Sunday, April 11, 2021

“Re-organized: An Easter Sermon”

Sermon on Luke 24:13-25

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 

April 11, 2021

Having heard these ancient stories, let’s turn now to a contemporary story from our still-speaking God. I’ve adapted this story by the Rev. Liddy Barlow just a smidge:

Three-year-old Lydia doesn’t remember much about life before the pandemic. She doesn’t remember passing the peace during worship, or crowding together on the chancel steps for the children’s sermon. She doesn’t remember ever getting a hug or a handshake from anyone outside her immediate family.

She does remember that in the fall, her family’s beloved dog Hobbes died. She watched her parents dig a grave to bury him in their rural backyard.

​Lydia understands that there’s a sickness that’s spread all over the world. She knows the sickness means she has to wash her hands and wear a mask. Every night, she prays with her family: “God, please help the world get better.”

​One recent night at bedtime, after repeating their prayer, Lydia asked, “When the world is better, will we keep wearing masks?”

“No, when the world is better we can take our masks off,” her mom replied.

​“And when the world is better,” Lydia asked again, “will Daddy un-dig Hobbes?”

​This spring, [we are] making the slow transition into a post-pandemic reality. It might seem that the world has recovered, has gotten better. In some ways, things are just as we left them: [sanctuaries that appear unchanged when we return after more than a year away, congregations ready to return to their regular routines.]. But we are discovering that not everything is the same. We’ve adopted new habits that will take a while to break, and found new rhythms that we may no longer want to disrupt. Some of our relationships have not survived a long absence. Some of us are coping with the dimensions of a new chronic illness, “long covid,” or wrestling with new trauma and anxiety. And [almost 5,000 of our neighbors in Kansas] have died. There are missing faces in our communities, empty pews in our sanctuaries, fresh graves in our cemeteries. The world is getting better, but not everything can be un-dug.

“Not everything can be un-dug.” As we step into Eastertide, that statement: “Not everything can be un-dug,” is sticking with me. Each year when the Easter story grabs hold of us once again, we find we are not the same people we were the last time we heard it. Easter 2021 finds us differently than Easter 2020 and Easter 2019. We don’t yet know who we will be when Easter 2022 rolls around. 

Depending on what is happening in the world and in our own lives, the story may feel particularly resonant on any given year…..or it might leave us cold, wishing we could tap into the joy but unable to really grasp it firmly. Some years there are parts of us that just can’t be un-dug. And other years we joyfully throw off the dirt, leap out of our graves, and dance in the warm Spring sun. 

No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey….or how the Easter story finds us this year, we are all welcome here. And the Easter Story, pursues us once again…”ready or not, here it comes!” In fact, we don’t have just ONE Easter Story, we have several. The whole thing is so incredible, we seem to need many different versions just to wrap our heads around it. Not only do we have the different versions in each gospel, of course, but we have different Easter Stories even within a single gospel. The author of Luke isn’t satisfied with just ONE story of the risen Christ, so he keeps spinning stories of how different people were affected by the Resurrected Christ. 

The women, of course, but then, also, Peter gets into the game. And after Peter, we immediately get this story about two from the inner circle that we’ve not heard of before - Cleopas and his unnamed friend. The stories are just flowing so quickly that it’s still the same DAY. Cleopas and his friend seem to have waited for something to happen because they believed Jesus at least a little bit when he said he would be raised from death on the third day. The third day has now come and almost gone and….nothing. At least to their knowledge. So they depart for Emmaus, which we are told is about a seven mile journey. 

As they walk, Cleopas and his friend are joined by Jesus - only they don’t know it’s JESUS. The three travelers make small talk as they are walking alone and these disciples share with the stranger their overwhelming sadness. Their friend, Jesus, has been killed. And they had HOPED he would be the one to bring about liberation for Israel - to remove Rome’s boot from their necks. But now the third day has come and gone and Jesus is really dead and gone and they’ve lost hope. 

They continue to walk and talk and as they near Emmaus, the stranger (who we know is Jesus) begins to spin stories from scripture, beginning with Moses and the prophets. 

Once they arrive in Jerusalem, the disciples extend hospitality to this stranger, insisting that he stay with them for the night. He accepts the invitation and when they sit down to eat, there’s something about the way he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, shares it with them… this act that looks a lot like what we now call Holy Communion, it suddenly becomes clear to Cleopas and his friend that the Risen Christ has been with them this whole time. 

