Tuesday, December 25, 2018

“The Night the Stars Sing”

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, 2018

It’s a little-known fact that if you listen closely as the winter solstice approaches, the stars begin to sing.

A few days ago I stepped out onto my deck around 6:30 in the morning and a bright star in the southeast caught my attention. On this cloudy morning, there was a small pin-hole in the clouds with a brilliant yellow-blue star peeking through. So lovely, it made me stop and catch my breath and gaze upwards.

And that’s when I learned that if you listen closely enough, the stars are actually singing as they wing their flight over all the earth.

The celestial song was one without words, the kind that seems to penetrate your gut and heart more than your ears. My dog paused next to me there on the deck and as I laid a hand on her warm back I felt certain she was a part of the song, too. She and I stood together, gazing up at that morning star in the eastern sky, breathing in, breathing out….at one with all creatures across time who have dared to look up at the night sky and ponder their place in this swirling universe.

Breathing in, breathing out….craning our necks to glimpse the holy. Breathing in, breathing out…filled with that fleeting sense of peace that comes on a silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.

Breathing in, breathing out….believing for just a moment that one day peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling...and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.

As soon as the moment caught me, it was over. The dog nudged me insistently, ready to go back inside and eat breakfast. The song of the stars dimmed and my ears were once again filled with the ordinary sounds of the teakette, the furnace, my thoughts.

I went inside and prepared my tea, thinking about Charles Wallace - who you might know from Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, but I was actually thinking of a slightly-older Charles Wallace from A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Charles Wallace also knew that the stars sing at this time of year. The novel begins on Thanksgiving night an the Murray family receives some frightening news. Charles Wallace says he needs to go out to the star-watching rock in their backyard. “I need to listen,” he says simply. And he knows that his ears will be the most open under the night sky.

While gazing up at the night sky, listening to the stars sing the Old Song, Charles Wallace somehow manages to conjure a unicorn (just roll with it) named Gaudior. “Gaudior. That’s Latin for more joy,” Charles Wallace murmurs.

As the rest of the novel unfolds, we witness the characters tapping into the deep, all-encompassing Joy that is at the very heart of the cosmos. As Charles Wallace and the unicorn travel across time and space they seek connection with this Joy - the Joy that the stars sing of, the Joy that is a part of the ancient harmonies, the Joy that has existed since before time began and will never cease even after this world has ended.

Over the aeons, humans have tried to name this Joy, but, really, the song of the stars is fairly impossible to capture with words. When we name this Joy as God it’s an approximation. Incomplete, but it will have to do since our human voices don’t resound quite the same way the stars do.

Christmas Eve is one of those times of the year when we pause to bear witness to Joy - that ancient song, that deep abiding thrum of the stars - as it bends near the earth.

For on this night, we wait expectantly for the miracle promised. A baby, takes his first breaths earth-side. Looking up at the stars above, listening with the fullness of his tiny, new, human body. Breathing in, breathing out. Tuning his ears and heart and life to that ancient song that the stars sing.

For on this night:
Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing and voices ring
With Peace to all on earth
We sing to bear witness to Joy, come to us in human form. Emmanuel. God with us. Joy sings from the stars. Joy fills our lungs. Joy is here, now. This holy night.

And with this realization comes another, sweeter truth: all nights are holy.
The stars shine even during the day when we cannot see them.
Emmanuel - God with us - is not only for tonight but for each and every moment of eternity.

God is present not only in the child born in Bethlehem so many years ago, but in the joyous faces of children as they race downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa has arrived. Christ is not just a person who lived long ago, but a mighty force living and breathing hope into the lives of children who travel many miles to find safety, only to be met with scorn and terror. And Christ, of course, is not only found in children, but in each and every person we encounter - those who look like us and those who don’t, those who are easy to understand and those who seem incomprehensible.

Father Richard Rohr says that which we call Christ isn’t limited to a stable in a faraway place all those years ago. Instead, Christ is “the transcendent within everything in the universe.” Christ is that which transcends understanding, circumstances, explanation. And the purpose of religion isn’t about dogma, Rohr says, instead religion is re-ligio….re-ligament….re-connection. [1]

Re-connection with that powerful and abiding Joy that existed even before the stars began to sing the ancient harmonies. Joy that can be found here and now. Joy that will continue to reverberate even when we are all long gone.

