Sunday, December 24, 2017

“O Holy Night: The Space Between”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Luke 2:1-20, Isaiah 9: 2, 6-7
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

The darkness is holy.

Darkness is quiet, stillness, rest. Darkness is anticipation, wonder, growth.

Theologian and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, [life] starts in the dark.” [1]

Darkness is where we find room to search, expand, take risks, change.

None of this is easy, of course. Anyone who has ever lay awake at night, worrying about some major decision knows that growing in the darkness can be exhausting and fearful work. Anyone who has spent the night sitting up with a loved one who is sick knows what it is to crave the light of the morning. The sounds of the birds singing, the familiar hum of the teakettle.

The thing is: darkness and light are both holy. I think this is part of what the Psalmist was trying to say when they prayed, “Even the darkness is not dark to you. The night is as bright as day. For darkness is as light to you.”

God moves and lives and breathes effortlessly beyond concepts like night and day, dark and light. And on this holiest of nights, we are invited to move and live and breathe in the midst of the tension between it all.

The season of Christmas marks a hinge point in the Church year. We begin each year anew in a season of darkness - as the days in our part of the world grow shorter - the season of Advent arrives. We enter into a time of contemplation, quiet, stillness, waiting. It is a time for the nurturing of new life as, once again, we strive with Mary and Joseph to protect and nurture the infant Jesus whose birth we remember.

After the Season of Christmas, we move into Epiphany. A time of welcoming the light as it returns. A time of shining a light on ourselves and our world. Another time of growth as we make new observations and connections.

And in between these two seasons we have Christmas - that hinge point that connects the light and dark. The shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night. We sing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” We gather in a hush around the manger - shhhh! Don’t wake the baby or his exhausted parents. Christmas is darkness.

Christmas is also light. Overhead the Star of David shines brightly and the magi begin their journey - painstakingly following the light, carefully sidestepping the Empire, daring to hope that the One who has come to set the captives free has been born in Judea.

With the angels, we bend near the earth. A sharp intake of breath  - - - - -  and then a sigh of peace, exhaustion, trembling, contentment.

Christmas is the place where the breath meets itself. The space of exquisite tension.

The already and not yet. The dark streets shining with the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years….they all meet here, this night.

Christmas Eve reminds us that there is something breathtakingly holy about honoring the in-between. God is found in the space where darkness meets light, where divinity touches humanity, where hope and fear mingle together. We are so often in a rush to get from one place to another. Let’s be done with this so we can move on to the next thing. This moment is a bit uncomfortable so I want to move on.  

But what if we followed God’s lead and made ourselves fully manifest in each and every moment? What if we sat in the moments of joy, discomfort, anxiety, ecstasy and simply noticed it all? What is we learned to honor the light, the dark, and every single graduation between?

What if we were to focus our attention on the inhale - the exhale - and the space between the two, simply saying, “There is Immanuel. God with us”?

God with us in the gathering and the releasing. God with us in the darkness and the light. God with us in the rejoicing and the ‘do not fear.’


God with us the shepherds and the magi. God with us the children and the elders. God with us the uncertain and the over-confident. God with us the downtrodden, the left-out, the reviled. God with us the comfortable, the celebrated, the admired. God with us the grieving, the angry, the depressed. God with us the content, the peace-filled, the elated.


God with us in a stable in Bethlehem. God with us in a yet-imagined future that you and I may not see. God with us in ever-circling years, every single one infused with gold.


God with us. God with us. God with us.

Merry Christmas.

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

“When Whispers Gather”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Luke 1: 26-40
Advent 2, December 10, 2017

Fun fact: did you know that the word hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus? The idea of someone being hysterical - not in a “oh, they’re so funny” sense but in a “wow, that person is crazy” sense - comes from an ancient belief that women were perhaps crazy because of their uteruses.

I have some other thoughts about why women might go crazy. It can make you feel a little crazy when you’re not sure if you should try to make yourself look conventionally attractive in a professional setting because if you look nice people will respect you more, but, also, if you look nice people might harass you.

It can make you feel a little crazy to realize that whether you decide to marry or stay single, have children or not, stay home with these children or not….none of these things will ultimately win you society’s approval. Everyone will think you’ve done something wrong no matter what choices you make.