And as soon as they make this connection, he’s gone. He vanishes from before their eyes. And they find themselves so caught up in the Easter story, that they immediately set off for Jerusalem to tell their friends. That’s right, even though they’ve already made the seven-mile journey once today, they are prepared to make it again, after dark. That’s how good the story is and how urgently they need to share it with the others. 

The author of Luke spins this particular Easter story with such beauty and care. It’s the type of story we can come back to again and again, and every time it seems a different part of it reaches out to us. As I sat with the story this past week, I was struck by how these disciples didn’t recognize their friend immediately when he appeared to them on the road. Isn’t that strange? I mean, maybe it’s just told that way because it makes for a good story. Or was there something cosmic about this Risen Christ that made him difficult to recognize? 

Or perhaps Jesus’s friends were simply traumatized, their sight disrupted by the enormity of what they’d just been through. Perhaps they were unable to see clearly, make sense of basic everyday interactions because they were simply unable to function. 

When our bodies and spirits are in a state of alarm, or extreme exhaustion or overwhelm, even basic tasks can become impossible. Lots of people all over the world are experiencing something similar these days. As we struggle through year two of a global pandemic and as we continue to confront the evils of hate, violence, white supremacy and misogyny...we can find ourselves overwhelmed. The fatigue catches up with us and we sometimes can’t remember a word, or complete simple tasks.  Our brains just aren’t making connections like they’re supposed to. We feel scattered, disconnected, and sometimes downright dysfunctional. 

This story of Emmaus reminds me of some excellent advice I received from a lactation consultant when I had a newborn baby. She told us that newborns sometimes get so overwhelmed with the world around them that their nervous systems can kind of short-circuit. When they are overly hungry or tired they might not be able to latch on and nurse properly. Their tiny selves become scattered, disconnected, dysfunctional and they need help getting organized before they can eat. So she showed us some things we could do to help the baby “get organized” - help them calm their nervous systems down so they could function and be fed. 

I feel like that’s what Jesus is doing in this story. Helping his beloved friends get organized so they’ll be able to function and fed. They are so overwhelmed by the enormity of what they’ve been through, even their vision is disrupted. They can’t see clearly. But there’s something about the familiarity of the shared stories, and the walking along together, and the breaking of the bread that organizes their spirits, calms their systems, pulls them back together. 

And once they are re-organized in this way, they are able to see. And once they see Easter standing right in front of them, they are off and running to Jerusalem to share the gift of this good story with the others. Once they are re-organized they are ready for the next big shift, ready for what is coming next in their lives. 

Are we ready for the next big shift? Are we ready for what is coming next? Are we ready to be un-dug and dance in the warm Spring sun? 

We know our lives aren’t going back to how they were in The Before Times, but it can feel hard to anticipate what things will look like in six months or a year. It often feels to me like we are all just so ready for “the end of the pandemic” that we are tempted to rush forward into whatever is coming next without pausing to get organized. I keep pausing to remind myself of the questions I was focused on at this time last year: What is essential? What matters most? How do I keep waking up each day and choosing to love God and love my neighbor as myself? What does it look like to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God in this rapidly changing landscape? 

In our excitement about vaccines and spring and “getting back out there,” we need to also pause and take care. 

We need to care for the enormity of what we’ve been through together and what we’re still going through. We need to grieve that some of the things we’ve lost really can’t be un-dug. That’s real. And in the realness of that hurt and sorrow, the Easter stories find us once again. Our God is relentlessly offers to us - no, offers is not quite strong enough - CHASES US DOWN with these stories of hope. 

And so, beloveds, as we settle into this season of Easter, may we do so with the hope of getting organized - just like little babies do. Not in a color-coded spreadsheet kind of way, but in a deep-in-the-bones way. Clear eyes, open hearts, receptive spirits ready to receive the gifts our Easter God is ready to bestow upon us next. 

We meet this God as we travel, as we share these ancient stories, as we gather around tables together and remember Jesus. We are held in the arms of Love, knit back together when we feel scattered, disconnected, unable to function.. We are re-membered, re-organized, renewed for the next season of life. 

Thanks be to our Easter God. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

"Remember: An Easter Sermon"

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 

April 4, 2021 - Easter

Susanna groggily pulled her blanket up over her head. A whole week of nightmares and fitful sleep had worn her down. She fell into bed exhausted at the end of each day, but sleep was elusive. Just when she was about to drift off, she would feel the crowds pressing in hear the shouts again, “Hosanna! Save us!” 

When sleep finally found her each evening, peace didn’t. All through the night, scenes replayed again and again, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And the ugly shouts of “Crucify! Crucify him!” 

