Sunday, August 27, 2017

“Take, bless, break, give. Together.”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Matthew 14:13-21
Ordinary Time, August 27, 2017

This past Monday night, the sanctuary of First United Methodist in Topeka was overflowing. I was told the sanctuary holds 750….and there were people sitting and standing in the aisles and lining the wall in back of the balcony. Gathered together for the first Mass Meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign in Kansas, the energy was palpable.

Yara Allen stood in the pulpit and introduced herself as the Theomusicologist for Poor People’s Campaign. Ms. Allen told us that she likes to begin like this, “When I say ‘Forward together’ you say, ‘Not one step back.” Let’s practice. Forward Together (not one step back!)

TOGEHER, for almost three hours we sang together, prayed together, received wisdom from other Kansans, and the two co-conspirators of the Campaign - the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber. If you missed it, you can still find the livestream of the entire evening online and I’ll be sure to include a link to that when I post the sermon online later this afternoon.

The Poor People’s Campaign. It’s a name that makes some uncomfortable. It made people uncomfortable 50 years ago, too, when Dr. King and others were working on the initial campaign. Most folks don’t want to be poor. Don’t like to think of themselves as poor. And yet we know that 80% of people in our nation will be poor at some point in their lives. We know that even in town as small as ours, there are about 300 children in our school district who are homeless. [1] We know that 40% of the students who attend USD 383 schools qualify for free or reduced lunches. [2] That means that almost half of the students living in our school district have a family income of $45,000 or less if they have a family of four.

Poor people are here in Manhattan. Poor people are here in this room.

A living wage for our community has been calculated by MIT. For one adult living alone, a living wage here in Manhattan is $11.40/hr or $22,800 a year. For two adults living with two children, the adults would need to both make $14.87 a year and, together, would need to pull in a combined income of almost $60,000 to make ends meet. [3]

If you have looked for hourly work in Manhattan or if you employ hourly employees, I don’t have to tell you that jobs that pay a living wage are difficult to find in our community.

Earlier this week I spoke to someone in our congregation who works multiple jobs that don’t pay a living wage. They said (and I’m sharing this with their permission), “You know, the thing is, I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be able to pay my bills. And I would like to be able to come into work and see the CEO and not have to think to myself, ‘Why do you think you’re worth 20 of me?’”

Poor people are here in Manhattan. Poor people are here in this room.

We are so ingrained as a culture to associate poverty and shame. When I was at the two-day training with the Poor People’s Campaign we were asked to talk briefly about how we, ourselves, relate to poverty. I listened as people struggled to recount times in their lives when they couldn’t pay the bills, or didn’t have enough to eat, or were homeless...but even in those conversations about poverty, it was rare for any of us to say “I am poor,” or “I’ve been poor.”

We are taught from an early age that if you are poor, it’s because you’ve done something wrong. This is a lie. People are poor because we have all - all of us, collectively, as a society - have failed to care for one another. People are poor because we have decided this is a problem we can’t fix or won’t fix. People are poor because we’ve decided it’s okay to consistently prioritize profit over everything else. Or, as Dr. Barber said Monday, “When you treat people like things and corporations like people, it’s not only bad public policy, it’s morally wrong.”

The poor we have with us because we have collectively failed to imagine a better way and make it happen. The poor we have with us because we have turned a blind eye other each other’s’ suffering. The poor we have with us because we have believed the lies we’ve been told.

Poor people are here in Manhattan. Poor people are here in this room.

The Poor People’s Campaign is a campaign that is led by poor people with others walking alongside, working alongside, working with, not for. It is not a campaign FOR Poor People. It’s a campaign of, by, with Poor People. If you are wealthy, there is plenty of room for you to come along. We need you. But you will have to get used to following and doing with, not for. Dr. Barber reminded us that Frederick Douglass sometimes said, “Those who will be freed must be the ones to strike the first blow.”

The poor are leading. The poor are teaching. The poor are striving for their own liberation and those who are not currently poor are invited to come along and see what it feels like to find liberation together.

The poor are also leading in this morning’s story from the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus, the one many of us call Ruler and Savior, was a poor man. Homeless, too. He never held a job - not one with a living wage or any other. He didn’t have a Linkedin profile. He didn’t own property. In fact, he was dependent on the charity of others to receive his daily bread. When he quoted the Hebrew Scriptures, “Humans cannot live by bread alone,” he knew that we need bread to live. That’s why he said we can’t live by bread ALONE. And when he taught his disciples to pray, “give us this day our daily bread” he knew the urgency of that prayer because he knew that the Powers and Principalities would look to those who were hungry and say, “Oh, let them eat cake.”

