Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Casting Out Demons"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Matthew 9:35-10:8, 16-20, 24-27
Ordinary Time, June 18, 2017

When I came into the office on Tuesday, I half-joked to Sandy that I had had a very 21st century USAmerican morning. I awoke to the horrible news out of Washington, D.C. that a shooter had struck fear in the hearts of Republican congressional leaders as they were preparing for an upcoming baseball game. While pondering that news, the power in my home went out, causing me to wonder if it was just a regular ol’ power outage or someone intentionally disrupting the grid. I left home that morning with the power still out and dropped our kids off at preschool and camp, sharing a conversation with one of their teachers about how the new campus carry law might affect the on-campus childcare centers when it goes into effect on July 1st.

To live in the United States in 2017 is to be bombarded constantly by violence and threats of violence. Some of us, of course, are at greater risk than others.

This discrepancy was on my mind as I prayed aloud the names of the 49 mostly Latinx and LGBTQ people who were killed while simply trying to enjoy a night on the town one year ago in Orlando. This discrepancy is on my mind this morning as I remember the two-year anniversary of the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston two years ago. And this discrepancy has been haunting me since Friday afternoon, when the “not guilty” verdict in the case of the death of Philando Castile was released.

It pains me to say that the extrajudicial killing of black and brown people in this nation is so frequent, that many of us say to ourselves, “Now, which one was that one again?”

In case you’ve forgotten, Philando Castile was 32 years old and lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before the traffic stop that ended his life, he had been pulled over 52 times by police. He was a proud Minnesotan - in fact, his mother, Valerie Castile, said had only one tattoo on his body, and it was of the Twin Cities. [1] He worked in a local Montessori school and you may remember that after his death last July many of the current and former students at that school wept openly because he had been so special to them.

Of course he was special. Every single human being is a unique and precious creation. Precious in God’s eyes. Beloved by many.

I have to say, that’s the other thing about Mr. Castile that is stuck in my mind is the four-year-old who witnessed his death. His girlfriend’s daughter- the same age as my youngest son - comforted her mother from the back seat as her father lay dying. What does that do to a person?

I didn’t know Mr. Castile. I don’t know his mother. I don’t know his girlfriend or her daughter or the 500 kids at this school where he worked whose names he had memorized. I didn’t sit on the jury. I didn’t see the evidence. As always, there’s a lot I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: I know a lot of black and brown people are in pain. A lot of my friends and acquaintances are trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. I do know many people who - even before this verdict on Friday - have lost all confidence in our judicial system. And, as always, this isn’t just about this one case - it’s about case after case after case.

When the overwhelming message you get again and again and again is that you do not matter - what does that do to a person? When you carry a deep fear in your body each and every time your loved one gets in the car, wondering if today is the day they will be turned into a hashtag - what does that do to a person? When you feel have to teach your children that the people who are paid to protect them might kill them - what does that do to a person? When you cannot speak out because people will say you’re too angry and you cannot keep silent because the injustice of it all is just too much - what does that do to a person?

How long can you scream into a pillow at home without exploding?

I cannot fully answer these questions because I am white. As are many of us here in the room today. We cannot know what it is like to live outside our own skin. All we can do is try to open our eyes, pay attention, sit with the pain, and attempt to use our lives to dismantle systems that harm us all.

In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tell his disciples that the time has come for them to walk in his ways: “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” In other words, the time has come to be Christ to the world. The time has come to go out into the Empire and stand in solidarity with those who are cast aside just as Christ was marginalized - those who have been silenced, those whose bodies are at risk, those who suffer the most from the pains of Empire.

Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. In other words, this business of following Jesus is really hard work - made difficult by the fact that there’s just so much to be done and made even more difficult by the fact that so few are willing to do it.

One of the things Jesus did again and again was command people to open their eyes and see unpleasant things. See the world as it really is - see the pain, the destruction, the evil around you. He also told people to open their eyes and see the good, of course. But always, always, he was shining a light and exposing the truth of our lives.

As followers of Jesus, I believe we are called to do the same. Biblical scholar Greg Carey says that when Jesus told his disciples to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” he was essentially telling them to go about the work of healing and liberation. [2] The work of following Jesus is always the work of healing and liberation. And, just like in Jesus’s time, the work is hard and very few people want to do it.

I don’t know. Maybe this language about “casting out demons” is offensive to you. It’s certainly a bit dated. But today, I find it sadly relevant. Because the sins that are my birthright as a U.S.American often feel like demons. Martin Luther King, Jr. called them the “giant triplets” of evil that we have to grapple with: racism, militarism, materialism. [3]

These sins have been with us since before the founding of this nation. And they feel like demons to me because they often feel like they cannot be tamed.

