Sermon: “Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger” (James 1:16-27) [7/11/2021]

As I was thinking about today’s worship service–a prelude to today’s congregational conversations–I read the text assigned for August 29th:  “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  A perfect intro to conversations on how better to communicate with each other, right?  And much better than today’s assigned text where John the Baptist gets beheaded!  

“Remember sisters and brothers,” James writes, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for God’s justice is never served by our anger.”  

How is that statement sitting with you today?  Does it feel right on target…for someone else?  Oh, yes!  I know exactly who needs to hear this!  Or maybe it feels a little preachy.  So, Pastor, what are you trying to say?  Or maybe it’s just confusing.  Aren’t we supposed to speak truth to power?  Aren’t we called to raise our voices against injustice?

When I came to Asheville, I was relieved, at last, to be living in a place that was so committed to the work of social justice–LGBTQ justice, racial justice, economic justice, immigration justice, climate justice.  After 16 years in the Atlanta suburbs, I was glad to live in a city where my vote mattered and where people worked hard at creating a just community.   

Don’t get me wrong.  The work Asheville has done and is doing for social justice– the work for marriage equality, racial justice, reparations, peace, and the environment, as well as the bold initiatives on behalf of our unsheltered neighbors and those who are hungry…The work for social justice that is happening in our city is strong and inspiring.  Moving to Asheville confirmed for me that I’m really not a suburbanite.  I was happy to serve there for a season, but Asheville feels much more like home to me.

I’m grateful to live in a community that acts out its commitment to justice, but I’ve also experienced some disappointment.  Hearing the way people talk to each other…I wasn’t prepared for all the violent communication.  Maybe you’ve experienced it, too:  cutting people off, interrupting, rolling eyes, scolding, talking in condescending tones, yelling.  One of the most violent communications I’ve received since becoming your pastor (from someone outside the church) came from someone who advocates for peace.  It just didn’t compute for me.

I was naive.  I thought only people on the other side of the political and theological spectrum used violent forms of communication.  It didn’t take long to realize that violent communication is used by everybody everywhere.  Has the use of violent communication increased in the last five years?  Yes.  Has the pandemic facilitated the use of violent language?  Absolutely.  Yelling at a face in a box on your computer screen is much easier than yelling at a person in front of you.  We’ve also become more adept at another form of violent communication — the silent treatment.  And another– gossip.  Let me just say:  If we can’t say to someone’s face what we say behind their backs, authentic community isn’t possible.  Period.

There’s a part of me, right now, that wants to bang the pulpit and say, “Y’all talk nicer to each other!”  But that, too, would be a violent form of communication, right?

The truth is, we’ve been under TREMENDOUS during the pandemic.  It’s been frightening.  Terrifying.  And, in these terrifying times, we haven’t had access to the things that help us when we’re scared, like our togetherness.  The last year and a half has been hell.  Psychologists tell us that when we’re under stress, we regress to behaviors used in previous developmental stages.  I’ve experienced that as I’ve cared for Allen during his recovery from knee surgery.  At particularly stressful moments in the past few weeks, I’ve said things I NEVER would have intended to say, especially to Allen.  But I have said them.  And I’ve had to ask forgiveness–many times.  Allen, gracious person that he is, has granted it.

I suspect some of the difficulty we’ve had communicating with each other here at First Congregational has grown out of the stress we’ve been experiencing since the pandemic started.  Yes, the congregation has experienced some trauma in the past.  Those of us who’ve had to work through our own personal traumas know that healing trauma is necessary to helping us live more authentically.  So, yes.  We have some healing work to do.  But I also think we need to give ourselves and each other a break.  In stressful times, we do and say things we’d never do or say in less stressful times.  I suspect we’ve all done and said things we aren’t proud of recently.  It’s my strong hope that we can extend grace–to each other and to ourselves.  And then begin again.

But how do we begin again?  How do we learn to communicate with each other in less violent ways?  We hear James’ advice to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”…. but HOW do we do that?  

Bev Reddick tells me that during her time working with Quakers, she experienced the hard way that her written language could be violent, or “non-Quakerly”.  When writing a letter, newsletter article, or letter to the editor about a concern or social issue, she learned to first write a draft letting out her strong emotions, discard it, and then write a piece that respected and didn’t demonize or make an “enemy” of others.  The process of nonviolent writing was hard and took time, but Bev discovered it to be the best way to communicate… a way of peace and love. Since Bev told me that story, I’ve tried to be more mindful of what I’ve been writing.  It’s so easy–especially in emails–to use violent language, isn’t it?

I’m not trained in methods of nonviolent communication, but from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, I have learned this:  it begins by encountering the other as a whole human being.  In his book, I and Thou, Buber distinguishes between encountering others as objects and encountering them as whole human beings.  When we encounter others as objects, we only see them in parts–their gender, ethnicity, or political affiliation, for example.  Buber referred to that kind of engagement as I-It.  

I-It describes a lot of the communication we’ve been experiencing–and maybe participating in–the last five years in our country.  We often fail to see each other as whole human beings.  When we objectify the other, it’s much easier to yell at them, to cut them off at the knees, roll our eyes, and talk about them behind their backs.  I think that’s what’s been so bewildering for me in observing some of the folks who are advocating for justice here in Asheville…this tendency to dehumanize–and demonize–others.  How can we call for those in power to act more humanely when we’re not treating them humanely?  

Buber describes another way of relating to others as I-Thou.  When we encounter another as Thou, we see them, not as a collection of parts, but as a whole, fully-alive human being.  

A surprising turn for me in reading I and Thou was learning that when we objectify others, we objectify ourselves.  Buber writes:  “The basic word I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being.  The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.”  Or, stated more positively:  “When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.”  

I don’t know.  I might be naive.  But I believe that if we could see and treat each other as human beings, if we engaged every person with our own full humanity seeking their full humanity… If we did that, I think our community would be transformed…

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.  Last week after worship, Spence Duin came up and said he’d like to drop by and chat later in the week.  I’d been watching Spence’s body language during the sermon and suspected we weren’t on the same page.  In truth, there are many things about which Spence and I don’t agree.  Many things.  

Wednesday morning, Spence arrived.  He was bearing coffee, so I let him in.  He started out with words of appreciation and a recognition of what I was trying to say in last week’s sermon.  It was only after he’d named our connection and appreciation for what I was trying to say that Spence expressed his frustration and concern.

As Spence laid out his concerns about my sermon, I realized that he was right.  I had been heavy-handed in one part of it.  We both agreed that the end of the sermon brought it together… but he was exactly right.  I do need to take care with ALL the illustrations I use in sermons.

Anticipating the conversation with Spence, I hadn’t imagined I would feel grateful for his feedback.  But in the end, I was grateful.  Spence showed me something I could not see on my own.  And he did it with great respect.

