Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Imagine That"

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
July 17, 2016
Sermon Text - Luke 10:38-42

I’m not sure I would ever want to be assigned to a group project with Martha or Mary. Martha would be the one who frantically e-mails the group 14,000 times leading up to the due date - making edits, adding new content, perhaps even suggesting a significant change in the entire direction of the project on the last day. She would also be the one who griped to other group members that so-and-so wasn’t carrying their weight and “do you think we should tell the professor? Because, really, it’s not fair that we’re doing all this work and so-and-so has done almost nothing.” At the end of the day, sometimes it’s nice to have Martha in your group, I suppose, because you’ll probably get a good grade.

A confession? I’m certain I’ve been a bit like Martha at times in my life. It’s true. And maybe you’ve been Martha, too? Imagine that.

But what about Mary? Would we all be thrilled to have Mary join our group? Mary’s the one who goes really deep with the material. She’s not so worried about the grading rubric. Instead, she wants to really learn. She wanders off, reading extra books that don’t seem to be relevant to the work at hand. And when you ask her to help you format the bibliography on the last day, she just looks at you blankly and says, “Really? Oh, I don't think that will matter too much. Let’s not worry about it. But! I was thinking maybe we should add a slide about this article I found this morning. I think our professor would really be interested in this work.”

A confession? I’m fairly certain I’ve also been Mary a time or two in my life. Perhaps you, too, can identify?

This story. Five short verses that often hits us in a very personal way. There’s not much here to work with….just five short verses and a lot left unsaid. Which means, of course, that people have been reading between the lines for centuries now and there are more interpretations than you could shake several sticks at.

I don't know how this passage hits men when they hear it, but I know from talking to lots of woman - and from being a woman myself - that it can be a really hard one for women to hear. We get so few stories in the Bible. And when there are stories about women, we are typically unnamed or mostly known as accessories. So I feel excited when I see that Martha is welcoming Jesus into HER home. HER home. She has her own home. She exists as her own person - not by virtue of her relationship to a man. And she has a sister. And they are welcoming Jesus and they are named and they are the stars of this story. Imagine that!

And then, five short verses later, I’m kind of cringing. Because it suddenly seems like every women-competing-against-other-women and women-being-backed-up-against-some-arbitrary-patriarchal-wall story can imagine.

Martha, God bless her. Martha is doing it right. She’s playing by the rules. She lives in a society that not only values hospitality (remember the story from just last week about the Good Samaritan? That was hospitality, right?). Her culture not only places a high value on hospitality but the burden of offering that hospitality often falls right on the shoulders of women. That is to say, of course, that their time was not entirely different from our own, where women are still most often the ones who are tasked with the day-to-day tasks of feeding, cleaning, preparing, serving in households all around the world. Things are not as rigid as they used to be, of course, but we are still nowhere near a place where the tables have turned and these are thought to be primarily male tasks.

So Martha is doing what she’s supposed to do. And you really can’t blame her for being annoyed that her sister isn’t helping. I think we all know that feeling, yes? You’re following the rules, doing what you’re expected to do and the other people don’t do their part. They’re off doing something else. And so the work becomes overwhelming  and you are distracted and worried and annoyed and frustrated….and maybe you’ve even been known to say it out loud to a trusted friend.

Only Martha’s trusted friend isn’t having it. Jesus does not respond as expected. Martha seems so sure that he will see it her way. That he will tell Mary to hop up and get to work - fulfill her duties, do what she’s expected to do.

But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus notices how Martha is feeling
(“You are worried and distracted with many things”) but he refuses to allow Martha’s frantic anxiety to affect Mary’s decision to sit and listen.

What Mary has chosen to do is subversive in some pretty serious ways. She’s not just sitting at Jesus’s feet because they’ve run out of chairs. She sits at Jesus’s feet because she has taken on the posture of a disciple. By positioning herself there (and let’s notice she’s probably not alone. Jesus would have been traveling with his entourage and there would have also been men sitting at his feet that night, ready to learn). By positioning herself there, Mary makes a bold claim. She claims to be one of Christ’s disciples. A female disciple? Imagine that!

This was not business as usual for women in their culture. Women would not have been expected to learn at the feet of a great teacher or claim that they could be a disciple. I think when we allow ourselves to get too bogged down in our own feelings about this text - when we jump too quickly to imagining ourselves into it and wondering “am I am Mary or a Martha?” We may miss out on an opportunity to notice something really important in Jesus’s behavior.