Racism isn’t just about one individual saying something racist to another person - it’s about a whole system that exists in a nation that was literally founded on the backs of brown ano black people. A system that we are all a part of, whether we choose to be or not. When you live in the U.S. you actually don’t get to opt out of white supremacy. It’s everywhere. It’s in the news we consume, the stories we read, our institutions, the way we are taught...and on and on.

Even in a church that has proudly posted Black Lives Matter signs in their yard, I know that this “white supremacy” language might be uncomfortable. It may be helpful to know that when I say “white supremacy” I am not just talking about the KKK. Instead, I am using it in the way critical race theorist Robin DiAngelo defines it: white supremacy as “a socio-political economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefit those defined and perceived as white.” [4]

Dr. King spent his life fighting not just racism but also those other two related demons - militarism and materialism. He saw that this nation struggled with a love of violence. Oh, how I wish this were not the case.

But we live in a place where violence is glorified; the right to own a weapon is apparently sacred. How else can we name the absurdity of a culture that believes the answer to fighting violence is to arm more people? How else can we explain away a nation that spends so much of its GDP on weaponry? How do we explain a nation where leaders shake their heads and tweet thoughts and prayers every time another beloved child of God dies in another mass shooting.

As if they are powerless to change it.

Materialism - by which, Dr. King meant our love of money, stuff, and absolute trust in capitalism as an ultimate good - is also a demon we have not yet cast out. We are taught to value things more than people. We are taught that our worth lies in what we can produce and consume. Profit matters more than everything else - including decency, respect, kindness, and the truth. Everything and everyone has a dollar value.

Dr. King sometimes referred to this as “thingification.” When we commodify everything and everyone - when we objectify other humans - we thingify them. We strip them of their sacred worth. We are deceived. It is this thingification that allows people to kill each other and fear each other and misunderstand each other and ignore each other. This demon is relentless. And, just like the others, it is a liar.

So today, I stand here before you and I say this: I don’t know how to fix all of this this. I don’t know how to drive these demons out. I don’t know if they will be eradicated from our culture in my lifetime. Or, if I’m being totally honest, ever.

But I do know this: we cannot drive out demons if we don’t name them. We cannot fix problems until we are willing to speak them aloud. This Sanctuary is a place where I hope we will always be willing to bear witness to hard truths. A place where we can be honest about what ails and torments us. A place where we can fumble towards healing and liberation together.

Bearing witness to the evils that continue to inhabit our nation isn’t the entire answer, but it’s not nothing, either. Bearing witness to those among us who felt like their world stopped on Friday afternoon is something we can do today. It’s not enough, but it’s a beginning.

In order to keep putting one foot in front of the other - in order to keep confronting hard truths - we need something bigger than ourselves.

We need community - a place where we can come and know we do not tend to the harvest alone. We need God - the one who created us, loves us, will not abandon us. We need Jesus - the one who calls us to follow in his way, to heal and liberate in his name. And we need the Spirit - who sustains us and breathes new life into us when we are weary.

The demons we still have with us, but we are not alone. We live in God’s world - who has created and is still creating. And God is not finished with this world just yet. Thank God for that.

People of God, as you go into the world this week, will you do your best to see, name, and eradicate the evils that still plague our society? Whether you will or won’t, can or can’t, go with the assurance that we walk in the ways of Christ, who came for our healing and liberation, and who gives us authority to keep trying to make the world new. Now and then and forever and ever. Amen.

[ ] This article is a great startingplace for those wanting more information about what I mean when I say “white supremacy.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

"Speaking in Tongues"

“Speaking in Tongues”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Acts 2:1-12
Pentecost, June 4, 2017

About a month ago, I read a news story about the actor Chris Pratt. He was in the news because of an apology that had gone viral. Earlier in the week, he had posted a video on social media and encouraged people to turn up their volume and listen to the video rather than just scrolling by and watching the subtitles. A few people helped him see that this was problematic for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. They rely on subtitles to understand videos online and can’t just “turn up the volume” to listen to words.

Mr. Pratt had choices about how he might respond. I won’t ask how many of you have been called out for cluelessly offending someone different than you, but I have had this happen to me often enough that I seem to have a predictable response. First, I feel the heat rise in my cheeks. I get so embarrassed that I’ve messed up. Then I sometimes get defensive or angry, wondering why they had to bring it up in a particular way or wondering why I was so clueless. If I’m lucky, I can move myself into a position of thankfulness - thankful that someone cared enough about me to teach me something new; thankful that they saw me as a person who would actually be willing to listen and learn; thankful for new knowledge; thankful for the chance to do better in the future. Somewhere along the way, I am able to apologize for my mistake, and that’s just what Chris Pratt did, too.