As the story of the feeding of the 5,000 opens, Jesus has just received a terrible blow. His cousin, his friend, his co-conspirator in heralding the Realm of God, John the Baptizer, has just been executed. Killed by the Powers and Principalities for sport. Decapitated on a whim. It’s a disgusting, horrific, stomach-turning story. Matthew creates a juxtaposition of the wealthy at a big, blow-out party, sitting on high in the royal palace with the poor man Jesus….out in the wilderness, just trying to find some space to grieve.

But there is no rest for the weary because there are just so many needs. As always, the crowds find Jesus, seeking healing and wholeness. And Jesus did what he always did - he had compassion on them - even in the midst of his own pain and anger. He set up his free health clinic and healed all day long. As the day turned into evening, Jesus’s friends began to fret. “It’s getting late,” they said, “Maybe we should tell these people to go home so they can get something to eat.”

But Jesus has other another plan. Instead of scattering to the four winds, Jesus wants everyone to stay together. (Forward together! Not one step back!)

He tells his disciples, “They don’t need to go home. We’ll eat here. You feed them.”

The disciples protest, “Well, we don’t have enough food to feed them. We only have five loaves and two fish.”

Jesus, never one to be scared off by the impossible, says, “Gather round. Everyone sit down.” Taking the meager five loaves and two fish into his hands, he begins the same ritual we know from Holy Communion. Take, bless, break, give. Take what you’ve got to work with, whoever shows up. Bless the gathered community and the sustenance we share. Break the bread, the hearts, the lives wide open so there is plenty of room for new life to enter. Give to one another in thanksgiving and joy. Take, bless, break, give. Together.

It’s at the heart of who we are as Christians. And we learned it from a poor man working with just five loaves and two fish at the end of a long day of unpaid labor.

Now we are not told how the miracle happens. But we are told that everyone present - more than 5,000 people - were filled and there were leftovers.

One of the powerful things about this story is that we are invited to use our imaginations to figure out just how it happened. [4] Many scholars have imagined that perhaps the miracle here wasn’t really in Jesus’s hands or the work of the disciples. Perhaps there was something about sitting down in the presence of Jesus and being a part of that ritual - take, bless, break, give - that reminded people there was enough. And so they took out bread from their bags, granola bars from their purses and shared. In the presence of knowing they were blessed and broken, they shared what they had….and it was enough.

I’ve always liked that interpretation. Because it reminds me that together, we can do mighty, magnificent, miraculous things. (Forward together! Not one step back!)

This week as I was pondering the socio-economic realities of this story I had a new thought. I wondered about this possibility: we know that in our own time lack of access to healthcare often goes hand-in-hand with hunger. So I have to suppose that many of the people gathered in the wilderness clamoring for Jesus’s free health clinic were probably not the same people gathered in Herod’s palace the night before. They were probably poor people.

Seeing that the day was coming to a close, maybe the disciples began to worry, “Oh, man. Look at all these poor people. They are going to be hungry. And they’re going to expect us to feed them.” So they asked Jesus to send them home.

But Jesus said, “No. We’ll stay together and eat together.” (Forward together! Not one step back!) And then he taught the disciples something very important that they likely never forgot.

The poor people gathered in that crowd didn’t need the disciples to feed them. They had among themselves the resources and abilities and skills and wisdom to feed themselves. We aren’t told exactly how it happened, but we are told that when the crowd gathered their resources together no one went away hungry.

What seemed to be impossible was actually possible. The “what abouts” didn’t matter. The “but we can’ts” held no power. For one day in the wilderness those who were hungry were fed. Together. (Forward together! Not one step back!)

Now you may be thinking, “I dunno, preacher. This still seems pretty fishy (no pun intended).” I guess the early followers of Jesus had a hard time believing it, too, because in the very next chapter, the miracle repeats itself all over again as Jesus and his followers feed 4,000 with just seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.

The refrain is the same - take, bless, break, give.

Friends, Jesus showed us what can happen when we are willing to attempt that which seems impossible. He showed us a way around the “what abouts” and the “but we can’ts.” He showed us with his actions - take, bless, break, give.

When we stay in the room with one another. When we gather together - rich ones and poor ones and everyone in between - and when we fix our eyes on the poor man who came to teach us, we can move mountains. We can break ancient bonds. We can dismantle systems of oppression that keep us impoverished. We can imagine new ways of being.

