Sunday, February 28, 2016

“Give it Up: Purging Unhelpful Outrage and Speaking the Truth in Love”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
February 21, 2016
Sermon Text – Ephesians 4: 14-16, 25-32 and 2 Samuel 12:1-7a

I bet many of us have seen a bumper sticker like this one, haven’t we? (If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.) So true, right? I mean, there are a countless number of things that make me outraged: Toddlers trekking across dangerous lands and oceans to escape violent regimes, only to be imprisoned or turned away. Governors and other elected leaders who seem to live in some kind of fantasyland where education budgets can be cut and cut and cut. People who show up for political rallies where the candidates preach hate and ignorance. Knowing that so many in our nation cannot access even the basic physical and mental health care that they need. Thinking about the horrors of abuse….the abuse of children, adults, those who are elderly or differently-abled, the tragedies that come when substance abuse kills or maims. The thought of people being mistreated by police or the criminal justice system. The knowledge that modern-day slavery is still very much a thing, but that we often don’t recognize it because it goes by other names. The sadness and bitter anger that bubbles to the surface when I think about LGBT people who have died by suicide because they were told over and over that something was wrong with them.
I could go on and on and on.  I know you could, too.
There are many horrors in the year 2016. Many, many things to kindle our fires of outrage. I don’t need a bumper sticker to remind me of this.
And we are not so unique in human history. I mean, sure, several of our presidential candidates seem unbelievable. And many of our elected officials are absolutely maddening. But there have been terrible leaders in every age.
Just look at today’s lection from the Hebrew Bible. Here we have the mighty and great King David. He has recently decided that the wives (yes, plural) he has are not quite enough for him. And he’s been keeping an eye on one of his neighbors, Bathsheba, as she bathes on her rooftop each day. Since he’s the king, he feels pretty entitled. And since he’s living in a man’s world, he sees no problem taking what he wants. He wants Bathsheba. Wants to own her as if she were a little lamb.
And so he sends for her. And she is brought to him. But there is a problem. She is married. Which, in her culture, essentially means she is already owned by another man. Luckily for King David, there are many people who are willing to keep secrets for kings, so probably no one will ever know.
Except….Bathsheba becomes pregnant. King David is smart, though. He knows how to fix this. He sends for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to come back from the war. If Uriah visits Bathsheba then they can just pretend the baby is his. No one will ever know.
Except…Uriah never goes to visit his wife when he comes back to Jerusalem. King David is smart, though. He knows how to fix this. He has Uriah killed.
And when Bathsheba heard that her husband has died, she makes lamentation for him. And King David sends for her and she becomes his wife. And she bears him a son.
This story makes me mad. Like, jumping up and down turning red in the face mad. I would use stronger language if I weren’t in the pulpit. And you know what else makes me mad? That when I was taught about King David as a child he was supposed to be this great guy….and that Bathsheba was like some princess who fell in love with him. But when you read it on the page….well, that is so clearly not the case.
King David may have been smart, but he had a few other, less redeeming qualities. Those closest to him knew this…including the prophet Nathan, who is the star of today’s story.
We are told that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord and the Lord send Nathan to David.” Nathan tells David this clever little parable of sorts. And David, smart though he was, is too dumb to see what’s right in front of him: the story is about him. Nathan has to spell it out for him: “Dude. YOU are the man in my story. How can you not see it?” And then David does see it. He sees his sin.
This story makes for some great drama.  I get all worked up just thinking about how angry this story makes me. And I probably wouldn’t have done nearly as well as as Nathan did confronting the King. I guess that’s why he’s a famous Biblical prophet and I’m just….me.
I share Bathsheba and Uriah’s story to show that we aren’t all that special. People in power have always done horrific things. And they’ve always relied on their closest advisors to try to keep them in check. Nothing is new under the sun. The details just change.
And regardless of what you believe or where you find yourself on the political spectrum, there will never be any shortage of things that cause outrage. And outrage sells. Just take a look at every mainstream media outlet (pro tip: I gave up on televised news over a decade ago and have never looked back. My blood pressure thanks me.) Now we even have the ability to express our outrage with a quick hover and click of a button on Facebook. Groovy!
The problem, of course, is that all this outrage isn’t really very helpful. There ARE productive ways to channel our anger, but it’s a hard thing to do. And in the midst of all the shouting and name-calling, it can be hard to find a way forward.
And so…if you are still looking for a spiritual practice for your 2016 Lenten journey, might I suggest giving up unhelpful outrage and, instead, sticking your head under a rock at least until the Presidential election is over?
