Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Living into Agape"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood 
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
January 31, 2016

Love is in the air. Love it or hate it, Valentines Day will be upon us soon and the stores are already overflowing with pink and red hearts. This week, I talked with five couples who are already on my schedule for weddings this summer or would like to be. By the way, just as a fun fact – I’ve now officially don’t more same-sex than opposite-sex weddings in the state of Kansas. Who woulda thunk it?

And, then, of course, there is the scripture passage that came up in the lectionary this week from 1 Corinthians. I have read this passage at almost every wedding I’ve officiated. It’s a beautiful passage and it always makes everyone smile. The problem with reading it at weddings, of course, is that it has very little to do with romantic love.

I’ve long thought that romantic love is tricky because it seems to be beyond our control. Those life-altering, sweeping and swooping emotions that make us fall head over heels for another human being are really difficult to manage. We can, of course, control whether and how we act on them, but that flip-flop that happens in your tummy is pretty much out of your grasp, I think.

But romantic love is not at all what Paul is talking about in this letter to the church at Corinth. Paul is talking about agape, which is, in all honesty, not one of the types of love we talk about too much in our culture. If you are familiar with the King James Version of this text, you may even recall that agape is not translated as love in that version, but as “charity.”

However you translate it, I think two of the key aspects of agape are these: it is active and it is a choice.

Agape is not primarily about how you feel deep down inside. It’s not that flip-flop in your tummy or even a gentle warming of your heart. Agape is not a feeling at all – it’s an action.

Agape is a way of being. A sense of duty and allegiance and responsibility and charity and kindness and hope and openness and fidelity all rolled into one tiny word. To live into agape is to make a choice to act a certain way in the world.

Now, this action may be driven by emotions at times. For example, I feel driven to work for justice. My heart breaks when I think about our society taking away people’s God-given rights because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, nationality, economic status, ability, or any other number of things. I have had so many friends who have faced discrimination and I love them. I feel that love  - down in my gut – and that emotion of love is translated into agape when I decide to act upon it.

But here’s the really wild thing about agape: it can also exist in the absence of feeling love. I have some dear friends and family with whom I am in deep and abiding disagreement on some issues that are close to my heart. We get into conversations where my primary emotion is not love but anger. Fierce anger! I do not feel much love in those moments, but on my good days, I can get in touch with agape – that love which I can choose to act upon – and I can find the strength to treat them with dignity and respect. I know many of you have had this same experience – a sense that we can be decent and kind and respectful even in the face of great diversity of opinion and anger. That choice to love actively, in spite of emotions that feel not-at-all-lovey-dovey – that is agape.

So, why is Paul talking to the Corinthians about this? Well, we believe that the church in Corinth looked a lot like Corinth itself – that is, it was extremely diverse. Some think the church was also physically fractured with small groups meeting in various places all over the city and then coming together occasionally to worship and act as one church.[1] We know that these people had a lot of disagreements. That’s why Paul is writing to them about things like spiritual gifts and trying to help them make peace in the midst of arguments about who is the coolest kid in school – the one who can speak in tongues or the one who can prophesy.

In the midst of this divided community, Paul speaks a word of love. This beautiful poem was not written for a couple about to be married. It was written for a group of people who look a lot like the big-C-Church today – divided, at odds, confused, seeking answers.

Into this context – and, I would argue, into our context – Paul sends some very specific instructions on what it means to love in the spirit of agape.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I don’t know about you, but if I did nothing else but simply try to live by those words each and every day, I would have my hands full. Because I have all these other emotions that pull me away from a life that is rooted in agape. I get cranky and tired and scared and angry and proud and that’s just a list of where I’ve usually been by the time I eat breakfast!

Living into agape is seriously difficult work. It’s enough work for a lifetime.

