Sunday, August 26, 2018

“The Problem of Evil and The Armor of God”

Ephesians 6:10-20
Sunday, August 26, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

One of the great things about our congregation is the diversity of faith stories that gather every Sunday under one roof. Every week when we gather we know we have former Catholics and current Catholics; people who grew up Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Quaker, Muslim and those who were never affiliated with any faith at all until they started coming to First Congregational.

For us preachers, this means we have to remember that a phrase of idea that makes total sense to ME might be totally foreign to YOU. Or it might carry a lot of baggage for some people in this room but not others. I grew up in a faith tradition where this passage from Ephesians about putting on the armor of God was pretty central. We sang songs about it. I probably had it on a t-shirt or bookmark at some point. I went to youth groups where I learned about how important it was to defend myself against Satan’s powers. I had friends who were very certain they were battling daily against demons. We talked about Spiritual Warfare, Spiritual Self-Defense, and more.

Now, I have to say, I was always skeptical about all of this. It seemed a bit too “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” you know? Plus, as a child who was taught early and often about brain science, I knew that things like depression, anxiety, sexual desire, anger, love are things that have explanations that this exist in THIS WORLD. I learned that if you were depressed, you needed to go to a doctor, not just “pray it away.” I knew that if you fell in love with someone who was the same gender as you, it’s wasn’t because Satan was trying to ruin your life, it’s just because you were born that way and love is love and it’s all good.

I am aware that we have people in this room who have never heard the phrase “Spiritual Warfare” before and probably grew up in churches where Evil (the kind with a capital E) was never mentioned. I am aware that we have people who absolutely believe Evil is real and that we have to be on guard against it. I am aware that we have people who have been harmed by theologies that teach that mental illness, homosexuality, gender diversity are signs that God is testing you. The way some churches and religious leaders have used concepts like Spiritual Warfare to control people is not right and not okay.

Additionally, it seems important to note today that if you go and pick up your Bible and peruse the rest of the book of Ephesians you’re going to find some pretty problematic stuff. This letter, which was, incidentally, probably not actually written by the Apostle Paul, is like a “greatest hits” collection of problematic passages. Ephesians is where we hear that slaves should obey their masters and wives should obey their husbands. It has also been used to bash people who are gay. Not good.

Today’s passage, though, from the end of the 6th chapter isn’t bashing anyone. Instead, it’s all about finding strength and power through our faith. It’s about finding ways to resist Evil, persist in love, and rest assured in God’s protection when things get really rough. In short, it’s a very relevant chapter for this particular moment in history when we are frequently flabbergasted by atrocities that humans commit against one another and wonder, “how could anyone do that to another person?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly revising my understanding of God and humanity. In recent years, I’ve found myself thinking about Evil a lot. I find myself currently in a space where it seems to me that there are evil forces that exist in the world. I imagine them out there like a big invisible blanket, exerting pressure on all of us. And when those forces act upon us and we are unable to resist, we can find ourselves committing acts of evil. I generally believe there’s no such thing as a good person or bad person - we are all sinners and saints - and all people can end up committing evil acts just like all people are capable of doing amazing, good, kind things.

To make it more concrete: white supremacy is an evil force that exists in the United States. It’s been there since the founding of our country and has not yet been eradicated. To live in the U.S. and to breathe the cultural air here is to be covered in an invisible blanket of racism. It exerts pressure on everyone, whether or not we are aware of it. And if we do not adopt an actively anti-racist identity - if we do not intentionally resist the evil of white supremacy - we can easily end up acting in ways that privilege whiteness and harm people of color. Persisting in the ways of love is a daily struggle in a culture steeped in white supremacy. We have to be on guard.

Now, one of the things about this Ephesians passage that can feel uncomfortable - to me, at least - is how militaristic it is. Militaristic faith language makes me uncomfortable because, too often, Christians have used the Bible as a weapon. Christians have literally committed murder “in God’s name,” so militaristic language makes me very uncomfortable when we find it in our sacred texts.

