

My yoga teacher always reminds us to pick a focal point on the floor or the wall when we’re doing balance poses. I’m often standing there, flailing about, listening to a bunch of chatter in my monkey mind and then I hear her voice gently reminding me to pick a place and focus. And once I find that spot on the wall and put my attention there, my body stops wobbling, my mind finds peace. I am in the moment. Not anxious. Just present and breathing. It’s a really good feeling.

Prophets are the ones who remind us to get up to the rampart and shift our perspective. They are the ones who show us, through their example, to pick a focal point and stay with it. They remind us to listen and listen hard for God’s vision. And once we hear it, to write it down, make it plain so it can be amplified and shared with others.

This world we live in is LOUD. There is a lot of chatter. Not just in our own monkey minds but everywhere. Our boss has some opinions. There are deadlines to be met. Our kids (tiny or grown) clamor for our attention. And the news! An endless cycle of chatter about any and everything, especially the most negative things because that’s what seems to sell. The world is LOUD.

And so we come to this place where we are reminded to stop. Take a breath. Get up to a different place where we can shift our perspective. Tune out the noise. Listen instead for God’s voice. And then write it down, share it with others.

We are the heirs of reformation. Reformed and always reforming. Daring to dream that there is still a vision for our time. Hoping against hope that God is not finished with us yet.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

“One Foot in Front of the Other: Pilgrimage as Spiritual Practice”

 Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
October 23, 2016 - Psalm 84 and 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Once upon a time, I ran a marathon. This was back in my pre-kid days when I was less exhausted and could more easily find a spare 6-8 hours a week to train. One day, near the end of my training, I had a 20-mile run on my schedule. I carefully mapped my route through our town. I was at about mile 14 when I turned north into a part of town I didn’t know that well. Suddenly, this giant hill loomed in front of me. I’m trying to think of a hill here in Manhattan that seems comparable, but I can’t. It was big. Really big.

I stopped in my tracks at the bottom of the hill. If I turned around, I’d have to alter my route completely and my brain was too muddled to think through that. This was before I had a smartphone and I didn’t have an easy way to re-route my run. And I knew I really needed to get the full 20 miles in.

So I did the only thing I could think to do. I slowly walked myself up that hill, feeling a bit like I was dying the whole way, and then I kept going to mile 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. One foot in front of the other until I was finally home.

I really dislike running. Even when I was training for a marathon I hated it 98% percent of the time. Why would I spend all that time doing something that I disliked so much? For me, running a marathon was primarily a test of mental and spiritual endurance. I decided this was something I wanted to do before I tried to become a mother. I thought, “Being a parent seems pretty hard. But if I can run a marathon, I can do anything!”

And the skills I developed slogging it out day after day as I trained really have served me well as a parent. The endurance, fortitude, patience, and ability to just push through, putting one foot in front of the other, when life seems unmanageable and impossible….those are all skills that have really helped me as I’ve been formed into a mother.

The Psalm we read a few moments ago is a Pilgrimage Psalm, meant to describe the thoughts and prayers of ancient Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Our Jewish forebearers in the Ancient Near East had the practice of making three pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem each year. The festivals were Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot. When Jesus went to Jerusalem at the end of his life, it was for the Passover festival.

Pilgrimages aren’t easy. They aren’t supposed to be. They require careful planning. As with any trip, you need to make sure someone can take care of your business while you’re away. Animals and fields still need to be tended while their owners are away. Pilgrimages aren’t necessarily safe. Travelers are are the mercy of strangers, relying on strangers to offer hospitality. Remember, they couldn’t just stop at a Hampton Inn back in those days. Nor could they text ahead to a cousin to make sure they were home. Mostly you just took off and hoped and prayed that strangers would house and feed you along the way. And mostly, they did.