And always the crowds pressing in. 

Too many people in one place at one time. People down low grabbing at their ankles as they walked past. People up in trees, straining to catch a glimpse. People who had overstayed their welcome but hadn’t thought to bring lunch, so they needed to be fed. People who asked questions just because they were looking for a fight. 

In her dreams, he answered all their questions. In her dreams, he told them, again and again, how the end would come. And in her dreams, the end always came in the same way. The noise stopped. The crowds dispersed. The images went dark.

Silence. Stillness. Nothing. 

The end. 

In the end, she was always alone. 

Outside, the rooster crowed and Susanna started to open her eyes. As the sun started to peek up over the horizon, she put her feet on the floor and looked around the room. In the half-light of early morning she fumbled to open her bag and tossed her supplies into it. A few rags, some dried herbs. She carefully wrapped up the small jar of expensive oil in a cloth before lowering it in with the rest. 

As she stepped outside, Susanna saw other figures moving in the distance. Her friends were, at first, two-dimensional in that first light of day. But as they came closer, their familiar faces brought all her feelings to the surface and, unable to help herself, she began to quietly weep.

Joanna drew near and put an arm around her friend. “Shhh, shhhh. It’s going to be okay, Susanna. It’s going to be okay.”

Susanna looked at her sideways. It’s going to be okay? she thought. It’s going to be okay? Joanna, nothing is okay right now. Nothing.

“I know,” Joanna sighed, “But it’s going to be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Susanna internally rolled her yes, but tried to force a smile in Joanna’s general direction. No sense in having a fight about this right now. There was work to do. 

The women quietly began their journey through empty streets. 

Just a few short days ago, these streets had been filled with the crowds that now plagued Susanna’s dreams. There had been two parades, really. From the East, the parade she had been a part of. Jesus and his ragtag group of followers. Peasants from the outskirts, looking out of place in the big city. A parade of protest - a parade that asks “why” and says “no more.” 

And from the West, a more conventional parade. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and all his horses and men, decked out in grand style. A parade of Empire - a parade that says “listen up” and “because I said so.”

And now...a third parade. A parade of women. No one gathered to watch this one. Certainly not the Roman authorities. After all, the story was basically over and done now. Not much left to see here. Jesus came, the people cried out for freedom, and once again, the powers-that-be tightened their grip. Once again, violence won the day. Once again, the people were left alone, leaderless, despairing. 

Susanna glanced over at Joanna. How can she think it’s all going to be okay in the end? She wondered. Can’t she see this IS the end? It’s over. Finished. 

Jesus had...talked a good game. He had given them the gift of hope. When he spun those stories of a better world...well, you couldn’t help but feel like it was really possible. When he said, “the Kingdom of God is like this” you could kind of squint and really see it there on the horizon. 

There was something about his presence. The way he looked into your eyes like he was seeing every single thing about you without being intrusive. It was like he was here, with us...but somehow beyond us, from another place entirely. When you were with him you felt like you were wrapped up tightly in a cocoon….safe, warm, loved. 

It felt like nothing could ever hurt you. It felt like home. It felt like everything was...okay. 

But now that was all gone. Because Jesus was gone. And as the parade of women approached the tomb where Jesus’s body lay, it really started to hit home for Susanna. This would be the last time she’d see her friend. She had cared for dead bodies like this many times before and wondered if this would feel any different from all the rest. She started to take her bag off her shoulder to get the supplies ready. 

What happened next felt like one of those dreams where everything is disjointed and nothing seems to make sense. 

One of the women cried out that the tomb had been broken into. The heavy stone had been rolled away! They stumbled over each other trying to investigate and when they discovered Jesus’s body was gone, Susanna felt rage rise inside of her. This has been taken from us, too? Why?

And then chaos. A flash of light. Two strange men clothed in white saying things that made no sense. No sense at all. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee that the Son of man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified and on the third day rise again.”

Susanna couldn’t wrap her mind around it. It didn’t make any sense. Not at all. She turned to look at her friend.

Joanna’s eyes locked with hers...and she suddenly felt that feeling all over her body. Wrapped up tightly in a cocoon….safe, warm, loved. It felt like nothing could ever hurt you. It felt like home. It felt like everything was….okay. “It’s going to be okay,” whispered Joanna. “In the end, I mean. It’s going to be okay in the end, because if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

The women held hands tightly, stumbling into the light outside the tomb. 

