Sermon: “Picking Up the Mantle” (2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14) [6/26/2022]

In his work as a prophet, Elijah has shared God’s message with the people, confronted foreign prophets, run from said prophets in fear for his life, and inspired many composers to write songs about him.  Elijah has led a faithful life, but now, it’s time for him to leave the scene.

In his prophetic work, Elijah planted the seeds of trees in whose shade he would not sit, to quote the old African proverb.  Elijah understands that he will not eat the fruit that will come from seeds he’s planted.  Others will be called to do that.  

…which is why he takes the younger prophet, Elisha, under his wing.  For a period of time, Elijah mentors Elisha.  He teaches his protégé how to read and interpret Scripture and how to read the political and social conditions in which they live.  Elisha has observed the prophetic actions Elijah has taken.  He’s been soaking it all up….learning, learning, learning…

But now, Elijah knows it’s time for him to leave the scene, which means it’s time to pass the baton.  The time has come to anoint Elisha as the new prophet of Israel.

But Elisha isn’t having it.  The shift from protégé to prophet is a big one.  Doing what someone tells you to do is so much easier than figuring out for yourself what needs to be done, much less sharing wisdom with others.  And working with a mentor… Have you had a mentor?  It’s such an intimate, sacred relationship, isn’t it?  Mentors see things in us we can’t see ourselves.  From their wisdom, they teach us.  They point out where growth is still needed.  They walk alongside us as we grow.

I have heard from many people who considered long-term UCT member Agnes Furey their mentor–and not just UCT folks.  Though I never met Agnes, from my conversations with you all and folks engaged in restorative justice work outside UCT, I know that Agnes’ mentoring of those engaged in the work of restorative justice was significant and profound.  

I also know how hard it has been for everyone to say goodbye to Agnes.  How heartbreaking.  The prospect of losing Elijah also is hard for Elisha.  As they’re walking along, Elijah keeps trying to fake Elisha out.  “You stay here while I run over there for a minute…”  he says.  But Elijah has done his work too well; he’s taught Elisha how to read and interpret the present circumstances.  Elisha knows what’s going to happen… which is why he refuses to leave his mentor’s side.  Group after group tells Elisha, “You know Elijah is about to leave us.”  Every time, Elisha responds, “Be silent.”  (Which I’m guessing is a sanitized version of “Shut up!”)  Elisha just doesn’t want to hear about Elijah leaving.

Finally, the two prophets get to the Jordan River.  On the bank, Elijah takes his mantle–the symbol of his wisdom and teaching–rolls it up, and strikes the water.  The water parts and the two of them cross over on dry ground.  By the time they reach the other side, Elijah is retired, and Elisha transitions from protege to prophet.  

As their roles reverse, Elijah asks Elisha:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  To that point, the questions always had gone the other direction.  Now, as protégé becomes prophet, it falls on Elisha to assess what’s going on and make a plan for moving forward.

Here’s his plan.  He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  Elisha knew that doing what Elijah did was going to require twice as much of whatever Elijah had to do it.  Elijah says it’s a hard request, then tells Elisha:  “Yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

This is significant.  Elisha will get what he needs to do the work that must be done if–and only if–he sees his teacher leave.  If he doesn’t witness the departure, he can always imagine that Elijah is just in the next room.  If Elijah is just in the next room, there really isn’t a need for Elisha to claim his own power to do what needs to be done.  Elisha needs to see Elijah leave the scene so he can understand completely that the work is now on his shoulders.  He might feel inadequate, but now the work rests solely on him, regardless of how he feels.

As gut-wrenching as it must have been to watch his beloved mentor be carried away in the chariot, watching the departure was vital to Elisha’s being able to answer his call to act the world into wellbeing.  Elisha grieves, to be sure.  When the chariot is finally out of sight, he falls down and tears his clothes, a sign of deep mourning.

Once his mourning is done, though, Elisha picks up his mentor’s mantle.  That image—of picking up the mantle—is so clear, so powerful in this story, that it’s become a near-universal symbol of carrying on a mentor’s work.  

Last week, in two unrelated conversations, people commented on my level of experience.  “You’ve been at this so long…”  Once I got past the “are they calling me old?” question in my mind, I was deeply moved by the comments.  By the time I went to seminary, I’d only heard one woman preach…and I heard her when I was visiting the seminary to see if I wanted to attend.  Though I realize now that I was called to pastoral ministry as a teenager, because my Southern Baptist church couldn’t imagine a girl or woman as a pastor, I couldn’t imagine it for myself.

The process of moving toward ordination was arduous.  Knowing who I was–a pastor–and having churches, my entire denomination, tell me that wasn’t who I was…it took its toll.  It also kept me focused on the task of declaring who I was and settling into the life I felt called to live.  It kept me focused on myself.  That’s not a judgment, just the reality of trying to be yourself in a world that wants you to be something else.

Last week, when two different people commented on my longevity in ministry, taking it as a given, I almost broke into song.  (I’m bad to do that.  🙂  It marked a vocational shift for me.  I no longer have to battle to be myself.  Now, folks take who I am as a pastor for granted.  Last week, some coil that’s been wound inside me my whole adult life finally uncurled.  I no longer have to fight to be a woman in ministry.  I’m just a pastor.

So, now what?  Now that I am solidly in my skin as a pastor, what’s next?  It’s not a long to-do list.  Now that I’m solidly in my skin as a pastor, my to-do list is this:  be a pastor.  

The shift Elisha makes in today’s scripture story is one we’re all called to make, especially, once we’ve done the hard work of becoming ourselves.  For many of us, it’s taken us a LONG time to settle into our own skin…whether because of our gender or our sexual orientation or our gender identity or our skin color or our other-mindedness or other-abled-ness…  If you’re still in that settling process, keep at it.  It’s important that you attend to that process for as long as it takes.  It took me for…ev…er…

If you are feeling comfortable in your own skin, though, if your mentors have done their work and you feel strong and happy in who you’ve become, Elisha’s story presents you–it presents all of us–with an invitation.  Now that our mentors are gone–or now that the mentoring process is through–will we mentor others?  Now that we have been formed and are walking around happy in our own skin, will we reach out to others to mentor them, to help them on their journeys?

I saw a meme on Facebook this morning.  It was a picture of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that said:  “I didn’t leave you.  I passed you the baton.  It’s your turn now.  Get up and fight!”

I’ve asked Quentin to sing “True Colors.”  Like the song we heard last week, “Rise Up,” “True Colors” is an anthem for folks in the LGBTQ community.  We’ll have the words on the screen, so feel free to sing along.

Here’s an invitation as you sing it this time.  I’m guessing that for many of us, the song has offered lots of healing because we’ve taken the words in as if they are being sung TO us.  As you sing this time, the invitation is to hear or sing the words as if you are singing them to someone else who needs to hear them, someone else who is still trying to settle into their own skin.  [True Colors.]

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Sermon: “Holding the Hope” (Luke 8:26-39) [6/19/2022]

When Jesus steps from the boat onto the shore near Gerasa, the person who greets him has been labeled “demon-possessed” by his fellow townsfolk.  The man lives among the tombs and hasn’t worn clothes in a long time.  Today, we’d say he struggled with mental illness.  

When the man sees Jesus, he knows immediately who he is–‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Only Begotten of the Most High God?’  Then he says something heartbreaking:  ‘I beg you, don’t torture me.’  One wonders just how many times he’d experienced torture already, or to what extent his own brain was torturing him.  

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this story is the fact that the man with the tortured mind was alone, left to fend for himself.  In town, when the demons seized him, he was chained and kept under guard.  When he escaped into the deserted places, the townsfolk were probably relieved.  As long as the man stayed among the tombs, they didn’t have to deal with him.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?  Or maybe “out of mind, out of sight” is closer to the truth.  

Historically, societies–churches, in particular–don’t have a good track record in how they’ve treated folks who struggle with mental illness.  Asylums, lobotomies, over-medication …Is it no wonder folks are sometimes afraid to talk about what’s really going on in their minds and hearts?

In today’s Scripture story, the man of Gerasa, whose mind is tortured, finds healing, he becomes whole again.  They didn’t have the powerful psycho-tropic medications we have today. So how did it happen?  How did that man find healing?

There are, of course, the pigs.  In the story, Jesus casts the man’s demons into the pigs and the pigs run head-long into the sea.  Seeing what’s happened to their livestock, the swineherds rush into town to tell everyone what’s happened.  