Oh, wait. That’s not quite what I said was the title of this week’s sermon. Let me double-check that in the bulletin. Ahhh. Here it is. I stand corrected. Might I suggest “giving up unhelpful outrage and, instead, learn to speak the truth in love?”
Gah! Whose idea is that?!? That sounds really hard. Couldn’t we just live in blissful ignorance instead? Or just keep smiling and pretending like everything will be okay? Look for the best in others? Trust God to fix everything?
Unfortunately, the letter to the Church at Ephesus has a different suggestion. Apparently, we’re supposed to GROW UP. We’re supposed to try to speak the truth in love and, in doing so, we will be growing up, in every way, into the one who is our leader – Jesus Christ.
Since this is much easier said than done, I want to give you a real life illustration. Earlier this week I got a text from Heidi. She gave me permission to share this story with you, by the way.
So Heidi had spent a couple of hours at a local coffee shop – alone – and you know how it is when you’re alone in public and can’t help overhearing the conversation next to you? Well, that was Heidi’s morning. And there were two people next to her, one of whom was attempting to disciple the other one – teach him how to lead a Bible study, teach him how to follow Jesus. Which is cool.
The un-cool part was that this guy was also saying a lot of rude and disparaging things along the way. He would talk about following Jesus a bit and then say some mean stuff about his professors….about women….about his parents. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I know that if someone like Heidi was mad enough to confront him, it must have been pretty egregious. And Heidi was mad. If she had had a Facebook button she might have clicked “angry.”
Instead, what she did was try to speak the truth in love.
She wrote a note to this man. She told him that she, too, was trying really hard to follow Jesus and that it was troubling to her that he was saying so many unkind things in public about other people….while also leading a Bible study at the same time. She told him that she wanted to challenge him to think about how those things – following Christ and saying mean things about other people – go together. And she closed the note saying “Good luck with your journey – may you find a way to be a blessing.”
Now, we have no idea how this guy received the note. He was probably furious. He may have ripped it up or had a laugh. Or maybe, just maybe, her words gave him pause. Maybe he really will take the opportunity to look more closely at how his values and actions line up.
Regardless, here’s what I know happened before Heidi wrote this note. And I know this just because I know the kind of person Heidi is. I know that she prayed about it before her pen touched the paper. And I know that she tried to very carefully put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice – even if she was shaking a bit in her anger. I know she was doing her level best to be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving. She remembered that we are all members of one another. She tried to do what was useful – what might have a hope for building up a better world. And when her pen touched the paper, it did so connected to love….and with hope.
When we hear the phrase “speak the truth in love” we probably think about literally speaking. Like Nathan did. But speaking doesn’t have to be a conversation. There are many other ways to speak.
Heidi spoke through the written word. And I think there is something that is often very helpful about organizing one’s thoughts on paper before saying them out loud. Sometimes saying it in writing can even be the best way to go. I do think, though, that, when possible, the ideal is to offer feedback within the context of a relationship and in a way that allows for ongoing dialogue. Heidi didn’t really have that option, of course, so she did the next-best thing. But when we DO know a person, we need to speak the truth within the context of our relationship, which typically means we shouldn’t give anonymous feedback – whether it comes second or third hand or in the form of a letter. You just can’t DO much with anonymous feedback because there’s no way to respond. But a signed note within the context of a relationship can be a beautiful way to speak the truth in love.
I am also reminded of other ways of speaking. I’m reminded of Bree Newsome scaling the flag pole at the capitol building in South Carolina and removing the Confederate Flag. Ms. Newsome was speaking the truth in love. She was filled with dignity and grace. She even prayed as she did this brave thing. Sometimes actions can speak the truth even more loudly than words.
And I am reminded of Beyonce’s new video for Formation, which caused such a stir when it was released a few weeks ago. It’s a complex video and the reactions to it have been complex. We don’t have time to get into all of that today. But I am thinking, in particular, of the scene with the little black boy in a hoodie dancing in front of a long line of white cops dressed in riot gear. He dances and dances. He’s just this beautiful child reveling in the beauty of being alive. And then this long line of cops dressed in riot great put their hands up in response to the little black boy in a hoodie who is dancing. Without a word, this image speaks the truth in a powerful way. Art can be a medium for speaking the truth in love.
However you speak best, I invite you during this Lenten season to find your voice. I invite you to put away childish and unproductive anger…or at least to hone and craft it carefully until all bitterness and wrath are gone. And then to speak – loudly and clearly with a heart full of love. And may our words build up the entire beloved world as we walk together towards God’s reign of justice and peace for all.