And suddenly they remembered. Their hearts remembered it all. The healings, the parables, the miracles, the laughter, the despair, the anger at injustice, the meals shared around tables, the long journey they had all been on together, the love.

They remembered it in their minds and their bodies, their guts and their hearts, their cells and their spirits. They remembered it in whispers and shouts and songs and questions and stories and silence and parades. 

They remembered. And in the remembering, they were re-membered. Pieced back together. Knit together in love. Brought back to themselves. 

They remembered. And we, too, remember. 

Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Sermon on Luke 18:31-19:10

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 

March 21, 2021

The grandma watches from the sidelines as her six-year-old granddaughter sits down next to another kid - a stranger - at the playground. The child says, “I need a friend. Will you play superheroes with me?”

The mom holds her four-year-old son on her lap in the darkened theater. It’s his first time going to the movies and he had been so excited. But once the movie started, he was overwhelmed by it all and she’s been quietly whispering encouraging words to him for over a half-hour now. He’s had his ups and downs, but now he’s reached a breaking point. He screams out - loud enough for everyone to hear - “Get me out of here! Get me out of here now!”

The preschool teacher turns around and notices something unusual on their walk. One of the two-year-olds has decided to sit down right in the middle of the sidewalk. She’s still holding onto her walk buddy’s hand. The teacher bends down to ask why she’s sitting and the little girl looks up with feverish eyes and says, “I don’t feel good. I sit down.”

3am. The new dad wakes with a start. The baby’s crying. Again. He pauses and listens for a minute to see if the baby will settle. But the cry is insistent and the dad recognizes it as a “I need to eat right now,” cry. Only two months in to this parenting gig and he already knows there are hungry cries, tired cries, “my diaper is wet” cries. His feet hit the floor and he’s off to help. 

Children’s ministers everywhere breathed a sigh of relief this week when they consulted the lectionary because LAST week’s Bible story was about the rich man and Lazarus in Hades….but THIS week’s story is about Zacchaeus. Whew! This is a children’s story. We even have a Bible song about it. Thank heavens. 

Zacchaeus is beloved by children and Sunday School teachers alike because is IS such a great story for kids. There’s something about this short grown up who climbs trees that’s so relatable, right? 

Funny thing is, though, kids aren’t the ones who really need the reminders this story provides. It’s a story about vulnerability and expressing need...and having those needs met. And those are areas of expertise for most kids. 

Zacchaeus doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be a vulnerable person. We’re told right off the bat that he’s a tax collector. Not JUST a tax collector, but a chief one - and rich. Another rich guy interacting with Jesus. We start to think, “I know where this is heading.” We remember the rich guy who ignored Lazarus. We remember the rich guy who couldn’t bear to sell all his possessions and just couldn’t make himself small enough to pass through the eye of Jesus’s metaphorical needle. 

But Zacchaeus is….different somehow. We aren’t told his motivations, but he wants to see Jesus. And since the crowds were thick and drones hadn’t been invented yet, he had to find a way to get up higher to see. So he scampered up a tree. Apparently his desire to see Jesus was so great that he didn’t mind looking a little silly out in public. 

I don’t think he ever imagined that Jesus would notice him, up there in the tree. And I wonder how he felt when this famous teacher, this stranger, stopped on the side of that Jericho rode and singled him out. “Zacchaeus, come down from up there. I need to go over to your house today.” His enthusiasm for seeing Jesus has led to Jesus seeing him. Not just seeing him, mind, but coming over to his house! 

Zacchaeus is an interesting character. We’re told just enough about him pique our curiosity. I’ve often heard him described as a mean ol’ tax collector, ostracized by the community. This encounter with Jesus changes him and he decides to be more honest in his profession. The restoration that Jesus speaks of at the end of the story is Zacchaeus’s repentance and the grace extended to him. 

But there’s another way to read this story, too. Biblical scholar Robert Williamson, Jr. says we don’t actually know that Zacchaeus is dishonest. [1] It’s possible that he’s doing his job as fairly as possible, but still disliked by the community because, hey, nobody likes the tax man. The NRSV says he’s going to give half of what he has to the poor but the original Greek there is actually in the present tense, “I GIVE half of what I have to the poor. And if I cheat anyone, I do my best to make it right.” [2] 

Read this way, it’s not so clear that Zacchaeus is repenting here at all. Instead, he’s defending himself against the grumblings of the crowd, who don’t understand why Jesus has singled out this tax collector - of all people! - for friendship. If this is the case, the restoration that Jesus speaks of at the end of the story might be a restoration of Zacchaeus to the community. “Here,” Jesus says, “This man may be a tax collector. But he is also a person, just trying to do his best. He’s a part of your community. He matters and is worthy of love.”