Yes, the thing with the pigs is pretty spectacular.  Our area has been known for pig farming for centuries.  Maybe we can work something out.  That’s a joke, y’all.  🙂

As I read the story, I wonder if the man’s healing began before the incident with the pigs.  Maybe the healing begins when Jesus looks at the man and asks, “What is your name?”

“What is your name?”  When the man had last been asked that question?  When had he last been addressed as a man, as a human being?

The townsfolk’s response to the man’s healing is curious.  When they see him sitting fully clothed and in his right mind, they are terrified.  You’d expect a celebration, right?  Look!  The one who used to live like an animal has been healed.  He has his life back.  He’s whole again!  But there is no celebration.  The folks in town are afraid…so afraid that they ask Jesus to leave.

Why are the Gerasenes afraid when they see the man healed of his affliction?  Luke doesn’t tell us, but I wonder if it had something to do with how they’d treated the man during his affliction.  Perhaps their fear was rooted in guilt over their cruel treatment of the man during his illness.  

What is a compassionate response from the church to people struggling with mental illness?  Wendell Berry’s story, Watch with Me,  might offer some ideas.  

When Nightlife appeared at Tol Proudfoot’s chicken coop that morning, he seemed off, not quite himself.  The people around Katy’s Branch creek had grown accustomed to the spells that overtook Nightlife from time to time, spells that left him sad, angry, confused, and maybe dangerous.  During his spells, no one could help Nightlife.  Sometimes, he had to go to the hospital until the spell broke and he was able to crawl back into his own skin again.

The night before he appeared at Tol’s chicken coop, Nightlife had presented himself to the preachers at the revival down at the church.  Nightlife told the two that he, Nightlife, would be preaching the sermon that night.  Tol and everybody learned later that Nightlife’s plan had been to tell what it was like to be himself.  The preachers said no.

That no–the church not wanting to hear what it was like to be him–sent Nightlife into this current spell, which sent him to Tol’s chicken coop that morning.  Before Tol knew what had happened, Nightlife had picked up Tol’s rifle, “Old Fetcher.”  Tol’s heart sank when he realized what had happened.  No telling what Nightlife might do with with the gun. 

Tol’s nephew Sam had dropped by, so Tol sent Sam to tell Tol’s wife, Miss Minnie, what was going on, and then to go get some of the neighbors to come help.  Then Tol set out after Nightlife.  He wasn’t sure what he could do, but Tol was certain Nightlife needed following.  

All told, 9 of Nightlife’s neighbors follow him that day and into the next.  They follow him up the hill.  They follow him to Uncle Othy and Aunt Cordie Dagget’s house and gasp when he walks in the door with the gun.  (They later learn all he wanted to do was to pray over their lunch.)  The neighbors follow him along Katy’s Branch creek.  

When Nightlife goes into the woods that night and they lose him, the 9 of them fall asleep.  At sunrise, they wake up to Nightlife standing over them, crying in disbelief, “Could you not stay awake?  Could you not stay awake?”  Then he wanders off again.  They pick up Nightlife’s trail a little later and continue to follow him…until a rainstorm comes.  At that point, they head for Tol’s barn.  

One wonders how the man of Gerasa’s story might have been different if some of those townsfolk had been following him all those years.  What if they’d watched him from afar, making sure he didn’t hurt himself or others?  What if they’d left food and clothes for him sometimes?  What if they hadn’t judged him or labeled him, but simply accompanied him while his brain tortured him?  

It’s telling that the people who reject Nightlife are the people who represent the church.  Too often, the church has failed people who struggle with mental illness.  Too often the church has offered “thoughts and prayers” and little else.

Nightlife didn’t need empty prayers.  Nightlife needed people to look after him while he wasn’t himself.  He needed people to keep him safe.  Tol and all the neighbors tracking Nightlife for a day and a half–being present to Nightlife in his darkness–that was the best prayer they could have prayed for him.  

The story of Tol and his friends caring for Nightlife in the best way they could, offers a picture of how we might be church to folks who struggle with mental health issues–we look to each other and band together to offer our support, even if we don’t quite know what to do.  And we stay present until the spell is broken…or until the meds kick in…or until the light begins to seep in through the cracks.

As Tol and company talk in the barn, rain pelting the roof, Nightlife walks in, still holding Old Fetcher.  Nightlife’s neighbors froze, uncertain what he would do.  Here’s what Nightlife said: “Brethren, let us stand and sing.”  As the rain pours, they sing “Unclouded Day.”  

After the hymn, Nightlife preaches the sermon he’d been wanting to preach about his life.  He tells the story of the lost sheep.  “Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren.  It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t.  The slopes is steep and the footing hard.  The ground is rough and stumbly and dark, and overgrown with bushes and briars, a hilly and a hollery place.  And the shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.”  “The others knew that Nightlife knew what he was talking about.  They knew he was telling what it was to be him.”

While Nightlife preached, Miss Minnie’s old setting hen came in.  She–the hen–was none too happy to find Nightlife preaching right in front of her nest.  “She began to walk back and forth at Nightlife’s feet…Now and again, she squatted and opened her wings as if to fly up to her nest, and then changed her mind.  At last, she crouched almost directly in front of Nightlife, and with a leap, a desperate, panic-stricken, determined outcry, and a great flapping of wings, she launched herself upward…she hung there in front of Nightlife’s face, flapping and squawking… until Nightlife slapped her away.”

By the time the hen hit the ground, Nightlife’s spell was broken.  He was back in his own skin and handed Old Fetcher back to Tol.  About that time, they heard the dinner bell ring and headed back to Tol’s house to partake of the feast Miss Minnie had prepared.

Years later, Miss Minnie summed up the story of what happened that day and a half this way.  “Poor Thacker Hample,” (that was Nightlife’s given name).  “They kept him alive that time, anyhow.  They and the Good Lord.”

“And that old hen,” Sam Hanks said.

“Yes, that old hen,” Miss Minnie said.  She mused a while, rocking in her chair.  Finally she said, “And don’t you know that old hen survived it all.  She hatched fourteen chicks and raised them, every one!”

They kept him alive that time, anyhow.  They and the Good Lord.  Yes.  That is our calling as a compassionate community–do what we can to keep each other alive and whole, us and the Good Lord.  As a beloved and loving community, we are called to hold the hope for each other.  (Video)   A Song About Hope | Hold The Hope by Lightning Lucas | Feat. C.S. Hurst and Nichole Barrows

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Sermon: “Dancing with the Trinity” (John 3:1-9; Genesis 18:1-15) [6/12/2022]

Poor Nicodemus.  A leader in his faith community, Nicodemus comes at night to visit Jesus.  Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover.  His first act in the holy city is to visit the Temple … and throw a hissy fit.  He overturns the tables of the moneychangers and yells:  “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It’s not long after this scene that Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus.  It’s no mystery why he comes at night.  After the scene in the Temple, it wouldn’t be wise for a religious leader to be seen fraternizing with the angry-crazy guy.  

If Jesus’ behavior in the Temple was confusing, the things he says to Nicodemus are downright opaque.  Be born again?  Of water and Spirit?  How can this be?  Indeed.  The lectionary folks probably chose this story for Trinity Sunday because Jesus, God, and the Spirit all show up.  All three “persons” of the Trinity are accounted for…or, as my theology prof said, “All three hypostatic forms of being…”  But maybe the strongest connection between the story of Nicodemus and the doctrine of the Trinity is his question:  How can this be?   

Have you ever asked that question when contemplating the Trinity?  How can this be?  How is your relationship with the Trinity these days?  Do you understand it?  No?  Good news!  All is about to be revealed!  

Back in the 12th c. teachers of the church figured out a way to diagram the Trinity.  It’s called the Trinity shield:

All clear now?  No?  Let’s try a little color.  And a circle.

Okay.  You’re a hard crowd.  

Here it is in Latin.  

Latin always makes things clearer, doesn’t it?

Maybe it will help to see it as a literal shield.

The Trinity–it’s not a doctrine for the faint of heart, is it?  Just ask Moses.

What about the Celts?  How did they depict the Trinity?

Colored and labeled.

Oh, let’s just throw a circle in there.  The Celts always seem to be doing that!

A rainbow Celtic Trinity-circle-knot!  It is Pride month, after all!

Or let’s just go with the shamrock!

Here are a few more depictions.  

