Sunday, December 24, 2017

“O Holy Night: The Space Between”

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

The darkness is holy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Merry Christmas.

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

“When Whispers Gather”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 4, 2017

“The Calm Before the Welcoming”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Rohr, 77.