Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Love Your Mother"

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
April 24, 2016
Sermon Text – John 13:31-35

It was Earth Day on Friday.  I’m really excited that our four-year-old’s preschool class has been learning about composting lately and they are starting a three-week unit on recycling next week. Isn’t that cool?

You know, if you take out a Bible and try to search for passages that are about what we 21st century folks would call “being green” or “environmental stewardship” or “eco justice” you wouldn’t necessarily find those terms. There are a lot of themes that relate to justice that come up over and over again in the Bible. That whole “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” law encapsulates so much of our holy text’s teachings nicely. Time and time again we are told that we must care for the widow, the orphan, the alien. It’s clear that God cares deeply about the way we use our economic resources. The prophets of the First Testament, in particular, have a lot to say about the oppression of those living on the margins. And, of course, Jesus had a lot to say about economic justice, too – that’s why he was so very unpopular with the Roman Empire.

Another theme that comes up again and again, especially in the teachings and actions of Jesus and his early followers, is this idea of radical inclusion. That’s what the long, complicated passage from Acts today is all about. You see, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews – just like Jesus. They had no intention of starting a new religion. They were just seeking to follow God and be the best Jews they could be.

Things got complicated, though, because a lot of non-Jewish people (Gentiles) were also fascinated by Jesus and wanted to learn more about him – wanted to follow him. They didn’t necessarily want to keep all of the laws of Judaism though. For example, there were dietary laws about how Jews should eat….and they weren’t necessarily supposed to share meals with people who didn’t observe those laws. So it was hard for observant Jews to follow Jesus alongside these Gentiles.  

The leaders in the early church spent a lot of time arguing about what to do with all these non-Jews who wanted to follow Jesus. And the passage from Acts is all about this conflict. Peter is in trouble with some of the other leaders because he’s been baptizing Gentiles – a big no-no. He explains his decision to the others by telling them about a vision he had while in a trance. Not once, not twice, but three times a voice told him to eat animals that were considered unclean by his religious standards. And when some strangers (Gentiles) show up and ask him to come on a journey with them, the Spirit gives him a message that permanently altered the entire future of Christianity. The Spirit said, “Make no distinction between them and us.”

Or the way Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Galatia (in modern-day Turkey), “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female….for all are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is major, major, major earth-shattering stuff. And when Peter tells this story to the other leaders of the Early Church….it works. After they heard his story, they “praise God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” They are convinced. And the entire future of Christianity is altered.

The entire Bible, it seems to me, is a story of humanity’s ever-evolving and expanding awareness of God’s limitless love. Because we, as humans, struggle with loving everyone, we tend to imagine a God that only loves certain people, certain groups. But time and time again, the Bible is clear – God’s love is for all.

And on this Earth Day, the story from Acts drew me into that boundless love that God has for his Creation and I pondered anew what it means to be a human being living with – not just ON – our planet. It’s just a tiny little different in phrasing… “I live ON the Earth” vs. “I live WITH the Earth.”

But that slight change in prepositions makes a world of difference. Do we see the Earth as something other and outside of humanity? It is something that exists for our use? Is our goal to dominate, control, conquer it? Or do we exist alongside it? Are we inextricably linked to it? Bound up together for good or ill?

That’s one of the things I love about the image of our Mother Earth. Because the earth is our source. Without it, we do not exist. It reminds me of the realization I had when Maitland was about one year old and we took him on a plane for the first time. I was worried that he’d fuss and freak out. And he did a little. But then he settled in to nurse and continued to do so for the entire flight and I looked into his eyes and realized, “Wow. No matter where we go, it doesn’t actually matter to him. I’m his home. We are connected in a way that makes him feel like everything’s okay as long as I’m there and steady.”

That same connection exists between all kinds of people, of course, not just mothers and children, but also fathers, grandparents, siblings, dear friends, lovers. When you are that deeply connected to another human being that their very presence makes you feel like you are home….that’s love.

If each of us were to nurture that same connection to the Earth, we would be living WITH not ON this planet together. The people of the Bible, of course, understood this more instinctively than we do. They would have marveled at the way we live now….it’s not uncommon for humans today to leave one air conditioned box (our home) to get into another air conditioned box (our car) and travel to another air conditioned box (our work or school or store) and sometimes can go an entire day without so much as looking out a window or spending any time even aware of our Mother Earth.