Something important about this text in Ephesians is that it’s about defense, not offense. The author of Ephesians exhorts the reader to put on God’s armor in order to resist evil. We are going to use the tools available to withstand attack, resist evil. Even the specific parts of armor named are primarily defensive - breastplates, shields, helmets.  Nowhere in this passage are we being encouraged to go out and slaughter evil or attack “bad people.” We are, instead, being encouraged to be on guard, aware that evil is out there, and to prepare ourselves for withstanding it so that we can persist in the ways of God’s peace and justice and love.

Further, the “you” that is being addressed in this passage is plural. So it’s not that the author is writing to one person and saying, “Suit up. Defend yourself!” The author is speaking to a group of Jesus-followers and saying, “All of you - together - stand firm, pray, keep alert. Know that you are strong in God’s love.”

I am reminded of a powerful piece of art by Do Ho Suh, called “Floor.” You may have already noticed you have a photograph of it in your bulletin. This installation is a large glass floor that the viewer is invited to walk on. It’s only when you get closer that you realize there are more than 100,000 tiny plastic figurines underneath holding up the clear glass panels that create the floor. They are all standing with their arms overhead, pushing the glass away together.

They are like us humans - resisting the powers of evil that press down on us. Working together to protect ourselves. Standing firm in the knowledge that God goes alongside us and is closer than our own breath.

The problem of Evil is not going away. Like our faith ancestors, we are called to stand firm, pray, and stay alert. We are called to resist evil and persist in love. We are called to nurture our connection to Truth, Righteousness, Faith, Peace, and always hold out hope that healing is possible.

I have found that, in my own life, there are many spiritual practices that help me keep doing my part of holding up the heavy glass overhead. The regular practice of Sabbath - knowing that the world will keep turning even if I take a break - is essential. A commitment to gratitude and joy - even when (especially when!) - things feel heavy and awful. Taking a moment to simply sit quietly and notice the beauty of creation. Laughing at a silly joke until my sides hurt. Reminding myself of all the good that is present in my life even when things feel scary and anxious.

And then, from that place of gratitude, reaching out to share. Being around people who inspire generosity and hospitality. Continuing to be mindful about the balance of giving and receiving - trying to be generous with my time, my heart, my resources.

I am also strengthened by remembering that ours is an incarnational faith. In the beginning, God created bodies and stuff. We aren’t just floating spirits. We are heaps of flesh and blood and God cares about our bodies. So much so that we call Jesus Emmanuel - God dwelling among us. A part of standing firm, praying, staying alert is taking care of and celebrating the bodies we have been given.

Those are some of the ways I am trying to stand firm, pray, and keep alert as I stand elbow-to-elbow with you, holding up that big invisible heavy glass.

How are YOU managing to resist evil and persist in love? In a time of reflection, you are invited to sit with that photo of Do Ho Suh’s “Floor.” You might want to draw or write down the places you notice evil acting in the world - or the ways you put on that defensive armor to stand firm. You won’t have to share your thoughts with anyone - this is just a moment for your own private reflection and prayer. Let’s keep silence together….

Sunday, August 19, 2018

“Aionios Zoe - Wise Living”

John 6:51-58 and Proverbs 9:1-6
Sunday, August 19, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

If you had a chance to see the recent documentary about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You By My Neighbor?” you will probably remember a particularly touching moment at the end where Mr. Rogers gives people an “invisible gift.” In his 2002 commencement speech at Dartmouth, Mr. Rogers invited the graduates into one silent minute to remember someone who had helped them along the way. Someone who had made a profound and significant impact on their lives.

In the film, we see various people who knew and worked with Fred Rogers do the same. They sit in silence - smiles playing across their faces, tears sometimes welling up in the corners of their eyes - as they remember those who helped them along their paths. And then we get to hear some of their reflections.

