Sermon: “Be Generous” (Luke 17:11-19) [10/9/2022]

 

A colleague told me about the time a friend came out to her.  “We were talking,” she said, “when Lisa told me she’d recently come out.”  My friend confessed that she was surprised by the comment and, quite truthfully, wasn’t sure how she felt about her friend’s coming out…so, she asked one of those good deflecting questions:  “What does that mean for you?”  Lisa responded, “It means I’m gay.”

When she heard that, my friend was greatly relieved.  “Oh!  You’re gay!  What a relief!  When you told me you’d come out, I thought that meant you were a debutante.”

This Tuesday is National Coming Out Day.  Coming out is the process of naming and claiming one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  And coming out isn’t just a one-time event; it’s something that happens again and again and again.  A friend once told me, “Last week, I came out 12 times.”  Another friend said:  I didn’t have a dramatic coming out experience…it’s staying out that’s been hard.  When I feel like so many people feel hatred for me, it’s hard to keep my chin up and think about the goodness and love I feel from God every day.

In many places, being gay, transgender, bisexual, or non-gender conforming is still dangerous.  In some places, it’s illegal.  Even in countries with few legal restrictions, prejudice remains and violence against LGBTQ folks still occurs with alarming regularity.  In our world, naming and claiming one’s sexual orientation or gender identity takes great courage.  We’re so welcoming of folks here at UCT, it’s easy to forget that, outside this place, our LGBTQ siblings don’t always experience the same kind of welcome.

That’s why it’s important we are here.  That’s why it’s important to live and celebrate our mission to welcome everyone in Christ.  That’s why it’s important to create a safe place for folks to be who they are created by God to be, to listen to each other’s stories, to support each other when the world beats us down, to remind each other just how precious each of us is to God.

I suspect that if we asked our LGBTQ friends, most would confess to having struggled at some point in their lives to feel precious in anyone’s eyes, especially God’s.  When basic rights are denied, when threats to one’s personal safety are constant, when people try to change you or call you names, it takes a lot of energy and imagination to believe in your worth.

The same was true for people suffering from leprosy in first century Palestine.  According to Jewish law, here’s a day in the life of a leper:

The person who has leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.”  He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

This business about being unclean was taken seriously in biblical times.  If you were clean, you were in the community; if you were unclean, you were out.  The rationale was that illness resulted from sin.  If you’re living right, you’re healthy.  If you’re unhealthy, then you must be sinning.  And if you’re sinning, you don’t deserve to be in relationship with God.  If you’re sinning, the rest of us don’t want to be in relationship with you…because then we might “catch” your uncleanness.  Then we’ll be cut off from the community and God, too.

Some of us know what it’s like to be excluded from communities.  We’ve been asked to leave churches.  We’ve been thrown out of our families.  We’ve been “disfellowshipped” from our denominations.  Some of us have been told we’re not welcome… and not just folks from the LGBTQ community.  Also disabled folks, divorced folks, unmarried parents…lots of folks.  Others of us, while not explicitly excluded from communities, have been treated in ways that we had no choice but to leave; at some point, the actions of people in the community made it impossible for us to stay.

Exclusion–overt and subtle–is devastating.  It makes us feel small, powerless, unloved, unworthy.  If you’ve ever experienced exclusion, you know just how devastating it can be.

As devastating as overt and subtle exclusion are, though, there is another even more insidious form of exclusion: self-exclusion.  Sometimes we convince ourselves that we don’t deserve to be part of the community…so we exclude ourselves from the full benefits of community membership.  We get involved, but not too involved.  We get to know people, but not too well.  We let ourselves become known, but only superficially.  It’s as if we have an internal leper, something inside that convinces us of our uncleanness, something that tells us we are wrong or less-than or unworthy, something that convinces us we don’t deserve the nurture of a faith community.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about flying on a small plane once that hit turbulence.  As the ride grew rougher, the Archbishop found himself hoping the pilot was white.  The thought shocked him.  He, who had worked so hard to end Apartheid in South Africa, he, who was himself black, he had internalized racism to the point that, in that frightening moment, he assumed a white pilot would be more skilled than a black pilot.  Internalized racism– even in this enlightened individual–continued to diminish him, continued to convince him of his unworthiness.  Internalized racism was, for the Archbishop, something like an internal leper.

Have you ever done that?  Taken a part of yourself that’s just a part of who you are and, because of how other people demonize that part of you, turned yourself into a leper?  Do you have an internal leper, some bit of unhealed suffering deep inside you?

What do we do with our internal lepers?  How do we help them heal?  How do we allow ourselves back into the nurturing embrace of God’s love?  Perhaps we can begin by kissing the leper within.

St. Francis was born to a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy.  As a young man, he lived a profligate life, mostly partying and blowing through his father’s hard-earned money.

Then one day Francis met a person in the road who had leprosy.  Something compelled Francis to go to the suffering man.  When he reached the man, he kissed him.

That kiss changed Francis.  Places inside him that once harbored selfishness and gluttony suddenly were filled with compassion.  Where he’d once focused only on hedonistic pursuits, from the moment of the kiss, compassion for others, especially the poor, became his sole pursuit.  Francis had found the life he was created to live.

As you might imagine, Francis’ family wasn’t pleased.  They disowned him.  As a result, Francis lost his family’s wealth, but his new life came with riches of its own, the most significant of which was Francis becoming his true self.  And a key part of Francis becoming his true self entailed compassionate actions for others.

When we’ve been beaten down by life, it makes sense that we focus on on ourselves.  We do that, first, because we’re just trying to survive.  Then, when we do find acceptance, our focus turns to living life as our true selves.  If you’ve been hiding your whole life, learning how to live as your true self takes time.

The next step–after surviving, after finding acceptance and beginning to live your true life–toward becoming fully human is to share love, acceptance, and resources with others.

Our fearless Finance Committee chair asked if I would preach about stewardship today.  Yes!  I’m all over it!  Let’s go!  Then, last week, I forgot to take up the offering.  And now, Beth might be wondering what this sermon about healing the leper within has to do with stewardship.

In truth, it has everything to do with stewardship.  True generosity is joyous…it comes from a place of love, of compassion inside us…it comes from deep gratitude for all we’ve been given…it comes from healing we’ve experienced…it comes not only from our love for others, but also from our love for ourselves…

The man healed of leprosy who came back to thank Jesus, he got it.  He got that surviving the ostracization of illness and then being healed weren’t the end of the story.  The end of the story is living a life of gratitude.  

Years ago on the TV show, ER, Dr. Mark Green—the show’s star—was dying of a brain tumor.  He, his wife, and his teenage daughter rented a house in Hawaii for Mark’s final days. The family’s time was tense, not only because Mark was dying, but because his daughter, Rachel, teenager that she was, was being rebellious.

Finally, just before Mark dies, he asks Rachel to come talk with him.  She comes near wearing her ever-present sullen expression.  Mark tells her, “I’ve been wondering what one thing I could tell you before I die…what one thing would I want you to remember about me when I’m gone.  It’s finally come to me.  The one thing I want you to remember is this:  ‘Be generous.’”

As we enter this season of what one church calls our “annual giving opportunity,” I encourage us all to be generous…not because I’m the pastor and that’s what I’m supposed to say, not out of guilt, not out of resentment…Let us give out of gratitude for all the love and healing we’ve received…Let us give out of compassion for all who need resources that we can provide… Let us give because when we share with others we become more fully ourselves…  Let us give because it brings us joy…

Be generous…be generous…be generous…

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 (World Communion): “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (Gal. 3:26-28) [10/2/2022]

Perhaps no other passage of Scripture sums up so well the intent of World Communion Sunday as the one we’ve just heard.  Yes, there are differences–big differences–among followers of Jesus.  Sometimes, from our perspective, people who call themselves Christian don’t seem  Christian at all.  Others might say the same of us.  

But for all our differences, we share this ritual in common–the ritual of the table.  Jesus revolutionized the table during his ministry.  Don’t presume to sit in places of honor, he said.  If anybody of stature snubs your invitation to the table, go out and to the highways and byways and ask anyone you see to come to the table.  And don’t check anyone’s ID before you seat them.  In God’s kindom, the table is for every person.  In Christ, we are one.

Celebrating World Wide Communion Sunday each year, we remind ourselves that there are many ways to follow Jesus…and that our own faith journey deepens every time we experience or learn about one of those ways.

One fun way to celebrate World Communion is to offer a variety of breads from many cultures.  Over the years, I remember 20, sometimes 30 different breads brought in by congregants–Irish soda bread, some kind of Hungarian bread, pita, cornbread.  Some people thought all year about which bread they were going to bring the next World Communion Sunday.  I suspect in future World Communion services, we’ll do the same.  

