Sunday, June 19, 2022

“One in Christ”


Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

Galatians 3:23-29

June 19, 2022


Most Sundays we begin our worship service by remembering together that our congregation joins with others throughout the United Church of Christ in proclaiming that “no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey….we are all welcome here.” 


I think we sometimes forget what a bold statement it is. 


This summer, I am celebrating 15 years of ministry in the United Church of Christ and in this decade-and-a-half of ministry, I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with people who are new to the UCC and astounded at this statement of radical hospitality.. 


I’ve heard people say things like, “Everyone’s welcome. Ooookay, but I’m divorced….but I’m bisexual….but I’m Catholic….but I’m atheist….but I have a lot of questions….but I am homeless….but I am mentally ill…..but….but...but…” And it has been one of my life’s greatest honors to be able to look all of these people in the eye and say, “God loves you and you are welcome here.”


I may not say this enough from the pulpit, but I want to say it now: I love the United Church of Christ. 


I am so thankful I found my way into this small corner of Christianity. 


The UCC opened itself to me through the good people of First United Church of Bloomington, Indiana - where I was a member before I later served as their pastor. David and I began worshiping with them back in 2005. We had recently moved to Indiana and were struggling to find a church. We were both committed United Methodists but none of the UMC congregations in Bloomington were fully welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people. And that was a deal-breaker for us. 


And so we decided we’d venture out and try something new. This was hard for us. David was a fourth--generation Methodist and I had just graduated from a United Methodist seminary. At the time, I was feeling a bit adrift as a Christian. I had so many questions about my faith. To be completely honest, I left seminary wondering if I could even call myself a Christian anymore. I didn’t know if the Church was wide enough for me. 


So I sat at home and googled the United Church of Christ because I remembered Sue Zschoche, who had been my professor in college, telling me how much she loved her church, First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS. 


That Holy Spirit is a funny ol’ gal isn’t she?


And so David and I walked into the United Church of Christ on a fall day back in 2005 and we felt the Spirit move there and the rest is history. 


I fell in love with the openness, the commitment to asking hard questions, the relentless focus on hospitality and social justice. I loved that people there came from so many religious backgrounds. I loved that I was accepted - heresies and all - and that even a person who wasn’t quite sure if she was Christian anymore could struggle out loud and still be welcomed. I loved how people’s unique identities and backgrounds were honored - and that we could all be a part of something together even though we weren’t all the same. 


As I began to discern a call to ordained ministry, I learned a lot more about my new denominational home. I traveled to the 50th anniversary General Synod where I heard Marian Wright Edelman and not-yet-president Barack Obama speak. I came to understand more about the diversity of the United Church of Christ as I met people from much more conservative churches than the one I served. I witnessed some wider church arguments and began to understand the tensions of living together in covenant under such a big tent. 


I learned that the official motto of the UCC is “that they may all be one” and that that statement comes to us on the lips of Jesus in a prayer. In John’s gospel, as Jesus is preparing for his execution, he prays….not for himself, but for his followers. And for us - those who would come thousands of years later. He prayed that we could all be one. 




Christian unity is really complicated stuff. After all, how could we possibly all be ONE when we have such different ideas about what it means to follow Jesus? And why would we even want to be ONE with those who preach hate in Jesus’s name? 


I have no way of knowing what Jesus really meant. Maybe he actually envisioned a worldwide Church - one big happy family.  But Jesus was a pretty smart guy and probably knew that wasn’t possible. So I tend to think he meant that we should remember we ARE ONE. And that doesn’t mean that we are all in agreement or that we like the same kinds of music or that we pray the same way or that we understand scripture the same. We aren’t the same but we are ONE. We are tied together in covenant with one another - whether we like it or not - because we are all a part of Christ. 


I think this is the vision Paul is casting in Galatians. When we find ourselves in Christ, he says, we can’t continue to hold on to all the things that the world says divides us. We can’t be in Christ and, for example, continue to think that slavery or other forms of violence against our neighbors is okay. When we are in Christ, we must see one another as unique, diverse, beautiful reflections of the Divine. We are all one in Christ Jesus, says Paul. 


On Juneteenth, we give thanks for Paul’s bold witness to the inherent dignity and worth of all people while also lifting up that we still have so far to go. Over the centuries since Paul wrote this letter, Christians have used his words to create a theological foundation for movements like the abolition of slavery and gender equity and religious freedom. But at the same time, we know that so many Christians have been at the forefront of hateful movements that glorify violence. Christians continue to prop up systems that harm. Christians have failed to live into Paul’s vision - Jesus’s vision - of a world where all people are given the honor that they deserve. 


