Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Jacob's Stairway to Heaven"

“Stairway to Heaven”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Genesis 28: 10-19a
July 30, 2017 - Ordinary Time

“There’s a lady who knows
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven….”

I’ve learned over the years that when this text about Jacob’s dream of the stairway to heaven comes up in the lectionary, I need to just go ahead and factor in a significant amount of time to lose myself down internet rabbit holes researching Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. I won’t say exactly how much time is needed, but some versions of the song are more than 10 minutes long, so let’s just leave it at that.

Alternately credited as being one of the greatest rock songs of all time and ridiculed for being so ubiquitously overplayed that it’s lost all meaning, Stairway to Heaven has staying power. Nearly 50 years after its creation, what continues to draw people to this song? You could argue it has a lot to do with Jimmy Page’s expansive guitar solo, and you’d be partially right. But I think it’s about more than that.

There is something about the mythical, dreamlike quality of the lyrics that reaches out and grabs you. There is something about the interplay between melody, production, and storytelling that makes this song timeless.

To paraphrase the refrain: “Oooh...it makes us wonder.”

Robert Plant’s lyrics make a lot of people wonder. There are thesis-length articles on the internet trying to figure out what all the words mean. Surprisingly, I didn’t find a lot of ponderings about the connection between the images in this song and the story of Jacob’s dream in the desert at Bethel. Which is weird to me because the thematic connections seem obvious.

Here we have a young man who is starting out on his own under difficult conditions. A relentless climber, Jacob is not necessarily someone you’d hold up as a stellar model of morality. Through trickery and deception, he has gained his father’s blessing and stolen his twin brother’s inheritance, but he is now essentially on the run. Esau wants to kill him so his mother helps him make plans to leave town - head out to the ancestral homeland down south in Haran - and start anew. Rebekah says goodbye tearfully, hoping he’ll be able to return home soon. Little does she know it will be more than twenty years before he returns.

And so Jacob sets off. He is certainly one who believes “all that glitters is gold” and we can imagine Jacob dreaming of wealth as he makes his way across the desert alone. Does he feel scared out there in the wilderness? Or is he excitedly looking forward to his new life ahead? We aren’t told.

Knowing Jacob, though, he is almost certainly dreaming of that stairway to heaven….the climb. That dream of getting ahead, receiving God’s blessing - and in his mind God’s blessing is likely tied to all the things that glitter - land, livestock, wives, children, a sense of importance.

In his desert wandering, he settles down to rest at night and rests his head on a pillow made out of a rock. Can we pause for just a moment and thank the good Lord that we now have pillows? Yes.

With his head comfortably snuggled into that rock, he drifts off to sleep…
“There’s a sign on the wall,
But he wants to be sure.
Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.”

Resting securely in his father’s blessing, Jacob probably starts to count the sheep he will someday own. But God interrupts with a different dream. And suddenly the word blessing has two meanings.

In this dream, Jacob sees a literal stairway to heaven. And there are angels ascending and descending this ladder, stairway, ramp-type thing. Up and down, up and down they go.

It’s reminiscent of elevator dreams, which are apparently quite common. You rise, you fall. Sometimes the elevator breaks down and refuses to go anywhere. Sometimes you go so high-high-high in the elevator that you zoom right out of the top of the building. Sometimes you keep going lower and lower but never seem to reach your destination.

Elevator dreams are often said to be a sign we are worried about status. Does anyone love me? Do I have enough? Am I playing the game right? Are my parents proud? Am I getting ahead? AM I OKAY?

“Am I blessed?”

Jacob’s blessing from his father, Isaac, was quite practical - may you have loads of stuff, may everyone think you’re a stand up guy, may people bow down to serve you - that kind of stuff.

But in this peculiar dream, the new blessing from God takes on a different meaning. God arrives - and I think it’s interesting to note that God is not up on top of the stairway to heaven, nor does God call Jacob to climb the ladder - instead God arrives right by Jacob’s side.

God whispers in his ear, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…” God’s blessing is not about the glitters of gold or the status that comes when our dream-elevator shoots through the roof.

God’s blessing for Jacob is simply presence. I am.

When you weep - I am.
When you rejoice - I am.
When you are alone - I am.
When you are unsure - I am.
When you are in the desert - I am.
When you are starting over - I am.
When you are stuck in the middle - I am.
When you have nightmares of crashing elevators - I am.

I am. I am. I am.

And that is the blessing.