Maybe one of these will help.

You can make anything with Legos!

Apparently, this is the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking.

Maybe a more sartorial depiction will help:  

I present the Trinity Knot!

Yep.  Just like the doctrine of the Trinity, 

Trinity knot construction also is complicated!

And sometimes our theology of the Trinity ends up looking like this:

Maybe we need to try some science and math.  

Ah!  Florida is the perfect place to figure out a theology of the Trinity.  We can’t do math here!

Or maybe a more artistic rendering would be helpful:

Yikes!  My apologies for any nightmares that painting might cause!

Here’s a more inviting artistic depiction of the Trinity.  We’ll stay with this one for a bit.

                      (Leave this image up all the way through Bryce’s solo)

Ann Persson had just had eye surgery.  The recovery process required her to lie face down for two weeks.  Ann’s husband fashioned a bed for her, with a hole cut out for her face.  The bed was surprisingly comfortable…but staring at the floor for hours on end was boring.

Ann had her husband place her Rublev Holy Trinity icon on the floor so she’d have something to look at….which might sound just as boring as staring at the carpet.  But spending time with an icon is different than simply looking at a poster.  Coming from the Orthodox tradition, icons are invitations to prayer.  Every step of their creation is itself an act of prayer— from the preparation of the wood on which they’re written to the materials, objects, and colors used.  Icons aren’t meant to be glimpsed and quickly understood.  They’re meant to be sat with, entered into, and taken into the pray-er’s deepest self. 

On this Trinity Sunday, the invitation is to enter into the Rublev icon.  It was created by a monk named Andrei Rublev in the early 1400s to honor St. Sergei, one-time abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery near Moscow.  Like many iconographers before him, Rublev set his depiction of the Trinity in the context of the story of Abraham and Sarah hosting three visitors.  It seems odd that Christian iconographers would use an Old Testament story to illustrate the Trinity.  Let’s listen to Genesis 18 and see if we can figure out why they did. 

A reading from Genesis.

Yahweh appeared to Abraham by the oak grove of Mamre, while Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  Looking up, Abraham saw three travelers standing nearby.  When he saw them, Abraham ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by our tent.  Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves beneath this tree.  As you have come to your faithful one, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves.  Afterward, you may go on your way.” “Very well,” they replied, “do as you have said.”  

Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick— take a bushel of fine flour and knead it into loaves of bread.”  Abraham then ran to the herd, selected a choice and tender calf, and sent a worker hurrying to prepare it. Then Abraham took cheese and milk and the calf which had been prepared, and placed it before the travelers; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.

After the visitors have eaten and rested, they promise the elderly couple that, in a year’s time, Sarah will bear Abraham a son.

In the icon, we see a couple of references to the Genesis story.  There are three visitors, who first are identified as “YHWH.”  We see the tree, which could be a reference to the oaks of Mamre where Abraham was camped.  There’s the building, which could be Abraham’s house, though in the story he and Sarah live in a tent.  The three sit at a table; that recalls the hospitality Abraham extends to the visitors.  In the original, that blob in the middle of the chalice is the head of the calf mentioned in the story.

Generally, rooting around in the Old Testament looking for Jesus isn’t the most responsible form of biblical exegesis.  Even so, I’m intrigued by our faithful forebears connecting this story to the Trinity, not so much for the three-in-one God thing, but because  Genesis 18 fundamentally is a story of hospitality.  When the three visitors appear, Abraham bows to them, he washes their feet and offers them food and a place to rest.  He whips up some milk and curds then has the fatted calf killed and served to the visitors.  It’s only after all the rituals of hospitality have been completed that God gets down to business promising a son for the elderly couple…which suggests just how important these rituals—and hospitality—are.

Look again at the icon.  The guests are seated at a table.  There is a cup; there is food.  In the way the 3 figures lean toward one another, the connection among them is clear.  All these pieces of the icon—along with the allusions to the Abraham story—clearly portray hospitality. 

There is one more thing about it that fairly shouts hospitality.  Can you discern what it is?  (Responses)  The gap.  That gap invites us to pull up a chair and join the three figures at the table.  Rublev’s icon isn’t just a picture of the Trinity; it’s an invitation to participate in the Trinity.  Despite all those great pictures we saw earlier, none of them invited us to participate with, to live in the Trinity.  Almost to a one, those diagrams and depictions invite us only to look at the Trinity from the outside, to observe it, to analyze it, to come up with a mathematical equation for it.  None of those depictions invited us into the Trinity.  Rublev’s 15th century icon does exactly that.

So…How can these things be?  Let’s say we accept the Trinity’s invitation to pull up a chair—Then what?  How does one go about participating in, with, and out of the Trinity?  Ann Persson, the woman who prayed the Rublev icon as she recovered from eye surgery, calls Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity a “circle of love.”  The icon invites us to join that circle of love….not just for our own edification, but so that we can work with God in the world.  Persson writes:  “Just as Rublev’s icon leaves a space for us to enter the circle, so the Trinity makes space for us to join in.  The dance is in full swing but a hand is extended, as it were, so that we, the people of God can join in and live life out of relationship with the Trinity.  This life is to be expressed in the world in which we live, in our attitudes and actions, our thoughts and words.  God is at work and calls us to join in that work.”  (K848) 

What might it be like to join the Trinity’s dance?  What does it mean for us—as individuals and as a community—to live in and with the Trinity?  Another quote from Ann Persson:  If we lived in, with, and out of the Trinity, “we would see a genuine honoring of each other, the people of God in whom the same Spirit dwells.  We would serve one another without feeling threatened.  This attitude would release us to be the people God created us to be, both individually and as a community of believers.  We would recognize the differing gifts that lie in one another and find contexts in which they could be expressed.  Instead of hierarchy, we would create a fellowship built on relationships emanating from God’s own love” (K963).

We’ve only scratched the surface of praying this icon.  In truth, we haven’t prayed it at all.  I’ve just been talking about it.  So….we’re going to take a couple of minutes of silence.  In the silence, I invite you to pray this icon.  Allow yourself to experience the hospitality that’s being extended.  Allow yourself to accept God’s invitation into God’s own heart.  Adn if you’re really feeling brave, join in the dance!  To help us in our prayer, Bryce, on this his last Sunday with us, will be playing a piece on violin for us.  Let us pray.   

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2015

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Sermon: “An Extravagantly Welcoming Pentecost: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians” (Acts 2:1-21, FNV) [6/5/2022]

It’s Pentecost, the Scripture story known as the Birthday of the Church.  (And, yes, at tonight’s Musical Pentecost Celebration, there WILL be birthday cake!)  

Here’s the church’s birth story.  Once upon a time, a child grew up to be a wiser teacher.  He taught people about God’s love for every person!  As he taught and healed, he helped people imagine a new way of living…and loving…a way that included everyone.  

Some people–like the religious authorities– weren’t happy about this God-loving-every– person thing.  Not at all.  So, those unhappy and threatened folks–this is the sad and ugly part of the story–those unhappy and threatened folks colluded with the state to have Jesus executed.

But the people who condemned and killed Jesus didn’t have the last word, did they?  No, Jesus was resurrected!  He came back to life!  And for 40 days, he taught and hung out with his followers…until it came time for him to go for good.

We heard that part of the story last week.  The Ascension, it’s called.  Jesus took his disciples to a hill outside of Jerusalem.  He told them to be his witnesses–to tell others about the radical inclusivity of God’s love–in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.  But first, they were to go back to Jerusalem and await the coming of God’s Spirit.  If they were going to be Jesus’ witnesses to the end of the Earth, they were going to need some Spirit power!

Waiting on a birth…can anyone relate?  What do you do when you’re waiting on a birth?  You prepare…you tell stories…you imagine the future…When you’re waiting on a birth, the air becomes electric with joy!  

In my second interview with the Search Committee, Kathy Heinz mentioned there being four pregnant people in the congregation.  (At the time, I didn’t know that one of those pregnant people was participating in that very zoom call!)  Something shifted when I learned of those pregnant people.  A congregation with babies is alive…and intends to stay that way.  That’s the moment I knew this was a congregation I wanted to serve.

So, the people were hanging out in Jerusalem, the air electric with anticipation…they waited …and waited… waited… until one morning–it happened!  The divine water broke, the contractions began, and all joy broke loose!

Wind whooshed in!  Tongues, as of fire, appeared on each person’s head!  People talked together–and understood each other–even though they spoke a multitude of languages!    