At times, when looking at the behavior of some Christians, it can feel downright impossible to want to call ourselves Christian, can’t it? It’s okay, incidentally, if you don’t call yourself a Christian. You’re welcome here. I mean, hey, Jesus wasn’t a Christian either, so you’re in excellent company!


Whether you call yourself a Christian or not - Whether you’ve been a lifelong UCCer or are new to this whole religion thing, you’re welcome here. This congregation - and the wider United Church of Christ - is a place where we come together to support one another on the journey of figuring out what it means to walk in the ways of Jesus. 


And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for what that looks like, of course. Your path in following Jesus may look very different than the person sitting next to you. You know, when people are new to our congregation, they sometimes ask me, “What does the church believe about fill-in-the-blank - who wrote the Bible? The Trinity? Heaven and hell?” And I usually say, “Well, we don’t all believe one thing so I encourage you to get to know people around here and ask them.”


We call God by a tapestry of different names. We find beauty and solace in different types of worship music. We share different translations of the Bible when we gather around tables to study. We bring the uniqueness of ourselves and our experience of the Divine and, in doing so, our faith as a community is not diminished but enhanced. The UCC is a place where we can “all be one” without all being the same. Thanks be to God. 


One of the things I love about the UCC is that we take covenant very seriously - this idea that we are called to be in relationship with God and with one another….and a very real understanding that this is not always easy. 


We follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who did not promise an easy faith. Instead, Christ cheers us on as we strive for deep and abiding respect for others’ understandings of what it means to be Christian. When we are able to pray together even though we might disagree with the style of prayer - there is humility in coming together as one even as we respect each other’s differences. Your prayer doesn't have to be my prayer in order for me to be present with you while it is being prayed. And, in fact, praying in this new way might move me further along my own journey of discovering God and living more fully into the Ways of Jesus. 


We seek a faith that is about connection, communion, covenant - remembering that we are all in this together. The way of Jesus is about remaining open as we listen for the voice of our Stillspeaking God not only in ancient scriptures but in the words of the person sitting next to us in the pew, in the Zoom Bible study, or on the park bench. 


Part of being in Christ - part of showing the world what it looks like to try and follow in the Way of Jesus - is a spirit of openness, humility, and unity. Not that we are all the same or that we agree on everything….but that we recognize we are all connected. 


Every living being on this planet is connected on some level and it is a life’s work to remember and honor those connections. 


That we may all be one in Christ. May it be so. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

“The Trinity Doesn’t Make Sense”


Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

June 12, 2022


This is a sermon about what we don’t know. 


A sermon about how our confusion is not a bad thing. 


A sermon about the Trinity. 


Because it’s Trinity Sunday. 


In the church calendar, we have three Sundays in a row: Ascension Sunday, when we remember that weird and wonderful story about the resurrected Christ floating away into the clouds.


Followed by Pentecost Sunday (that was last week), when we hear the story of how the gift of the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon our spiritual ancestors in Jerusalem. 


Followed by Trinity Sunday, when we finally settle once-and-for-all all of the centuries-long debates about the true nature of our Triune God.

Wait. No. That’s not what we’re doing today. 


Trinity Sunday comes after Pentecost because it’s sort of a Pentecost Part Two. Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re meant to pause and linger a bit on this third person in the Trinity, I suppose.


Which is why it’s kind of funny that the text for today seems to be about someone else entirely: Lady Wisdom - Sophia. 


Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible is personified as a woman and Christians over the years have called her Sophia, Greek for wisdom. 


Sophia stands at the city gate, in the crossroads. She’s down at Dara’s buying a lottery ticket and sitting in front of Manhattan Brewing Company having a drink. She’s directing pedestrian traffic on College Avenue right before a K-State Football Game and you might catch a glimpse of her this summer at City Park Pool. My guess is she can even be found in the ether - at those digital crossroads of Facebook and Twitter - crying out, making her voice known, shouting for our attention. 


She’s everywhere all at once. There’s nowhere we can go to get away from her. What’s so important that she has to yell for our attention?


She says:

To you, O people, I call,  and my cry is to all that live.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up, at the first,before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth…

When God established the heavens, I was there…

when God assigned to the sea its limit…

then I was beside her, like a master worker;

and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before them always,

rejoicing in their inhabited world and delighting in the human race.


