Sermon: “Prepare to Meet Thy God (in the Least of These)” (Mt. 25:31-46) [11/25/18]

Today we hear Jesus’ last words to the crowds before his death.  It’s a familiar passage.  In the context of a parable, the righteous are invited into paradise because, the fictional king says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”   Likewise, the unrighteous are cast into hell because they did not feed, water, welcome, clothe, care for or visit the king.

(I know.  That “eternal fire” language makes us uncomfortable.  Just remember that this is a story and not a factual report.  Hear the words in the context of the story.)

This passage often is held up as a to-do list.  Want to get on God’s good side?  Want to help establish God’s kin-dom here on earth?  Here’s your check list.  Get cracking!

As spiritual checklists go, it’s a good one.  It’s a whole lot better than:  Stop dancing, drinking, and cussing, right?  And it’s obvious the king in the story more highly values the actions of the sheep than the goats.

But here’s the thing.  While the righteous do good things and are rewarded for doing them, in this parable, they are just as clueless as the unrighteous.  “When did we feed, water, welcome, clothe, care for, or visit you?” they ask.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”  Except for the insertion of one “not,” the unrighteous ask Jesus the same question:  “When did we NOT feed, water, welcome, clothe, care for, or visit you?”  Jesus’ response also is similar:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did NOT do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  See?  Righteous, unrighteous—in this parable, everybody’s clueless.

Don’t you think if Jesus were trying to pat the righteous on the back for doing good, they’d know why they’re doing it?  Don’t you think they’d have a clue that feeding the hungry and all the rest is the best way of meeting God?

But they don’t know.  They’re doing all the right things…they’ll even receive a reward for the good they’re doing… but they don’t know why doing good is good.  They’re engaging in THE activities that, more than anything else, will draw them closer to God, but they’re missing the point!  They’re caring for the least of these, but they’re missing God.

Yes, of course, it’s important to act the least of these into well-being; that’s a key part of establishing God’s kin-dom here on earth…but it’s not the only part.  The goal of everything—of everything Jesus taught, of all the prophets said, of every hope God has for every living thing—the goal of it all is for us to throw ourselves into God’s outstretched arms, to rest in God’s presence, to take God’s love into the deepest parts of ourselves, and to let it make us whole.

Remember, these are the last words Jesus speaks to the crowds before the events that lead to his death.  This is his last lecture, the one where he says what he most wants his students to remember.  And the one thing he wants to say is this:  the goal of it all is to meet God, to experience in your deepest self the reality of God’s love.  Doing good is great…but knowing why you’re doing it?  Understanding that serving the least of these is the best way to draw close to God?  That’s what I’ve been trying to teach you, Jesus says.  If you get that, you’ll have everything you need to keep going after I’m gone.  If you get that, you’ll have everything you need to establish God’s kin-dom here on earth.

All this sounds good—do good, act the least of these into well-being, and meet God in those actions….it sounds good, but it’s not always easy to do, is it?  Sometimes, it takes work—sometimes a lot of work–to get clued in to why doing good is good.

You’ve probably heard the story of first grader Ruby Bridges.  In 1960, Ruby integrated the Frantz School in New Orleans.  She was the first African American child to attend the all-white school.  Outraged, white parents kept their children out of school for months.  Each day, they protested outside the school, spewing venom at the 6 year old as she climbed the steps–surrounded by guards–to work with her teacher.

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Awed by her resilience, psychologist Robert Coles interviewed Ruby several times.  In one of those conversations, he asked Ruby about the time she stopped and addressed the crowd before she entered the school.  “What did you say to them?” Coles asked.  “I was praying for them,” Ruby said.  “Praying for them?” he asked, incredulous.  Ruby looked at him and said, “Well don’t you think they need praying for?”

The story of how Ruby integrated the Frantz School is well-known.  Less well-known is the story of what got the white students to return to the school.

The boycott was broken when a woman who once had spewed as much venom at Ruby as anyone else, brought her children to school one day.  When Mrs. Conner and her children showed up that first morning, the crowds turned their venom from Ruby to them.  “Her children were so loudly threatened and insulted that Mrs. Conner began going from home to home in her white neighborhood, pleading with parents to stop the protests and return their children to the Frantz School.  She became a community organizer.  Perhaps more than anyone else in the city of New Orleans, except for the federal judge who’d ordered the desegregation in the first place, she was responsible for the actual school desegregation.”