Near the end of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace and the unicorn, Gaudior, are on a difficult mission. As they gallop through a starry galaxy, Charles Wallace struggles to stay awake and Gaudior cautions him, “Do not go to sleep.” An exhausted Charles Wallace replies, “I’m not sure if I can help it.” [2]

“‘Sing, then,’ Gaudior commanded. ‘Sing to keep yourself awake.’” And with that, “the unicorn opened his powerful jaws and began to sing with the stars.” [3]

Singing in harmony, the boy and the unicorn “moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and [Charles Wallace ] realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy.” [4]

We sing this night because the universe has not yet lost its Joy. We sing this night because Joy came to us in human flesh so that we might remember it has always been with us.

We sing this night with the stars. We sing the ancient harmonies because Joy lives and moves and has its being in us. Even here, even now. Thanks be to God.

[1] Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: Another Name for Every Thing
[2, 3, 4] L’Engle, Madeleine. A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

“Praying Twice: In the Bleak Midwinter”

Philippians 4:4-8
Sunday, December 9, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I spent most of this past week in rural northwestern Oklahoma with my extended family, preparing for and attending the funeral for my father, who died somewhat unexpectedly at home on November 30th. My siblings and I divvied up tasks and one that fell into my hands was creating the playlist for the visitation at the funeral home. I know there are some folks who just have silence or quiet instrumentals playing in the background as people gather to pay their respects, but we knew right away that my dad would have wanted some specific songs in order to make it feel just right. So I crafted a playlist filled with loud rock and outlaw country….Queen and Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Waylon and Willie and the boys.” And as the sounds of Slash’s guitar filled the chapel at the funeral home I thought, well, maybe it’s a little weird to have Guns N Roses playing at a visitation...but my dad never did much of anything in a “typical” way, so we all just smiled and said, “He would have loved this.”

Music has the power to take us where words cannot go. It moves our spirits to the depths and heights of holiness. The movement of the Holy can be felt in the quiet singing of a parent as they rock a baby to sleep….and in the voices of mourners who gather at a graveside signing “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.” Music makes us laugh and cry. Music helps us find stillness and makes us jump up and move.

Music binds us together across generations, cultures, time and space. This is why we carefully choose music for all those important moments in our lives...weddings and funerals, holidays and celebrations. Music moves us gently and fiercely through miraculous and mundane moments….singing in the shower, candlelight at Christmas Eve.

It is that presence of the Holy in both the miraculous and the mundane that is on my mind this second Sunday of Advent as we light the candle of peace. Because our lives are made up of all of these moments - miraculous and mundane and everything in between. We move through our days….the alarm clock sounds again, the coffee pot is turned on once more, there are bills to pay, e-mails to read, floors that need to be swept. So much of what we do is routine, ordinary, mundane. But then there are those moments where time seems to stand still. The phone rings and it’s someone delivering bad news. A letter arrives and the course of your life is changed. A child laughs and you suddenly remember a part of yourself you had forgotten. The Sacred breaks through, reminding us that the Holy has been with us all along...even in the sweeping and dusting and typing and driving. There is nowhere we can go where we are far from God’s presence….the trick is finding some way to remember this truth.

I have a working theory that perhaps what we humans need to do the most in this life is learn how to be aware of God’s presence. For if we can find God in the face of the person we are talking to, surely it will change the words that come out of our mouths. If we can find God in the soil and water, surely it will change the way we live on the Earth. If we can find God in ourselves, surely it will change the voice inside our head that is so demanding, right? If we knew - really knew - that we were accompanied by the Holy everywhere we go, then we would be seeking peace in every thought, every deed, every moment of our time here on earth.

Advent is a time of preparation and waiting. A time to intentionally cultivate practices that bring about that awareness of God’s presence in the moments both miraculous and mundane. It is a time for seeing peace and a time for pondering the great mystery we call Emmanuel - God with us.

As we wait, we sing songs that help us prepare. Last week the choir shared a not-very-well-known Christmas carol called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and Pastor Sue shared a reflection on it. This week, we examine a song that’s probably better-known to you because we sing a verse of it every Sunday during Advent and Christmas. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1872, set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906.

The text brings our attention to that interplay between the miraculous and mundane, as Rossetti paints a picture of God being with us in ordinary and extraordinary ways. The first verse is so very down to earth….”In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen...snow on snow on snow.” You can feel the dreary sameness of day after gray day that Rossetti would have experienced in December in her native England. We know this feeling. It’s familiar, typical, mundane.