Wait. What? She was there at the first? Before the earth? She was there when God made the heavens and the earth? How can Sophia be this important and most of us have hardly heard anything about her?


But there it is, in black and white. Sophia sounds an awful lot like the Word in the beginning of the Gospel of John, doesn’t she? “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….”


I remember when I first learned about Sophia in seminary and my thought was, “Wait. Is there a fourth person in the Trinity? Why has no one ever told me about this before???”


Theologians haven’t been quite sure what to do with Sophia. Many folks have equated her with the second person of the Trinity: Christ. Since the description of her is so much like the description of the Word made Flesh in John 1, the idea is that Sophia and the Word are the same. They are the experience of God that came to earth in human form as Jesus. That Christ Force that moved into the neighborhood as an infant human, grew in wisdom and stature, spoke in parables, died at the hands of the Roman government, and somehow continued on in ways we can scarcely comprehend. 


Christ, Sophia, the Word made incarnate in Jesus. And for those paying attention to gender, yes, this means that our tradition holds that Christ is both masculine (the Logos, the Word) and feminine (Sophia, Wisdom). 


Other people have equated Sophia with the Holy Spirit. This is probably why we’re hearing about her today on this Pentecost Part Two. The Spirit has long been understood as feminine and not just in fringe parts of Christianity. In fact, one of the earliest writings about the Trinity doesn’t mention “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Instead, Theophilus of Antioch, writing in the first century, refers to the Trinity as God, the Logos (Christ), and Sophia (Wisdom). [1]


So is Sophia the Holy Spirit? Or is she the feminine aspect of Christ? Or a fourth part of the Trinity? Or something else entirely?


We don’t know. 


Now you might be thinking, “Okay, preacher. This might help me when I’m watching Jeopardy but what does it have to do with my faith life?”


Well - everything, really. 


Because this confusion, this confounding, this not knowing is at the core of what it means to be followers of Jesus. And on this Trinity Sunday, I want to suggest that the good news of the Trinity is that this weird and mind-blowing concept invites us into communion with a God that defies explanation. A God that refuses to be contained in a neat-and-tidy-box. A God who is beyond our wildest imaginings. 


I went through a very long period where the Trinity made me angry. I even wondered if I could still be a Christian because I didn’t believe in the Trinity. Newsflash: you CAN still be a Christian without believing in the Trinity. Many folks around here are, in fact, non-Trinitarian Christians. 


I didn’t like the Trinity because it felt too constricted. It felt like someone was trying to tell me, “Here. THIS is the way God is. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. That’s it.”


And when I listened to people try to explain all the ins-and-outs of how one person can somehow be three but also still just one, my head was spinning and I thought, “This just doesn’t make sense. At all. This can’t be it. God’s got to be bigger than this.”


But in the past few years, the Trinity has come to mean something else to me. It’s felt more like an invitation than a doctrine. Sophia standing there in the street, beckoning, inviting us to step into a more expansive vision of the Divine that defies our definitions. 


Perhaps the puzzle of the Trinity isn’t meant to be solved at all. Perhaps it stands there, like Sophia at the crossroads, as a testament to the vast, inexplicable nature of the Holy. Perhaps Sophia reminds us that it is wise, indeed, to remember that we don’t know anything, that we can hold onto knowledge with a lighter touch, and that our Stillspeaking God created us with open hearts and minds, ready to learn and grow.


“But how can we have a relationship with something we don’t understand?” you might be wondering. 


Well, we all have relationships with people and things we don’t understand every single day, don’t we? I don’t understand how my voice is amplified so that you all can hear it, or how my image is floating through the ether to those of you on Zoom. 


And none of us can truly understand the people we love. Even when we know them well, we can’t ever truly know them fully. Understanding someone is not necessarily a prerequisite for being in relationship with them or even loving them. Those of us who are cisgender, for example, can love and appreciate our nonbinary and transgender friends wtihout needing to fully understand their experience. We don’t have to understand someone in order to fully love and respect them. 


The same must be true for the Holy. Though the experience of God might feel a bit like trying to catch a cloud in a jar, we can still be in relationship with the One who calls the worlds into being, stands at the crossroads proclaiming the goodness of creation, comes to us in human form, and is present with each and every holy breath we take. 


This is what Sophia testifies to. Wisdom says that she was with God before the beginning and that they delighted in one another, rejoicing always, and rejoicing in the earth as it was being formed, and delighting in the human race.