Coles got to know the Conners.  One evening at a party, he asked Mrs. Conner what had happened that morning when she sent the boys back to school.  “Oh.  I don’t want to talk about that,” she said.  After Coles pressed her, she finally told him the story of that fateful morning and her motivation for sending her children back to school.

“I never intended to send them,” she said.  But “I woke up one morning at 6:00, a little earlier than usual, because I heard something break in the living room.  So I got out of bed and found that my two oldest children–8 and 9 year old boys– were squabbling and had knocked over a lamp, a lamp I had just bought.  I was furious!  I shouted at them to go back to bed.  I cleaned up the mess and went back to bed myself.

“Ten minutes later they were up again, now fighting in the bathroom.  In the midst of the fighting, one boy dropped a glass that shattered on the floor.  Now I had to go in there and clean that up.  This time I screamed at them to go sit at the kitchen table.

“As I started preparing breakfast for everyone, the two boys started in with the drone of ‘You’re this’ and ‘You’re that.’  One of the boys punched the other.  While moving his hand away it somehow got into his eye so the boy’s eye got teary and he claimed he couldn’t see.  I was making French toast.  I left the stove to attend to the boy with the hurt eye.  I determined it was all right and went back to cooking.  They immediately started squabbling again, whereupon I picked up the frying pan, slammed it down on the stove, turned to the boys, and said, ‘That’s it!  I know what I’m going to do with you two.  You are going back to school!”

Sometimes it’s the small, seemingly inconsequential moments that can change the world.  The morning Mrs. Conner took her sons back to school was just such a moment.  Though it was hard and scary for a while, “eventually other families followed the lead set by Mrs. Conner and began to initiate a shift of behavior on the part of many whites in New Orleans.  By returning to the Frantz School and by talking to others about their experiences and those of their children, they helped others start to think about themselves—what they thought, what they wanted out of life,” what they thought about a little girl and how they’d been treating her.  “Indeed, now they could identify with Ruby, because their own children were going through what she had gone through.”  (Robert Coles, Handing One Another Along, 131-134)

Though Mrs. Conner did a good—and brave—thing by taking her children back to school, initially she didn’t have a clue why she was doing it.  “When did we feed the hungry?  When did we integrate the schools?”  But as she lived into the new reality she’d set in motion, the full impact of what she was doing sank in.  That’s how it goes for us, too, sometimes.  Sometimes we do good things and—only in the doing of them—do we discover the reason why the thing we are doing is good.

Today is the last day of the church year.  It’s the “The End” to the Christian story.  We’ll begin the telling all over again next week when we start Advent.  But before we say “The End,” we, too, have one more lesson to learn, the same one Jesus taught in his last lesson:  serve the least of these—feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned.  And in your serving, prepare to meet God…because that is where God chooses to dwell:  with the least of these.

Image result for picture christ in the breadline

by Fritz Eichenberg

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©  2014

 

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Sermon: “Giving Thanks When It’s the Last Thing on Earth You Feel Like Doing” (I Sam. 1:4-20) [11/18/18]

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A woman is barren, prays for a child, then—at last!– conceives.  In response, she offers a beautiful song of thanksgiving to God.  A great story!  Hope-filled!  Miraculous!  Inspiring! Annoying.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy for Hannah.  She really wanted a baby.  And she prayed until she got one.  Hannah has a lot to teach us about faith in God….and about offering thanks for answered prayer.

But what about the rest of us?  …those who pray for children and never get them…those who pray for jobs that never materialize….those who pray for healing but seem to end up attending funerals anyway?  What does Hannah’s story say to those of us whose prayers have not been answered or have been answered with a firm no?  Hannah sang her song of thanksgiving because her prayer had been answered.  How do you offer thanks when your prayers aren’t answered?  How do you give thanks when it’s the last thing on earth you feel like doing?

In December of 2007, John Kralik found himself in a pretty thankless place.  His law firm was losing money and its lease, and was being sued; John was going through an acrimonious divorce and was in danger of losing custody of his young daughter; his adult sons were growing distant; he was completely out of money; he was living in a tiny, stuffy apartment with little furniture; and the woman he’d been seeing had broken up with him.

