Sunday, October 30, 2016

“Semper Reformanda: Write the Vision”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
October 30, 2016 - Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

We seem to have lost our way. As a nation, I mean.

I can’t be the only one in this room who has recently had hand-wringing conversations about how messed up the United States is right now. As a child, I learned all the appropriate patriotic stuff in school. I was taught that this was the greatest nation in the world. The first to be founded on democratic ideals - with liberty and justice for all. Our ancestors were people who stood up for what was right - often at great cost - to ensure that we could all be free.

Of course, things are never quite as simple as they seem when you’re in elementary school. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it really wasn’t until university that I started to put together a more nuanced version of what it means to claim this nation as my home.

Because, of course, it’s hard to really argue that we’re the greatest nation on earth. You can take essentially every single measurable item you can think of and we won’t be number one. Except perhaps in military spending and number of people locked up in prison. We’re number one at those.

And, yes, we were founded on democratic ideals. But this idea of freedom was initially for a very limited group of people - white, propertied males. And though people have fought and bled to expand the promise of freedom to others, it’s been a long-time coming and is still very much a work-in-progress.

And, yes, some of our ancestors did stand up for what is right. Some of them even did it for the right reasons. But even those who did the right things for the right reasons often did it in problematic ways. We don’t have to look any further than the founding of our own congregation to see that reality. Yes, we should be proud that our faith ancestors came here from “back East” as a part of that great movement of Congregational Abolitionists - people who left everything they knew to come to the Kansas Territory to ensure it would enter the Union as a Free State. A noble and important cause. But! At the same time they came to this place they knowingly displaced people who had already been living here for generations. The Kaw Nation already claimed this place as their home. Who were these white folks to show up and start building houses and churches and railroads without their permission?

So it’s complicated. And when I hear talk of “making America great again” I usually wonder - so at what point in history, exactly, are we planning on turning back the clock? To 2010 when some of us in this room wouldn’t have been allowed to marry the person we love because they’re the same gender as us? To 1950 when people who look like me wouldn’t have been allowed to divorce an abusive husband or make basic decisions about my own healthcare? To 1920 when people who are black had to use separate bathroom facilities and couldn't vote in most parts of the South? Or further back, I guess? Do we need to go further back to find some mythical time when this nation was perfect?

That mythical time doesn’t exist, of course. And I don’t mean to be overly hard on the U.S. That mythical time doesn’t exist anywhere. Because as long as humans have been alive, we have been terrorized by our own fear and anxiety. That’s not new. That’s just being human. It takes a lot of work to continually appeal to our mammalian brains and override our amygdalae. It’s natural to be afraid and self-centered. We’re hard-wired for it.  It’s a lot of work to choose to think of others first and to be brave.

It’s not uncommon for humans to lose their way.

The prophet Habakkuk wrote in a time when his nation had lost its way. We don’t have a lot of clear historical information about who exactly Habakkuk was or his context, but it’s pretty clear from the opening words of this book that he and his people were lost:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ And you will not save?

We may not know much about Habakkuk, but I kind of love this guy. I love his cranky back-and-forth banter with God. He reminds me a bit of Job. He opens with gusto: “Hey, God. What’s up with this? Why is everything terrible and you don’t seem to care? Can’t you see us suffering over here?”

Besieged in a world gone mad, the prophet takes his weary self up to the top of the rampart - the city’s protective walls - and stands watch. He stands watch for God’s answer. Waiting. Waiting.

We don’t know how long he waits, but he eventually receives a word from God. An answer to his complaints. And the word is this:
Write the vision. Make it plain enough that someone can read it even when they’re on the run. For there is still a vision for this appointed time. It speaks of the end. It does not lie. It if seems to be slow in arriving, wait for it. It will surely come.

And this vision comes from…..where? From God. The vision comes from God.

The vision for God’s Realm of Peace with Justice is not to be found in the U.S. Constitution. It’s not to be found in the Declaration of Independence. I’m not saying those documents don’t contain important truths. They do. But it is my belief that when we are sitting around, dreaming of who we might be as a people - it is not those documents that call us into being and show us the way. God’s vision is way too big to be limited by paper documents enshrined in the Library of Congress.

When I feel frustrated, confused, enraged, hopeless. When I’m cranky and mad at God, wondering how in the world we got ourselves into this mess and how in the world we’re going to get ourselves out of it….when this is my state (as it often is these days) I find that I need to get myself up to the rampart to watch and wait for God to speak.