Sometimes, prayer - sometimes, our relationship with God - sometimes, our faith - is not at all about having the answers. Sometimes it is simply about being aware of God’s gentle, loving gaze. Sophia is there delighting in us. Like a mother whose eyes sparkle every time her child walks into the room. Like a dog who leaps for joy when her humans come home from a trip. Like a tree that offers shade on a hot day and the sun that kisses our cheeks.


The God who we call Father, Mother, Holy Parent; Wisdom, Sophia; the Word, Christ, Logos; Holy Spirit, Paraclete, Advocate, Comforter delights in us. 


Even when we don’t understand. Thanks be to God. 


NOTES

[1] https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/theophilus-antioch 


Sunday, June 5, 2022

“Mother Tongue”


Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

Acts 2:1-12

Pentecost, June 5, 2022


Earlier this week I was scrolling through Facebook and a post from NPR caught my eye. It was an article from an NPR affiliate in Texas and the headline and entire post were in Spanish. My first thought was, “Well, that’s really neat to see.” And my second thought was, “Don’t read the comments.” 


Language is powerful. In the United States, many folks get pretty uptight about language. Despite the fact that Spanish was spoken here before English and despite the fact that numerous indigenous languages were here long before any European language, some people unfortunately still seem to think English is the only language that belongs here. 


And that’s why my heart warms when I hear a language that isn’t English used in public spaces. 


Because I want to live in a nation where we are all invited to expand beyond our horizons and pushed outside our comfort zones a bit. This was one of the things that was powerful about the recent remake of West Side Story. They made the conscious decision to NOT use subtitles to translate the Spanish dialogue. Even if you don’t know Spanish, it was still pretty easy to follow along using context cues, but they wanted non-Spanish speakers to feel what it’s like to be on the outside a bit….and they wanted Spanish speakers to have the joy of hearing their own language.


There is something sweet about hearing our own mother tongue. Those who have traveled extensively or lived in places where their primary language isn’t spoken know the sweet, sweet feeling of familiarity when the language suddenly comes with ease. Even beyond actual languages, things like accents and regional dialects make us feel at home. When we lived in Indiana I met a person and it took me a while to figure out why I always felt comfortable around him. After knowing him for several months, I finally figured out it was his accent and I asked him where he was from. Turns out he was born and raised about 15 miles away from where my father is from in northwest Oklahoma. 


He was speaking my language. 


On Pentecost Sunday, we join with Christians around the globe in remembering what some have called the Birthday of the Church. Soon after Jesus’s ascension his followers were gathered together in Jerusalem for the annual Jewish Festival of Shavuot. Fifty days after Passover faithful Jews celebrated harvest and the gift of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. 


On this particular year, after Jesus’s death, his friends must have felt terribly lost as they gathered together for the festiva.. What were they supposed to do now? Jesus had told them that their job was to be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the Earth, but he didn’t exactly leave detailed instructions on how to make this happen. 


As they were gathered together, a rush of wind came and filled the house where they were gathered. Whatever happened next must have been inexplicable because it’s hard to get a visual for: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them.” They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues….sort of. 


If you’ve ever been in a worship service where people were speaking in tongues, you’ve probably heard Glossolalia - at least that’s been my experience. So that’s when people start speaking “in tongues” and it’s incomprehensible. It’s not a language that anyone knows. Some say that it’s the language of angels. But that’s not what happened in this story. 


In Acts, the followers of Jesus started speaking in other KNOWN languages. And as they did so, immigrants from other parts of the Roman Empire came to see how these Galileans were speaking their languages. These were “devout Jews” who were living in Jerusalem but were originally from other parts of the region - north, south, east, and west of the capital. 


And just like that - in an instant - those who were following Jesus had a new identity. The followers of The Way started to form an identity as multicultural, multilingual, diverse, global. When the Holy Spirit came, they began to understand what it meant to be witnesses in Jerusalem (the capital), but also Judea (the south), and Samaria (the north), and to the very ends of the known world. 


Sadly, of course, as Christianity solidified and spread, it transformed from a group of rag-tag underdogs to a global powerhouse. 


Over the years, the Church lost its way. We forgot our birth story - the story of the beauty of diversity of culture and language. The ability to speak in other people’s languages, so that they can really hear. The sound of the Spirit rushing past, opening our ears so we can really listen. We forgot that it is our call to be uncomfortable, vulnerable. 


Instead, the Church has helped create the mess we’re in today - a nation where hate crimes are committed daily. A place where far too many Christians sell this violent lie that “good people” should all look or sound the same. 