As Jacob begins his life anew, setting out on his own, he must have been filled with anxiety. Traveling to an unknown land, learning to make his own way. Vulnerable, alone out there in the desert. And maybe even a bit ashamed of his own actions - by stealing his brother’s birthright and blessing he has essentially wrecked his own family - pitting mother against son, brother against brother - and now he has been banished.

His escape to Haran is sold to him by his parents as a logical step, “Hey, your brother wants to kill you and I don’t see any women around here who are right for you anyway, do why don’t you go stay with your Uncle Laban for a while and find a good girl to marry?”

But, in reality, the words of Jacob’s grandfather Abraham echo under the surface - and these words about traveling to Haran also have two meanings.

Because when Abraham left Haran, he said he was never going back. God’s promise was that he would be installed in a new land, the old left behind. Grandfather Abraham refused to send his own son Isaac back to Haran to find a wife because he was scared Isaac would get stuck there in the old place. Now here we are two generations later and Jacob is now going back to the place this family wasn’t supposed to go back to. It’s two-steps forward, one-step back. This trip is not a joyous homecoming. It’s a regression. A failure. An embarrassment.

When God arrives, though, he does not speak of any of these things. Instead God simply comes alongside Jacob and says, “I am.” I am here. You are not alone. I am the God of your ancestors - yes. I am also your God - and we will always be together. Furthermore, I am the God of all the generations who are to come after you. They will be so numerous that they will spread from the north to the south and the east to the west like a fine dust that covers the whole earth.

My promise, my blessing, my presence has existed long before you were born, it continues today in you, and it will continue long after you are gone.

I am. I am. I am.

Who among us hasn’t felt like Jacob at one time or another? Left out, banished, cast away. Embarrassed, ashamed, lost. On the edge of growth but unsure where to begin. Leaving everything behind and fearfully stepping out into the world on our own. Alone, confused, anxious. Stuck in the middle, living in an in-between place, wondering which path to take in the night.

I can remember times in my own life where I felt as if I were laying down on a hard rock in the wilderness and waiting for God to show up. I can also identify with these feelings as a member of our wider culture at this particular moment in history.

As I stood out along Anderson Avenue earlier this week with several of you at the protest for healthcare, I thought to myself, “My goodness. I live in a world where we have to protest to get our elected officials to realize everyone should be able to afford to go to the doctor. How bizarre. What is this land I’m living in?”

Or when I saw the news earlier this week of Donald Trump’s tweets about banning transgender individuals from military service, my heart broke as I realized how very painful his words were to people I love. And I thought to myself, “Why is it always two-steps-forward, one-step-back? Why can’t the pathway to love and inclusion be a simple point A to point B line? Why is it so very hard for people to just be kind and love one another? And how many lives will be lost or irrevocably harmed simply because one man so callously woke up today and typed some words onto a screen?”

It often feels as though we are in the desert. Stuck in the middle. Wandering. Running away from a past filled with pain, hopefully and cautiously taking steps towards a better future, only to find ourselves on some serious detours. Painfully remembering our mistakes and wondering how to change course for good.

And in the midst of sleepless nights when we toss and turn on our rock pillows and cannot sleep….in the midst of the darkness when we rest deeply or fitfully….God continues to arrive and stand by our side. “I am,” she says. “I am the God of your ancestors. I am your God. And I will still be God to your children and your children’s children - those whose lives you cannot even imagine. No matter how the world
shakes and changes, no matter the tweets, no matter the pain, no matter the fear and anxiety - I am. I am. I am.”

You know, right in the middle of Stairway to Heaven, there’s this really rocking part with weird lyrics: (spoken)
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow,
don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.”

Somewhere this week I read an interpretation of these lyrics. The person said that since hedgerows function like fences, they symbolize boundaries, the edges. So if there’s a bustle - a commotion, a bit of chaos shaking up the bushes - we don’t need to be worried because it means that there is still life within the bushes, the hedges - perhaps a bird who is building a nest - and that this shaking reminds us of the newness of spring that is on the horizon. The new life that often comes after a big shake up.

Jacob’s dream - and this particular moment of Jacob’s life - reminds me of that. The bushes are trembling - chaos seems to rule. But God is still there in the midst of it all and the promise does not waver. The promise is still Spring, new life, Resurrection, growth.

As he wakes, Jacob has some sense of what has transpired. He knows his life will not be the same. Before he winds on down the road, hastily, he makes promises to God and wonders about the future. Cautiously he begins to trust.