That’s often what happens with births, isn’t it?  Some something beyond us pulls us all together, connects us.  It’s said that multi-faith encounters require three things:  that we pray together, eat together, and hold each other’s babies.  Yes.  There’s something about newborns that brings us all together, connects us, unites us.  The same was true on the day the church was born, the day God’s Spirit whooshed in and empowered Jesus’ followers.  

The day of a birth is a day of unbridled joy, perhaps even euphoria.  Eventually, of course, though the joy remains, the euphoria wanes and you get to the important, sometimes exhausting work of raising that newborn.  That’s when you learn that, while the joy attending the birth of newborns might be similar, what it takes to raise each newborn can be very different… Because each newborn is unique and lives in unique circumstances.

Today’s Scripture story came from the recently published First Nations Version of the New Testament.  The Introduction says this about the birth of the FNV.  “The FNV is a retelling of Creator’s Story from the Scriptures, attempting to follow the tradition of the storytellers of our oral cultures.  Many of our Native tribes still resonate with the cultural and linguistic thought patterns found in their original tongues.  This way of speaking, with its simple yet profound beauty and rich cultural idioms, still resonates in the hearts of Native people.”  (FNV, ix)

Last week, Allen and I visited San Luis Mission, the living museum of the Spanish mission established there in the 17th century.  As we visited the Council House, fort, and Church, we learned about how Spanish and Apalachee people lived together at the mission.  

This picture on one of the interpretive signs gave me pause. 

In one place, I read that when the Apalachee’s religion failed them, they asked the Spanish to tell them about their faith.  That certainly might have happened.  But looking at the larger historical context, we know that the Spanish came to Florida to convert the indigenous people…ultimately, as a way to subdue them.  When I look at this picture, I wonder what those Apalachee people were losing as they raised that cross.

The sub-title of today’s sermon, Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians, comes from a book that looks at biblical interpretation through diverse cultural lenses.  Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians is Robert Allen Warrior’s contribution from a Native American perspective.  When I read it, it blew my mind.

To the point of reading the article, I’d always understood the story of the Exodus as a story of liberation.  The story is pivotal for many African American Christians.  The parallels between their and the Israelites’ stories are clear–enslaved, abused, crying out for freedom, then finally receiving it.  The Israelites do have to wander around the wilderness for a few decades, but after that, they move into their new land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  They settle there, create their own farms, produce their own crops.  It’s a great story, a hopeful story for an enslaved people longing to be free…

But what if you identify, not with the people who are freed, but with those who are displaced from their native land by those freed people?  In the story of the exodus, the Canaanites are the people who get pushed off the land when the freed slaves from Egypt arrive.  Sound similar to the history of any other countries you know?  Like our own?  As an indigenous person, Robert Warrior’s point is that, for him, the exodus story is not a story of liberation.  For him, it’s a text of terror, a story of how he and his people lost everything.

After reading Warrior’s article, I had to completely rethink how I interpreted Scripture.  Though reading Scripture through a feminist lens at my Southern Baptist seminary was nothing to sneeze at, Warrior’s article showed me that my interpretation of Scripture still centered my white experience.  Since then, I’ve tried to become more aware of how I read Scripture…but I know I still have some really big, shiny-white blind spots.

We all have blind spots.  We all read Scripture through our own cultural and historical lenses.  But this story, the story of Pentecost, shows us how to come together despite those differences.  

With all its wind, fire, and understanding-each-other-though-they-spoke-different-  languages, the Pentecost story comes off as magical.  I wonder, though, if it wasn’t so much magic as it was that, caught up in the euphoria of the birth that was happening in their midst, people simply were paying better attention to each other, really seeing and listening to each other.  And maybe it wasn’t even the words others were speaking that people understood… maybe it was their expressions, their clothing, the family groupings they were in.  Maybe they were holding each others babies.

Friday, Allen and I attended two events related to reducing gun violence.  The first was a “Call to Conscience” panel discussion called by Pastor R. B. Holmes at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.  All of the panelists and most of the people present were Black.  As we heard about how the epidemic of gun violence impacts people in Black communities, we realized that, though our common concern to end gun violence brought us together, our experiences of the impacts of gun violence differ significantly.

Friday evening, Allen and I arrived early at City Hall for a rally sponsored by Moms Demand Action.  A man wearing a bright orange yarmulke was leading a prayer service.  Jeremy told me it was Rabbi Shields from Temple Israel just down the road.  Again, though our common concern about gun violence brought us together, the rabbi offered a response from his own tradition.  As the sun was setting, and Sabbath was beginning, he wished us Shabbat Shalom, Sabbath peace.

At our last church, at every prayer service, Allen prayed for a new Pentecost for the church, not only for our church, but for the wider church, as well.  You know, of course, that we have the ability, we have the power to create space for that Pentecost to happen, right?  If we wait together, if we seek out what we have in common as human beings, if we respect and listen to and from each other from our different cultural contexts…Oh, yes.  If we do these things, God’s spirit will come.  God’s spirit WILL come!

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2022

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Sermon: “Re-Membering Jesus” (Acts 1:1-11) [5/29/2022]

It happened again.  Though we’ve sworn a million times that it wouldn’t… It.  Happened.  Again.  What are we doing?  As a human race, where are we going?  Why do we say, “Never again,” but do nothing to make sure these senseless shootings never happen again?  A quote by theologian Miroslav Volf has been making the rounds this week:  “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.”  Yes.  What are we as a country–what are we as a faith community–doing to limit access to guns?

I began pastoring full time June 1, 2001.  Three months later, 9/11 happened.  December 14, 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting happened in Newtown, Connecticut.  June 17, 2015–Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.  June 12, 2016–the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  November 5, 2017–First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  Two weeks after my last pastorate began, the Parkland school shooting happened.  Since I became your pastor six weeks ago, there have been mass shootings in Buffalo, a California church, and now in Uvalde.  In some ways, it feels like my ministry has been what happens between terrorist events.  Kathryn recently read three years of my blog.  (Y’all should give her combat pay for that. 😉  She observed how often my sermons addressed mass shootings.

And here’s one more to add to the list.    

I’m angry!  Are you?  I’m also flirting with despair.  Are you?  All the statistics show that the one thing that makes a difference in a country’s level of gun violence is access to guns.  And yet, we continue to go in the opposite direction.  

Nine-eleven happened on a Tuesday.  As a brand new pastor trying to figure out what to say the following Sunday, I talked to two more experienced colleagues, neither of whom was serving a church at the time.  Each one gave the same response:  “I’m glad I’m not preaching this week.”  I was on my own.  I don’t remember what I said, but we got through it.

Here’s the thing that’s so hard about dealing with avoidable tragedy as a faith community:  As people of faith, it’s our job to hang onto hope.  That’s what the story of resurrection is all about–holding hope in the face of trauma and systemic evil.  But…it’s just so hard to hold hope when we do nothing about senseless evil.  And yet, that is our only faithful response, even to the most horrific of events:  hope.

But how do we get there?  How do we get to hope after Tuesday’s horrific school shooting in Texas?

Today’s story from Acts takes place on a day giddy with hope.  The resurrected Jesus has been hanging out with his followers for 40 days.  It’s been just like the old days, except way better!  The Jesus they had lost had returned to them.  What joy it had been to be led again by their teacher!  The world must have looked pretty rosy as they climbed the hill outside of Jerusalem.

They gather around Jesus as they had so many times before, ready for his teaching.  Jesus promises his followers the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Then Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.  And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Then–WHOOSH! Jesus flies off into the sky and a cloud takes him out of their sight.  No doubt, jaws were scraping the ground.  “What just happened?  Jesus left again?  Now what are we going to do?  Jesus!  Don’t leave us again!”

Jesus flying up into the ether, yeah.  I guess that’s dramatic…but it isn’t the most important thing that happens in this scene.  The most important part of this story, the thing that makes the birth of the church possible, the thing that keeps hope going, happens next.  Listen.

“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two people in white robes stood by them and said, ‘Why are you looking towards heaven?”

It’s a good question.  Jesus told them to go back to Jerusalem, but they’re still staring at the sky.  Jesus told them to wait for the gift of the Spirit, but they’re still staring at the sky. Jesus  told them to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth, but they’re still staring at the sky.  “Why are you looking towards heaven?” the be-robed people ask. 