It can make you feel a little crazy when you’re sitting in a meeting or having lunch with a group of friends and you share a good idea but no one seems to notice. And then, not 30 seconds later, a man shares the same idea and everyone thinks it’s great.

It can make you feel a little crazy when you’re a pastor and you’ve had both male and female church members say grossly inappropriate things about your body during the passing of the peace. (Incidentally, that has not happened to me in this congregation, thank God and thank you.)

I could go on and on and on and on. I imagine most women could. Suffice to say, living as a woman in a patriarchal society can be, quite literally, crazy-making.

I think this is part of why women and girls frequently travel in packs. Why we so often crave community in all its varied forms. Because there is safety in numbers. And there is a sense of security knowing you’re not the only one experiencing these crazy-making things.

This past week, Time magazine honored the “silence breakers” - women and men who, in the past year, have unleashed a torrent of truth-telling about the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault still prevalent in our society. One of the women on the cover, Adama Iwu, is a corporate lobbyist in Sacramento. After being groped in front of colleagues, she decided she had had enough and pulled together 147 women to write an open letter about sexual harassment in California government. Iwu said she realized that the time had come to speak out, boldly, together. And she knew that there was strength and safety in community. After all, Iwu said, “It’s hard to say all 147 women liars. We can’t all be crazy.” [1]

This is one way the silence-breakers have relied on community to tear down oppression. Another form of community is quieter. Several of the women, including Iwu, spoke of the “whisper-network.” The way women and other vulnerable people share cautionary tales with each other - “don’t get involved with that guy,” “don’t go to that party,” “don’t take that job.” Ashley Judd spoke about the need to formalize this whisper network and make it louder - amplify it - to shout out the injustices and name names so that future harm can be stopped. [1]

We are living in a moment where the whispers have become shouts. What a time to be alive.

A long time ago, but not in a galaxy far-far away (you have to wait until Friday for that), ancient women knew about the whisper network. These women also knew how crazy-making it could be to be women in a society designed by and for men.

The Gospel of Luke begins and ends with stories of men not believing women or not believing in women’s strength. And in between that beginning and end, Luke’s gospel is filled with stories that feature women. There are more women in Luke’s Gospel than any other and they are up-front-and-center, doing amazing things. Luke’s gospel is the one where we hear about the widow’s son being healed and Jairus’s daughter, too. Luke’s gospel is the one where Martha’s sister, Mary, is praised for sitting at Jesus’s feet like one of the guys. Luke’s gospel is the one where women are prominently featured even in parables - the woman adding leaven to bread and the woman looking for her lost coin.

Luke’s gospel ends with the story of the women at the tomb. Faithful followers to the bitter end - even when the men have denied Jesus and left in fear - the women follow their teacher beyond the grave and they are rewarded by being the first to see the resurrected Christ. And then when they tell the men what they’ve seen, the men don’t believe them.

Kind of like in the beginning of Luke when an angel comes to Zechariah and tells him his wife is about to become pregnant and will give birth to a son named John who “will be great in the sight of the Lord.” Zechariah is incredulous - “My wife is too old,” he says, “She can’t do that!” The angel Gabriel responds by placing a curse on Zechariah, silencing him until after the prophecy is fulfilled.

The next time around, it seems that Gabriel has learned a few things. This time, instead of making the rookie mistake of going to Joseph, he finds Mary. He brings the news to her that she will also conceive and will bear a son name Jesus who will be the Son of the Most High, will inhabit the throne of his ancestor David, and will reign forever and ever, amen.

Mary is confused about how this could happen and says so. Gabriel explains the details and, along the way, notes that something similar has already happened to her cousin Elizabeth. There’s that whisper network again, that sense of community - “You are not alone. Other women also understand and will accompany you on this journey.”

The angel closes with the big sell, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

It is enough for Mary. She says yes. Or, as the poet Denise Levertov puts it so beautifully, “Consent illumined her.” [2]

“Here am I,” says Mary, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

What’s the very next thing this young girl does after receiving this unsettling news? She does what many women do when they discover an unexpected pregnancy: she seeks community. We are told that she “makes haste” to the countryside to find her cousin, Elizabeth.