Spence and I talk a lot about how conservatives and liberals relate to each other.  The thing I usually say to him is “the truth lies somewhere between us.”  Which means that the only way to get at the truth is to talk with each other.  And the only way to talk authentically with each other is to come to the encounter in our own full humanity ready to encounter others in their full humanity.  I am grateful to Spence for modeling that way of communicating.

Here’s something I’ve decided in recent weeks:  If I have to choose between being around people who are right or people who are kind, I choose to be around people who are kind.  Buber says something similar:  “When I was young, I admired people who were clever.  Now that I am old, I admire people who are kind.”

The ideal, of course, is to be both right–as in on the right side of justice–AND kind.  As your pastor, that is my hope, that is my prayer, that is what would bring me deep joy–if we could be on the right side of justice AND at the same time, kind.

Radio personality Bernard Meltzer summed up today’s Scripture as well as anyone.  He said:  “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”  Is it true?  Is it necessary?  Is it helpful?  Is it kind?  May these questions guide us, not only in today’s congregational conversations, but in all our lives every day.

Rumi_Before you speak

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

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Sermon: “Prophetic LIstening” (Mark 6:1-6) [7/4/2021]

“Prophetic Listening”

Mark 6:1-6

Have we achieved our country?  Author James Baldwin was the first to ask the question in his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time.  In his 1998 collection of lectures, Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty picks up the question again and asks it of people entering the 21st century.  Both authors answered the question with a resounding NO.

The question assumes that our country did not start out as a pristine democracy, as if what was written in the Constitution described the reality of our country at the time.  The Constitution laid out an ideal democracy, at least as it was imagined by a small group of landed gentry–some of whom owned slaves–in the 18th century.  The work of our country’s citizens, according to Baldwin and Rorty, is to work to achieve an ideal democracy.

James Baldwin in Paris.
James Baldwin

As a gay Black American, James Baldwin struggled with his citizenship.  He tried many times to give up the US.  He lived in Turkey and his beloved Paris for several years after Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin were assassinated because he could no longer bear to live here.  But in the end, after severe bouts of depression, he came back to the States.  Always, he said, we begin again.  Always, our country begins again the important work toward achieving its best self.

So, have we achieved our country?  Some of us might say, Well, sure!  Others might shout NO!  Others might say, C’mon, Pastor!  Just preach a little love and let us get out of here and go to our picnics and watch our fireworks.

I wish I could do that.  But, July 4th falling on a Sunday this year, I’m afraid I can’t.  With all that has happened in the last year–in the last 5 years–with everything that has happened since 1619, as we look to a future with intensifying climate crises, we must ask whether we have achieved our country.  Or maybe the more vital question is this one:  Do we even believe our country can be achieved?

The simple answer is no.  What would an “achieved” United States look like?  If we crossed a finish line or passed some big test and finally became the AUSA–the Achieved United States of America–what would it look like?  What would we do then?  In the real world, countries can’t be achieved.  It’s something we’re always working toward.

Let me ask the question again.  Do we believe our country can be achieved?  What I’m asking is, Do we have hope that our country is capable of being a better version of itself?  Take a minute and sit with that question.  Do you have hope that our country is capable of being a better version of itself?

As people of faith, I believe that we must answer that question with a hearty yes.  Because if people of faith don’t hold hope for our country, we’re done for.

But how can we?  How can we hold hope for our country when the startling images of the January 6th insurrection are seared into our brains?  How can we hold hope for our country when 14 states have enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to voting?  How can we hold hope for our country when state and U.S. legislators won’t pass even the paltriest of climate laws?  How can we hold hope for our country when 26 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism?    How can we hold hope for our country when stark disparities still exist in income, housing, and healthcare?

And that’s just current-day issues.  What about the past?  How can we hold hope for a country built on the institution of slavery?  How can we hold hope for a country that plied native peoples with alcohol and small pox-laced blankets, then herded them onto reservations?  How can we hold hope for a country that interned Japanese Americans in the 1940s?  How can we hold hope for a country that sanctioned traumatizing young children at our Southern border?  How can we hold hope for a country that still can’t pass an Equal Rights Amendment?

As people of faith, we don’t have the luxury of glossing over the uglier parts of our nation’s history.  Our strong commitment to social justice requires that we look at that history as honestly as we can.  

But hear me well.  Neither can we allow ourselves the luxury of sinking into cynicism about our country.  As people of faith, as hard as it might be sometimes, we cannot relinquish our responsibility to hope for our country’s wholeness.  If we are to achieve our country, in addition to looking at our history honestly, we must also continue to hope for its wholeness.

In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty says this:  “Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies–emotional involvement with one’s country is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive.  Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame.”  (3)

Cynicism is easier, I know.  If we don’t believe our country can be achieved, then we aren’t disappointed when it fails to meet our ideals…again and again.  It’s hard to hope for a better version of our country when we’ve been disappointed so many times.  

But here’s the thing.  Yes, cynicism keeps us safe from being hurt yet again by our country, but it also prevents us from becoming the country of which we dream.  Cynicism is the opposite of hope.  It numbs us into inaction.  Cynicism kills imagination.

A case in point–the residents of Jesus’ hometown.  To this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus accumulates larger and larger crowds wherever he goes.  Belief seems to come easily for those people.  They hang on his every word.  One woman believed that if she just touched the hem of Jesus’ tunic, she’d be healed.  Such was the faith of crowds surrounding Jesus.

But when he goes home, the hometown folks don’t see Jesus as a prophet.  This is Joseph’s son!  What can he possibly say to us?  The people in Nazareth could only see Jesus in the way they always had seen him.  They could not imagine more for him, or from him…  Cynicism had atrophied the Nazareans’ imaginations.  They could not–or would not–allow themselves to see things in any way other than the way they’d always seen them.  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.

What if they had listened to Jesus?  What if they had heard him with open minds and open hearts?  What if Jesus’ hometown folks had allowed the more just vision of the world Jesus was proclaiming to enter their imaginations?  How many more people might have been healed?  What small part of God’s kindom might actually have been achieved?  What if the folks in Nazareth had listened?

We spend a lot of time talking about prophetic speech.  To be sure, the courage of prophets to speak truth to power, prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. William Barber, II, Clarence Jordan, Tracy Blackmon, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglas…the courage of these prophets to name the injustices of the world and present their vision of how things could and should change…Prophetic speech is crucial to creating the world of which God dreams.  

But perhaps even more important than prophetic speech is prophetic listening.  Why were all those people being healed by Jesus?  Because they listened prophetically…they listened with their hearts and minds open…They listened to Jesus, ready to be changed by what he said.

