Monday, March 28, 2016

“The Mess and the More”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
March 27, 2016 - Easter Sunday 
Sermon Text – Luke 24:1-12

Earlier this week, I was working in my office and needed to run upstairs to get something out of the Conference Room. I was working alone in the building that afternoon and as I stood up to leave my office, I had an instinct to grab my phone and take it with me. And then I had a little argument with myself:
“That’s dumb. You don’t need your phone. You’re just running upstairs.”
“But what if something bad happens while you’re upstairs? You might need it. I mean, what if an earthquake happens…or the boiler explodes…or your kids’ school calls because something happened to them…or….?”
“Okay, no, seriously. That’s ridiculous. Don’t take your phone.”

So I didn’t. And I returned from the second floor unscathed. Whew.

It took me a lot of years to discover that my internal, almost-constant monologue about worst-case-scenarios is not necessarily a normative experience. It’s the way my brain is hard-wired. Thankfully, with the help of great therapists, I’ve been able to learn to cope with and control my anxiety.  

But even for people who don’t struggle with serious anxiety, the world can be a scary place. I’m not going to do my typical from-the-pulpit laundry list of all the horrible things going on in the world today....because it's Easter. Instead, I’m just going to let you silently ponder your own for minute. Get in touch with your own sense of just how messed up our world seems these days.


Whether you were contemplating global or local issues – things affecting our entire planet or just your little corner of the world – I’m guessing all of us have things that have us worried or scared, anxious or on-edge.

I wonder how the women felt that first Easter morning as they went to the tomb. Can you see the parade in your mind’s eye? Last week we gathered in this sanctuary and we waved our palms. The rocks cried out. The children raised their voices, “Hosanna! Save us!”

But this week it’s a very different parade. We, who try to follow in the Way of Jesus, have had quite a journey this week. And after all the whispered plans, the cries of acclamation and disgust, the back-room dealings, the ugly scene at Golgotha….here we are. Still.

And this morning there’s another parade. This time it’s much smaller. Just the women. We’re not sure how many women, but in Luke’s gospel three are named – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James – and Luke refers to the “other women” with them. So it seems there are at least five women making the solemn procession.

Here they come  - early to the tomb. They are carrying with them their supplies – spices carefully prepared for taking care of their friend’s body. Did they feel sad? Scared? Tired? Angry? Hopeless? Resigned? We don’t know. We aren’t told.

But here they come – right into the eye of the storm.

It’s been a week of chaos. The destructive forces of evil unleashed in Jerusalem. The warnings from Jesus were clear – he told them and told them that things wouldn’t end well. But they were all surprised, I think, at just how ugly the forces of hate and suppression and oppression can be.

As the winds die down and the storm rests for a bit, the women come in the quiet of the morning to the tomb. Why do they do it? Well, duty I suppose. I mean, I doubt that anyone relishes the idea of anointing a dead body, but someone’s gotta do it. And it’s likely easier done with friends.

So here come the women – five or more of them – in their quieter parade. They walk straight into the aftermath of the Mess of death, ready to do the work that must be done.

Only….not. Because there is no body to be found. That giant heavy stone is gone and the tomb is empty. And suddenly, before they even have time to come up with any theories about what’s going on, two shiny, gleaming men appear to chastise them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

They say this like it makes any sense at all. What are shiny men-angels always so confident and confounding? Don’t they know the dead are supposed to stay dead? Come on. Everyone knows that.

I’m not gonna lie. I’m a little annoyed that the women are chastised. I mean, of course they’re looking for the dead among the dead. That’s how it works. Bodies don’t live again after they’ve died. Duh.

This is, of course, why everyone thought the women were full of a bunch of hogwash. That’s a fancy translation from the Greek word for “idle tale”: hogwash. One of my favorite preachers, Anna Carter Florence, translates it a slightly different way but I can’t bring myself to tell you her translation from the pulpit. She says that Greek word, leros, is more directly translated as an impolite word quite similar to cow manure.

So that’s what the menfolk say. That these women are full of leros - hogwash – cow manure. The dead stay dead. It doesn’t make sense to look for the living among the dead because the dead won’t be alive – they’ll be dead.

Might I pause for a moment and note that you may be in utter agreement with the menfolk. I wouldn’t blame you if you were. I, personally, have never seen a dead person become un-dead. I get it.

But this story – this wild hogwash-tastic story that is at the center of my faith – confronts me again as it does each year. The winds of this powerful gospel-storm knock me off my feet once again and I am breathless with uncertainty and doubt. Because – what if? What if it’s somehow true? What if death isn’t the end? What if there is More?


