Monday, January 29, 2018

“Aprons, Cups, and Napkins”

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
on the occasion of the Ordination of the Rev. Sean Weston
Sunday, January 28, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Texts: 1 Samuel 8:1-22 and Luke 22:14-27

Jesus’s followers are so delightfully human. Here they are, gathered around the table with their teacher and friend for the last time. Jesus shares words with them - important words. But the only part they really seem to hear is the part about one of them betraying him. Immediately, they start to whisper and wonder, “Who is it, do you think? It’s it Chad in accounting? No. I heard it’s Cheryl who works in the mail room.”

Moments after Jesus lovingly passes the bread and the wine the disciples have somehow devolved into a full-on argument about which one of them is the greatest. I always imagine this scene with the disciples using the words of The Greatest - you know, Muhammad Ali - to make their point.
"I should be a postage stamp. That's the only way I'll ever get licked."

“It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."

“My only fault is that I don’t realize how great I really am.”

And then Jesus steps in, as he so often had to do - as he still has to do - to gently correct his followers. “It turns out,” he says quietly, “That this whole notion of who is the best is pretty complicated.”

And, as always, there’s something about his voice and the love in his eyes that makes them sit down and listen.

That makes us sit down and listen.

It turns out that humans have always struggled with hierarchies and labels. People were arguing about who was the greatest long before Muhammad Ali, long before Jesus’s disciples. I have this working theory that to be human is so overwhelming that we rely on lots of little tricks to make it through the daily existential crisis known as Life. One of the ways we cope is by categorizing everything. And by labeling people so we can better understand who they are and what roles they might play.

This can be a good thing. It helps to know who the teacher is when you walk into a room on the first day of class. It helps to recognize who the alpha dog is when you walk onto the court. Churches also benefit from knowing who might play which roles at various times. It seems to me that this whole process of Ordination is one way that we, as the Church, label some people so we might know what to expect of them. It’s helpful.

Of course, this labeling of people can also get a bit complicated. Because what if you walk into the classroom and the teacher is only person who is supposed to know anything? Well, you’re going to miss out on a whole lot of peer-to-peer learning that could have been amazing. And what if everyone on the court only expects the star player to make magic happen? Well, the team’s not going to be very functional and that’s going to be a huge liability.

What happens when, in churches, we expect the pastor to be the “professional Christian” - the one we pay to do all the ministry for us? So we don’t have to? Nothing good happens in that scenario.

Or what happens when we have odd ideas about pastors - like that they are somehow perfect, or somehow otherworldly, immune to human foibles and follies? NOTHING GOOD. In fact, when we believe our pastors are perfect the stage can be set for some really awful scenarios where power is abused, trust is breached, and hearts are broken.

We know all of this. We do. And yet…..we seem to still naturally re-gravitate towards this idea of there being a quick fix or easy answer for all the things that ail us. Like the Israelites, we want a King! A person who will show us the way, make decisions for us. A person who will always know the right answer. A magical person who will fill the church to overflowing with children and young families. A powerful preacher who is also skilled at pastoral care and plays the guitar like an angel. We just want it to be easy.

I get it. I wish life was easy, too.

Except when I don’t. Except when I remember that some of the best lessons I’ve learned in this life have moments of unease. Except when I remember that Jesus never promised easy.

Which brings me back to Jesus. Always back to Jesus.

The Israelites may have clamored for the perceived ease of life-under-a-monarch and Jesus’s first followers channeled their inner Ali-s as they argued over who was the greatest. But Jesus brought them gently back around to a deeper truth. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” is how Ali phrased it.

Those of us who are called to ministry - and that means all of us in one way or another - are called to serve.

Several years ago now I had the opportunity to participate in a daylong workshop with the Rev. Michael Piazza. He shared with us an image that has stuck with me all these years. The image of the apron. (Hang up apron on pulpit.)