Whichever way we choose to understand Zacchaeus, his life is altered by this encounter with Jesus on the side of the road in Jericho. He goes out on an actual limb to encounter Jesus...and when he opens himself in that way, when he makes himself vulnerable, Jesus enters into his need and offers restoration, healing, transformation. 

Zacchaeus isn’t the only person whose life is changed on this day in Jericho. Before encountering Zaccheaus, he also befriends a man whose name is lost to history. This man is also sitting on the side of the road, but not up in a tree. Instead he is down in the dirt, sitting and begging for help on the side of the road. It feels like a prelude to Palm Sunday - Jesus comes into town and a crowd gathers for the parade. Over the din of the crowd, one voice rises above the rest, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Neighbors gathered near tell the blind man sitting at the side of the road to hush up. “There’s no need to make a scene. He’s coming down the road. He’ll be here soon. Just shhhh.” But he yells out again, even louder, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

Where Zacchaeus didn’t seem vulnerable at first glance, this man wears vulnerability his sleeve. As a blind person in the ancient world he is utterly dependent on the community for support and care. Are we surprised, then, that he would so passionately and loudly cry out to Jesus for help? Like Zacchaeus, he makes a spectacle of himself...and it makes other folks uncomfortable. Like Zacchaeus, he captures Jesus’s attention. 

Jesus approaches the man and says, quite simply, “What do you want me to do for you?” 

Hearing this, the man goes big. He asks for his sight to be restored. He isn’t afraid to ask for what he really wants, what he really needs. And he believes, somehow, that Jesus can make this happen. And so he asks. And his life is transformed. Jesus enters into his need and offers restoration, healing, transformation. 

Restoration, healing, transformation. Jesus offers them without reservation. His model is the reason we continue to do our level best to share hope, create justice, meet basic needs in our own communities and world. We see how Jesus did and we feel called to do the same. To speak up against injustice, to amplify the voices of those who aren’t heard, to build a better world for all people. No exceptions. 

I know that so many of us are do-ers. “Tell me what to do Jesus, and I’m on it. I will write a check, call my elected representatives, give my time, attend that rally….heck, if you need it, Jesus, I will even SERVE ON THAT COMMITTEE.”

I sometimes wonder if we get so caught up in the doing that we forget that we not only serve because of Christ, we serve THROUGH Christ. 

We are able to creatively resist, build, create, minister through the strength Christ pours into us. We couldn’t do this work on our own. We are enabled to do it by the one who walked the road to Jerusalem, the one who withstood the overwhelming cheers and jeers, the one who paused and made time to enter into relationship on the side of so many roads, the one who always stood with the marginalized, the one who sought out the vulnerable and restored them to community. 

This same one is with us here and now. This same one comes to us when we are vulnerable, weary, weak, needy and supports us each and every day. 

When we are able to follow in the blind man’s footsteps, in Zacchaeus’s footsteps, and be bravely vulnerable - 

When we scamper up a tree to encounter Jesus or shout out for help even though people around us tell us to simmer down - 

When we are able to ask for what we need - like the six year old at the playground, the overwhelmed four year old at the movies, the two year old who wasn’t feeling well, the baby who needed to eat at 3am - 

When we seek Christ, Christ will not leave us hanging. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says in John’s gospel, “I am right here with you now.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind man. And, friends, I believe this with my heart to be true: Christ quietly asks the same question of each of us when we turn to him in our honest, real, vulnerable need. 

“What do you want me to do for you?” 

What a gift, to be loved into newness by a simple question like that. 


[1] BibleWorm podcast for March 21, 2021.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

“A Tale of Two Barriers”

Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 

March 14, 2021

You never know where Bible study is going to take you and this week I went on a deep dive into snails. Specifically the Murex mollusk, which is a predatory sea snail that produces teensy tiny amounts of dye. 

Back in Jesus’s time, Phonecian artisans and merchants became rich by unlocking the secrets of using these snails to dye garments and other fabric. Contemporary artisans have reconstructed what that process might have looked like and they tell us that it takes about 120 pounds of these snails AND 48 hours worth of labor to produce 1 gram of powdered dye that can be used. That 1 gram of powder is enough to dye about one shirt sleeve. [1] The dye was, quite literally, worth more than its weight in gold.