This year, we’re going to use Challah, the Jewish braided bread we’ve been using the past couple of months.  Challah is the traditional bread eaten for the Sabbath meal each week.  I like to use Challah for communion for two reasons–first, it connects us with the Judeo part of our Judeo-Christian tradition.  Second, as we come to the table, its braids remind us that we are all interconnected; as members of the body of Christ, our lives are intertwined.

The story I’m about to tell isn’t about Christian unity, but it does illustrate the power of the table…and how what happens at a shared table can change the world.

Derek Black was raised by his parents in West Palm Beach.  Don and Chloe Black are staunch white supremacists and raised their son in its tenets.  After third grade, Don and Chloe pulled Derek out of his mostly-Hispanic school and began home-schooling him.

A bright child, Derek learned his parents’ lessons well.  Throughout his childhood, Derek and Don traveled all over the South attending gatherings of white supremacists.  Don eventually started a website for white supremacists called Stormfront.  When he was 13, Derek created a Stormfront website for children.  

As a teenager, Derek distinguished himself as an articulate, clear-thinking leader.  His father began to wonder if Derek might be the next great hope for the white supremacists.  By this time, Don and Derek were doing a daily radio show where the so-called “white genocide” taking place in our country was discussed in depth.  Again, Derek’s calm, clear-thinking demeanor established him as a leader for the movement.

After attending a community college, Derek transferred to New College of Florida in Sarasota.  Because New College was and is known for being just about as liberal as a college can get, it seemed an odd choice for a white supremacist.  But Derek was interested in studying medieval history and New College had a strong history program.

Not wanting to draw attention to himself, Derek kept mostly to himself and didn’t announce his views around campus.  Always interested in people, though, Derek did make some friends, including an immigrant from Peru and an Orthodox Jew.

The next summer, while he was vacationing in Europe–which included a visit to his godfather’s cabin, David Duke–a New College student, who had discovered Derek’s posts on Stormfront, outed him as a white supremacist on the school’s online forum.  The responses were swift and strong…from, “Maybe he’s trying to get away from a life he didn’t choose,” to  “I just want this guy to die a painful death along with his entire family.  Is that too much to ask?”  When Derek returned to campus the next Fall, he no longer felt safe and moved off campus.  

An Orthodox Jew, Derek’s friend Matthew hosted Shabbat dinners every Friday for 8-10 people.  The intimate gatherings became a high point of the week for the diverse array of friends.

When his friends learned Derek was a white supremacist, they were surprised.  They’d always found Derek to be a thoughtful, interested listener and a good friend.  What they were learning didn’t square with who they’d known him to be.  

When the truth of Derek’s ideology sank in, most of his friends felt betrayed.  How could Derek keep something so significant from them?

Matthew had an idea.  Why not invite Derek to Shabbat one Friday evening?  The first Friday Derek came to the Shabbat meal, most of the regulars stayed away.  Matthew was clear that the purpose of Derek’s coming was simply to share the meal, not to try to change his ideology.  Those gathered discussed ideas and classes well into the night.

After that first night, Matthew kept inviting Derek, and Derek kept coming.  Eventually, most of the other Shabbat regulars came back, too.

Eventually–it took a couple of years–the extended conversations with his friends and lots of research (Derek is an intellectual) Derek realized that his white supremacist ideology no longer made sense.  He studied medieval history, in part, to search for what he thought were the foundations of white supremacy.  His research showed him instead that, during the Middle Ages, white Europeans were, in large part, following the lead of Islamic intellectuals.  He also learned–contrary to what he’d been taught–that there is no correlation between race and IQ.  In fact, he realized that race isn’t genetic at all, but rather is a social construct often used to subjugate marginalized people.  

Derek’s story is told in a book titled Rising Out of Hatred.  I highly recommend it…especially, if more of the specifics of how his thinking changed are of interest to you.

Today, I share Derek’s story with you to demonstrate the power of the table, of breaking bread together.  When we eat together, something happens, doesn’t it?  When I sat down at one end of the porch at our last potluck and saw all of us seated, eating, talking with each other, I experienced this moment of light, and I thought, This is the kin-dom of God.  When we prepare food, when we eat food together, yes.  Beth Horvath had it right–God shows up, love shows up.

Because he had such a wide public forum before his awakening, Derek still struggles with how to make up for the harmful ideas he introduced…which is a reminder that the world doesn’t change by flipping toggle switches–everything’s bad one minute and good the next.  No, the world changes one conversation, one letter, one email…one table at a time.  

As we celebrate World Wide Communion, as we continue living into the reality that followers of Jesus are one in Christ and that all human beings are one in love, as we remember that we are all connected and that our lives intertwine, I wonder…who else might we invite to our table?

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: “We Are Stardust” (Psalm 8) [9/25/2022]

Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young) || Woodstock (We Are Stardust)

Is that not the most brilliant song ever?  I was too young when Woodstock happened to even know it was going on, but I do remember this song from the background of my childhood.  Reading Joni Mitchell’s lyrics as an adult, as a preacher committed to environmental justice, and as a musician, this song blows me away.

“I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm, I’m gonna join in a rock ‘n’ roll band, I’m gonna camp out on the land, I’m gonna try an’ get my soul free.”  This idea of getting back to the land, of making music on the land being a path soul-freedom… It feels very wise, doesn’t it?  And it feels absolutely true.  Might be why I like singing on the porch so much.  🙂

“We are stardust, We are golden, And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  I don’t know if Joni Mitchell had her Bible open to Psalm 8 while she was writing “Woodstock,” but she could have.  Like the psalmist, the chorus of the song goes from stardust to the garden, from the moon and stars to the creation around us.  “When I behold your heavens, The work of your fingers, The moon and the stars that you set in place” to “putting all things at our feet– sheep, oxen, birds, fish…”

Fun fact.  Psalm 8 was the first biblical text to reach the moon.  “The Apollo 11 mission left a silicon disc containing messages from 73 nations, including the Vatican, which contributed the text of Psalm 8.”  Cool, huh?

What is the connection between the moon and stardust and the ground beneath our feet?  What does that connection mean for us 21st century folk?

When Belinda read Psalm 8, you might have heard that the first verse and the last verse are identical:  Yahweh, our Sovereign, How majestic is your Name in all the Earth!  One commentator explains:  “The word ‘name’ (shem) connotes character and essence; which means that everything in the world gives evidence of God’s sovereign activity.”  So, when the psalmist repeats the line about God’s name being majestic in all the Earth, they’re saying, basically, that God is–in the imagery of the time–KING of the universe.  

But God’s sovereignty isn’t the end of the story.  Not by a long shot, because in God’s sovereignty, God has chosen us– human beings–to help tend creation.

In many ways, Psalm 8 fleshes out Genesis 1:26-28.  That’s the passage about being created in the image of God we looked at last week.  God created the universe, then God created us…to be “barely less than God,” a.k.a., God created us in God’s image.  God “crowned us with glory and honor.”  And with that glory and honor and God-like-ness, comes responsibility:  “You have made us responsible for the works of your hands, putting all things at our feet–All sheep and oxen, yes, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea.”

Last week, we celebrated the fact that “God gives us ourselves.”  Being created in the image of God, then living our lives as the exact creatures God made us to be…it’s the biggest gift in the universe.  Period.

Another profound gift God has given us is entrusting creation to our care.  God has chosen to partner with us in caring for creation…which means that God has chosen to share power with humans, to co-create with us.  One writer suggests that “God’s ‘name’ or reputation is bound up with the human performance of dominion.”  

So…how are we doing?  If God’s reputation depends on human performance of dominion, or stewardship, of creation, how’s God’s name now?

The writer goes on to say that, “to fail to take seriously the central importance of humanity in God’s plan for the creation is to abdicate the God-given responsibility to be partners with God in caring for the earth.”

I try not to beat up on people in sermons I preach.  I got a lot of that in sermons I heard growing up Baptist.  I didn’t find that approach to be very effective in motivating people to change their ways.

But this Psalm…it says so clearly that God has given us responsibility for caring for creation…and we can see just how sick our planet is, just how much critical care creation needs right now…and not just things like recycling and driving energy efficient cars, but in working for national legislation that builds on the Inflation Reduction Act to mitigate the effects of climate change now.

We see and know all of this.  And yet, only four people have stepped up to serve on the newly-forming Green Team, and two of the four are only committing to part-time work.  Again, this isn’t a beating up on us kind of thing…I do wonder, though, about the lack of response for this vital work.  Are we too busy?  Are we going in too many different directions?  Because we aren’t experiencing directly the most dire circumstances created by climate change, is strong, active participation in climate justice just not on our radar screens?