May it be so.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

“Give it Up: Exchanging Consumer Culture for Neighborly Covenant”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
February 21, 2016
Sermon Text – Luke 12:13-21

A man approaches Jesus with a very practical problem. “Teacher,” he says, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” Ah, yes. Family squabbles over material goods. This is clearly a problem we don’t have in the 21st century. We’ve evolved.
Jesus, though, being the great teacher that he is, refuses to take the bait. He was never one to be bossed around much, anyway. Rather than doing what the man asks, he uses this as a teaching moment. “Be careful!” he says. “Be on guard against all kinds of greed, for we do not find life through owning a bunch of stuff.” And then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced an abundant harvest of grain. And the rich man thought to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have enough room for all this grain! I know what I’ll do. I’ll take down my small, shabby barns and build shiny, new, big ones. I’ll store all of this grain in the new barns. And I’ll sit back and relax and enjoy it all. I have enough grain here to last for years! I can relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night, you will die. And all this grain? What happens to it? How can it help you?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
In most Bibles this parable is called “The Rich Fool.” Biblical scholars usually point out a couple of problems with the man’s behavior. Note that no one seems to think the problem is that he’s been successful. There’s nothing wrong with reaping a good harvest. The problems begin with his plan for the harvest: “What should I do? I don’t have enough room! I know what I’ll do. I’ll take down my small barns and build myself bigger barns. I’ll store my grain. I’ll relax and be merry!” David Lose refers to this as the Holy Trinity of “me, myself, and my.”[1] His thoughts are entirely centered on self – no mention of thanksgiving to God or the land, no concern for others.
The second foolish thing is that he seems to believe the lie that material possessions can create total security. “If I just had enough money to take that vacation…” “If I just had a more reliable car…” “If I could just get the newest iProduct…” “If only I had a bit more in my retirement account…”
I don’t mean to make you feel badly about having these thoughts. I think they’re pretty normal human thoughts. And apparently people have been having similar thoughts for centuries. I have these thoughts often.
But the problem is this: these thoughts are delusional. Even if we have more and more and more – no matter how big our barns are – it’s not ultimate security. Because: from dust we come and to dust we shall return. There are some truths that trump even the biggest barns.
And money can’t buy happiness. Well, actually that’s not entirely true. It turns out that happiness-studiers have examined this and a certain amount of money – an income of about $75,000 per year – can buy happiness.[2] Below that point, people feel insecure and are overly stressed worrying about making ends meet. That’s natural, of course. Having enough to provide for your basic necessities is of critical importance.
But above the $75,000? It turns out that once we’ve met our basic needs and have a little leftover for leisure, we don’t need more money to be happy. We don’t need bigger barns. More doesn’t equal happier.
Of course, it can be a real challenge to believe this if you’ve been raised in a hyper-capitalist society because our economic system is positively dependent on making sure everyone buys into the lie that bigger is always better, more is always the ultimate goal. From the time we are born, we are inundated with marketing that indoctrinates us to be good consumers. Some of us remember when we suffered great tragedy and loss on September 11th and President Bush told us to go shopping. Yeah. Like that.
When the man in the crowd approached Jesus and asked him to fix his financial problems, Jesus wasn’t willing to do so. But he did give the man a bigger gift: he gave him a parable that invited him to live into an alternative narrative.  
We all need an alternate story if we are to live beyond what Walter Brueggemann calls the “totalizing” narrative of capitalism in overdrive.  The narrative is “totalizing” because it impacts absolutely every aspect of our lives. It doesn’t simply affect the way we earn and spend our money. It affects our interactions with other people (“Let’s see…if I do this for that person, what will they owe me?”). It affects the way we teach our children – I wonder sometime about the damage done to our children by teaching them their worth is directly related to a number on a page. I worry about all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we teach our children that the ultimate goals in life are to produce and consume. This totalizing economic ideology even affects our leisure – why must games always be about winning? And why do winners take all?
But though our economic system and its corresponding values seem as natural as the air we breathe, they are not inevitable. There are alternative choices.
As we continue on through this season of Lent, some of us may still be looking for ways to more intentionally connect with the Holy – and ways to look more critically at the air we are breathing and see if it’s the only way we can nourish our bodies and spirits. If you are considering giving something up this Lent, might I suggest exchanging a reliance on consumer culture for an intentional decision to live into neighborly covenant?