What sustained these travelers? What convinced them to take on this arduous task? Well, I’m sure a big motivator was a societal expectation: “This is just what we do.” It was a part of Jewish life and culture. But I also remember the words of the Psalmist and can’t help but think that many pilgrims were motivated by a very real and earnest desire to encounter the Holy in Jerusalem:

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”

So often, life becomes routine. Day in and day out we do the same thing. Those of us who are tied to the academic or 9-5 routine measure our lives in weeks. Monday comes again and again. Friday is a brief bit of joy. The weeks cycle through. And those of us on different schedules also have our routines. We make our coffee each morning, we read in bed before we turn off the light. Rhythm is a natural part of being human. Predictability can bring comfort.

And it also seems that there is often something within us that longs for more. A Pilgrim’s journey, while challenging, interrupts our lives - providing time and space for the Holy to break up our everyday routines in new and exciting ways.

We don’t have much of a tradition of Pilgrimage in 21st century Christianity. The expectation of Pilgrimage is still a big deal in many other faiths - just think of the annual Hajj for Muslims. But this idea of intentionally seeking out an arduous journey or task with a very specific destination in mind is not one that we often talk about in our tradition.

As least that’s what I initially thought. But then I read the passage from 2 Timothy and I realized we have something else that is very similar to this practice of going on a difficult spiritual journey with a holy destination in mind: the cross.

The Apostle Paul has had such an enormous impact on Christian theology. It’s really impossible to overstate his importance. I have mixed feelings about this because I do tend to think that some of the things Paul and his followers thought and taught about Jesus seem to not be firmly rooted in Jesus’s own life and teachings.

But one key part of Paul’s theology I’ve always found intriguing is his unrelenting focus on the cross. For Paul, the cross of Jesus Christ was absolutely central to understanding who God is and what God is attempting to do. Everything for Paul is seen through the lens of the cross. The cross was, for Paul, primarily about attaining salvation through suffering….not because Jesus’s blood is a substitution for ours but because, through his death, Jesus shows us how to live.

So if your brain is already wandering over into a freak out mode of “is she about to tell us Jesus died for our sins because something magical happened with the blood of Christ?” Let me just encourage you to just gently grab your mind and bring it back to center. We’re not going there. That is one way of understanding the power of the cross - and it may be one of the ways some of us here understand the cross, and that’s okay. But it’s not the only way and it’s not the way I’m going to be talking about today.

Instead, for Paul there seems to be a power inherent in the actual process of Jesus choosing the cross. There is power in Jesus choosing to intentionally take on difficulty and extreme suffering. There is power in attempting to fashion our own lives after Christ, seeking opportunities to journey to wholeness through suffering, not in spite of it.

This, of course, can quickly veer into dangerous territory. Because the Church has, all too often, encouraged people who are oppressed and abused to put up with horrific treatment by telling them Jesus wants them to “take up their cross” and follow him. I don’t think this is right. And I don’t think it’s what Paul was saying when he encouraged people to follow in the way of Jesus, which included suffering, in order to find salvation.

Instead, I think Paul was talking about a very delicate and deliberate dance of challenge and support as we try to walk in the Way of Jesus. That’s what we see in today’s passage from 2 Timothy. The author of this letter (who, incidentally, was most likely NOT Paul but attempting to capture that same spirit and message) says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” They say, “You know, it hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been downright excruciating and lonely at times. But God has stood by me throughout the journey. God has never left me alone. And I believe God continues to save me, even now.”

There’s a balance there, of challenge and support. The challenges have been great, but the support has never wavered. It’s not easy to go on a pilgrimage. There are many unknowns and the task can be physically, mentally, spiritual taxing. But if we are lucky, we are also able to see the support around us - the community that goes along with us, the people who open their hearts and homes to us, caring for us along the way. And the destination is always there in our mind’s eye - calling us forward, step after step after step.

I wonder if it’s time to revive this spiritual practice of Pilgrimage? I wonder how our lives might be transformed if we took it upon ourselves to intentionally choose a challenging journey, with a specific destination in mind? I’m not necessarily thinking of an actual physical destination, though I suppose that could be possible for some of us.

