Sermon: “The REAL Work of Resurrection” (Acts 9:36-43) [5/12/19]

“Now, in Asheville, there was a disciple named Paul.  He was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  At that time, he became ill and died.”

How interesting that this is the story that appears in the scheduled reading for today, two days after the celebration of life service for our Paul Gillespie.  Paul and Tabitha seem to have played similar roles in the lives of their faith communities, the role of spiritual mentor.  While the women grieving for Tabitha weep and display “tunics and other clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them,” through our tears we tell stories about Paul, we talk about the ways he challenged us to live our faith with integrity, we talk about the times he gave us constructive feedback then told us he loved us.

Yes, today’s lesson from Acts speaks precisely to where our community is just two weeks after losing Paul–sitting here together, grieving.

If you didn’t know Paul, you certainly have known someone–in a faith community, in your family–who exemplified what it means to be a follower of Jesus, someone who lived their faith with absolute integrity and challenged you to do the same.  Tabitha was that kind of person.  As was Paul.  All of us have in our memories people who mentored us in faith…people who died before we were ready for them to go…people we have trouble imagining living without…

…so, now I’m starting to wonder if this really is the best Scripture text for us today.  Like Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, in the Gospel of John, the women’s grief at Tabitha’s house is interrupted by her coming back to life.  Like Mary and Martha, Tabitha’s grieving friends don’t have to imagine living without Tabitha.  Peter raises her and gives her back to her community, just like Lazarus was restored to his community.

But that’s not going to happen for us with Paul.  It’s not going to happen with any of our loved ones who’ve died.  It’s great for Mary and Martha and all those people grieving for Tabitha.  Their loved ones were resurrected.  Yay, for them.

But what does resurrection mean for those of us whose loved ones don’t come back to life?  What does resurrection mean for those of us whose grief is not interrupted?   What does resurrection mean when death is so present?

What does resurrection mean when our country, our culture, our people seem so mired in death?  I know.  You’re probably thinking, “Here she goes again with all that death business.”  But if you’re alive today, you can’t help but face the fact of death.  Death is all around us.  You can’t turn on your computer without seeing some representation of a funeral procession.

–One million species driven to the brink of extinction by profligate consumption by people and governments in the developed world.

 

–The school shooting in Colorado.  I actually missed that when it happened…so common have mass shootings become that it’s hard–even for the conscientious among us–to attend to every one.  Why isn’t our government doing something about gun control?  New Zealand did it within days of the mosque shootings.

 

–Healthcare.  How many of you know someone who, lacking insurance, didn’t go to the doctor and ended up getting very sick–or perhaps even died?

 

–At a rally this week, when the president asked what should happen to people who cross the border seeking asylum, someone in the crowd actually shouted, “Shoot them!”

 

I know in this season of resurrection I keep talking about death…but death is all around us.  If there is to be any hope in the world, if we are to live out our calling as followers of Jesus to announce and live that hope in the world, we have to take pain and suffering in the real world seriously.  That’s what Jesus did in his brief ministry on Earth.  It’s what our faith calls us to do, too.  We cannot flinch in the face of violence, incivility, and death in our world.  For way too long, that’s exactly what the Christian church has done.  The church has been offering sweet platitudes to a world starving for real hope.  Is it no wonder the church has become irrelevant to so many?

I confess that I, too, am desperate for, starving for hope.  Aren’t you?  Aren’t we all?  Isn’t the whole world starving for hope?

In a book titled, The Power to Speak, theologian Rebecca Chopp sums up the church’s work as “denouncing sin and announcing grace.”  That feels right.  Naming the sin around us…

…oops.  Guess I’d better define what I mean by sin.  Too many of us too many times have been on the receiving end of inaccurate definitions of sin, right?

One year, our church in Georgia was peopling a booth at Pride.  I was stunned to hear one of our members describe our church by saying that, “At our church, we don’t talk about sin.”

I didn’t say anything at the time, but the sermon title for the following Sunday was, “Sin.”  The next week’s sermon title?  “Sin.  The Sequel.”

Here’s my completely accurate definition of sin.  Sin is anything that prevents one of God’s beloved children from becoming who they are created to be.  Certainly, there are things we do to prevent ourselves from becoming who we are created to be.  That’s personal sin.

The more I look at what’s going on in the world, though, I see sin much more systemically …sins like racism…classism…heterosexism… sexism…ageism…and obscene consumption practices…

Those are the sins, especially, the church is called to name and, yes, as Rebecca Chopp suggests, to denounce.  I think it’s safe to say that, as a church of protesters, we like denouncing sin.  If there’s a march for justice, sign us up!  If we need to stick it to the man, sign us up!  Denouncing sin…Oh, yes.  We’re good at that.

But announcing grace?  Proclaiming hope?  That’s harder, isn’t it?  Especially when so much is broken in our world, when so many are sick, when so many are dying.

On the face of it, the story of Tabitha’s resurrection is annoying for those of us whose loved ones aren’t coming back to life.  A second reading, though, reveals a process that might help us as we seek to announce grace to world that’s hungry for it.  Back to the story…

So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them.

 

The first thing Peter did was to listen to those who were grieving.  He didn’t say anything to them, he simply listened while they wept and showed him all the things their friend had made.

We, too, must listen to those who grieve the dying in our world…the dying of species… those who are grieving for students murdered in school shootings…those grieving the loss of loved ones to inadequate health coverage…those grieving the loss of civility in our world…

Then Peter put all of them outside, knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’

 

As a next step, Peter turns from the grieving to the one who has died.  To use Bryan Stevenson’s phrase, Peter gets “proximate” to suffering and death.

It’s when Peter gets proximate to death, when he kneels down and prays, when he invites her to come back to life, that Tabitha experiences resurrection.

How might we invite the dying and dead back to life in our world, which is so mired in death?  Might it mean going to a site of ecological devastation, kneeling down and praying, then taking action that would invite that dead and lifeless place to come back to life?

Might it mean visiting a school and listening to stories from teachers and administrators about what the constant threat of violence is doing to our children?  What would an invitation to resurrection in the face of gun violence look like?  Might it look like what happened in New Zealand?