And maybe that’s the key to prophetic listening–an openness to change… openness to a change of heart…openness to a change of mind… openness to a change of sight… openness to get up right now and begin acting the world into wellbeing.

How’s your prophetic listening these days?  How open is your mind?  How open is your heart?  How open are you to being changed by someone else’s words?  Do you remember the last time you changed your mind about something because of what someone else said?

The good news about prophetic listening is that it is a practice that can be cultivated.  If we aren’t that good at it now, all we have to do is practice to become more skilled.  

So, on this 4th of July, our invitation is to practice listening prophetically.  How might we open our hearts and minds to the messages of the prophets among us?  How might we prepare ourselves to be open to changing our minds?  How might we together, at last, achieve our country?

I invite you now to listen to a piece included on John McCutcheon’s Woody Guthrie album:  This Is Our Country Here.

This is our country here as far as you can see, no matter which way you walk or no matter what spot you stand on.  Now, you will hear whole gangs of travelers and settlers arguing about her–what she is, how she come to be, what you’re supposed to do here.  And you will hear some argue at you that she is so beautiful you are supposed to spend your life just feeling her pretty parts, sucking in her sweetest breezes, ….. and looking at all her brightest colored scenes.  And I would say that gang has the wrong notion.  

And there are some bunches that tell you she is all ugly and all dirty and that there is nothing good about her, nothing free, nothing clean.  That she is all slums, shacks, rot, filth, stink and bad odors, loud words of bitter flavors.  Well, this herd is big, and I heard them often and I heard them loud, but I come to think that they, too, was just as wrong as the first outfit.  

This is our country here, as far as you can see, no matter which way you walk, no matter which spot of it you stand on.  And when you have crossed her as many times as I have, you will see as many ugly things about her as pretty things.  I looked into a million of her faces and eyes and I told myself there was a look on that face that was good if I could just see it there in back of all the shades and shadows of fear and doubt and ignorance and tangles of debts and worries.  And I guess it is these things that make our country look lopsided to some of us, locked over onto the good and easy side, or over onto the bad and hard side.  

Because I seen the pretty and I seen the ugly.  And because I knew the pretty part, I wanted to change the ugly part.  And because I hated the dirty part, I knew how to feel love for the cleaner part.  See, this is our country here, as far as you can see, no matter which way you walk, no matter what spot of it you stand on.  This is our country here.

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway

I saw above me that endless skyway

I saw below me that golden valley

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land… 

I roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps

To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts

While all around me a voice was sounding

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land…  

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land…

As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

This land is your land…

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;

By the relief office, I’d seen my people.

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,

Is this land made for you and me?

This land is your land…  

Nobody living can ever stop me,

As I go walking that freedom highway;

Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land…  

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan   © 2021

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Sermon: “Determined to Heal” Mark 5:21-43 (6/27/2021)

Jesus and his disciples have been criss-crossing the Lake of Tiberias, teaching, healing, and sharing the good news of God’s love.  At today’s stop, Jesus gets out of the boat and prepares to teach the crowd that has gathered.  As he begins, a “leader of the synagogue named Jairus comes, falls at his feet and begs Jesus repeatedly to heal his daughter who is at the point of death.  ‘Come and lay your hands on her,’ he says, ‘So that she may be made well and live.’”

Imagine if that happened here.  I’ve started my sermon, someone walks down the aisle, falls on the floor and begs repeatedly for the healing of their child.  What could we do but go with the man?  That’s what Jesus does.  He follows the desperate father to see the ailing child. 

I sometimes call Mark the Iron Gospel…Jesus always seems caught in the “press” of the crowd.  That happens this time, too.  As Jesus follows Jairus, the crowd again presses in on him.  

In that pressing crowd is a woman…a woman who shouldn’t have been there.  She’d had a flow of blood for 12 years…which meant she was, according to Jewish law, unclean.  Those who were unclean were excluded from their community.  Mark tells us that “she had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse”

But, in defiance of religious law, when she spots Jesus, she makes her way through the crowd and touches Jesus’ cloak,  for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” When she touches the cloak, immediately, her bleeding stops.  She feels in her body that she is healed of her disease.   

In his body, Jesus feels healing power flowing out.  He looks around to see who’s done it. The woman, knowing what had happened to her, comes in fear and trembling, falls down before him, and tells him the whole truth. She tells him the whole truth.  She tells him her whole truth.  She shows who she is to Jesus and to everyone else.  Jesus says to her:  “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Mark also is the Sandwich Gospel.  (With the press and the sandwiches, maybe we should call it the Panini Gospel.)  Often, Mark will start telling one story, skip to another story, then go back and finish the first story.  It’s a rhetorical device meant to invite reflection on the two stories together.

Which makes you wonder… While he’s still speaking to the woman, some people come from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” Overhearing them, Jesus says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”  When they get to Jairus’ house, Jesus heals his daughter.

So, here’s what I’m wondering… Did Jesus’ encounter with the woman on the way to Jairus’ house inspire him to act differently than he might have had he not had that encounter?  Jairus was the leader of the synagogue, one who was keenly aware of the need to keep religious laws.  Did the woman’s determination to be healed–a determination that exceeded the boundaries of the laws of her religion–did the woman’s determination to be healed open Jesus’ mind and heart to more expansive ways of healing?  

There’s no way to know for sure…but what if it did?  What if that woman–I’m going to call her Miriam…Do you ever get tired of women remaining nameless in the Bible?  What if Miriam, who’d been excluded for so many years, who’d been silenced for so many years, what if it was Miriam’s determination to be healed and–finally–speak her whole truth, what if Miriam’s claiming and naming her healing is what paved the way for Jairus’ daughter–let’s call her Leah–to be healed?

Today’s the last Sunday of Pride month.  It’s been a good one.  Thanks to Ellie Charlton, we’ve had these pretty rainbows adorning the sanctuary.  A rainbow meme on our Facebook page got over 2,000 engagements!  (Y’all share everything you can from our Facebook page!)

The highlight of Pride month for me was hearing our Coordinator for Youth Ministries Andrew Hoots share his coming out story.  There was one thing Andrew said during Children’s Time last week that has stayed with me.  He said there were times in the past when he did not feel like he was a part of God’s family.  That statement broke my heart.  

I’m glad Andrew knows and now feels like he is part of God’s family…. But how many people out there still don’t know it?  How many people are afraid to “tell their whole truth” for fear of being excluded…or worse?

Because we’ve been an Open and Affirming congregation for so long, it’s easy to forget the importance of sharing the Good News that God loves every single person.  It’s easy to forget that saying God loves everyone, including people in the LGBTQ+ community, isn’t just good news, it’s NEWS–new information–for many people.