These mollusks make a color called Tyrian purple - sometimes imperial purple, as it was only worn and used by emperors and the uber-rich. One-percenters, we’d call them today, I suppose. 

So when Jesus begins his story, “there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day,” THAT’S the purple he was wearing. Before he even closes himself into his gated community, before he even sits down to eat (with servants no doubt waiting on him hand and foot), before he even goes to work in the morning (if he worked at all) - he is already benefiting from hours and hours and hours of smelly, hard labor to create the dye for his clothing. He is already clad in opulence on multiple levels. 

Jesus told this story in Luke’s gospel to a group of folks who were out-of-step with his teachings about wealth and money. Jesus in Luke’s gospel is consistently concerned with justice for the poor and marginalized. Remember: Jesus’s mission statement in Luke is to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, restore vision, and bring about Jubilee.” (Luke 4:18-19).

When he starts talking about giving away everything you own and how it’s more likely for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get into heaven and how we can’t serve both God and our love of wealth….well, let’s just say there were some folks who thought these views were a tad extreme. 

The extremes are what we have in this story. The rich man (who is, interestingly not named….both giving him an Every-rich-man kind of quality AND making him seem less important than Lazarus who IS given a name) - the rich man is REALLY rich. 

Who are parallels in our world today? For sure we’re thinking of people like the billionaire class - folks who have so much money we can barely conceive of it. I did some fun math and figured out that if a rich person today had a net worth of $190 billion (and some folks do) and decided to take just 5% income from their investment earnings, their billions would generate over $9 billion a year. If they gave away just those earnings (and kept the $190 billion they had to start with) it would be enough to give every person in the U.S. without a home over $17,000 a year. In other words, every single person without a home would make more money from this thought experiment than they would working a full-time job at the federal minimum wage. And the rich person would still have ALL the riches they started with. 

Those billions could buy a whole lotta purple clothes. 

At the other extreme, we have Lazarus. He is as poor as the rich man is rich. Every day he sits outside the rich man’s gate hoping even a crumb of food will be tossed his way. He is hungry, he has significant health problems (and, we assume, no access to health care), and he has dignity problems. [2] Dogs come to lick his open sores. And dogs were not regarded in Jesus’s time as cuddly pets. They were wild scavengers that annoyed folks. To be licked by a dog was demeaning. 

Biblical scholar Amy Robertson notices the contrast between the two men’s attire. The rich man is so rich he’s clothed in purple. Lazarus is so poor he barely even has proper skin covering his body. [3] 

We know, of course, that even those who have clothes and a place to call home struggle with the same things Lazarus struggles with: food insecurity, lack of access to health care, being looked down upon by others. 

I’ve always thought it was a horrific indicator of our society’s priorities that we have a term: “the working poor.” How do we live in a world where a billionaire can generate millions upon millions of dollars a year in interest on invested funds without lifting a finger while others work 60, 70, 80 hours a week and still cannot afford the basics? There is not one single state in the U.S. where a person working a full-time minimum wage job can afford a two-bedroom rental. [4] We have an economic system where people can starve while working hard and people can get richer and richer by doing nothing at all. How does this make any sense?

Now, I know it’s tempting to look at this story and say, “I can’t see myself here. I don’t wear clothes created by the sacrifices of thousands of mollusks and I have skin covering my body and food in my cabinets and a bed to sleep in at night.”This is a story of extremes and most of us don’t fit into either character’s shoes. 

But the lesson is still an important one, I think. Because this cautionary tale is still instructive for anyone who has a roof over their head, food in the fridge, and clothes in their closet. 

A couple of months after finishing up his Ph.D., while he was still settling into the pulpit at the Dexter Ave Baptist Church in Montgomery, a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon on this text. [5] In it, he cautioned his flock against several things. First, he said, don’t get distracted by the setting of the afterlife. This is not primarily a story about what happens to us after we die. It’s clear that Jesus wants us to primarily be focused on what we’re doing here and now. He’s using the setting of the afterworld just to make sure we’re sitting up and paying attention. 

Next, Dr. King warns us that we can’t oversimplify the rich man’s issue. He’s not necessarily a terrible person just because he has money. In fact, I’d argue that his looking out for his relatives who are still alive is evidence he has a heart, right? The problem is not wealth. The problem is what the love of wealth can do to us. 

And that’s where Dr. King starts to speculate about WHY the rich man is such a villain in this story. What, exactly, are his faults? And I think these matter because I think even those of us who are comfortable-but-not-wearing-snail-dyed-clothes every day are very tempted, in our hyper-capitalist society, to have these same problems. 