Might inviting others to resurrection mean sitting with the loved ones of those who have died from inadequate healthcare coverage and listening to their grief?  Or sitting with those who are suffering the effects of inadequate healthcare coverage and listening to them?  What kinds of actions on our part would invite those who are suffering to resurrection?

How might we invite to resurrection those who have squandered their own dignity by diminishing the dignity of others?  What actions might we take that would invite them back into their full humanity?

The words of my friend and colleague at a recent gathering in Atlanta continue to ring in my mind and heart:  “The church doesn’t even believe in resurrection!  If the church believed in resurrection, it could do some good in the world!”

Y’all.  Here’s what I’m trying to say.  We don’t have the luxury of trying to decide whether or not we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus…or Lazarus…or Tabitha.  The world needs us—us here in this room—the world needs us right now to denounce the sin we see…the world needs us to be present to and listen to those who suffer…the world needs us to kneel down and to pray with those whose lives are slipping away… the world needs us to announce grace…the starving world needs us to set the table and serve up a heaping helping of hope!  The hurting, dying world needs us to believe in resurrection…even when it’s not popular…even when it doesn’t feel rational…even when death feels so much more real…  The world needs us to believe in resurrection.

So, what say we give it try?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2019

 

 

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Sermon: “The Work of Resurrection” (John 21:1-19) [5/5/19]

So, about that Easter sermon…the one that asked, not if we believed in resurrection, but whether we want to believe in resurrection?  I got some interesting feedback on that sermon.  One person asked:  “Do know what resurrection is?”  Another person said, “Well, you could have mentioned death a few more times.”

Okay.  So, it wasn’t the most joyful Easter sermon ever.  But, as they used to say back home, it’s what God laid on my heart. So, if you have any complaints, take them up with God. 🙂

The point of the sermon–and yes, I understand it’s not the sign of a good sermon if you have to explain that sermon in the next sermon you preach…but this is where we are. 🙂  The point of the sermon was that, if we are to take resurrection seriously, we have to take death seriously, as well.  And if we are to experience resurrection, we have to want to experience resurrection…which means we have to be willing to change.  The sermon ended with a line about the world needing followers of Jesus to believe in resurrection.

Did anyone find that sermon depressing?  If you did, I wish you could have joined me for a gathering I attended in Atlanta last week.  Talk about depressing!

Twelve of us gathered with Chuck Foster.  Chuck served as the doctoral advisor for all of us.  We had gathered to celebrate Chuck’s life work.  It ended up being a precious time of remembering and reconnecting.  Unlike most doctoral advisers, Chuck intentionally formed us–a group of doctoral students–into a community.  We all were struck by what a rare gift that is.

Only three of us are pastors.  Everyone else teaches in a seminary.  All of us are religious educators intensely interested in what’s happening in churches, concerned about the steep decline in mainline church-going.

The focus of the work of one of my colleagues is environmental theology.  He confessed that he’s pretty much given up on the ability of Christianity to address the current ecological crisis.  He finds hope in neither the rituals nor the texts of the Christian faith.  I was stunned by what he was saying, but sat quietly.

Over the course of several presentations, it became clear that confidence in the church’s ability to address ongoing concerns in the world today has waned significantly.  Everyone is wrestling with what to do in response to significant changes happening in the Christian church.

What do you think?  Has the church lost its ability seriously to address what’s happening in our world?  Ecological devastation?  Rapidly accelerating gun violence, which is getting closer and closer to home?  Surging hate speech and with it hate crimes?  As theologian Karl Barth once said, preachers should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  I read the paper and watch the news as much as I can.  Sermons need to be grounded in the real world.  But last week on vacation, I gave myself a break from watching the news.  That might have been the most restful part of the vacation.

But following Jesus isn’t something we do in a bubble.  Following Jesus is about engaging the real world we’re living in…and not just engaging it, but engaging it with good news.  It is our role as followers of Jesus to wade into the painful, struggling places in the world and bring hope–yes, hope–to those places.

Through most of the presentations at the gathering in Atlanta, I sat quietly.  It was more of an academic thing and I’m not in the academy.  On the last day, though, when my environmental theologian friend said, “Christians don’t even believe in resurrection anymore!  If Christians believed in resurrection, we could do something about ecological devastation.  But they just won’t do it,” I’d had enough.  I raised my hand.  And preached.

“I need to tell you,” I said.  “Y’all are sending me home very depressed.”  They’d been talking about all the things churches aren’t doing.  I talked about all the things churches are doing and the vast potential for so much more that they might do.

Then I told my friend Tim about the Easter sermon…that I asked the question, Do we followers of Jesus want to believe in resurrection?…and saying, basically, what he’d just said:  The world needs followers of Jesus to believe in resurrection.

When I got done, everyone just stared at me.  Not sure what that was about.  I’m hopeful it got them thinking.  After the session, Tim said, “Kim, you give me hope for the church.”  Another friend emailed the next day, “Thank you for standing up for the church.”

I think they all want to believe in the church’s ability to live out resurrection in addressing the world’s needs.  They’re just recognizing that the way we’ve done church in the past isn’t sufficient for dealing with the needs of the present.  They are looking–as are we all–for a way, through the context of our Christian faith, to address what’s happening in the world.

Today’s story about Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the eleven seems an apt metaphor for where the church is today.

In the wake of a devastating event–the death of their beloved teacher–the disciples were at a loss.  Not knowing what to do, they reverted back to what they’d always done:  they went fishing.  It’s human nature to respond to a crisis with familiar activities.

When Jesus shows up, though, even the most familiar rituals are transformed.  Practices that have become flat and lifeless suddenly fill with new life, with abundance.  Was anyone surprised to hear that Peter is the one who hauled the bursting nets to shore all on his own?

Wading into the world’s hard and harsh places to bring to those places good news, hope, resurrection…it takes work… It takes the work of reimagining old rituals so that they become sources of new life and abundance.  Resurrection also takes another kind of work…the kind of work Peter does at the end of today’s story.