I’m thinking instead of other ways we might intentionally choose a challenging path that leads to God. And on the eve of Pledge Sunday I’m thinking this week about my own financial giving. I’m wondering if I’m challenging myself enough. I know the support of my faith community is strong. I know I have companions on the journey. And I know that the practice of giving away my money in a substantial way can feel a bit like a pilgrimage. A bit like stepping out in faith, unsure of exactly where I’m heading or how I’m going to get there.

And then I think about Paul, and Jesus. And I find myself remembering that no one ever said following Jesus would be easy. In fact, they actually said the opposite. This work of becoming - growing, changing, transforming into the person God dreams for us to be. It’s not easy work. It’s supposed to be hard.

And so we give thanks that we do not go alone. We are surrounded by other travelers on the road. We travel with the light of Christ kindled within. We travel a well-worn path, marked by Pilgrims who have gone before. We can do hard things. Thanks be to God.





Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Follow the Verbs"

“Follow the Verbs”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
October 9, 2016 - Luke 17:11-19

Seven years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day preaching workshop with Anna Carter Florence, who is, hands down, my favorite living preacher.

The workshop was on a new thing Carter Florence had been working on as a preaching professor: preaching the verbs. She talked to us about how she had been working with her students on going through a biblical passage and highlighting the verbs, and then using that as a starting point for the sermon. She demonstrated and walked us through several passages over the course of our time together.

I’ve been to a lot of workshops and classes on preaching, but no other practices have stuck with me quite like preaching the verbs. When I get stuck? I follow the verbs. When a passage seems all too familiar? I follow the verbs. It’s really easy to do. I use it for my personal Bible study and for sermon preparation. I’ve used it when teaching classes and when praying. And we’re going to use it this morning.

I invite you to get out a pew Bible so we all have the same translations and look up Luke 17.

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samar′ia and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

Now what you might not realize until you've follow the verbs on a lot of passages is this: this passage has a LOT of verbs. It’s action packed. You can really see the flow of the passage and the intensity of the activity when you pull out those verbs. Dr. Karoline Lewis wrote earlier this week about the flow of these verbs. She said, “See, return, praise, worship, give thanks, get up, and go. What if we imagined….that this could be the rhythm of faith?” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4726)

The rhythm of faith. Verbs swirling, coming together, moving us forward into new life in new ways. The rhythm of faith.

You know, sometimes I think that, for too long, some parts of the Church had a problem with focusing too much on one verb: BELIEVE. “Do you believe in God? Do you believe that Christ died for your sins? Do you believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the life everlasting….?”

I think beliefs are important. They shape our worldview. We are all influenced tremendously by our beliefs, whether or not we recognize it. And I do think it’s important for every person of faith to wrestle with their own beliefs. You know, the creeds can be a good way to do that. A good place to see what others have professed as their own experience of the Holy...and then start teasing out our own story of who God has been for us.

Believing is an important verb. And there are also many other verbs in our sacred text.

Two weeks ago, I attended Leadership Institute at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS as a part of my participation in the Next Generation Leadership Initiative for the UCC. I will own, up front, that this is not a conference I would have chosen to attend on my own. CoR is so big and the culture of Johnson County so different than Manhattan….it was hard for me to set aside my skepticism as I drove across I-70. I did my best to stay open and listen for the voice of our Stillspeaking God in this very different place.

CoR is the largest United Methodist Church in the world. But what’s more astonishing than their size is the rate of growth. The church is only 26 years old. They were planted by the wider UMC back when Leawood was mostly fields and just starting to grow. They sent a young pastor named Adam Hamilton to make something out of nothing. They first worshiped in a funeral parlor - kind of a strange place for new life to break forth, right? Until, that is, you remember that Christians follow the one who brings forth life from death again and again. And then a church named for Resurrection meeting in a funeral parlor makes perfect sense.