Imagine we’re those disciples.  We followed Jesus and learned from him.  We lived through his violent death, then rejoiced in his resurrection.  What joy it’s been to spend these last 40 days with him.  Then we follow Jesus out to the hill, ready for another teaching.  He says something about the Spirit, whatever that is, then Whoosh!  He flies up into heaven.

So, we’re all staring at the sky with our jaws dropped wondering what in the world has just happened, when into the stunned silence, someone speaks.  What are we going to do?  We’re staring into the ether, flabbergasted, and someone on the ground speaks.  What will we do?  We’re going to lower our heads and look for who’s speaking, right?  We’re going to shift our gaze from the sky to the ground, from heaven to Earth, from what was to what is becoming.

And that is what makes Pentecost and the birth of the church possible–the shifted gaze from the Jesus they knew // to the world he was sending them to love; the shifted focus from the ephemeral things of heaven to the hard realities of life on Earth; the shift from looking only to Jesus to now looking to each other…because in each other is where Jesus lived now, right?  Jesus’ disciples were now Jesus to, for, and with each other.  That was a key source of hope for them. 

A key source of our hope–even in these troubling, traumatic times–a key source of our hope also is each other.  We, too, are Jesus to, for, and with each other…and to others, as well.

What does being Jesus to, for, and with each other mean in the face of another mass shooting?  How do we hold hope with each other now?

First, we must take action.  Hope stays alive only when we work to fulfill it.  If you have ideas for specific actions we might take in response to the epidemic of gun violence in our country, please send them to me or to Kathryn.  I’ll include a list in this week’s Tuesday Museday.  One of the things I’ll be doing is attending a “Call to Conscience” gathering for clergy at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on Friday.

The other thing we can do, the thing we MUST do, is to continue to nurture and live what is best about humanity.  Please don’t diminish the importance of being kind to others.  Even when we’re mad enough to spit nails, as people of faith–as members of the human race–it’s our job to see others, all others, as human beings, as beloved children of God.  If we lose that, if we lose the ability to see every human being as a beloved child of God, then violence wins.

September 17, 2001, the Monday after preaching my sermon in response to 9/11, I read about what the rabbi of a synagogue in New York did in Shabbat services that weekend.  When I read it, I thought how absolutely fearless he was.  That rabbi sang, “What a Wonderful World.”   

My first thought was, How could he sing “What a Wonderful World” after what had just happened?  My second thought was, How could he not sing it?

How can we not sing it today?   (Sing, “What a Wonderful World.”)

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Sermon: “Do We Want to Be Made Well?” (John 5:2-9) [5/22/2022]

On a visit to Jerusalem, Jesus stops by the BethZatha pool.  On five porches surrounding the pool lie people in need of healing.  Ancient versions of this story explain that “an angel of God went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease the person had.”

As Jesus surveys the crowd, he spots a man who’d been lying at the pool for a long time, 38 years, John tells us.  Jesus approaches the man and asks:  “Do you want to be made well?”

On the face of it, the question is absurd.  Do you want to be made well?  You’re an invalid, literally lying on the brink of healing for nearly 4 decades without receiving it, when this stranger walks up and asks if you want to be made well?  Of course, you want to be made well! 

Perhaps it’s because the answer is so obvious that the man doesn’t answer the question.   Instead, he explains why he hasn’t been healed.  ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I’m making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’  

So, some questions.  How had the man lived on that porch for 38 years?  How did he obtain food?  How did he receive shelter from the elements?  Why was no one else with him?  Why didn’t someone else who saw him there not help him?  Why hadn’t he figured out in 38 years how to get himself into the pool?

It’s easy to get stuck in pain, isn’t it?  Because of bone spurs on both heels, I was unable to walk without pain for a decade.  I’ve been a walker my whole life.  As a kid, Walkin’ Lawton Chiles was a hero!  I love being able to get myself from one location to another!  And walking in the out-of-doors does more for my mental health than just about anything.  Not being able to go for walks for ten years was hard.  It changed my quality of life.

Did I want to be made well?  Absolutely!  But after talking with a podiatrist and learning what fixing my feet would involve, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it.  Removing the bone spurs required detaching the Achilles tendon, then reattaching it.  I’d be non-weight-bearing for a couple of months.  Full recovery would take a year.  Then I’d have to go through the process all over again with the other foot.  

For the longest time, I couldn’t imagine how to do the work needed to heal.  I tried months of PT–which didn’t help.  I tried to wish the pain away, to pretend it wasn’t there.  That didn’t work, either.  Then I tried making my peace with the fact that this was just how I was meant to live–in pain, not walking long distances.  The price of the healing process was too high.  Jacob wrestled with God and limped the rest of his life.  Maybe that was my fate, too.

Yes.  It’s easy to get stuck in pain.  It’s easy to become mired in our wounds…not because we LIKE the pain and the wounds, but because they are familiar.  And because the prospect of going through the healing process is too overwhelming.  Too scary.

When I told a clergy friend about my feet, regarding surgery she said, “You know it’s a matter of when and not if, right?”  That’s when I knew my resistance to the foot surgeries wasn’t smart or healthy.  I suddenly realized how tired I’d grown of lying on the porch on the brink of healing without receiving any.  I scheduled the surgery.  That was in 2016.  Three years later, August 2019, I had the other foot done.  

It was on a hike at Craggy Mountain near Asheville in August 2020 that it hit me:  I was a walker again!  For the first time in ten years, I wasn’t having to think about every step I took, calculating how much it would hurt.  I was simply walking the trail, enjoying a beautiful summer day in the mountains.  A thrill ran up my spine when I realized that–at last–I had my life back.  I had MY life back.  Because I’m a walker.

I need to be clear here.  Not everyone has the luxury of receiving surgeries that will heal their bodies.  I realize how fortunate I am that those surgeries were available to me.  I tell this story to share how difficult it was to decide to do the work of healing.  For me, choosing not to engage in the healing process left me in pain.  For a long time, because the cost of healing seemed too high, I chose to suffer.  I thought that was my only option.  Once I decided to engage in the healing process, I was able to let go of my suffering and re-enter the life I was meant to live.  I was, once again, my true self.

That’s my story.  What’s yours?  Is there some pain you’re clinging to because the cost of healing seems too high?  Do you have wounds that you’ve simply learned to live with because they’re familiar, because you fear bigger wounds if you give yourself over to the healing process?  Does allowing your suffering to continue feel safer than opening yourself up to the vulnerability required to engage in the healing process?  Do you worry that if you start crying, you’ll never stop?

And what of our country?  I quoted a devotional writer this week who suggested that the last couple of years, our country has been in a protracted nervous breakdown.  It feels like an apt description.  Hate-mongering.  Government assaults on bodily autonomy.  Legalized discrimination.  Over 1 million people dead from Covid…and millions more left to grieve their loss.  And, though it’s hard to believe it could get any worse, the escalation of gun violence.  And our Earth…what has our greed done to our Earth, that now is in dire need of healing?  (Class)

And what of the wounds in our own UCT community?  We have lost beloved members… some to death, others to a shifting of their faith journey.  For much of the last two years, we lost the most basic source of healing this community provides– simply gathering together for worship.  We’ve been grateful for the ways Zoom has helped us connect–and we’re glad for the people with whom Zoom has helped us connect who aren’t able to come to 1834 Mahan Drive– but Zoom is not the same.  Seeing each other, talking with each other, hugging each other…  Not being able to do that for so long has created deep wounds for all of us.

In some ways, the pandemic has sent all of us to the porch by the pool.  Until now, we’ve been lying at the pool’s edge, unable to get ourselves into the healing waters.  

I wonder if now is the time–for our country, for us as individuals, for our UCT community, as we continue our resurrection journey…Might now be the time to make our way to the pool’s edge and– finally–slip in?  Might now be the time we bring our wounds to this community for healing?  Might now be the time when we hear Jesus’ call to take up our mats and walk and we do it?

Pools at Warm Springs, GA

Here’s an image of another healing pool–the pool at Warm Springs, Georgia.  Somehow, minerals in the water at Warm Springs ease the effects of polio.  President Franklin Roosevelt experienced relief from the polio paralysis he contracted as a young man.  As President, except for 1942, Roosevelt visited Warm Springs every summer.

The pool at Warm Springs wasn’t healing only for the first person who entered the water.  The healing in that pool was there all the time for anyone who entered it.  The healing didn’t happen all at once.  I don’t know that people took up their mats and walked, but healing did come.

