Sunday, May 28, 2017

"That They May Be One"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
John 17: 1-11 and Acts 1:6-14
Easter 7A and Ascension - May 28, 2017

Nearly every Sunday, we begin our worship service by remembering together that our congregation joins with others throughout the United Church of Christ in proclaiming that “no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey….we are all welcome here.”

What a bold thing to say!

Since we say it every week, I think we sometimes forget what a radical statement it is. I know many folks in this room have been in churches where such a statement would never be spoken aloud. This summer, I am celebrating ten years of ministry as a pastor in the United Church of Christ and in this decade of ministry, I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with people who are new to the UCC and astounded at this statement of radical hospitality..

I’ve heard people say things like, “Everyone’s welcome. Ooookay, but I’m divorced….but I’m bisexual….but I’m Catholic….but I’m atheist….but I have a lot of questions….but I am homeless….but I am mentally ill…..but….but...but…” And it has been one of my life’s greatest honors to be able to look all of these people in the eye and say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

This is not to say, of course, that all BEHAVIORS are welcome. Our congregations must be places where people can trust they will be treated with dignity and respect. There is no room for hateful behaviors in a Christian church, but there is grace and space as we work to be in right relationship with one another.

I may not say this enough from the pulpit, but I want to say it now: I love the United Church of Christ.

I am so thankful I found my way into this small corner of Christianity. The UCC opened itself to me through the good people of First United Church of Bloomington, Indiana - where I was a member before I later served as their pastor. David and I began worshiping with them back in 2005. We had recently moved to Indiana and, upon discovering that none of the United Methodist Churches there were fully welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people, we decided we just weren’t willing to go back to being a part of a church without openly LGBTQ people filling the pews. We had spent three years at Northaven UMC in Dallas, Texas and had glimpsed a bit of the Beloved Community in that congregation. After years of ministering side by side with LGBTQ folks, we just weren’t willing to go back.

And so we decided we might venture out and try something new. This was hard for us. David was an at-least-fourth--generation Methodist and I had just graduated from a United Methodist seminary. At the time, I was feeling a bit adrift as a Christian. I had so many questions about God and the Bible and what it meant to follow Jesus. To be completely honest, I left seminary wondering if I could even call myself a Christian anymore. I didn’t know if the Church was wide enough for me.

So I sat at home and googled about the United Church of Christ because I remember Sue Zschoche, who had been my professor in college, telling me how much she loved her church, First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS.

That Holy Spirit is a funny ol’ gal isn’t she?

And David and I walked into First United Church on a fall day back in 2005 - a church that happens to be UCC and American Baptist, incidentally - and we felt the Spirit move there and the rest is history.

I loved the openness, the commitment to asking hard questions, the relentless focus on hospitality and social justice. I loved that people there came from every conceivable religious background. I loved that I was accepted - heresies and all - and that even a person who wasn’t quite sure if she was Christian anymore could struggle out loud and still be welcomed.

As I began to discern a call to ordained ministry, I learned a lot more about the UCC - my new home. I traveled to the 50th anniversary General Synod where I heard Bill Moyers and Marian Wright Edelman and not-yet-president Barack Obama speak. I came to understand more about the diversity of the United Church of Christ as I met people from much more conservative churches than the one I served. I had the veil pulled back a little as I witnessed some wider church arguments and began to understand the tensions of living together in covenant under such a big tent. And I marched in the streets of Hartford with others from all over the UCC who cared deeply about justice.

I learned that the official motto of the UCC is “that they may all be one” and that that statement comes to us on the lips of Jesus in a prayer. In John’s gospel, as Jesus is preparing for his execution, he prays….not for himself, but for his followers. And for us - those who would come thousands of years later. He prayed that we could all be one.

Christian unity is really complicated stuff. After all, how could we possible all be ONE when we have such different ideas about what it means to follow Jesus? And why would we even want to be ONE with those who preach hate in Jesus’s name?