The morning after his girlfriend broke up with him, John’s friend, Bob, met him for breakfast at a chain restaurant whose inexpensive prices were still too pricey for John.  Of that morning, John writes:  “The man Bob saw across the chipped Formica table was 52 years old, forty pounds overweight, pasty, and tired, with a terrified sadness in his eyes.  After 28 years of work as a lawyer, I had little more to show than I’d had when I started—and the little I did have was in jeopardy.”  (K 86)

New Year’s Day 2008, John traveled to an area outside of Pasadena for a hike he originally had planned to take with his girlfriend.  As often happens when we get away from everything and out into nature, John gained some clarity about his life—pretty much, he saw just how far into the toilet it was.  His inner voice intoned a painful mantra:  “Loser, loser, loser.”

After he’d been walking a while, slipping even more deeply into hopelessness, John heard another voice.  It said:  “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want.”  John couldn’t explain the voice or the words it said… (K 208) ….but the words stayed with him….

…and led him to a memory of his beloved grandfather.  When John was a boy, his grandfather had given him a silver dollar.  “He promised that if (John) wrote him a letter thanking him for this silver dollar, he would send another one.”  John wrote the thank you letter and received another silver dollar.  He never got around to writing the second thank you letter… and thus received no more silver dollars from his grandfather.

As he hiked back to his car that New Year’s Day, John’s thoughts strayed to mundane offices matters—like all the envelopes he’d just bought for his law firm that were now useless because they contained  the address of the office from which the firm had just been evicted.

As his thoughts about the invitation to be thankful, his grandfather’s silver dollar lesson, and the unusable envelopes coalesced, John formulated a plan:  He would “try to find one person to thank each day of the year.”  In that way, he would practice gratitude and use up all those envelopes.  “If my grandfather was right,” John writes, “I would have a lot more of what I was thankful for by the end of the year.  If the voice was right, I would begin to get the things that I wanted.  And if not, well, I had little more to lose.”  (K245)

John’s book, 365 Thank Yous:  The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, recounts his year of writing thank you notes.  He begins with a thank you note to one of his sons for a Christmas gift.  He thanks clients who pay their bills on time.  He even thanks his ex-wife once.  One day, uncertain of who to thank, he writes a note to the barista at Starbucks.

This might sound hokey, but the discipline of practicing gratitude really does change John’s life for the better.  He reunites with his girlfriend; he works through the divorce settlement with his wife amicably; his business gets back on its feet; he gets healthier.

In January 2009, he asks his friend Bob—the one who’d paid for breakfast a year before– if he had noticed any differences in John after 365 thank you notes.  ‘A lot,’ Bob said.  ‘You are a different and much better person.”  (K 2186)

Could expressing gratitude really make that big a difference?  Could the simple act of thanking others really change your life for the better?  Thirteenth century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said:  “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “thank you,” that would suffice.”  Would it really?  Could it possibly?

Let’s try something.  Take a minute, get comfortable where you are…and reflect on your life.  Is anything stressing you out?  Is something not going well?  What is the one thing you pray for over and over?  Or maybe it’s the one thing you’ve stopped praying for because you’ve given up hope that you’ll ever receive it.

Now, even as you keep this stressful, hopeless-seeming thing in front of you, think about the things you can give thanks for—I’ll suggest a few; they might or might not apply to you:  home, family, church family, health….For what are you thankful this morning?  It can be as simple as having running water or a functioning car or an eggshell that cracked the right way this morning….anything….just find something for which you can offer thanks…

Now, in the quiet of your heart, say thank you.  You can say it to God if you want.  Or if you’re angry with God or aren’t sure God’s around or exists or cares, say it to the universe or to yourself, or your hymnal, or the chair, or the air…just say the words, “Thank you.”

I doubt any of us have been miraculously changed in the last two minutes.  Feeling grateful when life is difficult takes time.  John Kralik’s story demonstrates just how hard and slow the process can be.  But maybe, just maybe, what we’ve done this morning can be a start.  As John suggests:  It couldn’t hurt, right?

In the final stage of her life, my great Aunt Inez was well into dementia.  The last time I saw her, there was only one phrase left in her vocabulary:  Thank you.  Now, she didn’t mean to express gratitude every time she said the words “Thank you.”  You could tell more what she was really trying to say by interpreting her tone of voice.  “Thank you.  Thank you!  Thank you?”

Of all the phrases for her brain to latch on to as her life was winding down, of all the things she’d said in her 90+ years of living, I found it fascinating that those two words—“Thank you”–were the only ones left.  Even as she neared death, confined to bed, devoid of mental faculties, completely dependent on others for everything—still, the words her brain chose to be her last were “Thank you.”