I like to imagine Jesus wearing a t-shirt in this interaction that says, “THIS IS WHAT A RADICAL FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE.”

Because Jesus, especially in Luke’s gospel was unabashedly a feminist. Luke’s version of Jesus is generally subversive. There’s lots of talk of turning the world upside-down throughout this gospel. “Blessed are the poor” and all that good stuff. Jesus in Luke is constantly seeking out those who have been rejected by society and affirming them. That includes the poor, the sick, the sinners, the Samaritans...and it includes women. Luke’s gospel includes women in practically every way….women bless Jesus, women are affirmed in parables, women who are outcasts are welcomed, women are the ones who witness the Resurrection.

And a named woman, Mary, sits at Jesus’s feet, claims her right to be his disciple….and he affirms her. Imagine that.

And, oh, I know. I know that if you think of yourself as a Martha then it’s all too easy to give Mary the side-eye and be frustrated with Jesus because he doesn’t see it your way. And he’s a little rude about it. I know. I have sometimes thought of myself as a Martha, too.

But might I suggest that it’s not all that helpful to think of ourselves as Martha or Mary? Because I really believe most of us have been both at some point in our lives. We have probably all been the one running around frantically trying to get everything ready. And we have probably all been the one who sat down, ready to learn, and said, “Oh, let the world turn without me for this one night. I have other plans.”

And I know. I 100% absolutely KNOW that many of you in this room have done just what Jesus affirms in this story: and that’s be yourself, even when others have discouraged you from doing so.

That truly seems to be what this story is about. In this story, Jesus does something radical. He affirms a woman who has boldly chosen to be his disciple. And even when there is pushback - when Martha says, “Hey, Jesus. Did you notice you’ve got a woman sitting there at your feet?” Jesus doesn’t back down. He gently but firmly affirms Mary’s decision to claim her status as a disciple.

I’m not convinced that when Jesus affirms Mary it’s meant to be prescriptive for everyone in all of time. I don't see that he is saying, “Sitting and listening is ALWAYS better than bustling and serving.” Jesus was smarter than that. Surely he knew that action and service were necessary. After all, he just finished telling a story about love in action. If the Good Samaritan hadn’t acted and offered hospitality, that story would have looked very different. Jesus affirmed action and service many times throughout his life. This is not an either-or thing.

Instead, what I see Jesus affirming as “the one thing,” “the better part,” that which “will not be taken away” from Mary is her bold decision to be who she is called to be. Mary, in this moment at least, has a firm understanding of herself. She knows that, despite society’s expectations, she is called to be a disciple. And she is willing to risk ridicule and even the anger of her family to follow that call.

Jesus is affirming her careful self-awareness and her boldness in being who she is called to be, despite the obstacles in her way. That’s the one thing.

The one thing is to know who you are. And this is a story not only for women, but also for men and people of all genders. Because we know that the world will never be short on opinions about how we are supposed to behave because of our sex or gender. And we know it goes beyond gender, too. The world will place expectations on us based on our looks, our size, our age, our race, our socio-economic status, our abilities, our health, our sexual orientation, and on and on and on.

But Jesus says the one thing is to know who we are. The best thing. The thing that should never be taken from us is that knowledge of who we are.

Earlier this week I was on the phone with my good friend Leah. Leah is one of those people who clearly knows who she is. She astounds me with her rootedness, her unapologetic I-am-who-I-am-ness. And as we were talking about how challenging it can be to figure out how to prioritize time and energy in our lives, she said to me, “It’s like the story for Sunday, Caela. You have to know what the one thing is. And not get distracted by the other noise.”

Later in that same conversation she told me that every Sunday at her church, she tells the kids the same story I told our kids earlier today: Look at your thumbprint and know that you are the only person who will ever have that thumbprint. You are unique. Beloved. You are the only you who will ever exist.

One of our most important tasks and as followers of Christ is to take seriously the call to grow more fully into the people we were created to be.

We aren’t called to fit into these neat little boxes arbitrarily created by our culture. We aren’t called to try and emulate someone else (as much as I would love to be more like my friend Leah, that’s not who I was created to be). We aren’t called to worry so much about how others will perceive us if we’re doing something that goes against society’s expectations.

We are called to look deep within. Down, down, down past the noise of the worries and distractions of the world. Down to the place where God resides. We are called to listen to that still speaking voice and see who God dreams for us to be. And then we are called to walk boldly into the fullness of that call. My call is not your call. Your call is not the same as the one of the person sitting next to you. Martha’s call was not Mary’s and vice versa.