It is an important act to remember the teachers who have helped us become who we are. And if those teachers are still living, it’s a powerful gift to take the time to reach out and thank them for the difference they’ve made in our lives. As we gather to bless another year of learning and teaching, I am struck by how nicely the Revised Common Lectionary fits with that focus today.

Jesus is many things to many people - ruler, savior, healer, prophet, miracle-worker, rabble-rouser, and - of course - teacher. As we near the end of this very long chapter in John, Jesus has been on a major teaching spree about….bread. No, seriously. Take a look at the entire 6th chapter of John sometime. It’s bread for days. This is not a low-carb teaching.

In today’s lection, Jesus is trying to explain to the crowds that he is the bread of life. Whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have eternal life and will abide in him. Now, when you put it that way - eat my flesh, drink my blood - you can see how the disciples were perplexed and troubled.

But Jesus is adamant. He says that he was sent by God so that we will eat him and live. This is different, he says, than the bread that our ancestors ate - that manna in the wilderness that only lasted for a short time and then went rotten.

“Eat my flesh” sounds pretty bizarre, right? So maybe it helps a bit to think of it more as taking Jesus into ourselves, finding unity with Christ, internalizing our deep connection with the Divine. However you look at it, Jesus says that it’s the key to finding aionios zoe - eternal life.

Eternal life is not really a great translation for aionios zoe. That Greek phrase means without beginning and without end, from alpha to omega, beyond all time. I think we typically think of eternal life more as “without end,” right? Heaven, pearly gates, streets of gold, etc. But many scholars have argued that the original Greek phrase is not really linked at all to what happens after we DIE but is more about the quality of life that we have while we are here on this Earth.

In other words, it’s not about how long you live. It’s about how you live your life.

Paired here with Jesus’s teaching that eating the Bread of Life will make us abide in him and him in us, that qualitative definition makes sense. To find eternal life is to find a way of living where we are completely contained in the Holy and the Holy is completely contained in us. It means that we are secure in our connection to God at each and every moment - which means, of course, that we also carry a deep awareness of our connection to each other.

It’s a way of living that is deeply rooted in the ancient concept of Wisdom, which we also see highlighted in today’s passage from Proverbs. Now, I could preach an entire sermon series about Wisdom with a Capital W, but I’m just going to sketch a very basic bit of her today. Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible is personified as a woman. You may know her by her Greek name, Sophia.

Lady Wisdom was with God at the beginning and will be with God beyond the end of time. In some sects of Christianity over the centuries, she has become almost a fourth person of the Trinity. As Haggia Sophia - Holy Wisdom - she has been linked with the Divine Feminine as well as the Theotokos - mother of God. But she is also linked to Christ, the Word, the Logos, who has sometimes been called the Wisdom of God. And she is sometimes linked to the Holy Spirit, who has often been personified as female in Christian tradition.

Lady Wisdom is important. To follow Lady Wisdom is to continually turn toward God. That’s why she is always shouting in the streets or at the gate to the city. If we updated her for the 21st century, I think she’d be Tweeting at us or taking over the notifications on our smartphones. She is clamoring for our attention amidst all the distractions of the world trying to help us remember who we are and whose we are. That we were created for love and we are beloved. And that all we have to do to find aionios zoe - a full life beyond the beginning the end - is to turn to God again and again and again.

And in this particular passage in Proverbs, she is very much tied to the practice of hospitality. She has built a sturdy house, prepared a delicious meal and she invites us in. Especially those of us who are struggling. “Come, eat this bread, drink this cup,” she says. “Forget about all the ridiculous mistakes you’ve made. Sit with me for a spell and I will help you find a better path.”

You can kind of see where Jesus got some of his material, right?

That universal human experience of growing up, learning, changing, transforming, seeking wisdom, struggling to find a better path, forgiving ourselves for our mistakes….in these two passages it is absolutely a communal process. It’s not something we do alone, no matter how self-sufficient we think we might be. We are invited to the table by Lady Wisdom and Jesus Christ and we gather at that table with other travelers on the journey.