Rev. Piazza told a story of a pastor who was shaking people’s hands after a worship service and greeted a couple of guests. They made small talk and the pastor learned that the guests were actually members of another church in town but were looking for other options because they “just weren’t being fed” at their current church. The pastor responded, “Sounds like it’s time for you to put on an apron instead of a bib. Those of us who are followers of Jesus are supposed to serve, not be served.”
This image of followers of Jesus all wearing aprons is a powerful image. What if we really were just going around looking for opportunities to serve others, wash feet, anoint with holy oil, and set tables for everyone we encountered? That would truly be an amazing thing, wouldn't it? And what if each and every congregation was filled with people who showed up on Sunday morning seeking opportunities to serve, rather than just being filled themselves? It would be pretty neat.

The problem, of course, is that we are human.

And we actually can’t meet other people’s needs if our own needs aren’t being met. You know, the whole put the oxygen mask on thing, right? We are hungry humans. We need nutrients, sustenance. We need new knowledge and insights. Fresh experiences of God. And many of us come to church hungrily seeking those connections, that knowledge. Heck, we gather around this table because we know we are hungry and need to be filled.

So...I want to keep Piazza’s image of a bunch of Christians wearing aprons AND I want to add to it. I think we can be Christians who wear aprons AND carry around cups. (Place cup on pulpit.) Sometimes these cups are filled to overflowing. Other times they are running on empty. I would argue that it’s normal to cycle through periods of our life where we have a lot to give and other times where we are very much in need. That’s normal.

Friends, the beauty of the Church is that it is by its very nature a place where we can BOTH wear and apron AND carry a cup.

When I am tired and worn out, I can rest assured that someone else will put on their apron and get to work. During those times, I can focus on receiving God’s good gifts and rejoicing in them. When I am feeling good and ready to go, I can put on that apron, pick up the carafe of coffee, and walk around looking for those who need a refill. And in those moments I get to share in the joy of being Christ’s hands and feet for someone who needs it.

On and on the cycle goes. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing. And we need each other for accountability. Otherwise, it seems there are some of us who are prone to ALWAYS wearing an apron and others of us who need help remembering it’s time for us to step into service again.

I recently had the privilege of hearing an amazing sermon by the Rev. Krista Betz on the story of Elisha and the women with the overflowing jars of oil in 2 Kings. Krista used that text as an opportunity to talk about how the Bible is full of stories about container - the gifts the magi brought, Noah’s ark and the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple itself, those jars of water-into-wine at Cana, the space that Job’s friends held for him in his hour of need, the containers of Elizabeth and Mary’s bodies as they brought new life into the world.

Krista asked us, “What if our lives are the most sacred containers that we have? What if God’s manifestation is not somewhere out there but is somehow in here?” We are not the sacred oil that gives light and love. Instead, we are the containers that hold God’s oil until it is ready to be poured.
Participating in the act of ordination is holy because it reminds us that our entire lives are the most sacred containers we have. Our frail and fragile, foibled and follied, very human lives are what we’ve got. And they are enough. They are more than enough.

God uses our containers - us - to do miraculous things. And it’s not just the people that we “set apart” as special. It’s not just those who are ordained. It’s every single one of us - young and old, rich and poor, broken and whole, sinner and saint, because God knows we are, all of us, both.

The occasion of an ordination is a time to rejoice as we remember that God is calling each of us - into service, into ministry, into bearing the light, into proclaiming deep truth, into prophetic speech and action, into putting on aprons AND holding out cups that need to be filled.

And as we step into that daunting and awe-some call, we do it with some level of fear and trembling. “Who are we, O God, that you are mindful of us? Are you sure about this?”

As soon as we whisper aloud our fears and doubts, God comes with another gift. She forgot to drop this one off earlier with the apron and cup. A napkin. (Place napkin on pulpit.) For all the messes we are going to make.

It is my hope and prayer for each of us gathered here that as we imperfectly follow in the ways of Jesus, who taught us to serve, that we will find companions for the journey who are willing to help us clean up our inevitable messes. Companions who are willing to love us through spilled milk and shame and fear and doubt. Those who hold out to us the possibility of new life and new beginnings, over and over again.