It might be a little bit of all of that.  I know my head spins sometimes with all the different things our UCT community is doing.  And every last one of those things is so important!  But environmental justice work might be the most critical work we can do.  If we don’t tend to that work, none of the rest of the work we’re doing will matter because everything we know–including us–will be gone.

Okay, Pastor.  Time to turn it around.  Time to give us some hope.

Ah!  There IS hope!  Because…we are stardust.  Stardust!  For the science nerds among us, here’s a brief explanation from the American Museum of Natural History of precisely how we are stardust.

“Every atom of oxygen in our lungs, of carbon in our muscles, of calcium in our bones, of iron in our blood – was created inside a star before Earth was born.  Hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, were produced in the Big Bang.  Almost all of the other, heavier, elements were produced inside stars.  Stars forge heavy elements by fusion in their cores.  In a star of intermediate mass, these elements can mix into the star’s atmosphere and be spread into space through stellar winds.  During the supernova explosion of a massive star is the only time when elements heavier than iron are fused. The supernova expels this material across interstellar space.  The enriched material ejected by stellar winds and supernova explosions becomes part of vast interstellar clouds. The Sun formed within such a cloud, where some of the heavy elements condensed to form Earth.”  And those elements  form…us. https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/the-universe/stars/a-spectacular-stellar-finale/we-are-stardust

Here’s how astronomer Carl Sagan explained it:  “Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.  The cosmos is within us.”   

The cosmos is within us.  Particles from some of those nebulae we’re seeing from the Webb telescope could well be floating around inside us.  Because the images we’re seeing occurred thousands of years ago.  Oh, we don’t have time to get into the time-space continuum… unless we hitched a ride on the Webb telescope…maybe…

If we are stardust, if we attend to the bits of the universe that live inside us, I suspect we’ll find the wisdom and insight we need to engage in our environmental justice work with more vigor.  Come on!  We’re just a little less than God!  Surely, us God-imaged, stardust-riddled beings are wise enough, strong enough, imaginative enough to speed along Earth’s healing!  

To help us reflect on how we might–as individuals and as a community–re-engage with our work for environmental justice, we’re offering a ritual.  On the face of it, it’ll look like the imposition of ashes we do for Ash Wednesday.  There will be ashes.  There also will be glitter!  We are made from dust and to dust we will return, it’s true.  It’s also true that we are made of stardust.

In this ritual, the invitation is to remember your own frailty.  Perhaps you’ll want to confess the ways you’ve not always cared for creation in the ways you’d like.  At the same time, you’re invited to remember that you are created in God’s image, that there is within you a divine spark…the invitation is to remember that you are stardust.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022

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Sermon: “The Poetry of Creation” (Ps. 104:14-23) [9/11/2022]

        “They should have sent a poet!”  That’s what scientist Ellie Arroway says when the hatch on her space capsule opens to a new, breathtaking world.  “There are no words to describe it!” she says.  “It’s so beautiful.  I had no idea.”  In the book Contact, by Carl Sagan, Ellie has complete confidence in science’s ability to answer all the questions posed by the universe…until she makes contact with a part of that universe that overwhelms her with its beauty.  At that point, the data and dicta of science fall short.  At that point, she needs a different kind of language, one that will help her express her awe, her wonder, her love for creation.

When I first began planning September worship services around Earth care and climate justice, I went straight for the science books.  I read lots of books.  I wanted to know everything I could about the problems confronting the environment.  I read about global warming and carbon footprints and carbon content in the atmosphere…I read about the dire straits of phytoplankton and coral reefs and fresh water supplies…I read about expanding deserts and shrinking ice caps and sinking islands…. I tried to learn everything I could about what was happening to creation at the molecular level so that I could speak knowledgeably about those things to my congregation.

       After a couple of years of reading about the science of Earth’s dis-ease, I realized that, when it came to the Season of Creation, I’d been thinking “they should’ve sent a scientist.”  Despite the fact that I’m not a scientist, I’d been trying to convince congregants to do the right thing with Earth care because science tells us we should.  

       But what we do here on Sunday mornings isn’t science class.  It’s worship.  And the biblical texts we get for the Season of Creation aren’t science texts.  This year we get Job, Proverbs, and Psalms–wisdom literature that comes to us in the form of, you guessed it, poetry.

       As people of faith, we have a calling to care for Earth.  And caring for Earth does require scientific knowledge.  But science isn’t the primary language of faith.  It informs our faith, but it doesn’t by itself adequately express our faith.  When it comes to caring for creation, we need something more.  We need a language that will help us express our awe, wonder, and love.

       We need something like Psalm 104, a poem that praises God as creator…a song that shows how interconnected all creation is…a confession of compassion for all living things.  For the most part, scientific language is a language of distance.  In order to observe something, a certain disinterested remove is necessary.  Not so with poetry.  Poetry assumes an intimate relationship between the poet and that about which she writes.

I suspect that’s why Ellie yearned for a poet when the hatch of her spaceship opened.  Her native language—science—necessarily distanced her from what she was experiencing.  In that moment, overwhelmed with the beauty of what she saw, she hungered for a deeper, more relational form of expression.  She needed a poem. 

Lucky for us, we have this poem, Psalm 104…a poem that celebrates the inter- connectedness of all living things.  Listen. 

“You cause the grass to grow for the cattle.”  It’s not, God, thank you for the grass; Thank you for the cows.  No, it’s—“You cause grass to grow FOR the cattle.”  That shows the relationship between animals and plants.  Likewise, “plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth.”  There we see relationships among people, plants, and soil.  Oh, here’s a good one!  “And wine to gladden the human heart.” (v.15)  Sometimes it’s okay to read the Bible literally.  “Oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.”

       And lest we think creation is just for us, the psalmist describes relationships among other living things, too.  “The trees of God are watered abundantly”–trees and water.  “The cedars of Lebanon that were planted”–trees and soil.  “In them, the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees.”  Where would birds be without trees?  “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.”  Ever heard of a coney?  Best I can tell, it’s a stocky little ruminant that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a mole.

       The psalmist goes on, now focusing on the relationships between creatures and the sun and moon.  “You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.  You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.  The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.  When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.  People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.”

       The psalmist wasn’t a scientist, but the interconnectedness of all created things celebrated in this psalm does represent an important scientific concept:  biodiversity.  Naturalist John Muir said that “When we pick out a single thing in nature, we find it connected to everything else in the universe.”  And by virtue of that connection, every single thing that exists is interdependent with every other thing in the universe.  Biodiversity means that we’re all in this thing together.

       Here’s the scientific piece of all this, greatly simplified for (and from) my non-scientific brain.  Diversity among species is a good thing—biology depends on it.  Crop rotation makes for healthier fields.  A garden planted with different species of plants in close proximity deals with fewer weeds and bugs.  Animals, insects and all sorts of other creatures live—and thrive–in a delicate balance in all their respective environmental milieux.

       Species diversity is good—and necessary— to the continuation of life on our planet.  And yet, “’We are experiencing the greatest wave of extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs,’ says Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.  ‘Extinction rates are rising by a factor of up to 1,000 above natural rates.  Every hour, three species disappear.  Every day, up to 150 species are lost.  Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct,’ he said.  ‘The cause: human activities.’”  (Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, 417)   

Do you ever wonder where species go when they become extinct?  I’m talking about the cells of their bodies, the atoms of their habitats.  Biomass is the technical term for it.  In 1965—the year I was born– human biomass was 50 million tons; in 2010, it was 100 million.  From where did the extra 50 million tons of biomass come?  It came from other species.  As author Daniel Quinn says:  “The biomass we have added to the human race in the past 45 years has been taken, little by little, day by day, from the species around us…We are literally turning 150 species a day into human tissue” (Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, 432-446). 

So, as people of faith, what is the answer to earth’s ills, particularly to the unchecked annihilation of species?  As people of faith, the answer is to remember how much we love this planet and every living thing…. because every living thing was created by God and bears God’s image.  As poet and pastor Bruce Sanguin says it:  “Every body and every thing is a Post-It Note calling us back to a genetic covenant of love.  Thank you,” the poet says to God, “for being there, and there, and there…”  As people of faith we are called to remember our interconnectedness and interdependence with all living things…because we are all—every animal, plant, person, and microbe—part of God’s body.

I’ll close with another of Sanguin’s poems.  This one is called “A Harvest of Quirkiness” and comes from a book titled If Darwin Prayed:  Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics.

Gracious God,

How can creation sing your praises,

except with the red wings of blackbirds

flashing across blue sky,

and the croak and splash of frogs

playing hide-and-seek in the ponds?

How can the firmament proclaim your handiwork,

except in the wagging tail of a puppy,

and the focused attention of a toddler

soaking in the wonder of it all?