And healing didn’t come only from the minerals in the water.  Healing also came from the community created by those who came to the pool each day.  At that pool, no one had no one.  Everyone had everyone else in the pool.  They had each other.  The minerals did their part to heal.  The community they created did its part, too.        

The story of Jesus healing the man who’d been sick for 38 years is pretty spectacular… but here’s another way to imagine this story.  Imagine that all the people on those five porches at Beth-Zatha Pool started talking with each other, like the people did at Warm Springs.  And what if, as they talked, they began to plot and scheme together?  And what if in their talking and scheming they found a way for all of them, every last one of them, to jump in the water at exactly the same moment?  If they all touched the water at exactly the same moment, what could God’s Spirit have done but to heal every last one of them?  Now, that would have been spectacular!  I think God would have giggled a little if that had happened.  

Do we want to be made well?  Does our country want to be made well?  Do we as individuals want to be made well?  Do we as a church community want to be made well?  If so, how might we help each other heal?  How might we act each other into wellbeing?  How might we bind each other’s wounds?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022  (2021)

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Sermon: “ARE All Welcome?” (Acts 11:1-18) [5/15/2022]

Last week, we heard the story about Peter going to Joppa and raising Dorcas from the dead.  Grieving their beloved friend, mourners showed Peter all the garments Dorcas had made and told him about all the acts of charity in which she’d been involved.  

You know there must have been a party after Dorcas’ resurrection!  Her friends probably hugged on her and cried and laughed, then pulled her over to the sewing circle so they could get back to work.  Others likely were relieved to have Dorcas’ leadership restored to their outreach programs.  Dorcas probably thought–Now, that was one good nap!

No doubt, the raising of Dorcas had a deep impact on Jesus’ followers in Joppa.  Which makes you wonder:  What impact did his raising of Dorcas have on Peter?

The next part of Peter’s story begins with a man in Caesarea named Cornelius.  Cornelius was a Gentile, which means he was NOT of the Jewish faith.  

Some background.  In the church’s early days, there was great debate about who could be a follower of Jesus.  Because Jesus was Jewish, many people–like Peter–thought following Jesus was a Jewish thing.  Many resisted sharing the good news with people who weren’t Jews.  So, when the message comes to Cornelius, it’s a big deal.  The deal grows bigger when Cornelius is told to send people to Joppa, get Peter, and bring him back to Caesarea.

As the contingent heads to Joppa, Peter goes to the roof of the house where he’s staying to pray.  He has a vision.  In the vision, the heavens open and a sheet containing “all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds” descends.  A voice tells him: “Get up, Peter.  Make your sacrifice and eat.” “Surely not!” Peter replies. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”  Peter is referring to Jewish dietary laws that determined who was in the community and who was not.  The voice responds:  “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  Then the vision happens two more times.  

As he’s mulling over the vision’s meaning, Cornelius’ contingent arrive.  Peter accompanies them to Caesarea, where a crowd has gathered.  Here’s what Peter tells them. “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles.  But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”  “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear God and do what is right.”

Whoa!  We see now that something profound has happened to Peter.  He’s gone from religiously avoiding Gentiles to seeing them as fellow Christ-followers.  Because of the things he’s experienced–with Dorcas and her friends, and in his vision–he now understands that Gentiles are just like everyone else.  They, too, need and deserve to experience God’s love.  God welcomes everyone.

So, when the Holy Spirit shows up, Peter says, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”  The new believers were baptized.

Just before the risen Jesus left the scene for good, he commissioned his followers.  He told them: “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  How were they going to share the good news “to the ends of the earth” if they were only going to talk to Jews?  Somebody’s mind was going to have to change if the movement was going to get off the ground.  And Peter was the obvious choice.  So what if it took him three times to get the message?  Sometimes conversion takes a while.

Some of you might be thinking, What?  Is she saying we need to work on welcoming people?  But that’s who we are!  We say we welcome everyone…and we do!  It’s in our mission statement!  Just look at who’s here today in this room!  All ARE welcome here!

Oh, yes.  I know we take our ministry of extravagant hospitality seriously.  Allen and I have been blessed over and over again by your warm, heartfelt, authentic welcoming of us.  Drawing people in and accepting them for who they are…that is part of our DNA.  

But just because we decide to welcome everyone doesn’t mean it’s always easy or comfortable.  When the first trans person came to one church I served, it took us a while to get comfortable with her presence among us.  That church also wrestled with how to welcome a child who was autistic.  All of the churches I have served have wanted to welcome people of all races, but sometimes struggled to extend a truly authentic welcome.  

The gap between wanting to welcome everyone and actually welcoming everyone is wider than we’d sometimes like to admit.  In talking with one parent of a trans child, they said that, in their minds, they’d always welcomed folks who were trans.  If a trans person said they were trans, this person accepted that as that person’s reality.  

But when their child came out to them as trans, it was a whole other thing.  Before their child came out, their acceptance of folks who are trans was theoretical.  Now, it was real.  This parent had to work things through in their own mind, which they did.  But it took some work.  

The Benedictines have a name for that work–conversatio morum, “conversion of life.”  It means that if we are to grow and thrive, we must stay open to the conversion process.  Extending radical hospitality to others requires continual conversion. 

Reading on, we see Peter’s conversion deepening when he defends his inclusion of Gentiles to Jewish believers in Jerusalem.  When they heard that Gentiles were receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, they immediately formed a committee, discussed it at length, and decided to censure Peter when he came to town.  Their accusation:  “You went into the house of the uncircumcised (the Gentiles) and ate with them.” 

In response to the criticism, Peter relates the story of what happened to him in Joppa, then in Caesarea.  “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as it had come on us at the beginning.  If God gave them the same gift God gave us who believe in Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

Peter simply tells his critics the story of what has happened.  We’re told that “when they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Peter’s conversion led to more people being welcomed into the community.  His telling the story of the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Gentiles helped others change their minds about who was in and who was out, as well.  

So, yes.  We do everything we can to welcome everyone here at UCT, but here’s what I wonder.  And I just got here, so this is an honest question.  Have we finished our welcoming work?  Is it enough to say every week, “You are welcome here?”  Is it enough to declare it in our mission statement:  “All are welcome?”  Is it enough to sing a pretty hymn, “All are welcome?”

Or might there be more work for us to do, as individuals and as a community?  Is extending extravagant welcome like flipping a toggle switch–We didn’t welcome everyone, but now we do?  Or does becoming truly welcoming take a lifetime?

Here’s the story of one church’s hospitality conversion experience.  The church in East Lyme, Connecticut “was next door to a group home for adults.”  One day, one of the residents “came in and sat down before worship.  She was painfully overweight and wore clothing that didn’t fit.  She hadn’t bathed and couldn’t breathe or move comfortably.  She didn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone.

“From the beginning, she tried the congregation’s patience.  More than once she forgot where she was and lit up a cigarette right there in the pew.  Her medication prevented her from being able to follow the order of worship.  She fell asleep during sermons.  Her breathing problems escalated and became loud snoring problems.

The visitor became a topic of conversation at Council meetings.  ‘She doesn’t belong here; she couldn’t possibly be getting anything out of it so heavily medicated.’  ‘I’m tithing to this church, and she’s just giving pennies…she shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for everyone.’  Some observed that she ate too many cookies at coffee hour.  They worried that she was a deterrent to other visitors.  

“Finally, an exasperated council member said she’d had enough of all this talk.  She announced that she would make a friend out of the troubled visitor and would hereafter be sitting next to her in church.  Understand:  this means that after more than 25 years sitting in one pew, she moved…to a different pew.  When the snoring started, the council member gave a gentle nudge; she helped the visitor find the right hymn to sing; she reminded her to put her cigarettes away and limited her to no more than three cookies in the fellowship hall.

“That small act was all the woman needed.  Soon she began talking to people; she made eye contact and learned to shake the pastor’s hand at the door after worship; her first words to the pastor were:  ‘bless you.’

“Some months later the pastor received a phone call from the woman’s social worker.  He said the woman had never been accepted by any group or able to sustain a single positive relationship until she started attending the church next door.  ‘Thank you for welcoming her,’ he told the pastor.  ‘I have never been to your church, but I know it is an exceptional place.’  

