Sermon: “Swords into Plowshares” (Isaiah 2:2-5) (12/4/2022)

‘Tis the season!’  But ‘tis the season for what?  According to any retail outlet, since about mid-October it’s been the Christmas season, the season to buy, buy, buy!  Does it sometimes feel as if the retailers get the better end of the Christmas deal?  After all, they get to celebrate Christmas for two and a half months (or more…).  We Jesus-followers only get to celebrate it for twelve days…and the first of those days isn’t until December 25th. 

Thank you, Quentin, for the reminder of the music we’ll get to sing beginning December 25th. Oh, the pain of Advent!  For those of us who celebrate Advent, now ‘tis the season to wait.  We’re waiting on the baby Jesus.  Again.  Just like every year.  ‘Joy to the world, the Lord will come!’ we sing….as we wink to one another over the tops of our hymnals.  We wink because we know.  We know the end of the story.  We know that the world celebrates joyously because the Lord has already come.  We know the baby Jesus will come again…just like he always does.  We go through the motions of the Advent story every year because it’s familiar.  And who doesn’t love a familiar story, especially one with a happy ending?  

But I wonder.  Do we know for certain the baby Jesus will show up this year?  Yes, he’s shown up every previous year…but this Advent is different.  We’re different people than we were this time last year.  We’ve gotten older.  We’ve lost loved ones.  We’ve said hello to new family members.  We’ve adjusted to difficult diagnoses and recovered from accidents, falls, and surgeries.  And not only are we in different places as people, our country and the world are different places than they were last year, too.  The war in Ukraine.  The repeal of Roe.  Oppressive legislation.  Soaring inflation.  Increasing gun violence.  

Waiting for the Christ-child, waiting for God’s presence to dwell with us is different this year because we are different people; the world is a different place… Yes, Jesus has shown up every year prior to this one, but will he show up again?  Will our waiting bear fruit, like always?  Will God really come to dwell with us again?  This year, in this place, in these circumstances?

Several years ago, the church I served needed a new crèche.  Have you ever tried to find a manger scene where the baby Jesus is not attached to the manger?  It isn’t easy!  We looked everywhere for an unattached baby Jesus.  Finally, Allen and I found one in Adel, Georgia, of all places.  Why is the baby Jesus so often so firmly attached to the manger?  Oh, sure.  The baby Jesus is small and we want to be sure we know where he is come the Christmas Eve service!  Better to attach him to something bigger, like the manger, than to risk losing him.

But again, I wonder.  Are we afraid of losing a small piece of ceramic?  Or are we scared that this might be the year the Christ-child doesn’t come at all?  Yes, in ancient times, God said God wanted to be with us.  God actually did dwell with us for a while.  But that was then.  Now we live in (what feels like) a much more complicated world.  There’s so much pain and grief and meanness.  Does God still desire to dwell with us?  Will God-with-us really come again?  I wonder if we like an “attached” baby Jesus because the empty manger makes us nervous.

Waiting is a messy, nervous-making business.  But it always seems easier when we have something to do.  What shall we do while we wait again for the Christ-child to come this year?

Isaiah has some ideas.  “In days to come the mountain of God’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains… all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” 

We 21st century folk understand God to be present in all the world, not just on mountain tops or in sanctuaries.  But let’s go with this image for a minute.  First, we have a mountain, taller than all other mountains.  And on top of this mountain is the house of God, a place to worship God, to learn from God. And from as far as the eye can see, people are streaming to this mountain.  From every direction, people of different races and ethnicities and nationalities and languages and sizes and shapes and colors and dress are streaming to the mountain of God.  They get to the bottom of the mountain and they start climbing up.  Why are they climbing up the mountain of God?  Because they want to get close to God!  They want to learn from God!  And so, they start climbing up the mountain.