Joyous at the large haul of fish and another session with their beloved teacher, the eleven bask in the glow of their togetherness and a good meal shared.  A bit later, Jesus and Peter have a conversation.

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A reminder of the backstory.  When Jesus was arrested, Peter had followed Jesus and the guards to the high priest’s residence.  He joined others who were sitting around a fire outside Caiaphas’ quarters.  Three times he was asked if he was a disciple of Jesus.  Three times, Peter denied that he knew Jesus.  When the cock crowed–as Jesus had predicted–Peter realized what he had done.  In another Gospel’s telling of the story, it says that Peter “wept bitterly” when he realized what he had done.

So, in their conversation on the beach, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  Three times Peter says, “Yes, Rabbi.  You know I love you.”  Three times, Peter confesses– professes– his love for, his deep connection with, Jesus…just as before Jesus’ death, he’d denied even knowing Jesus.

And maybe that’s where the real work of resurrection begins—in confession.  Perhaps we can believe in resurrection only when we’re able to confess—profess—our love for Jesus.

I received the text about Paul Gillespie’s death last Saturday morning, just before the final session of the gathering in Atlanta.  For that session, we met in a different room—the Grant Shockley Room.

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Grant Shockley was an African American religious educator with whom Chuck and a couple of others present had worked.  He also served as a mentor to James Cone.  Dr. Shockley was the first African American faculty member at Duke Divinity School, Garret-Evangelical Divinity School, and Candler School of Theology.  In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, no one did more for the cause of African American Religious education.  He and Chuck did a lot of work together on racial justice, both believing that the best means of working toward racial justice is through the practices of religious education.

Having just gotten the text about Paul, he was very much on my mind and heart during that final session.  I was sad.  Then, as I listened to stories about Dr. Shockley, as Chuck talked about working with Dr. Shockley in the work of racial justice, I realized that Paul would have loved to have been there last Saturday morning.  I have no doubt that he would have joined the conversation.  He would have told stories about his own work for racial justice.  He too would have advocated for education as a key means of working toward racial justice.

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Paul believed in the church.  Paul believed in the good news of the gospel.  Paul believed in the church’s ability to address injustice in the world, especially the injustice to which he gave his life’s work, the injustice of racism.  Paul believed in the power of confession and in the importance of love.  Paul believed in the power of resurrection and in the world’s desperate need for followers of Jesus to believe in and live out of that power.

Today’s Gospel story is a call to all of us to follow Jesus.  The world needs us to follow Jesus.  The world needs us to love Jesus and do the work of resurrection.  The world needs us to counter every bit of bad news we hear with the good news of God’s love and justice, which is what love looks like in public.  The world needs us to act it into wellbeing in Jesus’ name.

Just like our beloved Paul did his entire life.  As those of us who knew Paul try to figure out how live in the world without him, we will come closest to Paul when we engage in the same work in which he engaged—the work of resurrection, the work of justice, the work of love.

By giving ourselves to the work of resurrection, we’ll be honoring Paul, we’ll be following Jesus, and we’ll be creating the world of which God dreams.

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2019

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Sermon: “Do We Want to Believe in Resurrection?” (Luke 24:1-12) Easter [4/21/19]

I’ve been preaching Easter sermons for a while now.  Easter sermons are…tricky.  The biggest day of the church year, usually the highest-attended service of the year…and yet, it’s the hardest part of the story to explain, especially to us scientifically-minded 21st century folk.

Over the years, I’ve talked about resurrection literally, metaphorically, and literarily.  I’ve focused on Mary, the disciple Jesus loved, and the two angels. I was relieved the year I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s insistence that an actual bodily resurrection isn’t really the point of the story.  It might have happened, but it’s not the point.

In the past, I’ve talked a lot about what it means to believe in resurrection.  I’ve seen it as my job on Easter to make the story as believable as I can.

But now I wonder if I’ve been coming at it all wrong.  I’ve been so focused on helping us wrestle with the question of whether or not we believe in Jesus’ resurrection, I’ve blown right past the more important question:  Do we want to believe in resurrection?

Do we?  Do you want to believe in resurrection?

Resurrection probably wasn’t on the minds of the women who came to the tomb that first Easter morning.  After a tumultuous and traumatizing week, the women were doing what women often do after crisis events–they tended to the rituals that would help get them grounded again.  They collected the death spices and, just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, they made their way to Jesus’ tomb, intending to prepare his body for death.

A friend recently traveled to Japan for the funeral of a loved one.  The funeral was a day-long event, with breaks for meals and reflection.  The family had asked my friend to speak.  As a pastor, she prepared the eulogy as she normally did–a word to the living.  In the service, she soon realized that eulogies in this tradition were spoken, not to those gathered, but to the deceased.  Third-person suddenly became first-person.  My friend was deeply moved by the experience of speaking directly to her close friend in the presence of those gathered.

Another moving part of the burial ritual happened after the funeral.  In Buddhist tradition, after the funeral, the body is cremated.  “The coffin is placed on a tray in the crematorium.  The family witnesses the sliding of the body into the cremation chamber, then the family leaves and returns at the appointed time.”  Upon their return, “the relatives pick the bones out of the ashes and transfer them to the urn using large chopsticks or metal picks, two relatives sometimes holding the same bone at the same time.”  (www.thefuneralsource.org)

When my friend told me about picking bones out of the ashes with chopsticks, I thought, “Say what?”  As she talked, though, I realized just how intimate, how loving the ritual was.

That’s what the women were doing at the tomb so early that Sunday morning.  They were preparing Jesus’ body in this intimate, loving way so they could say goodbye.  Resurrection wasn’t on their minds; death was.  And they were fully prepared to engage it head-on.

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But when they arrived at the tomb, death wasn’t there.  Jesus wasn’t there.  The body wasn’t there.  One cartoonist has one of the women saying to the other, “I hope you kept the receipt for those spices.”  Resurrection had happened; no death spices needed.

Which, 2,000 years later sounds like a good thing, right?  Yay!  Hallelujah!  But on the day in question, the emptiness of the tomb perplexed the women.  What?  Who?  Where is he?

