Sunday, September 30, 2018

“Back to Basics with Jesus”

Mark 9:33-42
Sunday, September 30, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS

Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

“Adventures in missing the point.” That’s what the subtitle should be for today’s passage from Mark 9. The disciples, God love them, are not picking up what Jesus is trying to lay down. They have just completed their day’s travel and are settling in at Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has been trying to explain to them about how he is about to be betrayed and will be killed and will rise again. But the disciples are distracted and Jesus finally asks them, “What have you been arguing about all day?” Jesus’s friends hang their heads in embarrassment. While he was talking about his impending death, they were arguing about who among them is the greatest.

Jesus picks up a small child and explains that whoever wants to be first has to be last and servant of all. And that one of the most important things we can do is welcome children because, in doing so, we welcome Jesus and God into our lives.

Now you would THINK that the sheepish disciples would nod their heads and say, “Oh, we get it now. Thanks, Jesus!” But no. With not even an awkward transition in the flow of conversation, John pipes up, “Hey, Jesus, we saw someone else who was casting out demons in your name and we tried to tell him to stop because he wasn’t one of us.”

Poor Jesus. Just….poor, poor Jesus. I hope he had a desk to bang his head on at this point. He tries to bring them back around. “Look. Guys. That’s fine. I don’t care. If they’re casting out demons in my name they are on our team. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

Whoever isn’t against us is for us.

Now….that’s a pretty big tent, isn’t it? How often do we, in this day of social media arguments and the never-ending partisan political games being played out in every conceivable news outlet….how often do we obsess about who’s on our side? Who’s getting it right? Who really has the right to speak on behalf of our chosen group? How much time do we waste subjecting others to litmus tests to see if they’re one of us?

But Jesus says it’s a lot simpler than that. “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

When we’re doing the work of building God’s Realm of justice and peace here on earth we are going to need a whole lotta people to do the work. And instead of getting hung up arguing about who’s pure enough to be working alongside us, Jesus tells us to just calm down already and stop worrying about who’s in and who’s out. Because when Jesus is in charge: everybody’s in. Whether we like it or not.

Jesus has to be tired of these disciples missing the point. The point isn’t who’s the greatest. The point isn’t who’s in and who’s out. The point is to get back to basics - loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. Jesus tells us time and time again that if we would just focus on these things, the other stuff would take care of itself.

The disciples are having a hard time catching his point, so Jesus uses a compelling visual aid, continuing to hold this toddler in his arms while he’s talking. Children are to be at the absolute center of everything we do, he instructs. We are to welcome children, care for children, listen to children, protect children, learn from children.

Children are to be treasured, not abused. Adults are supposed to be adults - watching out for the little ones in our midst and doing everything in our power to ensure they are safe from those who might do them harm. Children should be cared for by the Church, not abused by clergy. Children should be welcomed when they are fleeing violence, not separated from their parents and put into tents in the hot desert. Children should not have to cower under desks in inadequately-funded classrooms.

The Bible contradicts itself in many places, but Jesus never contradicts himself about children. They are a treasure and the mistreatment of children is a grave sin.

Children have a way of taking us back to basics, just as Jesus is suggesting. If you spend much time with children you’ll know that they have a way of quickly making you remember what really, really matters in life. Being in the presence of a child makes us more aware of God’s presence. Go for a walk with a child and you’ll learn that you’ve been missing out on any number of miracles as you walk from your car to your house - caterpillars crawling slowly across the ground, birds flying high in the sky, acorns just begging to be made into art, dogs who really do need to be petted.

By slowing down and seeing the world at their pace, we experience Christ. By remembering our duty to teach and care for children, we are called to become better people. This is holy work….and it’s also why parents of young children frequently look utterly exhausted.

To welcome children is to welcome Christ himself. The disciples may be missing the point in this story, but it feels pretty clear to me. We are called, again and again, to return to the basics of our faith. Whenever we start to spin out and get distracted by the chaos of the world, Jesus calls us back to the basics: radical hospitality, caring for those who have immediate and pressing needs, advocating for those who have been marginalized, and being always-open to new life and the growth that can occur when we take seriously the work of lifelong Christian learning.

In the coming month, we are going to be hearing from some of our members who, like Jesus, will help us go “back to basics” as we focus on what really, really matters for us a congregation. This is the time of year when we are asked to prayerfully consider our gifts of time, talent, and treasure for 2019. Our stewardship committee has been hard at work preparing materials to help tell the story of who we are and what matters the most to us as the people of First Congregational UCC. We will be hearing and reading about the ways our congregation works diligently to stay focused on those basics of following Jesus in the ministry we do.

Sue Gerth is going to share next week about how we are committed to radical acts of hospitality - and how she has experienced the transformational power of love through the Ministry of the Decorative Scissors. We will also be focusing on the ways our congregation works to meet immediate and pressing needs in our community as we bring items to support Second Helping and bless the Blessing Box.