I have no way of knowing what Jesus really meant. Maybe he actually envisioned a worldwide church where we really all hung together as one big organization.  But I think Jesus was a pretty smart guy and probably knew that wasn’t possible. So what I tend to think he meant was that we should remember we ARE ONE. And that doesn’t mean that we are all in agreement or that we like the same kinds of music or that we pray the same way or that we understand scripture the same. We aren’t the same but we are ONE. We are tied together in covenant with one another - whether we like it or not - because we are all trying to follow Jesus.

Now might be a good moment for a tiny vocabulary lesson. This idea of all Christians somehow being one - being connected - has a fancy name: ecumenism. So when you see Christians coming together you can say they’re doing ecumenical ministry.

This is different than, but related to, interfaith work. That’s the idea of people coming together across religious lines. When the Mennonites come to serve at Second Helping with us - that’s ecumenical. When we invite our Muslim friends to come and teach us - that’s interfaith. Make sense?

I am big fan of ecumenical AND interfaith work, by the way. As I know many of you are, too. And the UCC as a whole is committed to both of these things.

Churches like the UCC who enjoy doing ecumenical work often say “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” And this sounds easy and good. It is, of course, quite difficult in practice because who can say what the essentials are? That’s one of the questions currently ripping apart the United Methodist Church - is the question of human sexuality an essential? Or a non-essential?

But this difficulty over determining what’s essential for followers of Jesus goes beyond human sexuality, of course. There are some really big questions - Who wrote the BIble? Do you have to believe in the Trinity to be a Christian? Do you have to believe in God to call yourself a Christian? Many would say “yes,obviously,” but there was a big question about that just last year when Greta Vosper, a longtime pastor in the United Church of Canada, was eventually defrocked because she came out as an atheist.

And then there are smaller, but still important, questions - what hymns do we sing? What do we call God? What translation of the Bible do we use?

It goes on and on. As I’ve grown fond of saying over the years, it turns out Christianity is a big place.

The United Church of Christ is also a big place. Despite being small in numbers - our denomination has just over million members compared to, oh, 70 million Roman Catholics in the U.S. - we are incredibly diverse.

This is the case in our own congregation, too, of course. Just for fun, I want to do a little “raise your hand” exercise to highlight the ecumenical nature of our own congregation. Please raise your hand if you have ever identified as Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, nondenominational, Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, Lutheran, Mennonite….what else am I missing?

And then, how about raise your hand if you’ve always been UCC (or one of our predecessor denominations)?

One of the things I love about the UCC is that we are trying mightily to live out Jesus’s call to “be one.” We take covenant very seriously - this idea that we are called to be in relationship with God and with one another….and a very real understanding that this is not always easy.

Last week in adult Sunday School, Sean finished up our class on understanding faith throughout the lifecycle by talking with us about James Fowler’s stages of religious development. There are six stages in this framework and the fifth stage is called “Conjunctive Faith.” The idea is that we are all hopefully working to reach the point where we understand we don’t have all the answers. We realize that God is much bigger than we could have imagined and that we are all on a journey of discovering that “unknown God” that Sue talked about so beautifully last week.

Those who have reached the Conjunctive Faith stage have a deep and abiding respect for others’ understandings of what it means to be Christian. When we are able to pray together even though we might disagree with the style of prayer - there is humility in coming together as one even as we respect each other’s differences. Your prayer doesn't have to be my prayer in order for me to be present with you while it is being prayed. And, in fact, praying in this new way might move me further along my own journey of discovering God and living more fully into the Ways of Jesus.

A Conjunctive Faith is about connection, communion, covenant. It’s about remembering that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not.

As we close out his Easter season and move into the time of Pentecost, we remember the story of Jesus’s ascension. When he flew up into the clouds, he told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Part of being witnesses for Christ - part of showing the world what it looks like to try and follow in the Way of Jesus - is a spirit of unity. Not that we are all the same or that we agree on everything….but that we recognize we are all connected. Every living being on this planet is connected on some level and it is a life’s work to remember and honor those connections.

That we may all be one. May it be so.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Spirit Driven Dreaming"

“Spirit Driven Dreams”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Easter 5A - May 14, 2017
Acts 2: 42-47

I know nothing about horse racing but I always enjoy hearing the names of the horses who compete. Last weekend, a three-year-old horse named Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby. What a great name for a horse, right?