They had death on their minds, not resurrection.

What’s on your mind today?  Resurrection?  Or death?

Watching the news kind of feels like witnessing one long funeral procession, doesn’t it?  Feeling the weight of all the pastoral concerns of our community of late, I was talking about it with someone this week.  She responded with deep concern:  “And what about the people in Venezuela?”  Agh!  I had forgotten about the people in Venezuela…and Nicarauga…and people walking hundreds of miles to escape political oppression and poverty in their home countries… I had forgotten about people in Mozambique and Zimbabwe and Malawi who might never recover from Cyclone Idai a month ago…I had forgotten about how quickly icebergs are melting, how fast seas are rising, and how the refugee crises we’re facing now have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s to come …I had forgotten about how people seem to have forgotten how to speak to each other with kindness…

Amid the crises facing us here at home, I had forgotten about the crises facing the world. In that moment, my heart fell.  A picture of all of us submerged in death flashed in my mind.

You’re probably thinking:  What kind of Easter sermon is this?  It’s the kind of Easter sermon where we’re wrestling with the reality of resurrection…and the irony of wrestling with the reality of resurrection is that you can’t do it without facing the reality of death.  And, I don’t know.  It just seems like everyone across the globe is focused on death these days.  We’ve grown so cynical as a species, so focused on ourselves, so unconcerned about others…

The response to the fire at Notre Dame in Paris symbolizes perfectly where the world seems to be these days…an 800 year old building burns and within a week, $2 billion is donated.  The tally spiked as billionaires one-upped each other.  Compare that to the $773 million in damage Cyclone Idai did in Mozambique.  Thus far, $252 million has been raised.  Don’t get me wrong.  Restoration of iconic, historical buildings is important.  But why aren’t billionaires one-upping each other in lifting up people?

It’s because we’re so focused on death.  It’s because we’ve forgotten about resurrection.  Or maybe we haven’t forgotten about resurrection.  Maybe we’ve actively chosen not to believe in it.  Maybe we like hanging out at tombs.

Why choose the tomb?  Because resurrection requires transformation.  And, if we’re honest, we don’t want to be transformed.  We don’t want to change.  If we had wanted to resurrect Earth, we could have made changes to lifestyles and governmental policies decades ago…but we didn’t do it.  Why?  Because we didn’t want to change.  If we wanted to resurrect the lives of the hungry and impoverished, we could do that easily…but, as individuals and as a country, we don’t want to change.  We could resurrect civility and kindness…but that, too, would require us to change.  And we don’t want to change.

And so, we hang out at tombs, we remain steeped in death because, in truth, we really don’t want to believe in resurrection.

But here’s the thing.  The world needs us to believe in resurrection.  People of other faiths, people of no faith, they have their unique gifts to offer in healing the world.  The unique gift Christians have to offer is our belief in resurrection.  Our calling as followers of Jesus is to believe that death is not the end of the story.  Our calling as followers of Jesus is to live as if God is alive and dwelling among us.  Our calling as followers of Jesus is to quit hanging out at tombs.

Our calling as followers of Jesus is to open our minds and our hearts to being transformed… because transformed people is what the world needs…people who aren’t afraid to change…people who live God’s love boldly and creatively…people who are kind and generous and imaginative…

The world needs followers of Jesus to believe in resurrection because the world is suffering.  Earth is suffering.  People are suffering.  Christians aren’t the only people who can heal the world, but we have a responsibility–an opportunity–to contribute what we have to act the world into wellbeing:  our belief in resurrection.

So.  What’s on your mind today?  Resurrection?  Or death?

If you find it easier to believe in death today than resurrection, here’s the good news:  the first step of believing in resurrection is believing in death.  If, like me, you look around and see all of us immersed in death, Good news!  You have begun the journey to resurrection.

So, how do we get from death to resurrection?  It’s a process.  The women came to the tomb that morning focused only on death, prepared to get up close and personal with it.  When they found the tomb empty, their focus on death blurred.  They began to wonder.  Once reminded of what Jesus had said about being resurrected, that’s when their minds and hearts began to be transformed.  That’s when they began to believe in resurrection.  But their journey to resurrection began with their willingness to face the reality of death.

Maybe that’s why the disciples found it difficult to believe in resurrection when the women told them about it.  Maybe if the disciples, too, had been willing to get up close and personal with death, they too would have come to believe more quickly in resurrection.

When my friend told me about the funeral she’d experienced in Japan, I asked how long the ritual lasted.  Ten hours.  Ten hours of confronting death squarely, intimately.  Literally, gathering their ancestor’s bones.  Placing the bones in the urn.  Sealing the urn.  By the time the family had completed the death ritual, they were ready to begin the next phase of life.

Do you believe in resurrection today?  Do you want to?  Begin the journey where you are—whether you’re focused on death, perplexed by it all, or moving toward believing the reports you’ve heard from those who do believe.  Begin the journey toward believing in resurrection.  Because that is what the world most needs from us followers of Jesus today—a belief that the death that surrounds us is not the last word, a belief that God is alive and living among us, a belief that opening our hearts to each other is the best means, the only means of transforming the world.

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019

 

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Sermon: “Laying Down Our Cloaks” (Luke 19:28-40) [4/14/19]

If you looked at your calendar this morning, it probably said today is Palm Sunday.  It is.  Big liturgical day, is Palm Sunday.  It marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem just days before his crucifixion.  In the strains of “Hosanna!”, one hears the echoes of “Crucify!”

In the best-known version of the story, the people litter Jesus’ path with palm fronds as a way to mark their adoration.  In our Christian faith, we love tactile symbols like that.  Palm fronds!  We hand them out on Palm Sunday.  We make crosses out of them.  The really industrious among us burn the palms and create ashes for the following year’s Ash Wednesday.  Oh, we do love a symbol we can touch!

I’m going to make a confession here.  I like symbolism as much as the next person, but as a worship leader, I’ve never known what to do with the palms.  People pick one up on the way into worship.  Then we wave the slender fronds during the first hymn…or maybe we process forward and drop the fronds in front of the chancel area then go back to our seats…and wonder what in the world THAT was all about.