Blogger and nonprofit organizer Glennon Melton of tells story after story of how difficult it is to live into agape. One of my favorites is her story about what happened to her after the shooting that took place a few years ago in Aurora, Colorado.[2] Melton says that she was in a hurry to get gas, which she really hates to do, and got very snippy with the cashier because the equipment wasn’t working right. After driving away, Melton turned her car around, went back in and apologized to the cashier. She writes:

I walked in and waited in line, and when I got to the front I looked the same lady in the eye and I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being such a jerk and making your day harder.”
I didn’t add anything else. Because an apology with an explanation attached is not an apology at all. Then I left.
That was my response to the Colorado shootings. I have no explanation. There is no way to make sense of it. So first, I want to do no harm.
I want to be kind to the people who cross my path, because just like that shooter changed the world- so can I.
When the world feels loud, we must be quiet. When the world feels violent, we must be peaceful. When the world seems evil, we must be good.
Making the effort and taking the time to go back and apologize for unkind words – that’s living into agape. I am inspired by stories like this one because they make me realize I’m not alone in my brokenness. I’m not alone in regretting things I’ve said and done. And there are ways to move back towards healing and wholeness after I’ve sinned. Apologizing is one thing I can do. It’s not easy, but it is part of what it means to live into agape.

This week I also found inspiration in the words of Rachel Held Evans, who is an accomplished theologian and author. This past week she was named, along with UCC pastor Traci Blackmon and Kansas City pastor Adam Hamilton, to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Held Evans came out of an Evangelical background and has often made waves in the Evangelical community because she won’t stay in a nice and neat box.

Held Evans is an active blogger and one of her posts is called  “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart.”[3] In it, she takes some Evangelicals to task for their inability to teach a message that is coherently based in love. She shares a conversation she once had with a Christian leader who gave her a hard time for voicing her dislike of the story of the Battle of Jericho. She explained to him that she found the mass slaughter of men, women, and children to be horrifying…especially since it was supposedly orchestrated by God. The man who was speaking with told her that he didn’t find genocide to be troubling if it’s in the Bible. As long as it’s in the Bible, it was okay with him. Evans goes on to write in a follow up post about how the word “love” ceases to lose its meaning when we disguise acts of violence and cowardice as “love.”[4]

I have a lot of respect for Evans. She and I are not likely to agree on everything and that’s okay. What I respect about her is her ability to cut through the self-imposed divisions in the current Church and make a claim to what she believes to be true. She is bridging a gap – more like a chasm – between conservative and progressive Christians. She is speaking out of conviction and love. And she does so in a way that is patient and kind. She is choosing to live into agape

People like Glennon Melton and Rachel Held Evans give me strength to try to live into agape as Paul describes it. And the image of living into agape really resonates with me because it makes me feel like this love – this way of being – is accessible to me if only I will allow myself to find it.

This is true, I think, because God is love. God is that force that lives within and beside and around and beyond each and every one of us, moving us towards love. To live into agape is to live more fully into the reality that we are never, any of us, separated from God for even a moment. That Divine Spirit of Love is within us at all times, calling us to take a risk and dwell more fully in love.

Agape is a way of being in relationship that is active. It is a type of living rooted in our choice to act graciously, patiently, and with great kindness and humility. Most days, for me, living into agape seems incredibly difficult. Paul’s words are so beautiful, but they seem so difficult to attain. On days like this, I allow myself to rest in the knowledge that God is love. God loves me. God loves everyone I encounter. And if I will allow myself to rest into that love, I may just find the strength I need to live more fully into agape. Here’s hoping.

[1] HarperCollins Study Bible notes.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

“Eyes Fixed on Jesus”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
Jan. 17, 2016
Sermon Text: Luke 4:14-21

When I was first preparing to go to seminary, I had a friend say to me, “Seminary. What’s that like? Do you sing a lot of songs and wear robes all the time?”

Well, there was a little singing. No robe-wearing. As the president of our seminary told us at orientation, “Folks, this is graduate school. I hope you didn’t come here looking for some kind of advanced, grown-up Sunday School, because this ain’t it. I hope you came prepared to get a graduate education, ‘cause that’s what this is.”