And even when we can’t quite imagine it - even when our brains can’t quite comprehend how it will work - Jesus shows us what we are supposed to do: take, bless, break, give.


(Forward together! Not one step back!)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

"Broadcasting Life"

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Matthew 13:1-9
Ordinary Time, August 20, 2017

On August 6, 1945 the President’s Room of the Capitol could scarcely hold the multitude of white and Negro leaders crowding it. President Lyndon Johnson’s high spirits were marked as he circulated among the many guests whom he had invited to witness an event he confidently felt to be historic, the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislation was designed to put the ballot effectively into Negro hands in the South after a century of denial by terror and evasion.

The bill that lay on the polished mahogany desk was born in violence in Selma, Alabama, where a stubborn sheriff handling Negros in the Southern tradition had stumbled against the future. During a nonviolent demonstration for voting rights, the sheriff had directed his men in tear gassing and beating the marchers to the ground. The nation had seen and heard, and exploded in indignation. In protest, Negroes and whites marched fifty miles through Alabama, and arrived at the state capital of Montgomery in a demonstration fifty thousand strong. President Johnson, describing Selma as a modern Concord, addressed a joint session of Congress before a television audience of millions. He pledged that, “We shall overcome,” and declared that the national government must by law insure to every Negro his full rights as a citizen. The Voting Rights Bill of 1965 was the result. In signing the measure, the President announced that “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield…today we strike away the last major shackle of…fierce and ancient bonds.”

One year later, some of the people who had been brutalized in Selma and who were present at the Capitol ceremonies were leading marchers in the suburbs of Chicago amid a raid on rocks and bottles, among burning automobiles, to the thunder of jeering thousands, many of them waving Nazi flags.

These are the opening words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Published just a few months before he inaugurated the original Poor People’s Campaign, in the cover photo you can literally see the pain of the world weighing on him heavily as he struggles with the enormity of the questions of his day.

Fifty years later, on the eve of a new Poor People’s Campaign, we are still grappling with many of these same questions. How can a country that says it’s founded on Christian ideals allow children to go to bed hungry at night? Why can’t a person working a full-time job make ends meet? How do we repent for the sins of colonialism and white supremacy? When evil walks abroad in the sunlight, unmasked, unashamed, what is the appropriate response of those who side with love? Do we ignore it? Do we show up with candles and sing songs? Do we punch Nazis, misogynists, homo- and transphobic bigots in the face?

All of this is to say that is seems the author of Ecclesiastes spoke a deep truth when they said, “There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See this is new’? It has already been in the ages before us.”

And so we stand here in 2017 in a time that feels like another watershed moment. The rivers flow and divide. The waters mingle and course. And as the rivers rage and roar, we sometimes wonder: will love win in the end?

Once upon a time, in a land far away from here there arrived a brown-skinned Jew who came to remind us of the answer to that question.

He was not the type of person you’d typically expect to roam the halls of power or have his own Wikipedia article. Born in unusual and somewhat scandalous circumstances in some backwater town, he had an uneventful childhood. He was lucky to make it to adulthood alive, really, because he and his people lived in poverty. He never owned a home. He relied on handouts from friends for food and shelter. He lived under the constant oppression of the government, which came in the form of an outside occupying force.

As he grew into manhood, he began to teach.

He was deeply rooted in the ways of his faithful Jewish ancestors. He knew the stories….but he had this way of telling them anew. He put twists and turns into them. People paid attention. He showed compassion on those society said were worthless or gross. He has a soft spot for lepers, widows, sex workers, tax collectors, those possessed by demons. Oh, and he performed signs and wonders. As the Rev. Dr. William Barber is fond of saying, “Everywhere he went, he set up free health clinics.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are introduced to this Palestinian Jew named Jesus in the first four chapters. As the story builds, Jesus begins to speak. In chapters 5-7 he preaches the Sermon on the Mount and tells us what he has come to do. Then, in chapters 8-9 he DOES what he has come to do. Having taught through word and deed, he then gives explicit instructions to his followers, “Okay. It’s your turn now. I’m ready to watch you fly. Go. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” [1]

So they do. And everyone lives happily every after.

Just kidding.

What actually happens is they mostly crash and burn. Because they, like us, are human. And if we humans are really good at one thing, it’s messing up. This is why we need patient teachers to pick us up, brush us off, and tell us, “you can do it!”