First, Dr. King says the rich man is self-absorbed. He may see Lazarus outside his gate, but he doesn’t really SEE him and KNOW him. He clearly has not entered into a relationship with him. Second, King says the rich man has lost his ability to sympathize with Lazarus and others living in poverty. We don’t know why, exactly, but the rich man has lost his ability to have compassion for others. He was able to walk past another hurting child of God, day after day, and not do anything about it. 

The biggest problem, though, is what King lifts up last. And that’s this: the rich man had accepted the status quo. Somewhere along the way he bought into the popular lie that good people are rewarded with money and poor folks must have done something bad to deserve poverty. King says, “There is a gulf that originates in the accident of circumstance. Circumstances make it possible for some people to get an education, while other people are denied the opportunity. Circumstances make some people rich...while others are left gnawing on the crumbs of obscurity.” 

King says there was a circumstantial gulf between the two men. And the rich man’s sin was not that the gulf existed in the first place - that may have happened by accident. The sin was that he accepted that gulf as the natural order of things. The sin was that he did nothing - not one single, solitary thing - to bridge the divide. 

There are two barriers in this story, friends. Did you catch that? Lazarus sits outside the rich man’s gate. The gate is constructed and impermanent. It can be changed. But once the two men are in the afterlife the barrier is fixed. A chasm exists between the two men and even Father Abraham cannot find a way for them to cross it. It’s a done deal. A permanent barrier. 

What are the barriers we erect to keep “the other” out? What are the gates we put up - as individuals, communities, as a congregation - that keep us from seeing one another? Knowing one another? Valuing one another? Having compassion on each other? 

And how might those same gates keep us from seeing the economic systems that degrade, demean, enslave? How can we actively tear down those barriers and be people who see and know each other and work for most just economic systems so that all people can not just survive, but thrive?

Abraham says, “You’ve got the stories of Moses and the prophets to guide you.” Turns out we’ve got the story of the rich man and Lazarus, too. 

Lazarus means “God has helped,” by the way. Thank God for the stories of Jesus which help us remember how to live. 


[1] With gratitude to Amy Robertson for keying me in to the snails and the significance of purple dye. 

[2] Narrative Lectionary podcast from Working Preacher for March 14, 2021

[3] Bible Worm podcast for March 14, 2021 with Robert Williamson and Amy Robertson



Sunday, March 7, 2021

“Occasions for Celebration”

Sermon on Luke 15:1-32

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 

March 7, 2021

As we’ve been studying the parables of Jesus these past few weeks in adult Sunday School, I keep coming back to this image I have of a matryoshka. What appears to be one thing at first glance reveals itself to be more...and more...and more as we peel back the layers. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine has been helping us peel back the layers on what she calls “short stories by Jesus” by helping us understand more about the original context of Jesus’s parables. By helping us see these familiar stories in new ways she is also inviting us to know new truths that might shape our lives. 

Today we engage with three short stories by Jesus that come to us as a set. The first story is about a lost sheep, the second about a lost coin, and the third lost sons. If we think of these stories like a matryoshka, we have at least three layers to play with. 

  1. We have the short stories as they may have originally been told by Jesus. 

  2. We have the way Luke chose to frame them for his hearers. 

  3. And we have all the centuries of interpretation and our own experiences learning these stories thousands of years later. 

Let’s start with this outside layer. I’d be willing to bet many of you have heard these stories before. Do you remember when you first learned them? Or a particular interpretation of them that really stuck with you? I’d love it if you shared in the chat about either of those things. 

I can recite parts of the story about the lost sons by heart because when I was in middle school we acted out this parable and I played the part of a pig. My main job was to sit around and wait for the prodigal son to come hang out with us. Since I didn’t have any speaking lines, I spent a lot of time listening to other people tell the story again and again and again. 

I remember being troubled by the story. It seemed quite unfair to me that the elder son played by the rules but wasn’t rewarded. I didn’t understand how the father could so easily welcome the younger son back after all his shenanigans. Over the years, I’ve talked to lots of people about this text and I know I’m not the only one who’s been troubled by it. Henri Nouwen even wrote an entire book about how Rembrandt’s painting of this story transformed his life. It’s a fantastic book. 

How can we begin to understand the extravagance of the father’s forgiveness? How to wrestle with the way we feel when we recall the times in our lives when we’ve wandered so far from the ones we love….and the times when we’ve done our duty but allowed ourselves to be eaten away with the resentment? This story brings all of our own complicated family relationships, estrangements, losses up close to the surface. And that’s before we even start to wrestle with the common interpretation that says the father plays the part of God in this story, which opens a whole new realm for exploration. Parables truly contain multitudes. 

