Sunday, January 27, 2019

“The World’s Shortest Sermon”

Luke 4:14-21
Sunday, January 27, 2019
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

You may have looked ahead in your bulletin today and noted that the sermon title is “The World’s Shortest Sermon.” Alas, the sermon *I* am about to preach is not the world’s shortest sermon. It’s a regular ol’ medium-ish sermon. I apologize if I ruined your day.

The World’s Shortest Sermon in question is one we heard just a few moments ago from the Gospel of Luke. Did you catch it? It’s pretty short, so let me just refresh your memory. Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth. Whie he was in the synagogue, the scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him and he read a portion aloud. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

The gathered congregation waited expectantly to see what commentary Jesus might provide on these selected verses from the 61st chapter of Isaiah. Their eyes were fixed on him. They leaned forward with bated breath.

This is the audience participation part. Go ahead, lean in.

They waited….and that’s when Jesus preached the World’s Shortest Sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

That was it. Nine words in Hebrew. Full disclosure, I don’t actually know if this is the world’s shortest sermon but it’s gotta be a strong contender, right?

A lot has been said about this brief sermon over the years. Many learned scholars have said things like, “Huh?” And “What does that even mean?”

The portion of Luke that we heard today is really part of a longer segment that continues on through verse 30. We are going to study this second part of the story next week. As we look at this text today, I want to look at the HOW of what’s happening. When we return to the text next week, we’re going to look at the WHAT.

So first, HOW.

Because the how of Jesus’s sermon is important. Here we have Jesus, hometown boy who is starting to get a reputation as an important teacher. He remixes a few lines from the prophet Isaiah and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The first thing to notice about the how of this sermon is HOW it took place in Jesus’s home synagogue. Those of us who call ourselves Christians must always be mindful that the one we follow was not Christian, but Jewish. His Jewishness is on full display here as he returns to the place where he likely received his religious education and demonstrates that he is very much an insider. He knows all the ins and outs of how to receive the scroll, unroll it just right, read the text aloud.

(You can even envision a little flashback to Jesus’s bar mitzvah with his mom and dad beaming proudly in the back of a crowded synagogue as teenage Jesus confidently and fluently reads the Hebrew that he’s been practicing at home. Okay, you CAN do that but it would be inaccurate because Jesus missed the opportunity to be bar mitzvahed by a few centuries.)

Nevertheless, he would have done his parents proud. He was brought up in the faith and it’s important for us to remember that everything Jesus taught was informed by his Jewish faith.
A second thing to notice about the “how” of Jesus’s leadership in the synagogue: he re-mixes the text from Isaiah. It’s not a direct quote, what he’s reading. The spirit is very much the same, but the words differ slightly.

Now, sometimes you’ll hear Christian teachers talk about how Jesus was some kind of radical who turned the teachings of Judaism upside down, threw the law out with the baby’s bathwater, and ushered in a new type of Judaism that was radically different than everything that had come before.

But this isn’t true.

Yes, Jesus had his own spin on the scriptures. Like any other Jewish teacher, he emphasized some of his favorite things and asked lots of hard questions. He re-mixed some stories and teachings here and there. Doing so was not at all unusual. Judaism has always been a vibrant religion with living scriptures. Texts are interrogated, details are added, stories are smushed together. All of this would have been very comfortable to Jesus and his audience.

The third “how” I want us to pay attention to today has to do with the way the author of Luke relays this story to us. The amount of time spent explaining exactly what Jesus is doing (the sitting, the standing, the scroll-rolling) is much longer than the nine words that Jesus speaks. I think this is to call attention to Jesus’s status as a respected Jewish teacher and it also serves another purpose.

We are supposed to be paying attention to the way Jesus embodies this particular moment. This is his big debut. The moment when he lays out his mission statement. The sermon that sets the stage for every other thing that is to follow in his ministry.

And two things are happening in this mission statement moment: first, Jesus says that the text is fulfilled today. Meaning that when Jesus shows up, filled with the Spirit (see verse 14), and speaks these words….something powerful is happening. Not because of his eloquence but because of all of it. The people present, the words spoken, the Word that embodies the text.

Sermons aren’t always about the words we say. Some of the most powerful sermons are embodied without words at all. Can you think of a time when you’ve experienced something powerful and true and good and right about the Holy that had nothing to do with words spoken from a pulpit?

What’s happening in Nazareth in Luke 4 reminds me of that quote that is oft-attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” It turns out St. Francis probably didn’t say those words….but it’s easy to understand why they are attributed to him because he lived them with his life.