Dreaming is powerful.

Though there are some who scoff at dreamers, God seems to have a soft spot for the Always Dreamers. Again and again in our holy texts we hear about those who find messages in literal-night-time-dreams AND those who seem to have waking-dreams - impossible visions that barely make sense to people who are rooted more firmly in reality.

The book of Acts is actually part two in a two book series that scholars usually refer to as Luke-Acts. Most believe that the two books were likely written by the same person or small group of people. The way they are situated in our Bible - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts - interrupts the flow. But if you finish up Luke and then move right over to Acts you can see the way it was originally intended to be read.

The Gospel of Luke is all about the actions and teachings of Jesus. Acts opens just after his death  and resurrection. Jesus ascends into heaven, the Holy Spirit descends, and then the plot really takes off as the early followers of Jesus try to sort through how to keep living out the teachings of Jesus after his death.

The beginning chapters of Acts seem dreamy. They paint an idyllic picture of Jesus’s followers teaching, preaching, baptizing thousands, healing the sick, living peacefully in community with one another. Their movement was growing at a pace we can hardly even imagine. Can you imagine baptizing 3,000 people on one day??? And then somehow incorporating all of those people into a community that’s wild enough to believe they can pool all their money together and have no private property whatsoever? And that somehow this is all going to work out?

Spoiler: it doesn’t work out.

Before long people are withholding money from the group and being brutally punished for lying about it. Before long they arguing over who’s in and who's out. Before long people are sneakily taking care of their own before they worry about others who are different than them. Before long they back to being just regular old humans living in community - trying mightily but messing it up a lot of the time.

But before all the chaos, there are a few shining moments where they seem to get it right. They seem to be living out the vision Jesus cast for the Realm of God.

Today’s passage says that after Peter gives a rousing sermon based on the book of Joel, 3,000 are baptized and that “awe came upon everyone.” That word - “awe” is Phobos in the Greek. You can translate it “awe,” but you could also translate it as fear. They were in awe (or were in fear) because of the power of the apostles who were doing many wonders and signs.

And in the midst of their awe and fear they lived in his dreamy little hippie commune where everyone pooled their resources and took care of one another. Everyone’s basic needs were taken care of. They were not spending their time arguing the finer details of the AHA vs the AHCA. No one was worried about the rising cost of higher education or taking advantage of those at the margins with payday loans.

Presumably, no one was at the margins because everyone had a place at the table. Everyone was equal.

Beautiful, right? Dreamy.

I always find it interesting that the Lectionary committee, in choosing the order for these texts typically gives us these stories from Acts and then goes backwards to the beginning of chapter 2 and the Pentecost story. I don’t have an explanation for this, but that’s how it flows. First, they wow us with all these amazing acts and THEN they show us the driving force behind all that goodness: the Holy Spirit.

When I was a teenager, my church bought a fancy new 15-passenger van. Stenciled on the side were the words: “We are Spirit Driven.”

I always thought that was kind of cute on a van, right? Spirit DRIVEN? Cute. But on a deeper level, it makes me wonder….was that congregation really Spirit Driven? Is our congregation Spirit Driven? Am *I* Spirit Driven?

To say we are guided in our decisions by the Spirit is no small thing. It’s a profound faith statement - every bit as serious as saying “God is my shepherd” or “Jesus is the Way.”

In most versions of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the version of God that comes to us humans after Jesus’s death and resurrection. The idea is that God is somehow all of these different things at the same time - creative parent, redeeming offspring, sustaining breath - and that the Great I Am exists in all three of these forms from before the beginning of time and on into eternity. But our awareness of God shifts and changes over time. God is revealed to us in different ways at different points in history. So after the man Jesus left Earth, his followers saw the Holy Spirit as a profound gift: a reminder of God’s continued presence in the midst of a chaotic time.

Those of us living a couple thousand years out from this moment tend to sometimes take for granted that the Holy is available and accessible to us in many ways at all times. We even talk about being the hands of feet of God….believing that the Spirit animates us to be Christ to the world. What a bold thing to claim.