As the years have progressed, I’ve come to feel a little guilty for even offering palm fronds.  It’s like, “Here!  Let’s be awkward together for a moment!”  I was looking for a youtube video of the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” to send to the Dance Circle for today.  I saw one from the National Cathedral.  I thought, Great!  The National Cathedral!  I watched it.  In that clip, I saw just what I’ve been doing to congregants for decades.  People limply waving their palm fronds, looking around to make sure other people were doing it, too.  Awkward.

Today’s good news is that we have no palm fronds!  Woohoo!  Hosanna!  Whatever!  The version of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem we get today comes from the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, there are no palms.  I love Luke.  In Luke, instead of palms, the people throw down their cloaks for the donkey on which Jesus is riding to walk.

It begins when Jesus and his disciples approach Bethany–at the Mount of Olives.  The Mount of Olives is just a couple miles from Jerusalem.  It’s on a rise that quickly descends into a valley, then back up again into the entrance to the city.  From atop the Mount of Olives, the whole city of Jerusalem is visible.

So, there on the brow of the hill near Bethany, I imagine Jesus gazing into the city, perhaps wondering what would happen there…perhaps knowing what was going to happen there… And he sends two of his disciples into the city to procure a “colt that has never been ridden.”  They do.

They bring it back to Jesus there on the brow of the hill overlooking Jerusalem.  And here’s where the first cloak appears.  Before setting Jesus on the donkey, the disciples throw a cloak over the donkey’s back.

Then the procession begins.  Jesus–the one whom some wanted to coronate king–riding down the long hill into the valley, then back up again into the city.

The image–even in that day–would have been striking.  Kings rode horses, not donkeys.  Here was Jesus, playing the role of a king…and, at the same time, seemingly, poking fun at it.

Or was he?  A key part of his teaching from the beginning had been the kingdom or realm of God.  All the parables, all the gestures, all the eating with people he wasn’t supposed to eat with and healing all the people the religious authorities didn’t want healed…all of it was a way to show a different kind of realm, a different kind of kingdom…indeed, not a kingdom at all, but a kindom.  Not a kingdom defined by hierarchy, but a kindom defined by equality, community.

What better way to embody everything he’d been teaching than to play the role of a king of this new realm he’d been inviting people to imagine?  A king?  Riding on a donkey?  Sitting on a borrowed cloak?

mandy.cloak

The people respond….by lifting up loud praises to their king…and throwing the cloaks off their backs, their protection from hot sun during the day and chill breezes at night, they throw one of their most prized possessions down on the ground to ease the donkey’s journey, to pave the way for the king of their choosing.

For a long time, I thought those people were just caught up in some kind of mob mentality, that none of them had a mind of their own, they were just doing what everyone around them was doing.  Then–in my suspicious-of-everything phase–I imagined the religious authorities, threatened by Jesus’ popularity, themselves stirring the people up to call Jesus King of the Jews so that the civil authorities could execute him as a traitor.  Maybe.

What I wonder now, though, is if the people spreading their cloaks that day knew precisely what they were doing.  If they’d listened to Jesus teach about God’s love, about how God chooses to dwell with the least of these, about how everyone is welcome to the table, about how humility is the coin of God’s realm.

Now, I wonder if the people knew exactly what Jesus was doing–proposing that they start a revolution, create a new kindom where everyone has what they need, where there are no people on the margins because all are equally loved and welcomed.  I wonder if, when the people saw their beloved teacher on a donkey that day, sitting on a borrowed cloak, I wonder if everything clicked for them.  I wonder in that moment if they got that the realm of which Jesus had been speaking was actually possible.  Right here.  Right now.  And—and this was key—that they were the means by which it was going to happen.

As I’ve sat with it, that’s really the only thing that makes sense.  Palm fronds?  Easily picked up, easily discarded.  One’s cloak?  That’s giving something vital, something you really need.  Giving one’s cloak–means giving oneself, all of oneself, to the movement, to this new vision of how to live our lives.  The new realm Jesus represents requires all of us.  And because the people saw that and understood that, that’s exactly what they gave.

On a trip to Israel in 2006, the group I was with walked the road from the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem.  We stood, gazing into the city, then set out.  As we descended into the valley, a fellow traveler settled his gait to mine and we walked in silence for a bit.  Then he started speaking.

My new friend was a Catholic priest.  He told me he was gay.  He wanted to come out and was thinking about leaving the Catholic church.  He wanted to know more about the UCC.

Once we reached the bottom of the valley, then ascended into the city, we went our separate ways.

I was struck by the conversation.  Still am.  Walking the road down Jesus had traveled, our feet traversing ground that might well have held the cloaks of the faithful so long ago…And my friend throwing down his own cloak, this vital part of who he was, the cloak behind which he’d been hiding.  My friend was saying that he wanted to follow Jesus with all of who he was, now, not just the tiny fraction of himself he had, to that point, been allowing the world to see.

Are you hiding behind a cloak today?  Is there some part of you you’re holding back from the work of establishing God’s realm on earth, of acting the world into wellbeing?  Are you ready to give all of yourself to the movement, to the revolution?

What I’m trying to say is, Are you ready to throw your cloak down?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2019

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Sermon: “Extravagance and Poverty” (John 12:1-8) [4/7/19]

Why did I do it?  I’m not sure.  All I know is that when our friend Jesus entered the house, an image of a bottle of nard instantly popped into my mind…then lodged in my heart.  From that moment I could think of nothing else:  I had to buy that bottle of nard.

I said my hellos, then gathered some money, slipped out the door, and walked to the market.  If the shopkeeper wondered at the expensive purchase, he didn’t let on.  Perhaps for him it was just another transaction, one that would make for a very good day at the shop.

I handed him the money; he handed me the nard.  I’m sure I only imagined this, but it felt warm, almost hot to the touch….like concentrated power waiting to spew out of the bottle…like concentrated love impatient to be diffused.