Each and every one of us has the ability to show grace to another and to ourselves.
Each and every one of us is surely going to need it.
Each and every one of us is called to the apron, the cup, and the napkin.

Thanks be to God for the call...and for the companions on the journey. Amen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Oh, Love That Will Not Let Us Go"

Jonah  3: 1-5, 10
Sunday, January 21, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

The book of Jonah only shows up twice in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. Which is too bad, because it’s such a great story. Despite its brevity, this small but mighty book has a lot to teach people of all ages - not just children.

Before we dive in, though, a couple of words about what this story is...and what it isn’t. As a child, I thought this story was kind of scary. After all, the idea of God sending a giant fish to swallow up a man wasn’t particularly soothing. I remember puzzling over how this could possibly BE. And when I became old enough to understand that it couldn’t BE, that giant fish don’t just swallow people and then spit them back up again, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a TRUE story and I should just set it aside.

That, of course, was a big mistake.

When we set aside stories because we think only “true” stories matter, we miss out on something very important, which is that truths often come to us in stories that are not factually accurate. Just because something didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Stories, allegories, metaphors, myths…they all contain great truth. Theologian Marcus Borg used to talk about the way a good story can convey MORE truth than just a factual, accurate accounting of “what really happened.”

Those who heard the story of Jonah long ago would have immediately known it wasn’t based in fact. For one thing, it’s too darn funny to be a historical recollection of a prophet’s life. The themes are larger than life. It’s a parody of prophetic literature. Once you’ve read a lot of the prophets in the Bible, you read Jonah and you laugh out loud because the author mimics that style of literature so well.

It’s a story. A good one. And it contains deep truths. Just like all good stories do.

One of the great things about stories is that when we come back to them again and again, we find different parts of ourselves peeking out at us from the pages. When I re-read Jonah this week, the thing I noticed was, really, how utterly unlikable Jonah is.

Jonah didn’t like the Assyrians. I think it would be fair to say he hated them, in fact. We’re not told why – just that he’s a thoroughly bigoted person. When “the word of the Lord” first comes to Jonah and tells him to go to Ninevah, that great city filled with Assyrians, he just flat out refuses. People often say he was scared, but the text doesn’t say that at all. It just says he ran away. He ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction of Ninevah and paid his fare to get on a boat.

But Jonah is no match for God. He wants to get away from her, but one of the morals of this story seems to be that getting away from God is impossible. God follows Jonah, sending a storm to shake things up a bit on the boat.

You have to feel sorry for those sailors on Jonah’s ship. They’re just going out their business, trying to make an honest living, and now their lives are at risk because this yahoo is running away from God. Ridiculously enough, Jonah sleeps through the whole thing. The sailors are on deck, weeping and wailing and praying to every god they can think of. Finally, they start throwing all the cargo overboard, trying to lighten the ship and stay afloat. Some poor guy runs down into the hold – probably looking for more stuff to throw over the side – and there’s Jonah, fast asleep.

They wake him and yell at him, “Dude! What are you doing? Pray to your god if you’ve got one!” They discover that Jonah does have a god, “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Well, now. There’s the problem. This Hebrew worships the God who controls all this stuff – clearly he’s in trouble and is ruining things for the rest of us. And in a comic twist, Jonah has secured his first converts. Without even trying, he has made believers out of all the sailors. What a prophet! They begin praying to Yahweh and Jonah says, “Just throw me overboard and God will calm down.”

Apparently these sailors aren’t quite as melodramatic as Jonah. They try desperately to save the ship without sacrificing Jonah – who, by the way, seems awfully brave right about now. Five minutes ago he ran away from God and now he’s a tough guy, “It’s okay, just throw me overboard!”

But it’s all in vain. The storm gets worse. Not knowing what else to do, the sailors throw Jonah into the raging sea and, “Peace, be still,” the storm ends and all is well.

