Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
December 24, 2016
A few weeks ago, one of my children asked me, “Mama, why are all the songs on the radio always about love?”
Such a great question. I don’t remember exactly how I answered. I think I laughed a little and said something lame like, “Well, love seems to be awfully important to most people, doesn’t it?”
How do you begin to explain to a child that Love goes so far beyond all those pop songs on the radio? That Love is the single greatest force unleashed in the universe?
We teach our children about the power of Love by showing them, of course. But we also teach them through stories. I think of Aslan, that great lion from the world of C.S. Lewis...and when I sit with Susan and Lucy, burying my hands in his soft fur I can feel a bit of the magnitude of what it means to love. I stand with Hermione and Ron and marvel at the love of Harry’s parents and how it lives on in such a young boy. I continue to watch the unveiling of that long-ago-and-far-away galaxy of George Lucas and have a feeling that something about The Force is also rooted deeply in that great Force of Love.
It’s not just our songs that are about Love. Our stories, too.
The story of our faith began with a love song: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….”
The chorus of God’s creative act of Love echoes through the millennia as we hear the songs passed down through the First Testament.
From Sarah and Abraham, who were beloved of God and cast their lot with the One for whom all things are possible.
To the strong hands of Shiphrah and Puah - the Hebrew midwives who put their own lives on the line because of their love for the next generation, refusing to kill the baby as Pharoah had ordered. To the words of Love whispered by that baby’s mother as she gently hid her son in the reeds, praying that some Divine Force might continue to protect the one she had named Moses.
To King David, who was loved unfailingly and sometimes by God, even though, God-love-him, he never quite seemed to learn how to love well himself.
To Queen Vashti who refused to dance because she loved herself. And Queen Esther who bravely loved her people. To Job’s dear friends who did their best to love him in the midst of strife but mostly just caused more problems.
The prophets sing to us of Love - “Comfort, O Comfort my people….” says God through the prophet Isaiah. And they reveal to us the natural byproducts of walking the ways of love.
With Amos, we sing of God’s justice that comes through Holy Love: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
With Isaiah, we sing of the peace that comes in God’s Realm of Justice, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb…..and a little child shall lead them.”
That great symphony of Love crescendos until it is almost overpowering. The heavenly chorus of God’s love roars and cannot be contained. And we hear our ancestors singing to us a new song. One that rises out of the terror of Empire and oppression. One that will not be silent, even in the face of great adversity and anxiety.
Quiet now, can you hear it?
“In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be taxed…”
What an odd way for a love song to begin. It’s so secular. So rooted in the yuckier parts of human life. Taxes? How can anything holy begin with Empire and taxes?
But this is not a Love song content to float in the clouds with heavenly harps. This is the song of a Love that comes to dwell with us. A love that breaks into the midst of our everydayness - our faults, our fears, our mess. The love of a God who cannot stand to be far from her children, a God who must come to us now and dwell within us.
A God who created us in his image and now creates himself in ours. Emmanuel. God with us.
When “Love came down at Christmas” it came not in the form of some mythical creature or pyrotechnic salute. Instead, the One Called Love arrives looking like us. It is the fulfillment of a love story that has existed since before time began. It is the promise to all future generations.
So, here and now, on this holiest of nights, we sing together. With Mary, we raise our voices in a song for justice. We remember the Love Song she sang when she learned she was to become a mother:
My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour….
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has cast down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek.
It seems to me that if Mary sang that song before Jesus was born then she likely also sang great songs of Love rooted in Resistance to him when he was young. Lullabies about turning the world upside-down. The sweet voice of a strong mother infusing radical hope for the entire world into a tiny brown body in the middle of the night. Strength for the days ahead. Love that is bigger than Empire and oppression because it is rooted in the One who always sides with refugees and foreigners, the silenced and the marginalized, the forgotten and the pushed aside.
Like Christ, we live in a world that feels utterly unpredictable. The powers that be grumble and connive, playing with lives as if they were mere toys. We often feel helpless, wondering if God even hears our prayers for justice - wondering, if Christ came to make things better, where is he now?
Christ comes us to again each Christmas as what theologian James Cone calls “a liberating force.” A force singing loudly and lustily of Love. Love that cannot be stopped. Love that is bigger than fear. Love that fights until the end and beyond for those who Empire has pushed aside.
And as this Love is born anew we are both the mother and the midwife…..providing sustenance and care as this kicking, crying Love-Force enters our world once again.
As the tiny spark grows into a roaring flame, we sing and we sing and we sing and we sing.
We sing of Love. We sing of Justice. We sing of Peace. We sing until our voices are hoarse. And still the chorus of Love cannot be stopped because there are more who come after us, still singing of God’s love.
The greatest force in the universe. That which cannot be contained. That which has no beginning and no end. That which comes to us on Christmas and every other day. That which will reign forever and ever and ever.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
December 4, 2016 - Isaiah 11:1-6 and Matthew 3:1-6
For a season that’s supposed to be about quiet and stillness and waiting, it always seems a bit jarring to me when John the Baptist comes screaming in. So much for silent night, holy night - John is in your face. He looks like he’s mistakenly dressed up for a costume party that doesn’t exist. He eats weird. He’s certainly not quiet. Or patient.
John rockets into our midst like some kind of uninvited guest, screaming words no one much wants to hear: REPENT! FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD DRAWS NEAR!
If this were a holiday party - if we were in polite company - we’d probably chuckle awkwardly and pass him another cookie. Anything to get him to be quiet. No one much wants to deal with a Wild Man in a month that already feels a bit unhinged.
Of course, this isn’t a holiday party. It’s church. And I hate to tell you this, but you’re not in polite company. Because Jesus is here and he has a lot of strong suits but minding manners isn’t one of them.