But the truth is right here in front of us: followers of Jesus speak every language. And the gift of the Spirit enables us to listen to one another across human-imposed boundaries. 


Biblical scholar the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer notes that when the followers of Jesus began to speak of God’s marvelous deeds, it’s important to note that they “tell of the glories of God, not in the language of the empire but in the languages of the people subject to empire.” [1] When the Spirit arrived, she didn’t speak the dominant language of the day.


Those who lived in the Roman Empire had a common language (“We speak Greek in the Roman Empire! Go back to your own country, you Parthian, you Mede!”). Greek was the language of commerce, the language of government. It was a language imposed by an occupying force. 


But even as this language knit people together across a vast global empire, they maintained their own identities. At home, in private, where it was safe - they spoke their own native tongues. Babies were sung to sleep in the languages of “Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia”. Words between lovers were whispered, not in Greek, but in the languages of “Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene.”


And when the Spirit arrived - when she blew in as a gust of holy wind and flame - it seems to me she had a choice. Would the holy stories of God’s power and might roll off the tongue in Greek or some other language? 


The Spirit did not choose to speak in the language of the Empire. She chose, instead, to come to the people gathered and speak to them in their own mother tongues. She chose to boldly, loudly, proudly proclaim God’s deeds of power in languages that the Empire had attempted to silence, tone down, erase. 




Holy One, may our ears be attuned to your voice as it arrives in tongues unknown to us. May we, who live in the shadow of Empire, open our hearts, our ears, our very selves to your arrival in the languages of those who have been marginalized. May those who have been tossed aside, told to “blend in, told to shrink, quiet down, calm down” boldly find their Pentecost voices - not just today, but every day. 


And may the Church remember our call to listen, sing, shout, dance, preach, laugh, share in every conceivable language. May we remember that your mother tongue - our mother tongue - is Love, Justice, Peace, New Life, an Ever-Widening-Circle of Creation. 


Amen. 


NOTES:

[1] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, p. 17. 






Sunday, May 29, 2022

"Here We Are Again"


Philippians 2:1-13

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 

May 29, 2022


This is one of those weeks where every single preacher I know is feeling inadequate. How do we make sense of the evil in our world? Is that even possible?


Every parent I know is also feeling inadequate. How do we talk with our kids about the news? How do we keep them safe? 


Actually, most humans I’ve talked to this week are feeling pretty inadequate across the board. 


How do we keep coping when we haven’t even had time to process one heinous act of violence and hatred and another one follows on its heels? What do we do with our anxiety? Our anger? Our helplessness? 


Those are the emotions that keep echoing around the tables I’ve been at this week: anxiety, anger, helplessness. And those are the emotions that keep coming up over and over again every time we have to replay this whole sick scene. 


What do we do with our anger? What do we do when it feels like we’re screaming into the void? 


We’re enraged because it’s ridiculous to live in a country that wants to “protect” schoolchildren from “scary books” and “CRT” but refuses to enact common-sense gun legislation.. We yell because some say this is just a “mental health problem” but refuse to fund access to ANY kind of health care in this country, let alone mental health care. We’re outraged because politicians and pundits try to convince us that we’re inexplicably supposed to be scared of transgender kids. And those of us with uteruses tend to get especially hot when we realize that the government wants to tell us what we can and can’t do with our bodies but won’t limit access to lethal weapons one iota. 


I could go on and on. And I have. Because it’s okay to be angry about all of this. It really is. 


Most of us weren’t taught to welcome our anger. And to let it teach us. I’ve been learning to envision anger like the little dude in the movie Inside Out. 


When he arrives, I listen to Anger yell for a while and watch the flames burst out of his head. And then, when the time feels right, I ask him, “What are you here to teach me?” And I try to listen. 


Sometimes Anger says, “It’s time to DO something, friend.”. Anger can fuel us into positive action. We can join a group that’s organizing for change. We can donate our time or money. We can call our elected officials again. We can write a note of encouragement to someone who is struggling. We can spend time with a child. We can connect with other humans and share a laugh or a good cry. We can DO something rather than just yell into an echo-chamber.