Part of the reason I invited Andrew to share his story with us is because sharing our stories of healing, boldly declaring our whole truth…that’s a big part of how we act the world into wellbeing.  As we saw in today’s stories from Mark–healing begets healing.  When each of us tells our whole truth, not only do we heal a little more ourselves, but telling our stories invites others to tell their stories.  That’s already happened since Andrew shared his story with us two weeks ago.  (By the way, Andrew isn’t here today.  He’s in Augusta celebrating his first Pride with Josh…and doing research for Blue Ridge Pride in September.)

One more story of healing.  I first met Rachel Small in a Contextual Education group I co-led at Candler School of Theology.  Rachel was in the process of coming out and wondering how she was going to be ordained in the Methodist church.  She started asking about the UCC, then Rachel and her now wife, Leslie, began attending the church I pastored.

Living into her whole truth wasn’t a simple or quick process for Rachel.  But as I have watched her grow into the amazing pastor, wife, and mother she now is, I have seen in Rachel the same determination to heal that we’ve seen in Jairus, and the woman with the flow of blood, aka Miriam, and Andrew, and Valerie…and so many people in this room and those tuning in online.  And now, because of Rachel’s determination to heal, because she has told her story, because she is living her whole truth, others have and will continue to find courage to speak their whole truth.

As congregationalists, we are not a creedal people.  Some of our churches include the reading of creeds or statements of faith in their worship services, but there is no rule that we MUST believe in everything we read in those creeds.  So…we aren’t a creedal people…but today, I want to invite us to read a creed Rachel wrote this week.

Rachel says she was voice-texting “the Apostle’s creed” to a colleague, and it translated as “The Sparkle Creed.” Rachel decided that’s exactly what we need for Pride Month:  a “Sparkle Creed.”  So, she (with some help from the Holy Spirit) wrote one.

As Pride month ends, I invite us all to read the “Sparkle Creed.”  Not as a test of faith, to be sure.  But as a way of celebrating all people who, through their determination to heal, have found a way to tell their whole truth.

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Sermon: “Weathering the Storm…Together” Mark 4:35-41 (6/20/2021)

In the days leading up to the storm, Jesus was busy.  He taught, he healed, he argued with religious leaders who criticized his teaching and healing.  Crowds followed him everywhere: to his house, to the synagogue, to the lake.  Sometimes on the shore, the only way Jesus could avoid being crushed by the crowd was to row a boat out on the lake and speak from there.  

With all those crowds, Jesus knew:  he needed help.  He went up a mountain and called 12 of his followers to join him.  “He named them apostles, to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message.”

After the brief respite on the mountaintop, Jesus returned home to Capernaum.  Again, the crowds were waiting for him.  Mark tells us the crowd was so dense, Jesus and his family couldn’t even eat.  The neighbors started a rumor that Jesus had gone mad.  Religious leaders call him Beelzebub, the devil incarnate.  Jesus tried–again–to explain his ministry to them.

Finally, Jesus’ blood family came out into the fray and tried to take him home.  When told his mother and brothers are waiting for him, Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

And so, we arrive at the day of the storm.  Again, Jesus starts teaching beside the lake.  Again, the crowd is so large, he rows a boat out on the lake.  From the boat, Jesus tells stories that describe God’s dreams for the world.  When the disciples don’t get the meaning of the stories–which happens often–Jesus takes them aside and explains them.

Toward evening, Jesus suggests they go to the other side of the lake.  “And leaving the crowd behind,”–Finally!–they set sail for the opposite shore.    

That’s when the storm blows in.  Of course.  The wind whips up, the waves grow and crash down on the boat, the boat starts filling with water.  Jesus!  Help us!  Where are you?  He’s asleep in the stern of the boat!

The disciples wake him.  “Don’t you care that we’re about to die?”  Jesus rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  The wind ceases.  There’s dead calm.

In the sudden stillness, Jesus looks at the disciples and asks:  ‘Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?’  Just like with the stories Jesus has been telling, the disciples miss the meaning.  Instead of answering Jesus’ questions, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” they wonder aloud, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’  

Maybe when they got to the other side of Lake Tiberias, they did talk some about Jesus’ questions.  Maybe gathered around the campfire, they retold the story of the storm on the sea.  Maybe they shared how afraid they were.  

Maybe they wrestled with Jesus’ question:  Have you still no faith?  If I’d been there at the campfire, here’s what I would have asked:  Have we still no faith in what, Jesus?  Faith in you?  Faith in God?  Faith in happy endings?  What is it we’re supposed to have faith in?  And how might that faith have made us less afraid in a storm that was about to kill us?

I doubt Jesus–who’d be crucified in a couple of years–was talking about faith in happy endings.  He might have been talking about faith in God, at least in part.  He also might have been talking about faith in himself…except that he implies that the disciples could have dealt with the storm while he was asleep, so I’m not sure that’s the faith he was talking about.

Let’s look again at what happens before the storm…Jesus has been teaching and healing. The crowds are growing.  As the crowds grow, the religious authorities get nervous and start criticizing.  Recognizing he needs help, Jesus appoints 12 apostles.  

And then, remember the time when the neighbors start the rumor that Jesus is crazy and his family comes to take him home?  Remember what Jesus says?  “Who are my mother and my siblings?”  Remember how he looked at everyone around him and said, “Here are my mother and my siblings.  Whoever does the will of God is my family.”

Leading up to the storm, everyone is focused on Jesus.  They look to him for wisdom and healing.  To be sure, Jesus dispenses wisdom.  He heals to be the band.  But also at every turn, he turns people’s gaze away from himself.  He invites them to see the world of which God dreams.  He also shows them their greatest asset in creating that world:  each other.  

When Jesus calls the apostles, he’s acknowledging that, by himself, he’s not enough.  He needs help.  Creating the world of which God dreams isn’t a one-person job.  It takes all of us. We’re all connected.  We’re all family.

So maybe over the campfire on the far side of Lake Tiberias when my theological forebear asked, “Have we still no faith in what, Jesus?”  Maybe Jesus answered:  “Have you still no faith in yourselves, and in the community you’re creating?  I’ve entrusted you with the work of the kindom.  I’ve shown you that you don’t need to depend on religious authorities to explain your faith to you.  I’ve told you in no uncertain terms that when we work together to create the world of which God dreams, we are family.  So, why are you still afraid when storms come?  Don’t you know that–together–you can weather the storm?  Haven’t you learned yet that your togetherness is your superpower?”