The two women embrace and marvel at the impossible place they’ve found themselves in. Mary connects, once again, to that whisper network of women, this time singing a song that generations of women have passed down to each other. We know it as “The Magnificat” because of the opening line, “My soul magnifies God,” but Mary was almost certainly thinking of it as “Hannah’s Song” because it so closely echoes that earlier text from 1 Samuel. Across the centuries, Hannah and Mary sing praise to God because God has done miraculous, impossible things: God has scattered the proud and sent the rich away empty. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

Perhaps to update for our own time: God has smashed the patriarchy, lifting up voices of women, men, children who stand against abuses of power. God has gathered whispers into loud shouts, protecting the vulnerable. God has spread stories of #metoo like wildfire. God has given courage to those whose knees and voices shake. God has silenced those who have been used to having the megaphone. Once again, God has pulled down the mighty from their perches of power.

Two songs sung by two women living generations apart. Mary and Hannah, both knew the day-in and day-out crazy-making reality of living as a woman in a man’s world.

Elizabeth knew, too. After Mary’s song is sung, we are told that Elizabeth gives birth to a healthy baby boy. On the eighth day, the parents take the child to be circumcised and those gathered assume that his name will be Zechariah, like his father. But Elizabeth speaks up, “No, actually his name will be John.” They look at her like she’s crazy, “John? No, that can’t be right. That’s not a family name.” So they go over to Zechariah to find the real answer. Zechariah, who still can’t talk, writes on a tablet, confirming what his wife has JUST SAID, “His name is John.” And all of them are amazed. Suddenly they think John is a great name. “Why didn’t anyone think of that before?”

I wonder if Elizabeth damaged her eyesight from rolling her eyes so hard. Crazy-making, I tell ya.

This text is an ancient mirror held up to our own time. How ridiculous that no one heard Elizabeth’s speak the truth. She already knew. Just like Mary already knew. Just like Hannah already knew.

Just like the woman at the tomb knew. And Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. And the woman carefully putting leaven into her bread.

And Lady Wisdom calling out for justice in the streets.
And Queen Vashti standing up to the King.
And Ruth and Naomi banding together for survival.
And Rahab hiding outsiders in her own home to save their lives.
And Jochebed carefully entrusting her infant son to the river.
And Miriam running ahead, knowing she was God’s hands and feet.
And Tamar throwing Judah’s belongings back in his face.
And Hagar speaking carefully, the first person in the Bible to give God a name.

Together these women cry out with one voice - the whispers gathered into a deafening chorus that cannot be silenced.
My soul magnifies God and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior,
for she has looked with favor on the lowliness of her servant….
God has shown strength with her arm;
she has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

Surely, from now on we will remember and call these women blessed. Amen.


Monday, December 4, 2017

“The Calm Before the Welcoming”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
First Sunday of Advent, Dec.3, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9

Earlier this week I was reading a chapter in a Robert Fulghum book about welcoming a child into a family. He begins the chapter like this, “When a child is born, the drama lasts a few days carried on by its own energy.” [1]

I thought back to the birth of my own children and laughed out loud. In my experience the “drama” surrounding the welcoming of a new child lasts quite a big longer than a “few days.” There have been no other experiences in my life as completely life-altering as welcoming a baby.

Welcoming another person into our life forces us to stay awake and alive….in all of the good ways and in all of the hard ways. Fulghum says later how astounding it is that a six pound bundle can turn an adult’s life completely upside down. He says of that first night with a newborn, “If you weren’t an adult already, you will be by the morning. This is why they said children make babies and babies make adults.” [2].                     

Of course, it’s not just babies. Welcoming anyone into a family will shift things. Foster kids. A new partner or spouse. An aging parent who comes to live in a guest room. An exchange student from another country. Gosh, even a puppy can cause quite a stir.

I have a dear friend, Ashley, whose wife just gave birth on Friday. I’ve enjoyed watching her preparations from afar via the magic of Facebook. Beautiful photos of the couple with a bulging belly. Bookshelves lovingly prepared and stocked to welcome their daughter.