How can the heavens proclaim your glory,

except through a morning sun rising upon gold-green grass,

lighting up the face of lovers as Earth spins them

once more into a new day?

Your beauty and goodness, O Immanent One,

requires Earth’s diversity

and our own wildness,

breaking down—and out of—

the monotony of prescribed patterns,

choosing rather to take our place

in the dancing procession

of differentness,

the variegated life of Christ finding expression

in this body of the church

and the bodies of our kin-creatures.

Make a harvest, O Holy One,

of our quirkiness,

that we might be your radiant presence.

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

Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  (2013) 2022

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Sermon: “The Best Thing in All Creation!” (Mark 1:9-11; Mark 10:13-16; Psalm 104:24-26) [9/4/2022]

It’s a full day here at United Church in Tallahassee!  Baptisms, communion, AND the beginning of our month-long celebration of the liturgical season of creation.  It’s a lot to weave together in one worship service!  But we get a good start with today’s Season of Creation theme:  Oceans.  Oceans.  Water.  Baptism!

In the UCC, we celebrate two sacraments:  communion and baptism.  “Sacrament” is a church-y word for rituals that help us connect to God through the material stuff of life…like water and food.  Through these elements, we encounter the one who created the elements.  Today, we’ll have multiple opportunities to encounter the one who created water, wheat, grapes…and these two beautiful babies.

At UCT, we have communion the first Sunday of every month.  Baptism?  It’s been a while…so long, in fact, that we had to put out an APB on the baptismal font.  After we found it, it took a village of us to figure out how to assemble it.  Initially, when I asked Kathryn if she knew about the baptismal font, she said, “What?  Like Times New Roman?  Arial?”  Um, yes.  I think it’s time we got back into the practice of baptizing people!  Many thanks to Erica, Rachel, Rose, and Caroline and Melia for getting us reacquainted with this important sacrament!  

Each of today’s Scripture readings sheds light on this poly- sacramental day.

The one about children coming to Jesus.… Yes.  Living our faith is a life-long thing!  Just because these babies don’t yet have the capacity to choose the way of Jesus, that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of our community.  Of course, they are!  That’s why we have the ritual of baptism, or in some traditions, baby dedications–it’s to remind us that, as these children’s community, we’re committing ourselves to helping their mom raise them in the way of Jesus. When they’re ready to choose the faith for themselves, we’ll be off the hook.  As a confirmand in another church I served told the congregation, “You’ve done your work.  I’ll take it from here.”

The scripture about Jesus’ own baptism demonstrates what baptism is all about.  That moment Jesus comes up out of the water, when he sees the heavens open and a dove descend and hears the words, “You are my child, my beloved.  With you I am well-pleased?”  Yes!  Baptism is all about the one being baptized receiving the love and acceptance God’s lavishes on us.

The thing is, those precious babies aren’t able to understand what I’m saying today…. which means, it’s our job to remind them over and over again– “You are God’s precious child!  God loves you.  We love you.  We are your village.”  Y’all.  I’m very serious about this.  These babies…are our babies.  In this ritual today, we’re dedicating ourselves to being these babies’ community, to making sure they know they are loved–by us and by God.

In contemplating my own personal commitment to Holland and Harper, I’ve wondered what it will mean to be a pastor to children who are Black.  Listening to parents of Black children, I know that parenting children who are Black involves myriad layers of heavy concern.  I didn’t even know about “the Talk” until a few years ago. These babies are so cute!  I know y’all form a line at the nursery door after church each Sunday to see them.  You can’t help yourselves.

But the covenant we’re making today with Holland, Harper, and their mom is about way more than looking at them and holding them and playing with them…as important as all that is.  Our job is to let these precious children know they are loved in a world that won’t always value who they are.  For me–perhaps for many of us–that learning curve is going to be steep.  

Because of the way our world is structured, those of us with less melanin in our skin have the luxury of not having to think about a lot of things.  But now that we are baptizing these particular precious babies, we are making a conscious decision to think about what it means to raise babies with more melanin in their skin.  

As a white person, it’s overwhelming to think about everything I’m going to have to learn to help Erica raise these babies in the real world we’re living in.  But, you know.  I’m just going to have to get over myself on that… because if I don’t do that bit of learning, if I don’t learn better how to nurture children with Black skin in a world made for whiteness, then the commitment I make today isn’t going to mean a hill of beans.  Committing ourselves to nurturing these children into the way of Jesus?  It’s a commitment to do everything we can to make these particular precious people feel safe and loved in the real world we’re living in.

You might sense by now that I take baptism VERY seriously.  When I made the move to the UCC from the Baptists, I had to think long and hard about infant baptism, which isn’t practiced in Baptist churches.  But when I learned about infant baptism–especially its emphasis on the vows the community makes to nurture the children into the faith…I never turned back.  Baptism is for the babies and their momma, but mostly it’s for us.  Because if we–as a community–can mindfully commit ourselves to nurturing these children into faith?  That will lay the foundation of everything else–everything else!–we do as a congregation.  

Today’s passage from Psalm 104 places everything we’re doing today in the context of the entire universe.  Early in the planning process, Erica sent me photographs that have just begun coming in from NASA’s new deep space telescope.  Then she confessed:  “I’m a Trekkie.”

Children and the universe…who didn’t dream of being an astronaut growing up?  Something about children and space goes together, doesn’t it?  Just look to see who will hitch a ride on the Artemis 1 rocket when it launches.  (Pictures)

Yes.  In each of these children’s eyes, we see glimpses of the universe.  And looking at photographs from the new telescope…somehow, it brings our children to mind.  

Maybe the point isn’t to figure out all the connections.  Maybe the point is simply to think about these babies, to think about the universe, and when we hold these babies to know we are holding the absolute best the universe has to offer.

What say we get these babies baptized!

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2022

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Sermon: “Hard to Be Humble?” (Luke 14:1, 7-14 and Luke 18:9-14) [8/28/2022]

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble // when you’re perfect in every way.

I can’t wait to look in the mirror // ‘cause I get better looking each day.

To know me is to love me // I must be one real righteous man.

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble // but I’m doing the best that I can.

Mac Davis – It’s Hard to Be Humble (January 21, 1942 – September 29, 2020)

         Based on how Jesus portrays him in this parable, humility does seem hard for the Pharisee.  He comes to the temple to pray, to have a little one-on-one time with God, and in the midst of praying, notices someone across the way, someone everyone knows is a sinner… which, happily, reminds the Pharisee of just how good he himself is. 

Now, there’s a great reason to keep your eyes open while you pray.  It gives you a chance to look around, compare yourself to others, and assure yourself—and God—of just how good you really are.  When the Pharisee does his prayer-peeking and compares himself to his fellow pray-er, he hits the jackpot.  He’s no sinner!  He’s no thief or rogue or tax collector, like that guy over there!  He fasts twice a week.  He tithes.  “I thank you, God, that I’m not like that loser over there!”  Rather than praying to God and giving thanks for all he has, the Pharisee tells God how good he, the Pharisee, is.  How lucky God must be to know him!

Luke tells us that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  Jesus “told this parable to some, some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”  So, if we don’t trust in ourselves that we are righteous, can we just skip this parable?  

         I guess we could skip this parable…but if we trust in ourselves that we don’t trust in ourselves, um, aren’t we trusting in ourselves?  Man.  That Jesus was a sneaky one!  I guess we’d better stick with it…just to be safe.  

         Whether Pharisee, tax collector, or innocent bystander, what might this parable say to us?

         It’s a story, right?  The formula likely would have been familiar to the hearers.  Kind of like, “A priest, a rabbi, and a Baptist preacher go into a bar….”  A joke like that works because of characteristics we’ve come to associate with priests, rabbis, and Baptist preachers.  The priest is going to refer to the Pope; the rabbi is going to refer to worshiping on Saturday; and the Baptist preacher is going to take up an offering.  That’s just how the format works.

         So, when Jesus starts out, “Two men went to the Temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector,” the hearers would have been prepared for the Tax Collector to be the butt of the joke.  Because everybody hated tax collectors.  And Pharisees were some of the most faithful people there were, at least according to the Pharisees.  So, when they heard the beginning of the story, Jesus’ hearers probably were settling in for a story about how the tax collector was a sinner.

         Except, that’s not what Jesus does, is it?  He turns the predictable formula on its head when the Pharisee prays loudly about all the sins he hasn’t committed and the Tax Collector prays fervently for all the sins he has committed.  And who goes to his house justified?  The faithful Pharisee?  Nope.  It’s the Tax Collector.  And why?  Because he is humble. 

         Humility.  Now there’s a popular topic.  Mac Davis is right.  It’s hard to be humble….but not as hard as I once thought it was, not since I discovered the Rule of Benedict.