Seminary wasn’t Sunday School, but I was asked to memorize scripture during my first semester of seminary. Dr. Theodore Walker taught my Introduction to Theology course. He had a compact presence that was intense. His voice was sonorous, as he taught us that theology is simply a fancy word that comes from the Greek: “theology is logos about theos,” he would say. Thinking and reasoning about God. Dr. Walker taught me that there’s lots of good theology to be found in novels, including The Color Purple, which was required reading for our class. And he introduced me to Black Liberation Theology and the works of Dr. James Cone, which articulated things I had long felt to be true but didn’t have the words to say.  

I don’t remember everything I learned from Dr. Walker, of course, but on a good day I can still recite the Bible verse he had us memorize: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19. The only passage of scripture I was ever asked to memorize in seminary.

Why did Dr. Walker ask us to memorize it? He believed it to be the one verse that summarized Jesus’s entire ministry. His mission statement. His walk-out song.

Last week, we read John’s take on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry – the transformation of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. This week, we see Jesus through the Gospel of Luke’s lens. Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’s story has been fairly private: a birth that was only noticed by a few, a blessing from an old man who wished to see the Messiah before he died, a baptism by a relative at the Jordan, and a lonely trek into the wilderness. Today’s passage signifies the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry as an adult. He has begun to travel about, teaching in synagogues. And he heads home, to the small house of worship in Nazareth where he was raised. All grown up, he stands in front of the same people who likely watched him play in the dirt as a toddler and prepares to read from their holy text.

He carefully scrolls to the place he’s looking for and then begins to read these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me….” He continues reading the words from Isaiah 61. And then he rolls up the scroll and sits down. I like to think of that as his mic drop moment.

The people there were scratching their heads a bit, “Who does this guy think he is? I thought he was just the carpenter’s son.”

Which makes me wonder, of course about that all-important question: who do we say Jesus is? And, beyond that, what does it mean to call ourselves Christian?

Back in December, I found myself in a conversation with a stranger who wandered into our building on a Saturday morning. She wanted to know why we were having an anti-racism training. We talked about that for a few minutes and then she wanted to know more about our denomination. I told her a bit and she asked if we were Christian. I said yes. She said, “So you believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins?” And I said, “Well, I’m guessing that some people in our church may believe that. Many others probably do not.”

She couldn’t wrap her head around the idea of Christians who don’t believe in sacrificial atonement, even though I told her there have always been Christians who have understood Jesus’s death in other ways. She left shaking her head.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that being a Christian is less about what we believe and more about how we choose to live. Christianity is a religion of transformation – it’s about an experience of the holy that transforms us and enables us to live in new and fresh ways. It seems to be that all of us – no matter what we believe about the specifics of how Jesus’s life and death and resurrection played out – can find common ground because we are all trying to follow Jesus in some way or another. That’s why you’ll often hear to me refer to Christians as followers of The Way.

Now, I know that for many of you, this idea about following Jesus seems just fine. He’s a brilliant teacher and worthy to be followed. I’m about to use a word that may make some of you squirm in your seats a bit. I think we are called to do more than just follow Jesus. I think we are also called to be his disciples. What’s the difference? Well, I think of following as being a little more passive. Like, I can follow someone on Twitter, right? I’m just watching what they’re doing and saying. It’s interesting. They’re interesting. I’m following them.

But to be a disciple means to take an additional step and attempt to fashion my life after this person’s teachings. To allow my very self to be transformed into something new.

And since I’ve likely already made you uncomfortable (hey – it’s my job, you know) I’m going to take it just one step further. It seems to me that we are called to be Christ’s disciples AND it seems to me that Christ came to offer salvation. I don’t understand salvation to be a magical paying-with-his-blood kind of thing. And I’m not even saying salvation in a strictly what-happens-after-we-die kind of way, though I know that’s what most people think of when they think of salvation.

Marcus Borg writes about the different needs that we have as humans and how there is no one-size-fits-all answer for what ails us. We Christians have historically tried to offer “salvation” as some kind of blanket potion, but we’ve had a nasty habit of narrowing salvation to a specific vision of the afterlife. But throughout the Church’s history, there have always been those who see salvation as a multifaceted gift. Salvation is about what saves us, sure, but it doesn’t always look the same from person to person. I know that, in my own life, salvation has been different at different points, depending on what ailed me.
As Borg says, if you are held captive, salvation looks like freedom. If you are sick, salvation comes through healing. If you cannot see, salvation is the restoration of sight. And if you have nothing to eat and no place to rest your head, salvation looks like a warm meal and a safe place to sleep. If the drinking water in your town is poisoned and toxic, salvation looks like clean water and public officials being held accountable.