As I walked back home, warmth emanating from the bottle into my hands, I thought of our last encounter with Jesus.  A few weeks before, my brother Lazarus had taken ill.  Very ill.  The look in his eyes as he lay on his mat was the same look I had seen in the eyes of each of our parents as they were dying–the look of death.

Martha and I talked.  We agreed that we had to call on our friend Jesus to come.  Jesus had raised people from the dead before.  Surely, he could stop our brother’s dying.

We sent word to Jesus, but he tarried.  It broke our hearts when he didn’t come.

When Lazarus died, we followed the same rituals we had used for each of our parents.  We washed his body and laid it out in our house.  We called the mourners.  Then after the appointed time, some of Lazarus’ friends gently lifted our brother’s body, carried him to the tomb, and laid his body down.  We said our final prayers. The tomb was closed.

At that point, our grieving began in earnest–our grief for our brother, and our grief for a man we thought had been our close friend.  Why hadn’t he come?  We grieved the loss of Jesus.

Then, he appeared.  I can’t say I’m proud of what I thought or said when Jesus showed up.  Martha, who had greeted Jesus out beyond the house when he arrived, told me Jesus was there and wanted to talk to me.  I ran out and, weeping, fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  He also started crying.

He asked where Lazarus had been laid. The whole grieving crowd walked to the tomb—one large mass of mourning.  Once the stone had been removed, Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb.  We all gasped when my brother appeared, his body draped in death clothes.  And, yes, as Martha had feared, there was a bit of an…aroma.

I confess, learning to live with a resurrected person has been…awkward.  I mean, he’s still Lazarus and everything…AND he’s someone else.  Someone more.  Once you’ve visited heaven, I think, it clings a bit.

When I got back to the house with the nard, I walked in and surveyed the room…there was Lazarus, my resurrected brother, eating more slowly than he used to.  One of the changes we’d all noticed–since dying and coming back to life, Lazarus seemed to savor things more.

Next to Lazarus was Jesus, then the 12, including Judas.  I confess I’d never clicked with Judas.  He always seemed to be plotting something, looking for an edge, an advantage.  When I talked with Judas, I wasn’t sure I was talking to Judas, you know?  Martha—of course—wasn’t seated… As always, she was frantically tending her hostessing duties.

So, I entered the house, took in the scene, then did what the warm vial in my hands compelled me to do.

Image result for picture john 12:1-8

I walked to Jesus.  I knelt at his feet.  I poured the nard onto his feet–all of it.  And I’m not sure why I did this–there certainly was a lot of talk about it later–but I wiped his feet with my hair.  The house filled with the aroma of the nard.  The tension I had felt since the nard had first appeared in my mind relented.  My spirit was calm.  I had given Jesus the gift I felt compelled to give.  At the time I didn’t know all the reasons I was giving it…all I knew then, all I know now, is that I couldn’t NOT give that gift.  And so I did.

It was a holy moment.

Then Judas spoke up.  “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Had he really missed the point of what we’d just experienced?  Could he really not see why only the most expensive nard would have been extravagant enough for the moment we were creating together?  Did he see in the nard only dollars and cents?

And, I must ask, did he really want the money for the poor?  Or–there had been rumors– did Judas want that money for himself?

Jesus said to Judas: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

When he said that—The day of his burial—it hit me… Yes!  It was the same nard we’d bought for Lazarus’ burial!  I’d totally forgotten about that!  With all the unrest around the city, especially about Jesus, maybe I sensed what was going to happen.  Maybe what compelled me to anoint Jesus was an innate understanding that he was about to die.  And that, like my brother Lazarus, he would live again.  Maybe.  Maybe.

Since that remarkable day, I’ve thought a lot about the last thing Jesus said to Judas.  “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  I’m still not sure what he meant by that.  Was he being cynical?  Had he given up on us–his followers—living the life to which he calls us, a life of solidarity with the poor, a life where everyone has what they need to live a fulfilling life?

Or maybe Jesus knew Judas’ intentions had nothing to do with poor people.  Maybe when Jesus told Judas we’d always have the poor, he wasn’t talking about impoverished people.  Maybe Jesus was saying we’d always have an excuse–any excuse–to avoid seeing the God who is in our midst, right in front of our eyes.  Maybe the poor were simply the excuse Judas came up with that day not to see the holiness of what was happening in the room.

It’s easy to do, isn’t it?  To excuse ourselves from seeing the holy all around us?  Sometimes the poor are our excuse.  Other times its work or family or protests or marches …anything to keep us from opening our hearts to all the ways God is present in every situation, in every person.

Maybe what Jesus was trying to say to Judas–to all of us–is that the point of everything he’d done from the beginning of his ministry was to help us see God everywhere, to see God in everyone.  Maybe Jesus was saying that the life of faith isn’t so much about what we do or how much money we give, but about who we see when do what we do, when we give what we give.

In all of it—Do.  We.  See.  God?

Since everything that happened–Lazarus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ death and resurrection, since the nard warmed my hands, and my hair wiped his feet, since Jesus met Judas where he was with his questions, this question has lodged in my heart:  What if I saw God in everything?  In everyone?  What if I saw God in the poor?  What if I saw God in Judas?

If I practiced seeing God in everything and everyone, would I understand better what Jesus was trying to teach us?  Would I grasp the depth and breadth and joy of God’s kindom?  Would I buy more bottles of nard and pour their contents willy nilly over everyone I met?

Would you?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2019

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Sermon: “On Loving All God’s Children” (Luke 15:11-32) [3/31/19]

Have you ever been lost?  The first year at my last church, I pretty much stayed lost.  Atlanta is not kind to the directionally-challenged.

Thanks to the little lady in my phone, I’m doing better–not perfect, but better–here in Asheville.  Switchbacks and swift elevation changes do stymie her from time to time, but overall, I get where I need to go when I need to be there.  Praise be to the little lady in my phone!

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about the lost—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost child.  The stories come late in Luke’s narrative.  One wonders whether Jesus latched onto the metaphor of lost-ness because he, too, was directionally-challenged.  Maybe…maybe…

Or maybe the idea of lost-ness emerges from the people he sees in front of him…people rejected by the religious establishment, like tax collectors and sinners…as well as representatives from that religious establishment, Pharisees and scribes.