As they’re climbing up the mountain, all these different people, as they’re climbing up the mountain trying to get closer to God, look at what else is happening!  As the people get closer to God, they also get closer to each other…so that, by the time they get to the top of the mountain to commune with God, they’re sitting right next to each other!  And what do they do once they get there?  They learn from God’s ways so they might walk in God’s paths.  And what are God’s ways?  God’s ways are whatever it takes for these people of different shapes and colors and nationalities to talk to each other and be with each other.  What a beautiful image for this Sunday of peace!

But the prophet doesn’t just offer an image of a better world.  He also offers an image of how to create that world.  Listen:  ‘For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of God from Jerusalem.  God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; (Here we go.  This is the key.)   They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 

Swords into plowshares.  Also a powerful image…if you know what a plowshare is.  I Googled it.  A plowshare is the blade of a sickle.  It’s used to harvest grain.  The prophet invites the people to imagine turning tools of war into tools of peace.  

I try not to read the Bible literally.  If I did that, well, I wouldn’t be here preaching, now would I?  That said, I like the results of some folks who are taking this “swords into plowshares” image from Isaiah literally.  Take a look.


A newly created pick-ax with the words:  

“They will beat their swords into plowshares.”

“Guns into Plowshares” sculpture at Eastern Mennonite University,

Harrisonburg, VA

An artist, Pedro Reyes, who lives in Mexico, creates musical instruments and shovels out of guns.  Make me an instrument of your peace, indeed.

Artist Pedro Reyes

Pedro Reyes, Imagine (Double Psaltery), 2013. 

Pedro Reyes, Palas por Pistolas, 2007–present. 

Pedro Reyes, Imagine (Psaltery), 2013.

Pedro Reyes, Imagine Pedro Reyes, “Disarm,” installation shot, 2013. 

(Bass Guitar Bass), 2013.

         Perhaps the most powerful artistic rendering of Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” image is a nine-foot sculpture that stands in one of the gardens at the UN.  In that sculpture, a muscular blacksmith is beating a sword into a plowshare.  What the blacksmith has is neither sword nor plowshare.  It’s something in between.  The blacksmith is in the process of making peace.  He’s in the process of conversion. 

Image result for un swords into plowshares statue

“Swords into Plowshares” sculpture at the United Nations

         As are we.  Oh, to live in a world where nations do not lift swords against each other!  Oh, that war-making could be removed from our collective curriculum as obsolete!  Unfortunately, for us—as for the prophet Isaiah—our conversion process is not yet complete.  We live in a world where nations do war, a place where senseless violence still occurs.  It’s hard—so hard—for us to imagine a world without war or violence, but that’s why God gave us prophets.  Prophets help us imagine.  And Isaiah helps us to imagine a new day, a day where people of different backgrounds and faiths and colors meet together on the mountain of God in peace.  Isaiah helps us imagine a world without war, a world without violence.

Today’s words from Isaiah were written to agrarians in the 8th century BCE.  Turning swords into plowshares is an image that would have connected for them.  They wouldn’t have had to Google “plowshares.”

If the prophet were prophesying today, I wonder what image they might use?  What tools are used for war today?  Guns?  Nuclear warheads?  Legislation?  Social media?  How might we transform these tools, sometimes used for violence, into tools of peace?  How might each of us use our gifts and skills to create peace in our world?  Are you good with numbers?  How might you use that gift to create peace in the world?  Are you a musician?  How might you use that gift to create peace in the world?  Are you a teacher?  How might you use that gift to create peace in the world?  Are you a builder?  How might you use that gift to create peace in the world?  Are you a quilter or a crafter?  How might you use that gift to create peace in the world?  In what new ways might we use the gift of our UCT community to create peace in the world?

Our work of Advent is like the work of the blacksmith in the sculpture at the UN:  the call this Advent is to be about the process of making peace…of using whatever we have at our disposal to create peace.  If some completed peace product emerges from our peace making process, great.  But we aren’t called to complete the process, only to use whatever means we have at hand to engage fully in the process of creating peace. 