It’s funny how getting up high, somewhere with a different vantage point, can really shift your perceptions. I’ll never forget the first time I flew in an airplane. I was fifteen years old. And when we took off and flew higher and higher, I craned my neck to look out the window. Everything looked completely alien to me. The trees - the trees that loomed so large when I was on the ground - suddenly looked like little models. Toys! And the massive highways that carried big cars and trucks from place to place suddenly became minuscule. After a while, I couldn't make our houses or cars or people at all. All that was left was clouds.

When you shift your vantage point, everything changes. I think it’s wise to take ourselves up to the rampart from time to time. To seek out the prophets who hang out there, looking at the world from a very different angle. Because the prophets - like them are not - are the ones who speak to us clearly of God. They are the ones who share God’s vision and make it plain enough for us to understand. They are the ones who move us forward, always dreaming and scheming of how we can make the world more closely align with God’s Realm of Justice and Peace for All.

You may have noticed in the bulletin that there’s some Latin in today’s sermon title. “Semper Reformanda” means “always reforming.” Karl Barth brought this phrase to prominence after World War II. He and other European theologians were grappling with how to repent for their failure to stop Nazi Germany’s rise to power. Barth spoke of the church as being reformed, but always reforming. The Reformation, which we celebrate and remember today, was not a one-time thing.On Reformation Sunday we remember our heritage as Protestants - literally Followers of Jesus Who Protest. Our faith ancestors were trouble-makers. The legend of Martin Luther nailing his complaints on the door of the church lives on because it makes such a dramatic scene. “The church is messed up and we’re not gonna take it anymore!” he said. And people listened. The man was bold enough to believe that he could go up against the entire Roman Catholic Church and change it. And he was right.

The Catholic Church changed as a result of the vision set forth by Luther - a complicated and very imperfect priest. And new churches were formed, new ways of understanding God were born. The Reformation is not something that happened once. That spirit of renewal is still alive today in churches around the world where people aren’t afraid to ask big questions, make serious complaints, and dare to dream that God’s not done working through the Church just yet.

There are prophets all over the place. In fact, there are some sitting in this room today. Prophets are not always the old white dudes who get most of the credit in our history books. Prophets are also people like Malala Yousafzai, who was only 11 years old when she started speaking out against the Taliban and what they were doing to girls in her country. Though she was young and completely unknown, she spoke with great clarity and power. She said, “I am those 66 million girls deprived of education. I am not a lone voice. I am many. Our voices are our most powerful weapon. One child. One teacher. One book. One pen. They can change the world.”

The thing that prophets have in common is this: they have a vision and they can make it plain. They are singularly focused on a vision of what the world can become. And that singular focus - that ability to paint a picture of what can be - that makes all the difference in the world.

My yoga teacher always reminds us to pick a focal point on the floor or the wall when we’re doing balance poses. I’m often standing there, flailing about, listening to a bunch of chatter in my monkey mind and then I hear her voice gently reminding me to pick a place and focus. And once I find that spot on the wall and put my attention there, my body stops wobbling, my mind finds peace. I am in the moment. Not anxious. Just present and breathing. It’s a really good feeling.

Prophets are the ones who remind us to get up to the rampart and shift our perspective. They are the ones who show us, through their example, to pick a focal point and stay with it. They remind us to listen and listen hard for God’s vision. And once we hear it, to write it down, make it plain so it can be amplified and shared with others.

This world we live in is LOUD. There is a lot of chatter. Not just in our own monkey minds but everywhere. Our boss has some opinions. There are deadlines to be met. Our kids (tiny or grown) clamor for our attention. And the news! An endless cycle of chatter about any and everything, especially the most negative things because that’s what seems to sell. The world is LOUD.

And so we come to this place where we are reminded to stop. Take a breath. Get up to a different place where we can shift our perspective. Tune out the noise. Listen instead for God’s voice. And then write it down, share it with others.

We are the heirs of reformation. Reformed and always reforming. Daring to dream that there is still a vision for our time. Hoping against hope that God is not finished with us yet.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

“One Foot in Front of the Other: Pilgrimage as Spiritual Practice”

 Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
October 23, 2016 - Psalm 84 and 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Once upon a time, I ran a marathon. This was back in my pre-kid days when I was less exhausted and could more easily find a spare 6-8 hours a week to train. One day, near the end of my training, I had a 20-mile run on my schedule. I carefully mapped my route through our town. I was at about mile 14 when I turned north into a part of town I didn’t know that well. Suddenly, this giant hill loomed in front of me. I’m trying to think of a hill here in Manhattan that seems comparable, but I can’t. It was big. Really big.