Is life hard right now?  Is little going right?  Are you slipping into hopelessness?  If so, perhaps you might make Aunt Inez’s last words your first:  Thank you.  If all the other prayers are going unanswered, maybe you might try shifting to the one sufficient prayer suggested by Meister Eckhart:  Thank you.  Even if it’s the last thing on earth you feel like doing, maybe it would be helpful this morning to say Thank you.  It couldn’t hurt, right?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2018  [2012]

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Sermon: “Preparing for Drought” (Jer. 17:7-8) [11/11/18]

Before I started hanging out with the nuns, I had an idealistic understanding of community life.  BNE–Before the Nun Era–I believed community to be a place where everyone  is welcome and gets along with each other.  As one of my clergy colleagues said last week, “Isn’t church just supposed to be full of happy people?”  Our laughter rang loudly.  And long.

In my BNE idealism, I struggled to find a community that lived up to the everyone-gets-along-and-is-HAPPY-all-the-time ideal I imagined.  With each disappointment, I’d leave and begin a new search for the “perfect” community.

My perspective on what makes a strong community shifted when I started hanging out with the nuns.  Each religious order has a charism or focus.  When people commit to the community, they commit to the charism, too.  For Jesuits, for instance, it’s scholarship.

Along with hospitality, the main charism for Benedictines–the order to which “my” monastery belongs–is community.  So, not only is Our Lady of Grace a community, but as Benedictine sisters, the community also reflects intentionally on what it means to be a community.  And what I’ve learned–and witnessed–in the ten years I’ve been going to Our Lady of Grace, is this:  community is hard work.

A case in point.  Sr. Luke–one of only a handful of extroverts in the community–once said, “Living with introverts is hell!”  When I asked her what she meant, Luke said, “Oh.  I am so sorry.  I should not have said that.  I was out of line.”  “But you did say it,” I told her.  “I’m curious to know what’s difficult about living with introverts.”  As an introvert, I already was well-acquainted with the difficulties of living with extroverts. J  Luke’s response?  “With introverts, you never know what they’re thinking!”  To which I thought, “And you never don’t know what extroverts are thinking!”

Yeah.  Living in community is Really.  Hard.  Work.  But it’s so important…and so necessary.  “I am because we are,” right?

In addition to vows of poverty and chastity, Benedictines also take a vow of stability. When you take a vow of stability, you commit to stay with the community for the rest of your life.  When I first learned about the vow of stability, I found it constrictive.  Why chain yourself to a particular community for the rest of your life?  It seemed extreme.

But then I thought about it.  If you make a vow to stay in the community–especially when things get hard–then you also vow to work things through no matter what.  Without a vow of stability, it’s easy simply to move on to another community when things get tough.  But committing to stay?  When we commit to stay, we commit to doing the hard work of strengthening and deepening the community.

It’s like Nadia Bolz Weber said when she pastored a church, “It’s my practice to welcome new people to the church by making sure they know that House for All Sinners and Saints will, at some point, let them down.  That I will say or do something stupid and disappoint them.  And then I encourage them to decide before that happens if they will stick around after it happens.  If they leave, I tell them, they will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks left behind by our brokenness.  And that’s too beautiful to miss.”

The image of the tree offered by the prophet Jeremiah is an apt illustration of the vow of stability.  Blessed are those who trust in God…They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Except in the case of small ones, trees don’t have the option of moving somewhere else when conditions get hard.  They have no choice but to stay where they are and deal with and adapt to whatever happens around them.  And, as we learned last week, for trees in a forest or a grove, staying where they are is important…because trees live in community, communicating with each other and caring for each other.

One way to think about stability is “putting down roots,” which is at the heart of the prophet’s image of the tree—putting down roots, roots that shoot out to the stream, the source of water, the source of life.  And a tree that has strong roots, roots that reach out to the source of life?  Then, when hard times come, “it shall not fear when heat comes…its leaves shall stay green…in the year of drought, it is not anxious…it does not cease to bear fruit.”

I’m reminded of what the professor said during my first class in seminary.  He said, “Don’t try to find a community in a moment of crisis.  Work on building your community now so they’ll already be there when crisis comes.”  When we commit to community, when we put down roots, when we stretch out to our life source, then we need not fear when heat comes, our leaves will stay green, when drought comes, we won’t be anxious, we won’t cease to bear fruit.”

Our community has experienced another transition this week…one in a long line of transitions over the past three years.  Transitions are hard.  They can feel de-stabilizing.