And so, as we wait this Advent, let us use every tool we have to work together for peace.  Let us continue searching for God’s mountain.  Let us scale that mountain together.  Let us encounter God there.  And let us meet God’s other children there, our sisters and brothers.  Let us find peace there.  And as we work together and seek God’s peace, as we keep one eye on our holiday tasks, let us keep the other eye on the empty manger.  If we do, we might just discover that—just as we hoped—the baby Jesus has come again.  That God is indeed with us…still.

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022 (2019, 2013, 2001)

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Sermon: “ALL Are Welcome” (Acts 8:26-39) (11/20/2022)

At its annual meeting in October, the Florida Conference of the UCC approved a resolution for adoption by the national church’s General Synod next summer in support of people who are transgender.  (Copies…)  Working on the resolution with a team of writers was hard and holy work…hard, because treatment of people who are transgender in our country and in the world makes such a resolution necessary…and holy, because celebrating the lives of people who want to live as God created them to be is the holiest work there is.

I was honored to present the resolution to the Florida Conference for its consideration.  The discussion about the resolution was…inspirational.  We heard stories about standing up to the Moms for Liberty at a school board meeting in Miami.  We heard about a church that welcomed a trans teen when her parents struggled to do so.  We heard about a UCC church in Ocala partnering with a synagogue to create safe spaces for trans youth in their community.  Later, I learned that our conference’s Committee on Ministry had approved a transgender person for ordination.  

Seeing the line of people eager to speak to the motion, hearing stories told with passion and care, it seemed like people had been waiting for an opportunity to tell their stories, to show their support for people in the transgender community…especially in light of the dehumanizing and unjust laws our state legislature has passed this year.

After the business meeting concluded, a person took me aside to share her concern that, in the resolution, we had compared transgender people with eunuchs mentioned in scripture.  In truth, I didn’t know whether the reference was accurate or not.  I certainly didn’t want the resolution to cause harm to anyone–especially to transgender people–but I hadn’t really thought about it enough to offer the woman a response.  I thanked her for her feedback and told her I’d share it with the rest of the committee, which I did.

As I thought about today’s service, I felt drawn back to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch.  For the purposes of our story, let’s call the person Abebe.  So…Abebe has distinguished himself in Ethiopia.  He’s made his way up the career ladder to be the queen’s treasurer.  In that position, Abebe has a lot of power in the kingdom.

When we encounter Abebe in today’s scripture, he’s returning home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Something must have stirred him while he was there, because he’d stopped along the road and was reading from the prophet Isaiah.  

As he reads, Philip (one of Jesus’ disciples) walks by.  He asks Abebe if he understands what he is reading.  “How can I,” the eunuch replied, “unless someone explains it to me?”  With that, he invites Philip to get into the carriage with him.  Here’s the passage he’s reading:  

‘You are like a sheep being led to slaughter,

You are like a lamb that is mute in front of its shearers;

Like them, you never open your mouth.

You have been humiliated

And have no one to defend you.

Who will ever talk about your descendants,

Since your life on Earth has been cut short?’

The eunuch asks Philip whether the prophet is talking about himself or someone else.  

One commentator’s take on Abebe’s story has helped deepen my understanding.  The writer notes that Abebe likely had been taken as a young boy to become a eunuch. He’d had no choice in the matter.  He might not even have known what was happening to him.  (This next part is difficult to hear, but it is a crucial part of the story.  When I read the next sentence, something clicked for me.  Ready?)  To become a eunuch his testicles were crushed to stop him producing testosterone.   

In one sense, Abebe–or any eunuch’s–story appears to be the opposite of our transgender brothers and sisters, as the woman at the Florida Conference meeting suggested.  Eunuchs’ transitioning was involuntary; our transgender siblings choose their transitioning.

