Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Wade in the Wadi"

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
May 20, 2016
Sermon Text - 1 Kings 17:1-7

I want to thank Scott for sharing his testimony with us this morning. A few weeks ago, at the youth group’s variety show, he blew me away when he offered his art and I knew I wanted to share it during worship sometime soon. When the Romans text about finding hope through adversity came up in the Lectionary, I knew it was the perfect fit. Thank you, Scott.

The topic of somehow struggling to find hope on the other side or - or perhaps even in the midst of - suffering is on my mind a lot these days. Last month, I met with an awesome group of LGBT students and allies on campus. They asked me to come and talk with them about Christianity and how my faith relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. We had a wonderful back-and-forth conversation. Towards the end, one of the students asked me, “When everything seems like it's such a mess, how do you stay hopeful that things will ever get better?”

I wanted to have an easy answer for this person. But I didn't. Instead, I told them the truth: that sometimes I find it really hard to find hope. And that one of the reasons I have to keep coming to church and engaging with other Christians is that I need to keep coming back to our sacred texts and to all of you in order to keep my head and spirit in the game.

Lately, to live in Manhattan, KS, is to feel a bit like a shadow is hanging over us all the time. The presidential election looms in the distance and you just know people are going to continue to be bolder with their hate-speech as the election ramps up. The never-ending attacks on marginalized groups by state governments all over the country is a mess. I hear people say, “Isn't it silly that we’re arguing over bathrooms?” Heck, I've said that. It IS silly. But underneath all the arguing over bathrooms lie the real issues of intolerance, discrimination, and hatred. People who are transgender deal with microaggressions and flat-out-aggressions all day long. They are constantly re-evaluating their safety. Too many have died or have taken their own lives. Lives that are beloved and precious to God. It goes way beyond “silly debates” about bathrooms.

And I know I'm not the only one who breathes a sigh of relief when the Kansas legislative session wraps up. Like, “Oh, good. They can't do any more damage until next year.” These days, I frequently find myself in conversations with people who are actively trying to find a way to get out of Kansas or wish they could. As a fifth-generation Kansan, this breaks my heart. I look around this building that has been here since the 1850s when our faith ancestors came to this state seeking freedom for those who were enslaved and I can't help but feel like good ol’ Rev. Blood is just shaking his head from the Great Beyond. What has our state come to?

For the past week or so and into the foreseeable future, my phone tells me there are thunderstorms forecast every single day. And yet the Lectionary sends us this week the story of a prophet who came in the midst of a drought. Water is funny like that….we need just the right amount. Too much and we run for cover. Too little and life itself seems to dry up.

Elijah comes to the people of Israel in the midst of a drought. Not just any drought, mind. An act-of-God drought. Ugh. I know. I don't like to think of God as one who sends punishments. I prefer to think of God as the one who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rains on the righteous and the unrighteous. That’s the Gospel of Matthew, by the way.

But in the book of 1 Kings, the author had a different understanding of God. It’s very simple: “You do good, you get good. You do bad, you get bad.”

Now, although I'm not particularly keen on this understanding of God, I can certainly see where it comes from. In the First Testament in particular, the people often believed they were being punished because they had evil Kings. And although I don't think God sends droughts when we elect incompetent leaders, I do think that when you make choices like exempting all kinds of people from paying taxes, revenue falls short, roads start to crumble, and schools have no money. Cause and effect. Bad governance does often make us wonder if someone is standing behind a curtain finding new ways to make life more challenging. I just happen to understand it more as natural consequences instead of God sending a drought.

But in 1 Kings, it's clear that the author believed God was sending a drought - a really bad one. So bad, in fact, that we are told there won't even be any DEW for years. Why is God so mad? God is mad at King Ahab. Ahab who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, more so than ALL who were before him.” A bad leader. A really bad leader.

The author of 1 Kings has given us a loooooong list of leaders. Some awful, some decent, some middling. Something about reading that list brings me comfort. Just knowing that the arc of history is long and that good leaders often follow terrible ones and vice versa….I dunno. It makes me calm down a bit when I can remember that our lives are about so much more than the people who lead us and that our worth doesn't change every two to four years with the election cycle.