         Benedict wrote his Rule in 5th c Italy.  He’d been living in community but then had enough of that and went to live in a cave as a hermit.  He was happy in his cave, but a group of men who wanted to live as monks found him and asked him to be their leader.  Old Ben sighed deeply, then relented.  The Rule represents his ideas about what it takes to live in community.

         The Rule is the longest continuously used monastic guidelines in existence.  It’s over 1500 years old.  It’s the Rule followed by the nuns at “my” monastery, Our Lady of Grace.

         The thing I like about the Rule is how practical it is.  If someone doesn’t read well, Benedict says, they shouldn’t be a reader in worship.  If someone doesn’t sing well, please don’t ask them to be the cantor.  And that first psalm everyone sings at prayer?  Sing it slowly and sing all the verses…that’ll give people who are running late time to get there.  And for heavens’ sake, please don’t pray long prayers.  Nobody likes that.  My favorite practical tidbit is to give yourself time to go to the bathroom before you come to prayer.

         The chapter I didn’t like initially was chapter 7, the one on humility.  Benedict outlined 12 steps of humility.  And in contrast to the rest of the Rule, it’s pretty harsh sounding stuff.  Closer to humiliation than humility.

         Which is why I’m glad Sr. Joan Chittister has “translated” Benedict’s idea of humility into 21st century terms.  I won’t go into all the 12 steps…you can read Sr. Joan’s book for that.  If you boil the Benedictine concept of humility down to its basics, though, it means to “understand (our) place in the universe,” to have a sense of our unique place in life, the only place we are put together to occupy.  (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, 55)  We don’t think of ourselves more highly than we are; we don’t think of ourselves more lowly than we are.  True humility is knowing ourselves as we are, which is knowing ourselves as God knows us.

When we know—and accept—ourselves as we are, it becomes so much easier to accept others as they are.  It’s when we start inflating–or deflating–our own worth that we become annoyed with or disdainful of or afraid of others.  If we are in sync with our own location in the world, other people occupying their place in the world won’t bother or threaten us.

So, when the Pharisee spends all that time in his prayer inflating his own worth and deflating the Tax Collector’s, he’s not being honest about himself.  He’s not being honest with himself.  He’s not being himself.  Instead of using his prayer to connect with God, he uses it to hide from God.  Not being honest about his own foibles, he’s not able to receive justification or grace from God.  How can you receive forgiveness and grace if you never acknowledge you’ve done anything wrong?  The Pharisee leaves the Temple that day exactly the way he came in.  Which, when you think about it, is just plain sad.

The Tax Collector, though, goes home “justified.”  Why?  Because he knows he is a sinner.   As a tax collector, he was part of a corrupt system that gouged the poor and enriched the wealthy.  (NIB, 215-17)   When he goes to the Temple that day, the Tax Collector understands his place in the universe.  He’s remorseful for taking more than he needs…and exploiting the poor in the process.  Aware of himself and his sin, the Tax Collector comes clean before God.  And because he comes clean—with himself and with God—he is able to experience forgiveness.  And grace.  And wholeness.  He goes home justified.  He goes home feeling God’s love.  He goes home a new, more humble man.

One of writer Anne Lamott’s prayers sums up well the prayer of the humble.  “God, please help me not to be such an ****.”  There you go.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus seems fixated on this humility thing.  He just keeps wanting us to be who we are created to be, to know our one place in the universe…

Even at the table…maybe especially at the table.  Don’t presume to take the places of honor at the table when invited for a meal.  Take the seat of lowest honor.  It could be that the host will invite you to sit in a different place, or maybe not.  Simply come as yourself and enjoy the meal, the fellowship.

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our beloved Sue.  If ever there were a truly humble person, it was Sue Bunch.  By the way she lived her life–with compassion and intention–you could see that Sue fully inhabited her one place in the universe.  She didn’t think of herself more highly than she was; she didn’t think of herself more lowly than she was.  She was, simply, Sue…the Sue God created her to be.

As we continue trying to figure out how to live in a Sue-less world, we’ll do well to follow her humble example–not to think of ourselves more highly than we are, not to think of ourselves as more lowly than we are.  The best way to honor Sue’s life will be to simply be ourselves, to find our one place in the universe, settle into that place, and breathe in God’s love…breathe out God’s love…breathe in…breathe out…

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©  2013, 2022

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Sermon: “Helping Each Other Stand” (Luke 13:10-17) [8/21/2022]

She’d been bent and twisted for 18 years.  If she were with us today, she’d been bent and twisted since 2004.

Take a minute to imagine what life was like for the woman.  The invitation is to do this in your imagination or IRL–in real life–that is, actually stand up, bend over, and walk around a little.  What might it have been like only to see the ground for 18 years?  What might it have done to the woman’s social life?  Her family life?  How might it have affected the rest of her health?  Imagine what it must have been like to live twisted and bent for 18 years.  (Pause)

Now, imagine feeling the gentle touch of a hand on your back…a hand!  Simply to be touched…it had been so long…And not just touched, but…what was that warmth emanating from that hand?  And the words… “Set free from my weakness?”  Yes!  Something tight inside is uncurling….What for almost 2 decades has seemed impossible suddenly seems possible.  You straighten, pain-free…and look into the eyes of your healer.  Then you do the only thing you can do:  You give loud praise to the Great Spirit!  You might even do a little thank you Jesus dance.

Oh, to be healed!  To be set free from weakness!  When our physical health is restored, our emotional and spiritual lives soar.  Such joy!  And when someone else is healed, the joy spills over to just about everybody else.

Almost about everybody else…

When the twisted woman stands up straight, set free from her weakness…and when she starts her joyful celebration, the “head man,” as the First Nations Version calls him, protests.  He protests the woman’s healing.  You see, Jesus has healed someone–that is, he has worked– on the Sabbath.  In the law, working on the Sabbath is forbidden.  There are six other days of the week to heal; do your healing work then, NOT on the Sabbath!

An aside in the First Nations Version says that Jesus looked at the head man with sorrow and anger.  If Jesus was sad, it’s likely because the head man didn’t get it.  Mired in the letter of the law, he missed its spirit.  Because of his stranglehold on the law, the head man wasn’t able to experience the joy–the miracle–of the woman’s healing.

If Jesus was angry, it might have been directed at the head man’s real goal:  clinging to power, a power that came from policing religious law.  If Jesus is going to flaunt the law, where will the head man be then?  Powerless.  In his mind, there’s only one thing the head man can do:  protest.  If Jesus is angry, perhaps it’s because, once again, the religious structure that’s in place ignores and diminishes the needs of the folks living in need on the margins of their society.

“Healing” is a soft, comforting word.  Everybody wants to be healed, right?  That’s a big part of what we do here at UCT…we create space for people to heal from the wounds the world has inflicted.  Many of us come to church bent and twisted, looking for some help in standing up straight.  And when that healing comes?  What joy!

Yes, “healing” is a comforting word.  AND…it also can be disruptive.  If the social or religious structures in place thrive on people’s weakness, what happens when those weak ones experience healing?  They gain power, right?  And if the powerless gain power, what happens to those who benefit from the current power structures?   No wonder the head man felt threatened.  

Yesterday, here at the church, we heard an essay written by Leonard Scovens and read by Leonard’s grandmother, Joan Livezey.  For those who are new to UCT, 23 years ago Leonard Scovens murdered the daughter and grandson–Pat and Chris–of UCT member, Agnes Furey.  Shortly after her daughter’s and grandson’s deaths, Agnes wrote to Leonard. Until her death from Covid a year ago tomorrow, the two came into relationship and asked what it would take for each of them to heal.  Their conversations through the letters they wrote, led them to work for a transformation of our criminal justice system through restorative justice.  Eventually, Leonard joined UCT.  He is one of us.

As I listened to Leonard’s words yesterday, today’s sermon floating through my mind, something Leonard wrote resonated.  When Leonard suggests that people who are incarcerated need to be healed, guards resist, sometimes violently.  Leonard says that the stance of the guards–of the entire criminal justice system–is that “prisoners should be punished, not healed.” 

Can you imagine what would happen if people who are incarcerated were healed?  Recidivism rates would plummet, right?  Then what would happen?  Prisons would be emptied.  Profits would dwindle.  The power of those who benefit from our criminal justice system would drain away.  No!  Absolutely not!  Prisoners healed?  No way!

In response to the head man’s protest, Jesus calls his bluff by reminding him that if the head man’s horse needs a drink on the Sabbath, he’ll give the horse a drink–that is, that even the head man makes exceptions to keeping the Sabbath.  If the head man will break the Sabbath to give his horse a drink, why not heal this woman?

The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus’ enemies are shamed by Jesus’ words, but the hearts of the people jumped for joy because of the wonderful things he was doing.