But, when you think about it, it’s kind of the same, isn’t it?  In both cases, the state is deciding what gender an individual should be.  The process of becoming a eunuch denied them the hormones they needed to live as their true selves.  That’s exactly what’s happening in our state.  In the case of both eunuchs in the first century and our trans siblings today, human beings are being denied the right by the state to live as their true selves.

Here’s how the commentator described the effects of Abebe’s castration.  Having no testosterone would have altered Abebe’s growth and changed his appearance. His voice never would have changed, so as an adult he still would have had the voice of a boy. His body would have had little hair and would have grown in disproportionate ways – reduced muscles, increased body fat in his abdomen.  He would have developed breasts. His bones would have been weaker and more likely to break. He also likely would have been lethargic and depressed.

All of this meant that he looked unusual, and people would have recognized him as a eunuch just by looking at him. He was different. He looked strange. He sounded strange. He probably felt strange.

And he was reading from Isaiah about one who, like a sheep, was led to the slaughter. One who was humiliated and who had been denied justice.  One whose life was taken away.  The surrounding parts of the passage from Isaiah 53 go on to further describe this one as having an appearance so marred to be beyond human semblance, wounded, crushed, despised, rejected, a person of suffering.

The commentator wonders how Abebe’s backstory affected his reading of this passage in Isaiah.  Might he have been thinking:  This sounds like me. This is my story.  Maybe Abebe asks Philip who the Scripture is about because he identifies with what he’s reading.  Who is the prophet writing about?  Because this one walks in my sandals. This one is in my place. I must know:  Who is the prophet writing about?  Who is this suffering one?  Because he’s already taken on my suffering.  He’s already in my place. 

Maybe Abebe recognized himself in the Scripture and realized that his story already was joined to the story of the one talked about in the Scripture.

In response to Abebe’s question, Philip shares the good news of Jesus with him.  After hearing it, Abebe can’t wait.  “Look, there’s some water there.  What’s to stop me from being baptized?”  Philip baptizes Abebe, then is “snatched away.”  Abebe goes on his way…rejoicing.

It breaks my heart that so many Christian churches reject people who are transgender.  It absolutely makes no sense to me.  Transgender people are…people.  They’re human beings, created in the image of God.  Beloved of God.  Who are we, who is any of us to prevent beautiful human beings created in the image of God from being who they are created to be?  Who are we to keep ANYBODY who wants a relationship with God from that relationship?  It just doesn’t make sense.

Here’s what I want to say to our transgender siblings–and I know I speak for our whole congregation–YOU ARE WELCOME HERE.  All of you is welcome here.  Sometimes, we might not get things exactly right…we’re still learning how to be truly welcoming of folks who are trans.  But even when we don’t get it right, please know that our hearts are in the right place.  We see you.  We see God in you.  We see your beauty!  We celebrate your living.

We hope that, after your time with us here today, you too will leave this place rejoicing.

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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“Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” (Isaiah 65:17-25) (11/13/2022)

            Dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt, environmental poet Wendell Berry leaned against the podium in our seminary ethics class deep in thought.  “If I can imagine it, I can do it,” he’d just told us.  We waited, watching something work itself out in the lines of his furrowed brow.  “Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to give up my pick-up truck.  Sure would like to give it up, but I just can’t imagine it.  (Pause)  So, I guess I’m going to have to drive home.”

         If we can imagine it, we can do it.  That’s the currency of prophets—imagination.  Sometimes we think of prophets as fortune-tellers toting around briefcases with crystal balls tucked inside.  But true prophets don’t peer into the future and tell us what will happen.  Rather, they look at current circumstances and paint a picture of what might happen if we can imagine it. 

         That’s what the author of today’s Scripture lesson does—they look at people’s current circumstances and invite them to imagine a different future.  What were those circumstances?