Another thing that brings me comfort and hope is Elijah’s arrival. In the midst of the rule of King Ahab - a really bad King - God sends Elijah the Tishbite. We don’t know much about him, really. He appears out of nowhere, bringing the Word of God to the King. Now you have to realize just how incredibly stupid-brave this is. Kings hate receiving bad news. And sometimes they shoot the messenger.

But this is what it means to be a prophet. Prophecy is not about telling the future. Prophecy is about shining a light on injustice, speaking truth to power, standing up to those who are in control and speaking words they don't want to hear….and doing all of it with the hope that there is a possibility real change might yet occur.

The Elijah stories are some of my very favorite in all of scripture. This guy that we know nothing about who seemingly appears out of nowhere, boldly makes his entrance by bringing bad news to a bad King. There are many more theatrics to follow - and, fear not, we’re going to get to them later in the month of June. We’re going to be following Elijah, the one King Ahab called “troubler of Israel” for several weeks.

We’ll travel with him to the widow’s home in Zarephath and we will see the bag of flour and jug of oil that wouldn't run out - even in the midst of drought. We'll go with Elijah to the top of Mount Carmel, where he will stage a massive showdown with the King’s minions. And we’ll run alongside him as he flees the Queen, who wants his life, finding himself in the middle of nowhere. Desperate, at the end of his rope, ready to give up….only to find himself, once again, in the midst of God’s unfailing love. If you want to read ahead and get yourself ready for the rest of this sermon series, you will find all these stories in 1 Kings chapters 17-19.

But before all of that happens, there's this small moment before it all begins. On one hand, it may seem insignificant. Compared to all of the fireworks on Mount Carmel, it’s certainly not so glamorous. The Lectionary committee must have thought it didn't matter much, because they left it out when the picked the passages about Elijah.

But I wanted to include it, because I think it's awfully important. Before he traveled to bring and share hope with the widow in Zarephath, before climbing Mount Carmel for the showdown, before running for his life...Elijah has a conversation with God and God tells him, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”

A wadi is a place where water collects when there is plenty of runoff from ample rain. In a drought, it becomes dry, which is why Elijah is only able to stay at the wadi for a brief period of time before the water runs out. But it is the place God sends him as the troubles begin. After he tells King Ahab trouble is coming, God sends him to a place where he can be sustained and prepared for the work ahead. God sends him to a place where he can remember that the rains have come in the past….and where he can perhaps learn to have faith that they will come again in the future.

A wadi is the perfect place to spend time near the beginning of a drought. The wadi is God’s gift to the Prophet Elijah in the midst of hard times. We all have our own wadis, I suppose. Where are yours? Has God shown them to you? Have you traveled to them to get away from the drought-areas of your life? Have you shared these places of refuge with others who might need refreshment during a drought?

God, in the midst of a drought, when leaders are hard to trust, and trouble feels close at hand, send us to the wadi. Help us to find those places of refuge and refreshment that we need to sustain us so that we can continue to do your work. Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Wisdom Calling"

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
May 22, 2016
Sermon Text - Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

If you'll allow me to geek out for a moment….this week was one of those glorious weeks where the stars aligned, the Spirit whispered, I actually noticed and the voice of a prophet spoke directly to me through words on a page….and then when I went and looked at the Lectionary Texts for the week it all just kind of melded together in a beautiful way.

The prophet I’m speaking of is a man named Richard Rohr. Unlike so many of our prophets, he's not dead. He lives in Albuquerque. He was born just down the road in Topeka. Father Rohr is Roman Catholic - ordained in the Franciscan tradition. He is the author of numerous books and the one I'm reading right now is called Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.

He made me sit up and pay attention when he said this:
“We cannot attain the presence of God because we're already totally in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.”

Hold that statement next to a more ancient text: “Does not Wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand…”

The Holy, personified in Proverbs as Lady Wisdom, is literally standing in the middle of the streets shouting at us to PAY ATTENTION!

“We cannot attain the presence of God because we're already totally in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.”

What makes it so incredibly difficult to pay attention  and realize we are always and everywhere in the midst of God? I can think of a few things: my unending to do list; my smartphone; my sciatic pain; my mind that is prone to wander and criticize; my fears; bills that must be paid, bodies that must be washed, exercised, tended….we could go on and on, yes?

Father Rohr says that there is something else that stands in our way of recognizing the presence of God: too much. Too much of everything. He writes, “In our culture, we suffer from, among other things, a glut of words, a glut of experiences, and, yes, a glut of...books and ideas.”

