Sunday, November 13, 2016

“Gaining Our Souls”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
November 13, 2016 - Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19
This is a challenging sermon to preach. Challenging because every person in this room needs something unique today. This has been a week of great pain for many here. I have tried my best to listen, love, leave space for the tears, anger, confusion, and anxiety. I know many of you have been doing the same with each other and with others out there in the wider world. Thank you.

We only get through hard weeks together. One day at a time. One hour at a time.

I want to say this about today’s sermon: please remember that when I am sharing about my own experiences and other people’s experiences, I do so in a descriptive way, not a prescriptive way. It is not my job to tell you how to feel or act.

I believe the preacher’s job is to sit with our sacred texts and the news of the day and listen closely for some Good News from our Stillspeaking God. And then share that with the gathered community. Sometimes I do that by sharing a bit about my own process of coming to these conclusions. Sometimes I share others observations or stories (always with their permission). That doesn’t mean your journey needs to look like mine or theirs or you need to come to the same conclusions.


I have a confession to make. Last Sunday, when we gathered together, my first breath prayer was “Dear God, bring justice for our nation.” I stopped that prayer about five or six breaths in because I suddenly realized that I might not want to live through what justice looks like. And as I looked around this room at all of you, whom I love, I didn’t want to see you in pain when justice came.

When I say “justice” here, I pretty much mean: “you get what you deserve” or some version of “you reap what you sow.” There’s so much about this in the Bible. Too much to unpack today, really, but the long and short of it is this: time and time again, the Prophets spoke of God’s justice coming….wrongs being made right, the world being turned upside down, punishment for those who had exploited other people coming swiftly and with no mercy.

The flip side of this, of course, is God’s grace. Which, in the First Testament, frequently was spoken of in the same breath as God’s justice.

So my confession is this: I believe that justice for the United States might look a lot like what happened this week. And it seems that things may get much worse before they get better. And I trust that what lies on the other side is a world that’s better for all of us because I still think that the universe bends towards justice. But some days I don’t much want to watch all the pain and agony and fear and violence that will likely come between now and then.

Please know that I personally don’t blame Donald Trump for all of this. The election of Trump is but one event in a long string of events that makes us who we are as a nation. These problems have been with us since before 1776. I know we are a diverse congregation and I think it’s important to remember that some here today may have voted for Trump, or not voted at all, or don’t see what all the fuss is about.

What I've learned, from trying to listen very hard, is that many who voted from Trump did NOT do so because they wanted to bring about a more racist, xenophobic, sexist, hateful nation. Of course, the IMPACT of their decision to vote for a man who has been clear about his desire to take away the rights of those who are already marginalized is clear.

Though many who voted for Trump did not INTEND to cast a vote for hate, the IMPACT has been an uptick in hate crimes, violence, suicides, and a lot of people (people in this room, I might add) being very worried about their safety.

I did not make it 12 hours after the election before I heard from a friend who was receiving death threats from strangers on social media simply because they are a person of color. Since then, of course, hate acts have been reported widely. Children are being bullied and threatened at school. People are being screamed at from vehicles. Women are being threatened to have their hijabs ripped off and used as nooses.

The IMPACT is devastating. For those of us with mountains of privileges and protections, the world still turns and it may be tempting to rush to a cheap and forced unity. But for many people in our nation, our community, our church the election of Trump feels like a giant catastrophe in the midst of a world that already felt very unsafe.

(Deep breath)

Here’s what I also believe to be true. And I cannot take credit for this statement because I heard it from UCC pastor the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. She said, “God knows what to do with catastrophes.”

(Deep breath)

God knows what to do with catastrophes. Can I get an Amen?

I mean, at the very core of the Christian faith, that’s really it, isn’t it? The world turns, humans mess stuff up, disaster strikes, catastrophes kick us in the gut, violence comes for us, death comes….and yet, God knows what to do. We don’t have to look any further than the story of Jesus’s death to see this. God somehow manages to take the greatest evil, pain, hate, violence and use it for good. I don’t personally believe God causes the catastrophes, but I believe God works through us to redeem them.

This is why I was awfully glad to see our lectionary texts from Isaiah and Luke today. Isaiah, as you may remember, wrote as a prophet during the time that the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. They were forcibly removed from their homeland after their Temple was destroyed and sent to a foreign land for 48 years. That’s a long time. It was pretty catastrophic.

And into the midst of this pain and horror, the Prophet Isaiah spoke words of hope and comfort. Some condemnation, too, because he believed the way to redemption was through building a more just society.