Anyone who has ever prepared for a shift like this probably remembers moments of chaos - realizing you have no idea how to install the car seat, realizing your mom isn’t going to be able to climb those stairs unless you install a new handrail. And we probably all remember moments of quiet calm - walking into a silent nursery or guest room, realizing it will be filled with a new human in a short period of time. I think of this as the “calm before the welcoming.”

That’s the season we’re in right now as the Church - the Calm Before the Welcoming.

This season of Advent is meant to be a space where we can quiet our souls and be about the work of holy waiting as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child once again. Sure, there might be moments of frantic preparation - decking the halls, memorizing lines for the Christmas pageant - but there should also be those holy moments of silence as we prepare a manger in our hearts, lovingly creating space for the awareness that God comes to us once again this year, just as she comes to us each and every day….if only we could have eyes to sense God’s presence.

Father Richard Rohr says that, in our culture, we suffer from a “glut” of words, experiences, books, and ideas. [3] I would add that in December we also suffer from a glut of event invitations, anxiety, consumerism run amok, and ridiculous expectations for what a “perfect” Christmas should be. We can and should be firm about our boundaries during this season. It’s okay to say no to the false idol of perfection. It’s okay to look at our budget and think realistically gift-giving and then say, “You know what? It’s enough. It’s more than enough.” If we make it to December 25th and are exhausted, we’re not doing it quite right.

Father Rohr says that we humans “need spiritual disciplines to help us know know how to see and what is worth seeing, and what we don’t need to see.” [4] Because, as it turns out, God is actual Emmanuel - God-with-us - each and every day. Not just in the quiet candlelight of Christmas Eve. What shifts and changes in the magic of that Silent Night is not God’s presence but our awareness of it.

If Advent is to be a time of deepening growth, we need to each pause and ponder how we can create space and stillness this year. We need to be aware that every “yes” means saying “no” to something else. We need to be intentional about the way we use our energy. Otherwise we run the risk of missing out on the gifts of this holy season.

The author of Isaiah knew about the gifts that come through holy waiting. Today’s passage is a desperate prayer for God’s abiding presence. We know that this prayer was written during a tumultuous time of political instability. The people of Israel were returning to their homeland after generations in exile, but they continued to live under the rule of a kinder-but-still-occupying force. Times of rapid political change are ripe for desperate prayers like this one: “O, God, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

This is the prayer of a person who craves God’s action….and who is frustrated and impatient with waiting. “Come on, God! Can’t you see what a mess the world is right now? Why won’t you DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT??

But it is also the prayer of someone who is trying to learn how to wait. In quiet confidence the author says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”

“Those who wait for him.” That’s us. Waiting. Watching. Begging. Pleading. Caught in the tension of already and not yet. Desperately holding on in the chaos and stillness. Seeking new and fresh ways to prepare our hearts and minds. Resting in the Calm Before the Welcoming.

I think it’s probably safe to say that we are, generally-speaking, a group of folks who like to DO. We feed the hungry, care for the poor, fight for justice, welcome the stranger, dutifully call our members of congress. Some of us even get on planes and go to D.C. to get arrested in the name of making a Just World for All. Thank God for those who act.

And there is another piece that lives alongside action: contemplation. Father Rohr heads up an organization called the Center for Contemplation and Action. He says that the most important word in their title isn’t “contemplation” or “action.” The most important word is “and.” [5] For it is in the holding together of the two that we truly learn to walk in the ways of the One we follow.

Rohr notes that Jesus balanced his time between the city and desert. [6]  In the city it was loud. Jesus’s assumptions were challenged. His boundaries were expanded. Hard questions were asked. Miracles abounded.

But after spending time in the chaos of the city, Jesus always took time and went to the desert. Rohr notes that deserts are places where we are voluntarily under-stimulated. No new data. Quiet. Space. Emptiness. [7]

It’s not that the desert is better or worse. It’s not that the city is wrong or right. It’s that we need BOTH in order to be fully human. We need quiet solitude and energetic movement. We need to pray and act. We need to take time to do nothing but breathe and we need to raise our voices in boardrooms and the streets. We need contemplation and action if we are serious about walking in the ways of Jesus.