The great religions, it seems, exist to help us sift through the glut and focus on what really matters. Rohr says, “All religious teachers have recognized that we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught to see.”

We have to be taught to see….and Lady Wisdom is a highly qualified teacher. Listen to her words: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. God created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

The image of Lady Wisdom, present at the dawn of creation, is fascinating because in orthodox Christian thought, we tend to think of the three figures of the Trinity as co-existing before creation. Lady Wisdom’s presence seems to have gone unnoticed.

Today is Trinity Sunday - having just received the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are given a Sunday to ponder anew the Trinity, and the folks who put together the Revised Common Lectionary thought it made sense to throw in this other character: Wisdom. I wonder why?

There are probably many reasons, but the one that resonates with me is this: the Trinity, as a concept, has often been used in very legalistic ways. Christians through the centuries have fought mightily over it and have struggled to make sure their version WINS.

But what if the Trinity is actually more useful if it's a reminder of what we don't understand? After all, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” is awfully confusing. Even if you use the old children’s sermon trick of talking about how ice, snow, and steam are all've got to admit that the Trinity is still awfully strange.

Perhaps, by inserting Lady Wisdom into the mix, the Lectionary committee helps us to see that the Trinity is more useful when it reminds us that the one we call God exists outside of a persona, outside of a box, outside of doctrine (no matter how carefully considered). The Holy exists in Community - God is beyond being consolidated into one distinct being - and that Holy Community is revealed to us in many images, many names, many identities - not just three.

As the hymn writer Brian Wren bears witness:
Bring many names, beautiful and good, 
celebrate, in parable and story,
Holiness in glory, living, loving God. 
Hail and Hosanna! Bring many names!

God is beyond being defined narrowly. God is beyond being located in one place or one persona. God is fully present in each and every moment, each and every person, each and every animal, each and every blessed part of creation.

It’s a little overwhelming once you really start to ponder it.

Father Rohr says, “We desperately need some disciplines to help us know how to see and what is worth seeing….and what we don't need to see.”

It seems to me this statement is true. It applies to the glut of information that accosts our senses each day. We need help figuring out how to see correctly.

It applies to our experiences of our own selves. We are often overwhelmed, paralyzed, discomforted by what we see when we take stock of who we are. We need help figuring out how to see correctly.

It applies to our experience of the Holy. Lady Wisdom may be shouting the street and God may be present everywhere, but why, then, is she so darn hard to hear? We need help figuring out how to see.

There are no shortages of spiritual practices out there that can help us learn to see: praying, fasting, giving alms, sabbath-keeping, hanging laundry, digging up potatoes, holy listening, running like the wind, sitting with purpose.

Having tried all of the above, I can tell you this: it's not a one-size-fits-all. What works for me may not work for you. And what works for you today may not work for you next week or next year. It's an ongoing quest to find a way to orient our very selves towards the Holy that is among us, to turn towards God, to open our awareness to the presence of the Holy that is ever-present.

I am going to pass around hazelnuts right now. You are invited to take one. Don't eat it. Why on earth am I handing out hazelnuts?

Well, these hazelnuts are in honor of Julian of Norwich. She was born in England in 1342 and was a Christian mystic. When Julian was about thirty years old, she became very ill and almost died. After her recovery, she was given a series of visions, which she describes in her book Revelations of Divine Love.

She writes:
And in this [God] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus, 'It is all that is made.'

I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness.

And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

A little later she continues:
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “one-d” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

The Spirit speaks through a hazelnut. Who knew? What an odd thing.

Julian knew. She knew because she lived her life in such a way that she tried to tune herself to the presence of the Holy in each and every breath. She knew because she cultivated rich and purpose-filled spiritual practices that nurtured her faith, opened her to a God she believed was Stillspeaking, and taught her how to see.

The good news for this day is that some things have not changed since the 14th century when Julian held a hazelnut in the palm of her hand. Some things haven't changed since the Book of Proverbs was written, centuries before Christ was born.

Lady Wisdom, who was present in the chaos that preceded Creation, and is present in the midst of the year 2016, still stands at the crossroads, begging for our attention, freely offering the Holy to us.

And Father Rohr is still right: “We cannot attain the presence of God because we're already totally in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.”