Honestly, though, wouldn’t it somehow be all so much simpler if we could tidy things up a bit? What if empires played nice and behaved reasonably? What if politicians didn’t spend so much time worrying about who uses which bathroom and, instead, funded our schools? What if corporations could be trusted to always have our best interests at heart? What if we each felt certain there was enough to go around and everyone had enough to share? What if our biggest problem was forgetting to get the trash to the curb in time for morning pick up?

That would be nice. But that doesn’t seem to be the world most of us live in. And it’s not the world these women lived in, either.

I wonder if there’s something about being keenly aware of the Mess that makes the More seem plausible. When you’ve stared death in the face. When you’ve seen evil on the nightly news – or in person – and recognized it for what it is….I wonder if confronting the Mess somehow opens your heart to the possibility of More? I’m not sure.

What I do know is that this is a messy story. I assume that’s why we have at least four different versions of it in our holy texts. Everything’s a bit out of control. And these women have been in the thick of it. They were there as Jesus walked to Golgotha. They were there at the cross as he was executed. And they made their solemn parade to the tomb early on that first Easter morning. They had seen the Mess – walked with Jesus right into the storm head on. They were willing to look right into the eyes of the dead among the dead. They did not flinch.

Peter, too, had seen some Mess. After all, it was Peter who denied Christ three times – most likely out of a desire to save his own hide. And after he had done so, he wept bitterly. He knew what the Mess looked like. He was mired knee-deep in the Mess. He didn’t have to look any further than the closest mirror to see Mess.

But Peter – “But Peter!” – says the author of Luke. “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.”

While the other disciples stood there so sure, mansplaining the women, chastising them for their idle tale…Peter was curious. He went to see for himself. I have to wonder if there was something about his own experience of looking right into the eye of that Messy storm of his own soul that made Peter willing to suspend all common sense for a moment and reach out for the impossible.


“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Well, probably they weren’t really looking for the living among the dead at all. Probably, the women were just going about their business – trying to slog through the Mess of evil and its aftermath and they got accidentally caught in the middle of the More.  

What if showing up for the Mess and its aftermath matters? What if God is in the middle of the Mess and invites us wade into it, too? What if showing up for the Mess is how we find the More?

Easter is a big story. A Messy story. A story that cannot be contained on this one day – thank God Almighty for that.

The spirit of Easter – the More beyond the Mess - lives on today in you and in me. Easter is the impossibility of life from death; triumph from tragedy; love in the midst of hate; hope in the midst of terror.

It may be just the Messy story we need today as we allow ourselves to journey into the More of Resurrection Hope together.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

“Give it Up: Releasing Our Lives and Living into the Larger Story”

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
March 6, 2016
Sermon Text – Mark 8: 31-38

When God came to Sarah and Abraham and promised to make of them a multitude of nations, God was inviting them to live into the larger story. Now, anyone who comes from a big family can tell you it’s not necessarily always smiles and roses. Life in community – living into that bigger story beyond ourselves – can be hard work.

Even in smaller families, it can be hard. There are benefits to a life lived in relationship with others…but there are very real costs, too.

I want to tell you about a friend of mine. She gave me permission to share her story with you and I’m going to call her Jill, which isn’t her real name. My friend Jill has four children. Her oldest child is about to enter kindergarten. When he was 3 or 4, Jill and her husband decided to open their home to another child. They are foster parents to a daughter who is now about 3, I think. About nine months ago, Jill gave birth to their second biological child. And two months ago, in the middle of a cold winter’s night, the folks from CPS showed up on their doorstep with a newborn– the biological sister of their foster daughter. So Jill has four young children – two infants and two preschoolers. I’m telling you – foster parents may be the closest thing to superheroes we have walking among us. If you’ve ever wanted to support foster children or their families, I would encourage you to consider becoming a CASA volunteer. My friend Jill says their CASA has been a real life-saver in their journey.

I look at Jill’s life and don’t really pretend to understand how she makes it through each day. Caring for four children that young – the feeding, the bathing, the diapering and pottying, to say nothing of the intense emotional needs… seems astonishing to me that anyone could survive the relentlessness of those tasks. But then, as if I weren’t already in awe enough, you throw this into the mix: Jill and her husband spend a lot of time in court or preparing for court dates. The biological mother of the foster children wants very much to have them back – of course she does. And Jill loves them as if they were her own children – of course she does.

And so all of these days filled with laundry, and bottles, and diapers, and reading books, and kissing boo-boos, and answering questions…all of these days might eventually lead to a time when my friend only has two children living in her home. The foster children may go back to their biological parents. The uncertainty for everyone must be excruciating.

Loving isn’t easy. Sometimes it looks like this: sitting up in the middle of the night even though everyone else in your house is asleep and staring at a tiny baby. You’ve loved this baby for every one of her sixty-some days on earth. And tomorrow there is yet another court appearance that may determine whether or not she will go to live with her biological mother. And if that happens, you may not see her again. This tiny creature that you have loved with your whole heart. And there’s not much you can do about it all. Most of it is out of your hands. And it hurts. And it’s really, really hard – this loving business.