This Advent, the words of the Prophet remind us that God is the potter and we are the clay. We are all of us the work of God’s hands. And in God’s loving hands we seek and find that balance between contemplation and action. We prepare our spirits for the Advent of Christ in the quietness of candlelight and in the exuberant “Amen!” that rises up in our souls as the organ swells.

The time has come for the Calm Before the Welcoming. Let us find our balance this Advent as we prepare to welcome Jesus once again. Amen.

[1] Robert Fulghum. From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives, Chapter 9.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, 39.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Rohr, 92.
[6] Rohr, 170

[7] Rohr, 77.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Be Kind"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017

The cast of characters in Matthew’s gospel reading this morning include Jesus Christ and a large herd of stinky animals. Also, some angels. Wait. Scratch that. ALL the angels. Also, the nations. ALL the nations.

The setting is not exactly specified but since it includes ALL the angels and ALL the nations, I’m assuming it’s somewhere quite large. Maybe some kind of stadium. Definitely larger than The Bill. Wherever it is, we are told that Jesus Christ is sitting on a throne. I imagine is it also large because this particular version of Jesus is, like, BOSS Jesus. Big guy. In charge. We are told that he arrives in ALL his glory. Not just some of it.

The time is the “end times.” I don’t have an exact date on that but we were just told to “Keep watch! For we know not the hour or the day!” So….just “end times,” I guess. Unspecified date.

Okay….got it? Jesus Christ, bunch of animals, ALL the angels, ALL the nations. Large, undisclosed location with a very nice throne likely designed just for Jesus Christ Himself. Time and date unknown.

Now, back to that bit about all the nations. It turns out the Greek for “nations” becomes a bit problematic. Because that Greek word, “ethne” at its most basic means a big mass of people. But, most particularly, it is used in the Second Testament to refer to Gentiles. You may have even noticed, for example, that if you got out a Bible and looked up this passage it might have a header (reminder: headers were not a part of the original text, just added by editors to help divide up the stories)....and the header in my NRSV says “the judgment of the Gentiles.”

What difference does it make if it’s all nations or all Gentiles? Well, a lot, actually. Because if this is a story about Christ coming in the unspecified end times to judge all of everyone in the whole world, that’s a very different story than one about Christ coming to judge all the Gentiles. If this is simply a story about how Christ judges the Gentiles - that is, those who were not Christian or Jewish - then it’s very different.

Let’s move forward with the stinky barn animals, unpacking these two different options, so you can see what I mean. By the way, the angels don’t do much. No speaking parts. No songs, even. Just observing. So you can kind of forget about them if you want. I think they’re mostly just there to make Big Boss Jesus seem even more Boss. After all, today IS Reign of Christ Sunday.

So if “ethne” means all of everyone in the whole wide world, not only do we need a stadium much larger than Arrowhead but this becomes a story about how Christ judges Christians as well as everyone else. So when Jesus divvies up the sheep from the goats and says “sheep good, goats bad” and sends the goats into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth….well, you can see how some theologians have struggled with this text. Because, after all, God is supposed to be a God of unending compassion and grace. No matter what horrible things you’ve done, the Church has historically proclaimed that God forgives us through our faith in Jesus. It’s not about what we DO it’s about grace. Grace supercedes everything.

Which makes it a little difficult to understand why Jesus is casting Christian goats into the outer darkness because they didn’t do enough good works, right?

But if “ethne” means all GENTILES this becomes a completely different story. Instead, this is a story designed to answer the age old question of people of all faiths: well, it’s all fine and good that I’m this-one-particular-faith, but what about my friend over here who believes something different than me? What’s going to happen to her soul someday when she dies?

Read this way, the story is suddenly very different. Because there have always been Christians who believed their way was the ONLY way. Those who believed that the only way to find eternal salvation was by believing in Jesus. But this story flips that on its head. In this story, Big Boss Jesus comes in glory and says, “No, actually. That’s not the only way. It turns out that if you’re a decent person, a kind person, a person who watches out for other people, you’ll be alright. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve found your meaning in another faith or no faith at all.’