St. Francis lived in the 12th and 13th centuries in central Europe. He is probably best known as the guy who has a lot of birds and other animals with him in various icons. But there’s a lot more to Francis than just his love of animals. He was born into a wealthy merchant’s family and had a privileged upbringing. In his young adult years he fought in a war and had several mystical religious experiences that led him into a period of transformation. Eventually, he denounced his wealthy upbringing, left his family, and devoted his life to following Christ, petitioning the Pope to begin a new religious order.

Though he was not a priest, Francis was given a special dispensation to preach. What he is remembered for is preaching in the open air, which was particularly revolutionary in a primarily pre-literate society. Those of us who can read take for granted how easy it is to access information. If we want to learn a Bible story, we just look it up...either in our own copy of the Bible or at the library or on our phones. Not so in 13th century Europe. People relied on preachers (and stained glass!) to learn the Bible.

Francis traveled everywhere to preach outdoors - taking the word of God to people as they paused from their daily labors. And his preaching, like Jesus’s brief sermon in Luke 4, wasn’t primarily about the words coming out of his mouth. Francis once said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” He tried to not only life his life in a manner consistent with his faith, but also preached in unusual and creative ways. For example, the concept of a Live Nativity may have begun with Francis, who boldly brought animals right into the Church, not as a theatrical stunt but as a way of communicating a powerful theological message. Pastor Jamie Arpin-Ricci says, “[Francis]  brought into the heart of the church and the Scriptures the messy reality of the nature of the incarnation (cow manure and all). He saw the story of Scripture to be something to be lived and experience, not merely commemorated.” [1]

In doing so, Francis preached a powerful Word using more than just words. Jesus does the same in today’s passage from Luke. Like Francis, Jesus used his presence, his body, and the gathered body of believers to preach with his entire life. He did so not to call attention to himself, but to invite people to be a part of the wider story of God’s goodness and love. Time and time again, Jesus said, “Follow me.” Not just “listen to me” or “think about these things” but “move your body and follow me.”

Our faith is an embodied faith. It’s more than ideas or words on a page.

It’s the reality of God embodied in Christ and embodied in us.

It’s found in the breaking of bread and cups overflowing with goodness. It’s the warm breeze on our face as we step into water and remember that God calls us beloved. It’s the ashes on our forehead as we remember that we are made of dust and to dust we will return. It’s the catch in our breath as we see the stone rolled away. It’s the confusion felt in the pit of our stomach as the flames descend like tongues and we see God doing something new again and again again.

Jesus arrives….and the Word is made flesh and dwells among us. Thanks be to God for the abiding presence of Love Incarnate.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

“MLK for Today”

Sunday, January 20, 2019
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

A week ago, I was standing in the freezing cold on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with a dear friend, hands tightly gripping steaming cups of coffee. It was our last morning at the canyon and as we stood there watching the sun rise I thought about returning home and my thoughts leaped forward a week to today. The Sunday of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.  

Did you know that Dr. King loved nature? It’s true. Though he was a city-kid, born and raised in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, he made a conscious choice to get more in touch with the land (and his ancestors) when he sought out summer employment on a farm in Connecticut before entering college [1]. In his autobiography, he wrote of his time in seminary in Rochester, NY, where he would intentionally make a daily trip “to commune with nature.” “Every day,” he wrote, “I would sit on the edge of the campus by the side of the river and watch the beauties of nature. My friend, in this experience, I saw God. I saw him in the birds of the air, the leaves of the tree, the movement of the rippling waves.” [2]

Dr. King sat by the side of the river each day and found God there. How many of us have had a similar experience of seeking and finding the Holy in creation? Many of us, I’m sure.

Dr. King looms larger than life in our collective memories – have you seen the size of the statue at his memorial in Washington, D.C.? It inspires awe, as is fitting. But as we pause each January to remember this colossal prophet, we have to take care not to turn him into a caricature or object.

Dr. King was, after all, a human being, just like the rest of us here. He grew up squabbling with his siblings. He loved music and dancing. He told bawdy jokes with his best friends. He probably berated himself for his shortcomings as a father and husband, because none of us are as perfect as we would like to be in our closest relationships. He enjoyed good food and driving a new car. He struggled with lonely nights of the soul and deep existential exhaustion. He was a bold, unique, struggling, soaring, beloved human being…just like each of his here.  

Dr. King changed the world for the better because of his unique attributes and his relentless, faithful desire to be a part of building God’s Beloved Community here and now. It always breaks my heart a little to see his legacy boiled down to one speech when we remember him on MLK weekend each year. Yes, he had a dream. Yes, that dream was powerful and moving. Yes, it is right to remember his dream and notice how far we still are from that dream and to keep working to make it a reality.