The language I’m using here is borrowed from this book: An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture. In this book, three scholars from vastly different arenas came together to ponder the default economic system we live in…and to imagine an alternate reality. Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann, and John  McKnight are, respectively, scholars of organizational development, the Hebrew Bible, and community organizing. They’ve come together to encourage us to consider a complete shift in the way we understand the way resources are allocated in our culture.
The authors write (and I’ve included the quotes from the book on an insert in your bulletin in case you want to chew on them more later): “Economic systems based on competition, scarcity, and acquisitiveness have become more than a question of economics; they have become the kingdom in which we dwell. That way of thinking invades our social order, our ways of being together, and what we value. It replicates the kingdom of ancient Egypt, Pharaoh’s kingdom. It produces a consumer culture that centralizes wealth and power and leaves the rest wanting what the beneficiaries of the system have.”[3]
As these three scholars lay out what the current dominant cultural-economic narrative looks like, they are essentially asking us to examine the air we breathe. Most of us take these things for granted to the point that they seem to be just “the way things are.” They name four pillars that hold this narrative in place: a belief in scarcity, worship at the altars of predictability and safety, and an addiction to privatization.[4]
Instead of clinging to these pillars, we are invited to consider an other kingdom. An alternative reality where we intentionally choose a neighborly covenant with others. When we choose to live in neighborly covenant with one another, the questions are no longer about what happens to the Holy Trinity of “me, myself, and I.” The daily report on NPR each morning isn’t about how the market closed yesterday. There is no delusion that if we can only build our barns big enough we will be safe.
Instead, when we live in neighborly covenant there is a trust that there is always enough to go around, mystery and uncertainty are all around (and do not cause anxiety), there is space for human error and grace, and the goal is restoration and health and justice for every living thing on our planet.[5]
I want to take just a moment and share about two initiatives happening in our own community that seem to be shining a light on what life in neighborly covenant might look like. I’ve included some links and further information there in your bulletin if you want to learn more later.
First, Circles Manhattan is a non-profit that is relatively new to Manhattan but is a part of a much larger national movement that’s been around in one form or another for at least twenty years. The goal of Circles Manhattan is “to end poverty by building relationships and environments that empower families and communities to thrive.”
Now, ending poverty is a pretty big goal. The way Circles approaches their task is unique. There is an understanding that all of us have something to learn and something to share with one another – and that our capacity to grow and help the world is not determined by how much money we have in the bank. In the Circles model, people who are experiencing poverty are encouraged to go through training to become Circles Leaders. In doing so, they create a plan to move themselves and their family out of poverty. They then work with Allies (people with middle-to-high income levels) to keep moving their plan forward. Through these circles of support, people who are experiencing poverty are supported as they work to get to “Enough” and people who already have “More Than Enough” develop neighborly relationships with people they might not have otherwise known.
There are so many ways to be involved with Circles – becoming a Circles Leader or Ally, yes, but also providing behind the scenes support with meals, childcare, or other tasks needed to keep the program alive and well. Circles Manhattan is a glimpse at what Neighborly Covenant looks like in action.
The other local initiative I want to mention is the Buy Nothing Project. Our local group is a part of a wider international movement. The Buy Nothing Project offers “people a way to give and receive, share, lend, and express gratitude through a worldwide network of hyper-local gift economies in which the true wealth is the web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbors.”
People who live near each other share resources. Participants are invited to share, lend, give, and ask for things they might want or need. No money is exchanged. No bartering takes place. Everything is freely given and received. And people are encouraged to get to know one another, building relationships and creating a network of mutual support. The Buy Nothing Project is a glimpse of what Neighborly Covenant looks like in action.
I wonder what the parable of the Rich Fool might sound like if it happened in a world where Neighborly Covenant was the norm?
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “Let us gather together and give thanks to the land, for it has blessed us with a rich harvest.” And he gathered together friends and strangers at his home.
They relaxed, ate, drank and made merry….but there was still more to go around. And so they decided to build new and larger barns in order to carefully take care of all they had been given.
As the years went on, they worked together to care for the land. In the lean years, they cared for one another. In the fat years, they made merry. And in every year – both the fat and the lean – they gave thanks to God, for all had Enough.