         Today’s passage comes from Third Isaiah.  I know.  In your Bible, it just says Isaiah, right?  The book we know as Isaiah contains writings from 3 different periods in Israelite history.  First Isaiah—chapters 1 – 39—was written when Israel was an independent nation with its own land, its own leader, its own Temple.  As a nation, though, it hadn’t been making good decisions for a long time.  First Isaiah was written in the 8th century BCE to warn the people that if they didn’t start making better decisions, they were going to lose their country… 

         Which they did in 587 BCE.  That’s when Babylon invaded Jerusalem, when the Temple was destroyed, and when the people were taken into exile.  From the earliest days, the promise of land had held the people together.  Without the land, who were they?  Without the temple, where was God?  Without sovereignty, did they even exist anymore?  Second Isaiah— chapters 40-55—was written in the 6th century BCE to inspire hope in the exiles.  The prophet offers a vision of defeat for Babylon and a return to Jerusalem for the Israelites.

         Third Isaiah—from which today’s passage comes—is written to the exiles after they’ve returned to Jerusalem.  Now we’re in the 5th c. BCE.  Babylon has been defeated by Persia and the exiles have been allowed to return home…     

…except home isn’t what it used to be.  Home used to be where the people ruled themselves; now they are subjects of Persia.  Home used to be where they owned their own land; now they are tenants.  Home used to be where the Temple reminded them of God’s presence.  Now, the Temple lies in ruins.  The prophet of Third Isaiah writes to people whose dream has been only half-fulfilled.  And they’ve grown cynical.

         Next August will mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Can you imagine the Civil Rights Movement without Dr. King?  Things had been so bad for so long, would those who sought justice have been able to maintain hope without the images Dr. King gave them?  **Images of the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners sitting down together at the table…**images of a nation where his four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…**images of black children and white children joining hands as siblings.  Can you imagine racial equality happening without the images of this prophet? 

         So, what images does the prophet in Third Isaiah offer the cynical returnees to ignite their imaginations?  Let’s listen again to the prophet’s words.  As you hear the words, I invite you this time to think of our own Tallahassee community.

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Tallahassee as a joy,

   and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Tallahassee,

   and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,

   or the cry of distress.

No more shall there be in it

   an infant that lives but a few days,

   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;

for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,

   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;

   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit;

   they shall not plant and another eat;

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,

   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain,

   or bear children for calamity;

for they shall be offspring blessed by God—

   and their descendants as well.

Before they call I will answer,

   while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,

   the lion shall eat straw like the ox;

   but the serpent—its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy

   on all my holy mountain, says our God.

If we respond to these words, then for us, they have become the word of the still-speaking God.  Thanks be to God!

Last week, we had a great community practice session as we talked to and listened to each other in our conversation about the rainbow weather feather.  A couple of times I’ve suggested that the greatest gift churches have to offer the world is the gift of community, which also is one of the hardest things a group of people can do.  That’s why we have to practice.  

Reading Isaiah, I realize there’s something else that’s even harder than practicing community well:  holding hope–for ourselves, for our church community, for the world.  

It’s hard to hold hope, isn’t it?  When inflation soars.  When elections don’t go the way you want.  When laws are enacted that impinge on people’s civil rights.  When people we love are taken from us suddenly.  When the effects of climate change continue to bear down on us.

Yes.  Sometimes, it’s hard to hold hope.  And yet, hope is crucial if we are to create God’s kindom here on Earth.  Hope is crucial if we are to build the world of which God dreams.  Hope is crucial if Earth is ever to become a place where everyone is free and has enough food to eat and a place to live and access to adequate healthcare.  

How do we hope when things seem so intractable, so hopeless?  Hope begins with imagination.  And, as Wendell Berry said, “If we can imagine it, we can do it.”  

There’s a lot of hoping and imagining going on with the Capital Area Justice Ministries organization we joined last month.  Out of house meetings last year and this year, it became clear that three issues were laying heavy on the hearts of people of faith in our Tallahassee community:  increasing gun violence, a wave of avoidable arrests of young people, and the lack of affordable housing in our city.  Because people of faith across our city were able to imagine a path forward on at least one of those issues, the program they proposed to the City Commission to reduce gun violence was adopted.  That decision is cause for hope.