(Side note: it still seems pretty problematic to me that there are goats in this story who are thrown into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. I mean, I get that they apparently never did anything nice for anyone but the God I know still extends grace to even those who have done terrible things. So I’m just leaving that here without a real answer, just in case you were wondering, too. I find it kind of icky. I’ve read some commentaries say that it’s hyperbolic and exaggerated because it’s a parable, if that makes you feel any better. But I still think it’s troublesome.)
Regardless of whether this story is meant to be about those who do or do not claim to be followers of Jesus, though, I think the message for Christ-followers is consistent. I feel pretty confident that even if this is a story about Gentiles, surely Christ expects at least the same level of human decency from his own followers? Surely we are expected to do MORE, not less, than the good sheep, right?

And so what is it that Christ expects of us? It turns out it’s not all that different than what God told the Prophet Micah was expected….do kindness, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Or as Jesus says earlier in the book of Matthew - the greatest and most important commandment is that we are to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Or, to put it in even simpler terms, Jesus wants us to be kind. We are to feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, welcome strangers, give clothes to those who have none, visit the sick and imprisoned. When we do these things, says Jesus, not only are we doing the right thing and making a real and tangible difference in the world, but we are quite literally caring for and extending kindness to Christ himself.

As an interesting observation, the sheep in this story were not doing these kind things to earn salvation or to encounter Jesus. They weren’t volunteering at their local homeless shelter because they thought they’d find Jesus there. They weren’t going to the local prison and hanging out with inmates because they were trying to find the face of Christ. In fact, having done these things, they were still somehow unaware that they had seen Jesus face-to-face. But none of that matters to Christ in this story. It was enough to have simply extended basic human kindness and decency to those in need. That’s all he is asking us for.

Now we might hope that we wouldn’t need to be reminded to take care of one another. But a quick look around the world shows us that we - just like the listeners of Matthew’s time - need this reminder.

Earlier this year when the first big round of debates about health care were swirling, I remember reading an article called “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.” [1] The author, Kayla Chadwick, writes about the pain and feelings of hopelessness she experiences when realizing that there are some people she cannot engage with on political topics because they don’t share basic common values. Chadwick says she is more than happy to pay an extra 17 cents for her hamburger if it means that the people working at the fast food restaurants have enough to eat. She is happy to pay taxes for public schools - even though she’s not planning on having children - because she believes all children deserve access to a quality education.

In short, Chadwick believes that an important part of being human is simply caring about one another. Feeding and watering each other with care. Visiting and welcoming one another. Just basically noticing each other and realizing that we’re all in this together. Being kind. Choosing kindness daily - even when it’s not self-serving, even when it’s hard.

When you put it that way it just seems a little heartbreaking that we need these reminders, doesn’t it? But we do. Because, sadly, we live in a world that often teaches us it’s okay to objectify other humans. To treat them as objects that exist for our pleasure and use. We live in a world that teaches us to fear those who are different from us - to worry that allowing those we’ve falsely marked as “other” to do better means that we will somehow lose something. As if all of life were a zero sum game. We live in a world where the powers and principalities are constantly trying to convince us that nationalism is helpful and natural. And that guarding “us” and “ours” is the most important way we could spend our time. We live in a world where profit is almost always put ahead of people. Money talks and governs. Getting ahead at the expense of others is normative and acceptable.

Jesus - Big Boss Jesus, in fact - comes to show us there is another way.

There is another realm where we can choose to place our citizenship. We can opt into a way of living that consistently recognizes other human beings as just that - gifts from God who are worthy simply because they exist. They don’t have to be from the same country as us, or speak our language, or share our religious or political viewpoints to be worthy of our respect. They are not objects to be used for our own pleasure or profit. Their success does not diminish us in any way. We are free to eat together, drink together, talk and sing and dance together.

Through the Reign of Christ we are set free to be kinder than our world has taught us to be. We are free to imagine a world where people take care of one another - not because they want to earn their salvation - just simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The challenge of this text is that Big Boss Jesus is surprisingly harsh. Matthew’s Jesus is frequently like that. He does not mince words and is incredibly demanding. The fear of being cast out with the goats kind of blinds me when I first read this text and I find myself a bit paralyzed.

But then I go back and read it again and I start to think to myself, “Okay, feeding people who are hungry. Giving water to those who are thirsty. Visiting people when they are sick. Okay. Okay. This is within my grasp. This is something tangible I can do.”