[3] An Other Kingdom, introduction, page xiii.
[4] pp. 3-4.
[5] Here I am paraphrasing the ideas in Chapter 2.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

“Give it Up: Replacing Shame with Confession”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
February 14, 2016
Sermon Text: James 5: 13-16 and Mark 9:38-50

So….that Mark passage was a little intense, huh? We mainline protestants – especially those who tend towards the more progressive end of the spectrum – don’t typically talk about sin that much. Jesus talking about millstones that hang around our necks as we’re thrown into the sea? Nope. Cutting out our own eye (figuratively, of course) if it causes us to sin? Nope. Hell and unquenchable fires? Nopity. Nope. Nope.

And if we don’t like to talk about sin, then we definitely don’t like to talk about confession of sin, either. After all, if God is love and nothing we can do can separate us from God’s love, can’t we just skip over all this unpleasant business about sin?

The problem, of course, is that we are human. And we sin. We do things that we regret. We act in ways that do not honor our Source. We participate in systems that harm – either knowingly or unknowingly. We sin. And, yes, God is love. And, yes, God is gracious. And, yes, God forgives. But even though I know that - sometimes….right after I’ve messed it up big time? Like, right after I’ve really stepped in it? It can be hard to remember that things will be okay.

This past Wednesday, I stood on a street corner in Aggieville with Pastor Patrick from First United Methodist. We ashed about 30 or 40 people over the lunch hour. Altogether, it sounds like the seven pastors who participated in Ashes to Go on Wednesday imposed ashes on at least 100 people in the Manhattan community at various locations.

And as Patrick and I were standing there with our ashes, one woman who was passing by said, “You should take confessions, too!” Because, of course, that’s a part of what Ash Wednesday is all about. It’s about remembering our mortality – that we come from dust to we will one day return to dust. But it’s also about remembering that we mortals can really have a way of messing it up from time to time. Ash Wednesday, and all of Lent, really, is a season of taking stock, examining ourselves and finding new ways that we can repent and live into the good news of God’s extravagant love and unending grace.

Patrick and I did not have a confession booth set up there in Aggieville. As a pastor in the Reformed tradition, I don’t take confessions…..well, I don’t take them in a booth. I do, of course, hear confessions all the time. Usually on the couch in my office. But sometimes in hospital rooms, or on walks, on in a lowered voice at coffee hour. Sometimes I receive them via e-mail or text. Confessions are heard while a toddler plays on the floor at someone’s home or over warm mugs of tea. I’ve discovered over the years that hearing confessions is actually a pretty regular part of my work as a pastor.

These confessions don’t usually start “Forgive me pastor, for I have sinned….” It’s nothing as formal as that. But in the stories that I have the honor of holding, I hear regrets…..wishes that things had gone differently, sorrow over words not said or things left undone. I hold space for guilt, shame, regret, repentance, hope, and the dawning of grace.