But into this bleak sameness, God breaks forth. The prophet Isaiah speaks for God, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

God enters into the ordinariness of our everyday. “Angels and archangels may have gathered there. Cherubim and seraphim thronged the midnight air.” When a child is born it is both the most ordinary thing in the world and the most miraculous thing imaginable, isn’t it? Every day in every place babies are being born...and have been for millions of years. There’s nothing unusual about it. And yet….each and every birth is a miracle...hard to believe, hard to understand, breath-taking in its glory.

And so before we fly off with the angels and their harps winging through the air, Rosetti brings back down gently to earth….delicately dancing us between the miraculous and the mundane. She writes, “But his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.” Suddenly we are back in the warmth of a simple home….livestock chewing their hay, night settling in, fire glowing in the hearth. Angels bend low, an exhausted mother sings a fierce lullaby of love, a weary and proud father leans in close, a midwife brings more water and hums along with the lullaby. The whole world in this particular moment revolves around this small new life….miraculous and mundane wrapped up together in swaddling clothes.

You know, it occurs to me that our two highest holy days in the Christian faith revolve around Jesus’s birth and death. At Christmas, God comes to us in human form…miraculous and mundane and snuggled in tight with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. At Easter, we witness Jesus’s brutal death and bear witness to the claim that even death cannot separate us from God’s love through Christ Jesus. Birth and death - sacred moments that cause our spirits to sit up and pay attention to God.

It is often in these sacred moments that we feel God’s presence….and where we find peace in the midst of a chaotic world. But, you know, we don’t have to wait for these major, earth-shattering events to remember Emmanuel - God With Us. We can seek peace in each and every ordinary day, too. I think this is what Paul meant when he said we are are “pray without ceasing.” It’s not just about bowing your head and having a little talk with God. It’s about living our whole lives in such a way that we are consistently oriented towards the Holy. It’s about seeking peace in the miraculous AND the mundane parts of being human.

Advent is a great time to practice this. Despite the hustle and bustle of December, we who follow Jesus are compelled to find some space to turn inward, center ourselves, and do the work of preparing the way for the Christ child. My friend, the Rev. Ashley Harness said it this way, “The spiritual practices of Advent are really about gestating the divine here and now.”

God calls us to do the important work of bearing Christ to the world this Advent season. We are invited into practices that cultivate and honor peace. You may pray without ceasing as you listen to the music of the season. You might dive more deeply into creating places for quiet and stillness as you pursue a prayer or meditation practice. You may feel led to spend more time in nature or take up a practice of journaling or daily Bible study. Or perhaps God’s peace will be found in the mundane everyday tasks of chopping vegetables, doing laundry, raking leaves….all of these things can become prayer if you approach them with an awareness of God’s presence. I was at a retreat with the Benedictine sister in Atchison a couple of weeks ago and the spiritual director who led the retreat told a story about her mom. Mary Kay was one of eight children and every morning her mom ironed the kids’ uniforms for school….and each and every morning she used that brief moment of ironing to pray for each child by name as she ironed their clothes. I found that so touching….if a mother of eight can find the time to pray for each of her children each morning then surely each of us can find a way to seek peace this Advent, can’t we?

Friends, peace lives among us. It may be covered up by all the noise and violence and pain, but you can rest assured that it is here. The peace of Christ is seeking us this season and we are invited to nestle in close with Mary and Joseph and the angels as we await the return of Emmanuel - God With Us.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

“Praying Twice: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”

Rev. 22:1-7
Sunday, December 2, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

(A version of this sermon was delivered by Sue Zschoche on Dec. 2, 2018.)

If you have a smartphone or tablet with you in worship this morning, I’d like to ask you to get it out. And if you don’t have one, no worries. I feel confident someone near you will have one and you can share. So find a buddy. Buddy up.

Type into your browser sacredspaces.cor.org/leawood/window. It’s printed in your bulletin under the sermon title if you want to see it written out.

Okay. Made it there? You’ll want to flip your phone into horizontal mode so you can get a better look at it. What you’re looking at is the stained glass window at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Johnson County Kansas. What you can’t really tell from your tiny screen is the SCOPE of it. This window, is roughly the size of a basketball court - 100 feet by 40 feet - and was designed to tell the story of the Bible from beginning to end.

When he speaks about the window, Pastor Adam Hamilton says, “The biblical story begins and ends in a garden.” And so there are three trees in the story. Over on the left, there’s one of the trees that’s found in Genesis.. The tree that got those early humans into so much trouble.