Jesus stood in the synagogue of his youth and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In other words: God has sent me to bring salvation. God has sent me to provide new life, new hope, new opportunities….even in the midst of great pain. Even when it seems there is no way out – God has sent me to make a way. I have come to save.

I want to tell a story about salvation. I don’t know if any of you watch Call the Midwife. I’m not a big TV person, but I am a super-birth-nerd so I got hooked out this show a year or so ago. It’s about a group of nurse-midwifes working in the East End of London in the 1950s and 60s. In this particular episode I’m thinking of, Sister Julienne, who is one of the nuns and main characters, is filling in as a sort of chaplain in a local women’s prison. While working there, Sister Julienne encounters a woman named Stella. Stella is very pregnant and is terrified that when she has the baby, her child will be taken away from her. She is about to be released from prison, but that is not a guarantee that she will be allowed to keep her child because the State would have deemed her unfit for mothering a child as a former-convict and single mother without a place to live or a job. Stella’s solution is to make up a fictional fiancĂ©. She tells this lie, hoping they will allow her to keep her child until she can be released and then she will figure out some way to take care of herself and the baby.

But they discover that the fiancĂ© is made up and there is a trial to determine whether Stella will be allowed to keep her child. All this time, Sister Julienne is visiting with Stella. She is often frustrated by her – especially because her dishonesty makes her difficult to work with. But Sister Julienne continues to care. Unbeknownst to Stella, Sister Julienne works behind the scenes, calling around to work her own network and is eventually able to find the mother and the baby a place to stay and suitable work.

As Stella waits for the verdict from the trial with her newborn baby, Sister Julienne rushes into the proceedings with the news that Stella has a job and a place to live upon her release. Given this new information, the authorities determine that she will be allowed to keep the baby.

Julienne goes with the warden into the jail cell where Stella is holding her baby. Stella recoils and clutches her child, saying, “You can’t have my baby!” Sister Julienne gently tells her that her baby will not be taken away. She tells her that she’s found her a job and a place to live that that the authorities will allow her to keep her child.

This is salvation.

This is what salvation looks like. It may not have anything to do with the afterlife. It may have to do with the here-and-now. Salvation is a salve – a healing balm, a cure for what ails us. If we are poor, it is the provision of basic needs. If we are held captive, it is a release from captivity. If we cannot see, it is a restoration of sight or understanding. If we are being oppressed, it is freedom.

Jesus stood up in the synagogue of his youth and proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him…and that he had come to save.

The Good News for us today is quite simple: God isn’t finished saving the world just yet. The Good News proclaimed by Jesus all those centuries ago has not changed. As long as there are people who are sick, or poor, or trapped, or abused, or oppressed, or silenced, or addicted, or hurt Jesus will be working on the side of those who need salvation to bring it.

Some of us in this room – most of us, I’m guessing actually – are in need of some kind of salvation. And all of us who have accepted the mantle of being Christ’s disciples – or are at least warming to the idea – are called to be bearers of this Good News to the world around us.

When Jesus dropped the mic after reading the scroll from Isaiah, he wasn’t finished with his work. His work had just begun. And Christ is working, still, even here, even now to bring salvation to those who are in need.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
Jan. 17, 2016

At any given moment, it can be a challenge to walk safely through our living room because you might step on one of these (put superhero figure on the pulpit) or this guy (another) or this wonderful woman here (another).  

We’re big into heroes these days in the Simmons Wood household.

One of the things my kids love the most in my office is this right here (take our Action Figure Jesus). I regret to say I cannot remember for the life of me who gave me this Deluxe Miracle Jesus Action Figure on the occasion of my ordination six years ago. But I love him dearly. You can’t see the details, so allow me to help you out. “feeds 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish….turns water into wine (see the tiny jugs?)” and my favorite part “Glow in the Dark Hands!”