Who is God calling you to be? What is God calling you to do? If you weren’t so worried about what others might think of you, who might you be?

Because this is the good news from the story of Mary and Martha: Jesus frees you to grow more fully into that person. Jesus affirms your longing to break out of the box the world has placed you in. Jesus stands next to you, ready to defend you when others push back.

Jesus gently but firmly affirms the boldness of YOU. Just as God created you. The only person who will ever have that thumbprint that’s resting in your lap right now.

Imagine that.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

"Just Love."

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
July 14, 2016
Sermon Text - Luke 10:25-37

It’s one of those weeks where a preacher looks at the texts assigned in the Lectionary and then looks at the news going on out there in the world and has to just shake her head a little bit. The parallels are too bizarre.

Seems like most days this week, we woke up to bad news. First in Baton Rouge, then in Minneapolis, then in Dallas. News of continued violence day after day in the midst of a summer that's already had more than its fair share of violence - not just here at home, of course, but around the globe.

In the face of these ongoing horrors, some of us weep. Some of us mourn. Some of us grit our teeth in anger. Some of us throw our hands up, sick and tired of feeling like nothing ever changes. Some of us turn away, unable to stomach the bad news that just seems to keep coming  and coming and coming.

None of these responses are wrong. They just are what they are. I'll confess I've been known to have all of these responses….sometimes in one day.

After sitting with the story of the Good Samaritan this week and having my heart broken wide open by the news that just keeps coming in waves, I honestly don't have it in me to preach a big ol’ prophetic “we have to fix all the systems that perpetuate violence!” sermon today. Of course we must keep working to fix the broken systems that perpetuate violence and thrive on racism. That’s a given. Justice work never seems to be finished. Jesus once said that we would always have the poor with us….and I've always kind of thought that's because we will always have unjust systems with us. It's a lifelong struggle, this working for a world where all are respected as beloved children of God, all are loved, all are free, all are treated as precious. The struggle is not likely to end anytime soon, so of course we can always do more.

And that is, of course, one takeaway we could find in the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s such a powerful story because Jesus left out just enough of the details to make it inviting. We can imagine ourselves into all of the characters. We can wonder about all of the information that's left out. We can turn it over again and again to find new truths. That's the beauty of a parable - it doesn't have one right answer. It contains many truths.

The story begins like this: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk down the Jericho road. This is not just any road. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the speech he gave the day before he was killed, talked about a trip he and Coretta once took to the Holy Land. He says he noticed right away that the Jericho road is dangerous. It’s remote, winding. MLK said “it's really conducive to ambushing.” In short: it's not a place you'd really want to be walking alone. And if you were alone and you saw someone else injured on the side of the road, you might not want to stop for fear of what would happen to you.

So a priest and a Levite see this injured person - left for dead. And they do not stop to help. Over the centuries, people have wondered and puzzled over why they didn't stop. I mean, these are the “good guys.” Respected religious authorities. They should stop. Why didn't they stop? Some say that they didn't want to potentially risk their own religious purity by touching blood or a dead body. Others, like Dr. King, have surmised that they were scared. Because, you know, you look around and you're in this remote place and this guy has obviously just been robbed violently….maybe those robbers are still around and they'll attack us, too.

I have another theory to add to the mix - one that came to me this week as I'm watching so many in our own time struggle through the ongoing pain present in our own world. Maybe they were just tired of bad news. It's a dangerous road. People were probably hurt there all the time. We don't know - maybe they passed injured people on the road all the time. You know, you see one injured person - that first time, it's a shock and you DO something. But when the bodies keep coming day after day, week after week...eventually you start to get tired. Eventually, even the kindest person finds that it's difficult to keep their heart open to the pain in the world. Compassion fatigue. It's real.

We don't know why they didn't stop.

What we do know is this: when Jesus tells the story, the hero is neither the priest nor the Levite. And this is a formulaic kind of thing….it would have been common to tell a story and have three characters. The first and the second get it wrong. They've heard stories told like this before. They know the first two are going to get it wrong. They're waiting for the third person because they know they're going to be the hero - the one who gets it right.

So the listeners are waiting for the third person to come and save the day. Imagine their surprise when the hero is a Samaritan. Very unexpected. Because the people listening to this story would not have generally held Samaritans in high regard. They were the Other. Not expected to play the hero.

And yet - the Samaritan is the hero. Not only does he stop to help the injured man but he goes above and beyond, taking him to safety and leaving money with another person to ensure his continued healing and safety.