Except Jonah, of course, is out to sea without a canoe. But, no worries, God sends a giant fish to swallow him up. Because, you know, that’s comforting. And while he is in the belly of the fish, Jonah prays this long prayer, made up almost entirely of phrases he has borrowed from the Psalms. So here we have a prophet who can’t even come up with his own lines. I told you it was funny.

As soon as Jonah finishes praying, the fish vomits him up onto dry land. Quite an ending to a prayer. AMEN.
Jonah hears God speaking again – same instructions: “Go to Nineveh. Tell them they’re in big trouble.” This time, Jonah goes.

Now, Nineveh is a huge city. And Jonah does what any prophet worth his salt would do. He starts wandering around the city, shouting. Only it’s not much of a sermon. Just one short line, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” No specifics. No poetry. No long list of sins.

And the strange thing is, it works. Instantly. Jonah is the most natural and effective prophet in all of the Hebrew Bible! The people repent. They believe. They begin to fast and they put on sackcloth. The king hears about Jonah’s prophecy and he gets on board. He takes off his robe, puts on sackcloth, covers himself in ashes and proclaims that everyone in Nineveh – every adult, every child, even the livestock must fast and wear sackcloth – everyone must repent and pray, even the cattle and pigs. It is their only hope.

When God sees the livestock running around in sackcloth, she has a change of heart. I mean, cows in sackcloth really tug at the heartstrings, you know? The destruction will not come to pass. “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Which seems like it might be a happy ending….except it’s not.

Because Jonah is mad. Mad, mad, MAD that God is so nice.
And now it becomes clearer why Jonah never wanted to come to Nineveh in the first place. It’s not that he was scared of God. It’s that he knew in his heart of hearts that God loved the Assyrians. And Jonah does not love the Assyrians. In fact, Jonah would rather die than witness their salvation.

Whew. Ain’t that something? To hate a group of people so much that you’d rather die than see them succeed? It’s a bit overstated, of course – everything in this story is. But it does make me wonder about “those people” – you know, the ones we’d rather not see succeed.

I’ll give you a moment to pull up a picture of “those people” in your mind. The ones you don’t want to see succeed. The ones you hope will fail. The ones you think are wrong, wrong, wrong no matter what they say or do. The ones you think are evil. Got a picture in your mind? Don’t worry, I won’t make you share your answer. I just want you to have a good, honest conversation with yourself.
Now, a question: what if it turns out God loves….even them?

When I wrestle with these questions I find myself admitting that I have more of Jonah in me than I might like to admit. If I’m 100% honest, there are some people that I just kind of can’t believe God loves. It’s incredible.  And yet here I am, standing there with Jonah, jaw hanging down to the ground, astonished because God really does love them. Even them.

I like to think that on my better days, I do a bit better than Jonah did. I pick my jaw up off the floor, regain my composure, and try to learn something from the experience. Not so with Jonah.

He retreats just outside the city gates and sits down….and waits. He still isn’t sure God is really gracious. He wants to see how this all goes down. God sends a little plant that grows up overnight to give him shade. And then the next day God sends a worm and the scorching sun to kill the plant. And Jonah is mad – again – “how dare you take that plant away from me?”
‘“Oh, that plant? The one you didn’t make? The one I made?” says God. “Well, if you think you loved that plant, imagine how I feel about the people of Nineveh, the people that I created from nothing and loved into being. Imagine how I would feel if they perished.”

And so God gets the last word. We don’t find out what happens to Jonah.

But I have my suspicions. After all, if you think about how much Jonah loved that plant that he didn’t even create…and then you think about how much God loved all those Assyrians…..I have this suspicion that God’s love is a love that will not let us go. God’s love holds on even to a guy like Jonah. Even for those mean-nasty Assyrians and “those people” we don’t much like.

It is a love that holds on….even to us.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"Here I Am: Everyday People Called to Extraordinary Lives"

“Here I Am: Everyday People Called to Extraordinary Lives”
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
Jan. 14, 2018 - MLK Sunday
​Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51

What a happy coincidence that the lectionary committee served up stories about everyday people called to extraordinary lives on the same day we observe the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was many things - prophet, scholar, preacher, ethicist, theologian, activist, courageous peace warrior - and it is good and right that we give thanks for his life and ministry each year. As we do so, it is also important to remember that King, too,  questioned his path - uncertain about whether he was on the right track or whether what he was doing would really make a difference in the world. He died having no idea that we would someday have a holiday to honor him….and I’m fairly certain he’s be mortified if he knew we did.