Yesterday was Juneteenth!   The holiday gets its name from June 19, 1865, the date when formerly enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned–two months after the Civil War ended–that they were free.  Congress’ nearly unanimous decision this week to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was huge.  It means that we are, as a country, acknowledging that slavery happened.  In fact, until next year, our slaveholding history is still longer than our history as an independent nation.  And, as Isabel Wilkerson notes in her book Caste, “No current-day adult will be alive in the year in which African-Americans as a group will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved.  That will not come until the year 2111,” (48)  

At Wednesday night’s Racial Justice Team meeting, someone asked, “What does Juneteenth mean for white folks?”  I think it’s going to take us a while to work that out.  Most white folks have only recently learned about Juneteenth.  We have a lot of catching up to do.

As I’ve been working out an answer for myself, I’ve decided to celebrate Juneteenth in two ways–to listen to the experiences of our siblings with Black skin and then to do whatever I can to support my Black siblings, especially Black-owned businesses and artists who are Black.  Why?  Because we’re all in the boat together.  And because the only way to create the world of which God dreams is to nurture our faith in each other, in the beloved community.

Our budding partnership with YMI is bearing good fruit these days.  Offering our space for artists who are Black to exhibit their work is a big deal.  Right now, beyond YMI and our Oak Street Gallery, few places in Asheville exhibit the art of artists who are Black.  When alexandria at YMI suggested the partnership, I was pleased we could offer our space.  

But here’s what happened last month.  The first time I walked through the gallery after the “Say Their Names” exhibit was up…I told Kai it was like I was walking through a sermon.  The artwork–each piece and all the pieces together–spoke to me.  I realized then that we’re not only providing space for the artwork of artists who are Black, though that is important.  I also realized that every time we host an artist who is Black, we have an opportunity–and now, I would say, a responsibility–to listen to what they are saying through their art.  

As mostly white people seeking to cultivate a culture of anti-racism in our church, our first task is to listen to our siblings with Black skin…to hear what living in the United States is like for them…to hear what freedom means for them…to hear what Juneteenth means for them… to hear what it’s like for so few places to be open to displaying their artwork…to hear whatever they have to say.  Why?  Because we’re all in the boat together…and the only way to weather the storm is to nurture our faith in each other, in the beloved community we’re creating together.

For someone who advocates listening, I sure am talking a lot.  So, I’m going to stop…. just as soon as I introduce this beautiful human being to you.

Micah Mackenzie’s artwork is currently displayed in our gallery.  Last month, when the “Say Their Names” exhibit was in the gallery, Micah’s work was displayed at YMI.  Micah spoke at the opening for the exhibit.  After the opening some of us walked over to YMI to see Micah’s exhibit.

When I saw Micah’s exhibit at YMI, this piece kept drawing me in.  In truth, I’m still working it all out in my own mind and heart.  Planning for today, I asked Micah if he might bring the artwork and share with us something about its creation.  He said yes!  And so, Micah, with love and openness, we are ready to hear whatever you have to share with us today.  Welcome to our boat.

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Sermon: “Do We Want to Be Made Well?” John 5:2-9 (6/6/2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what of our country,?  This last year has been rough.  We’ve experienced trauma after trauma with the pandemic–we’ve lost over 600,000 people in our country from Covid.  The necessary isolation we had to keep for a year…  Loneliness has created wounds for all of us.  

And what of the wounds in our own First Congregational community?  We have lost beloved members…some to death, like our beloved Paul Frelick, others to a shifting of their faith journey.  For over a year, we lost the most basic source of healing this community provides– simply gathering together for worship.  We’ve been grateful for the ways Zoom has helped us connect–and we’re glad for the people with whom Zoom has helped us connect who aren’t able to come to 20 Oak Street–but Zoom is not the same.  Seeing each other, talking with each other, hugging each other… Not being able to do that has created deep wounds for all of us.

Until this point, we haven’t been able to address those wounds.  Because of the pandemic, we’ve all been lying on the porch by the pool unable to get ourselves into the waters when they’re stirred, unable to find healing for our hurts.

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

I leave you with the image of another healing pool–the pool at Warm Springs, Georgia.  Somehow, minerals in the water at Warm Springs eased the effects of polio.  President Franklin Roosevelt experienced relief from the polio paralysis he contracted as a young man.  As President, except for 1942, Roosevelt visited Warm Springs every summer.

postcard - Public Swimming Pool, Warm Springs, Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2021

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Sermon: “Dancing with the Trinity” (5/30/20210)

John 3:1-9;  Genesis 18:1-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is one more thing about it that fairly shouts hospitality.  Can you discern what it is?  (Responses)  The gap.  That gap invites us to pull up a chair and join the three figures at the table.  Rublev’s icon isn’t just a picture of the Trinity; it’s an invitation to participate in the Trinity.  Despite all those great pictures we saw earlier, none of them invited us to participate with, to live in the Trinity…except maybe the one of the 3 men in the pub.  Almost to a one, those diagrams and depictions invite us only to look at the Trinity from the outside, to observe it, to analyze it, to come up with a mathematical equation for it.  Except for the men in the pub, none of the depictions invited us into the Trinity.  Rublev’s 15th century icon does exactly that.

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

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

We’ve only scratched the surface of praying this icon.  In truth, we haven’t prayed it at all.  I’ve just been talking about it.  So….we’re going to take a couple of minutes of silence.  In the silence, I invite you to pray this icon.  Allow yourself to experience the hospitality that’s being extended.  Allow yourself to accept God’s invitation into God’s own heart.  Let us pray.   

Trinity (Andrei Rublev) - Wikipedia

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2015

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Sermon: “When We Breathe Together” (5/23/2021) Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

Last Tuesday, our country marked the 125th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s verdict in Plessy v. Ferguson.  This coming Tuesday marks the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.  The two events are not unrelated.

Some background.  During the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Congress created laws to make real the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation.  For a season, the country flourished.  Numerous people of color–especially from the South– were elected to positions in local, state, and federal government.

Uncomfortable with how quickly things were changing, Southern legislators resisted Reconstruction.  In 1877, a compromise “led to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.”  At that point, “Democrats consolidated control of state legislatures throughout the region, effectively ending Reconstruction.”  The first set of Jim Crow laws passed by Southern states required “railroads to provide separate cars for “Negro” or “colored” passengers.”

“At the heart of Plessy v. Ferguson was a law passed in Louisiana in 1890 [quote] “providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races.”  It stipulated that all passenger railways had to provide these separate cars, which should be equal in facilities.”

Many of you will identify with Homer Adolph Plessy.  Of mixed race, Mr. Plessy “agreed to be the plaintiff in the case aimed at testing the law’s constitutionality.”  Many of you made trips to the courthouse to challenge laws prohibiting gay marriage.  Mr. Plessy tried to make a trip on a train going from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana.

“He took a seat in a whites-only car.  After refusing to leave the car at the conductor’s insistence, he was arrested and jailed.  Convicted by a New Orleans court of violating the 1890 law, Plessy filed a petition against the presiding judge, Hon. John H. Ferguson, claiming that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.”