When I’m listening to Anger, I try to also invite Valerie Kaur into that space, too. Remember her from our sermon series on Revolutionary Love? She reminds us that “Divine rage is fierce, disciplined, and visionary….The aim of divine rage is not vengeance but to reorder the world.” Kaur says that anger is “...a rhythm: Step away to rage, return to listen, and reimagine the solutions together. It becomes a kind of dance – to release raw rage in a safe container, in order to send divine rage into the world, like focused fury. The way of the warrior-sage is not only loving-kindness but loving-revolution, or revolutionary love.” [1]


It is my prayer for all of us that we can find ways to harness the power of anger in the ways that Kaur so eloquently explains and Jesus so beautifully lived. That we possess our anger as just one part of us - a useful part of us - rather than allow it to possess us. 


**************


What do we do with our anxiety? What do we do when the worst-case-scenarios we’ve been running through in our heads actually start to seem like they aren’t that impossible?


Many of us turn to prayer to help us through our anxieties and fears. We offer them to God and find relief in knowing that we don’t carry these burdens alone. 


We carry around songs and Bible verses and favorite prayers in our head, relying on them like mantras, saying them over and over again when the fears won’t subside. 


One of the most helpful things anyone has ever told me about anxiety came through the ministry of my therapist, who has put up with my anxious shenanigans for years now and is absolutely God at work in my life. She taught me that ruminating actually isn’t helpful. 


Now if you don’t have an anxiety disorder you might be thinking, “DUH.” But if you’re like me, you might find yourself saying, “HUH?”


I’ve been a ruminator for my entire life, so it’s a real struggle to kick the habit. But she taught me to try this: ask yourself, “Is this a problem or a worry?” 


Problems are something we can DO something about. So we look at the issue and see if there’s some action we can take. Then we take that action or work towards taking that action. And….that’s it. If the anxiety about it comes up again, we remind ourselves we’ve already done what we can do and we try to put it aside. 


If we’ve already done what we can do or if there’s nothing we can do, then it’s a worry. And turning it over and over (and over and over and over) isn’t actually helpful.


Side note: I realize I am making this sound easier than it is. I know it’s not easy. I’m still working on it every day. Thank God we aren’t working through it alone. If you need help finding a therapist, please let me know.


**************


What do we do with our helplessness? When we’ve listened to our anger and channeled it into action….but everything’s still messed up? When we’ve sorted through our problems vs. worries and done what we can do…but it never seems to be enough? What do we do when we start to feel like we’re losing hope?


Paul spent a lot of his life in prison, and he was in prison when he wrote this letter. We can hardly imagine a place where a person feels more helpless and hopeless than in prison, right? And yet, these are not the words of a man who feels helpless or hopeless:


“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete.” 


And he goes on to offer words of hope to his friends, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind….Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”


Paul never stopped seeking the mind of Christ. Paul never stopped desiring to become more and more like the Spirit of God living and breathing and moving among us. 


Paul reminded us that we all have the incredible gift of opening ourselves to be of one mind, one spirit, one love with Christ. And he goes on to remind us that Christ is the one who came to us, not to abuse his power, but to be a servant to God just as we are. Jesus gave up his privilege and power - emptying himself to remind us that God knows what it’s like to feel imprisoned, trapped, afraid, angry, hurt. 


Paul speaks frankly about the evil in the world. He doesn’t sugar coat the sickening violence that Jesus endured. And yet, even in this midst of all of that, and even while in prison, he dares to speak of joy. 


Reading these ancient words of joy from a prison cell reminded me of a sermon a dear friend of mine preached the Sunday immediately after Sandy Hook. Two days after that most horrific of days when we were all still reeling. It was the third Sunday in Advent: the Sunday with the pink candle. 


The Sunday for joy. 


The text that day was from the book of Zephaniah. The Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen explained to her congregation that most of the book is all about the pain of the world, the horror, the terror - and how God is present with us in the midst of it, grieving and lamenting along side us. 


Jennifer said that it’s only in the last few verses of the book that Zephaniah “slowly, gently…dares invoke joy.” Like Paul, he’s just feeling his way towards it. 


She said:


The turning point comes when, again speaking for God, he says, “Wait for me. Wait for the day when I rise up.” Not now. Not yet. Not joy realized, but joy promised. Not joy fulfilled, but joy awaiting. Zephaniah does not declare that everything is alright, or even that it will be alright again soon. Nothing about dead children is ever alright, whether two days or 2600 years ago, whether caused by a mass shooting or an abusive king, or war, or famine, or bullying, or addiction, or suicide, or cancer, or anything else. He does not tell us to get over it, move on, or be happy. The prophet speaks of joy because he wants us to know that in spite of it all, God still reigns. 


How dare he speak of joy in the face of such tragedy? How dare he not.