One of his more popular quotes is the one about “anyone can be great because everyone can serve.” Like Jesus, Dr. King believed those words to be true. We don’t have to be perfect to be of use. We don’t have to quit our day jobs to be in ministry. Samuel shows us we don’t have to be fully grown and self-actualized. Nathanael reminds us that even when we get it wrong at first, God can still use us later.

To help build God’s realm of justice and peace, we simply have to be willing to listen for the movement of the Spirit - that call that might come in a whisper in the night or via an actual phone call from an acquaintance. We have to be willing to say “Here I am, send me” even as our knees quake.

This morning we’ve heard the “call stories” of Samuel and Nathanael, I also want to share with you stories of a few leaders from the Civil Rights Movement. Five everyday people called to extraordinary lives. As I read the name of each person, I will invite the person in the congregation who has their photograph to begin walking it around the sanctuary, eventually bringing it up to place it on the altar. We will honor them by singing one short verse of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” - your part is printed in the bulletin - and I will place a symbol representing each person on the table alongside their photo.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Virginia Durr
Virginia Durr was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1903, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Raised as an affluent white woman in the South, her views on race relations were challenged when she went to Wellesley University where cafeteria tables were intentionally integrated. Durr was initially horrified by this idea but kept an open mind and her views began to change. When she lived in Washington, D.C. she became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and they worked together to try and end the poll tax in Alabama. After the Durrs returned to Alabama, Mrs. Durr became a “den mother” for many young activists who often stayed in their home.

She also became close friends with Mrs. Rosa Parks. It was through Mrs. Durr’s connections that Parks was able to attend the Highlander Folk School, a key experience in Parks’ development as an activist. The Durrs also helped bail Parks out of jail and worked with her legal team in Montgomery. After Virginia Durr’s death in 1999, Mrs. Parks wrote, “'I will miss you, old soldier, but the rich legacy you have passed to your children, grandchildren and great-grands lives on. We still have a long ways to go, but you, my friend, have made it easier for all of us.''

We place a plate on the altar, a symbol of the way Virginia Durr’s heart was changed at cafeteria tables and the hospitality she offered to others.

Mrs. Rosa Parks was bound in jail
Virginia Durr came with the bail
Keep your eyes on the the prize
Hold on, hold on.

Hold on…..hold on….
Keep your eyes on the the prize
Hold on, hold on.

Septima Clark
Septima Clark was also connected to the Highlander School. Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898, her father was formerly enslaved and worked on the docks. Her mother was an immigrant from Haiti. Her road to a formal education was difficult but she did manage to finish high school and began teaching in a rural area on Johns Island. Years later she was able to get a college degree and master’s degree but was still legally unable to teach in the Charleston public schools. She continued teaching in rural areas and was a pioneer in the field of adult literacy, teaching adults how to read in the evenings. She went on to lead literacy intensives at the Highlander School - teaching sharecroppers to read in just one week. Due to Jim Crow laws, literacy and the ability to answer citizenship questions was almost always required for black people in the South who wanted to vote. Clark’s model at Highlander was so successful, it was eventually expanded into Citizenship Schools which were held all over the South.

We place a book on the altar, a symbol of Septima Clark’s deep devotion to literacy.

Septima Clark taught folks to read
To break the chains, it was the key
Keep your eyes on the prize and
Hold on, hold on.

Hold on…..hold on….
Keep your eyes on the the prize
Hold on, hold on.

James Lawson
James Lawson, another important teacher, was born in 1928 and raised in Ohio. Lawson is a third-generation Methodist minister. Lawson was introduced to nonviolent resistance while in college. Later, he was able to travel to India as a Methodist missionary and it’s there that he was trained in the principles of satyagraha. Mahatma Gandhi explained satyagraha as “the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence” and this principle was foundational for Dr. King and others.