And so I invite you to take this hazelnut home. Put it somewhere where you might notice it and begin to wonder what your life might look like if you took seriously the task of learning to see, shifting your awareness orienting yourself more intentionally towards the Holy.

It doesn't have to be a total life transformation (though it certainly could be). It could be something as simple as finding five minutes of quiet in your day to gently hold something as small as insignificant as a hazelnut, opening your spirit to the Holy, shifting your gaze to the Divine, emptying your mind to make room for God to play, and bringing awareness to the beautiful truth that you exist because God is loving you into being with each and every breath.

Like the hazelnut, you last and ever shall because God loves you.

Like that little nut, you have your beginning by the love of God.

God made you. God loves you. And God keeps you. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

"Wind. Fire. Water. Pentecost."

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 
May 15, 2016
Sermon Text - Acts 2

(Note: during the reading of Acts 2, "flames" made of red, orange, and yellow ribbons that were tied to our balcony were cut loose and fluttered to the floor.)

As we begin the sermon today, I'd like to invite you to go ahead and pick up any remaining flames from the floor. For the rest of the worship service today, if you feel the movement of the Spirit....if you get a little tickled, if you have an aha moment, if you notice God, if you feel....I don't know, SOMETHING, you're invited to wave that flame around in the air. You might be the only person waving. That's okay. You might end up dancing. That's okay. Just let yourself be open to what God is doing in our midst. 

Okay. Logistics aside: what's this whole Pentecost thing about? Did you think it was just for Pentecostals? Nope. The spirit of Pentecost is for all of us who are trying to follow Jesus. Pentecost is a once-a-year celebration of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst, a commemoration of the day the Church went public, and an opportunity to recommit ourselves to nurturing a Pentecost spirit here and now. 

Before Jesus died, he promised his followers that they would not be left alone after his death. In John 14 he explains to them that God will send the Holy Spirit to teach them and remind them of everything Jesus said and did while he was on Earth. The word that gets translated into English as "Holy Spirit" there is the Greek word "Paraclete" - comforter, advocate. And so we learn that we will not be abandoned after Good Friday - instead God will do a new thing, sending the Spirit to comfort us, advocate on behalf of Jesus, and continue to teach us and help us remember. 

In some parts of Christianity, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the "shy member of the Trinity" because it seems that Jesus and God get all the airtime. I don't know who you pray to when you pray...Jesus, God, the Spirit, someone else entirely. And I don't know how often you think about the Holy Spirit. I think about her pretty much every day because she is the way I most acutely feel and notice God's presence in my life. When I am down and out and need someone to wrap me in a hug, I feel God's arms through the Spirit present in a kind word or gesture from someone dear to me. When I am pumped up, excited, on top of the world, it is the Spirit's adrenaline rushing through my veins as I whoop and rejoice and give thanks for our Stillspeaking God.

And one thing I can tell you for sure: the Spirit is alive and well here at First Congregational UCC. Before I came here, I asked the members of your search committee to tell me about a particularly meaningful moment they had experienced in worship or another setting of the church - a "Holy Spirit" moment. They were all able to reflect and remember a time they had felt the Spirit moving in this place. And since I have come and joined you, I have often felt that I actually wouldn't mind if the Spirit would chill out for a few minutes or perhaps take a small vacation. The Spirit is so present here in our worship, in our shared ministry....I often feel a little out-of-control as if I'm not sure whose really in charge at all. Opportunities to love loudly pop up and we grab them. New people come through our doors and we embrace them. The Spirit moves and we do our best to grab on and follow. I experience our congregation as a Pentecost-Church...and it can be both exhilarating and disorienting.

Mostly, though, I'm incredibly thankful to be serving alongside who are open to the movement of the Spirit in our midst, you who are always ready to get out there and try something a little nerve-wracking or outside of your comfort zone. I give thanks for the Pentecost-flavor that bubbles to the surface every day in our congregation. 

And so....this Spirit that whispers and moves and breathes even now. Where did it come from? The Holy Spirit arrives in grand style in the 2nd chapter of Acts. It is described as a mighty wind, a violent wind....I'm guessing those of us who live on the Great Plains would already be ahead of the game if the Spirit showed up as a mighty wind again today. We're no stranger to violent gusts and the transformations they can cause. 