Later in October you’ll hear from Jonathan Mertz who will speak about the ways our advocacy and social justice work are acts of Christian faith. And Tanya González and Greg Eiselein will share with us about the importance of nurturing and supporting lifelong Christian learning. During the month of October we’ll be welcoming a giant group of children to practice mindfulness and playful yoga, we’ll join with others in the Flint Hills region to celebrate the experience of God through gospel music, we’ll take up an offering for Neighbors in Need to support other UCC congregations who are committed to advocacy and justice work, and we’ll support our CROP walkers who are walking to end hunger here and around the globe.

Throughout it all, we carry with us the image of Jesus holding a small child in his arms. Calling us back to basics. Reminding us to stay focused on what really, really matters. Come, he says. Follow me. Bring your whole self in both word and deed. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Practice radical hospitality. Meet others’ basic needs whenever you are able. Advocate for justice. Never stop growing.

And always take companions with you on the journey.

May it be so.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

“Páli: She Who Wrestles”

Mark 7:24-31
Sunday, September 9, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I recently had a chance to watch the documentary Believer on Netflix. It follows Imagine Dragons’ front man, Dan Reynolds, in his journey to create a greater sense of safety for LGBTQ Mormons, especially youth and teens, who are dying from suicide at alarming rates in his home state of Utah. Reynolds, a born-and-raised-faithful-Mormon AND a larger-than-life rock star occupies a fairly unique social location. As far as I know, he identifies as heterosexual and approaches his work as an ally to the LGBTQ community, urging the Church to stop teaching that being LGBTQ is a sin.

Near the beginning of the documentary, Reynolds talks about his upbringing as part of the LDS faith. He shares photos from his time as a missionary and talks about what hard work it was to knock on hundreds of doors, knowing he wouldn’t even get a foot in most of them. What kept him moving forward was his profound sense that what he had to share really and truly mattered and could change lives.

It is that same seemingly-unshakable faith in God’s goodness and love that seems to have convinced Reynolds that the LDS Church can change. Reynolds knows he’s up against a massive institution that is slow to change, but his faith in God’s extravagant love and his desperate desire to make the world safer for LGBTQ youth propels him forward.

Near the end of the documentary, Reynolds talks about his sense of determination and persistence. He talks about how the very values instilled in him by his Mormon upbringing have made him into the person he is today. “A determined Mormon is a scary thing,” Reynolds says, “Because they don’t stop. I knocked a hundred doors to get in one door. I knocked thousands of doors in my mission. If there’s one thing I can guarantee, it’s that I will continue to knock this door until someone answers.”  

Those who are filled with faith persist. Those who are desperate persist. New Testament professor Matt Skinner says that desperation and faith may be one and the same. Skinner notices that in Mark’s gospel,  "’faith’ is hardly about getting Jesus' name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It's about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save. It's about demanding he do what he says he came to do.” [1]

Sometimes I think that it is only through our desperation that we can come to understand faith at all.

Today’s Gospel lesson is a master class in persistence. I don’t think they had “Nevertheless, she persisted” t-shirts back in Jesus’s day, but if they HAD, this nameless woman in Mark 7 would have been wearing one. She has that kind of desperation that a parent of a child in danger possesses - that raw, bold, tenacious need that propels a desperate person forward in remarkable ways.

Christians have spent a lot of time over the centuries struggling with and trying to explain Jesus’s behavior in this passage. He’s not the warm-and-fuzzy, meek-and-mild Jesus that we prefer. He is likely tired and has traveled to Tyre, a region far to the north of his usual stomping grounds, to try and catch a break. But even in this area, populated by Gentiles, people have heard of the famous Jew who has the power to heal. So when this nameless woman approaches him seeking a miracle on behalf of her daughter, Jesus is less-than-compassionate.

He tells her he cannot heal her daughter - at least right now - because the children (that is, the Jews) must be fed first. We can clean up Jesus’s cranky response a bit by noticing that he’s not saying he’ll NEVER help anyone else...just that his mission is to save Israel first and perhaps the time for his ministry to expand beyond Israel isn’t quite here yet.

But then he goes and calls her a dog. Which is, you know, harder to explain away. I guess even Jesus has bad days, but it is a bit disappointing to see our Ruler and Savior calling this woman mean names. Especially if you consider she’s from different ethnic group and some interpreters have noted this may have been an ethnic slur.

This mother is undeterred. And rather than spending a lot of time trying to guess why Jesus was so rude to her, I’d like to spend a little more time celebrating her because she is the hero of this story.