“Empowered now, the woman went on to make friends with the others in her group home and brought them all with her to church.  She had gained her whole life back, put her demons behind her, and told anyone who would listen what [God] had done for her.”  (Erica Wimber Avena, in Christian Century, January 4, 2017.  Used by permission.)

That’s just one story of how the gap between wanting to welcome everyone and actually welcoming everyone was reduced.  How might we shorten the gap here at UCT?  We’ve got a great opportunity to start the process by stopping by the kitchen after worship and helping prepare food for our neighbors across the street at City Walk.  What else might we do to demonstrate our commitment to welcoming all?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2022

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Mother’s Day Prayer (5/8/2022 version)

Holy One, It’s Mother’s Day.  Chances are good we’ve got some feelings about that…

Some of us feel gratitude:  for excellent mothering we have received– from birth mothers, adoptive mothers, grandmothers, surrogate mothers, and as one child said, “twin mommies.”   Bless all who feel grateful today, God.  GM/HP

Some of us feel deep joy:  the new mothers, those who have been given another year with an aging mom.  And though they’re the tiniest bit annoying, what with all that picture-showing, the grandmothers and great-grandmothers.   Some of us feel joy for technological advances like in vitro fertilization and for processes like adoption and foster parenting.  Some of the mothers among us feel great joy because we love our children so much and are so very proud of them.  Bless all who feel joy today, God.  GM/HP

Some of us feel guilt today:  for not being the best mother we could be… for not being the best daughter or son we could be…for something we can’t even name…  For all who feel guilty today, God, ease the weight of their guilt.  Surround them with your grace.  Remind them they are loved.   GM/HP

Some of us are angry today:  because we didn’t get the mothering we needed… because our children don’t always appreciate what we do for them… because we feel called to be mothers, but our bodies or circumstances have prevented that from happening… For those who are angry, God, help us learn from our anger, to understand the hurt that causes it, and to move forward in strength and love and insight.  GM/HP

Some of us feel sad today….because we never had a mother…or did have a mother who couldn’t seem to love us…or do have a mother whose dementia is taking her from us one memory at a time…  Some of us are sad because our mothers have died, or are alive but have never felt their full worth…  Some of the mothers among us are sad because they have lost their children in one way or another.  And some women who aren’t able to have children– having worked through their anger– now are feeling sad.  Holy One, please comfort all who come to this day with sadness.  GM/HP

Oh, mothering God…how do we pray about the draft decision leaked from the Supreme Court?  How do we respond with resolve and with love to the continued assaults on women’s bodies, on women’s lives?  Help us, God.  Please help us know how to respond.  What will it mean to leave a legacy of love in these circumstances?  GM/HP

(Whisper)  Some of the mothers among us are so exhausted by their mothering they have now fallen asleep.  Give them pleasant dreams, God.   GM/HP

Some of us—women who have NOT been called to be mothers—are wondering just why this prayer has gone on so long.  What’s the big deal?  Bless us, too, God.  Affirm our decision not to have children.  Bless all the ways we have given and are giving the best of ourselves to others by means other than parenting.  GM/HP

That last group is right, God—this prayer has gone on a long time.  And, long as it is, it likely still hasn’t given voice to all the feelings present today.  In the quiet, Holy One, surround us with your love and care as we share with you all our feelings–all our joys, all our concerns, all of ourselves with you.  In silence, hear us.  (Silence)  GM/HP

Holy One, some of us call you Father;  some of us call you Mother;  and some of us don’t call you anything because we’re so confused about you most of the time….Thank you for answering our prayers– no matter where we are on our theological journeys.  Thank you for loving us, for nurturing us, yes, thank you for mothering us.  We are your beloved children…and we are grateful.  With open hearts and deep joy, we offer this prayer.  Amen.

And now, we join our hearts and voices together as we pray the prayer Jesus taught, part of his legacy of love…Our Creator…

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Sermon: “Creating a Legacy of Love” [Acts 9:36-43] (5/8/2022)

Last Fall, when Kathy Heinz let me know the UCT Search Committee wanted to meet with me, I did what you all probably did when I became your pastoral candidate:  I stalked you.  That stalking process included searching for United Church in the Tallahassee Democrat.  There, I found an article about the quilt you made and auctioned off in support of Restorative Justice work last Fall.

I was struck by a quote from Janice McClain, one of the quilters.  Of the quilting, she said, “In this way, a bit of my love will live longer than I will.”  In this way, a bit of my love will live longer than I will.  Isn’t that beautiful?  It reminds me of a line from the Indigo Girls’ song, “The Power of Two”: If we ever leave a legacy, it’s that we loved each other well. 

That might be a good way to describe our work as a community of Jesus-followers:  creating a legacy of love.  A legacy is what you leave behind after you’re gone.  Sometimes, it refers to monetary gifts.  We are blessed and grateful when people remember UCT in their wills.

But legacy goes much deeper than simply leaving money behind when we die.  Legacy has to do with how we’ve lived our lives, what we’ve done, as poet Mary Oliver says, with our “one wild and precious life.”  When I hear you talk about Agnes Furey, when I read Wildflowers in the Median, the book Agnes co-authored with Leonard Scovens, when I hear about the profound work you’ve done with Restorative Justice…Though I never got to meet her, I know:  Agnes Furey has left a legacy of love in this congregation and in the wider community.

In today’s Scripture story, a beloved member of a community of Jesus-followers in Lydda dies.  Based on the community’s response to her death, I suspect Dorcas was a lot like Agnes–a wise, beloved, and loving one in their midst.

Luke tells us Dorcas was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  When she becomes ill and dies, her friends take her body upstairs and wash it, preparing it for burial.  When Peter arrives from Joppa, he’s taken to the room upstairs.  The widows stand beside him, weeping and showing him tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  

Come with me to that upper room.  Let’s stand among the women, distraught over the loss of their friend.  It’s likely that the others sent for Peter because he’d been present for several bodily resurrections already.  Perhaps they hoped he could raise Dorcas, too.

But here’s what’s interesting…Dorcas’ weeping friends don’t ask Peter to bring their friend back to life.  Instead, they show him garments Dorcas had made, the seams she’d stitched with her own hands, the materials she had created to assist in her good works and acts of charity.  

In this poignant gesture–showing Peter the garments Dorcas had made–we see the women’s deep grief.  It’s as if they are saying, “Look what we have lost!”  At the same time, we see Dorcas’ legacy…her legacy of love.  This is who Dorcas was.  With her death, we have lost so much.  In talking with some of you, I hear a similar sentiment about Agnes.  Oh, my.  I do wish I could have known her!

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Peter raised Dorcas from the dead.  She came back to life.  In that season of resurrection after Jesus’ resurrection…yeah, it’s an appropriate story for Luke to include in his book about the birth of the church.

But there’s something about Dorcas’ resurrection that’s a little, what?  Unsatisfying.  When our loved ones die…they don’t return to life, do they?  Those loved ones are gone.  And they just keep being gone.  And their gone-ness breaks our hearts a thousand times a day.  Sometimes, all we can do is clutch a garment they made… or wore…and feel the emptiness of their absence.

Once the initial waves of raw grief pass, when the veil of sadness lifts a bit, then we begin to see all our loved one left behind…the pieces of their love that outlive them…their legacies of love.

Which makes you wonder…What legacy of love are we creating here at UCT and in the wider Tallahassee community?  As I read through UCT’s history and hear your stories about this community’s devotion to good works and acts of charity–like, feeding the residents at City Walk next week–your legacy of love already has a really good start.  People feel welcomed and loved in this space.  We will do well to celebrate the legacy we’ve been creating since our church began in 1975.  

So, the question for us today isn’t, “How do we start a legacy of love?”  The question for us today is, “How will we  build on that legacy?”  How might we–as a community–ensure that our love outlives us?  

Vibrant communities intent on thriving must keep that question in front of them every second of every day.  Because just when you answer the how-do-we-share-God’s-love question for one set of circumstances, those circumstances change, right?

And, let me tell you, we’ve got some circumstances going on these days, don’t we?  War in Ukraine.  Laws in our own country against bodily autonomy, including for women and people who are trans.  Continuing oppression of people of color in our country.  Continuing oppression of people who don’t fit the hetero norm.  

(By the way, I know I’m supposed to be wearing a white stole in the season of Eastertide.  I want you to know that I’m wearing this rainbow stole because every time I step into this pulpit, I want to say gay.  As a cic-gender, white, straight woman, I want everyone to know that I am an ally.  Every time I step into this pulpit, I want people who love differently than the hetero norm to know that God loves you…just as you are.  Amen.  Which means, so be it.)