And what a dangerous thing to claim.

Because when we start saying, “This is what GOD wants”....oh, boy. That can be hard to argue against.

It has led to great things - the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s great dream was rooted deeply in his understanding of who God was calling us to be. The vision he cast for the United States seemed to be Spirit Driven. It was bold and when people heard it, they said, “Yes. That’s good. That’s who God wants us to be.”

But then there are other claims that followers of Jesus make that have caused great violence and terror. Just earlier this week I watched a video of a white man violently screaming at a Muslim family who was trying to enjoy a simple day at the beach.[1] As he yelled vulgar, hateful things at them he claimed to be a Christian and told them to get out of this country because it’s the greatest country on earth and they don’t belong.

It was sickening to watch. Not just because it makes me heartbroken to think of the irony of a person claiming to be living in the “greatest country on earth” while spewing hatred. But also because, as a person who also claims to try and follow Jesus, I am so disgusted to see God’s name taken in vain in this way.

As pastor John Pavlovitz wrote this past week, “Help me, Christian. I can’t see Jesus….I can’t see the ‘For God so loved the world.’ Jesus, in your rabid Nationalism and flag-waving America First fervor and contempt for foreigners.” [2]

It is a bold and dangerous thing to claim to be Spirit Driven.

Those earliest Christ-followers though - they give me hope because sometimes they got it right. Sometimes they really did boldly follow the model of Jesus and did radical things. Sometimes they truly did let the Spirit into the driver’s seat. They dreamed impossible dreams. And people sometimes looked at them and said, “Wow. When I look at you, I see Jesus.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think about our little corner of the world here at 700 Poyntz, I dream that we can be a place where people will look at us and say, “When I look at you, I see Jesus.”

I know, in fact that this already happens. I know we’re not perfect and we don’t always get it right. I know that we sometimes tell the Spirit to scoot over and we let other things into the driver’s seat. But I also know that we are a community that very often gets it right. People regularly tell me that they look around and see Jesus still living and breathing among us here at First Congregational UCC.

 And I am so very thankful for that. Because I need to see Jesus. I need to see Jesus every. single. day.

As we continue this Year of Love, you may have noticed you have a heart in your bulletin. I’d like to invite you to see if you can let the Spirit into the driver’s seat for a few minutes for the rest of this worship service.

Listen for the the Living God here and now. See if you can get just a hint of what dreams God has for us - for our world, our community, our congregation, or perhaps for your own individual life.

If you feel so bold, write down that dream on the heart and return it via the offering plate or drop it off in one of the baskets located at the doors on your way out today.

My hope is to pray over them and then post them somewhere so others can pray over them, too.

May it be so.



Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Praying in the Valley"

“Praying in the Valley”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Worship in the Park,May 7, 2017
Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved texts in all of scripture. My guess is that many of us here, even if we can’t recite many other things by memory, could recite the bulk of this psalm from memory.

In one sense, it seems a little daunting to preach this Psalm because - after all - what new thing could be said about it? It’s short. It’s sweet. It’s profound. It’s a prayer of deep trust that - even centuries later - continues to guide us in times of tragedy and pain.

Sometimes I think we (okay *I*) have a tendency to gloss over the basics of our faith. It’s fun to find a new hook or a twist in an old story. One of the things I love about that Bible is that I can come back to these old stories again and again and find new insights and meaning.

But sometimes I think there is value in simply holding up an old and sacred text to the light and giving thanks for it goodness just as it is. No twist, no newfound meaning required.

I think the reason this text is sacred to so many is because it gets at the very core of what it means to be a human seeking religious understanding. Religion is a word with a lot of baggage, I know. To me it just means a worldview - a way of understanding what life is all about. Many religions, it seems, also help us deal with the core existential crisis of being human - our immortality. It can be deeply unbearable to walk through our lives with the knowledge that death is inevitable. Not just our own deaths, of course, but the deaths of so many.

We live in a world where death and crisis is seemingly always-present…..a friend told me just earlier this week how jarring it was to be enjoying time with her family and BAM - a text message arrived alerting her of a loved one’s death.