That’s not living with. That’s not love. That’s not recognizing the mutual dependence we all share with our planet.

I know many of us are well-educated, in an intellectual way, about what it means to care for our Mother Earth. In your bulletin, you have a lovely insert with 25 things we can each do to help care for our planet. And I know that, without even looking at those, we could easily come up with an even longer list of things we can do. We can drive less. We can fly less. We can eat less meat. We can reduce, reuse, recycle. What else? (responses)

And if you’re like me, sometimes being reminded of all those things makes you feel good. Like, “Okay. I’ve got this. I’m going to work on item #5 and then I’ll have done my part to help the planet.”

More often, though, when I ponder a big list of things I can check off a list, I start to feel a little overwhelmed. Like, “Doing all of this would be impossible. And even if I work really hard and give up my car and bike and walk everywhere, if everyone else is still driving the PLANET WILL BE DESTROYED!!!”

So if you hate those lists, please ignore the one that’s in your bulletin. If they’re helpful to you, please hang it up on your fridge.

Regardless of how you feel about those lists, I want to make a wholly different suggestion this Earth Day. It’s not a list. It’s just one thing we can all do for our planet.

Love your mother.

The earth, that is. Love the earth.

In today’s passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples, his friends: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Jesus is, of course, talking about people needing to love one another. And God knows we are still working on that. We’re not even doing a very good job of it these days.

I think Jesus would also have us work on loving the earth, too. The arc of the story of humanity is one that is expansive. We began as people who lived in small family units and slightly larger tribes and groups. We expanded over time and began to organize in nations and regions. Advances in technology and transportation have made it so that we are now easily connected at a global level. And all along the way, the earth has been a part of it. So perhaps now is the time to intentionally nurture that expansive spirit that is our birthright as humans and more intentionally nurture our connection to the earth.

Remembering our inextricable connection to the holy ground in which we live and move and have our being also helps us remember our connection to the Holy and to one another. Unitarian Universalist theologian and environmental ethicist Ron Engle writes about the way Earth Spirituality connects us to the rest of humanity. Because regardless of where you came from or who you are, we all share one thing in common as humans: we are 100% reliant on the earth for our continued survival.

Every single culture grows and uses food. Every single group of people who has ever lived interacts with animals, planets, bodies of water, the air we breathe, the weather. So the next time I meet someone who seems very different than me and I’m having a hard time finding a connection, I think I’ll ask them, “Tell me about what the land was like where you grew up.” Because we all come from someplace and we all live with this planet.

And God is in the midst of all of that living. Our Mother God is inseparable from our Mother Earth. My dependence on the earth and my connection with nature reminds of my connection to the Holy and my reliance on God as the source of my being.

As we hear Jesus’s commandment to love one another, just as we have been loved, we are challenged to go forth and love our world in new ways. What might it look like to focus on loving the earth? Not just checking some items off on a list, but really getting to know the environment in which we live? I have some ideas. I know what helps me, but I am interested in hearing what helps YOU cultivate and grow that love for our Mother Earth. So I’ve created a bulletin board in Pioneer Blachly that has some information about how to love our Mother…but it’s going to be interactive. I’ve set out some slips of paper and markers at coffee hour and I invite you to write down the ways you love our Mother Earth. There are push pins there so you can hang them and in the next few weeks I also invite you to bring in or email the office your photos, poetry, art, reflections that we can hang to add to the collection.

This Earth Day, let us resolve to do as Jesus instructed and love as we have been loved.

In our Mother God we find our source and understand that we are fully loved beyond any boundaries we can possibly imagine. Isn’t that amazing?

Let’s share that love…not just with other humans, but with the entire planet. Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Love Story"

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
April 10, 2016
Sermon Text – John 21: 1-19

You know how, sometimes, when you’re listening to someone speak, you can tell that they’re kind of winding down? The speech or the sermon or whatever it is is coming to an end - you can tell. That’s what happened in the text we heard last week from the Gospel of John. Jesus is with his friends after the Resurrection and there’s the interaction between Jesus and his friend Thomas which gets poor Thomas labeled as a doubter for all of eternity. And then….the story winds down. You can tell it’s over.