That said, transitions also can be times of tremendous growth for communities.  Transitioning from who we’ve been to who we’re becoming invites deep reflection.  Of course, that kind of reflecting can happen during stable times, but the urgency ratchets up during times of transition.

Today’s theme was set many weeks ago.  As we prayerfully consider our financial commitments for 2019, the last two weeks we’ve looked at our past and our present.  This week, we look to our future.  That’s why I asked Byron to offer today’s stewardship testimony.  If we want to ensure a strong future for our congregation, we need to listen to those who will inhabit that future.

Have you heard about the lawsuit filed by 21 young people over the US government’s climate change policies?  Juliana v. United States was first filed in 2015.  The government has requested several times that the case be dismissed.  On November 2, the Supreme Court ruled that the case can move forward.  It could go to trial as early as this month.

The lawsuit claims the federal government encouraged the production of oil, gas and other fossil fuels, causing the planet to warm and infringing on several of the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights—rights to clean water and air, to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. The lawsuit lists examples that the government knew the Earth was warming as early as 1965, and it requests a court order for the government to decrease carbon dioxide emissions as well as the creation of a national plan to “restore Earth’s energy balance” and “stabilize the climate system.”  https://www.npr.org/2018/11/03/663887560/young-activists-can-sue-government-over-climate-change-supreme-court-says

In response to the November 2 decision, Kelsey Juliana, the oldest plaintiff at 22 years old, said, “I want to trust that we are truly on track for trial without having further delays, but these defendants are treating this case…and the security of mine and future generations like it’s a game.  I’m tired of playing this game.”

The youngest plaintiff, Levi Drenheim who is 11, said, “I love the environment and I love to be outside.  When I realized there was such a thing called climate change, I realized that I need to do something about it.”

(Hat)  Do you remember this hat?  My first or second Sunday, I asked the children what they thought we could do to help our church.  They quickly decided that we need to wear hats.  The following Sunday, many of us wore hats.  It was a playful gesture, but one that symbolized our commitment to listening to the children and teenagers in our midst.

Then, on February 14th, a 17 year old gunman entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, and opened fire.  Seventeen people were killed.  As we and the rest of the country grappled with how to respond to the shooting, this hat became a symbol of listening to the young people.

Tuesday’s election demonstrated what can happen when we do.  Younger voters—many of them first-time voters—made the difference in many elections across the country.  In Georgia’s 6th congressional district, Lucy McBath, the mother of a teenager gunned down in Florida for playing his music too loudly, was elected on a platform of reducing gun violence.  The Parkland students have had to put up with a lot of abuse from some quarters, but they have led us as a country to reflect on who we are and on what kind of future we are creating.

In the coming days, weeks, and months as we navigate this latest transition here at FCUCC, as we reflect on who we are as a community, and as we discern where we are headed, we’ll do well to continue listening to our young people.  We’ll also do well to focus on our roots, to shoot them out to each other and to God.  If we do that, we’ll have no cause to fear when heat comes.  Our leaves will stay green.  When drought comes, we won’t be anxious.  And we will not cease to bear fruit.  Thanks be to God!

 

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2018

 

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Sermon: “Like a Tree…” (Jer. 17:7-8) [11/4/18]

Something I said a couple weeks ago might have puzzled you.  When Spence announced the sessions on church finances, I called the first class “fun.”  I also said finance committee meetings are among the most fun meetings I’ve attended since coming to FCUCC.  Our Treasurer Spence does run a good meeting, but that’s not what makes the meetings fun.

What’s fun about finance meetings?  All the theological dialogue, of course!  Thinking together about how to use our financial resources to share the good news of God’s love?  Discerning how to be good stewards of the resources we have?  In many respects, our church budget is one of the most deeply theological texts we have.  Nothing shows us so clearly what we value as a community.  Nothing demonstrates so well our commitment to our mission.

So, as a pastor, I find stewardship season each Fall…well, fun.  If you’re a guest with us today, please don’t let that last sentence scare you.  It’s not like we talk about money all the time.  But we do talk about it the couple of weeks leading up to our annual pledge drive… because it gives us the chance to reflect on our church’s mission, our own personal financial resources, and how we might pool our resources to fulfill our mission.

Want to know our mission?  Guests, sit back while our members recite together–from memory–our church’s mission statement.  Ready, church?   On second thought, we don’t want to be rude to our guests and exclude them. J Let’s just all read it together.  It’s on p.6 of your bulletin. Join me.