As far as I can tell, in all spiritually vibrant places, the practice of confession is alive and well. You might not recognize it as such at first, but everywhere people are seeking to be made whole, they are taking inventory, confessing their shortcomings, and starting anew.

I recently read the story of First Church of Somerville UCC in the Boston area. In the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette’s book, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession, she shares “how confession saved our church’s life” in the introduction. Molly says, “Sin has fallen out of favor in mainline Protestant churches….’It seems so negative to talk about sin,’ is what I often hear. Maybe, I respond. But: better out than in. I want my sin where I can see it in the clear light of day. It is much less of a threat there – I can track its movements. Bringing our sins and slipups out where everybody can see them means we can laugh at them. The monster in the closet at 2 a.m. is terrifying, but in the full sun of morning, it is a house mouse, with antics.”[1]

At First Church Somerville, they have a unique practice of public confession. Each week, the liturgist – a lay volunteer – leads worship with the pastors. And each week, the liturgist makes a brief public confession and testifies to how they have experienced God’s grace. You might think this sounds absolutely impossible….but it turns out that they actually have a waiting list 20 months long for people to get up in the pulpit and confess their sins.

Any of you who have a passing familiarity with a 12 step program like Alcoholics Anonymous will probably not be surprised to hear that First Church Somerville has a strong ministry to people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Molly writes, “Addicts and alcoholics came to worship at our church and taught us, the faith leaders and congregation, the efficacy, beauty, and spiritual power of AA’s 12 steps….Rather than seeing folks in recovery as broken or weaker than those who are not in recovery, we consider our sober addicts and alcoholics the great heroes and spiritual adepts of our church. In working the 12 steps of AA, they have done the hard work often at great personal cost.”[2]

I couldn’t agree more. I keep a copy of the “big book” in my office and have often consulted it as a great wisdom text. As I understand them, at least 7 of the 12 steps are directly related to confession and the growth that comes through the act of understanding one’s sins, confessing them, and receiving God’s grace. 

Steps 4 through 10: “We have….made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

Those who are in recovery understand what the author of James knew: that anyone who has committed sins (spoiler alert: that’s all of us) will be forgiven. And that there is power and grace available to us through the healing process of confessing these sins to God and to one another.

It seems to me that the holy practice of confession – whether it’s done in a quiet whisper to God just before falling asleep, or through tears falling onto the page of a handwritten letter, or in a calm and collected voice over a nice lunch – the holy practice of confession is one crucial way we human beings can ensure that our guilt doesn’t calcify into shame.

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but they are really two different – though related – things. Guilt is pretty much unavoidable for humans who are in relationship with others and have the capacity to feel empathy. Guilt is, “Oh, man. I really messed that up. I hurt my friend’s feelings.” Psychologist Brene Brown says that guilt is actually quite helpful. It is awareness that our values have bumped up against our actions and it is that awareness that allows us to change.

Shame, though, is something else entirely. Shame is the voice that says, “I am a terrible person. I always hurt my friends. There must be something wrong with me. No one will ever love me and who can blame them? I’m a hopeless mess.” Shame is not helpful. Shame pins us down and isolates us. It lies to us, telling us we are unworthy of love and connection.

Guilt happens. And when it does, one of our best ways to ensure it doesn’t calcify into shame is confession. By bringing our regrets out into the light, we can see them more clearly. We can turn them over and over, trying to figure out how we’ll do better in the future (the fancy theological word for that is repentance). And we are often surprised by the grace we receive from others – which, in turn, can help us let go of those feelings of shame that begin to creep in.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes we gather up the courage to make a confession and the reaction is awful. We are yelled at. A relationship is ended. We are shamed, called names, blamed, abused, excommunicated. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all a simple formula. The author of James says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” I feel like maybe there needs to be a caveat there? Like, “This works in healthy communities where everyone is spiritually and emotionally mature.” Because I think we all know it doesn’t always work out that way, don’t we?

But there is one place where it always works out. And that’s in the quiet and stillness of a relationship with God – the one who is both here with us now in each and every moment and somehow transcending beyond what we can possibly begin to understand. Time and time again in our holy texts and in stories passed down from generation to generation, we are told that there is a healing salve available to each and every person who confesses their sins to God.