What Isaiah did for the people during the Exile was help them see beyond the pain to a future place where justice and peace were real. This is called the Prophetic Imagination and it is one of the things getting me through each day right now.

I heard the Prophetic Imagination very clearly earlier this week in Tai Amri’s words to our youth group in the open letter he wrote to them. He titled it, “Another World is Possible.”

In the letter, Tai Amri reminded our youth of this:
We hear a lot about Dr. King’s Dream, but what we hear are the little specifics, white children and Black children holding hands and blah, blah, blah. We often miss the big picture. The big picture was that Dr. King believed, as I do, that there is a world possible right here that is far different than the world we live in today. In that world: there is no hatred over religious and political differences; everyone is loved and cherished for who they are, no matter the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender expression; and people aren’t treated differently because of how much money they make or what job they work. That Dream is possible, but only when we all put our hands into making this Beloved Community come true.

We cannot lose sight of the dream of the Beloved Community - that Realm of God’s Justice and Peace where the lion lays down with the lamb, and the people build houses and inhabit them, and the swords are beaten into ploughshares, and no one can hurt on God’s holy mountain.

No matter what happens, we must not lose sight of that vision.

It is our heritage as people who are trying to walk in the way of Jesus. It comes to us from our ancestors and it cannot be taken from us. When we are sad, angry, anxious, joyful, or just kind of “blah” we must keep the vision of God’s Beloved Community at the forefront each and every day. Perhaps most especially when we are hurt, angry, and anxious.

Because Tai Amri also reminded the youth of the words of Dr. King’s teacher, Howard Thurman, who helped teach King to be on guard against hate. Tai Amri said this:
While hatred is a natural emotion, acting from it and allowing it to take root will never accomplish the goals we want them to.

If we are to live into this vision that God has for her people, it will require every bit of strength we can muster. As we do this work together, we must rely on each other. We must take turns and never forget that keeping Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion. We must learn to act with courage even through our fear - for courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is standing up and doing the brave thing even though we are terrified.

As we keep our eyes on the prize of God’s Beloved Community - that other world that is possible, that Holy Mountain that Isaiah spoke of, that Dream that belonged to Dr. King - as we stay focused on that vision, I was also reminded by Tai Amri that we need to listen to our Elders. Those who went before us and those who have been bending the arc of the universe towards the Beloved Community for a very long, long time.

Many of us are just now learning what it feels like to live in constant anxiety. This is difficult. The good news is this: if we are willing to listen with open hearts and minds there are many who are out there ready to teach us how to survive and thrive.

One of my dear friends, Jacinda, who is a black woman, is an Elder for me. She helps me learn how to live through and make sense of a painful world. She said this earlier this week about the hate speech and acts happening in schools this week:
Just a note about the heartbreaking stories coming out of schools: this has always happened.  Always.  I went to a fundamentalist Christian school as a small child and was called a n***** pretty much every single day I attended, and that wasn't even the worst of it.  My older daughter, when she was two (yes, two) was subjected to a bunch of racist chatter in preschool.  Ask your Black parent friends and they'll tell you.  Your kids will live.  We and our kids have, going back to forever.  We survived.  We'll all survive.

We survived. When Jacinda tells me that, I believe her.

History seems to loop back on itself. The pendulum swings one way and then the other. We cycle through peaceful times and painful times. This particular moment is particularly terrible for many of us in this room.

What I am learning about surviving through these painful times, from my friends who have been marginalized and oppressed for a long time is this: we have to find a way to build up a callous without becoming calloused.

Callouses are a little gross, but also very helpful. Anyone who has ever taken up playing the guitar or lifting weights will tell you they are a good thing.

If you’ve never faced adversity before, it is awfully hard to weather your first big storm. Your capacity for resilience isn’t where it needs to be.

But if you have brushed up against oppression and closed doors and hatred and fear for your entire life - well, you build up a callous. You become tougher and you learn to keep getting out of bed each day - despite the anxiety, anger, hopelessness.

The trick is to find a way to do this - to nurture those callouses that we need in order to keep going - while remaining tender, open to new possibilities, ever-focused on God’s vision of the Beloved Community.

We have to learn to build up our callouses without becoming calloused.

The passage from Luke today is apocalyptic. Written to give comfort to people who were hurting, oppressed, despairing, terrified. It doesn’t particularly sound like good news to me when Jesus tells his followers that they will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned, betrayed, killed.

But that last line reminds me of what my friend Molly said earlier this week. Remember? “God knows what to do with catastrophes”?

Jesus says, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”

Amen. May it be so.