Oh, we’ve got some circumstances going on these days.  We can’t even do math in the state of Florida any more!  God help us.

Yes.  God, help us.  Help us–in the midst of all the assaults on human dignity going on these days, help us, as a community of Jesus-followers, to create a legacy of love.  (Invite children and parents to come forward.)  Help us to continue working to create a world that welcomes every single one of these little ones.  Give us the courage and imagination we need to respond to assaults on human dignity.  Help us to help our planet heal from our assaults on it so that it will be a safe and healthy place for these little ones to live and grow and thrive.  Help us, God, help us…help us in everything, everything, every single thing we do to create a legacy of love.  In the name of the one who showed us best how to create a legacy of love, Amen.

Music for Reflection:  Little Children, Welcome

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022

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Sermon: “Feed My Sheep” [John 21:1-19] (5/1/2022)

What do you do when life keeps throwing you curveballs, when you wake up every day to a new reality?  After settling into a pattern of working with Jesus to teach and heal, suddenly–boom!  Jesus is arrested and executed.  Then, as you’re trying to wrap your head around that reality–boom!  The word comes that Jesus is alive again.  Then, back in the upper room–boom!  Jesus appears alive again to you and your friends.

For Peter and the other disciples those first days after Jesus’ resurrection, it probably was like a bomb going off every day.  Boom!  It reminds me of a recent service where one of our young ones kept dropping their bottle on the floor–Boom!  Every time, people nearby jumped.  Yeah.  It must have been a little like that for the disciples.  Boom!  Trying to adjust to a new reality every day?  It must have been exhausting.  

What’s the one thing you long for when life keeps changing, keeps throwing you curveballs?  You want something familiar, right?  Something you don’t have to think about.  Something you just do because your body knows how to do it.  The familiar comforts us.  

Which might be why Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”  He was a fisherman.  Catching fish is what he knew.  Before Jesus called him to “follow me,” Peter made his living fishing.  When push comes to shove, when life hands you one change too many, going back to work that is familiar–yes.  It’s comforting.  So, Peter goes fishing..and takes a few of the other disciples with him.

But maybe during those three years of following Jesus their fishing technique had gotten rusty.  Peter and the others “fished all night and caught no fishes.”  Then someone (whisper, It’s Jesus) appears on the shore and asks how their fishing is going.  “Zero, Beach Person.  We’ve caught zero.”  The person on the beach tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  The abundance of fish swimming into the nets nearly overwhelms them.

That’s when someone adds two and two and comes up with four.  “It’s Jesus!”  Boom!  Peter is so excited he dives into the water and swims toward Jesus, leaving his companions to haul in the nets heavy with fish.  No worries, though.  Peter makes up for it later when Jesus asks them to bring some fish to the breakfast he’s prepared.  Peter hauls the whole net-full all by himself.

Two-plus years into the pandemic–that we might be able to call an endemic now?–two years after an onslaught of curveballs, of working every day to adapt to new realities, perhaps we can relate a little to where the disciples were that night fishing in their boat.  How many times in the last two years have you said, “Nope.  That’s it.  I can’t make one more change.  Just give me the TV remote and a carton of cookies and cream ice cream and leave me alone.”?  

Yes.  The familiar brings us comfort.  And short respites where you aren’t having to do anything new are healthy and important.  In the context of faith, we call that practice Sabbath.  But… growth –for individuals and for communities–growth requires change.  Adapting to new realities–that’s what it means to be alive.

If adapting to new realities is a sign of life, then we’re full of it!  (Full of life!)  We’ve been through so many changes; we’ve had to adapt to so many new realities, sometimes daily.  And, y’all.  As a congregation, you have done an amazing job of adapting to new realities the past two years.  For a congregation to get itself through a pandemic without pastoral leadership for most of that time?  That’s part of why I accepted the call to be your pastor.  Because there is something vital, something phenomenal in the DNA of this congregation.  You can adapt.  You want to grow.  You want to thrive.

And…with all the changes that have happened in the last two years–especially, the times we haven’t been able to meet together…meeting together is what churches do, right?  Robbed of that?  Yeah.  All faith communities have and continue to struggle with how to nurture community in ways other than physically meeting together.  But now?  We’re getting closer to how things used to be.  The temptation, of course, is simply to do things how we’ve always done them.

But here’s the thing.  Sitting in our old fishing boat…casting our nets the same way we’ve always cast them…doing things the way we’ve always done them…many of those techniques no longer work.  We can work as hard as we know how doing what we’ve always done–things that worked very well in the past–and then, at the end of the day, have nothing to show for it except sad, droopy, empty nets.

Church is changing.  The biggest change, perhaps, is the way in which we’ve expanded our understanding of “congregation.”  Congregation used to refer to people who came to the church building on Sundays and attended gatherings during the week in person and served others in the wider community together–in person.

Now, some people who used to attend worship faithfully in person attend faithfully online.  Others have found us online and have never–maybe never will–set foot on our property.  For everyone joining us virtually today, we’re glad you’re here!  The Board of Stewards now meets in person once a quarter, then by Zoom the other other months.  Some committees, I suspect, will continue to meet online, simply because it’s easier.  It also helps the planet by reducing carbon emissions.

What does this more expansive understanding of “congregation” mean for us, a church intent on growing and thriving?  After all that’s happened in the last two years–the pandemic and, now, a new pastor, how do we figure out how to do and be church now?  

Maybe we can do what the disciples–Peter, in particular–do:  follow the risen Jesus.

After serving the disciples breakfast–which includes both fish he provided and fish they brought themselves–Jesus takes Peter aside for a private conversation.  The last time Jesus and Peter interacted was just before Jesus’ death…that’s when Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, even as Jesus was being led to his execution.  When the cock crowed–the sign Jesus told him would signal his denial–Peter realized what he’d done and wept bitterly.

John doesn’t tell us why Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him.  One tradition holds that, in asking the question three times, Jesus is inviting Peter to confess his love for Jesus three times, thus neutralizing each denial.  There’s something about that interpretation that feels right.  Chances are good that Peter had some residual baggage from his denial of Jesus.  Clinging to that old baggage was going to hold Peter back from doing the new work that needed to be done.  Perhaps in asking the questions, Jesus was inviting Peter to release the old baggage so that he’d be better prepared to help Jesus’ followers after Jesus left them.  

As we seek to find our way forward, to reinvent our faith post-pandemic, I wonder if we have any old baggage?  We’re human beings.  And not only are we human beings, we’re also part of a community–OF COURSE, we have baggage!  What baggage do we need to let go of in order to free ourselves to find our way forward as a faith community?  I just got here, so I’m not going to hazard any guesses about your baggage.  I am acquainted with my own baggage… It’s a tall task, isn’t it?  Letting go of baggage.  But, oh, if we can, it will free us!

Free us to do what?  “Feed my sheep.”  “Feed my lambs.”  “Feed my sheep.”

This was Jesus’ point, the point of the whole morning with the disciples:  to give them a new vision, new marching orders, a new way to follow him.

Let’s think about this a minute.  Jesus was raised from the dead, right?  Surely, he could have etched a message in the tomb’s stone wall on his way out, right?  “Disciples’ To-Do List:  Feed my sheep.  Feed my lambs.  Feed my sheep.”  He probably could even have etched those little check-off boxes to the left of each task.

But that’s not what Jesus did…because finding their way, living into their new reality, figuring out a new way to follow Jesus in their changed circumstances…it takes time to do that, doesn’t it?  It takes time to assess all the changes, to jettison our baggage, and to envision what following Jesus will look like now…and into the future.

So.  Here we are.  Two and a half weeks into our journey together as pastor and congregation, two years into our life-altering journey with Covid, on the brink of a whole new way of following Jesus.  What’s our vision for moving forward?  How will we feed Jesus’ sheep now?  Two times this month we’ll LITERALLY be feeding Jesus’ sheep.  How else might we heed Jesus’ call to feed his sheep?  Which techniques will continue to work?  Which tried-and-true techniques that used to work will leave us with sad, droopy, empty nets?  Who will we be now, United Church?  Who will we be now, Jesus-followers?  Who will we be now that Jesus is risen and living among us?

What are we going to do now with these nets we’re holding in our hands?  

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022

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