Images of pain and violence in near and far-off places assault us in the news. Some of us lost sleep this past week, I know, thinking about the millions who might soon have their access to healthcare restricted. Those who have serious health concerns can’t always access the care they need. For them, death seems near. Some of us spent time in tears this week, wondering how on earth we will ever find a way to keep black lives safe in a society steeped in racism. We ponder the life of Jordan Edwards and too many others like him - sacred and beloved children of God turned into hashtags. For too many of God’s beloved children, death seems near.

And so - to cope with all of these crises….the ones that come from the result of evil systems and the ones that happen naturally because we are simply human - to cope, we tell ourselves stories about what it means to live and die. What it means to be human.

This Psalm carries within it beautiful imagery of what it means to be human - walking in the valley of the shadow of death. The version in our hymnal translates the Hebrew tsalmaveth as “darkest valley” but other English versions call it “the valley of the shadow of death.” Literally, walking with the realization that - even if we could get rid of systemic evil, even if we had a perfect government - we are all mortal and our bodies will not last forever.

The Psalmist proclaims that though he walks with this deep awareness of his own human limitations - though he knows that the ultimate tragedy of death may befall him at any moment - he does not fear evil because God is with him.

Now I want us to notice something interesting - in all of the things God the Shepherd does in this Psalm, none of them really change potential outcomes. The Psalmist isn’t saved from death. He is led by God. He walks with an awareness of God’s presence. He is comforted and sustained by the shepherd. He is nourished and fed by God’s abundance. And he dwells comfortably in the presence of God’s his whole life long.

The valley of the shadow of what it means to be human still hangs over his head. The difference is, with faith in God, it is somehow more bearable.

We all walk through the valley of the shadow of death in one way or another. Our religion - our faith - is what we tell ourselves to make it through the journey.

The image of someone walking through a valley shadowed by death reminds me of the big battle scene near the end of Rogue One, the most recent Star Wars story to be released on film. Star Wars is, of course, practically a religion all its own. “May the Force be with you…” (And also with you.)

So in Rogue One there is a beloved character named Chirrut Imwe. He is this magnificent, wise guardian. And in the Battle of Scarif, as the Rebel forces are quite literally walking in the valley of the shadow of the Imperial Death Star, Chirrut plays an incredibly important role. When he learns that the master switch has to be flipped in order for the successfully transmission of the Death Star plans to the other Rebels, Chirrut essentially sacrifices himself to flip the switch.

Painstakingly, he steps right through the crossfire of the battle, walking slowly towards the master switch. And the whole time he chants his mantra, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me. I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.” I should probably mention that Chirrut is blind. So he can’t see any of the deadly lasers that are whizzing past him. He is guided only by his faith that the Force is with him.

As he walks through the valley of the shadow of Death Star, Chirrut fears no evil because he is connected to something beyond himself. His mantra keeps him grounded and steady - just as the words of the 23rd Psalm have done for so many Jews and Christians who find themselves in deep valleys. You know, when Jesus breathed his last, the words on his lips were from a psalm. Seared into his soul, he held tightly to the prayers passed down to him from his faith ancestors. He prayed those ancient words as he walked through his own valley.

Chirrut successfully flips the switch - but his life is lost in the process. As he falls to the ground, his closest companion - Baze Malbus - runs to his side. Baze says, “Don’t go. I’m here.” And Chirrut responds, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Look for the Force. And you will always find me.”

Cradling his beloved brother in his arms, Baze responds, “The Force is with me. I am one with the Force. The Force is with me. I am one with the Force. And the Force is with me.”

The words we allow to sear our souls matter.

The poetry, music, language, art, prayer we consume forms our humanity in truly powerful ways. When we walk through valleys shadowed by death and pain, these faith mantras come to us and give us strength. As we pray our way through the valleys, we are reminded that we never walk alone.  And because we are not alone, we can persist. All the days of our lives.

 “God is my shepherd, I shall not want. God is my shepherd, I shall not want. God is my shepherd, I shall not want.”