Like Mr. Rogers said, we all have teachers. And we would do well to remember that none of us is self-made.

I recently read two memoirs by two very different women. Both were quest memoirs - women on a journeys. The first, Educated by Tara Westover, is the story of how a young woman who was raised in a very isolated survivalist family in Idaho eventually found her way to BYU and later Cambridge. Ms. Westover had never set a foot in a classroom when she started college. Her parents theoretically home-schooled her, but, in reality, she spent most days of her childhood scrapping metal with her dad in a junk yard. She tells the story of sitting in a classroom her first semester at BYU and being asked to read the caption of a photo aloud. She stumbled over a word in the middle of the text, saying, “I don’t know that word.” Her professor looks shocked and gives her a smiling-grimace, “Well, thanks for THAT,” he says. After class, a classmate chastises her, “That’s not something to joke about. I can’t believe you did that.”

Horrified, Westover makes her way to the library to look up the word. Finally, she finds it in the dictionary, “Holocaust.” She had never heard of it before.

Westover makes her way through college and grad school with grit and determination. Throughout her story, I was struck by how completely self-reliant she is. She was never given any support by her family as a child - in fact, her mom once tried to make her pay rent when she was 16 because her mom had lost track of how old she was and thought she was 20. Westover had to do everything herself.

But this is not some romanticized tale of a woman pulling herself up by her own bootstraps. Because Westover strikes me as exceedingly lonely. She has no one she can trust, few guides, and so very much of her life is filled with failed relationships and misery.

Contrast this quest story with another memoir, Stalking God by Anjali Kumar. Another young woman in search of wisdom - this time in the form of spiritual revelation. Though she was raised Jain, she finds that, as an adult, she has no spiritual home and wants to be able to find the answers to questions like “why are we here?” And “is there a God?”

So Kumar goes on a quest to find the answers. She hangs out with witches and laughing yogis. She participates in a silent retreat and tantric sound healing. She talks to a medium and almost does drugs in Peru. She rides a bike at SoulCycle and in the desert at Burning Man.

Throughout her journey, Kumar is surrounded by support. Friends, co-workers, and strangers advise her about where to look for God and she listens. Time after time, she shares tidbits of life-altering wisdom she receives from teachers and other seekers. Again and again she says “yes” when people offer to help her or invite her outside of her comfort zone.

Kumar may never “find God” specifically the way she wants to, but she does growsin her wisdom and maturity as she realizes that the Holy is only found in the connections we nurture.

God is found when we gather at tables. God is found when we take time to break bread together. God is found when we honor silence and remember our teachers. God is found when we honor children by blessing them as they walk out into the wide world. God is found when we honor our elders by listening to their stories.

God is found when we turn again and again towards Wisdom - who is always inviting us into aionios zoe - that way of living that goes beyond human boundaries. That way of living that is complete, full, abundant, and exists beyond alpha and omega.

God is seeking us. God is inviting us to the table. God will never stop nurturing us. All we have to do is keep saying yes.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

“ A Bad News Text”

2 Samuel 11:1-15
Sunday, August 5, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
Preachers don’t choose to preach on this text from 2 Samuel very often. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on it and I know for a fact I’ve never preached it before. Not because of its PG-13 content- after all, if we can’t talk about the hard stuff here, where ARE we going to talk about it? The problem with this text, for me at least, is that the Good News is hard to find. And the whole point of preaching is supposed to be about proclaiming Good News, not bad.

But this is a solidly Bad News text. It really is. Which means artists have been sort of fascinated by it over the years. Have you ever noticed how artists never shy away from grappling with the Bad News texts? Thank God for artists.

Sometimes they get the details wrong….for example, Leonard Cohen tells us that David saw Bathsheba “bathing on the roof” but the text doesn't say that. In fact, the only person on the roof in this story is the King, using his high vantage point to invade Bathsheba’s privacy.