So the Spirit arrives in a giant gust and the entire house is filled with new air: fresh oxygen for life and growth. Next comes fire. The imagery here is odd. If you have no idea what a "divided tongue of fire" looks like, you're not alone. I think this is one of those situations where no one could quite describe what happened on this mystical day, so they just did the best they could and it kind of comes out in a nonsensical way. As far as I can tell, there's no trick to the Greek here. It's literally just "tongues like fire."

So it's hard to establish a visual in my head for what's happening here, but the ramifications of the Spirit's actions are clear. The wind - the word for it in Hebrew is ruach (breath) - that same breath that blew over the water of the deep at Creation -  the wind breathes new life into this gathering and then the fire comes. Fire is a refining force. Fire burns away the old and makes space for the new. Fire tests and tries and what emerges after a fire is stronger. 

And so these disciples - those who followed Jesus and learned from him - now begin to live ever more fully into their role as apostles (teachers). Filled with the new, fresh breath of the Spirit, set ablaze by these mysterious flames, they begin to dream, to prophesy, to preach. They speak in words that, at first, sound a bit like gibberish....but people from all over the city begin to flock to the house because they hear their own languages being spoken. The apostles have been given the gift of relevancy! They can share their experience of God through Jesus Christ in ways that can be heard far beyond their own culture. 

Peter, the head preacher of the group, stands up and begins to do his thing. He captures everyone's attention. He tells about how he believes they are living in a unique time. A time in which the old, the young, the children, those who are enslaved, and people from every walk of life will be called upon to dream aloud, share visions given to them by God, and tell bold truths that will bring about justice. He shares the story of Jesus's death and new life. And when he finishes, the people present were "cut to the heart" and wanted to act. They asked what they should do and Peter told them that they, too, could be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter tells them that God's extravagant love is for them, their children, for everyone everywhere....that means you and me, too, folks. 

And so, here comes the water - the waters of Creation, the water that Jesus turned into wine, the water that bubbled in the Jordan as Jesus emerged after his own baptism and the Spirit descended on him like a dove....the waters of baptism. 

Of those who had gathered in Jerusalem that day, about 3,000 people were baptized and devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to shared fellowship, to breaking bread together, and praying with one another. 

So you can see how Pentecost has been come to be known as the "birthday of the Church." It was our debut, our initial public offering. It was the moment when the Church really solidified as something new and different and began to wrestle with what it might be like to have a real diversity of people come together to live and move and breathe and minister in the Spirit together. 

Living in diversity sounds like a grand idea. But, eventually, when the fire fades and we forget how to speak one another's languages, it's a whole lot harder than it sounds, am-I-right? The folks in the Early Church were no stranger to this. Acts 2 ends with this beautiful, hunky-dory scene as they are all living together and sharing everything they own. But it doesn't last long. By the fifth chapter of Acts they are back to living in fear, some of them hoarding their possessions and all fighting over who gets to serve at table and who's in and who's out. Come, Holy Spirit, because you KNOW we still need you in our midst or we will always fall back on who's in and who's out. Sigh. 

But when we are filled with the Spirit? What we are able to do in God's holy name is beyond the bounds of our wildest dreams. As Jesus said in his opening sermon in Luke:
The Spirit of God is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
God 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 God's favor. (Luke 4:17, NRSV)

That's all some pretty major stuff. And Jesus told his disciples they would carry on in his absence, doing the same through the power of the Spirit. 

The disciples were really not all that different from you or me. They were trying to follow Jesus. And when they opened themselves to the power of the Holy Spirit on that Pentecost day, their worlds were rocked. They were broken clear open....filled with new breath and life, tested and refined with fire. Through the cool waters of baptism, they were baptized into a a diverse community. A community that walked together and held together, even when it seemed to be stretched to the point of breaking. And they did it all with the assurance that they were never alone. They were accompanied by an Advocate, a Comforter, the Holy Spirit. 

That same Spirit accompanies us today. Breaking us wide open. Filling us with new life and breath. Testing and refining us with flames. Calling us into communities throughout our baptism. Communities that aren't always comfortable and are sometimes challenging to maintain. And doing it all so that we, like Peter, can continue to testify to the things God has done in our own lives...the ways we have been transformed and saved....and offering that hope, that new life, that transformation to others who may need it. 

Thank God for Pentecost. Amen.