Many of you are involved in our work with CAJM.  That work will continue tomorrow evening at our CAJM meeting and research groups kick-off.  If you want to learn more about what’s going on, talk with Bill Pehlan.

In what other areas might we begin to imagine a more hopeful future?  In anticipation of our church’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2025, we’ve begun working toward creating a strategic plan.  Where do we see ourselves headed in our next 50 years?  How might we give ourselves space to imagine a hopeful future for our congregation?  What might we imagine?  What might we dream?  How might we create a hopeful future for United Church in Tallahassee?  Stay tuned for more information on that planning process.

I want to share with you a poem by retired UU minister, Mark Belletini, called Solemn Te Deum for Peace.  It is a study of imagination.  Which means it’s a roadmap to hope.  Listen. 

Can you imagine it?

Palestinians and Israelis settling down together

in their common lands

bound together by the silver covenant of Jordan,

marrying each other,

reading each other’s books,

singing each other’s songs, laughing?

Can you imagine it?

Afghani pilgrims in turbans and tunics,

women dressed with ancestral modesty,

coming to Al Quds to bow at the site

where Muhammad dreamt he leapt to heaven,

nearby joining their sabra friends

as seder guests?

Can you imagine Judith and Bill Kaufman

from Columbus, Ohio,

living on that court not far from Aladdin’s

visiting their friends Omar and Fatima Al-Din

in Baghdad, their pink-cheeked children

joining in dancing till they’re dizzy with joy

under the backyard fig-tree

while the grown-ups discuss the writings

of Iqbal over fried artichokes?

Can you imagine wide-eyed Cubans

from La Habana vacationing in LA or Miami?

And the other way around?

Can you hear it?

Tears lubricating the clatter of Spanish and

English into laughter,

no more the crack of ricochets

breaking the earshot of those who now

embrace shoulder to fleshy shoulder,

with hands stroking backs fiercely,

with deep and wracking sobs?

Can you imagine it? Really, can you see it?

The president of the United States

extending a hand the color of Ethiopian coffee

to sign her witness on the marriage certificate

of her daughter Charlene to her partner Chantal?

Can you imagine it?

Not saying “I have no money to give you today”

because no one has to ask?

Can you imagine not having to fret

about traveling here or going there,

or wanting to slink past the man in the tarry coat

asking for spare change?

Can you imagine childcare and soulcare as if

children and the spirit really mattered?

Can you imagine it?

Can you imagine healthcare by healers

instead of by insurance cartels?

Can you imagine no one lying to you

about their need for cocaine or Coors

because addiction and all of its sources

have been taken seriously?

Can you imagine no one calling sex

“dirty” or their foul moods “black”?

Can you imagine no one hiding behind

the safety of their guilt and blame?

Can you imagine it?

Can you imagine people not having to shout

because they are already heard,

or people going to work instead of overwork?

Can you imagine it?

When I fail to have this vision before

the eyes of my heart, daily, hourly,

written into my pulse and breath

tattooed in them as a saving text,

then come, Spirit,

Purveyor of Peace, Paz, Paix, Pace,

Friede, Salaam, Shalom, Mir,

You Reality beyond doubt,

Incandescent Nameless

No Thing at the center of all things,

and annoy me, burn in me, jar me, jostle me,

overcome me, shake me, startle me,

until I am willing to see what must be

even more clearly than I see what is.

And let me never be embarrassed by my vision,

nor ever again confounded.

If we can imagine it–even everything in this long list–we can do it.  We can do it.  We can do it.