And so here we sit. Confronted with John. John with the messy hair, wild eyes, too-loud voice. Every year in Advent. Year after year after year.
I guess maybe that’s because we seem to need reminding? I know I do. It’s all too easy to slip into the comfortable, cozy bits of Christmas. New slippers, hot cocoa by the tree, the warmth of candles. And the tinsley bits are also fun. New gadgets, new toys, new cocktails, new friends, new traditions.
But if we allow ourselves to go too far into the delightful parts of the season we start to lose focus. And so John comes screaming back in on his rocket of repentance reminding us that there is more to this season.
Advent is an invitation - or perhaps even a command - to radically reorient ourselves. That’s what repent means, after all. And it’s no accident that John gets in our face with a call to repentance. If the “kingdom of God is drawing near” - if the Realm of God’s Justice and Peace is about to ride in on a shooting star, then we need to get ready. We need to dust off our Hope-glasses and prepare our hearts to receive the new life being born in our midst. For most of us, this means we need to think seriously about recommitting ourselves to metanoia - repentance.
Repentance is not about feeling guilty or ashamed. It’s bigger than just saying “I’m sorry that I did X and I’ll try to do better.” It may include all of those things, but metanoia is about turning. Turning around. Re-orienting our entire lives towards something different. It’s a little like a radical rebirth.
It seems to me it’s no accident that Christ came - beckoning us into reorientation, renewal, rejoicing - in the form of a tiny human. Anyone who’s ever spent much time with a newborn knows that they have a way of reorienting everything. Speaking of screaming in on a rocket! Babies are relentless. Delightful creatures, surely….but also very powerful. They have the ability to completely reorder your time, priorities, and life. They turn our worlds upside down in surprising ways.
Babies make us ponder the past, present, and future in disorienting ways. I can remember being awake in the middle of the night with my babies - feeling a connection to all the generations of parents who went before me doing the same thing, noticing acutely the sensations of being in the moment with my own child, and desperately pondering the future - wondering if there ever might be a time when I wasn’t awakened 6-8 times every night.
John’s directive: REPENT! FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD DRAWS NEAR! has the same omnipresent quality about it. We are suddenly in the past, present, future all at once. We recall our past failures - collectively and as individuals. We are certainly in the moment - how could you not be when someone dressed up for a costume party that doesn’t exist comes interrupting your picnic on the riverbank? But John also grabs us firmly by the chin and points our faces towards the future. “The Realm of God draws near.”
The Kingdom or Realm of God is not some far off destination that only exists in the afterlife or the Second Coming of Christ. Instead, God’s Realm - that Beloved Community where the wolf lies down with the lamb is approaching here and now.
It was as inconceivable in John’s time as it is in ours. They may not have had the twenty-four hour news cycle, but they certainly had their own share of heartbreak. A marginalized people living in a time where justice was elusive at best. John’s people - Jesus’s people - must have scoffed at the invitation to hope that God’s Realm of Justice and Peace was near.
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that God’s Realm somehow exists here and now - even in the mess that is our world. It’s like the two worlds Nate talked about last week. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of what could be - what lies beneath the surface. For good and bad are always mixed up. Even in times where evil seems to reign, Love still has its say. Things are not always as they seem.
The author of Isaiah knew this. He speaks of the “stump of Jesse.” A mighty tree cut down. At first glance, we see a tree stump and assume it’s dead. But foresters know that new life can come even from a tree that’s been chopped down and used up. In fact, there’s an ancient form of forestry still practiced today called coppicing. Trees are sometimes cut down so that they will regenerate - sending out shoots and giving birth to new trees. Here on the prairie, we know about a similar practice used every spring - the burning of the fields. New life springs forth from what looks like death. Things are not always as they seem.
The pathway to peace is not always smooth. We know that times of peace often come after times of great disruption. Those who live to see days where “no one is hurt on my holy mountain” have often also lived through times of great pain and violence.
Even in the hard times, God does not leave us helpless, abandoned in the midst of great hacked-down forests. Instead, God sends prophets to call us back to ourselves. God reorients us. Grabbing us gently, but firmly by our shoulders and turning us around to where we need to be.
Last weekend I had the chance to see the new Disney movie Moana, a story about reorientation and remembrance. Moana, a teenage girl who is learning how to become chief of her people, grows up with a special bond with her grandmother who is the self-described “village crazy lady.” Undeterred by her grandmother’s quirks, sits at her grandmoter’s feet, absorbing the stories of her people. She allows herself to be shaped and reformed as she learns where her people have been and dreams of what they might be. She reinvents herself: becoming a way-finder, using the stars as her guide as she travels across the sea. It’s a story about remembering who you are and trusting in that knowledge as you take bold risks.
Most of us aren’t likely to get on a boat and use the stars as our guide as we reorient our entire lives. But all of us would do well to pay attention the John the Baptist. I know, I know. He’s a little weird. And it would be much more pleasant to just shove another cookie in his mouth to silence him.
But to ignore John is to miss the invitation to total reorientation that comes in Advent. The invitation to remember who we really are. To remember that we are beloved children of the Most High, called to walk in the ways of our faith ancestors - relentlessly proclaiming the advent of God’s Realm. A place where the lion lays down with the calf. A Realm of Peace that is more than just the absence of conflict - but a place where justice rules.
As we journey through the season of Advent, we put on our Hope Glasses to help us see the path we travel. We receive God’s gifts of Peace and Joy. The final destination is Love. In a world that is wrecked with anxiety and fear, Love is our guide. We reorient ourselves like sunflowers, turned gently but firmly towards our Source.
And we follow the star to the place where Love lies. The place where Love is born again and again and again. Thanks be to God.