That last part is apocryphal. I don’t recall an actual story about Jesus’s hands glowing in the dark. Though maybe if you stretched the story of the transfiguration a bit….?

Anyway, I love Action Figure Jesus. And so do my kids. Mostly because he reminds me of two of my favorite stories from Jesus’s ministry, one of which we heard today.

John’s gospel is the only one that records the story of the wedding at Cana. I find it intriguing that it is, quite conspicuously, Jesus’s first miracle in John’s gospel. Jesus goes on, of course, to do many other “signs and wonders” in John’s gospel. He heals, he feeds the crowds, he restores sight, he walks on water, and he resurrects Lazarus from the dead.

But the one that opens the show - the one that’s supposed to make us sit up and take notice – is this one. The story of a wedding that runs out of wine and the unknown man who is pushed into the limelight a bit reluctantly by his mother – who, like all parents, was her child’s first and best cheerleader.

And once Jesus decides to step in and remedy the situation, boy does he ever. He asks the stewards to fill up six stone jars. Each jar would have held 20- 30 gallons of water. Okay, so I didn’t bring a prop for this, but you know what a big outdoor Rubbermaid trash can looks like? That’s about 30 gallons. So, six of those. They fill them with water and then Jesus turns them into wine. And not just any wine – the best wine those people have ever tasted.

We’re talking 120-180 gallons of high quality, primo wine. So that’s about 1,000 bottles. When Jesus decided to go, he went big. He came out swinging.

What I love about this story is how utterly unnecessary this miracle is. I mean, no one was going to die because the wine ran out. It would have put a damper on the party and it would have embarrassed the hosts, to be sure. But no one’s life was on the line. It wasn’t that serious. And yet, he stepped in. He made the day just a little brighter for everyone. He saved the day for the hosts – their party would have been remembered for their mistake, but after Jesus’s party trick they were remembered for their generosity….saving the best wine for last.

Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.”

The story of the Wedding at Cana is all about abundant life. It’s about how God becomes manifest and enters fully into the everyday moments of human life – births and deaths and weddings and funerals – and cared deeply about what happens there. It’s about the goodness and importance of a truly excellent party – something many of us would do good to remember, lest we get caught up in our seriousness all the time. And it’s about abundance. I mean, really, I don’t know how many people were at this wedding, but 1,000 bottles of wine is a whole lotta wine. A ridiculous amount of wine. And that’s kind of how Jesus is – just a ridiculously abundant amount of the Holy all wrapped up in one very human body.

A hero. Jesus is a hero.

Jesus came and pointed to God. And many after Jesus have come and pointed the way to Christ. This weekend, of course, we celebrate another one of my favorite heroes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was many things to many people. One of his truest and deepest identities, I think, was as a Bearer of Christ.

Dr. King came and pointed the way to Christ. More than anything, that’s what he did. He modeled, in everything he did for us, what it looks like to be a true follower  - a true disciple – of Christ.

Just a few months before he was killed, Dr. King gave a sermon at Ebeneezer Baptist Church, his home church, in Atlanta. He entitled it “The Drum Major Instinct.” I want to read you a somewhat lengthy excerpt from it, because it’s all about what it looks like to truly be a hero.

Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I'm talking about as I go down the way because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He didn't have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. One of his closest friends denied him. Another of his friends turned him over to his enemies. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. When he was dead he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life. His name may be a familiar one. But today I can hear them talking about him.

Every now and then somebody says, "He's King of Kings." And again I can hear somebody saying, "He's Lord of Lords." Somewhere else I can hear somebody saying, "In Christ there is no East nor West." And then they go on and talk about, "In Him there's no North and South, but one great Fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide world." He didn't have anything.  He just went around serving and doing good.

This morning, you can be on his right hand and his left hand if you serve. It's the only way in.

Dr. King talked the talk and walked the walk. He pointed the way towards Christ, who pointed the way towards God. King was a hero. Thank you, God, for the life and work and witness of your servant, Martin.