When Rev. Lawson returned to the U.S., Dr. King called him and said he was desperately needed in the South because of his expertise with nonviolent resistance. Lawson moved to Nashville where he trained a whole generation of student activists including Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Marion Berry. He was expelled from Vanderbilt because of his activism. He was later pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis and was leading the sanitation workers’ strike there in 1968 when Dr. King came to Memphis to join them and was assassinated.

We place a salt shaker on the altar, a symbol of the way James Lawson taught the students who led by sitting in at lunch counters AND a symbol of the lesson Rev. Lawson learned from Gandhi and other freedom fighters in India.

Nonviolent resistance was the way
The student leaders sat and stayed
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, hold on.
Hold on…..hold on….
Keep your eyes on the the prize
Hold on, hold on.

Dorie Ladner
Born 1942 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Dorie Ladner came to activism early. When Ladner was twelve years old she was reading an issue of Jet Magazine at the local convenience store and the store’s white clerk came behind her and “slapped [her] on the behind.” Ladner recalled, “I turned around and started beating him with the bag of doughnuts.” A few years later, Ladner was moved to become more deeply involved in local activism after the murder of Emmett Till, who was just a year older than her.

Ladner and her sister Joyce were mentored by Medgar Evers and other local activists who took her on trips to Jackson for state-wide NAACP gatherings. She was kicked out of college for her work attempting to integrate the local public library. Ladner was involved in numerous voting rights campaigns in Mississippi, including participating in the Freedom Rides and working with Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a key leader in the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Eventually, Ladner had a long career as a social worker in the DC area. She is still working for justice today.

We place a bag of doughnuts on the altar, as a symbol of the way Dorie Ladner has spent her whole life resisting white supremacy and patriarchy.

Youth are the leaders of today
With grace and strength they show the way
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, hold on.

Hold on…..hold on….
Keep your eyes on the the prize
Hold on, hold on.

Vernon Dahmer
One of Dr. Ladner’s early mentors was Vernon Dahmer, a local farmer in Hattiesburg. Mr. Dahmer was what we would call biracial today, but when he was born in Mississippi in 1908, he was called “colored.” He was very light-skinned and could have easily moved elsewhere in the U.S. and passed for White. Instead, he spent his entire life in Forrest Co. Mississippi, tirelessly advocating for his community. Dahmer and his wife, Ellie, were farmers. They owned over 200 acres of land and employed many other Black residents on the farm and in their sawmill and grocery store. He was the president of the local NAACP at a time when it was illegal to be a part of that organization. His motto was “if you don’t vote, you don’t count” and he worked tirelessly to secure the vote for Blacks in Mississippi.Vernon and Ellie slept in shifts for many years to protect their family from constant death threats. On January 9, 1966 Mr. Dahmer stated on the radio that he would pay the poll tax of anyone who was unable to do so. Later that same night, a group of Klansmen firebombed the Dahmer home. Vernon Dahmer died the next day. Ellie Dahmer later went on to become the election commissioner in Forrest Co., a position she held for a decade.

We place a candle on the altar, symbolizing those who, like Vernon Dahmer, have lost their lives in the struggle for freedom.

“If you don’t vote, then you don’t count!”
Vernon Dahmer shouted loud
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, hold on.

Hold on…..hold on….
Keep your eyes on the the prize
Hold on, hold on.

Everyday people called to extraordinary lives. Holy One, we give you thanks for those you have called to the service of your people - building a more just and peaceful world brick by brick, step by step. We hear these stories and our hearts are stirred. We wonder what we are called to do, to be. We wonder if we will have the presence of mind to hear your voice when you call. We wonder if we will have the courage to say, with Samuel and Nathanael, with those we honor today, “Here I am, send me?”


Virginia Durr:
Myles Horton:

Septima Clark:

James Lawson:

Dorie Ladner:

Vernon Dahmer: