Sermon: “Come on in My Kitchen…” [Luke 24:13-35] (4/24/2022)

How well do you know this kitchen?  For instance, do you know how many ovens are in this kitchen?  (Responses)  Let’s see…

Yes!  Three.

How many sinks are in this kitchen?   (Responses)

What about this one?

And did you know that our kitchen here at UCT is the home of…

The world’s…

Largest…

Tea kettle?  Sing:  I’m a little teapot…NOT!

How many dishwashers are in our UCT kitchen?  (Responses)

Yeah, there’s this one.  But looking out today, I’d say we have about 60 dishwashers.  See you after the potluck!

Monday night, I attended the Community Action Committee’s meeting.  Among the items discussed was UCT’s food ministry.  I learned that, back in the day–before the Kearney Center was created–every third Sunday after church, UCT folks would gather in the kitchen, cook a meal, and take it to the shelter for the residents there.  Once the Kearney Center was built, though, meals had to be prepared on site.  Many people participated in preparing those meals, but as one person said, “It just wasn’t the same as preparing the meals here in our UCT kitchen.”

We have signed on to serve residents at Grace Mission on the fifth Sunday of the month.  (Note:  May has five Sundays.  Get ready!)  As we talked, someone mentioned the meal–and the dyed Easter eggs–that were taken to the folks at City Walk across the street the day before Easter.  That led to an idea:  Why not cook a meal for the folks at City Walk once a month–the third Sunday, like we used to do?

That’s when Jesus showed up.  (Don’t you just love when Jesus shows up at committee meetings?)  Somebody said:  “I have something to say.  God radiates out of the kitchen when we’re preparing a meal.  When UCT is in the kitchen cooking, God is there.”  Another person mentioned the issues City Walk is having with the city.  Then they said, “Our job isn’t to get into the political hoopla.  Our job is to feed the hungry.”  “Yes!” the first person said.  “Let’s feed our neighbors!”

You’ll be hearing more soon about how you can help with our efforts at feeding the hungry.  Stay tuned.

I haven’t been here long, but here’s what I’ve learned about UCT–from that amazing Saturday morning brunch prepared by Charlotte Curtis, to the BOS meeting catered by Sonny’s my candidating weekend, to the world’s largest tea kettle, to the potluck after church today, to that amazing conversation Monday night–food is central to this congregation…and not just because we like to eat. 

Food is central to this congregation because you–we–get it.  All of us are hungry, right?  Hungry for nourishment.  Hungry for wellbeing.  Hungry for community.  Food not only meets our physical needs, but somehow, in food, God shows up…especially, when we eat together as a community.  

When the CAC member said, “When we cook together in the UCT kitchen, God shows up…”  I remembered Luke’s story about the walk to Emmaus.  Two of Jesus’ disciples are headed home Easter night.  As they walk, they’re still processing all that’s happened in Jerusalem…Jesus’ death, then the reports of his resurrection.  A stranger joins them…asks them what they’re discussing.  “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened?”  They tell Jesus the story, though they don’t yet see that it’s Jesus.

When they finish the story, Jesus reminds them of their own scriptures and of how what has happened in Jerusalem fulfilled what was in the scriptures.

When they arrive at their house in Emmaus, Jesus makes to move on, but the two invite Jesus to stay.  It’s when they gather for a meal, when Jesus breaks the bread, that the disciples’ eyes are opened–JESUS!  As soon as they recognize him, poof!  He’s gone.

But for that moment, the moment they gathered at the table, the moment he broke the bread…yes.  That’s when God showed up.  Holy things happen when we prepare food and, especially, when we eat it together…or serve it to people who are truly hungry.  Something happens.  God shows up.  Somehow, filling our stomachs opens our eyes.

I have a song to share with you.  It’s one I wrote with a friend at songwriting camp in 2014.  The camp was led by John McCutcheon at the Highlander Education and Research Center outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Highlander was created in the 1930s as a place to support groups that were trying to organize. The focus at first was helping coal miners in Appalachia.  In the 50s, the focus shifted to offering support for workers in the Civil Rights Movement.  Highlander is the place where Rosa Parks learned practices of nonviolent resistance.  Highlander also is the place where “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the Movement.  It was the tiniest bit daunting to try to write songs at the place that incubated “We Shall Overcome!”

One of our assignments was to find a partner and write a song for Highlander’s kitchen staff. When John dismissed us to go write, I bee-lined it to a woman who already had produced an album. I figured she could whip out a song lickety-split. I wasn’t proud. I was happy to ride her coattails. Trouble was, Katie had been planning to ride my coattails…which means that it took us a very looooooong time to write the song.

Rushing to finish the song before presenting it to the group, we wildly threw out ideas. We didn’t have a set melody yet because Katie—wonderful singer that she is—hadn’t sung it the same way twice. I did have some chords laid down—pretty much the only ones I can play…so those were set. We decided that she would sing and I would play. Then, two minutes before class, we realized we only had half a chorus. Yikes! Katie said, “Let’s just sing it twice!”

We rushed into class and—eager to do the song before we forgot it— volunteered to go first. We did. And discovered that—after all the angst—we liked the song. Whew!

The next day, four songwriting pairs from the group gave a mini-concert in the dining hall. We sang to an audience of two—cooks Betty, an older white woman, and Isis, an African American woman in her late 50s, early 60s. By the end of the last song—Katie’s and mine—Isis was in tears. Katie ran over and hugged her.

It was a humbling experience. What creative—and compassionate—foresight for John to suggest that we write songs for the kitchen staff! The kitchen staff in most conference centers isn’t even seen much less sung for.  The assignment to write a song for the kitchen staff invited us to see, really see, the people who prepared our food. When Isis cried, we realized just how important it was for her to be seen. It also helped us see that anything we do—writing songs or anything else—anything we do is an opportunity to give to and see others.

We didn’t fully understand the impact our songs had on Isis until the next morning. When I walked into the dining hall for breakfast, Isis was–there’s no other word for it–preaching. “I don’t how many of you follow the Bible,” she said. “But in there it talks about how Saul was all crazy in his head and how David’s music soothed him. That’s what music does! It soothes us.”

I could tell that Isis was just getting started, so I asked a friend for some paper and a pen and began dictating.  Isis said: “I’ve been cooking and cleaning since I was knee-high to doing something” When she said that, John leaned over and said, “Write that down. That’s good.”  Isis had to leave school in sixth grade to care for her family. She never went back.

By the time she was 50, Isis had built up a lot of resentment about having to cook and clean her whole life. She bore that resentment until the 102 year old woman she’d been caring for said this: “Isis, you’re the best housekeeper and cook I’ve ever had.  In fact, you’re what’s kept me alive the last 5 years.  Listen, do you mind if I go on and die?”  She knew Isis depended on the income and wanted to be sure she’d be okay if she no longer had the caretaking job.

Not long after that, the woman greeted Isis one morning by saying: “Today’s the day.  I don’t want to read. I don’t want to do my crossword puzzle. I don’t even want to watch Judge Judy. I think today’s the day.”  And indeed it was. Isis served lunch, the woman ate it, then quietly slipped away. Isis told us: “That woman helped me see that I’m very good at cooking and cleaning. Since then, I haven’t been resentful.”

Something happens in the kitchen, doesn’t it?  Something happens when we cook together and eat together and serve the hungry together.  Something profound, something holy happens…When we cook together, when we eat together, God shows up.