When the world so frequently seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, this text can feel like a little ray of good news. God isn’t asking us to fix everything and save the world. We don’t have to be superheroes. God is simply asking us to be kind to one another. To see the beloved divinity that exists in each and every human soul we encounter. To treat others the way they would like to be treated.

We ALL have the capacity to do this. We ALL have the ability to use whatever resources and talents and gifts we have to do a kindness to another human being. We are ALL able to help meet one another’s needs as we encounter them. We can ALL continue to choose basic human kindness each and every day.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

“Remember. Repent. Renew.”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
A sermon for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
Ordinary Time, Oct. 29, 2017

There are troublemakers and then there are TROUBLEMAKERS. Martin Luther was a TROUBLEMAKER. Just a basic sketch of why we’re talking about a 16th century Catholic priest today: on Oct. 31st, 1517 Martin Luther went public with a list of 95 complaints he had against the Roman Catholic Church. Now we don’t actually know if he dramatically nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg but we DO know that he dropped a copy in the mail to his boss - which just goes to show that he was itching for a fight.

The content of what he said was so bold and brash that it got him into a lot of trouble. By the summer of 1520 the Pope threatened him with excommunication (being kicked out of the Church and, thusly, damned to hell). Fun fact that you may not have known: when Luther received the letter from the Pope threatening excommunication, he publically set it on fire. Why aren’t there more artistic renderings of THAT moment? I mean, wow, Martin Luther. Bold move. If there had been microphones back then, he would have dropped ALL of them.

Eventually, Luther found himself on trial. And, yes, he was excommunicated. And, no, he didn’t really say those famous words “Here I stand, I can do no other.” But he did bravely refuse to recant any of the things he had written that were considered heretical. The Holy Roman Emperor said it was fine for anyone who felt like it to kill him, so Luther went into hiding.

Luther’s story is compelling, but it’s also important to remember he was not a one- man show. Which is why it’s kind of silly that folks have been calling this the 500th anniversary of The Reformation. As if “the Reformation” is something that happened in a day.

By the time Luther wrote his 95 Theses, others had already been troubling the Church for a long time (like, probably forever). Mystics like Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich had been saying that everyone had direct access to God for centuries. John Wyclif translated the Bible into English in 1382, making it possible for laypeople to read the Bible themselves. Jan Hus, a Czech priest, was burned alive in 1415 because he claimed a lot of the same things Luther would bring up again 100 years later, including the radical claim that Christ was the head of the Church, not the Pope. And, of course, at the same time that Luther was rocking the boat in what is now Germany, reformers like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were making waves in Switzerland and France.

Many of the things that we take for granted about practicing Christianity are a gift to us from these reformers.

Hearing the Bible read aloud in a language we can understand. Owning a Bible on our own bookshelf at home that we can open, read, and interpret on our own anytime we’d like (okay, that one also has to do with a lot of other things like the technology of printing, but I don’t have time for all that today). The idea that God’s grace supersedes any terrible things that we might do - that we cannot buy our own salvation, or earn stickers on a chart to get saved. The radical thought that Christ is the head of the church. The sense that each of us needs to make our own journey of faith - that we can go directly to God and have a relationship with the Holy that is not mediated by any religious authority. That we are all called to be in ministry, not just those we are ordained.

500 years after Luther published his theses, many of these things seem ho-hum, but at the time they were a big deal. Many of the reforms that Luther advocated for have also been made in the Roman Catholic Church. That’s actually another reasons some historians speak of the ReformationS - the Catholic Church went through its own reformation or renewal process in 16th century and, of course, continues to reform itself today.

It would be too easy to say something like: Luther was upset and then the Protestants started doing their own thing and the Catholic Church reformed itself and then everything was great. But the Reformations were much messier than that.

All of this mess is why many pastors have been talking and talking lately about this question: what is the appropriate way to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication of the 95 Theses? Celebration doesn’t seem quite right because, after all, the Reformations were bloody, painful, and had long-lasting repercussions that have continued to result in violence throughout the globe for centuries. It’s a little hard for me to get fired up about celebrating something that resulted in people literally being burned at the stake for heresy, you know?