Dr. King says it quite beautifully: he says that when the priest and the Levite saw the injured man on the side of the road, they asked themselves, “If I stop and help, what's going to happen to me?” But King says that when the Samaritan saw the injured man he asked himself, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Jesus is telling this whole story in response to a lawyer who is asking him how to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, “Well, it's pretty simple. Look at your law books there. What do they say?” The lawyer knows the answer. He's got the head knowledge. He reads, “We're supposed to love God with all our strength, all our soul, all our might….and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

The lawyer isn't dumb. He understands that it's nearly impossible to love so broadly. So he asks a follow up question, hoping to find a way to make it all a little easier (I really like this guy). He says, “Yeah, Jesus. But who exactly is my neighbor?” And then Jesus tells this story.

This story is about a lot of things. It's about who is in and who is out. It's about the silliness of ever assuming anyone is out (because, spoiler alert: we’re all in). Dr. King preached another sermon on this text, earlier on in his ministry, and he said this story is not just about stopping to help someone who has already been injured. It compels us to ask, “Why is this person injured?” And to find ways to intervene and change systems and structures that continue to hurt people again and again. It's not enough to keep reducing beloved humans into hashtags. We have to figure out how to dismantle the racism and militarism that enables the killings. It's not enough to mourn the lives of five beloved humans who were killed on Thursday night in Dallas while trying to do a hard job. We have to reckon with a history of white supremacy that wrongly convinced the shooter that violence and retribution was the only solution.

As I think about this text and I think about Dr. King who once said, “I've decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear,” I notice that this story begins with a conversation about love.

Not that sentimental feeling and roses and teddy bears and cuddles. That's all fine, too, but this story is about the love that Christ compels us to have for one another….even if we don't know each other, even if (or perhaps especially if) we don't like each other. A love that goes beyond race, clan, geographic location, or any of the other divisions we humans seem so keen on inventing.

This is the love we share for one another simply because we are all humans - and we are all beloved children of God. This is the love that stems from being rooted in the knowledge that we are loved by God and we are called to love God fully with all our strength, our soul and all our might. From that rootedness...that deep and abiding love for the Holy, we become lovers of all of creation.

This doesn't happen overnight. Some days we get close and other days when we miss the mark entirely. No matter. We keep trying. We keep choosing love.

In the face of hatred, we love.
In the face of violence, we love.
In the face of fear, we love.
In the face of evil, we love.
In the face of terror, we love.
In the face of pain, we love.

We just keep loving and loving  and loving. It is our birthright, as children of the one whose name is Love. We carry a bit of that love inside of us no matter what. It cannot be removed from us.

That love was still burning bright inside of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile when they were killed. That love was still burning inside Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith - the five officers that died in Dallas on Thursday. That love was inside the countless number of people in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq who have died during Ramadan.

That love transcends race, nationality, religion and any other division we invent. It cannot be stopped. It will not be stopped. It does not belong to us, it belongs to the Holy One whose name is Love and who comes in love again and again and again.

And here’s something more - I believe that love even remains inside the hearts of those who did the killing - that love was still there, even though they were unable to access it. I don't believe in good guys and bad guys. I believe in beloved children of Love who can sometimes be led so far astray by the evil forces in this world that they forget who they are.

And when we forget that our name is Love, we forget that we are rooted in Love, we forget that every other person we encounter is named Love….well, when we forget that, then we are capable of doing some really terrible, evil, horrible things.

When the Good Samaritan stopped on the side of the Jericho road, he was living into his birthright as a child of Love. He was in touch with his Source - the one who is named Love. He was in touch with the shared humanity of the person laying on the side of the road. He used all of that awareness and strength to DO LOVE.

I don't know what else to do, folks. But love. We have to keep loving. In the face of all the horrors, we keep loving. We remember we are loved and we keep loving. It's the main thing - maybe even the only thing that matters.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Make a Joyful Noise"

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
July 3, 2016
Sermon Text - Psalm 66

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend three days at Pendle Hill - a Quaker retreat center on the outskirts of Philadelphia. As I've told many of you since returning, I went in search of rest, rejuvenation, and connection with colleagues….all things that sustain me in my ministry and my living. I was not anticipating, though, that the Spirit had other plans or that those three short days would become a time of transformation. I'm still sorting through all that transpired there and am utterly grateful for the experience. I am also grateful to serve alongside people who understand the importance of finding time and space for experiences like these. If you've not recently had a chance to consider what spaces allow for your own rest, rejuvenation, connection, and transformation, I hereby suggest that you check out for the rest of the sermon and ponder that very question. Few things in life are more important than knowing where those spaces are and seeking them out regularly.