I don’t know that that sense of grace and forgiveness always comes immediately. I don’t mean to make it sound simple. But I do believe and have experienced that God’s love truly is big enough to extend beyond even our biggest mistakes. God is the one who continually opens loving arms to us, even when our families and friends have shunned us. God is the one who reaches out again and again with the reminder that we are loved – fully, totally, unconditionally.

As the season of Lent begins, I know some of us may still be looking for a spiritual practice to add into the time between now and Easter. I’d love to recommend to you the practice of the Daily Examen, which was developed by St. Ignatius in the sixteenth century. Molly writes about it in her book and says she loves it especially because she is “physically if not spiritually lazy, and I can pray it in bed.” The Examen is not completely congruous with confession. Instead, it’s a methodical way to look back over the day and intentionally seek out God’s presence. Sometimes a confession flows naturally out of the practice of Examen and sometimes it does not. Regardless, it’s a lovely thing to try for Lent.

In your bulletin you have a handout with the gives steps of the Examen as described in Molly’s book. She paraphrased these from the work of Dennis Hamm, who is a Jesuit priest. He calls the Examen “rummaging for God” which I think is about right.[3]

I think most people – if they know anything about Lent – know that people often give thing up for Lent. This Lent, if you’re looking for something to give up, might I suggest giving up shame? And if you’re not sure how to start, confession might be an excellent way to begin. There is something so holy, so freeing, so unbelievably and deeply good that happens when we give this ancient practice a try.

And thanks be to God for that.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

"Mountains and Valleys"

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
February 7, 2016
Sermon Text: Luke 9:28-43

Many moons ago now, when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and didn’t know what in the world I wanted to do with my life, I had a fleeting moment where I thought, “Maybe I’ll just go back to school and get an architecture degree.” But then I remembered that would mean another five years in school and decided to go another route.

So I never did get an architecture degree, but I still do love architecture a lot. One of the things that fascinates me is the way a space can influence our emotions. Buildings and spaces are like living in a giant piece of art. A big, open space can make us feel one way. A certain color on the walls another.

People who design churches know this. In fact, when churches are built there is often a lot of conversation about what the new structure will communicate theologically. The high, sweeping lines of a Gothic cathedral communicate something very different about God than the simple, smaller scale of a Colonial New England sanctuary.

Church architects often talk about immanence and transcendence when imagining new spaces. These two ways of understanding God’s nature have often been seen at odds. Those who experience God as immanent will say that God is a part of our everyday physical and material world. God is present here and now. We can see God right in front of us.

On the other side, we have this idea that God is transcendent. God is beyond, above, outside of our human experience. God is more than we can know or understand. God exists on another plane entirely. And those two competing ideas about God’s nature get expressed in church architecture. In fact, if you look around our sanctuary you’ll probably see some things that evoke an immanent God and others a transcendent God. I actually think our worship space is a bit of a mix.

God’s immanence and transcendence both have a place in our tradition. Certainly, there Biblical stories that support both understandings of the Holy. For example, just look at the flow of the liturgical year. We started back in Advent – and the stories in the lectionary are all doom and gloom and apocalyptic end-of-the-world extravaganzas. God is mystical, all-powerful, above and beyond human understanding. But then we move into the Christmas season. We sing “love came down at Christmas,” and celebrate the birth of Emmanuel – God with us – in the form of not just any human, but a very average one born in a humble setting. It is easy to see and feel the immanence of God in the story of Jesus’s birth.

As we have moved through the season of Epiphany we’ve seen Jesus doing really average, ordinary things….reading scripture in the house of worship he grew up in, being baptized by his cousin, going to a wedding. But even these immanent, everyday things have a glow of the holy about them: Jesus’s scripture reading is infused with such power that people take noticed, the heavens open and a mighty voice comes out of the sky when Jesus is baptized, and Jesus performs a miracle at the wedding – turning water into wine.

It seems like you could easily paint a picture of God whichever way you’d like – here and now or above and beyond.