And yet - there are many gifts that we have inherited as heirs to the troublemaking reformers of the past. And those should be remembered. It is right, I think, to give thanks for the courage and tenacity of those who went before us and so wanted to live faithful lives that they were willing to risk their very lives to improve Christianity. So we Remember those who went before and give thanks.

This anniversary is also a time for Repentance. Animosity between Catholics and Protestants continues in some places. As someone raised in the Protestant tradition, it makes me uncomfortable to remember the anti-Catholic things I’ve heard “good Christians” say over the years. It saddens me to know that the Church was unable to be reformed non-violently and that so many have died, both because of their beliefs and also because of all the ways ethnicity, nationalism, and race get bound up with religious identity.

It is also important to remember that Luther was far from perfect. He was a prolific writer - sermons, essays, books, translations of the Bible, hymns. And one of the things he wrote is a treatise called On the Jews and their Lies, published in 1543. I had never heard this part of the history until I was in a seminary class on the history of Jewish-Christian relations. I was horrified and disgusted to read about the violence against Jews that Luther and many of his contemporaries advocated. And I do mean violence. He said their schools and synagogues should be burned. And that Jews be put into segregated ghettos.

One of the most painful moments for me in my theological education was when I realized that the rise of Nazi Germany was not just some aberrant blip on the historical radar brought about by one deranged guy named Hitler. Instead, the Christian Church in Europe had been preaching anti-Semitism for hundreds of years. Luther’s words were used frequently in the 1920s and 30s by those in Germany advocating for the mass murder of Jewish people. It’s not just that Christians turned away from the suffering of their Jewish kindred….it’s that they frequently taught violent anti-Semitism in their churches.

Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.

As we remember the gifts of the Reformations and repent the pain caused by violence, hatred, and division, it is also right and good to renew our own commitment to reform in our own time. There is clearly not enough time to talk about all of the things wrong with the global Church today. It is frequently painful to look at the wider Church and see people preaching hate and bigotry in the name of Christ. It is even more painful to look within and see the ways we could be better followers of Jesus.

But on this 500th anniversary of Luther’s bold move, I am inspired and challenged to remember that positive change in institutions and systems only comes when faithful people are willing to ask really difficult questions and take risks. The call to renewal and reform is one that never goes away. As followers of Jesus, we are always called to stay focused on the things that really matter - loving God, and loving our neighbor as ourselves - even as we relentlessly question the details and dream of new ways to follow Christ together.

Perhaps more than anything, this anniversary calls us to hold together the tension of looking forward and back at the same time. I am reminded of the powerful imagery of the Sankofa bird - which I learned about as a guest at Black Student Union meetings at K-State. The concept of Sankofa is from what is now Ghana and the visual representation is a mythical bird. The bird’s feet are facing forward while its head is turned backwards and it carries an egg in its mouth. The idea is that in order to move forward and bring new life  into the world we must also look into the past and understand both the beauty and pain of our shared past.

It seems to me this is what we are being called to do on this anniversary Sunday - to into the past and see both the gifts and the pain from the reformers while simultaneously setting our feet facing forward, carefully carrying renewal with us, dreaming dreams for what Christ’s Church might look like 500 years from now.

In closing, I invite you to join me in the Litany of Remembrance, Repentance, and Renewal printed in your bulletins:

One:    As we remember Martin Luther's act of rebellion 500 years ago this week, let us also pray that we might still be open to the movement of the Spirit in our own midst. For those who went before, bravely calling institutions to account and painstakingly demanding reform,
Many:    O God, we give you thanks.
One:    For the times when the Church has let the human urge for power and self-preservation prevail over your will,
Many:    O God, we ask forgiveness.
One:    For ourselves, that we might become agents of hope and renewal in your Church.
Many: O God, we ask for courage.
One:    For those in every age who bring reformation and renewal to the Church when it has become complacent,
Many:    O God, we give you thanks.
One:    For those instances when we have driven out those who have questioned the status quo.
Many:    O God, we ask forgiveness.
One:    For the Church, that we may be worthy and willing to work for renewal in all worshiping communities throughout the whole world
Many: we pray for courage in the name of the God who is Creator of all. Amen.
(Inspired by and adapted from a litany from the Covenantal Relations Ministry of the UCC, 2003)