Our Mission:  We believe God calls us to:  *Embody a forward-thinking, courageous, and diverse Christian community.  *Follow the ways of Jesus the Christ as a grace-filled, spiritual congregation.  *Practice affirming and radical hospitality.  *Engage our local and global community with acts of love, mercy, peace, and justice.

What do you think?  Does the prospect of fulfilling that mission still energize you?  I hope so, because, as mission statements go, it rocks.  In fact, when I was discerning whether to come serve as your pastor, you pretty much had me at the mission statement.  Forward-thinking, courageous, diverse.  Following Jesus.  Grace-filled.  Spiritual.  Communal.  Practicing radical hospitality.  Engaging “our local and global communities with acts of love, mercy, peace, and justice.”  That is a great mission for a community of people trying to follow Jesus.  And this time of reflecting on our commitment to funding that mission?  Doesn’t that just sound fun?

The Bible talks a lot about money.  “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”  “God loves a cheerful giver.”  “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse.”

On the face of it, today’s text isn’t a traditional stewardship text.  It’s an image the prophet Jeremiah uses to call the people back to faithfulness to God….the image of a tree.

Trees and stewardship?  Well, there’s the money tree.  That might work.  Or the refrain of some church treasurers:  “Money doesn’t grow on trees!”  J  Let’s delve a little deeper into this metaphor of the tree and see what it might teach us about stewardship.

Recall the words of the prophet: “Blessed are those who trust in God…They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.  It shall not fear when heat comes, its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, it does not cease to bear fruit.”

lynns.tree

Painting by Lynn Dingle

If you’ve ever been to the Middle East, you’ll know what a radical image this vibrant tree is.  In most places in the Middle East, vegetation isn’t plentiful…and the vegetation that is in place either clings to Earth or is heavily irrigated.  To liken faith to a tree, sending its roots out to water—the source of life—would have been saying something to Middle Eastern listeners.

I’ve been reading up on trees.  Did you know that trees communicate with each other through their root systems?  If an insect attacks a tree in one part of a forest, it sends electric impulses through the root system to all the other trees so those trees can protect themselves. So, not only do trees send their roots toward water; they send them toward each other.

Allen and I were out at Diane Scott’s recently.  When Diane and Vic bought their house, their property backed up to 15 acres of trees. In the last 3 years, those acres have been developed.

A buffer of trees between the Scotts’ house and the new development was left…but in quick succession, three of those remaining trees fell onto the house.  Most of the buffer had to be removed.  Without the other trees, the trees that were left weren’t as strong.

One lesson from the image of the tree for stewardship is the recognition that no tree stands alone, especially trees in community (forests).  It’s not just that the roots of trees intertwine; it’s that they communicate with each other, care for each other, protect each other.

As we imagine together how we here at FCUCC might live into a vibrant future, I’d like to introduce you to the largest living organism on the planet—Pando.   Pando, who is thousands of years old and weighs 13-million pounds, resides on 106 acres in Fishlake National Forest in Richfield, Utah.  “Pando is a forest of one: a grove of 47,000 quivering aspen trees — Populus tremuloides — connected by a single root system, and all with the same DNA.”

In an article about Pando, JoAnna Klein notes that “Pando is constantly reproducing, which is essential to its resilience. Lacking genetic diversity, it relies on having trees of different sizes and ages. That way, if one layer or generation dies off, there’s another waiting to replace it.

“But,” Klein notes, “Pando’s critical demographics are out of balance.  A recent survey of the forest found that older trees were dying, as expected, but that, on the whole, young ones weren’t replacing them. ‘If this were a community of humans,’ one surveyor said, ‘it would be as if a whole town of 47,000 had only 85-year-olds in it.  Where is the next generation?”

Did a shiver just go up your spine?  Where is the church universal’s next generation?  Where is our church’s next generation?  We’ve got a terrific start with the children here this morning…but are the children here today enough to sustain our community into the future?  What can we do to ensure that the work and faithfulness of our members in the past and present bears fruit in the future?

In so many instances of ecological decline these days, the story we hear is grim.  There’s little hope in turning things around.  Happily, in the case of Pando, there is hope.

Pando’s decline can be attributed to two factors—the foraging of mule deer and cattle and poor human management.  The good news is that as scientists discover what’s contributing to Pando’s demise, they’re able to shift their management practices and help Pando thrive again.