But Dr. King was more than a dreamer. He was also a brilliant strategist who brought a laser-like focus to his ministry. He had that rare ability to dream big, paint a vision vividly with words, AND think like a master chess player about how to move forward step-by-step. He also had dreams that were more difficult for people to embrace than the ones we heard from the steps of the Washington memorial. If you’ve read some of his other writings, you know that he was quite radical. He advocated for billions of dollars to be used in a federal program for slavery reparations, he believed that creating a guaranteed annual income would solve many of our problems with poverty, he spoke out vocally and vehemently against the war in Vietnam, and – though he, himself advocated for nonviolence – he reminded people that riots are the language of the unheard. So much of what he said was bold, radical, difficult to hear.

Throughout his life and ministry, Dr. King stayed intently focused on what he called the great “triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism. Incidentally, those three areas are also what guide the work of our friends at Kansas Interfaith Action. KIFA has also added environmental sustainability into the mix and I think Dr. King would wholeheartedly approve.      

Despite Dr. King’s steady leadership, we still struggle with these awful triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism today. People of color in our nation continue to live with the pain and terror of centuries of white supremacy in action. There are the small, relentless acts of erasure like reading in a book that a European explorer “discovered” the Grand Canyon in the 16th century. They Ancestral Puebloans who lived there as long ago as the 12th century B.C.E would disagree. As would the Cohonina, Hopi, Havasupai, and Navajo or Dine people who all lived near the canyon long before European settlers arrived.

We continue to live with the sin of racism as we look to our southern border and see atrocities being committed against people from Central and South America as they seek safety and asylum. If Dr. King were alive today he would have no shortage of work in confronting white supremacy.

Materialism is still with us, too, of course. The latest hit TV show in 2019 is yet another home improvement show focusing on how to help U.S. Americans manage the piles and piles of stuff we accumulate in our oversized homes. Meanwhile, many federal employees are working without pay and I have several friends who are legitimately worried that they and their children may soon have no food to eat or may be homeless due to uncertainties about SNAP payments, federal lunch subsidies in public schools, and HUD funding.

Dr. King had an expansive understanding of militarism as not only nation-on-nation warfare, but violence of any kind. If he were alive today, I feel certain he would be working hand-in-hand with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. He would be concerned about the ways we fail to honor and care for our veterans. He would be nodding his head in agreement at the recent Gillette Ad encouraging us all to support healthier models of masculinity. He would be offering an encouraging word to Omaha elder Nathan Phillips who stood firmly in the redemptive power of nonviolence at the Lincoln Memorial earlier this week. He would giving thanks for the way Mr. Phillips embodied God’s spirit of defiant peace in the face of violent hate.

I have to admit. When I look at the world in 2019, I often wish Dr. King were still here to guide and challenge us. He would have turned 90 last week. But Dr. King was taken from us at the age of 39. And so we are left to wonder…what can we do today to continue to live into his radical, hopeful, Jesus-oriented legacy? What can we learn from the way he lived his life?
First, I think we can learn from King’s conviction that God is involved in human history. King did not envision God as an old white guy watching us from a distance. No, King’s vision of God was much more immanent – more present in the here and now. King maintained that God cares deeply about what happens to creation and that God is intimately involved with the day-to-day happenings on Planet Earth.

King did not, however, think that God’s involvement happened in some sort of magical, lightning-bolt kind of way. Instead, he believed that God needs humans to get the work done. King’s vision of God relied on humanity to make the Beloved Community real – to change consciousness, to change laws, to change culture.

A second thing I think we can learn is that people of faith can play a critical role in the wider world. King understood that the issues of evil at play in our world must be addressed in a systemic way, not just by individuals with generous hearts. King said, "Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial." [3] He never feared being “too political” because he was walking in the ways of Jesus, who probably would be crucified again if he were with us today.

Third, King would tell us that we should not be distracted from working on behalf of what is right just because it seems impractical or unpopular. This can easily be seen in his devotion to bringing the troops home from Vietnam. No one in his closest circle of advisors supported him when he decided to speak out against the war. They told him it was unpopular and would have a negative impact on their public image. King chose to speak out, even though it cost him credibility.

Finally, King understood that – when the going gets tough – you need something larger than yourself to sustain your work. King is a model for us not only because he was an amazing leader, but because he found the strength, courage, and ideas for his work from his Christian faith. He was just a person – he got tired, he got frustrated, he had days of despair when he thought nothing would ever change. And when he felt that way, he relied on his faith to sustain him.

Let us remember his wise counsel as we go forth to do what sometimes seems to be an impossible task: "When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." [4]
[2] King, Autobiography, 298.
[3] Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, Washington 38.
[4] ("Where do we go from here?" August 16, 1967)