Song:  “Feed Our Bodies, Feed Our Souls”  by Kim Buchanan and Katie Oates

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2022

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Sermon (Easter, First Sunday at UCT!): “Easter Stories” [Luke 24:1-12] (4/17/2022)

United Church in Tallahassee

What brings you here today?  Is this the one day each year you come to church?  Or maybe you come to church every week, rain or shine.  “What?  Today’s Easter?  Cool.”  Or maybe you bought a new hat last September and have been waiting for months to show it off.  Or maybe you came to check out the new pastor.  (I’m cool with that.  I’m here to check you out, too.  😉  But my name is on the sign now.  No turning back!  😉

Have you ever heard the term “Chreaster?”  It describes folks who come to church two days a year–Christmas and Easter.  When asked why some people only come to church on Christmas and Easter, one person said, “Because those are the only parts of the story they know.”

Which is why I consider Chreasters rock stars!  Chreasters come for the two hardest parts of the Christian story!  Virgin birth?  Bodily resurrection?  Yeah.  That’s dicey stuff.

So…what brings you here today?  What is your Easter story?

The Easter story of Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James, begins this way.  On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, the women came to the tomb bringing the spices they had prepared.

Just two days before, in what must have been a deeply traumatizing event, Jesus, their beloved teacher, had been executed.  As the Sabbath approached, a tomb was hurriedly secured.  Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb and a stone rolled over the entrance.  Then, despite their shock, terror, and grief, Jesus’ followers must have done what they did every Sabbath–very little.

We get no info from any of the Gospel writers about what that Sabbath day was like.  So often, when someone we love dies, we keep the grief at bay with busywork.  Jesus’ followers didn’t have that luxury.  Work was prohibited on the Sabbath.  All that was left to them were their thoughts, their thoughts and their Sabbath practices….The lighting of the candle.  The familiar prayers.  The meal.  All of it done together with family and friends.    

It might seem strange to say it, but that Sabbath day must have been a gift to Jesus’ followers, gut-wrenching, yes, but also a gift.  Left to their thoughts–and no means of distracting themselves–the reality of what had happened had the chance to sink in.  At the same time, though, they were able to lean into the familiar rituals of the Sabbath.  In the midst of their trauma and grief, they had the meal and the prayers, the companionship of family and friends, to ground them, to help them as they adjusted to their new reality–a world without their beloved Jesus. 

As the sun rises on the third day after Jesus’ death–the signal that Sabbath was over– Luke tells us that Mary, Mary, and Joanna “bring the spices they had prepared.”  So, when had they prepared them?  If they leave the minute the Sabbath ends and the spices already had been prepared, they must have started the preparations immediately after Jesus died.  And being from out of town, they likely had to run quickly to a merchant Friday afternoon, buy the spices, prepare them, and set them aside until the Sabbath was over.    

Okay.  So, your beloved teacher Jesus has just been executed.  Would you have had the presence of mind to go buy death spices?  Maybe you would have.  Me?  I probably would have been sitting in a corner sobbing somewhere.  But…this isn’t my Easter story.  This is the Easter story of Mary, Mary, and Joanna.  Let’s get back to it…

They bring the spices to the tomb…and find the heavy stone rolled away.  They’d come to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, but Jesus’ body wasn’t there.  As they puzzle over this unexpected turn of events, two figures appear.  Terrified, the women bow to the ground.  

The figures speak.  ‘Why do you search for the Living One among the dead?  Jesus is not here; Christ has risen.  Remember what Jesus said to you while still in Galilee–that the Chosen One must be delivered into the hands of sinners and be crucified, and on the third day would rise again.’  

One of them, let’s say Joanna, hits her forehead with the heel of her hand and says, “Wait a minute.  THIS is what he was talking about?”  With this reminder, Luke tells us, the words of Jesus came back to them.

The three women rush back into town, find the 11 and tell them what has happened.  Actually, Luke tells us that “the other women also” told the 11….so, on the way into town, Mary, Mary, and Joanna must have first stopped by the house and told the other women their story.  The telling must have taken, because the women believed them.

But when all the women tell the 11 their Easter story, the disciples don’t believe them.  The story seemed like nonsense (one translation calls them “idle tales”) and they refused to believe them.  A group of men “refusing to believe” the stories of women?  Yes.  We could have some conversation about that…and perhaps will at some point.  

But this isn’t the story of the 11, is it?  This is the story of the two Marys and Joanna… The two Marys and Joanna experience something profound that Easter morning.  What else could they do but share the good news with others?  The fact that the 11 don’t believe them doesn’t change their story at all.  The women’s story is their story, their Easter story.  The 11 are living their own Easter stories.  Each of them will tell their stories in their own ways based on their own experiences.

At the end of today’s story, Luke gives us a quick glimpse of Peter’s Easter story.  Listen.  Peter got up and ran to the tomb.  He stooped down, but he could see nothing but the wrappings.  So he went away, full of amazement at what had occurred.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up with this idea that there was only one Easter story and if I didn’t believe the one Easter story, pretty much, I was going to hell.  But right here in Luke’s account of Easter morning, we encounter at least three Easter stories–the one experienced by the two Marys and Joanna, the one experienced by ten of the disciples, and the one experienced by Peter.  

The truth is, we all have Easter stories….and chances are good they’re all different.  Were we to gather on the porch after worship and tell each other our Easter stories, my guess is we’d be surprised at how different all our stories are.

So, what’s your Easter story?  What role does a risen Jesus play in your life?  

I want to tell you about my hat.  This hat belonged to a friend of mine named Ellie.  Ellie died last November, All Souls Day, of metastatic breast cancer.  She was 86.

Ellie was a hat-wearer…all kinds of hats, except maybe church lady hats.  After Ellie died, her hats were distributed to some of her friends.  I picked this one, in part, because it was purple.  Ellie adored the color purple.  It also just “felt” like Ellie to me.  Ellie’s partner, Bev, told me about a time when Ellie had loaned her the hat for a white water rafting trip.  When the raft hit a rough patch, Bev went over.  She wasn’t nearly as concerned for herself as she was for Ellie’s beloved hat.  “Ellie’s hat!” cried.  It was saved.  It was drenched, but it was saved.

 For much of her life, Ellie tried to live the narrative others had created for her.  She married, had three children.  Later in life, though, Ellie began living her most authentic narrative.  She came out as a lesbian.  Eventually, she found the first love of her life, Jeannie.  They were the first gay couple in the state of California to have their union blessed by 70+ renegade United Methodist clergy.  The ceremony took place in an arena.

By the time I knew Ellie, Jeannie had died and she and her new beloved, Bev, had moved to Asheville.  The thing that struck me about Ellie is that she was always and only her true self.  Once, when she was headed to Cherokee to do a little gambling, I told her I would pray for her.  When she came back–reporting her losses–she asked me never again to pray for her gambling.  I didn’t.  With Ellie, there was zero pretense.  She lived her life focused on justice, advocacy, and compassion.  Ellie inspired many of us only to be our true selves, too.

Ellie’s Easter story led her to live her one true life.  What is your Easter story?  What does a living Jesus mean for you?  How might you live out your Easter story?  How might we as a community of Jesus’ followers live out our community’s Easter story?  How might we, as individuals and as a community, live our one true life?

Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  This is my story, this is my song!

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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Reflection: Maundy Thursday [4/14/2022]

What a week it had been–the joyous crowds ushering you into Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  Teaching, healing, worshiping in the Temple, mobbed by crowds everywhere you went.  

And a mounting tension…something you couldn’t put your finger on, but knew in your gut was coming…something evil, unavoidable.  

The religious authorities had been hounding you for months// really, since your ministry began.  As pawns of the Roman government, it made sense that the Pharisees, Saducees, and scribes would find talk of establishing a new kingdom threatening.  And Judas…something was off with Judas.  Since arriving in Jerusalem, he’d been even more secretive than usual.  

So when you gather with the twelve in the borrowed upper room for the Passover meal…whether through imprisonment or assassination, you sense it could well be the last time you’ll experience the Passover meal with these friends.  You’ve been teaching for all you’re worth for three years now, desperate to open the minds and hearts of at least these twelve to God’s deepest hopes for them and for the world.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the twelve have been slow on the uptake.  You tried to show them a world where all were equally loved by God, then John and James come looking for special seating in the afterlife.  Another prophet is sharing the good news down the street and, because it’s not you, your disciples ask if they should rain down fire on the prophet.

This could be the last meal.  Maybe not, but it could be.  If it is, what will you say?  What one thing can you say that might, just might, stay with them…and take root…and change them…so that they might, just might, change the world?

Here’s how John, dear John, will remember your words later.  “My little children, I won’t be with you much longer.  You’ll look for me, but what I said to the Temple authorities, I say to you:  where I am going, you cannot come.  I give you a new commandment (novum mandatum):  Love one another.  And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you.  This is how all will know that you’re my disciples:  that you truly love one another.”

As the silence deepens, as the words hover in the air, something settles inside you…yes.  Yes.  That’s what everything means…everything you’ve taught, everything you’ve done, every law in the Torah, every sign from God…all of it, all of it, all of it, when distilled, means this:  “love one another.”  Love one another.  Love one another.

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Sermon (Last Sunday at FCUCC, Asheville): “Peace I Leave with You, My Friends” [John 20:19-23] (3/13/2022)

First Congregational, UCC, Asheville, North Carolina

Hi.  It’s hard to believe our time together is ending.  Things were so different–in our church and in the world–four years ago, when I became your pastor.  But the crucible of the pandemic has clarified many things.  For me, clarity has come around the need to be closer to family.  As it turns out, there’s also a church close to my family–United Church in Tallahassee, Florida–that will be a great fit for ministry.  In addition to being just 2 and a half miles from the state capitol–which, if you’ve been keeping up with the news, needs a lot of help–I’ll be baptizing four little ones on Easter Sunday.  I am eager to begin my work with the UCT congregation.

Which in no way diminishes the profound sadness I feel in leaving First Congregational.  We have accomplished some good things together, not the least of which is getting through a pandemic together.  The Arts and Social Justice ministry also is a significant accomplishment.  Do be sure to check out the “Feeding our Neighbors” art gallery exhibit this month.  Being your pastor, working with our phenomenal staff…it has been a profound blessing.  I am grateful to you.  I want to thank you for the ways you have invited me to be your pastor, for the ways you have participated in our ministry together.

In her visit with folks during Rap with the Rev her last week with us as Admin, someone asked Casey to name her hope for First Congregational.  Her response:  “I hope peace for you.”  When she said it, I realized that that’s my hope for you, too.  I hope peace for you.

Three days after his death, Jesus’ disciples are cowering in a locked room when the risen Jesus appears to them.  His first word to them is:  Peace be with you.  It’s a good bet that peace was far from what they were feeling.  They’d been traveling around with Jesus, teaching, healing, sharing God’s love, when Boom!  He’s arrested, then executed.  If Jesus could be executed on trumped up charges, what might to happen to them?

A few days after I sent the letter announcing my resignation, someone emailed me and used the word “trepidatious.”  Yes.  This time of transition might feel trepidatious.  You might be wondering what’s going to happen to you and to the church.  

As I leave you, I want to say, Peace be with you.  You are a strong congregation.  You will figure this out.

After showing the stunned disciples his hands and his side, the disciples rejoice that Jesus is again with them.  At that point, Jesus says again, “Peace be with you.”

In the days to come, as you work together to find your way forward, I encourage you to remind each other that “peace is with you.”  No matter what’s happening, all shall be well.  All shall be well.  And, as Jesus did with the disciples, you might have to say it more than once.

Jesus’ next words to the disciples also are good words for us to hear:  “As my Abba has sent me, so I send you.”  Pastoral transitions can be hard.  Even as we deal with all the trepidatious-ness, though, one thing does not change–the work to which we are called.  In the grand scheme of things–the grand scheme of God’s kin-dom–a pastoral transition is a tiny thing.  The big thing for us is continuing to do the work to which we are called–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, working to create a more just society, sharing God’s love with the least of these.  As I leave, and as you enter a period of transition, remember that the work to which we are called is still there, waiting for us to engage it.  

As I leave–as God is sending me–God also is sending you…to do the work to which you have always been called.

After Jesus reminds the disciples of their call to the work of God’s kin-dom, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Breathing in and breathing out at the beginning of the service…It’s quick.  It’s simple.  And it’s become an integral part of our worship together.  Some of it, I think, is simply the physical power of breath. Re-oxygenating our blood increases our focus.  Some of its importance, I suspect, comes from the fact of the pandemic.  If it’s taught us anything, the pandemic has taught us just how precious a gift breathing is.

As I leave, I remind you to breathe…and even more important, I remind you to breathe together.

As Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, he says to the disciples, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  In the service of farewell we’ll be doing in a minute, we will ask each other to forgive the mistakes we’ve made in our relationship as pastor and congregation.  That might be the most important part of the liturgy, the most important thing we do all day (besides party!):  to forgive each other.

Our time together hasn’t been perfect; no ministry is.  We have made mistakes.  But here’s the thing.  If we hold onto those mistakes, if we bear grudges, we won’t be able to do the important work to which we’ve been called.  It’s telling that the first instruction Jesus gives the disciples after commissioning them is to forgive.  Perhaps that’s because clinging to our resentments hamstrings us in our work for the Gospel.  Resentment can lead to bitterness.  It’s hard to share God’s love when you’re bitter.

The other thing that’s telling is that Jesus doesn’t call on the disciples to forgive until after he gives them the gift of the Spirit.  This is good news.  It means that, when it comes to the hard work of forgiveness, we don’t have to go it alone.  God’s spirit will help us.

As I leave, I encourage us (including me) to forgive mistakes we have made with each other.  If we do, it will free us up to do the work of God’s kin-dom…which is the whole point, right?

As I leave, I have three final things to share with you.

First, be brave…especially when it comes to your interactions with each other.  I know.  Speaking the truth in love to each other is hard, hard, hard.  It’s way easier to talk about someone to another person than to speak directly to the person you have an issue with.  I encourage you to be brave in your interactions…and help each other to be brave, too.  True community depends on honest and open communication.

Second, be kind.  This First Congregational community is such a gift!  Just look at all these beautiful people!  Each one is a beautifully-created beloved child of God.  I encourage you to remember that in your interactions with each other.

My last word to you is this:  be playful.  Sometimes–especially, in stressful times, like pandemics and pastoral transitions–playfulness gets shoved to the back burner.  And yet, playfulness, light-heartenedness..it’s what makes living fun, right?  That’s why we do all the hard work, why we attend so intentionally to the ways in which we follow Jesus…we do it all because being human should be fun, joyous!  I pray playfulness for you.

Be brave.  Be kind.  Be playful.  I suspect that tending to courage, kindness, and playfulness will go a long way in nurturing peace among you.

And so, as I leave, as, as the Quakers say, way closes on our ministry with each other, that is my final word to you, that is my deepest hope for you:  peace, peace, peace.

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: “Just Food” [Luke 4:1-13] (3/6/2022)

Uncle Bobby Joe had the gift of food.  He could cook up a mess of just about anything and feed a crowd of just about any size.  When Uncle Bobby moved back to the family farm and designed his mobile home, he deleted the living room to accommodate a long dining table.  Yes.  He designed his home around the table.  In order to have a living room, he had to build an addition (which, by the by, would accommodate even more seating for meals).

Uncle Bobby knew the power of food to bring folks together.  Part of the draw of moving to Florida for Allen and me is getting to gather around Uncle Bobby Joe’s table at least once a month to eat with family.  He’s gone now, but his table lives on.  

Food.  It’s just food.  And yet, it’s so much more, isn’t it?  Without food, we die.  Without healthy food, we cannot thrive.  With unhealthy food, we do great harm to our bodies.  Food is, literally, the stuff of life.

In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus is baptized, he hears the words, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased.”  Luke tells us the experience fills Jesus up with the Holy Spirit… which sounds like a good thing… But when Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returns from the Jordan, he is led by the same Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he’s tempted by the devil.  He eats nothing at all during those days.  At the end of it, he’s famished.    

It’s when he’s famished that the devil begins testing Jesus…promising him all the kingdoms in the world and all power, if Jesus will but renounce God.  When Jesus passes the test and rebuffs the devil’s offers, the tempter leaves him until an opportune time.

Most religions include practices of fasting.  It’s considered a means of accessing spiritual enlightenment.  Was Jesus able to pass the devil’s test because his lack of physical nourishment sharpened his spiritual acuity?  Perhaps.

The invitation this Lent is to contemplate–and experience–the connection between physical hunger and spiritual hunger.  Why is food a central theme in religious experience?  What’s the big deal about food…both physically and spiritually?  And, more to the point, what’s the connection between physical sustenance and spiritual sustenance?  Answers to these questions will unfold over the next six weeks.  The invitation this Lent is to open our minds and hearts–and stomachs–to whatever this season might offer to our imaginations.  

Food.  It’s just food.  And yet, it’s so much more…especially, when you don’t have any.  When it comes down to it, choosing to fast is a privilege.  Choosing to fast is a gift.  What about those for whom fasting is not chosen?  

Global Citizen is a nonprofit whose mission is ending world hunger.  According to Global Citizen, 795 million people do not have access to enough food to survive and thrive in the world.  66 million of these people are children, and hunger prevents them from achieving their full potential in school.  Globally, that’s one out of nine people who do not get enough food to live the life they want. And the majority of the world’s hungry live in developing countries–where 12.9 percent of the population struggles with hunger, while other regions of the world waste billions of tons of food each year.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, one out of four people is hungry.

https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/food-hunger-issues-explained/

Of course, it’s not only people in other countries who are hungry or food insecure.  A few statistics from the United Way:  (1) One in 8 families in America is hungry. That’s 12.3% of all U.S. households.  (2) 48% of college students in America are food insecure.  (3) 15% of people in rural areas are hungry.  (4) 60% of households led by older Americans must choose between buying groceries or paying utility bills.  https://www.unitedway.org/blog/5-surprising-facts-about-hunger-in-america#

The saddest thing about hunger in the world and in our country is that there’s enough food in the world to feed every person.  So, what’s the problem?

Part of the problem is poor agricultural practices that have led to a sharp reduction of nutrients in soil.  Climate change also is a problem, especially for subsistence farmers in places like sub-Saharan Africa.  Food distribution processes also prevent many people from receiving the food they need.

I wonder, though, if the problem with hunger in our world isn’t so much a matter of science or distribution methods.  I wonder if the problem of hunger in our world and our country is a spiritual one.  As Dom Helder Camara, a priest in El Salvador, said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”

When we feed the poor here in Buncombe County, we are doing good work.  Some might even call us saints.  But when we ask why there are hungry folks…here in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina?   I wonder what they will call us then.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass took a tour in Europe in an effort to drum up support for the cause of the abolition of slavery.  Douglass was a gifted speaker, who shared with audiences his own horrific experiences of slavery.

When Douglass arrived in Ireland, the poverty he saw stunned him.  He wondered why he was asking such an impoverished people for money to support abolition efforts in the United States.  

The great potato famine, it’s called.  A blight obliterated potato crops for years.  The Irish people starved.  Between 1845 and 1849, at least 1 million people died.  Another million immigrated to other countries.  What happened to cause the famine?

From 1801 until it gained independence in the early 20th century, Ireland was effectively a British colony.  Ireland had representatives in Parliament, but most of those representatives were British gentry who had purchased land in Ireland.  

When the potato blight came, the British government was slow to respond.  A few tariffs were lifted, but little else was done.  In fact–and this is stunning–Ireland “continued to export large quantities of food, primarily to Great Britain, during the blight. In cases such as livestock and butter, research suggests that exports may actually have increased during the Potato Famine. In 1847 alone, records indicate that commodities such as peas, beans, rabbits, fish and honey continued to be exported from Ireland, even as the Great Hunger ravaged the countryside.”  https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/irish-potato-famine#:~:text=The%20Irish%20Potato%20Famine%2C%20also,over%20the%20next%20seven%20years.

Was the devastation of the potato famine caused by a natural disaster?  Though the blight was real, mass starvation could have been avoided with compassionate action by the British government, action that never came.  In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement offering a formal apology to Ireland for the U.K. government’s handling of the crisis at the time.  

Kindred Spirits sculpture in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland

In the town of Midleton, County Cork, Ireland, stands a sculpture titled, Kindred Spirits. The circle of large silver feathers commemorates a stunning act of kindness by members of the Choctaw tribe in the United States in 1847.  Just 16 years after they’d been forcibly relocated by the US government through “The Trail of Tears,” members of the Choctaw nation–themselves suffering poverty–sent $170 (the equivalent of $5000 today) to Ireland.  The funds were distributed by the Quakers, who served the Irish people during the famine.

The Choctaw people might have been poor, but they were not poor in spirit.  Their spirits were just fine.  Their spirits were just.  They had a little, so they shared a little.  The powers that be in the UK weren’t poor, but their inaction in the face of such horrific suffering showed just how impoverished their spirits were.

A couple of years ago, the Hopi and Navajo people were suffering tremendously because of the pandemic.  A GoFundMe plea went out.  Irish donors contributed generously to the fund.

One of those donors, Sean Callahan, said, “I’d already known what the Choctaw did in the famine, so short a time after they’d been through the Trail of Tears.  It always struck me for its kindness and generosity and I see that too in the Irish people. It seemed the right time to try and pay it back in kind.”  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/world/coronavirus-ireland-native-american-tribes.html

Cassandra Begay, communications director for the fund-raiser, said this, “The Choctaw ancestors planted that seed a long time ago, based off the fundamental belief of helping someone else.  It is a dark time for us. The support from Ireland is phenomenal.”

Food.  It’s just food.  And yet, it’s so, so, so much more.  

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 (Transfiguration): “Mountaintop Clarity” [Luke 9:28-36] (2/27/2022)

  

I grew up in North Central Florida, near Gainesville.  The terrain there is flat.  Very flat.  As a child and teenager, I grew up longing to live in the mountains.  So, for college, I moved to Shawnee, Oklahoma…which also is flat.  After college, I taught school in Lawton, Oklahoma.  Flat.  BUT…there’s a wildlife refuge near Lawton that includes one of the oldest mountain ranges in the country, the Wichitas.  The tallest of those mountains is Mt. Scott.  Every chance I got, I’d drive out to the Refuge and drive to the summit of Mt. Scott and take in the beauty of the view from the mountain top.

After seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I moved to Atlanta.  The foothills of the Appalachians were just an hour or so north of us.  Again, we took every chance we could to go to the mountains.  There’s just a way you feel in the mountains that you don’t feel anywhere else, isn’t there?

So…you can imagine my joy when I was called to serve as your pastor four years ago.  Finally!  My childhood dream of living in the mountains was coming true!  Not only was I being called to serve with a phenomenal congregation, that congregation was located in one of the most beautiful spots in all the world.