To be healed is to be empowered.  After healing from two foot surgeries–a process that took a couple of years–I was empowered to go on walks again.  I am blessed beyond measure that those healing surgeries were available to me.  

Sometimes, though, healing comes from learning to live with physical limitations.  A 2001 documentary about Ram Dass called Fierce Grace chronicles Ram’s journey of living with the effects of a stroke.  In one scene, the camera captures Ram’s slow process of getting into a car’s passenger seat.  Asked if he’s frustrated about his inability to drive, Ram says, “If I get into the passenger seat thinking I’m a driver, I’m frustrated.  If I get into the passenger seat as a passenger, I enjoy the ride.”  Sometimes, the deepest healing comes in accepting our limitations.

By whatever means it comes, healing empowers us.  If we are intentional about it, communities like ours can be a great source of healing.  Think of UCT as a power plant.  We empower people through providing a space for them to heal.  Then together, we healed people can help heal the world.  What we do here is…miraculous.

I recently learned about St. Augustine’s take on miracles.  An African leader of the church in the 4th and 5th centuries,  “Augustine claimed that what the Bible calls miraculous has more to do with timing than with anything else.  According to Augustine, miracles are those moments when, for reasons of God’s own, the Holy One chooses to do quickly what that One usually does at a more deliberate pace”  (John Claypool, The Hopeful Heart, 41).

So here’s what I wonder.  I wonder if the bent-over woman came to the synagogue that Sabbath because that’s what she always did on the Sabbath.  I wonder if the people in her faith community watched for her each Sabbath, helped her to her seat, and gathered the things she would need for services.  I wonder if those same people helped her during the week… bringing her food, helping her with tasks around the house, maybe even enlisting a massage therapist to ease the pain in her back.

I wonder if the care of the woman’s community prepared her for the healing Jesus brought.  I wonder if the real miracle was a slow one, 18 years in the making.  The Gospel writer gives us no hint of anything that happened before the woman’s healing…but it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

An update on my journey with the Gospel song, I Need You to Survive.  Written by David Frazier and popularized by Hezekiah Walker, it’s one of the most powerful songs I’ve encountered.  On a recent retreat, I was asked to play the song on guitar while my friend, the songbird, Dana, sang it.  I’m sad to say that I did not play the song well.  At all.  I butchered it.

So, I tried to learn it on piano.  The going was very slow.  My learning to play it definitely was going to take one of those slow miracles.  As I fretted and prayed for God to send a Gospel pianist, there was a knock on the door.  Rev. Jarvis Alls generously let me film him playing I Need you to Survive.  We sang it a couple of Sundays ago.

That Sunday, as she greeted me after service, Tulani said, “I’m going to teach you how to sing that song the right way.”  Caroline said she’d help.  Looks like I butchered it again.  Sigh.

Last Sunday, Erica and I were talking about the baptisms of her two beautiful children, Holland and Harper.  (September 4th!)  When Erica told me she and her mom sing in a Gospel choir, you know what I asked, don’t you?  “Do you all sing, I Need You to Survive?”  

That’s when Erica told me the story of a woman bent and twisted by grief, a woman who experienced healing in her community.  (Erica tells the story.)

Mother at 20 something year old son’s funeral.  Church was packed.  Young people stood in the aisles.  The woman was bent over with grief.  At one point, one of the young people started to sing… “I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s body…”  Everyone else joined in.  By the end of the song, the grieving mother was sitting up straight.

Today, we’re going to sing I Need You to Survive with Hezekiah Walker.  Go straight to the source, right?  When Tulani said she wanted to teach me how to sing the song correctly, she mentioned the cadence of the song.  I invite you to listen for that as we sing.  Or just sing.  And listen…as we remember our deeply-loved friends, Agnes and Sue, who we miss so much, two women who taught us the power of the message of this song, Agnes and Sue taught us that we need each other to survive.  (Sing, I Need You to Survive.)

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: “Following Jesus” (Luke 12:49-56) [8/14/2022]

Show of hands:  How many of you have ever thought about giving up on church?  If you’re awake, if you know even a little of the history of the Christian church, if you’ve been hurt by church, thinking about giving up on it makes sense.

If you haven’t already thought about giving up on church, today’s passage might make you start thinking about it.

Do you think I have come to bring peace to Earth? Jesus asked his disciples.  If I’d been there, I probably would have said, “Yes, Jesus!  Yes, you have come to Earth to bring peace!  The angels sang it when you were born!  Peace on Earth, goodwill to all!”  At which point, Jesus would have said, “And the survey said:  Angch!  Try again.”

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to Earth?, Jesus says.  No, I tell you, but rather division!  Then he lists all the family relationships that will be fractured because of him.

I don’t know.  There’s enough division in the world already, don’t you think?  If following Jesus is only going to create more divisions, why do it?  If the church is just as fractured as the rest of the world, why participate?

I struggled with this text all my life…until I read one scholar’s take on it.  She said the passage is descriptive, not prescriptive, which means Jesus isn’t prescribing what his followers should do, aka, create divisions.  Rather, he’s describing what happens when people follow him.  

If we follow Jesus, if we seek to create God’s kindom, it’s going to upset the societal and religious structures already in place.  People who benefit from the current structures aren’t going to be happy with anything that threatens the status quo.  If we follow Jesus, and try to create God’s kindom, there’s no way around it–divisions will be created.

I suspect most of us are here at UCT because we’ve experienced the divisions Jesus describes.  Following Jesus by simply being who God created us to be?  Following Jesus by supporting others in being who God created them to be?  How many of us have experienced divisions in our churches, in our families because we followed Jesus in simply being ourselves or accepted others for being themselves?

Yesterday was my 4-month anniversary as your pastor.  One of the joys of being your pastor is getting to know you better.  Learning your stories is a true gift.    

Today, I’d like to share with you a little of my story.  Some of it you might have heard before; other parts might be new.  I share these particular parts of my story because they describe why I have chosen to follow Jesus in the work of pastoring.  You see, I too have seriously considered giving up on church.  At least twice.

The first time I thought about giving up on church was my first year of grad school.  Just a couple months after escaping the Baptist battles at my seminary, one sunny fall day I found myself standing under the chapel on the Emory University campus.  Deeply wounded by my experiences of church to that point, I had become dangerously disillusioned.

As I stood there, I thought:  “You don’t have to do this.  You don’t have to stay in church.  You don’t even have to remain Christian.  You can leave.  Do something else entirely.  Why stay?”  I stood there thinking for a long while.

Then, as he is wont to do, Jesus came to mind.  I thought about all the things Jesus said, everything he did.  I thought about how he spent time hanging out with the hurting people of the world, the outcasts, the oppressed, the abused.  And I thought of how he helped those people to see and experience the deep, abiding, non-judgmental love of God.

That’s the moment, I decided that if a community tried to follow Jesus–they didn’t even have to succeed–If a community just tried to follow Jesus:  it would change the world.  Standing there under the chapel, I committed myself to leading a community that would try—just try—to follow Jesus.  After four months with you all, I think I’ve found that community.   

The second time I seriously considered giving up on church was a crisp November morning in 1999 at the Civic Center in Macon, Georgia.  I was newly ordained and serving as Associate Minister at Virginia-Highland Baptist Church in Atlanta. 

Virginia-Highland already had left the Southern Baptists.  We were affiliated with the progressive Alliance of Baptists, but we still maintained our connection with the Georgia Baptist Convention.  That connection was important to us.

Some months before the November meeting in Macon, the GBC noted its concern about Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur welcoming people of all sexual orientations.  To their credit, the Convention did offer some listening sessions.  (My favorite line from one of those sessions was an older straight woman in our church who said, “If someone tells us they’re a woman, we treat them like a woman!”  End of story.)

Sadly, the listening sessions didn’t change any minds.  A vote to disfellowship Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst was planned for the GBC meeting in November.  

As we entered the arena, I saw above us the sign for the Macon hockey team that played in the arena.  Y’all, I’m not lying about this.  This is the God’s honest truth.  The name of the Macon hockey team is Macon Whoopee.  Seeing that sign added to the absurdity of the day.

So there we were in the Macon Civic Center with 2,000 delegates of the Georgia Baptist Convention, listening to people speak to the issue of whether or not our two churches should be disfellowshipped.  

The pastors of our two churches spoke, as did two supporters.  The speakers who got the crowd riled, the ones who elicited whoops and hollers and applause and foot-stomping were the ones who called homosexuality an abomination.  That’s the only time in my life I’ve had 2,000 people cheering against me and people I cared for.  I was terrified.  We all were.

That negative encounter with so-called Christians almost did it for me.  If this is what Christianity is all about, I thought.  Forget it.  Just forget it.