Since then, Bathsheba has been stripped naked for the whole world to see - no roofs required. The King is not the only man who wanted to invade her privacy….a whole host of European male painters have also commodified her body for the whole world to use. A one-dimensional Everywoman; her body is objectified but her voice is silent.

Even in this morning’s text, we hear her speak only one time, when she writes to the King to say, “I am pregnant.” We aren’t told how she feels about being the object of the King’s desire. What we do know is that she wasn’t given any choice in the matter. Women weren’t allowed to say no to powerful men, especially God-ordained rulers.

The fact that Bathsheba’s name is mentioned at all means that those who preserved these stories believed she was very important. After all, as the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney points out, only 9% of the people named in the Hebrew Scriptures are women. [1] Her story matters, even as it is incomplete.

Bathsheba is not the only one-dimensional character in this text. The whole thing reads a bit like a morality play with vastly oversimplified characters.

First, we have David, starring in the role of the Bad King. The Rev. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks points out that even in the first verse we see that David is a Bad King. He’s not doing what he’s supposed to do. [2]  It’s the time of the year when “kings go out to battle,” but where is this particular King? At home, safely tucked into the confines of his palace. He is not following the rules. He’s not doing his job.

But he is acting out the role of a king. Remember when the prophet Samuel warned the people about kings? He told them what would happen: a king will take your sons and get them killed in battle. He will take your daughters to “be perfumers”. He’ll take your money, your servants, your livestock, and more. [3]

So David plays the role of the Biblical King well. He takes and takes. When he sees a woman that he wants, he takes, seizes, possesses, grabs. Furthermore, when he’s caught he knows how to use his power to quietly “take care of things.” In this particular instance, he’s even willing to commit murder to make sure his reputation isn’t harmed.

Juxtaposed with David, of course, is Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, who plays the role of the Good Guy. Uriah IS where he’s supposed to be: out on the battlefield like a good soldier. And when the King summons him home to rest, he refuses to even go home to his wife. “How could I go home and sleep with my wife in our warm, safe bed when my fellow soldiers are sleeping in the mud tonight?” Uriah is such a tragic figure - righteous and used. One of those Good Guys who doesn’t stand a chance against the Big Bad King.

The Bad Guy gets his way, the Good Guy is brutally murdered, and we are left with a bereaved widow, who has been silenced. There’s no happy ending to this Bad News text. Plus, God isn’t even mentioned in it at all.

So why is it here? And why are hearing it today? Well, it’s here, I think, because of what comes later. Bathsheba may be silenced in the short term, but she plays a pivotal role in the story of Israel. The second child she has with David is named Solomon. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

And if you’d like to hear Bathsheba’s voice, I encourage you to read the first two chapters of 1st Kings. There, she deftly maneuvers for political power and secures the kingship for Solomon. As the Queen Mother she had unfettered access to the halls of power in ancient Israel. And her name is not forgotten. She is one of the four women who makes it into the genealogy of Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Though she is not named (that would have been nice), she IS right there, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah”  - that’s her. She’s there. She’s still standing. The story of Jesus doesn’t happen without her.

And I think, perhaps, if there IS any Good News to be found in this story it has something to do with just that. It’s here. It hasn’t been erased. It’s an integral part of the long arc of Biblical history. It matters. Without it, the entire story of our faith is not the same.

God doesn’t just show up in the nice stories with happy endings. God is also tangled up in the stories of violence and horror.

And that means that God is all tangled up in OUR Bad News stories, too. Survivors of sexual violence, women who are silenced, men who use their power for evil….they’re all right here in the pages of our sacred texts. And they’re all right here in our world, too.

The Bible is not just stories that happened long ago in a galaxy far far away. The story of God’s activity in our beautiful and messed-up world is still unfolding here and now. God is still speaking. And we honor God’s voice when we are still willing to listen and bear witness to the stories...even the ones that seem like they’re just Bad News.

[3] See 1 Samuel 8.