The last couple of weeks in worship, we’ve been wrestling with parts of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. “Blessed are the poor.”  “Woe to you who are rich.”  “Love your enemies.”  A lot of the sermon also is included in Matthew’s Gospel.  (The Gospel writers likely drew from the same source.)  Matthew’s version is called the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience.  People of Jewish faith would respond favorably to a teacher who goes up a mountain, sits down, and teaches.  

Luke’s gospel was written for a Gentile, or non-Jewish audience.  The Jesus they would respond to wouldn’t be apart from and above them on a mountain.  The Jesus to whom Gentiles would respond would be down on the plain right in the middle of them.  Not proclaiming from the top of Mt. Mitchell, but amongst them in Swannanoa Valley.  

While most of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke happens on level places (including tables!), hills and mountains also play an important part in the narrative.  Several times, Jesus goes up mountains to pray and rest.  Just before the Sermon on the Plain, he asks the twelve disciples to join him up the mountain and commissions them.

Now, 8 days after delivering the sermon, Jesus takes 3 of those disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a mountain…for one of the most puzzling scenes in all of Scripture.  They’ve gone up to pray, and perhaps to rest (Luke notes that Peter, James, and John are “weighed down with sleep.”).

While Jesus prays, “the appearance of his face changes; his clothes become dazzling white.”  Then Moses and Elijah show up and start talking with Jesus about his “departure (aka, death), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

Peter, James, and John see Jesus with Moses and Elijah…and it’s clear the sight has made an impression on them.  Peter blurts out that they should build three tabernacles to commemorate the experience.

Instead of building materials, God sends a dense cloud.  Have you ever had a dense cloud descend on you while on top of a mountain?  It’s disorienting…it erases everything you know except what is literally right in front of you.  Jesus and the three enter the cloud.  While in the cloud, they hear these words, the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism:  ‘This is my Chosen One; listen to him!’

This is my chosen one…the one whose life (and, soon, death) will fulfill the promise of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah). 

Though Peter, James, and John d0n’t understand it at the time–they don’t utter a word about it when they come down from the mountain–What happens on that mountain is key.  Though clouded in mystery at the start, further reflection must have led to greater clarity.  If they’d stayed silent, we wouldn’t have the story today, right?  The fog must have lifted at some point.  At some point their trip to the mountain top must have clarified things for them about their lives and ministry.

I have loved living in the mountains!  I have loved serving with you all in ministry.  But after four years of reflection, clarity has come:  It’s time for me to leave the mountains.  It’s time for me to return to the flatter terrain of Florida (though Tallahassee is one of the hilliest places in Florida!).

It’s also time for me to move closer to my extended family.  When we lived in Atlanta, Allen’s family was an hour away.  Having family that close grounded us.  Except for Mom, who moved here three years ago, Allen and I have no family here.  The pandemic helped us realize how much we long to be closer to family.  

When a church in Tallahassee opened up–which is just an hour from my extended family and an hour and half from my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew Lachlan–I felt led to apply.  Last Sunday, United Church in Tallahassee voted to call me as their pastor.

As I said in a letter to you this week, the Search and Call process in the UCC requires that the process be private.  That privacy protects the pastor and all the congregations involved.  The downside of the privacy of the process is that it can feel very abrupt when a pastor announces to her current congregation that she’s leaving.  If it has felt that way to you, I am sorry.  I wish I could take that hurt away.

As I make my way down from the mountains, here are some things I want you to know.  First, I have loved serving as your pastor.  We’ve accomplished a lot together, not the least of which is still being together two years into the pandemic!  Since March 2020, we’ve had to re-think how we do church more times than I can count.  But we’re doing it.  It kind of feels like a miracle.  We continue to welcome new people into the congregation…which also feels miraculous.

We’ve added some terrific new staff members, many of them in the last year–Eric, Kathleen, Chuck, Amanda, and Andrew.  Oh, these people have and will serve you well!

Most of all, I will treasure the ways you have invited me into your lives and have allowed me to be your pastor.  That is a profound gift that I will treasure.

Pastoral transitions, as many of you will know, take time and include many steps in the process.  The Board and Personnel Committees already have begun planning to ensure a smooth transition with worship leadership, pastoral care, and supervision of staff.  I have no worries at all that you all will do just fine in this transition period.

But what do we do in the pre-transition period?  Things are kind of awkward right now, aren’t they?  Perhaps like the awkwardness that led Peter to blurt out his idea about building tabernacles on the mountain.  “Not knowing what to say,” we also might blurt out things we haven’t fully thought through.

Here’s what I will say…I think we need to blurt whatever we need to blurt…as long as we are kind to each other.  There’s no script already written for how we should say goodbye to each other.  We’re making this up as we go.  The important thing for the next two weeks is to say what we need to say so that our leave-taking will help us do what it’s intended to do–say our goodbyes to each other so that I can move on to pastor another congregation and you can move on to welcome a new pastor.

Still, it’s awkward, isn’t it?  So, maybe in the midst of our awkwardness, we can do what Jesus, Peter, James, and John did in the midst of their awkwardness after experiencing whatever that was on the mountain top–they came down the mountain and kept doing what they were called to do…being with people, helping them, healing them.  

Lent will provide good opportunities to continue being with, helping, and healing people.  The theme for Lent is “Hungry for Resurrection.”  Thanks to the good work of our Benevolence Team and photographer Farhad Kanuga–whose work will be displayed in the art gallery in March–the invitation is to reflect on the relationship between physical hunger and spiritual hunger.  Each Sunday during Lent, as an act of worship, we will be invited to bring food resources to the table to help various non-profits in town provide food to people who need it.

What happened on the mountain top when Jesus was transfigured–that was pretty amazing, awesome, glorious.  But look what Luke writes after Jesus heals a man’s son after coming down from the mountaintop:  “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”  Whether in the mountains or on the plain…wherever we are, whatever we do…if we stay focused on the work to which we are called, the work of healing the world, all will continue to be astounded at the greatness of God.

May that be our goal in all our times–the happy times, the sad times, the awkward times–may everything we do at any time continue to astonish the world at the greatness of God’s love.

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: “Love Your Enemies” [Luke 6:27-38] (2/20/2022)

This is one of those passages we’re supposed to read metaphorically, right?   Jesus didn’t really mean to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, did he?  He didn’t mean that when someone takes our coat we should actually hand over our shirt, too, did he?  And surely, surely, he didn’t mean to love our enemies, like, our real enemies, like, out-and-out, dyed-in-the-wool bad people…did he?

Over the centuries commentators have tried to make this text easier to digest…like, saying that “turning the other cheek” would make the person hit you in a way that would be demeaning for him; or giving someone who wants your coat your shirt, too, as a way to embarrass her.  I get where people are going with all those exegetical gymnastics…they want to downplay what they see as weak responses to bullying and violence.  No one wants to be a doormat.  Everyone wants to feel strong.  

But what if Jesus meant exactly what he said?  What if he really is calling us to a life of intentional non-violence?

In his comic book memoir March, the late US Congressman John Lewis described the training he’d received in non-violence, training based directly on today’s Gospel Lesson.  “The hardest part to learn,” Lewis writes, “the hardest part to truly understand, deep in your heart, was how to find love for your attacker.”  “Do not let them shake your faith in nonviolence,” they were told.  “Love them!”  (March, 29)  Love your enemies.

Love.  Your enemies.  Act your enemies into wellbeing.  So what if you love your friends and family, those people who love you back? Jesus says.  What more have you added to the world by doing that?  In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way:  “We can love our kith and kin, our fellow citizens and our friends, whether we are Christians or not; there is no need for Jesus to teach us that.  He takes that kind of love for granted.”  (152)

Bonhoeffer goes on to remind us that, by its very nature, discipleship calls us to go beyond what is expected.  If we only do what is expected, nothing changes.  The world remains exactly the same.  If the world is to change, if we are to build God’s kindom on earth, if we are to make God’s dreams for the world come true, we have to go beyond what the world expects…

What does that mean in terms of loving?  For Jesus, a love that goes beyond what’s expected is a love that extends to the person who doesn’t love you back—your enemy.  Loving those who love you back, that’s nice, its’s important, but it isn’t the kind of love that characterizes discipleship.  True discipleship calls us to an even more profound love, a love that reaches out to the one mired in hatred.

But why?  Why love those mired in hatred, especially when that hatred is directed at us?

When six year old Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, parents of all the other children kept their children home.  Every day, federal marshals escorted little Ruby to her classroom, protecting her from the large, angry mob assembled each day at the school’s entrance.

         One morning, Ruby stopped and faced the screeching crowd.  Watching from the window, Ruby’s teacher thought she saw her speak to the crowd.  When asked later what she said to them, Ruby said, “I was praying for them.”  When asked why she was praying for people who were saying such mean things, Ruby said, “Well, don’t you think they need praying for?”

Even at the tender age of six, Ruby Bridges got what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.  We love our enemies because they need our love.  Folks who are mired in hatred don’t have access to their full humanity.  Part of what it means to be human is to recognize the humanity in others.  If we are unable to recognize the humanity in others, our own humanity is diminished.

So, when Jesus calls us to love our enemies, he’s calling us to act them into wellbeing and thus to affirm their humanity.  And what happens when we affirm the humanity of our enemy?  Our own humanity is strengthened.

I do need to offer a caveat.  Loving our enemy doesn’t mean to put our lives at risk.  The call to “turn the other cheek” has been used way too often to encourage people—especially women—to stay in abusive relationships.  Sometimes the best way to love our enemy, the best way to act them—and ourselves—into wellbeing, is to remove ourselves from the situation.  Following the way of non-violence only comes after making a conscious choice to engage it, not because we don’t feel like we have a choice.

So, Jesus said a lot of annoying things during his three short years of ministry…This might be the most annoying of all.  Love our enemies?  But if, as Bonhoeffer suggests, Jesus’ sermon can be summed up in the single word of love, then perhaps the kind of love Jesus is talking about, the kind of love that comes from God, the kind of love that’s unique to God, is the love that is capable of extending to enemies.

            Which begs the question:  Can we truly know the love about which Jesus speaks without loving our enemies?  When that question first came to me, it jarred me to my core.  I’d always assumed that loving my enemies was a nice thing to do on occasion, an add-on to the very good discipleship work I was already doing .  But if the love God offers, the love Jesus showed us is characterized by loving our enemies, then it follows that I can’t know fully God’s love until I love my enemies.

But what if I can’t?  What if it’s just too hard to love my enemies?  Clarence Jordan offered a great way of understanding this.  He saw loving our enemies as the final stage of the process of spiritual growth.  The first stage is unlimited retaliation (“You hurt me, I’ll crush you…just because I can.”).  The second is limited retaliation (“an eye for an eye”).  The third is limited love (“Love your neighbor [that is, people like us] and hate your enemy.”).  The last stage is unlimited love (“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”)

Our affinity for any given stage in the development of retaliation/love identifies our level of spiritual maturity.  Jordan explains:  “To talk about unlimited retaliation is babyish; to speak of limited retaliation is childish; to advocate limited love is adolescent; to practice unlimited love is evidence of maturity.”  (Sermon on the Mount)

If loving our enemies is something we’re growing toward, then—Whew!—it’s not a deal-breaker if we can’t love all our enemies right this very minute.  Jesus isn’t going to kick us out of the disciples club if we’re still working on it.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was still working on it his first trip to the United States in 1930-31.  Among his close friends at Union Seminary in New York was a student from France named Jean Lasserre.

In 1931, the two friends went to see the movie, All Quiet on the Western Front.  Bonhoeffer biographer, Eric Metaxas, calls the film a “searing indictment” of World War I, the war in which the friends’ home countries, Germany and France, were bitter enemies.

In one scene, a young German soldier, left alone in a trench, brutally stabs a French soldier who crawls into the trench with him.  Overcome by the horror of what he’s done, the young German “caresses the dying man’s face, trying to comfort him, offering him water for his parched lips.”  ‘I want to help,’ he says.  ‘I want to help.’  “After the Frenchman dies, the German lies at the corpse’s feet and begs his forgiveness.  He vows to write to the man’s family, and then he finds and opens the man’s wallet.  He sees the man’s name and a picture of his wife and daughter.”

“The sadness of the violence and suffering on the screen brought Bonhoeffer and Lasserre to tears, but even worse to them was the reaction in the theater.  Lasserre remembered American children in the audience laughing and cheering when the Germans, from whose point of view the story was told, were killing the French.  For Bonhoeffer, it was unbearable.  Lasserre later said he could barely console Bonhoeffer afterward.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Lasserre spoke often about Jesus’ sermon and how it informed his theology.  From that point forward it became a central part of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, too, which eventually led him to write The Cost of Discipleship.”  (2302)

Love your enemies.  Love.  Your enemies.  Act your enemies into wellbeing.  Annoying?  Yes.  Difficult?  Oh, yes.  Mind-boggling and gut-wrenching?  Yes. And Yes.  Necessary for fully grasping what it means to be a follower of Jesus?  (Sigh.)  Yes.  Yes.

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2017

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Sermon (UCT!): “Standing on a Level Place” [Luke 6:17-26] (2/13/2022)

So…hi.  How good it is to be gathered this morning…just worshiping together…you not checking me out….me not checking you out…  Isn’t that nice?

Who are we kidding?  Of course, we’re checking each other out…because the relationship between a pastor and congregation is important, right?  The work of faith communities–sharing the message that “God loves you SO much” with others, especially with those who’ve never heard that message before–or who have heard the opposite message–the work of faith communities is critical to healing the world, which means we need to make sure we’re on the same page–or, this is a UCC church, so at least in the same chapter– right?  

Think about that….  If we’re all on the same page–or in the same chapter–about sharing the good news of God’s love, there’s nothing we as a community wouldn’t be able to do together in our work of healing the world.  Can you imagine?

So…let’s talk about that for a minute, this work of healing the world.  Today’s Gospel story gives us one of the best road maps in Scripture for healing the world:  the Beatitudes.  Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kin-dom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  The woes are a tad uncomfortable–Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation… Still, it’s easy to see how much we could learn about healing the world from spending time with these verses.   

And that might be something we want to do in the future.  Today, though, I invite us to step back and take a look at what led to the moment Jesus shared the Beatitudes with the people, on why he chose to share his sermon, as Luke tells us, on a level place.  The story thus far…

Once upon a time, Jesus gets born…Herod’s bounty on baby boys sends Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees to Egypt.  Once Herod’s threat is gone, the family returns to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up.  

As an adult, Jesus finds his way to the Jordan River, where he gets baptized by his cousin John.  In baptism, Jesus gains clarity about who he is.  God’s Spirit says:  “You are my child; with you I am well-pleased.”  The time of testing in the wilderness right after his baptism gives Jesus further clarity…this time about the work to which God is calling him.  

As Jesus emerges from the wilderness–certain of himself, certain of his calling–his ministry in Galilee begins.  Word starts getting around about this new, exciting teacher.

As the buzz begins, Jesus returns home to Nazareth, where, of course, the home folks ask him to read Scripture at synagogue on the Sabbath.  Jesus reads from Isaiah:  The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.  This Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

The hometown folks are impressed.  All speak well of him and are amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth.  Yay!  But then they say it:  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  We watched little Jesus grow up here.  Who is he to say these things to us?  

That’s when Jesus tells them: “No prophet is accepted in their hometown.”  He also tells some stories where the people who are healed are foreigners, people not like us.

For the hometown folks, that’s the last straw.  Do you remember what happens next?  When they hear Jesus say he’s come to share the good news of God’s love with people outside their faith, people not like them, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  (Have any of you been on the receiving end of your home congregation’s rage?)  Jesus’ home congregation got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”  Jesus–being Jesus–simply “passes through the midst of them and goes on his way.”  Welcome home, Jesus!

Unfazed, Jesus goes down from Nazareth, which is at a higher elevation, to Capernaum, which is on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.  He teaches, heals, collects disciples, and steps away a couple of times to pray and rest.

As Jesus draws larger crowds, the religious teachers start showing up…like when the friends of a paralyzed man lower him through a roof so that Jesus can heal him.  When the man is healed, Jesus tells him to go on his way, because his sins are healed.

The religious teachers object.  Who is this man to forgive sins?  Only God can do that!  Jesus says he’s come, not for the righteous, but for those in need of redemption, not for the healthy and thriving, but for those who are sick and need healing.

And, just like with his hometown folks, that’s a problem for the religious establishment.  Offering healing to people not like us?  It’s just not done!  It’s easy to beat up on the religious authorities, but I think in their own minds and hearts, they were doing what they thought was right.  They simply suffered from a lack of imagination.  They couldn’t imagine God’s love and healing extending to the people Jesus was starting to hang out with.

Like, you’re not going to believe this, but tax collectors, fellow Jews who had become agents of the Roman government.  How could Jesus possibly call a tax collector to be his disciple?  How could he share a meal at a tax collector’s house with a whole crew of tax collectors?  The religious authorities really couldn’t imagine that! 

After hanging out with the tax collectors, Jesus continues teaching and healing…  then goes up a mountain to pray.  He calls his twelve disciples to join him there.  

After that, Jesus comes down with them and stands on a level place, with a great multitude of people… and lays the best sermon in all of Scripture– maybe of all time–on them.

But why share the best news of all time–that God loves every person so much, that God hopes for the wholeness of every person–why share news like that on a level place in the midst of a multitude of people?

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus preaches this sermon, he goes up a mountain, sits down, and begins to speak…like a rabbi.  Maybe even like Moses.  The Jewish audience to whom Matthew’s gospel was written would have responded well to a rabbi-Moses-like Jesus.  

But Luke’s Gospel was written to a gentile audience….to people on the margins of the religious establishment.  Those folks had never felt like they were part of the religious community.  If they were going to believe the message was for them, the message would have to be brought to them.  That’s what Jesus does.  He comes down to a level place and meets the people where they are. 

And as he preaches on the level place to people on the margins, I suspect his own experiences of marginalization were on his mind…Maybe Jesus preaches his sermon on a level place because he knew what it was like to be a refugee…maybe Jesus preaches on a level place because he had received God’s acceptance of him in his baptism…maybe Jesus preaches on a level place because he knew what it was like to be rejected by his own faith community… maybe Jesus preaches on a level place because he knew what it was like to be rejected by the religious authorities…maybe Jesus preaches on a level place because he enjoyed hanging out with tax collectors and such…maybe Jesus preaches on a level place because he’d looked into the eyes of every person who’d asked for healing and had seen there both desperation and beauty…

Maybe Jesus preaches among the people on a level place because his life had taught him–when it comes to God’s love, we’re all the same.  When it comes to who deserves homes and food and freedom to be themselves, we’re all the same.  When it comes to fulfilling God’s dreams for the world, it’s going to take every last one of us–the people like us and the people not like us…the people who have it together, the people who don’t have it together…the people who worship God, the people who don’t worship at all…the people who conform to hetero- normativity, the people who love in other ways…

Wednesday, Allen and I drove to Tifton.  My brother’s 14 year old came out as trans last year.  We had planned to go to court with Lachlan Thursday morning to be there when his name changed legally.  Wednesday afternoon we learned the newspaper that was supposed to run an ad about the name change failed to run it, which means Lachlan’s court date has been postponed.

Lachlan’s parents–my brother Brad and his wife Kym–are terrific.  Still, raising a trans child in South Georgia isn’t the easiest endeavor, right?

I put out a call on Facebook for my friends–trans folks and allies–to share words of encouragement for Lachlan and his parents.  I want both Lachlan and his folks to know that they are not alone.  People all over the country are thinking of them and praying for them and supporting them.  My heart is so full.

After reading the outpouring of support for a 14 year old trans boy none of them knows, I wondered how different the world would be if every trans child and their parents received this kind of love.  How different might the world be if every person of color, every refugee, every differently-abled person, every starving child, every person who struggles with addiction…… what might happen to this world if every person received support for who they are?  What if every person who suffers and is desperate for healing receives it?  What if every person who needs food or shelter or justice or compassion receives it?

And what if, what if, what if…what if we, church and pastor together, might bring this healing to the world?

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: “From Confession to Call” [Isaiah 6:1-8] (2/6/2022)

Scripture is full of call stories.  When God has ideas for bringing healing to the world, who’s God gonna call?  No.  Not those guys.  Or women.  God’s gonna call some human beings.

In the 6th century BCE, the people of the place formerly known as Judah were in desperate need of healing.  Their country had been defeated and many of their inhabitants had been taken away to a foreign country in captivity.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s healing word to the people.

Jeremiah objected.  “I’m way too young for this, God.  What will I say?”  God told Jeremiah,  Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Then God touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.”  Jeremiah doesn’t respond, but the next 52 chapters record his many years of speaking God’s healing word to the people.

Two centuries earlier, what happened to Judah had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel.  When Israel was falling apart, then defeated by the Assyrians, God chose Isaiah to speak God’s healing word to the people.

Isaiah’s call story differs a bit from Jeremiah’s.  Jeremiah’s call happens in an intimate encounter with God.  Isaiah’s happens…well, let’s look at Isaiah’s call.

“In the year that King Uzziah died…” that’s when things started going downhill fast for the people of Israel.  The situation was dire.  Everything the people had known was about to change.  They needed a word from God, a word of direction, a word of healing.  They needed a prophet.  God chose Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw God seated on a high and lofty judgment seat, in a robe whose train filled the Temple.  Can you imagine?  Imagine it here, our sanctuary filled with just the train of the divine robe… 

In fact, God is so big, seraphs/angels/messengers are there to announce the divine presence. Holy, holy, holy! they cry.  All the Earth is filled with God’s glory!  The doorposts and thresholds quake at the sound of their shouting, and the Temple fills with smoke.

A little intimidating, to say the least.  How does Isaiah respond?  He says, “Woe is me, I am doomed!  I have unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” 

Nearly every call story in Scripture begins with reticence to accept the call.  In fact, that’s one of the signs that the call is real–the prophet’s doubt that he or she can fulfill the call.  The source of Jeremiah’s doubt was his young age.  

Isaiah’s doubt stems from something else.  “I have unclean lips…”  “Isaiah’s doubt doesn’t seem to be rooted in feelings of inadequacy, as Jeremiah’s was, so much as in guilt.  When Isaiah says he has unclean lips and lives among a people of unclean lips, he’s acknowledging his own sin and the corporate sin of the people he lives among”…sins that have led to the dissolution of their country.  (Feasting on the Word)  

Reading the rest of the book of Isaiah, those sins become apparent:  the people have failed to care for the least of these.  In Isaiah 58, the prophet writes:  Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  The call to do these things suggests that the people, including Isaha, had failed to do them.  That failure was a source of their sin.