I stopped in my tracks at the bottom of the hill. If I turned around, I’d have to alter my route completely and my brain was too muddled to think through that. This was before I had a smartphone and I didn’t have an easy way to re-route my run. And I knew I really needed to get the full 20 miles in.

So I did the only thing I could think to do. I slowly walked myself up that hill, feeling a bit like I was dying the whole way, and then I kept going to mile 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. One foot in front of the other until I was finally home.

I really dislike running. Even when I was training for a marathon I hated it 98% percent of the time. Why would I spend all that time doing something that I disliked so much? For me, running a marathon was primarily a test of mental and spiritual endurance. I decided this was something I wanted to do before I tried to become a mother. I thought, “Being a parent seems pretty hard. But if I can run a marathon, I can do anything!”

And the skills I developed slogging it out day after day as I trained really have served me well as a parent. The endurance, fortitude, patience, and ability to just push through, putting one foot in front of the other, when life seems unmanageable and impossible….those are all skills that have really helped me as I’ve been formed into a mother.

The Psalm we read a few moments ago is a Pilgrimage Psalm, meant to describe the thoughts and prayers of ancient Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Our Jewish forebearers in the Ancient Near East had the practice of making three pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem each year. The festivals were Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot. When Jesus went to Jerusalem at the end of his life, it was for the Passover festival.

Pilgrimages aren’t easy. They aren’t supposed to be. They require careful planning. As with any trip, you need to make sure someone can take care of your business while you’re away. Animals and fields still need to be tended while their owners are away. Pilgrimages aren’t necessarily safe. Travelers are are the mercy of strangers, relying on strangers to offer hospitality. Remember, they couldn’t just stop at a Hampton Inn back in those days. Nor could they text ahead to a cousin to make sure they were home. Mostly you just took off and hoped and prayed that strangers would house and feed you along the way. And mostly, they did.

What sustained these travelers? What convinced them to take on this arduous task? Well, I’m sure a big motivator was a societal expectation: “This is just what we do.” It was a part of Jewish life and culture. But I also remember the words of the Psalmist and can’t help but think that many pilgrims were motivated by a very real and earnest desire to encounter the Holy in Jerusalem:

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”

So often, life becomes routine. Day in and day out we do the same thing. Those of us who are tied to the academic or 9-5 routine measure our lives in weeks. Monday comes again and again. Friday is a brief bit of joy. The weeks cycle through. And those of us on different schedules also have our routines. We make our coffee each morning, we read in bed before we turn off the light. Rhythm is a natural part of being human. Predictability can bring comfort.

And it also seems that there is often something within us that longs for more. A Pilgrim’s journey, while challenging, interrupts our lives - providing time and space for the Holy to break up our everyday routines in new and exciting ways.

We don’t have much of a tradition of Pilgrimage in 21st century Christianity. The expectation of Pilgrimage is still a big deal in many other faiths - just think of the annual Hajj for Muslims. But this idea of intentionally seeking out an arduous journey or task with a very specific destination in mind is not one that we often talk about in our tradition.

As least that’s what I initially thought. But then I read the passage from 2 Timothy and I realized we have something else that is very similar to this practice of going on a difficult spiritual journey with a holy destination in mind: the cross.

The Apostle Paul has had such an enormous impact on Christian theology. It’s really impossible to overstate his importance. I have mixed feelings about this because I do tend to think that some of the things Paul and his followers thought and taught about Jesus seem to not be firmly rooted in Jesus’s own life and teachings.

But one key part of Paul’s theology I’ve always found intriguing is his unrelenting focus on the cross. For Paul, the cross of Jesus Christ was absolutely central to understanding who God is and what God is attempting to do. Everything for Paul is seen through the lens of the cross. The cross was, for Paul, primarily about attaining salvation through suffering….not because Jesus’s blood is a substitution for ours but because, through his death, Jesus shows us how to live.

So if your brain is already wandering over into a freak out mode of “is she about to tell us Jesus died for our sins because something magical happened with the blood of Christ?” Let me just encourage you to just gently grab your mind and bring it back to center. We’re not going there. That is one way of understanding the power of the cross - and it may be one of the ways some of us here understand the cross, and that’s okay. But it’s not the only way and it’s not the way I’m going to be talking about today.

Instead, for Paul there seems to be a power inherent in the actual process of Jesus choosing the cross. There is power in Jesus choosing to intentionally take on difficulty and extreme suffering. There is power in attempting to fashion our own lives after Christ, seeking opportunities to journey to wholeness through suffering, not in spite of it.