In the glass, the tree is depicted as an ancient tree with old, weathered bark and golden leaves that seem ready to drop at any moment. I also notice that it’s heavy with fruit….which is, of course, odd, because I’ve never picked a ripe apple from a tree with bright yellow leaves. To me, this is a reminder that we’re looking at metaphors here, we’re digging into symbols. So even though the tree is bearing fruit, it’s also about to drop it’s leaves.

Abundance happens even in the midst of what seems to be death and loss. Which is, of course, exactly like the story of that first garden….even when the humans disobeyed and were kicked out of the garden, God lovingly knit them clothes to wear out in the big, scary world. Abundance and fruitfulness even in the midst of what seems to be death and loss.

We also see in the stained glass the river that flows next to the Garden….that river that Eve and Adam must have traversed as they were sent out of the Garden. The river that, along with the cherubim, guarded the Tree of Life, keeping the humans away from it as they were sent east of Eden.

On the right hand side of the window we have Tree of Life from Revelation. Bright green, brimming with life and, as with the first tree, heavy with glossy, round, beautiful fruit. Here at the  very end of the Bible, we find this tree in a city, not a garden. But this city certainly has a garden-like feel about it….big green trees, rivers bright as crystal flowing through the middle of streets (seems like an inconvenient place for a river, but we’ll go with it).

In a Salvador Dali-eque move, the Tree of Life in Revelation somehow manages to straddle the river of the water of life. Trees don’t typically straddle rivers but if we’re thinking symbolically, again, it makes sense. Because here, at the end of our sacred texts, the message is crystal clear. “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Here in this New Jerusalem, we will study war no more. Night shall be as day. God will wipe away every tear from human eyes, and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. For the former things are passed away and we are enveloped completely in God’s love and grace and care.

In the middle of the window, we have the third tree. Do you see it? That’s right: the cross. For many Christians, the cross represents that which holds the two gardens together. The human sinfulness on the left paired with goodness and paradise on the right. Or the brokenness of a violent world, an instrument of torture and hate somehow bringing about new life and resurrection. The fear and terror that the disciples felt upon seeing their friend murdered somehow being transformed into good news when they discovered even death has no power over God’s love.

The tree on the left is all about the pain we experience as humans. The tree on the right holds up a vision of God’s true intentions for us. The Prophet Jeremiah describes it like this: For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

And the tree in the middle represents all that comes between...our imperfect striving, the mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection, the things we struggle to understand about the pain that humans inflict on one another, the tentative hope we feel each spring when we notice the first crocus trying to peek it’s way through the still-frozen ground.

Three trees that hold together the entirety of our Holy Scriptures - Genesis to Revelation.

This Advent we will be focusing on “songs of the season” during worship and our first song is one that isn’t very well known:  “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” The text was written by an anonymous English poet and it’s a love song to Jesus, the One who keeps our dying flame alive, the One who cheers hearts, brings comfort, feeds our spirits.

It may seem odd that a song about an apple tree would become a Christmas song, because we don’t usually think of apples in the cold of winter. But it turns out that in England, there is an old tradition of wassailing (Christmas caroling) in apple orchards. Going out in the cold months to pray for blessings upon the cider trees. And so, in England, at least Christmas and Jesus and apple trees do go together just fine.

But there is something else about this image of Christ as an apple tree that resonates with me, and I want to share it with you. In the book Glorify, UCC pastor Emily C. Heath poses this question: “What is the fruit of an apple tree?”

Heath says, “If you’re like most people...you’ll give the obvious answer: an apple. But I was once listening to a talk by the Rev. Jack Stephenson...He asked this same question and then said something that struck me: ‘The fruit of an apple tree is another apple tree.’” [1]

The apple itself, that delicious fruit we enjoy, is really just a vehicle for the seeds.

The fruit lasts only a short while, but the seeds contain the future.

Just like Jesus Christ, whose earthly life was short. But the seeds that he planted have grown and borne fruit for the ages.

And we are still a part of that great network of life - reaching backwards and forwards, holding together the past and the future, the world as it is and the world as it could be, the pain of who we are and the people God dreams for us to be, Genesis and Revelation, beginning and end, Alpha and Omega - like Christ, we are called to hold it all together, planting seeds of life even in times of death and loss.

Seeds of hope. Seeds of peace. Seeds of joy. Seeds of love.

Let us journey into Advent together with Christ, the apple tree.

[1]  Emily C. Heath, Glorify, chapter 8.