If we peel back a layer and try to set aside our own relationship with these stories, we are invited to see how Luke told them in the first place. Luke sets these up as stories about sin and repentance. Someone or something gets lost and is brought back to the fold.  But the strange thing about this is that sheep and coins don’t really sin or repent, now, do they? Sheep are just...sheep. They wander if you don’t keep an eye on them. The coin did not grow legs and run away. It must have been lost by its owner. 

Second Testament scholar Craig Koester says that when we keep this in mind, the emphasis shifts from thinking about repentance as something WE do alone. Instead, we shift our focus to the one who is seeking. Koester says, “Can you see the driven desire of the One who is seeking to form relationship with us again?” [1] Repentance doesn’t start with us, he says. It starts with God, who cares for us so very much. God is always seeking to bring us back into community and right relationship. God rejoices when ALL of her sheep are safely tucked in for the night. God throws a party when ALL of his coins are back together. Not because the coin did something wrong and wants to be found….coins don’t work like that. But because just as the woman wanted all her coins because SHE wanted them, God desperately wants to be with us. Koester says that repentance begins with God’s deep and abiding desire to hold us in love...and our response to that great love is to turn towards it.

With this image of God’s great party in our minds, let’s peel back that final layer now and try as best we can to strip away our own interpretations, all the interpretations we’ve heard over the years, AND Luke’s interpretation...and see what we have if we try very hard to just hear Jesus’s words. I want to note that I don’t necessarily think this inner layer of the matryoshka doll is better or more important than the others, by the way. The beauty of scripture is that we can hold all of these things together - our best guess at what may have originally been told, the way it was written down in the Bible, and the way it was taught to us - we can hold all of that together and listen for God’s Stillspeaking voice in the midst of it all. 

Amy-Jill Levine and others remind us that all this emphasis on sin and repentance is a layer that may have been added on to Jesus’s original parables. If we take them at face value, they are also simply stories about losing and finding. When we remember that the sheep and the coin didn’t bear any fault for being lost, we focus more on their owners who lost them. And when we carefully read the parable that’s sometimes called the “parable of the prodigal son” or the “parable of the lost son” we can actually see that TWO sons were lost. The father quite obviously loses his younger son when he takes his inheritance early and skips town. But the older son is lost in important ways, too. He says he feels like he’s enslaved - not a son at all - and when his brother returns no one even thinks to invite him to the party. It’s almost as if the father’s forgotten he has a second son at all. And the story ends without a feel-good resolution. The older son airs his grievances and the father begs him to understand why it’s important to celebrate the return of his brother...but we don’t actually find out if the older son agrees. 

When we shift the emphasis to those who lost what they loved, we start to notice that these stories are also about joy and celebration. Each person who lost something or someone throws a party when all is reconciled. These are party stories. In fact, the Common English Bible gives this title to these stories: “occasions for celebration.” Instead of focusing on the loss, they chose to focus on the joy of the finding. 

Do you remember the first time you did something “normal” after the lockdown last spring? After all the loss, all the fear, all the pain….you were able to reclaim something you had lost? I remember so clearly the first time I took my kids to the zoo last summer. It was the first time we’d done anything like that in months. After we finished visiting the animals, the kids asked if we could get Dippin Dots Ice Cream in the gift store. Normally I’d say, “Heavens, no, that stuff is so expensive!” But this time I said yes. And we sat on the bench outside the zoo in the hot, hot summer son and that ice cream tasted so good. Just to be there, with my kids, doing something normal like having ice cream. I almost wept with joy. 

I had a similar feeling the first time we had friends over in our backyard, the first time my kids got to play at the playground again, the first time we drove out of town, the first time we all got together and had communion on the lawn. 

Just all these moments of finding what had been lost. And realizing the sweetness of joy that bubbles up when we’ve lost something that really matters to us and had the good fortune of being reunited. It’s enough to make us want to throw a party. It’s enough to make us really remember what matters most to us after all. It’s enough to make us shout from the rooftops with gratitude for the absolute gift of simply being alive each and every day. 

Living, loving, enjoying, struggling, losing, finding, reconciling, making new….what was lost is often found again. And we are invited into celebration and joy. 

I hope we never get so busy or distracted with other things that we forget to notice these occasions for celebration. May it be so. 

[1] Narrative Lectionary podcast for March 7, 2021.