This, of course, can quickly veer into dangerous territory. Because the Church has, all too often, encouraged people who are oppressed and abused to put up with horrific treatment by telling them Jesus wants them to “take up their cross” and follow him. I don’t think this is right. And I don’t think it’s what Paul was saying when he encouraged people to follow in the way of Jesus, which included suffering, in order to find salvation.

Instead, I think Paul was talking about a very delicate and deliberate dance of challenge and support as we try to walk in the Way of Jesus. That’s what we see in today’s passage from 2 Timothy. The author of this letter (who, incidentally, was most likely NOT Paul but attempting to capture that same spirit and message) says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” They say, “You know, it hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been downright excruciating and lonely at times. But God has stood by me throughout the journey. God has never left me alone. And I believe God continues to save me, even now.”

There’s a balance there, of challenge and support. The challenges have been great, but the support has never wavered. It’s not easy to go on a pilgrimage. There are many unknowns and the task can be physically, mentally, spiritual taxing. But if we are lucky, we are also able to see the support around us - the community that goes along with us, the people who open their hearts and homes to us, caring for us along the way. And the destination is always there in our mind’s eye - calling us forward, step after step after step.

I wonder if it’s time to revive this spiritual practice of Pilgrimage? I wonder how our lives might be transformed if we took it upon ourselves to intentionally choose a challenging journey, with a specific destination in mind? I’m not necessarily thinking of an actual physical destination, though I suppose that could be possible for some of us.

I’m thinking instead of other ways we might intentionally choose a challenging path that leads to God. And on the eve of Pledge Sunday I’m thinking this week about my own financial giving. I’m wondering if I’m challenging myself enough. I know the support of my faith community is strong. I know I have companions on the journey. And I know that the practice of giving away my money in a substantial way can feel a bit like a pilgrimage. A bit like stepping out in faith, unsure of exactly where I’m heading or how I’m going to get there.

And then I think about Paul, and Jesus. And I find myself remembering that no one ever said following Jesus would be easy. In fact, they actually said the opposite. This work of becoming - growing, changing, transforming into the person God dreams for us to be. It’s not easy work. It’s supposed to be hard.

And so we give thanks that we do not go alone. We are surrounded by other travelers on the road. We travel with the light of Christ kindled within. We travel a well-worn path, marked by Pilgrims who have gone before. We can do hard things. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Follow the Verbs"

“Follow the Verbs”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
October 9, 2016 - Luke 17:11-19

Seven years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day preaching workshop with Anna Carter Florence, who is, hands down, my favorite living preacher.

The workshop was on a new thing Carter Florence had been working on as a preaching professor: preaching the verbs. She talked to us about how she had been working with her students on going through a biblical passage and highlighting the verbs, and then using that as a starting point for the sermon. She demonstrated and walked us through several passages over the course of our time together.

I’ve been to a lot of workshops and classes on preaching, but no other practices have stuck with me quite like preaching the verbs. When I get stuck? I follow the verbs. When a passage seems all too familiar? I follow the verbs. It’s really easy to do. I use it for my personal Bible study and for sermon preparation. I’ve used it when teaching classes and when praying. And we’re going to use it this morning.

I invite you to get out a pew Bible so we all have the same translations and look up Luke 17.

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samar′ia and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

Now what you might not realize until you've follow the verbs on a lot of passages is this: this passage has a LOT of verbs. It’s action packed. You can really see the flow of the passage and the intensity of the activity when you pull out those verbs. Dr. Karoline Lewis wrote earlier this week about the flow of these verbs. She said, “See, return, praise, worship, give thanks, get up, and go. What if we imagined….that this could be the rhythm of faith?” (

The rhythm of faith. Verbs swirling, coming together, moving us forward into new life in new ways. The rhythm of faith.

You know, sometimes I think that, for too long, some parts of the Church had a problem with focusing too much on one verb: BELIEVE. “Do you believe in God? Do you believe that Christ died for your sins? Do you believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the life everlasting….?”

I think beliefs are important. They shape our worldview. We are all influenced tremendously by our beliefs, whether or not we recognize it. And I do think it’s important for every person of faith to wrestle with their own beliefs. You know, the creeds can be a good way to do that. A good place to see what others have professed as their own experience of the Holy...and then start teasing out our own story of who God has been for us.

Believing is an important verb. And there are also many other verbs in our sacred text.