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: “Come and See” (John 11:32-44) (11/6/2022)

Today’s Gospel lesson–the raising of Lazarus–is an odd text for All Saints Sunday.  Here we are, remembering people who have died this year, including our beloved UCT members, AJ, Sue, and Laura.  Others of us have lost children, siblings, fathers, mothers, nieces, uncles, teachers, friends, mentors.  We have lost so many.  And, so far as we have seen, Jesus hasn’t come traipsing around to raise our dead loved ones.  What bright person thought hearing about someone else’s loved one being raised from the dead would be helpful for us as we grieve our loved ones who, no matter how much we wish for it, remain gone.  Every.  Single.  Day? 

I don’t know.  Maybe the bright person knew something we don’t.  Let’s spend some time with the story to see what good news it might hold for us, we who are grieving losses.

The story begins with Lazarus deathly ill.  One imagines the sick man’s sisters, late at night, devastated, worried, but too bone-weary to cry.  “It’s time, don’t you think?”  “Time for what?”  “Time to let Jesus know.  He would want to know.”  “But,” the other pauses to let the meaning of the words sink in.  She continues, her voice taut with grief, “Does that mean we’re giving up?”  “He’s very sick, Sister.  Very sick.”  The other brightens.  “Jesus has healed so many sick people.  Maybe he will heal Brother!”  “I don’t know, Sister.”  And for the first time, her voice cracks.  “Lazarus is so ill.  I don’t know if he can be healed.  But he would want Jesus here.  I want Jesus here.  Don’t you?”  They decide to send someone for Jesus first thing next morning.

When at last they arrive in town, Jesus and his disciples learn that Lazarus has been dead four days.  When she hears that he is approaching, Martha runs to meet Jesus and greets him with: “Rabbi, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.”  After their exchange, Martha runs to get Mary.  Mary has been mourning back at the house with friends.  Mary goes out to meet Jesus where Martha had left him, a few of the friends trailing along behind.  “Rabbi, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary and her companions are weeping.

When Jesus sees their tears, he becomes “greatly disturbed” and begins to weep himself.  He asks to see the tomb.  “Come and see,” they say.  Come and see for yourself that your beloved friend is dead.

When they show him the tomb, again he is “greatly disturbed.”  He tells them to move the stone.  Martha–every the practical one–comes running up:  “Rabbi, already there is a tench because he has been dead four days.”  Regardless of the hope she may have begun to feel at her friend’s presence, Martha knows what all of us who have lost someone know:  no matter how peaceful or welcome the passing…no matter how much healing might come after a death…no matter how much a death might spur us to celebrate life…Always, always, always, the death of a loved one hurts…always, grief comes crashing down on us, as if to kill us, too.  Martha knows what we all know:  Loss stinks.  

And so Martha tries to warn Jesus, “Rabbi, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.  Jesus responds:  “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  Jesus knows about the stench, he knows loss stinks.  But he also believes–even in the darkest, most painful moments of life–Jesus believes that God is still moving, still working with us to bring life out of death.  And so, he prays to God, then cries:  “Lazarus, come out!”  And Lazarus does, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.

Can you imagine?  Standing there, four days into your grief.  Jesus comes…says to move the stone…tells Lazarus to come out.  Maybe you’re thinking Jesus is crazy with grief.  Maybe you’ve seen Jesus do so many other crazy things that you’d believe anything.  But–even expecting anything–can you imagine a dead man walking out of a grave?  Can you imagine being a dead man, all bound up, walking out of a tomb?  Can you imagine?

The miraculous in this story is so miraculous, so super-natural, it’s easy to overlook the more mundane details in the story–Jesus’ tears, the grave clothes…the stench.

The book of John is full of what the author calls “signs.”  Signs are real-life down-to- earth events that have spiritual meanings.  Like a woman drawing H2O from a well and being told by Jesus about living water.  Or like Nicodemus talking about physical birth and Jesus calling him to spiritual re-birth.  Or like a man born blind regaining physical sight while Jesus calls the religious authorities to deeper spiritual insight.  The whole book is like that–every thing, every event is a sign, a sign that points to a spiritual reality.