At their first worship service, people sat on uncomfortable folding chairs in this funeral parlor and Pastor Adam said to them that God had big plans for the church. Adam said, “Look, it’s not that I’m going to be the best pastor, though I’ll try, and it’s not that we’re going to have the best facilities, but this church will be great because some of you will decide to live as people of Resurrection.”

From the beginning, CoR has had an intensity that flows not just from its lead pastor, but from that pastor’s very real encounter with Jesus. The verbs at CoR come from a sense of purpose that is deeply rooted in creating a Christian community where people who are non-religious and nominally-religious become deeply committed Christians.

At CoR they don’t define “deeply committed Christians” by a set of beliefs. Instead, it’s about verbs. Most specifically, it’s about discipleship. It’s about supporting, equipping, and empowering people as they encounter Jesus and then try to live as followers of Christ.

In order to become a member of CoR, people are asked to make serious commitments of their time and energy. They commit to five serious verbs: worshipping each week, learning in a small group, serving in the church and the wider community, financial giving and working towards tithing, and sharing the good news of what Jesus has done for them with the wider world.

Some of this sounds pretty familiar to us, right? Some of it may feel a little different or be expressed in slightly different language. One of the things that struck me from my time at CoR was just deeply anchored the whole culture is in JESUS. I’ll admit it. I go into a place with an average worship attendance of 12,000 and a pastor who’s been there since the beginning and I wonder, “Is this all be about Adam Hamilton?”

But you know what? It’s not. I mean, yes, the things that have happened at CoR in terms of the tremendous growth have a lot to do with Adam’s excellent leadership, but his leadership is rooted in a profound and genuine commitment to following the way of Jesus. In the beginning, the folks at CoR asked themselves three questions when they were trying to determine their purpose: 1) why do I need Jesus? 2) why do I need the Church? And 3) why do I need this church?

I think for many in our church questions 2 and 3 might be easier to answer than question #1. And maybe you’re not super Jesus-y. Maybe you follow Jesus because he points the way to God and that rootedness in God or the Spirit or the Source or Love with a capital “L” is your thing. That’s okay. But I do think it’s not a bad idea to wrestle with this question: “what has Jesus done in my life?”

Or to put it another way that might make some folks feel squirmy….how has Jesus been my salvation?

That’s what today’s story in Luke is all about. Salvation, healing. Now when I say “salvation” I’m not necessarily talking about eternal life. Nothing in today’s story is about eternal life. It’s about life here and now. Salvation is about finding a cure for what ails us…..and that’s always changing. I don’t think of salvation as a one-time thing. It’s something that happens again and again and again. It’s the new thing that God is doing when we feel hopeless. It’s the will to get up again when we’ve been knocked down. It’s the softening of grace when a relationship has been damaged. It’s a moment of justice even in the midst of unjust systems. It’s water and food and blankets after the storm. It’s kindness and basic human decency in the midst of a violent culture.

Salvation isn’t static. It’s active. It’s ebbing and flowing, moving and changing, now and not-yet.

For the nameless Samaritan who was one-of-ten healed, salvation was rooted in his experience of Jesus. This experience of salvation was so great, he couldn’t keep it to himself. He was moved to action. Follow those verbs and we find that he turned back, praised God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself before Jesus and said, “THANK YOU, JESUS!”

It’s intense. It’s maybe even a little uncomfortable for those who don’t enjoy really big public displays of emotion. But sometimes the verbs are just like that. They get under our skin, calling us outside of what society considers to be proper. Sometimes the verbs won’t let us go. They propel us forward, outward, inward, upward, downward as we stumble, fly, fall, run to follow Jesus.

May it be so.





Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Hope Resurrected"

September 25, 2016
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15


PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. Two thousand six hundred and four years later, we, too, wait for the word of God. And so today we pray for illumination, new light to break in to our own time. Will you pray with me?

Holy one, we come to you this morning as your people. Eager to hear your word resonating across the centuries. 