One of the things I had a chance to experience at Pendle Hill was daily worship in the unprogrammed Quaker tradition. Unprogrammed anything is a joy for me. I love being in places where nothing much happens. It's rare in my life and it's something I have to intentionally seek.

During unprogrammed Quaker worship, there is a lot of quiet. Actually, in the days I was there, I think I spent at least two hours sitting in complete silence. And as I sat there I thought to myself, “Gosh, we use a lot of words in our worship services. A lot of unnecessary words. Maybe I should just stop talking during worship and let the Spirit do her thing.”

That’s not likely to happen because extended silence on a weekly basis is not our tradition. I do think we can learn, however, from the wisdom that exists in other traditions and one of the things I came away from the silence with was a realization that coming to worship in a spirit of intentionality is a game-changer.

You would think that 30-60 minutes spent in silence with a group of people would be basically the same thing every week….but it isn't. The experience of unprogrammed worship changes depending on many things - how those gathered bring themselves that particular day, the weather, world event, the movement of the Spirit, the combination of spirits present in the room. We know some version of this here, too, in our own worship, don't week? There are weeks where I leave after worship thinking, “Wow. I don't really know what happened just now, but something HAPPENED.” And then there are weeks where I leave thinking, “Huh. I don't know what happened just now, but I feel like nothing much HAPPENED.”

And this is okay. I trust that the Spirit moves and even when I leave feeling like nothing much happened, perhaps something HAPPENED for another person, or perhaps we are saving our energy for another day, or perhaps the Spirit is busy elsewhere. That’s okay. To everything there is a season and all that.

There is a time for silence. There is a time for shouting. There is a time for sleepwalking through worship. There is a time for being totally and utterly spellbound by the movement of the Spirit in our midst.

The psalmist speaks to us today from the distant past and reminds us to “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth. Sing the glory of God’s name, give to our God glorious praise.”

I am convinced that those songs of praise don't always sound the time. Sometimes they are quiet whispers or loud shouts. Other times they are a song sung loudly and with gusto (and perhaps even way-off-pitch). Sometimes the sounds of praise are the sounds of babies giggling or preschoolers dropping a toy loudly. The sounds of praise sometimes come out in the grinding of clenched teeth when one of us silently prays in anger, or the release of air just before a tear is shed.

Even silence can be a deafening sound of joy when it is accompanied by shining eyes or a big ol’ smile, you know.

The words of the psalmist and my time spent with a bunch of Quakers whose names I don't even know remind me that part of what is so very important is simply showing up fully. Bringing ourselves to worship, we bring our bodies, our spirits, our minds, our true selves. And we trust that others will do the same...and that God will also show up. Worship is a communal act of faithfulness and trust - lived out in a community that is committed to reaching out to the Holy - sometimes in joy, sometimes in anger, sometimes in grief, sometimes in awe.

But we do it together, no matter what. Week after week after week. You may see people up front in leadership positions, moving the service along, but the act of creating worship is something every single person present does together. We sometimes speak of “the liturgy” - the flow of the service, the prayers, the songs, etc. In our tradition, the liturgy is typically very word-heavy. The word liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” It’s not a performance, put on by the preacher or the musicians or other worship leaders. It’s work that belongs to all who are gathered to worship.

It is my experience that God remains committed to the act of worship and that God shows up whenever two or three are gathered to work together. God shows up and moves on the breath of a prayer, in the heights of the music, in the exquisite beauty of cultivated silence. God works through us and knits us together during this hour of reconnection with the Holy, reconnection with each other, reconnection with ourselves.

It is good to worship together, isn't it? It is good to make a joyful noise to God together. It is good to sit comfortably in silence and notice our breath. It is good to be together and know that the Spirit surrounds and upholds us.

And so, as we come to the table this morning, in just a few minutes, I will invite you to use the time of our offering as an opportunity to more fully center your spirit in this place. The movement that happens in the room when we come to the table is an example of a joyful noise offered to God. Smiles are exchanged, prayers are lifted up in the silence, bodies move to receive the gifts offered, the Spirit of Christ reaches out to us across the ages - God does her part and we do our part. We truly all work together in communion, to find our way to the table where we are nourished and prepared to go into the world and face the week ahead. Joyfully, let us offer our gifts to God’s service and let us center ourselves for the time at the Table.