How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display. How dare anyone think that any barrier this world could construct, any horror that evil might imagine could ever, ever stop God coming to us, embracing our children in their time of terror, comforting our broken hearts, and leading us forward into healing and, yes, even again, someday, to joy. [2]


And so, beloveds, as we sit with our anger and our fear - as we resolve to act and keep acting - let us also be bold to join in praying alongside Paul and Zephaniah and Jennifer that our joy might be made complete. 


Not now. Not yet. 


But we need the promise of joy, God. We need your hope to be born among us, still. 


Embrace all your children in this time of terror. Comfort broken hearts. Lead us forward into healing. 


And don’t let us lose sight of your promised joy. 


Amen. 



NOTES:

[1] Kaur, Valarie. See No Stranger, chapter 4: Rage. 

[2] Sermon by the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, unpublished. Dec 16, 2012. 



Recommended Reading


On processing difficult emotions - as individuals and in community:

The Power of Focusing by Ann Weiser Cornell

What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey


On using anger in life-giving ways:

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur 

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister

This is an Uprising: How Non-Violent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century by Mark and Paul Engler


On stubbornly seeking joy and healing and freedom in the midst of all the mess: 

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama


On staying connected in a world where it’s all-too-easy to isolate:

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks

Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness by Vivek Murthy


Sunday, May 22, 2022

“Better Together”


Philippians 1:1-18a

Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS 

May 22, 2022


I spent last weekend in Wichita at a quarterly meeting of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ. As is so often the case in those big board meetings, we reached a point in the meeting where I was frantically taking notes and watching my to-do list get longer and starting to feel a little overwhelmed by the number of big ministry things we need to do. I’m sure I’m the ONLY one who feels this way in meetings, right? 


But as I chatted with others after the meeting, we all reflected on how grateful we are to be in ministry together. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church meeting - with the conference or with our congregation - where there wasn’t laughter. There’s almost always a moment when someone says something wise and my heart tingles a bit and I think, “Yes, that’s it. That’s the Spirit moving among us.” Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by trying to figure out how to best steward our resources of energy and time and money or prioritize what needs to be tackled first, but I always leave meetings feeling gratitude that I get to work alongside people who are seeking to follow in the ways of Jesus, listening to one another, and doing their level best to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. 


This past week, I had several opportunities to give thanks for all of you. On Tuesday morning, I was down in the basement with TJ from the water restoration company we’re working with on our basement woes. We were talking about him getting together a bid for us and I reminded him that once we had it, it would take us a bit to sort through it because we’re a volunteer-led organization and, well, you know, churches aren’t known for making the speediest decisions. And then I said, “But, you know, there are upsides and downsides to making decisions and living life together like this. Downside is it can take a lot of time to make decisions. Upside is we make better decisions together than we would apart. Plus, when you end up with water in your basement, you put out an all-call for help and TONS of people show up to get it handled.”


Dealing with problems together isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s worth it. We’re better together. 


Later in the week I went for a walk with someone who was interested in learning more about the UCC. We talked about some of the things that make our denomination unique. One of the things I shared is how important the idea of covenant is to us. We’re together not because we all believe the same things or agree but because we’ve made a commitment to living in covenant together. And we trust that God will give us the open hearts that we need to make that a reality. Even if we don’t all agree. Even if we don’t love every hymn we sing. Even if someone disappoints us because they forgot to do an important task they agreed to do. Even if the preacher sometimes preaches a dud.. Even if someone understands Jesus differently than we do. 


I told this person a story about a time, several years ago now, when the church Cabinet had to make a decision about how involved we would be in a justice-oriented campaign. We weren’t all in agreement about how we felt on the issue. And one very wise and mature person on the Cabinet said, “You know, I don’t personally agree with this, but my job as Cabinet member isn’t to do whatever I think is best as an individual. And when I look at the values of our congregation, I can see that this IS in line with who we are as a community. So I think we should support this work as a congregation.”


Your church leaders are thoughtful, wise, mature, dedicated, good-humored, loving, brave, Spirit-led folks. Consistently. Working together to seek the mind of Christ and be open to the new light and truth God has for us. 


Covenant isn’t easy but it’s worth it. We’re better together. 