What shifts might we need to make to contribute to our community’s thriving?  The church (universal) has been on cruise control for decades.  We no longer have the luxury of doing church without thinking about what we’re doing.  We have to think about it now.  Our survival—and especially our thriving—depends on it.

As our collective hearts continue to reel from last week’s shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, two ideas from the 1st century BCE rabbi Hillel keep coming to mind.  The first is tikkun olam, literally, repair of the world.  Sometimes, Hillel said, compassionate action in the world is more important than following the letter of religious law.  Doing things as they’ve always been done, becoming entrenched in rigid interpretations of what it means to be religious– far from healing the world, those things only work to destroy it.  In this idea of tikkun olam, Hillel was inviting the faithful to a radical engagement of moral and religious imagination.  The fundamental question for Hillel was, How much more might we contribute to healing the world if compassion—rather than tradition or religious law—becomes our primary guide?

If tikkun olam is the mission statement, another quote from Hillel suggests a means of fulfilling the mission:  “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, tell me when?”

How do we repair the world?  How do we remain a vibrant community into the future?  If we follow Hillel, we’ll be for ourselves, that is, we’ll have a strong sense of our own gifts and power as individuals.  Then we’ll understand that none of us can repair the world by ourselves; that is a task for community.  I am because we are.  Just as Pando’s survival depends on all 47,000 trees working together, so does our survival depend on our 180+ members working together.  Each of us is because the rest of us are.  And figuring out how thrive into the future isn’t something to put off for the future.  Planning for the future is our task right now.

The best example I can think of right now for living the life of faith like Pando, like a tree planted, stretching out its roots toward water—and to other trees—is the two groups of Muslims who “teamed up to create a crowdfunding page that has been raising money for the victims and families of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last week.”  As of two days ago, they’d surpassed their initial goal of $25,000 ten-fold.  The campaign page reads in part:  “The Muslim-American community extends its hands to help the shooting victims, whether it is the injured victims or the Jewish families who have lost loved ones.  We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action.”  https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/muslims-raise-250000-for-pittsburgh-synagogue/

In these fraught days of divisiveness and incivility, the world needs faith communities “sending a powerful message of compassion through action.”  That is our calling.  That is our mission.  And if we use everything within our power, everything within our means to fulfill that mission…won’t that just be fun?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2018

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Sermon: “Easter People” (Acts 10:34-35) [10/28/18]

Today begins our season of Stewardship.  It’s a time when we reflect together on our mission as a community of Jesus’ followers and how we’re going to support that mission in the coming year, particularly with our financial gifts. Our stewardship theme this year is “Like a Tree Planted:  Past, Present, Future.”  The sermon I wrote for today explains the theme.

Then yesterday, a man entered a synagogue with an assault rifle and three handguns and opened fire.  Today, 11 people who had gone to their place of worship to participate in a bris, among the most joyous occasions of worship in Jewish faith, are dead.

Certainly, there’s a lot we can learn from the prophet’s metaphor of the tree planted by streams of water.  In the wake of yesterday’s shooting, though, I think it more important to focus not on trees as a metaphor for stewardship, but on finding some hope in the tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Near an intersection of Murrary and Wilkins Ave, outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, members of the Squirrel Hill community place flowers and candles beneath a sign that reads "Hate has no home here."

The sermon I wrote for today will keep.  We’ll hear it next week.  Today, I want to share with you part of a sermon I wrote three years ago for Easter.  I know.  An EASTER sermon on the day after a mass shooting in a synagogue?  Here’s the thing.  If our Christian faith doesn’t show us how to relate to our sisters and brothers of all faiths—especially in times of tragedy—it’s not much of a faith, is it?  So, what might it mean to be an Easter People, we who follow Jesus, in a world where our Jewish sisters and brothers still are not safe?

On my last trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2006, I walked by a group of people, standing in a circle, hands joined, praying.  As I passed, I heard a prayer that God would help all these Jews see their way to accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Yeah.  That ain’t it.

If the heart of the Easter story is about how love triumphs over evil, how hatred might kill the body, but love always is stronger, then imposing Christian faith on people who practice other faiths doesn’t seem very Easter-y, does it?

One of the Scripture texts read each Easter comes from a sermon from Paul in the book of Acts.  “I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”  Isn’t that a terrific text for Easter?