As I was pondering all these heroes this past week (and, yes, in case you’re wondering, I have had “Heroes” by David Bowie running through my head on repeat all week) I started wondering about the word. Where did it come from?

It seems to have its origins in this idea of a person who is really more than “just a person.” It is similar to the idea of a demigod – a person who part mortal and part God. Which means, of course, that Jesus’s birth story sets the stage for him to be quite the hero. Part human, part God.

And that made me think about that wild and crazy idea of Incarnation. This idea that somehow, someway God came Earthside in this tiny, perfect, flawed, messy, beautiful human being. Emmanuel – God with us. When I was a child, I thought this meant that Jesus was somehow inherently different than all of us. Because he was part-God, he was altogether, distinctly not-like-me. He was different, better, unattainable.

Later, I started to think of Jesus as more-like-us. More human. More down-to-earth. Less divine. And I even went through a long period of time when thinking of Jesus as some how Divine was really uncomfortable for me. I needed him to be fully human, fully attainable. Otherwise, what’s the point in trying to be like him? I mean, if he’s God, he’s really got a leg up, you know?

These days, I’m coming back around to this idea of Incarnation. This idea that God is fully present in Jesus – even as Jesus is fully human. Not because it makes Jesus somehow different, but because it reminds me that God is fully present in each of us. Emmanuel is not some one-time thing that happened long ago in a village far away. Emmanuel – God-with-us – is happening still here and now. And the season of Epiphany, which we’re in right now, is not just about seeing God fully present in the life and work of Jesus. It’s also about looking around and seeing God fully present in the life and work of the people in these pews, our co-workers, friends, families, heck, maybe even in the people we don’t much like.

Dr. King was a hero. No doubt. Jesus was a hero. No doubt. And David Bowie said, “We can be heroes. Forever and ever.”

It’s a little grandiose, I know. Truth be told, I’m guessing most of us, Dr. King and Jesus included, would be horribly uncomfortable with the idea of being a hero. I know I am.

But if being a hero is about being in touch with that holy truth that we are created in God’s image and beloved children of God? Well, I can get on board with that. Because we are, each of us, somehow magically, mystically, wonderfully Human and Holy. We are somehow mortal and Divine. Dr. King points to that. Jesus points to that.

Paul said that each of us is “given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Dr. King said we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you….those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

Maybe we can be heroes. Even if just for one day.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

“Star Wars: The Turn Towards Hope”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
Jan. 3, 2016
Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

A long time a galaxy not so far away, a child was born whose birth had been foretold for generations. “The Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” said the prophets of old.

The baby was named Emmanuel, for through him, all people were to realize that God was fully present with them. His birth was so unsettling that even people from far away - people who did not worship the God of Abraham and Sarah - took notice.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. When the glory of the angels shone ‘round, they dropped everything and went to see the babe. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that there were magi in the East - wisdom-seekers, sooth-sayers, dream-watchers. The magi, these wise ones, practitioners of another faith, studied and saw his birth written in the stars. And so they traveled to Jerusalem - to the capital - seeking the child. But he was not to be found under the bright city lights. 

Instead, he was in tiny, sleepy Bethlehem - House of Bread - for he had come to fill the hungry with good things. Upon hearing of the magi and their quest, the King of the Land, Herod, intervened. He wished to use the magi as his spies. He felt threatened by this star at its rising. Surely this child, just a baby, had not come to threaten his power?

Herod sent the magi on their way, commanding them to bring back information about the newborn baby. It became a reconnaissance mission.

The magi continued to follow the star and when they saw the place illuminated by its light, they were overwhelmed with joy. They brought forth gifts for the child and his family from their treasure chests - gifts fit for a king. And they fell down and worshiped him, the One who prophets foretold.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, that Other King, they left for their own country by another road.

This is an old, old story. And many of us also remember what happens next. David Lose says that there are two ways to tell this story. One is as a story for children - we focus on the gifts of the magi; we sing songs about little drummer boys playing for the babe; we kneel together at the manger. And all is well.