Like many women in the Bible, she is unnamed. She is usually referred to by her ethnicity, “the Syrophoenician woman.” Which feels a bit problematic, no? So I’m going to refer to her today as Páli, which, in Greek, means “struggle” or “wrestle,” because her story reminds me of Jacob, who was so desperate in his wilderness wandering that he wrestled with some kind of holy creature in the desert. “I will not let you go until you bless me!” Jacob shouted at a stranger in the middle of the night. Before the nameless man-angle-Godlike-creature departed, it did bless Jacob, giving him a new name - Israel - meaning one who has wrestled with God.

The one we are calling Páli may or may not have known this story about Jacob because she wasn’t Jewish. She lived in Tyre, far to the north of Jesus’s homeland, in a region that was decidedly not Jewish. We are told that she was of Syrian and Phoenician descent and Greek, which is why I’ve given her a Greek name. All of this is to say that she was not like Jesus. The two would have been “other” to each other. And yet this “otherness” does not keep her from approaching him with her deep desire and need to see her daughter healed.

She has enough respect for this Jewish healer to bow before him and not waste his time. She gets right to the point, begging him to save her young daughter. When Jesus responds unkindly, likening her to a dog, she thinks quickly on her feet. Rather than veering off into a theological debate about what Jesus’s true mission is or correcting his rudeness, she rolls with it. On a podcast I was listening to earlier this week, Matt Skinner, referred to this as a Judo move. [2] She uses Jesus’s own force and momentum to her advantage, rather than fighting against it. You can almost see her wheels turning, “Okay, so he thinks I’m a dog? Fine. I can work with that.” She answers him, “Even the dogs who hang around under the table get to eat the crumbs that the children drop.”

I’m not asking you to put me first, she says. I’m not asking you to call me one of yours. I’m not looking to get into some kind of existential debate. All I want is for my daughter to be well. And I believe that whatever power you have leftover - whatever crumbs you can throw my way - will be enough to save her. That’s all I want is the crumbs.

And she convinces him. Crumbs she wants and crumbs she gets. Jesus doesn’t even take the time to go and meet her daughter. He heals her from a distance. “Go,” Jesus says to Páli, “Your daughter is well.” Páli quickly returns home and finds that he tells the truth.

In addition to doing what she set out to do - find relief for her daughter - this desperate woman, this woman of faith seems to have done something else. She wrestles with the Holy and wins. And she changes the course of Jesus’s ministry.

Preaching professor Karoline Lewis notes that Jesus’s ministry in Mark’s gospel begins with the casting out of demons. It’s what sets the stage for all of the signs and wonders to come. And when he casts out the demon from Páli’s daughter in Tyre, we are seeing the beginning of another phase of his ministry. Immediately after leaving Páli, Jesus goes to another region populated by Gentles. Again, he is approached by people with needs...but this time there is no name-calling and no reticence to heal. Jesus’s understanding of the scope of his ministry seems to have changed. He is now on a different, broader course.  [3]

Through her willingness to wrestle with Jesus, Páli not only saves her daughter but changes Jesus. For whatever reason, his initial focus was too narrow. He felt constrained in some way by his mission to come to the people of Israel first. But after this encounter with an unnamed woman in a foreign land he came to understand that what he was sent to accomplish was much bigger than what he had initially imagined. Páli pushed Jesus to become more. Wow.

The encounter changes them both. Their willingness to enter into a true dialogue - the kind where you listen, learn, and are open to change - shapes them in profound ways.

Perhaps it is only in our moments of desperation that we are willing to have this kind of faith. The kind of faith that is more than an intellectual exercise. The kind of faith that is bigger than just empty words. The kind of faith that isn’t about being certain, but IS about clinging to possibility. The kind of faith that compels us into action. The kind of faith that can change the world.

If desperation is the key to this life-changing, world-changing faith that heals, then I suppose we should all seeking a connection with desperation. Are we in touch with our own desperation? What is it that I need so badly I’d be willing to wrestle with God for it? Can we learn to trust that God is big enough to hold our desperation and stand by us in the midst of it?

And how much time do we spend with desperate people? How often are we around women like Páli - the ones who are willing to risk it all because their needs are so great? What are we learning from them? How can they teach us to be faithful?

[2] Working Preacher podcast for Sep. 9. 2018
[3] Ibid.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

“Echoes of Love”

Song of Songs 2:8-13 and James 1:17-25
Sunday, September 2, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Phone calls in the middle of the night are rarely a good thing. In the wee hours of a Saturday morning in November of 2009, I was awoken from a deep sleep by the sound of my phone. The caller ID showed an unknown number but I picked up anyway. It was the sister of one of my best friends - a woman I had only met a handful of times. Through my sleepy haze I understood her to say that my dear friend’s wife had died from suicide earlier in the evening.

The next few weeks and months were a haze of walking with my friend through her trauma and loss. We were both in seminary together and were graduating very soon. I sat with her at her wife’s funeral. I sat with her over coffee. I texted in the wee hours of the morning. I prayed unceasingly. I worried with her when she went through the ordination and search-and-call process in her denomination - where being an out lesbian was still a liability. She was a private person and had previously not been super public about her sexual orientation in certain circles...but the need for extending deadlines in the ordination process and a large, public funeral made my friend’s personal life less private than she preferred.