And now….this. Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus goes up on a mountain with three of his best friends. Mountains are amazing things, aren’t they? As a kid growing up in Kansas it always sort of seemed like Colorado would be the most glamorous place to live. Everyone in my high school wanted to go to college in Colorado. There’s something absolutely magical about driving out across I-70 and straining your eyes to see the Rockies off in the distance. First they look like clouds, then they start to look like hills, and finally you’re up next to them and in them. Your ears pop. You marvel at the immensity.

Mountains are transcendent – they point our eyes up and beyond. And so we look to the mountain as Jesus and his friends scale it. Up, up, up our eyes go until we see the four of them standing there. Jesus begins to pray and as he does, he undergoes a transformation. The word used here in the Greek is that he undergoes a metamorphosis. He is changed completely into a new being – his face looks different, his clothes are glowing. And suddenly we become aware that there are now six figures on the mountain. Elijah and Moses – the greatest of teachers and prophets – have joined them.       Peter and his friends witness all of this. And as Moses and Elijah prepare to leave, Peter cries out, “Wait! This is so much fun! Let’s make three tiny houses. One for you, Jesus, and one for Elijah and Moses!”

But it’s not to be. The moment has passed. A cloud descends and the three friends are scared. And then that voice-coming-from-the-cloud thing happens again: “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” Suddenly, Jesus is alone. And the disciples told no one what had happened.

It’s a magnificently transcendent sort of moment. Just what you might expect on the top of a mountain.

But it’s not the end of the story. Because what happens next is that they come down off the mountain. The next scene is down in the valley.

Let’s pause for just a moment and take that journey with them. Maybe you’ve never stood on top of a mountain – I haven’t. But we’ve all probably been up in a high place in nature. Maybe it was the top of the radio tower hill at Konza or sitting on top of a barn or even flying on an airplane. Remember what it feels like to have that sense of spaciousness? Like everything below looks different and the world below just stretches on and on?

Now….we descend to the valley. Our feet are firmly planted back on the ground. And we are told that a great crowd has come to meet us. People pressing in on all sides. Come to see Jesus. That sense of spaciousness is totally gone. We are back in the thick of the seeming scarcity of everyday life – not enough time, not enough money, not enough food, not enough love to go around. And people are desperate.

One of the desperate ones cries out above the noise of the crowd, “Teacher! I beg you to look at my son. He is my only child!”

Things are not feeling so transcendent anymore. This is not a mountaintop moment and it’s hard to even remember what it felt like up there in the cool, fresh air with Jesus shining and sparkling. Now there is only desperation as the child is struck with a seizure. Some of us, no doubt, avert our eyes. We wonder if there is some place we can escape. We feel so powerless.

The man continues, “I begged your followers to help me, but they could not.”

We like to think, of course, that the disciples aren’t like us. That they were a little more clueless and always messing up. But, really, have we modern disciples fared any better with the demons of our day? We live in a world where children die every day of curable ailments because they cannot access health care, and where children are poisoned by their own water due to the recklessness of elected officials. We have our own demons that we have not yet exorcised, don’t we?

And Jesus, after chastising his followers a bit, does what he almost always does. He heals. He takes the boy into his arms, heals him, and returns him to his father. The story ends well, despite Jesus’s followers ability to “get it.”

So God flashes on a mountain and a voice booms from heaven declaring the importance of Jesus……and God dwells among the people in the valley, bringing a healing salve to those who need it most.

And you might be wondering: well, which is it? Is God up there or down here? Does God dwell on the mountain or in the valleys?

Yes. The answer is yes.

As we move together into the season of Lent, we have a difficult journey ahead of us. The days may be growing longer, but the work of Lent is not so easy. We are called to recommit ourselves to spiritual practices that will deepen and lengthen our connection to the Holy One. We will be asked to bear witness to the most cruel and callous behavior of humans. As we go into the season of Lent, it seems to me that we would do well to pay careful attention to the very last line in this long passage….. “But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness, magnificece, majesty of God.”

Be astounded, friends. For we are held in love by One who is somehow both here and now and above and beyond.

The God of mountains and valleys. Amen.