Perhaps as Jesus looked over the crowd—the sinners raptly listening to his every word, the scribes grumbling—maybe when Jesus looked into the faces of those desperate and grumbling people, maybe he thought to himself, Lost.  They seem so lost.

So, he tells three stories about the lost.  In the first, one sheep from a flock of 100 gets lost.  The shepherd secures the 99, then searches for and finds the lost sheep.  Jesus says:  “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance.”

Next, Jesus tells the story of the poor widow’s lost coin.  She tears up the house looking for it.  When she finds it, she throws a party, so happy is she to have found what was lost.

It seems pretty clear where Jesus is headed with these stories.  He’s reminding both the so-called “lost ones” (the sinners and tax collectors) and the righteous people (the Pharisees and scribes) that God loves the lost…that no matter where they’ve gone or who they are or what they’ve done, they are included in God’s kindom.

Good stories.  Great message: welcome everyone because God welcomes them.  Terrific!

But Jesus isn’t done yet.  He has yet one more story to tell—the story of the lost child.

A man has two sons.  The younger asks for his inheritance so he can go make his way in the world. The elder brother hears the exchange and mutters, “Of course you do.”  The younger brother goes out into the world…and parties heartily, parties every bit of his inheritance away.

With no money–no nothing–he is truly lost.  When he finds himself again—in a pen, slopping hogs and wishing for some of that slop for his own supper—this thought comes to him: “If I were a servant in my parent’s house, I’d be eating much better than this.  I’d have clothes, a meaningful job…  Let me go back to my father’s house.”  And so, he goes.

Can you imagine?  Coming home after squandering your inheritance, after living a life of debauchery, after losing absolutely everything…can you imagine coming home after that?  The prodigal must have been terrified.

But he needn’t have been, because his father, seeing him in the distance, runs to meet him and embraces his son who’d been lost but now is found.  Then the father calls for a BIG party to celebrate the return of son who’d been lost…

This is where the third story of the lost takes an unexpected turn.  Now the spotlight turns to the older brother, the one who’d been at home all along.  When the father announces the party, in resentment the older son says, “For all these years I’ve been working like a slave for you, and I’ve never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

Ah.  So now we know that it’s not just the younger son who’s been lost.  The son who stayed home was lost, too.  It’s not just the tax collectors and sinners who are lost.  The Pharisees and scribes are lost, too.

We’re all lost, aren’t we?  We all want to feel loved, to feel at home, to feel special.  Sometimes, like the Pharisees and scribes, we get the idea that it’s our status or our proximity to holy things or holy people that makes us special.  What we learn in this final parable of the lost is that it isn’t our status or anything we’ve done that makes us special.  What makes every person special is God’s unconditional love.  When we realize that we’re all lost, that we’re all desperate for home, that we all just want to feel loved…when we realize that all of us together are trying to find our way home…That is when we begin to get a glimpse of God’s kindom.

Several of us drove to the Swannanoa Corrections Center on Wednesday to hold a prayer vigil.  Sitting on the lawn by the entrance, peering through the chain link fence… It looked like young women walking between classes on a college campus.  It felt like we were the ones on the outside looking in, like the chain link fence wasn’t there to keep them in, but to keep us out.

That’s when it hit me–we’re all the same.  We all want to be loved.  We all want to be connected.  We all do beautiful things.  And we all mess up.  Learning what we have in the Just Mercy class about the stunning inequities in the criminal justice system, what puts some people in prison and keeps others out isn’t so much that the people inside are bad and the people outside good…the system is more arbitrary than that.  Looking through that chain link fence, I realized that we’re all the same.  As I watched a young woman working in a greenhouse, I meditated on Bryan Stevenson’s observation that none of us is as bad as the worst thing we’ve ever done.  That gardener–she isn’t defined by whatever she did to put her in prison.

It’s like Chaplain Dalton said at the choir concert here in this room Friday night.  Present were four women who’d served time in the Swannanoa Corrections Center….but none of us knew who they were….because, we’re all the same.

Joyce Rupp captured our sameness in a poem called Prisoners.

 

They walk in with their tan uniforms,

while the five of us “visitors”

walk in with our identity badges.

 

I look around the group

and think to myself:

“If we left our badges and uniforms

outside the door,

no one would ever know who is who.”

 

Ethnic heritage, life situations,

personality patterns, clouded dreams,

choices and decisions made wrongly,

who can say just what it was

that brought these women here.

 

I feel compassion in a new way,

one among them, not apart,

at home with them,

and unafraid,

knowing them to be my sisters,

not just “prisoners of the state.”

 

We’re all the same.  We’re all beautiful.  We’re all broken.  We all do good things.  We all mess up.  We’re all lost and long to be found.  And we’re all loved deeply, unconditionally, fiercely by God.

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Today’s artwork was created by Mandy Kjellstrom.  I asked Mandy to share the story behind the painting.  Here’s what she wrote:

On a Sunday morning in February I walked to church taking the same route I always take and passed this doorway where the young man or older boy (impossible to tell) was sleeping.  Frequently on Sunday mornings there is someone sleeping in this doorway on Broadway near the intersection with Woodfin in downtown Asheville.  It always gives me pause to reflect on my life and the person’s sleeping in the doorway.  After all, I am walking to church wearing nice clothes having slept in a warm house and comfortable bed and eaten a healthy breakfast.  Usually the person in the doorway is poorly dressed and looking pretty uncomfortable and will most likely wake up very sore and very hungry.  So I am smack dab in the middle of a tension of the opposites.  And so are we all.  How is it that in this country we can have these opposite extremes?  What is the solution?  We have to be creative in solving it and we  have the capacity to solve it, right here, in our little city, if we put our minds and hearts into it.  