One of the great joys I have as your pastor is that I get to hear people give thanks for all of you. I get to see people’s eyes well up with tears as they give thanks for the ways you’ve showed up for them when they were struggling. I get to receive thank you notes like the one I got earlier this week from a person who was only a part of our congregation for just a brief period of time, but so very grateful for the ways they experienced the Spirit moving here. I read messages from people on Facebook who don’t even live here but follow our ministry, writing to ask me where they can find a church near them like ours. I’m the one who gets the phone call from a young couple getting ready to move away from Manhattan. Though I haven’t seen them in a couple years, they want to make sure and thank me in person for the ways this congregation helped them see Christ, even though they only attended sporadically and never became members. I get the thank you emails from people who live far away from here but are grateful they can still attend on Zoom. And I hear from people who are grateful to see your smiling faces at the Pride parade, and want to volunteer with our feeding ministries, and want to get married here because they’ve heard we are respectful of all religious traditions, and are grateful for our COVID memorial out front and on and on and on. 


These thank yous remind us that we’re better together. 


Now you might be wondering, what does all of this have to do with Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Well, this particular letter is all about being better together. Despite being in prison, Paul is filled with gratitude for his friends in Philippi. He writes this beautifully encouraging and uplifting letter, giving thanks that they haven’t forgotten him, that they are living in covenant together, and praying for their strength and courage in their shared ministry. 


Taking the time to sit down and write letters like this is something most of us don’t do often enough. But it’s so lovely to read these intentional words of gratitude. You know, I often start my emails with “Hey, there.” But Paul takes the time to say, “Grace to you and peace from God….” His intentionality reminds me of an email I received several months ago, when we first started partnering with KDHE to offer COVID tests. The coordinator for that program. Racheal, began her first email to me with these words, “I hope this email finds you enjoying the fruits of your ministry.”


Isn’t that lovely? 


Living in covenant means being intentional with each other. Taking the time to give thanks, in specific ways. Offering words of encouragement and care. This is what it looks like to walk in the ways of Jesus. This is how we are better together. 


Now, don’t misunderstand me to say that this is the ONLY work. Clearly, there is more to following Jesus than just being kind to the people in your inner circle. Jesus doesn’t tell us to simply love our friends, but our enemies, too. And we know that love isn’t just expressed through words or thoughts and prayers, but also through action. 


This work of loving those near us is foundational, though, because it’s the work that enables us to keep persevering in all the other work we do as humans. The laboring parent can push their way through to birth because the midwife is there saying, “You can do this. I believe in you.” Those words of hope create a new reality. The toddler can slide down the big slide at the playground even though they’re scared because the parent is there saying, “You can do this. You’re brave and strong!” Those words of hope create a new reality. 


Similarly, we keep encouraging one another in the fight for peace and justice. We look at the horrific things that happen, like the shooting in Buffalo, and we don’t allow each other to give up hope. Instead, we condemn white supremacist violence and resolve to stay with it. Just as Paul is imprisoned, we are bound by the evils of racism, sexism, and so many other hateful ideologies, but just as Paul turns to his community for hope, we, too, turn to our community for encouragement. We continue to seek creative ways to show up for justice and dismantle oppressive systems and build a better world. Together. 


Together, we can rejoice even when things seem dire, remembering that we follow the God who is always dreaming a new world into being. As we hold onto this Easter hope, we give thanks, not only for communities of support, but also for a faith that sustains us in difficult times. 


And we recognize that the purpose of all this covenantal love, of course, is NOT simply to love our friends. We give thanks for the familiar faces at church that we know intimately AND we go out of our way to look for the newest face in the crowd, welcoming them as Christ welcomes. We can never let our love for one another become insular, only showing love to some. Instead, it is our prayer that Christ’s love - that love that is always building a bigger table - overflows in us, calling us outside of ourselves to draw the circle wider still as we invite others to be a part of our community. This doesn't happen organically, y’all. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the maps in the back of your Bible that show what Paul was up to, but he was EVERYWHERE, traveling near and far, reminding people that we’re better together and inviting people to be a part of the movement.


We may not all be called to travel to Macedonia, but each and every one of us can be on the lookout for a coworker or neighbor who might benefit from being drawn into a community of love like First Congregational. Each and every one of us can choose our words out in the world with intention, sharing grace and peace with strangers we encounter each day. Each and every one of us can offer a spirit of hope and encouragement as we creatively figure out how to fight the evils of hatred. Each and every one of us can live our lives in such a way that other people will look at us and say, “See how they love? I want some of that.” And we can keep inviting and nurturing and sharing the goodness of Christ’s love that we’ve found, so that others can experience it, too. 


Paul says it like this, “Dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” And he prays for his friends, “That your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.” That is my prayer for you, to. That your love may overflow. 


May it be so.