But then I remembered the faces of our church members in Macon…the way they winced every time the word “abomination” spewed from another speaker’s mouth.

And I remembered another church member’s face, the person who, after hearing a sermon I’d preached on the good news that God’s love is for everyone–which seemed pretty everybody’s-heard-that to me…Even so, that person looked me in the eye and said: “Thank you.”  When I remembered that man’s “thank you”…when I saw how devastated my friends were that morning in Macon, that’s when I knew that–despite its flaws–I couldn’t leave the church.

Because, yes.  The church is deeply flawed.  There are too many parts of the body of Christ who beat up on the fragile, the vulnerable, and the different.  Christendom today is, indeed, both divided and divisive.  

Despite its flaws, though, I still believe that the church is the best means we have of sharing the Good news that God’s love is for everyone.  All of us can cite examples, personal experiences with churches that have gone bad–or worse yet, churches that have gone boring–but what might happen if church went right?  What might happen if we took the Gospel message seriously, this good news that God’s love REALLY is for everyone, the good news that God really does hope for everyone’s wholeness?  What might happen if we tried to live that message in even more radical ways?

Oh, man!  Can you imagine if the church were “clicking on all cylinders?”  What might happen to this world if the entire body of Christ lived the good news of God’s love for every person?  What might happen to this church and to the community around us if we got even more intentional about sharing the good news of God’s love?  Just think what we could do!  Think of all the people whose lives would change– people whose lives–and I don’t think this is overstating it–people whose lives would be saved–because they experienced God’s love in this place, among these people.

Don’t you know that that’s why we’re here?  We’re here to live God’s love and share it with others so that their lives can change…

so that the spiritually hungry might be fed  

so that the wounded might be healed,

so that the grieving might find comfort  

so that the lonely might find friendship,

so that the weary might find rest  

so that the outcast might find acceptance,

so that we all might experience God’s love

and in that love discover our own worth, 

our own dignity, 

our own preciousness in God’s sight.

What we’re doing here is holy work!  As so many of us already have learned, engaging in God’s holy work can create divisions between us and others.  But, as your presence here today proclaims, we can’t let the threat of divisions stop us.  The work we are doing is too important.  The world needs us too much to let up now.  So let us continue, let us continue, let us continue to follow Jesus.  Or at least to try.  

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

 Kimberleigh Buchanan   

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Sermon: “The Treasure Is Us” (Luke 12:32-34) [8/7/2022]

Ah!  The “Don’t Worry Be Happy” Scripture!  I once played Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” in a sermon on this text.  Twice.  After the service, one congregant let me know that she turned her hearing aids off both times.  “I don’t like that song.”

I get it.  It’s an earworm.  It’s going in your heads right now, isn’t it?  You probably won’t even be able to hear the rest of the sermon.  Sigh.

For those who are still with me, let’s look again at Jesus’ admonition to stop worrying about what we’ll eat or wear, “for life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.”  It sounds pretty “pie-in-the-sky,” doesn’t it?  Especially with inflation.  How can we not worry about putting food on the table or putting gas in the car?  

Consider the ravens, Jesus tells the crowd.  They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds! This is the second time Jesus reminds his hearers that they are of more worth than birds.  Last week, it was sparrows.  This week, ravens.  

We remember that the people with whom Jesus chose to hang out, the people with whom he shared the Gospel, lived on the margins of Roman society.  They probably did have trouble getting food and clothing. They probably did feel like they didn’t matter as much as the birds.  They probably did worry.  A lot.  

Is it any wonder that Jesus keeps reminding people of their worth in God’s eyes?  If you don’t have access to basic resources, if the society in which you live doesn’t value who you are, being reminded of your humanity–over and over–helps.  It helps.

Jesus’ lesson on worry leads to this:  Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.  Your Abba knows that you need them.  Instead, strive for God’s kindom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Strive for God’s kindom, aka, the world of which God dreams.  If you do that, the things you need will be given to you, as well.  I wonder if Jesus isn’t calling for an either/or thing here, but a reassessment of priorities.  Seek ye first the kingdom of God, right?  

Sure!  Let’s just go seek the kingdom of God!  Let’s send one of the clipboards around and let us all sign up.  

It’s not that easy, is it, creating God’s kindom.  A big part of what makes the work of creating the world of which God dreams rests in the social systems in our country–the economic system, the healthcare system, the racial system.  Systems of injustice are insidious.  We’re all caught in the web they’ve created.  After last week’s sermon, someone said that they got the thing about economic justice (which I’m convinced they do), then asked, But what do we do?

I’m not sure.  I know.  I’m the pastor.  I’m supposed to know these things…but I struggle to know precisely what to do in the face of unjust social systems in which we also participate.  The work many of you are doing to get out the vote, the work for climate justice that’s beginning to solidify here at UCT, the renewed focus on advocacy for those in the LGBTQ+ community, Peter Butzin’s work with the Ethics committee…all these efforts are, I believe, kin-dom work.  All these efforts help create the world of which God dreams.

But so much more needs to be done.  So.  Much.  More.  

At one of the retreats I attended last month, I learned about the impact of racist societal structures on people who are Black.  I’ve been doing anti-racism work for a long time.  That work intensified after George Floyd’s murder.  I went to the “Building Diverse Communities” retreat saying I “just wanted to listen,” but thinking to myself, “Oh, yeah.  I know all about creating anti-racist communities.”  

In the first session, when I heard something inappropriate coming out of my mouth, it hit me:  It doesn’t matter how much anti-racism work I do, I’m always going to be caught by the racist structures in our society.  All of us are caught–people who are Black, people who are white, all people.  All of us are caught in the web of racist societal structures.

So, as the person who sent the email asked, What do we do?  How do we create the world of which God dreams when injustice in our world is so insidious?

I’m glad I made my stumble in the first session of the retreat.  Getting past it freed me up really to listen to what was being said by our four Black women presenters.  

The main presenter was Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway, a Presbyterian pastor in Minneapolis.  When she started her ministry, which was in a rough part of town, each morning she’d sit on the church’s steps and wait with her daughter for the school bus.  As Alika sat, she observed.  Sometimes, she’d invite the people she saw to come sit a spell on the church steps.

Many of the people who came and sat were engaged in survival sex…people whose rent was coming due and who were desperate for money to pay it.  When the people came– early in the morning after their work was over–Alika asked them what they needed.  Almost always, they asked for water.  None of the restaurants in the area allowed the people to get a drink.  After the water, what they most needed was a safe space to rest.

And so, Alika, her congregation, and the Presbytery created a space within the church for these survival sex workers to rest.  The red brick church building was old, including its exquisite stained glass windows.  The limits of the space became clear when a trans woman walked in one morning, looked at the stained glass windows and said, “How the bleep can I rest with that white Jesus looking at me?”  

A recurrent theme at our retreat was the power of symbols, especially symbols in white churches…like that blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus.  The woman who came to the church that morning, needed–she needed–to see another image, an image that looked more like her.

Alika made an appointment to meet with the Presbytery…a Presbytery known for not approving much of anything.  She asked them to remove the windows.  She said, “I’m not here to shame you about your windows, I’m asking you to save some lives.”  Then she told them girls as young as 11 were practicing survival sex in her neighborhood.  She asked if there were any 11 year old girls in their lives, to think about them as they made their decision.  The Presbyters asked Alika to leave the room while they voted.  When she came back in, they told her they would remove the windows.  The church now has clear glass windows.

I wonder if Jesus spends so much time reminding people of their human worth because creating the world of which God dreams requires all of who we are for the work.  If there are people walking around–which there are–who think they aren’t worth anything because they aren’t white, we haven’t achieved the world of which God dreams.  If people who are white aren’t thinking about, learning from people who don’t look or live like them, we haven’t achieved the world of which God dreams.  We’re all caught in webs of injustice.  Until we dismantle them, the injustices will continue.

Goodness, Pastor!  Can’t you get us to some hope, like now?   Why, yes!  Yes, I can!  Listen to the last few verses of today’s Scripture story.  ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kindom.  Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Where is your treasure?  Where is your heart?  It’s telling that Jesus follows “it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kindom,” with “sell your possessions and give alms.”  God’s kindom is about our connection with each other.  God’s kin-dom is about making sure that others have what they need.  God’s kin-dom is about creating a world where everyone feels safe and knows their full human worth.

What Jesus seems to be saying here is that our treasure is US…and by us, I mean all of humanity, all of creation.  I’m reminded of the African idea of ubuntu–there is no me without you.  We cannot become fully human until we live as if we need each other to survive.