Two weeks ago, I attended Leadership Institute at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS as a part of my participation in the Next Generation Leadership Initiative for the UCC. I will own, up front, that this is not a conference I would have chosen to attend on my own. CoR is so big and the culture of Johnson County so different than Manhattan….it was hard for me to set aside my skepticism as I drove across I-70. I did my best to stay open and listen for the voice of our Stillspeaking God in this very different place.

CoR is the largest United Methodist Church in the world. But what’s more astonishing than their size is the rate of growth. The church is only 26 years old. They were planted by the wider UMC back when Leawood was mostly fields and just starting to grow. They sent a young pastor named Adam Hamilton to make something out of nothing. They first worshiped in a funeral parlor - kind of a strange place for new life to break forth, right? Until, that is, you remember that Christians follow the one who brings forth life from death again and again. And then a church named for Resurrection meeting in a funeral parlor makes perfect sense.

At their first worship service, people sat on uncomfortable folding chairs in this funeral parlor and Pastor Adam said to them that God had big plans for the church. Adam said, “Look, it’s not that I’m going to be the best pastor, though I’ll try, and it’s not that we’re going to have the best facilities, but this church will be great because some of you will decide to live as people of Resurrection.”

From the beginning, CoR has had an intensity that flows not just from its lead pastor, but from that pastor’s very real encounter with Jesus. The verbs at CoR come from a sense of purpose that is deeply rooted in creating a Christian community where people who are non-religious and nominally-religious become deeply committed Christians.

At CoR they don’t define “deeply committed Christians” by a set of beliefs. Instead, it’s about verbs. Most specifically, it’s about discipleship. It’s about supporting, equipping, and empowering people as they encounter Jesus and then try to live as followers of Christ.

In order to become a member of CoR, people are asked to make serious commitments of their time and energy. They commit to five serious verbs: worshipping each week, learning in a small group, serving in the church and the wider community, financial giving and working towards tithing, and sharing the good news of what Jesus has done for them with the wider world.

Some of this sounds pretty familiar to us, right? Some of it may feel a little different or be expressed in slightly different language. One of the things that struck me from my time at CoR was just deeply anchored the whole culture is in JESUS. I’ll admit it. I go into a place with an average worship attendance of 12,000 and a pastor who’s been there since the beginning and I wonder, “Is this all be about Adam Hamilton?”

But you know what? It’s not. I mean, yes, the things that have happened at CoR in terms of the tremendous growth have a lot to do with Adam’s excellent leadership, but his leadership is rooted in a profound and genuine commitment to following the way of Jesus. In the beginning, the folks at CoR asked themselves three questions when they were trying to determine their purpose: 1) why do I need Jesus? 2) why do I need the Church? And 3) why do I need this church?

I think for many in our church questions 2 and 3 might be easier to answer than question #1. And maybe you’re not super Jesus-y. Maybe you follow Jesus because he points the way to God and that rootedness in God or the Spirit or the Source or Love with a capital “L” is your thing. That’s okay. But I do think it’s not a bad idea to wrestle with this question: “what has Jesus done in my life?”

Or to put it another way that might make some folks feel squirmy….how has Jesus been my salvation?

That’s what today’s story in Luke is all about. Salvation, healing. Now when I say “salvation” I’m not necessarily talking about eternal life. Nothing in today’s story is about eternal life. It’s about life here and now. Salvation is about finding a cure for what ails us…..and that’s always changing. I don’t think of salvation as a one-time thing. It’s something that happens again and again and again. It’s the new thing that God is doing when we feel hopeless. It’s the will to get up again when we’ve been knocked down. It’s the softening of grace when a relationship has been damaged. It’s a moment of justice even in the midst of unjust systems. It’s water and food and blankets after the storm. It’s kindness and basic human decency in the midst of a violent culture.

Salvation isn’t static. It’s active. It’s ebbing and flowing, moving and changing, now and not-yet.

For the nameless Samaritan who was one-of-ten healed, salvation was rooted in his experience of Jesus. This experience of salvation was so great, he couldn’t keep it to himself. He was moved to action. Follow those verbs and we find that he turned back, praised God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself before Jesus and said, “THANK YOU, JESUS!”

It’s intense. It’s maybe even a little uncomfortable for those who don’t enjoy really big public displays of emotion. But sometimes the verbs are just like that. They get under our skin, calling us outside of what society considers to be proper. Sometimes the verbs won’t let us go. They propel us forward, outward, inward, upward, downward as we stumble, fly, fall, run to follow Jesus.

May it be so.