Eventually, my friend made in through those terrible first months of grief and shock and anger. She graduated. She got ordained. And she took a call far away - halfway across the country, in fact. She left for a new life. To start over. I missed her, even as I knew this was exactly what she needed.

Fast forward to August of 2015. I had also moved halfway across the country and was now getting on a plane to go to my friend’s wedding. She had met and fallen in love with a wonderful woman. I was excited to meet this person who had captured my friend’s heart.

It was one of those weddings where I didn’t know anyone except the bride and a few people in her family. So as I sat by myself at the wedding and watched these two beautiful brides walk down the aisle towards each other, I looked around the room at all these people who were strangers to me but kin to them. And I realized that the vast majority of the people there had no idea that my friend had lost her previous partner to suicide. They had no idea that what they were witnessing was a miracle - a miracle of new life springing from death and pain and destruction. God making a way when we had previously lost hope. We were watching Resurrection at its very finest. And, really, God was just showing off it was so beautiful.

So I watched my friend’s joy and smiled a quiet smile with a few tears leaking out of my eyes. And I gave thanks for the love that ties human beings to each other - the love of friends, the love of those we’ve lost who are never really gone, the love of second-chances and new beginnings. The echoes of God’s love for us, found in all these mysterious and marvelous places.

In this morning’s passage from the Song of Songs, the woman praises her beloved and remembers his sweet and tender words to her, “Arise, my love, and come away. The winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the time of spring has come.”

New beginnings. New love. New life springing forward from what came before.

Love - in all its varied forms - calls us outside of ourselves. The love that God has for us echoes through our lives, binding us to friends, family, lovers, and even those we’ve never met. What an incredible gift.

When I marry couples, I almost always include this question for the couple as we gather at the altar: “Do you promise to share the love you have found together in order to be instruments of healing  and hope for the world around you?”

Marriage - when it’s done right - turns us outward and makes us better. Family - when it’s done right - does the same. The relationships that we nurture with other humans, when grounded in God’s love, should help us grow in maturity and wisdom. Love begets more love.

You know, Christians have long struggled over what to do with the Song of Songs. God is not even mentioned in this book of the Bible and - let’s face it - it’s basically just very adult poetry that celebrates romantic and sexual love. The Church, by and large, has not done a great job of appreciating the Song of Songs. I’d be willing to bet most of us haven’t heard very many sermons on it and this short passage is the only one that appears in the entire three-year lectionary cycle.

Our Jewish kindred are better acquainted with the text. In fact, when you go to a Shabbat service, you’re likely to sing a song called Lekhah Dodi, which means “Come, my beloved….” a direct quote of this passage from the Song. Jews sing this song to greet the Sabbath each week. In the Jewish tradition, Sabbath is sometimes referred to as “the Bride of Israel” - a palace in time. A day to put aside work and worldly concerns. A day to love and be loved by God.

There is an ancient Jewish midrash that explains how the Sabbath came to be called the Bride of Israel. It is said that when God created the world, each day had a partner. Monday had Tuesday, Wednesday had Thursday and so on. Only the seventh day, the Sabbath, was left without a partner. The Sabbath complained to God and Yahweh told the Sabbath Day that Israel would be its partner. 蜉

Medieval Rabbi Eza Ben Solomon of Gerona says that the Song is the best of all Songs because God sings it each and every day to humanity.蜉

I love that image of God singing a love song to us each day. Just regarding us as good and complete and beautiful and whole - simply loving us exactly as we are today. That’s the kind of love that reverberates through our being and causes us to reach out in love to other humans we encounter.

We feel these echoes of God’s love reverberating in our souls when we gather for worship. When we gather to sing love songs back to the Holy One - when we come together to pray for one another - when we make time to sit in stillness or smile at a child who is learning to be in worship.

We come to worship for so many reasons - out of habit, out of duty, out of curiosity, out of a deep desire to connect with God and with other humans. It is my hope and prayer that when we gather for worship, it is a time when we can all be reminded that we are God’s beloved. That God is singing a love song to us - even though we are imperfect and still very much “works in progress.” We come to worship to be reminded that we are loved and we come to worship to be reminded of all the ways we can show that love to others. For as the author of the book of James says, we must be doers of God’s love, not just receivers. All perfect and generous gifts come from the Holy and they are all meant to be shared.

We come to the table as one family - imperfect yet striving, flawed yet forgiven. We come hearing and feeling the echoes of God’s love that reverberate in our souls. We come to be gathered in and to be sent out. We come seeking love and we depart ready to love others. Thanks be to God for the way the love of the Holy One echoes in each of our lives.