So, to what spiritual reality do the details of this story–Jesus’ tears, all those wrappings and the odor–point us?  These three particular details are signs of just how devastating death is.  “Come and see.”  Come and see death for what it is.  Jesus cries, perhaps not so much out of personal sadness, but out of a keen awareness of the gut-wrenching finality of death.  And those wrappings…I mean, if Jesus can raise somebody from the dead, why can’t he dispense with the grave clothes at the same time?  If the story were just about resurrection, surely those minor details could have been eliminated.  

But this isn’t just a story about resurrection; those seemingly minor details are there to catch our attention.  Jesus cries, the clothes are there, the stench is mentioned to point to the reality of death.  Death is real.  Death is sad.  And, yes.  I think we all can agree.  Death stinks.

So, maybe this is an appropriate text for today.  Maybe we who are so closely acquainted with the devastating realities of death can find in this story some connections to our own grief.  But is that all this story offers us?  Acquaintance with the reality of death and a resurrection event that none of us here has experienced?

There’s one more detail mentioned in this scene that just might hold some hope, some good news for us today.  It’s Jesus’ last sentence.  “Unbind him and let him go.”  Okay.  So, would you really have to tell people to get the wrappings off Lazarus?  You see this man appear, he’s having trouble walking..maybe his face is still covered by one of the cloths.  Don’t you want to help the man?  Or at least make sure it really is Lazarus?  Of course, maybe people were so stunned, they froze.  Maybe Jesus’ instructions to unbind Lazarus is meant to snap the stunned folks back to the real world.  Or maybe that statement of Jesus’ is also a sign.  Maybe he’s saying that, as sad and devastating and stinky as death is, death is not the final word.  Even in the midst of death, there can be hope, there can be freedom, there can be–odd though it sounds–new life.

That message–that death is not the final word–takes on even deeper meaning when you look at the raising of Lazarus in the larger context of John’s Gospel.  Jesus raises Lazarus just before he enters Jerusalem, just before he himself dies.  Lazarus’ death and resurrection are literary precursors to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But even within the story, Jesus seems very aware of the close connection between Lazarus and himself.  So that, when Jesus points to death and resurrection as the site for God’s glory, he’s not only speaking about Lazarus; he’s also talking about himself.

So, what good news does this text hold for us on All Saints Sunday?  The first thing it does, is it honors the reality of death; it doesn’t gloss over the hard parts of dying.  The fact that this text takes death so seriously makes the good news of resurrection a bit more believable.  What is resurrection, but a reminder that death is not the final word?  What is resurrection, but a reminder that God is so much bigger than the finitude of human living?  What is resurrection, but a reminder that we are not–ever–alone?

Resurrection.  That scene where the dead man–not alive–comes shuffling out of the cave, all bound up in bandages, smelling like, well, death warmed-over–that’s a great image of resurrection.  But there’s another picture of resurrection offered in John’s gospel that is perhaps even more powerful.  A few verses after today’s story, John’s author tells us that a few days later they held a dinner party for Jesus at the home of Lazarus, “whom he had raised from the dead… Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.”  Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  What better confirmation of resurrection than being present at the table for a meal and some fellowship?

In a minute, we’ll gather around the table with all these others whose memories we have resurrected today.  Just as Lazarus was present with his loved ones at the table, so will our loved ones be present with us when we come to this table today.  As you come to receive communion today, I invite you to bring your loved ones with you.  Resurrect them by remembering details about them, by remembering your love for them–and theirs for you.  Find nourishment today, not only from bread and juice, not only from Christ’s presence and God’s love, but also find nourishment from all the saints who’ve gone before–all your saints–those who taught you communion and with whom you shared communion…those in whom and through whom God became real to you.  Come to this table…for yourself, for this community, for all the saints.

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2003 (2022)

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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.

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.


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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