The Supreme Court delivered its verdict on May 18, 1896.  “In declaring separate-but- equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads, the Court ruled that the protections of the 14th Amendment applied only to political and civil rights (like voting and jury service), and not to “social rights” (sitting in the railroad car of your choice).  In its ruling, the Court denied that segregated railroad cars for Black people were necessarily inferior.  Justice Henry Brown wrote for the majority: “We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy’s] argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”

Thus was the inferiority of people who are Black re-codified into federal law 31 years after slavery ended.

The first Sunday of the “Say Their Names” art exhibit, I spent some time with Kai Lendzion in the gallery.  I shared what I saw in his photographs.  He pointed out things I wasn’t seeing.  I commented on his use of a sepia tone on some of the photos he took in Selma in 2015.  At first glance, those photos look like they’re from the 50s or 60s.  Then you see the cellphones and realize the scenes are contemporary.

When I asked Kai why he used the sepia, he said he wanted it to look like pictures from the 50s and 60s.  That’s when the deeper meaning Kai’s artwork was communicating:  It seems like we’ve come a long way regarding racial equity.  Certainly, strides have been made.  But the sepia tone on Kai’s photographs from Selma begs the question:  How far have we really come?

Heather’s painting of George Floyd’s death begs the same question.  How far have we really come?  Jim Crow laws, mostly, are off the books now.  Most of our country’s laws support racial equity.  As a country we have made progress toward racial equity…but how far have we really come?  In our country, in our laws, in our justice system, in our social structures, do Black lives matter?  Do Black lives really matter?

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the church, it’s called.  In the Scripture story, it happens 50 days (hence the PENTE part) after Jesus’ resurrection and 10 days after his ascension when he left the scene for good.  Last week, just before his departure, we heard Jesus tell his disciples to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Once the Spirit came, Jesus said, the people would be empowered to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria and even to the ends of the Earth.

Today is the day!  The people are gathered in Jerusalem when God’s spirit whooses in!  Wind!  Tongues of flame on everyone’s head!  People who’d never before understood each other suddenly understanding each other!  Peter preaching, reminding the community that the young people will see visions and the old people will dream dreams!  

Pentecost is pivotal.  Jesus’ followers become something new that day.  They become a community.  They become church.

Wind or breath is the key symbol of Pentecost.  On more than one Pentecost over the years, I’ve had fans turned on during worship.  One year we attached red streamers to the fan to represent fire.  The reality didn’t quite meet our vision.

Breath.  This has been a year of breath.  Covid’s theft of breath.  George Floyd’s cry as breath left his body, “I can’t breathe.”  Even the breath-wind that brought sands from Africa to blanket our country last summer.  It has been a year of breath, mostly, a fear of losing it.

Those of you who attended the opening for the “Say Their Names” art gallery will remember:  It was a windy day!  The most brilliant invention of the day were the garbage cans Beaver Wyatt created out of tomato cages and plastic bags.  Genius!  Trash cans would have blown away.  Beaver’s trash cages?  We didn’t lose a one!

As we set up then waited for people to arrive–and as I made my peace with what the wind was doing to my hair–I looked up into the trees and watched the leaves dance.  After a brief rain in the morning, by afternoon the sun poured through the newly-birthed leaves.

Sometimes, I have to search hard for sermon illustrations.  And sometimes they blow in, wreak havoc with my hair and shout, “Use me!  Use me!”  The wind blowing around on the front patio at the gallery opening?  Yeah.  It was Pentecost.  And not just because of the wind.  

There we were.  All together, gathered as love had called us to do…There we were, making preparations, standing around, engaging in awkward chit-chat, when… Whoosh!  Spirit blew in!  Virtuous sang our hearts and minds into focus… Spirit kept blowing… We shared our stories… Spirit kept blowing… People whose stories we haven’t understood before started making sense… Spirit kept blowing… Gazing at the artwork in the gallery, we saw the visions of the young people! … Spirit kept blowing… Gazing at the artwork, we older folks began to dream dreams…  Spirit kept blowing… 

And as Spirit kept blowing, and blowing, and blowing…something shifted, something opened, something lightened…and suddenly, at last, we understood:  God’s spirit gives us power!  Power to listen… power to heal… power to change–our minds, our church, our city, our country, the world…  God’s Spirit gives us power to create the world of which God dreams! …If we will only open our hearts…if we will only open our minds….if we will only learn to breathe together…     [Video, with Wayne playing “Spirit of Gentleness”]

This sermon was inspired by this Pentecost Day Blessing by Jan Richardson.

When We Breathe Together
A Blessing for Pentecost Day

This is the blessing
we cannot speak
by ourselves.

This is the blessing
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
cannot shape
to our purpose,
cannot bend
to our will.

This is the blessing
that comes
when we leave behind
our aloneness
when we gather
together
when we turn
toward one another.

This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
the words
strange to our ears

when we finally listen
into the chaos

when we breathe together
at last.

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Sermon: “Hold the Hope” (5/16/2021) Mental Health Sunday

May 16, 2021   (Mental Health Sunday) “Hold the Hope”

Acts 1:1-11

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

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

That no–the church not wanting to hear what it was like to be him–sent Nightlife into this current spell, which sent him to Tol’s chicken coop that morning.  Before Tol knew what had happened, Nightlife had picked up Tol’s rifle, “Old Fetcher.”  Tol’s heart sank when Nightlife said, “Why, a fellow just as well shoot hisself, I reckon.”

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

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

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

In today’s reading from Acts, we hear the story of Jesus’ Ascension.  It always comes the Sunday before Pentecost.  The story of Pentecost usually gets more press…which makes sense.  I mean, God’s Spirit blowing in, tongues of flame appearing on everyone’s heads, people speaking in tongues and everyone understanding each other.  Such drama!

The story of the Ascension isn’t as dramatic, but without it, there would have been no Pentecost at all.  

The book of Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus’ last minutes on Earth.  Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus gathers his disciples on a hill outside Jerusalem and promises them the gift of the Spirit.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.  And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  And then–WHOOSH! Jesus flies off into the sky and a cloud takes him out of their sight. 

No doubt, jaws were scraping the ground.  “What just happened?  Jesus left again?  Again?  Now what are we going to do?  Jesus!  Don’t leave us again!”

Jesus flying up into the ether, yeah.  I guess that’s pretty dramatic…but that’s not the most important thing that happens in this scene.  The most important part of this story, the thing that makes the birth of the church possible, happens next.  