I Need You to Survive is one of the best Gospel songs ever.  At the retreat, Dana, one of the presenters whom we called “the songbird,” was asked to sing I Need You to Survive at prayer with the sisters at the monastery.  Rather than using an accompaniment track, which she usually did, she wanted to sing it with guitar–as a way to embody Black and white folks working collaboratively.  Dana asked if I could play it.  I looked it up, changed the key, and thought I could manage it.  When we practiced, I did okay except for this one crucial–but for me, awkward–chord.  I told her I would practice the chord.  It should be fine for prayer the next day.

It wasn’t.  Not by a long-shot.  It was awful.  Absolutely awful.  Dana was gracious, but I was really embarrassed.  I thought about it as I drove home from Indiana.  Somewhere in northern Alabama, I decided that we would sing the song last Sunday in worship and that, since Quentin would be out of town, I would learn to play it on piano–maybe as a way to atone for botching it at the monastery on guitar.  I pulled up the chords.  I pulled up tutorials on Youtube.  I practiced and practiced…then prayed for God to send a real Gospel pianist.

Tuesday a week ago, I had just given up practicing the song and gone back to my office, when Rev. Jarvis Alls knocked on the door.  Rev. Alls pastors a small congregation in Quincy.  He said they first got to know UCT a few years back at Pride.  My eyebrows shot up.  A black church at Pride?  He also said that he’s been watching our services.  When I asked why, he said, “You might not hear from them, but you need to know that your ministry here is very important to people.  They are watching.”  When I asked if his congregation was really supportive of people in the LGBTQ+ community, Rev. Alls said, “Here’s what we believe:  God is love.  Love is love.  It’s our job to love people.  One day we’re going to have to answer to God for that.”  I could have hugged him right there.

In the conversation with Rev. Alls, I learned that he’s also a musician.  His grandmother, Dottie Alls–who sadly died of Covid in 2020–was a blues musician known as B. B. Queen.  When Jarvis showed me a video of his grandmother playing guitar and him playing piano, I asked, “Can you play I Need You to Survive and let me record it for my congregation?”  He said yes!  I was so relieved.  You should also be relieved.  

So…we’re going to sing I Need You to Survive.  Rev. Jarvis Alls will accompany us.  We’re actually going to play the video twice.  We’ll sing one set of words the first time, a second set of words the second time. 

As we sing // remember this:  our treasure is us.  There is no us and them.  There is only us.  There is only us.  Our treasure is us.  We need each other to survive.

Video:  I Need You to Survive

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022

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Sermon: “The Poverty of Greed” (Luke 12:31-21) [7/31/2022]

Unless you were a Roman citizen with some authority, 1st century Palestine was a harsh place to live.  The poor were taxed oppressively.  People not part of the Roman Empire often became pawns in the political machinations of the powerful.  The stress of trying to make it through the day exacted a heavy toll for those on the margins of Roman society.

Those were the people with whom Jesus chose to hang out–the powerless, the downtrodden, folks just scraping by.  Those were people who needed to hear the good news.

Before he tells the story of the successful farmer, Jesus asks the crowd:  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  On the face of it, this statement elicits comfort and reassurance–You have value in God’s eyes!  But when you stop to think, you realize those people must have been pretty beaten down if Jesus was trying to convince them they were more valuable than sparrows, the slightest of birds.

As I read this familiar sentence this time, I saw something I hadn’t seen before.  When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows,” he makes a connection between fear and not feeling valued.  If your life has no meaning in the eyes of people in power, of course, you’re going to be afraid.  They can do anything to you!  It’s why so many of our siblings with brown and black skin and those in the trans, non-binary, and LGBQ+ communities (and those in the trans, non-binary, and LBGQ+ communities with brown and black skin) walk around always on their guard, always–some part of them–afraid.  

At the retreat I attended week before last, the presenter–a Black pastor from Minneapolis– asked us to imagine a time when we felt oppressed.  Once we had that feeling of oppression in our bodies, she said, “That’s what it’s like for people who are Black all the time, every second of every day.”  If you aren’t valued by the powers that be, the world can be a very scary place.

Do you feel valued?  Do you feel your worth?  So much in our world, in our country, seems to militate against human beings feeling our worth as human beings.  Good church people–that’s us–throw these words around all the time–”God loves you.  You are a beloved child of God.”  Yet, how many people really feel loved, much less loved by God?  

As Jesus is reminding people of their true worth, of God’s profound love for them, someone in the crowd says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  I would love to have been a fly on the wall in Jesus’ brain about then.  Jesus is telling the people about their sacred worth and all someone can think about is a family squabble.  About money.  

Net worth, human worth.  In our society–in the world–those two worths get all tangled up, don’t they?  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that, far too often, net worth determines human worth.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  To help untangle the net worth/human worth knot, Jesus tells the grumpy brother–and anyone who will listen (including us)–a story.

“Take care!,” he says.  “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  

Once upon a time, a farmer had a banner harvest.  The man thought to himself, ‘Where am I going to store all these crops?  I guess the only thing to do is to pull down these old barns and build some bigger ones.  I’ll store my grain and goods in the new barns, then say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 

It’s easy to beat up on this successful farmer, to call him greedy and berate him for his stingy heart.  And yet, greed (more) is pretty much what runs our country, isn’t it?  It’s why our planet is so sick–greed.  It’s why the wealth gap in our country continues to widen–greed.  Have you heard about what happened in Mississippi?  A famous ball player–with the assistance of a former governor–stole funds from state assistance for low-income Mississippians and used them for a state college’s sports program and to line their own pockets.

That’s an egregious example of greed.  But we’re all caught in the web created by greed.  What’s the sign of success in our country?  Bigger barns, bigger houses, sending our kids to fancier schools, buying fancier cars.  Even when we say and believe with all our hearts that everyone on the planet has equal value, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the mindset (I almost said “religion”) that equates net worth with sacred worth.  The doctrine of greed is insidious, isn’t it?

Allen told me this week about an economic theory called “Steady State”  As I understand it, the goal in this setup isn’t to grow the economy, but to keep it steady, to make sure everyone has what they need.  Sounds like Jesus, or those first Christians in the book of Acts who had all things in common, doesn’t it?  But, man.  How could we ever create that kind of economy in our country?  We’d have to completely rethink everything.  

I mean, that would just take so much work, creating a greedless society.  Can you even imagine?  Surely, Jesus isn’t calling us to transform the entire framework on which our country works!  Is he?  

The good news today–which might feel like bad news–is this:  Yes.  Jesus IS calling us to untangle the net worth/human worth knot.  Why?  Because until we do, none of us–not the 99%ers, not the 1%ers, none of us–is going to know our full, beautiful, beloved worth as human beings.  I have two stories to share, one about the poverty of greed, the other about the joy of generosity.   

Several years ago, a woman died with a large balance in her bank account.  Just days before illness would claim her life, she had the chance to help someone with a small sum of cash.  She refused.  Despite her healthy bank balance, despite her advanced years, that woman died a spiritual pauper.  Her greed impoverished her.  She died with a small heart.

Now, a story of joyous generosity.  Born HIV positive in South Africa, Nkosi Johnson was raised by a white mother.  That mother, Gail Johnson, worked tirelessly for Nkosi and for other people with AIDS in Southern Africa.

Among Gail’s many projects was a home for people living with AIDS, many of whom were children.  The place was called Nkosi’s House.

By the time he was 12, Nkosi was into full-blown AIDS and wasn’t doing well.  Even so, one of his favorite pastimes was going to Nkosi’s House and playing with the children there.  One evening, Nkosi asked Gail if he could spend the night at the shelter and maybe take his allowance money and buy the kids pizza for supper.  “Sure,” his mom said.

When Nkosi arrived, he asked the matron if he might treat the children to some pizza… but supper already had been prepared for the evening.  “Perhaps tomorrow night,” the woman said.  The news disappointed Nkosi–he loved pizza and wanted to share some with the children.  But he understood.

After a lively–non-pizza meal (Nkosi was quite the charmer), the diminutive child climbed into the bathtub for one of his famously long baths.  The hot water relieved his body’s significant pain.  During that bath, Nkosi had a seizure.  He lived for several more months, but never regained consciousness.

Like the elderly woman, Nkosi died with money in his pocket.  But unlike the woman, it had been Nkosi’s deepest desire to share that money with others.  Nkosi didn’t live long, but he did live generously in the few years he had.  Nkosi died free from greed.  He died understanding the value of a human life, the value of all human lives.  Nkosi died with a huge heart.

I know.  Nkosi was only 12 when he died.  He never had to think about providing for a family or saving for retirement.  He was too young to know the full value of money, or the full value of human lives.  But was he?  Was he?  Here’s a clip of Nkosi speaking at the World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in July 2000.

Gail Johnson Honors Adopted Son Nkosi

We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else – don’t be afraid of us – we are all the same!

Sing:  Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2022 (with some help from 2011)

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