But then there’s the story for adults. The one that continues in the rest of the second chapter. We didn’t hear it today, but you may already know it. An angel appears and warns Joseph that his child’s life is in danger. The family flees to Egypt - refugees. Herod, enraged, feels even more threatened by the baby Jesus. He orders all children aged two and under to be killed. “"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

That’s the story for grown ups. And we live in a very grown up world, don’t we? For we have our own Herods, our own fearful tyrants who are governed by and govern by fear. And we have our own innocents who are sacrificed on the altar of fear.

A 12 year old child is gunned down by those who are paid to serve and protect him. Killed less than two seconds after the police arrive, for holding a toy gun in an open carry state. And the Powers That Be have determined that no charges will be filed for a killing that millions of eyes have now witnessed. The whole thing was caught on tape and it makes not one iota of difference. Tamir Rice has joined the ranks of too many black children who have died on the altar of fear. Killed because the Evil of white supremacy feeds on fear, whispers words of fear. White people are taught to fear and another child dies.

“"A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

Similar fears keep our children who live in poverty isolated, our schools segregated, children of color who are as young as 3 or 4 years old regularly expelled from preschool as their parents watch them herded into the cradle-to-prison pipeline. A hyper-capitalist society with very few safety nets remaining feeds on fear. Fear is the grease that keeps the cogs turning, the peasants scrambling, the parents trapped and wailing.

Fear is also the fuel that keeps the fires of xenophobia burning. Fear is the liar who whispers that we must be afraid of the foreigner, especially if they have dark skin, or speak another language, or worship in ways that are different than ours.

Fear is the fool who dares to suggest there is only one way to be a boy or a girl, and demands that children fit into those boxes precisely. Fear is the one that demands our children do violence to themselves - their bodies, their spirits - all in the name of fitting into some arbitrary mold.

Fear of course is the Enemy. And the choice is really no different now than it was in Jesus’s time: We choose fear or we can choose openness. I know which one I want to choose, and I am pretty certain most of us here would rather live into openness rather than fear. But to do so is a decidedly counter-cultural thing. As we seek to live with hearts open, what lights our path?

There is no shortage of stars, of course. The stars beckon to us from MSNBC, ESPN, and Twitter. It sometimes seems as if there are so many stars….and the stars seems to be at war. They lead us on different paths. They claim different truths. They clamor for our attention and loyalty.

You know, I’m always amazed that the magi went. I mean, if that star was so bright, surely everyone could see it, right? But not everyone followed. Maybe there were too many stars competing for their attention and loyalty. Maybe they had star wars of their own to deal with.

AME pastor William Watley says, “It isn’t the light that we see, but the light that we follow that makes us wise.” Maybe all those other people saw the star, but didn’t take action. Only the wise ones got up and turned towards hope.

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Thea Leticia Racelis gave me this gem of wisdom last week and now I want to give it to you. Thea said, “My prayer is not for God to speak, but for God to give me the courage to listen with my whole life.”

Now that’s what living into openness looks like, isn’t it? The courage to listen with our whole lives? In the midst of stars that vie for our attention and a world gone mad with fear, it seems to me that what we need to do is be still, and listen with our whole lives.

As we mark another trip around the sun and a new year dawns, I want to invite you to listen with your whole life in a new way this year. In just a few moments, I’m going to ask the ushers to pass around the offering plates, but instead of putting something IN them this time around, I want you to take something OUT. We’ll pass the plates a second time in a few minutes for the offertory.

In the plate, you’ll find a Star Gift. Each one is unique and has a word printed on it. Don’t look and go rummaging around trying to figure out which one you want - instead, just reach in and let a particular star find YOU.

The word on the star is yours for the coming year. It’s meant to be guidance - among all the stars that are at war trying to claim our attention - perhaps this one star can be the one that whispers words of openness and hope to you in 2016.

Now the star gifts are only as helpful as we let them be. If they get shoved to the bottom of a bag or left forlorn on the floor of our car, they won’t do us much good. But perhaps if we hang them where we can see them and remind themselves of them, they really can guide our lives in the coming year.

So receive your gift now. And may this star guide you on your way as we defiantly refuse to bow to fear and turn, instead, towards hope. Amen.