This morning, many of us are weary. Exhausted by the seemingly unending violence in our own midst. Wars that never cease. Violence at home and abroad. Human beings turned into hashtags. Each name painstakingly chosen by parents with love. Each person a unique being - fully known and fully beloved. 

These days, it seems there is hardly a break in the violence. Name after name. Story after story. We are under siege. Images of violence, hatred, fear that masquerades as power. 

Some of us in this room leave our homes each day wondering if we will be able to keep our bodies safe. Some of are physically ill from the stress of wondering how to protect those we love. Some of us have the privilege of checking out, pretending the horror that comes to us through our screens each day can't touch us. 

Holy Spirit whose name is love, descend upon us now. We, your people, come with hearts open, souls longing for a word of good news. As a people besieged by fear, violence, confusion, helplessness, anger - we need you. Send now your love to us. Fill us with hope, compassion, peace. Besiege our hearts with love and a thirst for justice. We are here. We are waiting. Amen. 

HYMN OF PREPARATION - "Spirit of the Living God"

We are here. We are waiting. Jeremiah was waiting, too.

It was the year 588 BCE, just one year before the fall of Jerusalem to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and the absolute exile of all the Israelites and Judeans from their homes. The Babylonians, had been steadily advancing towards Jerusalem for some time and in January of 588 their troops finally reached the exterior of the city and placed in under blockade. Jerusalem was under siege.

Siege comes from the latin verb “sedare” – to sit – because that’s exactly what you do under siege.

You sit.

And you worry. And you starve. And you sit. And you fear. And you thirst. And you sit. And you get sick. And you basically just wait for your captors or murderers to finally arrive.

That’s about all you can do. Because if you get to the point where your city is under siege, it’s pretty much just a matter of time until it’s all over. Especially if the folks that are surrounding your city are Babylonian. By this point, the Babylonian army had conquered all of the surrounding areas. There was no place to run, no place to hide. And they weren’t backing down anytime soon.

So the folks in Jerusalem sat. And waited. And wondered if the Babylonian army would simply carry them away, or kill them, or if they would simply die first, while sitting there.

Jeremiah did his sitting at court. He was imprisoned in the palace of King Zedekiah, which, as prisons go, wasn’t too shabby. It was certainly better than the dungeon he had been sitting in before being transferred to the palace.

Jeremiah was, as most prophets are, a bit of a trouble-maker. He had been counseling King Zedekiah and the other leaders for some time to just give it up already. “Give in. Turn yourselves over to Babylon and maybe they’ll go easy on you,” he said. But King Zedekiah wasn’t hearing it. He refused to surrender.

But all of that was later.

At this moment, in 588, Zedekiah was just a scared, proud king who didn’t want to believe anything Jeremiah had to say but kept him close anyway because he wasn’t quite sure who to listen to.

Now, how did Jeremiah get stuck in jail? At one point, perhaps a few months earlier, there had been a brief break in the siege and Jeremiah had tried to leave Jerusalem to go to his hometown, Anathoth, but had been stopped at the city gate. Since he already had a reputation as a trouble-maker, the guards arrested him on the suspicion that he was attempting to desert to the Babylonians. They beat him and threw him in a dungeon, where he sat until King Zedekiah transferred him to sit at the court.

At court he was at least able to eat and drink and be safe. And he was able to bend the ear of the king from time to time – even if the king didn’t listen. And he was still able to put on his prophet variety shows – acting out strange signs for anyone who would watch, attempting to give them a word from the Lord in a creative fashion.

Jeremiah was not the only prophet to do this charades-as-prophecy kind of thing, but he certainly comes to mind as one of the prophets that used it quite often. In this style, prophets acted things out as a symbolic way of delivering God’s word to the people. And Jeremiah did it well. Even in prison, he found a way to use his actions to give a word from the Lord. While the city was under siege, while the people were starving, while time was running out, Jeremiah did a bold and – most would say, utterly stupid – thing. He bought some property in his hometown of Anathoth.