The apology was what I saw first and it caught my eye because he chose to apologize in American Sign Language, with subtitles, in a silent video. It seems from the video that ASL is not one of Mr. Pratt’s native tongues - that he probably learned it just for this. His decision to reach out to the people he may have offended and speak to them in their language spoke volumes.

There is something sweet about hearing or seeing our own native tongue. Those who have traveled extensively or lived in places where their primary language isn’t spoken regularly know the sweet, sweet feeling of familiarity when the language suddenly comes with ease. Even beyond actual languages, things like accents and regional dialects make us feel at home. When we lived in Indiana I met a person and it took me a while to figure out why I always felt comfortable around him. After knowing him for several months, I finally figured out it was his accent and I asked him where he was from. Turns out he was born and raised about 15 miles away from where my father is from in northwest Oklahoma.

He was speaking my language.

On Pentecost Sunday, we join with Christians around the globe in remembering what some have called the Birthday of the Church. Soon after Jesus’s ascension his followers were gathered together in Jerusalem for the annual Jewish Festival of Weeks. Fifty days after Passover (which, you might remember, happens to coincide with Jesus’s execution by the Roman Empire) faithful Jews celebrated harvest and the gift of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

This year, as Jesus’s followers gathered they had to have felt a little lost. Sure, Jesus had told them that their job was to be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth, but he didn’t exactly leave detailed instructions on how to make this happen.

As they were gathered together, a rush of wind came and filled the house where they were gathered. Whatever happened next must have been inexplicable because I still can’t get a good visual in my head for “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them.” They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues….sort of.

If you’ve ever been in a worship service where people were speaking in tongues, you’ve probably heard Glossolalia - at least that’s been my experience. So that’s when people start speaking “in tongues” and it’s incomprehensible. It’s not a language that anyone knows. That’s not what happened in Acts.

In Acts, the followers of Jesus started speaking in other KNOWN languages. And as they did so, immigrants from other parts of the Roman Empire came to see how these Galileans were speaking their languages. These were “devout Jews” who were living in Jerusalem but were originally from other parts of the region - north, south, east, and west of the capital.

And just like that - in an instant - those who were following Jesus had a new identity. The followers of The Way started to form an identity as multicultural, multilingual, diverse, global. When the Holy Spirit came, they began to understand what it meant to be witnesses in Jerusalem (the capital), but also Judea (the south), and Samaria (the north), and to the very ends of the known world.

Sadly, of course, as Christianity solidified and spread, it transformed from a group of rag-tag underdogs to a global powerhouse.

Over the years, the Church lost its way. We forgot our birth story - the story of the beauty of diversity of culture and language. The ability to speak in other people’s languages, so that they can really hear. We forgot that it is good to put ourselves out there, to make ourselves vulnerable.

Over the years, the Church has participated in unspeakable crimes against humanity like cultural genocide and murder. The Church has helped create the mess we are in today - a nation where hate crimes are committed daily. And the Church is complicit because many who say they follow Jesus have sold - and continue to sell - this violent lie that “good people” all look or sound the same.

But the truth is right here in front of us: followers of Jesus speak every language. And the gift of the Spirit should make us able to hear one another across human-imposed boundaries.

Earlier this week I read the words of the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, a biblical scholar. She notes that when the followers of Jesus began to speak of God’s marvelous deeds, it’s important to note that they “tell of the glories of God, not in the language of the empire but in the languages of the people subject to empire.”

Those who lived in the Roman Empire had a common language (“We speak Greek in the Roman Empire! Go back to your own country, you Parthian, you Mede!”). Greek was the language of commerce, the language of government. It was a language imposed by an occupying force.

But even as this language knit people together across a vast global empire, they maintained their own identities. At home, in private, where it was safe - they spoke their own native tongues. Babies were sung to sleep in the languages of “Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia”. Words between lovers were whispered, not in Greek, but in the languages of “Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene.”

And when the Spirit arrived - when she blew in as a gust of holy wind and flame - it seems to me she had a choice. Would the holy stories of God’s power and might roll off the tongue in Greek or some other language?

The Spirit did not choose to speak in the language of the Empire. She chose, instead, to come to the people gathered and speak to them in their own native tongues. She chose to boldly, loudly, proudly proclaim God’s deeds of power in languages that the Empire had attempted to silence, tone down, erase.

Holy One, may our ears be attuned to your voice as it arrives in tongues unknown to us. May those of us who currently live in the shadow of Empire open our hearts, our ears, our very selves to your arrival in the languages of those who have been marginalized. May those who have been tossed aside, told to blend in, told to shrink, quiet down, calm down boldly find their Pentecost voices - not just today, but every day.

And may the Church remember our call to listen, sing, shout, dance, preach, laugh, share in every conceivable language. May we remember that your native tongue is Love, is Justice, is Peace, is New Life, is an Ever-Widening-Circle of Creation. Amen.