But about this particular person in the doorway.  As I said, I snapped the photo about 6 weeks ago, but I’ve kept going back and looking at it and thinking about this particular person.  He has stayed on my mind and in my heart. And what comes to me so clearly is: This is someone’s child.  He looks so young to me.  What could his story possibly be?  Does he have a mother who loves him and is worried sick about him?  I hope so.  Or does he have a mother who has hurt him deeply and from whom he’s running away?  Does he even have a mother?  Maybe he is just traveling.  It is impossible to know.  I have never seen him again in that doorway.  But I do know, without his knowing it, he touched my life. 

Sometimes creating a painting can be a very sacred time.  Not always, just sometimes.  Reflecting on this young man while painting him was one of those times.   

In a subsequent email, Mandy shared the name of the painting:  “Our Child.”  Our child.   That young man is our child…because we belong to each other.  All of us are part of the same family.  All of us are loved unconditionally by the creator of the universe.

I wonder how the world might change if we really believed that?  I wonder how the world might change if we lived it?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2019

 

 

 

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Sermon: “Thirsting for God” (Ps. 63:1-8, Lent 3) [3/24/19]

On a cold, gray morning in 1982, a small group of Anglican clergy gathered at the home of the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral for a simple service of Holy Communion.  The celebrant was Elizabeth Canham, who I just learned lives in Black Mountain.  A native Brit, Elizabeth had moved to the States for the purpose of becoming an ordained Episcopal priest.  The Church of England wasn’t yet ordaining women.

The months prior to Canham’s return home had been joyous…and feverish–preparations for ordination, receiving friends who’d crossed the Atlantic to share the occasion, dealing with media representatives who treated her ordination as a cause celebre.  Canham writes of the experience, “It had been a breathless time of excitement, hope, and fulfillment.”  She had returned to England, she said, for what she thought would be a rest.  Instead, she’d been inundated with invitations, requests, meetings, and interviews.

Of the gathering at the Dean’s home that gray morning, Elizabeth writes:  “The clergymen offered me affirmation and hope for a more inclusive Church of England…Then one of them, rector of a nearby parish, asked if I had some time to spare following the service.  Anxious to respond to the needs of others and to further the ‘cause,’ I said yes.

“Later that morning we walked through the London streets and into the crypt of his centuries-old church.  We passed through to a small, sparsely furnished worship space.  A plain altar, cross, and muted light drew me into a quiet space, and my friend sat down beside me.

“Expecting my friend to ask for something I waited, tense, ready to respond.  Instead the silence grew, and I began to sense a loving, prayerful presence as this priest wordlessly invited me into a resting place.  When I realized that he was not asking me to provide something but to receive a gift, tears began to flow.  In this period of intense activity I had forgotten to stop, to wait, and to be open to the renewing power of restful presence, the Sabbath time with which the Creator gifted humankind at the beginning of all things.”  (Heart Whispers, 99-100.)

Image result for picture crypt chapel London

Sabbath rest.  Stopping…to be still, to be present to ourselves, to be present with each other, to breathe in God’s love, to be.

Sometimes, we forget, don’t we?  So immersed are we in doing the crucial work of acting the world into wellbeing–righting wrongs, protesting injustices, dismantling oppressive social systems–so immersed are we in doing the crucial work of acting the world into wellbeing, of, in Elizabeth’s words, “furthering the ‘cause,’” we often forget to rest.  And sometimes, it’s not that we forget to rest; it’s that we downplay the importance of resting.  We sometimes see resting as a weakness, or even as a sign of disloyalty to the movement.

It’s like the first session of the “Just Mercy” class week before last.  In the class we’re looking at mass incarceration, which is among the gravest manifestations of racism in our country.  As each of us in the class named why we had come to the class, one person said, “I’m looking for hope.”  To which I responded, “No!  We’ve got to face the facts of racism and the injustice of our criminal justice system.  Until we face the facts, nothing will be helped, nothing will be healed, there will be no hope!”  Okay.  It wasn’t my most pastoral moment ever.  :-/

There’s just so much that feels broken these days, isn’t there?  And the rate at which things break in the world seems to have sped up exponentially.  The massacre of Muslims in New Zealand.  The inland oceans created by flooding in Mozambique and our own country’s Midwest.  The rampant corruption afoot among some politicians.  Parents trying to buy their kids admission into Ivy League schools, the ongoing gentrification in our own city… Our go-to response for all of this is to get out there and DO something!  To write letters, to march, to protest, to advocate.  We’re activists!  That’s what following Jesus is all about!

Yes, that’s true.  But what else did Jesus do?  He regularly stepped away for rest and prayer.  Jesus practiced contemplative action…action grounded  in and sustained by prayer.

We’ve done a pretty good job on Wednesdays this Lent, of breathing in God’s love in a brief time of quiet prayer at noon, then going out on the Mercy Walks.

In worship, though, we haven’t been quite as balanced.  In worship, things have been intense…looking at the injustice of exclusion of LGBTQ people from churches 3 weeks ago, and delving into the injustices of white privilege and racism the last two Sundays.  Y’all, that’s some heavy stuff.  And, like the pastor said, It’s vital that people of faith face these hard facts…

But it’s equally important on occasion to take a break, to allow ourselves to rest in the loving embrace of God, to laugh and sing and enjoy each other’s company.  Saving the world is important, but if we forget what we’re saving it for, what have we gained?

So, today, I offer not a word of challenge, but one of grace…an invitation simply to be in each other’s company…an invitation to rest in God’s love, to breathe in everything that will heal you, that will heal us as a community.  The invitation is to pause and reconnect with the delight of being human and the delight of being part of this community of humans.

To help in this process of simply being and delighting in that being, I’m going to give you two gifts today.  The first is a shorter sermon.  You’re welcome.  🙂  The second is a second reading of today’s Psalm.  We’re going to hear the Psalm in a process called lectio divina, divine reading.  Ellenor will read the Psalm 3 times with brief pauses between each reading.  The invitation is simply to let the words wash over you.  If a word catches your imagination, sit with it, see what it might be saying to you.  Or don’t listen at all.  Simply be in this space, with these people.  Simply be.  Ellenor?

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;

My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

 

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

 

So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

 

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

 

My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

 

Sing:  “There Is a Balm in Gilead”

 

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