Jesus is sometimes that kind of teacher. But sometimes he’s cranky, impatient, frustrated…dare I even say a bit hopeless about his students. It reminds me a bit of what I’ve heard from many friends and strangers who are people of color and Jewish this past week, which is essentially this: “Hey, White Christians. We’ve been telling you and telling you for literally centuries that white supremacy is a problem but you didn’t want to listen. We’ve been sowing those seeds of knowledge but you refuse to let the wisdom take root and grow in your heart. Does it really take a group of Nazi-flag wielding people with guns to make you wake up and realize that white supremacy is still a problem?”

Wisdom-bearers get cranky when they say the same thing again and again and no one seems to want to listen.

Which brings us to today’s passage. Jesus has been pouring his all into it but he is just not seeing the results he’d like. The Kingdom of God may be at hand, but somedays it’s still a little hard to see.

And so he begins to teach in parables. This is either a brilliant pedagogical move or totally misguided. In his more cranky moments, Jesus tells his followers essentially, “I’m annoyed that when I speak plain Aramaic to you, you don’t get it. So now I’m going to make it even harder by using parables.”

But the amazing thing is, sometimes they do get it. And sometimes WE get it. At least a little.  Parables are a brilliant pedagogical move because they are the gift that keeps on giving. We keep turning them over again and again. Putting ourselves into different places in the story. Noticing new things we’ve never seen before. And parables put the onus on US as the learners to do OUR work. It’s not like we can just passively download the lesson from a parable. We have to WORK for it.

And of all of Jesus’s parables, this one seems to be kind of a meta-parable. Because, at least according to Jesus’s own interpretation of this parable, this one is a parable about parables. The sower goes out to sow and the seeds are God’s Word. The wisdom that we are to open our hearts to. If the seeds find fertile ground, they multiply and grow and, Jesus doesn’t say this part explicitly, but you know what happens when plants are nurtured right? Many send out more seeds to make more plants.

But when the wisdom finds infertile ground - whether it’s dirt that’s too shallow, soil that’s too rocky, or a field that’s infested with weeds - well, those seeds cannot grow and bear fruit.

Now, Jesus’s own interpretation of this parable makes me a little uncomfortable. Because, the way he tells it, it sounds like we are all somehow predestined to be a particular type of soil. Some of us are just never going to get it. But I like to think that if Jesus had been less cranky and frustrated in this moment, he might have interpreted his own words differently.

I can absolutely see how Jesus - the one who came in the name of liberation…only to mostly be met by people who couldn’t get it together - I can absolutely see how, in his moments of immense frustration, he might have come to the conclusion that some people are just not destined to be great soil.

But I also believe in my heart of hearts in what Carol Dweck and others have taught us about the “growth mindset” the idea that we all have the capability to learn and grow and change. I believe that we all have the ability to become good soil - a place where seeds of wisdom can be welcomed and nurtured and can eventually bear fruit.

But this doesn’t happen on its own. Anyone who has ever attempted to turn create even a small garden plot knows that the work of tilling the soil, clearing the rocks, fighting back against the weeds that threaten to overtake knows that tending soil is hard work. And even though I don’t know much about gardening, I have noticed that soil is often at its very best when it is liberally tended with gross rotting stuff called “compost.” Oh, and also manure.

Creating a life that is like good soil - a life ready for growing, learning, changing, adapting, saying “Huh, I was wrong before. Let me try to adjust” - creating a fertile life that nurtures newness takes hourly commitment and work. It also takes partnership and accountability. We have to have people in our lives who can tell us, “Hey, I noticed you’re seeming a little bit like rocky soil today. Let me help you clear some of those rocks out.”

In the context of this particular moment, when so many of the seeds being thrown at us by the forces of evil are trying to choke out the love that God has sown, I want to say a particular word to the white folks in the room: it is our responsibility to lovingly and firmly tend to our own soil and the soil of other white folks. We have to daily take on the mantle of making sure we are receptive and open to the wisdom that is being offered to us by those who know more about oppression than we do. It is a gift when someone offers us those seeds of wisdom.

And here’s the thing (and this is for everyone now): When we fail to tend to our own soil. When we become rocky, weedy, shallow messes, God is still sowing seeds of goodness, redemption, new life. God is broadcasting new life each and every day. That word - broadcasting - which most of us think of as being about radio and TV, is actually an agricultural word. It means throwing seeds everywhere with abandon.

God continues to broadcast life with audacious abandon. It is the very nature of God to keep trying to reach us. To right the wrongs. To make a way out of no way. To bring new life where there is only stinking, rotting compost. To open us up to risk and growth. To heal the world.

[1] I am indebted to Dale Allison for the overview of the structure of the Gospel of Matthew.