I think Jesus knew a bit about just how hard it can be to love. As he was approaching his death, he tried to prepare his friends. He knew it was going to be really hard on him. He told them what was going to take place – about the arrest and the trial and the execution. But they didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t believe their love could be taken away from them.

And so Jesus got testy. He said to them, “Look. I know this is hard for you. But if you really think you are one of my followers, you have to get this one thing straight: you have to realize that a time will come when you have to take up your own cross if you want to keep following me. If you keep trying to make things easier on yourselves…well, it won’t work. You’re going to end up empty-handed. But if you are willing to lose your own life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, you will discover your life has been saved.”

Oh, Jesus. Why must you come speaking in riddles and gibberish? How can this be? How can someone lose their own life just to have it saved? And while I’m complaining about how difficult this passage is, can I also just take a moment and note something very important? This passage has sometimes been misused in very harmful ways. Sometimes, people have used this passage to try and comfort or control people who are being abused, enslaved, or otherwise mistreated. People have said, “Oh, this is just your cross to bear. Grin and bear it. God will redeem you through your suffering.”

I don’t believe for one second that’s what Jesus was trying to say here. Jesus knew that he had a very particular cross to bear and he was willing to follow the road he was on until death because he believed he was doing it for the sake of the gospel. That is not at all the same thing as asking someone to stay in an abusive relationship or situation just for the sake of…what? I don’t even know. The point here is that Jesus was telling his followers that a time might come where they might need to suffer for the sake of the greater good – for the sake of bringing others to a better understanding of God’s extravagant love. That’s a completely different thing.

I’ve never much believed that suffering is, in and of itself, redemptive in some way. Or that suffering should be a goal. No, it seems to me that Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

It seems, though, that Jesus had seen just enough of this wide world to understand that suffering often comes. Whether we want it or not. And there are ways – both big and small – that we are sometimes called upon to offer our lives for something bigger than ourselves. And I don’t just mean something like being a solider or rushing into oncoming traffic to save someone who is about to be hit by a car.

My friend Jill is also giving up her own life in order to live into something bigger than herself. She has intentionally chosen a path steeped in suffering, in hopes of sewing tiny, lasting seeds of love that might one day grow into giant, beautiful, shade trees of hope.

Here’s something else about Jill’s story I didn’t share earlier. Her mother-in-law is unwilling to hold or even look at the youngest baby. She has told Jill that she is unwilling to open her heart to this baby – unwilling to risk any attachment – because she doesn’t want to be hurt when he someday leaves their family.

Oh, but to love is to risk! Because our days together are never certain. Let me tell you a story about something stupid I once said. I had a friend who was preparing to marry a man who is about 25 years older than her. In my youthful ignorance, I said something like this: “Don’t you worry about him dying? I mean, he’s going to get old and die long before you do. And won’t that be awful?” She said to me, “Caela, you have no idea how long David’s going to live. He could die tomorrow. You’d still love him for every day that you have him, wouldn’t you?”

My friend understood what Jesus understood – and what he was trying to tell his friends: our days are numbered. We don’t know how numbered, but we do know that we have a limited amount of time with the people and places we love. Lent is a season of the Christian year where we remind ourselves of this important fact: from the dust we have come and to the dust we will return.

In the midst of the certainty that all of our days are finite, it seems to me that the only chance we have of leaning into infinity in some kind of meaningful way is by living for something larger than ourselves. I think maybe that’s what Jesus was trying to help his disciples see – that the only real way to live is to release our own lives for the sake of the larger story.

In closing, I want to share with you this poem, written by the Rev. Michael Coffey as he reflected on Jesus’s mandate to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel:

this road you pave with your words
and your broken body and blood poured

it is not on the lustrous map I bought on Amazon
the Travel Channel has not done a feature on the highlights and hot spots

there is no restaurant tour with stops for every palate
and no kitschy giant dinosaurs to stop and take snapshots with the kids

this way that you speak of with mouth wide open
is every dark dream we ever feared might be true

and all that we wish we could fix about our lot
and the sum of all we reject and hide in the mind’s black box

hoping we will never lose control and crash into the jungle
and have its contents played for all to hear

but you say this path, this bumpy road, this crooked cross highway
is the way of life itself, the gift hidden inside the ugly truth

that we will indeed know suffering no matter our resistance
but oh, letting it befriend us we finally have something to live for

something bigger than ourselves, so trembling we submit
and sink into your eddy of mercy and welcome the news

we live only when we have something we are willing to die for
when we know that our lives in their short span were spent for love