The tune comes to him at last. He begins to understand that heaven can be here and now: “when all are one and one is all.”

He takes the rock he slept on, pours oil on it, and sets it as a marker - this place is holy. God is here.

“And he’s finding a stairway to heaven.”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Who Run the World? Part 1, feat. Sarah and Rebekah"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Ordinary Time - July16, 2017
Genesis 23: 1-2, 24

Of all of the great pleasures of life, there are few sweeter than losing yourself in a good story. The power of narrative to engulf our senses, raise imperative questions, solidify and nurture our values and worldview...stories matter in profound ways.

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be immersing ourselves in the continued saga of those who have long been called “The Patriarchs” in the Book of Genesis. Pastor Sue started us on this journey a few weeks ago as she modeled what it looks like to try and make sense of some of these more difficult texts - like Abraham almost-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. There are so many characters in these chapters of Genesis, that I had to sit down and make myself a little family tree earlier this week. And once I made it, I figured I’d share it with you, too, so you can try and follow along as we wander through these tales together.

Now, before we dive in, a word of caution. Something I learned long ago as a little girl reading and hearing these stories for the first time: The Bible can be a dangerous place to go exploring - especially if you happen to be a woman or girl.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I had the honor of hearing best-selling author and UCCer, Glennon Doyle (who you might previously have known as Glennon Doyle Melton, but she has recently remarried and changed her name). Ms. Doyle is many things, including an amazing practical and self-taught theologian. My favorite kind.

As she spoke to us about what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world, Ms. Doyle talked about the ways in which the Bible can be a scary and dangerous place for girls to go wandering alone. Because the messages we receive there - as is so many other places in our culture - are steeped in patriarchal culture. And if we don’t have guides, if we don’t have other people whispering to us about how it’s okay to question what we read there or lift out subversive details for us, the Bible can be a manual for the continued oppression of women and girls. And that is profoundly NOT OKAY.

So Ms. Doyle told us about what it was like for her, as a young girl, becoming acquainted with the Bible. The first story she saw in the Bible that clued her in to what it means to be a female human was this: Once upon a time, God created a man. And the man was lonely, so God created a woman to keep him company. And for a little while, everything was very, very good. But then something terrible happened. The woman wanted a piece of fruit. She was hungry and she wanted something so she took it. And thusly DESTROYED THE WHOLE WORLD AND ALL FUTURE GENERATIONS. THE END.

Glennon joked, “All she wanted was an apple. Can you imagine what might have happened if she wanted a piece of pizza?”

One of the messages children might take away from this particular story, depending on how it’s told, is that women should want less. Our desires are dangerous. What a terrible thing to teach children of all genders.

Ms. Doyle went on to say that she travels the world and talks to lots and lots of women about what they want. And what they want, she says, is GOOD. Most women, she says, want clear air and water for all. They want to make sure the planet is still here generations from now. They want to take care of children - everyone’s children, not just their own. They want more love, more peace, more justice, more control over their own bodies. Hungry bellies filled, the captives set free, healing for bodies and spirits, equal access to education.

Glennon says that The Patriarchy is smart. Because if women were to realize their deepest desires, empires would have to be torn down and the world would be rebuilt from scratch. So those in power maintain power by teaching generation after generation of children that women and girls are not to be trusted. That we don’t really know what we want. And that whatever we say we want is bad. It’s a lot easier to maintain the status quo if girls are taught to keep quiet and make themselves smaller and smaller until they almost disappear completely.

Jesus rejects this understanding of women and girls. Completely.

Time after time he showed us that he came to live with those on the margins. He told new stories - or told old stories in fresh ways - that lifted up those who had been silenced. He continually upended expectations and sought freedom from oppression for marginalized and oppressed people - including women and girls.

So when I hear people talk about “The Patriarchs” in Genesis, I get a little twitchy.

Because to label these faith ancestors “patriarchs” is to miss at least half of the story. These stories in Genesis have always fascinated me because the women are front and center, larger than life. They play critical roles that cannot be underestimated. In fact, these stories don’t exist without Sarah and Hagar, Rebekah and her mother, Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, Dinah, and all the others who are unnamed.

And so, as imperfect as these stories may be - created in a patriarchal world and passed down through generations of problematic culture - I’m not willing to throw them out. I keep coming back to these Ancestor-Mothers of mine and turning over their stories again and again, sitting at their feet and wondering what they have to offer us today.

You know, one way to read this story of Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage is pretty conventional. Abraham wants to buy a wife for his son. So he sends his servant window shopping. Servant makes a deal with God and Rebekah appears. She’s in very good shape...beautiful. The servant talks to her brother and father to work out the details and the property - Rebekah - is transferred. She rides off into the sunset to fulfill her female duty of creating future generations. The end.

But to tell the story that way is to miss so many rich details which call The Patriarchy of their time and ours to task.

For example, the story begins like this, “Sarah lived 127 years...and died.” It is a matriarch whose death sets this new story into action. How do I know that’s the beginning of the story? Because it bookends with the very end, where Rebekah settles into her new home with Isaac and we are told that she comforts him as he grieves his mother.

Yes, you could say women in this story exist to serve men. But you can also see quite clearly that the men would be in a whole whole lotta trouble without the women.

Have you ever noticed that many interesting stories about men and women interacting in the Bible happen at the local well? Moses and Jacob both meet their wives at a well. And remember Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman? Also at a well.

We are introduced to Rebekah at a well. She is there alone - an independent woman out on her own, away from the watchful eyes of family. And she is unafraid to approach strangers. She warmly greets this strange man and offers them hospitality. Not just hospitality, but life itself. Because when you live in a desert, nothing is more precious than water. And women who were the ones who gathered water. In this way, they wielded incredible power. I wonder if this is why so many interesting scenes take place at wells - they are a place where unrelated women and men have to mingle and the women have the upper hand. They control access to the most precious element in a hot and dry land: water.

And Rebekah is a water-gatherer extraordinaire. Her offer of drawing water for these ten camels is practically hyperbolic. Each camel would have drunk 20-30 gallons of water at a time. So when Rebekah, with her one small jar, offers to draw water for the camels and then DOES SO we’re talking about 200-300 GALLONS of water. Please note that she is not in this for the money. Abraham’s servant does not begin bestowing gifts on her until after she has completed this superhuman task.

After receiving the gifts, Rebekah runs back to her mother’s house. That tiny phrase “her mother’s house” reminds us that in this world, women and men were often separated. They had complementary, but separate roles. Rebekah likely doesn’t quite know what’s going on with this stranger, but perhaps she senses that something big is about to happen. She returns to HER community, the other women in her family, to begin sorting through her experience.

I think it’s worth noting that when Abraham’s servant tells his story to Rebekah’s family, he says, “Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son….” A short and sweet reminder that this story simply does not exist without Sarah, the Matriarch. Another detail that I think is pretty important: there is no dowry exchanged in this story. Yes, the servant brings gifts, but they are freely given, not contractual. In fact, I wonder if this is part of the reason Rebekah’s brother and mother start to second-guess their hasty decision to send Rebekah away with this stranger.

Hearing his story, Rebekah’s father and brother are spell-bound and when he finishes, they immediately agree that this is a “God thing” and Rebekah is most certainly the one who should go and marry Isaac. I guess the finer details of contract negotiation slip their mind.

By the time the morning comes, it is too late to re-negotiate the deal. Abraham’s servant is ready to depart and is a bit impatient. And here is something absolutely astounding: when there is a conflict over when she should depart, Rebekah’s family calls her in and lets HER make the call. “Will you go with this man?” they ask. She utters two short, incredibly-brave, life-altering words, “I will.”

And it is done.

Following in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle, whom she has never met, Rebekah rides off into the sunset on a new adventure. Like Sarah before her, she is unafraid to go where God calls. She leaves behind everything she knows - family, friends, home. And unlike Sarah, she doesn’t even have the comfort of traveling with her husband - instead, she leaves with a stranger trusting her new husband will be okay because God says so.

As they approach Isaac and the two prepare to meet for the first time, Rebekah chooses to cover herself with a veil. It’s not that she doesn’t have other women-folk who could attend to this piece of proprietary for her. She has brought her nurse and female servants with her. I see this act of self-covering as a bold statement of self-agency. “I give myself to you,” she says in veiling her own self. “I make this choice.”

She’s a strong woman - no doubt. Strong enough to water 10 camels by herself. Brave enough to set off with a stranger because she believes God has ordained it. Independent enough to be asked for her opinion and have it actually matter. All in all, she’s a pretty good hero, don’t you think?

After Isaac and Rebekah meet, something unusual happens. We are told that Isaac loves Rebekah. This is the first time in 24 chapters of the Bible where we are told that a husband loves his wife. Love is not a prerequisite for marriage in this culture. Nevertheless, Isaac loves Rebekah and we are told that she comforts him as he grieves his mother.

And so Rebekah is fully installed in her new tent - Sarah’s tent. The matriarch who died at the beginning of our story makes way for a new generation.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you this is a story about The Patriarchs. For to say that is to do violence against the women who are knitted into every turn and twist. Without the women, this story does not exist. Without our matriarchs, we are truly nothing.

God, who brought the world into being, who created and creates still, is still speaking in these ancient stories. And she still has a lot to say.



Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Make Glad!"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Ordinary Time - July 9, 2017
Psalm 46

It is good to be back home with all of you. After a week of vacation with my family in Washington, D.C. and another week with 2,500 people from all over the nation gathered in Baltimore for the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ, I am glad to be home. Glad to be worshiping together in this particular corner of the world.

And glad that my travels both directions went smoothly! Last week, as I blearily made my way to the light rail in Baltimore with all my luggage to return to the airport, I stood on the platform waiting for the train to arrive. I heard the announcement come over the loudspeakers, as I had so many times in the past two weeks, using public transit - “We are all responsible for keeping Baltimore safe. So if you see something, say something.”

I journeyed to the airport. I dumped out my water bottle and considered whether I should remove my Black Lives Matter and Malcolm X buttons from the outside of my bag to avoid the potential for extra screening. I carefully removed my baggie of liquids from my carry on, took off my shoes (not because it was holy ground but because the TSA agents told me to). I stepped into that machine - whatever it’s called - and assumed the screening position. And, as I always do, I had a little moment where I thought, how odd. How odd that this all seems normal now.

I wasn’t selected for extra screening, of course. Despite my “radical” buttons. I’ve never been selected for extra screening, unlike many of my other friends and colleagues who occupy brown bodies or have “unusual” last names.

As I wandered through the airport, I glanced up at a TV screen that was anxiously blaring news of North Korea and missiles. And I looked away from the screen and there was again - that message that seems ubiquitous these days - a giant floor to ceiling billboard just outside the airport bathroom, “IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING.”

Well, maybe it’s just that I’ve had that little saying drilled into my head the last few weeks. I don’t know. But today I do want to say something. And what I want to say is this: like Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, I have seen the Lord!

In Washington, D.C., where I had a chance to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. We journeyed down, down, down to a basement three stories underground. Together with hundreds who crowded those darkened rooms, eager to hear stories that give life, I walked slowly up from that low basement - hearing whispers from the past. Stories of people who were always striving for freedom. Stories of those who knew their worth as beloved children of God and would not rest until liberty and justice for all is truly manifest for ALL. I have seen the Lord in the relentless quest for liberation….and it makes me glad.

In Baltimore, gathered at the feet of the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who began his keynote address with these words: “I’ve come recruiting.” He read the story of Pentecost to us and said that he’s come recruiting for a new Pentecost - that a new wind must blow and a new fire must be kindled. He said, “We gotta learn to speak in tongues if we’re going to challenge the lies of Caesar” and urged us that this is “no time for polite conversations about alternative facts. We need moral clarity.” He ended with an altar call for the new Poor Peoples’ Campaign he is launching and you’ve never seen a group of UCCers so fired up, ready to commit their lives to the work ahead. It was practically….well, Pentecostal. I have seen the Lord in the conviction and leadership of Rev. Barber….and it makes me glad.

In the work of the Synod itself, I saw the Holy. Together we stood outside the federal building in Baltimore and demanded justice for Guillermo Recinos Morales, an Annapolis resident, grandfather, and artist, currently detained by ICE. I watched as the Synod voted overwhelmingly to affirm the Rev. Traci Blackmon as our Executive Minister for Justice & Witness, to become an immigrant welcoming denomination, to affirm the fight for $15 and a living wage for all, to remind us that the earth belongs to God and that we must work together to combat climate change. We worshiped together, shared stories together. We lifted up the young people of Standing Rock and gave thanks for their bold witness. We were led by our youth delegates during times of difficult deliberation. In a windowless room in a convention center, I saw the Lord in the movement of the United Church of Christ….and it makes me glad.

Christ arrived in the words of the Rev. Lori Walke, who pastors at Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City and was the closing preacher at one of the banquets I attended. She reflected on the timeless functions of the Church. What is it that makes the Church the Church?

Rev. Walke says that one of the timeless functions of the Church is to RESIST. She marched us through the Bible, showing the threads of resistance woven throughout our holy text. Rev. Walke said, “From the Book of Revelation, resist. To use the specific words of the Book of Revelation, resist the claim ’Caesar is Lord’ by proclaiming,’Jesus is Lord.’ In our words, resist the claim that the Donald is Lord, that Barack is Lord, that Bernie or Hillary is Lord, that Wall Street is Lord, that the NRA is Lord, that Oil & Gas is Lord. Resist. This is why we say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ so that we resist our tendency to give power to anyone or anything else. ’Jesus is Lord,’ otherwise the church becomes the Spirit-crushing, bootstrap worshiping Religious Right or the less effective but just as idolatrous Democratic Party at Prayer. Resist.”

I have seen the Lord - and it is not Caesar or Donald or Barack. It is Jesus. And it makes me glad.

Sixteen months ago, the national church announced that the theme of General Synod 31 would be “Make Glad.” I thought, what now? MAKE GLAD? The world at the time seemed, frankly, teetering on the edge of disaster. In the midst of 21st century anxieties - rising waters, bullet-riddled bodies, overt racism, sexism, islamophobia, xenophobia, heterosexist, and transphobia….in the midst of all those phobias, fears, anxieties the chipper MAKE GLAD! seemed, quite honestly, hollow and ridiculous.

But my presence was required at General Synod, so I packed my bags and traveled to Baltimore - all the while absorbing the anxieties of this particular time in history. And there, gathered, with 2,500 others, I heard and sang the words of this ancient psalm, “There is a river. There is a river. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.”

I listened as the Rev. Traci Blackmon preached about this ancient prayer. Rev. Blackmon told the story of Charles Blondin who, 100-years ago, crossed the Niagara Falls on a tightrope in front of a crowd. Again and again, he crossed the falls. He even stopped one time to make a sandwich in the middle and ate it. And after the crowd had oohed and aahed enough times, he brought out a wheelbarrow and said, “Who believes I can cross the falls with this wheelbarrow?” The crowd cheered, “We do! We believe you can do anything!” And he said, “Who believes I can cross the falls with someone riding IN this wheelbarrow?” “Oh, YES!” They replied, “We believe you can do ANYTHING?”

“Who volunteers to ride in the wheelbarrow?”

(Crickets.)

Rev. Blackmon laughed a bit as she reminded us that it’s all well and good to come and cheer for those who lead the way and to say that they can do anything. But when the time comes to put our own bodies, minds, souls, and selves on the line in the struggle to bring about God’s realm of perfect peace with justice….well, most of us are just like that crowd gathered at Niagara Falls a hundred years ago.

But the psalmist reaches out to us across the centuries with words filled with ancient truths:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

And suddenly it occurred to me. We don’t “make glad” because everything is okay. We make glad because despite it being very much NOT okay, we know who we are and whose we are.

It’s kind of like how we being many of our worship services together by saying “Happy Sunday!” Not because we’re always happy, but because we know that when we are together in this particular place - when we are reminded of the very presence of the Most High in our lives through shared prayer, song, story - when we gather together at the table, at the font - when we see the face of Christ on our neighbor here at 700 Poyntz - our souls are filled with the kind of joy that can exist even in the midst of pain and fear.

Because:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
      
We make glad because even when it is not alright - there is a river. There is a river in the midst of God’s holy city. And GOD is in the midst of the city and it shall not be moved. No matter what evils befall us, the river continues to flow - bringing life and sustenance to all who dwell along its banks.

Though the world sings to us never ending songs of anxiety - on the slow crawl at the bottom of the cable news, on the big billboards screaming at us at the airport - we tune our hearts to the words of ancient prayers passed down to us from our ancestors:
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
She breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
She burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!

We make glad not because all is well. We make glad because we have a deeper sense of peace that prevails through the anxieties of these days. We make glad because we know there is a river that continues to flow - around us and in us and through us.

And we are a part of that river - the wider river of the United Church of Christ, the wider river of the Church universal, the wider river of our all kindred who keep the stories of goodness and hope and resurrection alive.

Who we can be together is beyond our wildest imaginings. Each of us is but a drop in a wider stream. Tributaries join and flow to the city. A small trickle becomes a massive river whose waters roar and foam.

"If you see something say something,” the signs say. What I see is that the Church is on the move and cannot be stopped. What I see is that God is our refuge and strength - a very present help in times of trouble. What I see is that God is in the midst of the city, and it shall not be moved.

There is a river. And we are made glad. Amen.