Sunday, February 18, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
If you’ve ever been in a flash flood, then you know all about the power of water. And how something that seems so innocuous - a simple summer downpour - can quickly turn to chaos.
This past week as we observed the beginning of Lent, about thirty of us gathered here in the sanctuary to receive ashes on our heads. A visible reminder that we are mortal. “From dust you came and to dust you will return,” I said, placing ashes on the foreheads of people I love. It’s always an emotional experience for me, starkly reminding each and every person that, hey, none of us is getting out of here alive. The two-year-old and the 92-year-old. We are, all of us, mortal.
But to place those ashes on the foreheads of people I love as the news was still coming in of yet another day of violence in Florida. To know that there were families in Florida who would not be welcoming their children home that night. To know that the lives of the survivors of that horrific act of violence have been irrevocably altered. To sit, once again, in the stark realization that we are a nation steeped in the sin of worshiping the idols of safety, violence, guns, independence, toxic masculinity, fear.
To see, once again, how quickly an ordinary day can turn to chaos - just as it did in Sutherland Springs, Texas, just as it did in Las Vegas, just as it did in Orlando, and Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech, and San Bernardino, and even in sleepy Hesston, KS.
To hold all of that together while making the sign of the cross and saying those ancient words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Well, it was a lot. I mostly tried not to think about Florida too much while I was doing it. Because I didn’t want to think about all the lives of children turned back to dust in such a horrific act earlier that day.
I hate that we are so used to living with this violence that I have coping mechanisms in place so I can keep going about my day, doing the work that needs to be done. I hate that teenagers can be interviewed on the news after watching their friends die and seem so calm, like they’ve been rehearsing for this their whole lives. I’m not sure broken-hearted is a strong enough word to describe how I feel.
We all have our own coping mechanisms for living in a society plagued by violence. I tend to hold it together until I’m in a place where it makes sense to have a good long cry. I sometimes drive up to a particular hill and sit in my car and just yell at God while sobbing. I’ve also been known to weep bitter tears while tersely ranting about idols and sin to the poor aides who answer my legislators’ phones. Perhaps you have more socially-acceptable ways of coping.
Because cope we must. The problem of gun violence doesn't seem to be going away any time soon, though I always hope this might be a turning point. And seeing children lead the way as the rage in the streets and in interviews and on Twitter certainly gives me hope. Because these teenagers will be voters soon and they will not let us adult forget our complacency or inaction.
But while we wait for the reckoning - while we wait for the arc of the moral universe to bend - we have to keep coping. Because to be human is to struggle to live and move and love and grow and laugh and dance and make meaning in the midst of chaos.
That’s what the flood story is all about. Our faith ancestors trying to make sense of the chaos around them. How can it be that a perfectly normal day can suddenly turn to terror? How can the skies open and rain down destruction without warning? Where is God in the midst of all of this?
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion said almost 40 years ago. Our faith ancestors looked at the chaos around them and told themselves stories. First, that God was causing the chaos. And, more specifically, that they were being punished for their sins.
Some of us in this room likely have a different understanding of God. I don’t pretend to understand God. Most days, though, I don’t experience God as a punitive force - though you could certainly make the case for that given what’s in our sacred texts. I tend to think more in terms of natural consequences for our actions. If we don’t take care of the earth, climate change will occur. If we don’t name and actively resist white supremacy, children and adults of every race will suffer. If we live in a society that worships violence and guns, children will continue to be killed. Where is God in all of that?
The authors of Genesis told another story to help them understand the chaos they were living in - the one we heard today: the aftermath of the Great Flood. In this story, they told us that God is with us. And that God made a covenant with these ancient faith ancestors that God would love them and their descendants and all of creation through to eternity - and that includes you and me and every living thing, even the stuff we can’t see. God put a rainbow in the clouds as a reminder that she is with us and will not abandon us. No matter what.
Centuries after the authors of Genesis told these stories around campfires, a baby was born in a small town called Bethlehem - house of bread. He was said to be Emmanuel - God with us. A glowing rainbow, wrapped up in a bunch of swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. A reminder that God has not forgotten us, will not forget us, cannot abandon us. A visible symbol of God’s enduring love for us, even in the midst of chaos. That’s what I see when I look at the cross hanging here at the front of the sanctuary - a symbol and reminder that God’s love for us cannot be broken, not even by the Empires steeped in violence that try to lay claim to our very bodies and souls.
Jesus was born in the desert but he, like every other human being who has ever graced this planet, had his start in water. Before he saw the light of day, he swam in the deep, dark waters of his mother's womb and his life was tuned to her heartbeat, whooshing through the darkness to his still-forming ears.
In time, the baby became a man, and as he began his public ministry he once again went into the water. This time with his cousin John, who baptized him in the Jordan River - that great symbol of liberation. The author of Mark tells us that as Jesus came up from the water the heavens were torn apart - an apocalyptic image if ever there was one - and a voice from heaven spoke to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved. With you, I am well-pleased.”
Immediately, Jesus was thrown into the wilderness where he languished for forty days - frustrated and taunted by Evil with a capital “E”. But not alone - never alone. He was accompanied by angels in the wilderness.
And then Jesus returned to Galilee: home. Hearing the news that his Cousin John had been arrested, Jesus took up where John left off - proclaiming God’s good news of freedom and love. “The time is fulfilled,” he said, “God’s Realm has come near. Turn and live into the Good News of God’s reign.”
Do you see the dance of chaos and calm? The raging waters of the river and the silence that fills your ears when you’re submerged. The sky being ripped in two balanced with the words whispered in love. The trauma of wilderness wandering coupled with God’s unfailing presence. The pain of hearing a beloved friend’s death-sentence….and then picking up his mantle to keep preaching the Good News of God’s love.
“The time is full,” Jesus said. Filled to the brim like a scalding hot cup of coffee that’s about to overflow. Overflowing like the tears flowing down cheeks as, once again, Rachel weeps bitter tears in Ramah over the senseless deaths of children.
The time is now, John said, Jesus said, to turn. That’s what the Greek word for repent means, you know. Repent is such a loaded word. But the Greek simply means “turn around.”
Make an intentional choice each and every day to turn away from violence, hate, fear. Instead, turn. Reorient ourselves to God, love, justice, peace. Turn away from the powers of Empire that lie. Turn instead to God’s Realm - which is not a place but a way of living together.
It’s a way of shared life where weapons are melted into tools for growing food. It’s a way of life that lifts up the heartbroken, the cast out. It’s a way of life where there’s always room for one more at the table. It’s a way of life that honors the sacredness of trees and bumblebees, not just humans. It’s a way of life that pours out love again and and again. It’s a way of life where we continually look at strangers and enemies, family and friends and say, “You are God’s beloved child.”
“Turn,” Jesus says. “Turn away from the chaos. Turn away from the rain clouds and see the rainbow. Turn to God’s unfailing love.” We start there - just a bunch of drops of water - maybe rain, maybe tears. But as we turn to the God we see in ourselves, in each other, in all of creation, our streams run together into a raging river that has the power to move mountains.
“Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Until we value our children’s live more than we value weapons of mass destruction. Until violence - in thought and word and deed - becomes rare. Until humans find the sweetness of God in one another. Every single other.
Let the waters of justice and righteousness come. Please, God, may it be so.