The very end of the 20th chapter of John: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Sounds like a nice place to stop, doesn’t it? But there’s more! Chapter 21 almost seems to jump out at us, grabbing us before we close the book at put it back on the shelf: “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius…”

Biblical scholars have long known that this final chapter of John, which is commonly called the Epilogue, must have been added later and by a different author. It just doesn’t fit with rest of the flow. Someone in the community that shaped this text - which was finally written down something like 60-70 years after Jesus lived - someone in that group must have read the original ending and said, “Wait. That’s not quite right. One time, I heard this other story about Jesus on the shore of Galilee after he was Resurrected. I think it would be a better way end. Want to hear it?”

And someone else said, “Yes,” and then the original teller spun this beautiful, memorable story of the Risen Christ and his friends having breakfast on the beach.

One evening, sometime after Jesus was killed, seven of his closest friends were together at the Sea of Galilee. Simon Peter said, “I think I’m going to head out and see if I can catch some fish,” and the others said they’d come along for the ride. The group cast their nets and stayed out all night on the sea. The next morning, they woke up, rubbed the sleep from their eyes, and pulled in their nets….but there were no fish to be found. Disappointment. Disappointment seemed to be the new normal those left behind after Jesus’s death.  

And then they saw a figure dressed in white, standing a ways off on the shoreline. “Boys!” called out the stranger, “No fish today?” “Nope!” They called back across the water. “Well,” the man says, “Try your nets on the other side and see if you find anything.”

Nothing to lose, they give it a shot. And suddenly, their nets are filled to overflowing. One of the disciples says, “It’s Jesus!” And Simon Peter….Simon Peter reacts strangely.

He quickly throws his clothes on and then jumps into the water and begins to swim to the shore. Now, for starters, I find it a bit odd that he’s naked. Last time I checked, that wasn’t a prerequisite for fishing with friends. It’s even stranger considering that he puts the clothes on before he jumps into the water.

Like all good stories, I figure the details are here for a reason. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the storyteller adds in this detail about Peter getting dressed because they want to highlight that Peter is feeling embarrassed. Maybe even ashamed. Just before Jesus’s death - during his trial - Peter was the one who denied his closest friend three times. Peter - the one who was supposed to be the Rock, the firmest of foundations - effortlessly sold out the one he had called Messiah….just to save his own hide.

And so he may be eager to see his friend, but he is also feeling vulnerable - knowing all too well the extent of his flaws and probably wondering a bit how he’ll be received by Jesus when he makes it to shore. So he throws some clothes on - covering his nakedness, putting on just the tiniest bit of armor before he rushes to greet his friend.

The other disciples follow along - making less of a splash. – and as they arrive on the shoreline, the drag their nets full of fish with them. A ridiculous amount of fish - 153 fish! What are they going to do with 153 fish? But Jesus has a plan. He’s got a small charcoal fire going and he’s says, “Come. Sit down. Let’s have breakfast together.” And as they’ve done so many times before, they huddle together and eat. He passes the fish and the bread warmed by the fire. And as the sun rises on another day, you can imagine them making small talk - just eight friends sharing a meal together on the beach.

As breakfast is finished, some of them have to be wondering, “What next? Why are we here? What does Jesus have planned?” And Jesus changes the subject, looking right at Peter. “Peter,” he says, “Do you love me?”

Can you hear the silence? Side conversations stop. All eyes on Peter. “Yes, Lord. You know I love you.” Jesus could have said so many things here, “Really, friend? That’s funny, because I know you denied me three times in my hour of need.” But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says to Peter, “Feed my lambs.”

But Jesus isn’t done yet. Two more times he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And by the third time, Peter is frustrated. Imagine how you might feel if someone you loved deeply kept asking you again and again, “No, but do you REALLY love me?”

I wonder how long it took Peter to realize that, in asking him three times, Jesus was giving him a chance to undo the damage he had done earlier. In professing his love three times, he undid each of the earlier denials. In the early morning - before the cock crowed - gathered around a charcoal fire. Same scene, different outcome.

There’s so very much to pull apart in this story. It’s a story about grace and forgiveness and second-changes. The gift of a do-over: now that’s something special. The opportunity to finally get it right and really be heard. To heal a relationship. To ask for forgiveness without even really saying the magic words - all by the warmth of a fire at daybreak. It’s a beautiful scene.

It’s also a story about the battle between scarcity and abundance, fear and peace. To be so worn-out, broken-down, cast-aside, wrung-out that you’re not really sure what to do with yourself. So you just go back to what you’ve always done. What you’ve always known. You cast some nets and drift off into a fitful sleep...but when you wake up, there’s nothing there. The old ways aren’t working anymore. Everything is all messed up. There’s nothing to eat. Everyone’s hungry. And you’re empty, empty, empty. But then - something happens! Resurrection shows up unexpectedly and suddenly there’s new life, new hope...and an abundance of food. Enough to feed everyone for days. Scarcity doesn’t have the final word. Abundance does. It’s a beautiful scene.

I told David earlier this week that I had about five sermons on this text bumping around in my head and heart. Here’s the one that finally came out on top: this is a love story. It’s about the love between two friends - Peter and Jesus - than cannot die.

These two friends who have been through the thick of it together - through the sick-and-dying-then-healed mother-in-laws to the weddings where the wine runs out and then miraculously shows up again. From the behind-the-scenes-chaos when 5,000 people need to eat and there’s no food to the after-party when the disciples stuff themselves with the leftover bread and fish. From a stormy night on the sea to the mountaintop to the garden to the denial by the campfire to the cross to the empty tomb to the upper room to the beach at daybreak - warming themselves by a small fire and sharing yet another meal.

Peter is the one who gets a nickname. When Jesus first meets him, he says, “Simon bar Jonah, I’ve got a new name for you. I’m going to call you Peter - Petras. The Rock.” In Matthew’s gospel he takes it further, “You’re the rock upon which I will build my church. The gates of hell will never prevail against it. You’re the guardian. And I will give you the keys to heaven itself.”

This is serious love. The kind that cannot die. Even when they fight (“get behind me Satan!”) they make up. When Jesus tells Peter he will deny him three times, I don’t see any bitterness in his accusation. Just a sad, solemn resignation that this is the way things have to be for now.

This is a story of two friends who could scarcely stand to let one another go. So tightly bound together, even death could not stop the love between them. And so, when Jesus comes back for just a bit of unfinished business, is it any wonder that it includes healing this critical relationship?

David Lose, who writes one of my favorite lectionary blogs, really nailed it this week when he said that this story is about belonging. We all need to feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves - like there is a group that surrounds us, supports us, loves us no matter what. Lose notes that belonging is the not the same thing as fitting in. Instead, it’s the opposite. “Fitting in,” he says, “is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is being found acceptable by your group just as you are.”

It seems to me this need to belong is one of the many things we were talking about for over four hours at the City Commission meeting this past Tuesday night. Providing adequate protections for our LGBT citizens isn’t just about the very real and practical need to make sure a clear message is sent that discrimination is not allowed here - it’s also about the clear message we send when codify the civil rights (and I would say, the God-given rights) of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. That message is simple: “We all belong. We, as people who are a part of the Manhattan community, embrace diversity. We know there people in our community from every sexual orientation and gender identity. We all belong here. We are all a part of this community.”

At the Commission meeting, our own Sue Gerth moved me when she spoke about the suicide rates for LGBT youth. Sue spoke about how a city ordinance can send a strong message to youth who have been abandoned by families, friends, faith communities - the ordinance will say to them clearly, “We all belong here.” An ordinance like this could do more than stop discrimination. It could also save lives.

After we have a sense of belonging, Lose says, we need something else. Jesus provides it very succinctly to his friend Peter in this story. Purpose. We need purpose. Lose says we all need to have “the belief that what we do matters. That if we did not show up, people would notice.” Purpose is what motivates us. It can keep us going in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Lose says a sense of purpose can “draw us...into challenging circumstances with joy.”

The charge Jesus gives Peter on the beach that morning after breakfast is simple: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Peter - the rock - is also to become the shepherd. And if Peter is the foundation upon which the Church is built - I can’t help but hear these words as a call to us (the Church), too.

Almost 2000 years have passed since this story was written down, but the feeding the tending….that is work that never seems to end. As long as there are people on this earth, they will need to be fed - with physical food, with spiritual food, with love, with care. And they will need to be gently and relentlessly tended - watched after, guided, protected, celebrated, loved.

Peter’s not here anymore. But the Rock lives on. We are the heirs of this mandate. We are the ones left to feed, to tend. And we do so imperfectly - just as Peter did. But we also do so knowing that we belong. That we are wrapped in the loving embrace of the Friend who will never leave us. The one who feeds us and tends to our needs. Amen.