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

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

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

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

And that is what makes Pentecost and the birth of the church possible–the shifted gaze from the Jesus they knew // to the world he was sending them to love; the shifted focus from the ephemeral things of heaven to the hard realities of life on Earth; the shift from looking only to Jesus to now looking to each other.

The story of Nightlife’s sinking spell is an Ascension story.  Tol and his friends could have prayed to God about Nightlife, they could have looked to a far-away Jesus to save Nightlife, like those revival preachers were doing.  But Nightlife didn’t need another empty prayer.  Nightlife needed people to look after him while he wasn’t himself.  He needed people to keep him safe.  Tol and all the neighbors tracking Nightlife for a day and a half–being present to Nightlife in his darkness–that was the best prayer they could have prayed for him.  Nightlife needed people who were focused on the real world and not some faraway heaven.

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

As Tol and company talk in the barn, rain pelting the roof, Nightlife walks in, still holding Old Fetcher.  “Brethren,” he says, “Let us stand and sing.” They sing “Unclouded Day.”  

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

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

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

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

“And that old hen,” Sam Hanks said.

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

They kept him alive that time, anyhow.  They and the Good Lord.  Yes.  That is our calling as a compassionate community–do what we can to keep each other alive and whole, us and the Good Lord.  As a beloved and loving community, we are called to hold the hope for each other.  (Video)

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“Who Can Withhold the Waters for Baptism?” Acts 10:44-48

While Peter is preaching to a group of Gentiles, the Spirit falls on everyone present.  They begin speaking in tongues, just like Jesus’ Jewish followers had done a short time before at Pentecost.  For Jesus’ Jewish followers, this was an unexpected turn of events.  Gentiles–people not like us–receiving the gifts of the Spirit?  How could that be?

The story the lectionary delivers up for us today couldn’t be more timely.  Some of us are participating in anti-racism workshops.  In the Oak Street Gallery we’ve begun hosting the “Say Their Names” art exhibit.  Hearing a story about one group questioning the worthiness of another group to join them–Yeah.  This is a story about racism…Which means it’s the perfect time for us to hear this story.  

A couple of weeks ago, I confessed my on-going struggle to root out racism still roaming around inside me.  It was–and is–hard to recognize that I’m not quite as far along in my journey of becoming anti-racist as I thought I was.  At times–it’s painful to admit this–but sometimes the questions of Jesus’ Jewish followers in this story rise up in my own thinking.  Even these people can do …fill in the blank?  

I once heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about his own internalized racism.  It came to a head for him on a plane trip.  When the plane hit some turbulence, the archbishop’s first thought was:  “I hope the pilot is white.”  For the Archbishop, it was a hard realization.

It’d be easy to beat up on the circumcised believers in this story for seeing the Gentiles as less-than.  If we’re honest, though, I suspect we all struggle with a similar dynamic.  All of us have a long way to go in becoming truly anti-racist.

It can be depressing to realize we’re not as far along as we thought we were in our anti-racism work.  If that thought makes you sad, let me tell you about Peter.

At the end of today’s story, Peter says: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  Peter really seems to get it.  It doesn’t matter whether the people there had grown up in the Jewish faith…their race didn’t matter at all.  What mattered was that they had received the gift of the Spirit.  And people who received the gift of the Spirit were baptized.  End of story.  

At the end of the story, Peter shines.  At the beginning?  No so much.  It took Peter a while to get to this place of radical openness.

Acts 10 begins in Caesarea.  A Gentile believer named Cornelius receives a visitation.  He’s told to send a contingent to Joppa and find Simon Peter.  As the contingent begins their journey to Joppa, Peter goes to the roof of his host’s house to pray.

As he prays, Peter has a vision.  He’s hungry, so the vision that comes is about food.  Peter sees a large sheet descend from heaven.  On the sheet are “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.  Then he hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”  But Peter says, ‘By no means; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”   In the vision, Peter is invited to eat foods that had been prohibited his whole life.  As a good Jew, he daren’t eat the things pictured on the sheet.  The vision happens two more times.

Cornelius’ cohort arrives just as Peter is waking up from his vision.  They extend Cornelius’ invitation and Peter goes with them.  When he arrives, he says, “You know it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile (this was according to Jewish law at the time); but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”  After that, Cornelius and Peter talk; they share their stories.  And in the conversation, Peter wakes up.

Then, as he is wont to do, Peter preaches.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” he says, “but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”  It’s while Peter is preaching that the Spirit descends, the Gentiles believe, and Peter invites them to be baptized.

Peter’s conversion story bears hope for those of us who are still trying to wrap our heads around this idea that “God shows NO partiality.”  It’s not a toggle switch we can flip–I once was a racist, now I’m not.  Becoming anti-racist takes a long time.  It’s a process.  Sometimes we, like Peter, have to see the vision over and over and over again before it transforms us.

Another striking thing about Peter’s conversion is that it happens in the context of relationship.  Peter got a vision of welcoming Gentiles into the community, but it didn’t become real until he started talking with and getting to know Cornelius, who was a Gentile.  Peter’s conversion wouldn’t have happened without the conversation.

Last Sunday, I spent a few minutes in the gallery talking with Kai Lendzion, one of the artists whose work is displayed in the gallery.  I told Kai that walking through the gallery felt like hearing a sermon.  In the months we’ve been planning this exhibit, my focus has been on trying to be a good host for these artists who are Black to display their work.  Once the exhibit was up, I realized our task as a mostly white congregation is not only to be good hosts, but to open our ears and hearts to hear what this artwork is saying to us.    

We need to see this artwork.  I need to see this artwork.  We need to spend time taking in the photographs and paintings.  We need to open our eyes and see.  We need to open the ears of our hearts and hear.  And we need to talk with Kai and Heather.  We need to talk with each other.  We need to listen to each other.  We need our hearts to open to the fact, the stone-cold fact that God shows NO partiality.

When I told Kai walking through the gallery felt like hearing a sermon, I got an idea–maybe the artwork could be the sermon this week.  Then I received a video Kai made of him and Heather talking about their artwork.  I could tell you what they said, but why not hear from the artists themselves?  [Video]

FINAL_VID.mp4 – Google Drive

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Sermon: “Home Again?” (5/2/2021)

Ezra 3:10-13

Here we are!  Back home in our sanctuary.  Some of us can see each other in person.  We have our communion packets and will be able to share the holy meal together.  We can hear the music live.  And–now that we aren’t editing–we can watch Kim mess things up in real time!  Here we are!  Home again.

Right?  I mean, this is what we’ve been waiting for!  To be gathered in our sanctuary for worship!  To see each other, to be together in this beloved space, which is deep with meaning for so many of us.  This is the space where our children were baptized and confirmed, or where we were married.  This is the space where we have said goodbye to loved ones who have died.  This is the space where we heard for the very first time in our lives that God loves us just as we are.   This space is central to who we are as a church.  It is another member of our community.  