What we have to remember is that, at this point, no one but NO ONE was buying or selling anything. The war and the siege had rendered money virtually useless. You didn’t go out in the morning to buy a macchiato at Starbucks and you most certainly didn’t go buying a house in the countryside. There was just no point. All that land in the countryside was already taken over by the Babylonians anyway, so what would be the point?

But Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me….”

His cousin, Hanamel, was going to come to Jerusalem and offer to sell him a field at Anathoth. And Jeremiah was to buy that field. That’s what God told him to do, so that’s what he did. And he did it in a very public way. He took that little free pen that they give you when you close on a house and he signed those hundreds of pages out in the open where everyone could see. And when he was done he photocopied the paperwork and put it in a safe where it would last forever.

He bought the filed as a sign of the word he had received from God: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

In the midst of crisis, God promised that it wouldn’t last forever. And in the midst of crisis, God promises that it won’t last forever.

In the midst of violence and fear and racism and war and economic uncertainties and presidential elections that may keep us up at night, the Word of the Lord comes to us from 2600 years ago. And the Prophet Jeremiah speaks to us of resurrection.

Not the Resurrection of Christ. But Resurrection as a way of understanding the world. Resurrection as a total concept.

Resurrection, to me, is so much more than the way the earliest followers of Christ experienced the ongoing presence of Jesus after his death. Resurrection is a whole way of being, a way of seeing the world.

Resurrection is the understanding that there is always something more. Something beyond the way the current situation appears at a first glance.

Resurrection is believing that things may get worse first, but they will also get better.
It is that aphorism: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it isn’t okay, it’s not the end.”

Resurrection is understanding that the end may seem near, but a new beginning is always around the corner. Winter may be on its way, but spring will come. My brain and heart may be telling me things seem hopeless, but there is always hope to be found.

Resurrection calls to us in the midst of whatever sieges may come our way. As we sit and wait and worry and wonder and weep, we are not alone. God sits alongside us. When we look at the problems facing our world today and we start to feel hopeless and helpless and very, very small, we have to remember this:

Resurrection means that we worship a God who is too big to fail.

I don’t mean that God is some sort of really muscular, all-powerful dude floating around in the sky that throws around lightning bolts and zaps people to get them to do what he wants.

What I do mean is that God is too big to fail because God is a force of love and justice and hope and peace that cannot be stopped.

God is somehow within and beyond everything that exists. God is the More that we sense is behind all of the day-to-day worries. God has always been and will always be. God is, in all these ways and more, too big to fail.

And if we will but live our lives in such a way that recognizes our part in God’s existence, we, too can go beyond.

We can cease being pesky little prophets locked up in jail and become, instead, voices that echoes through the millennia. We can go beyond being “just a teacher,” “just a dad,” “just a secretary,” “just a doctor,” “just a farmer,” “just a daughter.”


We are already so much more than what we think we are. And it’s by tapping into the reality that we belong to this great-big-God that we become voices for hope in a hurting world. We can remind people that things may not always go the way we had hoped, but they will go on. Jeremiah didn’t get a return on his investment, but he did get to point the way to a day when things would make their way back to a “new normal.” Jeremiah became a voice of resurrection – and, 2,604 years later – his witness invites us to do the same.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…”

I believe the one we call Holy – this too-big-to-fail-God, this God of Resurrection – also goes by the name Hope. Hope perches in our souls and beckons us to listen to her sweet song. Hope sings out in the chillest land and on the strangest sea.

Emily Dickinson wrote that hope has never asked a crumb of her. Hope is somehow magically free for the taking. And although I believe Hope does pour herself out freely, I also believe Hope does one more thing.

Hope invites us to be involved. Hope invites us to buy a field at Anathoth. Hope beckons us to be a symbol of Resurrection to the world around us.

Hope is too big to fail and we are invited to tell that good news to the world.