Have you ever felt God calling you to something and been reticent to accept the call?  What reasons have you given?  I don’t have time?  I’m too young?  I’m too old?  I don’t have a good speaking voice?  Or maybe your excuse has been similar to Isaiah’s.  Oh, the things I’ve done, and failed to do!  The way I’ve treated–and neglected–people.  After the things I’ve done–and not done–how could God possibly use ME to do anything good in the world?

Confession.  They say it’s good for the soul.  Last week, in Faith Exploration, we listened to an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South African in the 1990s.

The TRC was created shortly after legal apartheid ended.  During apartheid, native South Africans were treated heinously by white South Africans.  As a way to move toward healing for their country, the government created the TRC so that people who had perpetrated the harrowing crimes could confess…and so that recipients and loved ones of those crimes could hear the confessions.  If the perpetrators confessed to the TRC, amnesty would be granted.

Archbishop Tutu and others were disturbed by the government’s refusal to make apologizing a requirement for amnesty.  But as he witnessed confession after confession for three years, the Archbishop saw the wisdom in not requiring apologies.  He said that nearly every person who confessed a crime, in the end, did offer an apology to the person harmed or their loved ones.  He also said that the vast majority of those receiving an apology accepted it.  Had apologies been required by law to receive amnesty, the authenticity of those confessions might have been suspect.  As it was, apologies that were offered were seen as authentic and sincere.

Do you remember when the TRC was going on?  At the time, I remember thinking, How could they possibly do that?  Why would Black and white South Africans put themselves through the grueling process of re-telling such horrific stories?  It’s clear, though, that confession was good for the souls, not only of perpetrators, but also of recipients of violent treatment.  Confession was good for their country’s soul, as well.

Makes you wonder what might have happened to our own country if Reconstruction had included a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Just a thought.

So, Isaiah confessed his guilt, his complicity in the sins of his country, the lack of care for the least of these that had led to their country’s demise.  How could he possibly speak for God?

One of the seraphs responds to Isaiah’s confession by flying to him, “holding an ember which it had taken with tongs from the altar.  The seraph then touches Isaiah’s mouth with the ember.  “See,” it said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your corruption is removed, and your sin is pardoned.”  

That’s the point at which that Isaiah hears God’s call, “Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?”  Because he confessed, because he received forgiveness for his sins, Isaiah is now able to respond boldly: “Here I am! Send me!”  

Sometimes, I think we forget what a powerful resource confession can be, not only for us as individuals, but also for our community.  Something changes in us when we acknowledge harm we have caused others.  Owning up to what we have done, acknowledging our own human failings, especially in our interactions with others… Confession frees us.  Confession empowers us.  And, as James will write 6 centuries later, confession heals us.  Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.  (James 5:16)  

Once Isaiah confesses his sin, he is freed to answer God’s call to him.  And he does so with gusto.  Here am I!  Send me!

What about us?  What might we need to confess to become free enough to answer God’s call with the same gusto as Isaiah?  What might we as individuals need to confess?  What might we as a community need to confess?  What new work, what new joy, what new healing might be waiting for us on the far side of confession?

How might we get to the place we can join our voices with Isaiah and say, “Here we are!  Send us?”

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: “The More Excellent Way” [I Cor. 13] (1/30/2022)

The last couple of weeks, we’ve spent time with the troubled church at Corinth.  Though they “had all things in common” and were trying as hard as they could to create beloved community, they’d lost their way.  Some spiritual gifts–and the people who had those gifts–were valued more than others.  Because community members and their gifts weren’t valued equally, dissensions had arisen.  Divisions had deepened.  The community needed help.

When Paul heard about the troubles at Corinth, he wrote them a pastoral letter, several letters, really.  We might not agree with Paul on everything, this is certain:  Paul had a pastor’s heart.  Believing in the Gospel and in the church’s unique ability to share it, Paul wrote to conflicted churches to help them work through their troubles.  Healthy churches, he knew, were more effective in sharing the good news of God’s love with others.

Because the trouble at Corinth centered around spiritual gifts, that’s what Paul addresses in I Corinthians 12-14.  He begins in chapter 12 by reminding the community that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Then he goes into that extended– somewhat silly–reflection on how the diversity of a body’s parts is what makes the body–aka, the body of Christ–work.  (Sad note:  the Jesus Potato Head in last week’s video was digitally generated.  It is not possible to buy one.  A colleague of mine said she spent, quote, “an inordinate amount of time” trying to do so online.)

Chapter 12 ends with yet another list of spiritual gifts.  Then Paul says:  But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way… Which is, like, um, Paul.  You’ve spent all this time talking about how all spiritual gifts are equal.  What do you mean “strive for the greater gifts?”  And how does striving for the greater gifts lead to a “more excellent way?” 

Here are Paul’s next words.  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  It seems, then, that the more excellent way to which Paul calls the troubled Corinthian church is the way of love.  The greatest gift in any community is love.  If every member of the community acts with love, gives their gifts in love, and receives the love of the other members, it will dissolve dissensions and heal divisions.  If the community of Jesus’ followers are to share God’s love with others outside the community, that love must begin at home.  When Paul resurems his reflections on spiritual gifts in chapter 14, he begins, Pursue love…

So, at the heart of Christian community is love.  That’s not a new insight, not at all.  Of course, love is at the heart of what it means to be a community of Jesus’ followers.  After all, we call it “beLOVED community.”

But understanding, even believing in beloved community isn’t the same thing as living it, is it?  In his classic work, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community.  But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.”  The health of our community depends not on what we think about community, though how we think about it is important.  The true health of a community is measured in how its members love each other.

So…how are we doing at loving each other, at acting each other into wellbeing?  How might we–right now, today–“pursue love,” as Paul suggests?

The first thing, of course, is to identify all the ways our community has “pursued love” in the past.  The creation of this congregation in 1914 was an act of love.  It provided a forward-thinking alternative to most of the faith communities in the area at the time.  In the 1950s and 60s, the community extended its love into the wider community by advocating strongly for the work of desegregation.  And, of course, this community continued extending its love into the wider community in its work on behalf of marriage equality in the 2000s.

This community has, from the start, been grounded in love.  And like most communities, there also have been times when the love was not as loud.  In the written history of our church, the first church split happens on p.8…that was about the decision to purchase the property on Merrimon.  There have been other times in the community–some of you will remember them– when divisiveness seemed much more present than love.

Even so, the love was always there.  The love is still here.  Even in the hard times, even when Covid sends us back into isolation, this community has remembered love… Love is what always helps us get back to living joyfully as the body of Christ.  Love is, to quote Paul, the more excellent way.

Last week, I shared the story of this stole, my ordination stole.  Each scrap of material represents a congregant in the church that ordained me.  This stole reminds me of the people in that community and of the love and support they offered.

After worship last week, standing in the narthex, Mary K reminded me that the quilted banner hanging there was created in a similar way.  As I understand it, as a way to celebrate the church’s centennial, congregants were asked to give pieces of material.  Those scraps of material were quilted and crafted into this beautiful banner.  I believe the work was done by Diane Sanders.

When I hear some of you speak about this banner, I hear love.  A lot of love.  I’ve often wished I’d been here for the grand celebration you all had in 2014.  It’s clear that 2014 was a high point for the First Congregational community.  Love abounded!

What about now?  What might a banner we create today look like?  How might we create the space in our community for even more love to abound?  How might our community–today, right now–how might we “pursue love” here at First Congregational United Church of Christ?

These are honest questions …which means I don’t have answers to them.  The only way to answer these questions is to work together to find them.  So, Church, how will we pursue love?

Answering open-ended questions like that requires imagination.  And so, I end today with an invitation to imagine how our community might pursue love.  We’ll do that by meditating on the 2014 banner and hearing again Paul’s reflections on love.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Let us pursue love….the greatest gift.  Let us pursue love…and find the more excellent way.  Let us pursue love…love…love…

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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