So, I was surprised when the slots for our first in-person worship service didn’t fill up quickly.  I’ve been wondering why.  I’ve heard such eagerness to return to in-person worship… not from everyone, of course, but from many.  Some aren’t ready to be here in person…which is why I’m grateful we’re live streaming.  (Hi, online First Congregational community!)  Why aren’t more people here today?

Maybe it’s that we’ve gotten out of the habit of going anywhere, including to church.  Or maybe we haven’t been fully vaccinated.  Or maybe, after so many months of isolation, togetherness is something we’re having to ease into.  Maybe we LIKE participating in worship at home in our jammies.

Or maybe it’s the long list of things we can’t do yet because the pandemic isn’t over.  In the US, we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re still only one third fully-vaccinated.  And as long as other countries don’t have the resources to vaccinate their people, the pandemic will not be over.  We do want to remember people in India and South America.

Because the pandemic isn’t over yet, though we do feel comfortable having folks in the sanctuary for worship, we still have to wear masks, we still have to social distance, we still can’t hug, we still can’t sing.  We won’t be taking up the offering by passing the plates.  We won’t come forward to have communion.  We won’t be able to share Joys and Concerns in the usual way.  We won’t have Friendship Time after the service.

So, we’re coming home…sort of.  Maybe we don’t have more people today because people recognize that, yes, we’re back in the sanctuary for worship, but it’s not the same.  Because of the need to follow Covid protocols to keep everyone safe, it’s just not the same.

When the Reopen Team started talking about returning to in-person worship a couple of months ago, I knew which Scripture story would help us navigate this new reality. 

Several hundred years before today’s story, King Solomon had built a magnificent temple for God and for the people.  The people believed that God lived in the innermost part of the Temple complex called the Holy of Holies.  For the people, coming to the Temple meant, literally, coming to meet God.

So, when the Babylonians came and leveled the Temple, the people were devastated.  They’d lost their temple, they’d lost the Holy of Holies, they’d lost their sovereignty as a country, they’d lost their land, they’d lost their God…and now, they lived in exile in Babylon.

I know.  It’s not the same.  Our building hasn’t been razed.  In fact, our sanctuary got a facelift while we were away!  But it still feels like we’ve been exiled, doesn’t it?  Our sanctuary has been taken away from us.  In our heads, we know God doesn’t only dwell in our church building, but our hearts?  Our hearts have ached to be back in this place.  And here we are!

Today’s story comes after the people have returned from exile.  (The Persians had defeated the Babylonians.  Cyrus, the Persian leader, gave the Judahites permission to return to Jerusalem.  He even provided for building projects.)

The people’s first task upon returning from exile was to build a wall around Jerusalem.  Completely different context than for us today.  2400 years ago, walls were needed for security for towns and cities.  The book of Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the wall.

The book of Ezra recounts the story of the rebuilding of the temple.  Today’s passage relates what happened when the foundation was laid for the new Temple.

The day begins with a celebration.  The priests in their vestments praised God with trumpets.  The Levites did the same with cymbals.  They sang responsively:  “God is good!  God’s steadfast love endures forever!”  All the people responded with a great shout when they praised God, because the foundation of the house of God was laid.

Yay!  Big celebration.  We’re home!  Thanks be to God!  But everyone that day wasn’t celebrating.  Many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house.  Yes.  They were home.  They were laying the foundation for the new Temple.  But looking at the footprint of the new Temple, the elders knew–this Temple was going to be a mere shadow of the first one.

And so, they weep.  They cry out.  They pour out their grief.  In fact, though many shouted aloud for joy, the sounds of the joyful shouts couldn’t be distinguished from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.

Take a minute to imagine the scene.  The exiles have returned.  Finally!  They’re back home.  They’ve built the wall.  Now it’s time to rebuild the Temple.  Plans are drawn up, the foundation is laid.  People born in exile in Babylon who’d never seen the first Temple erupt into joyful praise.  While off to the side, the elders sit, quietly weeping.  Visions of how things used to be, of the time when they had their own country, when they met regularly in the Temple Solomon had built, visions of how things used to be dance across their minds…and their hearts.  Then the flood gates open.  Quiet tears become heaving sobs.

Imagine now you live in a village outside Jerusalem.  You notice a loud crowd sound.  You ask your spouse, “Do you think those people are happy or sad?”  The two of you debate it for a minute.  Then your young child says, “Maybe they’re both.”

Maybe we’re both happy and sad today, too.  Some of us are over the moon to be here today.  Others of us are missing the way things used to be.  People joining us online might be thinking, What’s the big deal?  We’re loving online church!  If we could be together all in one place, I suspect the shouts of joy, sounds of sobbing, and chorus of “meh” also would mingle together into an indistinguishable roar.

One message of this story for us is the recognition that, as a community, we’re in a lot of different places today.  And, guess what?  Every single place, every single feeling, all of it is exactly right.  It makes sense that we’re all over the place right now.  It’s important that–as a community–we create space for all the places, all the feelings.  It’s important that we give each other space to do what we need to do.  That’s how community works.  

This story also reminds us of the critical importance of grieving.  While it’s great to be back in the sanctuary for in-person worship.  But it’s not the same; it’s so not the same.

Here’s the thing about active–even loud–grieving.  Sometimes, loud grieving is the only way we have of accepting our new reality.  I suspect on the far side of their lamenting what they’d lost in the exile, the elders felt differently.  Perhaps after their tears dried, they were able to accept the new reality, despite the fact that it was so inferior to the reality they remembered.  

The documentary Fierce Grace tells the story of Ram Dass after suffering a stroke.  As his assistant helps him into the passenger seat of a car, Ram is asked, “Does it frustrate you that can no longer drive?”  Ram says, “If I enter the car as a driver, yes.  I am frustrated that I can no longer drive.  But if I enter the car as a passenger, I enjoy the ride and am peaceful.”  Ram had done his grief work.  He had accepted his new–diminished–reality.  And he was at peace.

I think we all know that, to quote Thomas Wolfe, we can’t go home again…not after all that’s happened in the last 13 months.  If we come back to this place expecting things to be like they were before the pandemic, we are going to be frustrated.  If, however, we come back to this place fully accepting our new reality, our frustration will ease and we will be at peace.

It could be that on the far side of grieving all we’ve lost, on the far side of accepting our new reality, …it could be that when we settle in and fully accept where we are, we’ll discover that this new reality we’re inhabiting isn’t diminished at all.  We might even see it as good, exciting.  Perhaps, when we have grieved the way things were, we’ll see all kinds of possibilities for the way things might be.  When the pandemic has ended, perhaps we will, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “Arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2021

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