For Paul, the Easter message of love’s triumph over evil meant extending the good news of God’s love through Jesus to people outside the Jewish faith—contrary to what many Jews thought, Paul was saying one need not be Jewish to be Christian.  After nearly 2000 years, hopefully, our faith has evolved some.  I propose we interpret these verses to mean that one need not be Christian to be loved by God.  In 2018, perhaps the best way to live the Easter message of love’s triumph over evil is to extend God’s love to all people, no matter what faith they practice, even if they practice no faith at all.

So, I want to share with you one of the best Easter stories I’ve ever heard…except for the original.  J  It comes from Pete Hamill’s novel, Snow in August.

Thirteen year old Michael lives in New York City in 1947.  Just two years after World War II has ended, Michael is still adjusting to the loss of his dad in the war.  One Saturday morning on his way to serve as altar boy at his church, Michael approaches the neighborhood synagogue.  As he passes, a man leans out the door and motions to Michael.  In halting English, the man says that, because it’s Sabbath, he is not allowed to turn on the light.  If Michael could get the light for him, he’d be so grateful.

That first encounter turns into a weekly ritual.  Every Saturday morning, Michael stops by to flip on lights for Rabbi Hirsch.  Soon they add weekday sessions, where Michael teaches the rabbi English and the rabbi teaches Michael Yiddish.  They share stories.  Michael tells the rabbi about losing his father in the war.  Rabbi Hirsch tells Michael about losing his wife.

Folks in the neighborhood aren’t always kind to the rabbi or to the synagogue’s dwindling membership.  Post-war anti-Semitism runs high.  Like African Americans in the Jim Crow South, or Jews in pre-war Germany, Michael’s friend, Rabbi Hirsch, lives in fear.

That fear was evident in the cry Michael heard as he walked to Easter mass one morning.  “How could they do this?  Who could do this?”  Michael rounded the corner and saw Rabbi Hirsch, his face gray with anger and grief, violently scrubbing at one of a dozen ugly red swastikas that had been painted on the synagogue’s front walls and doors.

Taking in the scene, Michael said, “Wait here,” and ran “all the way to his church, where he caught Fr. Heaney as 9:00 mass was ending.  After relating what had happened, Michael said, “We’ve got to help him!”  “Why should we get involved, kid?” the priest asked.  “Because Rabbi Hirsch is a good guy!”  Skeptical, the priest asked, “How do you know?”

“Michael exploded.  ‘How do I know?  I’m the Shabbos goy at the synagogue!  I help him turn on the lights every Saturday morning.  I’m teaching him English.  He’s teaching me Yiddish.  And his wife is dead and he’s alone and he doesn’t need some Nazi painting his synagogue!  My father died fighting the Nazis.  You saw all kinds of guys die in the war…”

“Fr. Heaney’s eyes opened wider and he stepped back a foot, as if the words had pierced a part of him that had been numb for a long time.  He reached for his coat.  “Come on,” he said.

“He walked out into the church, pointed at a few men and gestured for them to follow him.  He grabbed one of the altar boys from the previous mass, a tall Italian kid named Albert… Mr. Gallagher, who owned the hardware store across the street, arrived late and was searching for a seat when Fr. Heaney took him by the elbow and guided him back outside.

“At the foot of the church steps, Fr. Heaney started giving orders like the military man he’d once been.  He slipped two dollars to Albert, the altar boy, and sent him to buy some coffee and buns at the bakery.  He convinced Mr. Gallagher to open the hardware store and hand out rags and scrubbers and solvents.  On the corner near the schoolyard, he saw Charlie Senator, who had left his leg at Anzio, limping toward the church.  He whispered a few words to him, and Senator gave him a small salute and fell in line.

“Then all of them were marching down the avenue, carrying mops and rags, pails and solvents.  People in Easter finery looked at them in surprise.  A few more men joined the march, with Fr. Heaney and Michael out front as the platoon turned into Kelly Street.

“When they reached the synagogue, Rabbi Hirsch was still poking with his mop at the first swastika.  ‘Rabbi, I’m Joe Heaney,’ the priest said.  ‘I was a chaplain in the 103rd Airborne.  Most of these men fought their way into Germany two years ago, and one of them lost a leg in Italy.  They are not going to let this kind of thing happen in their parish.”  “Please,” Rabbi Hirsch said, “I can do it myself.”  “No, you can’t,” Fr. Heaney said.

“They went to work.  Mr. Ponte, the stonemason, fingered the texture of the bricks, while Mr. Gallagher examined the paint… Together, he and Mr. Ponte mixed the solvents in a steel pail.  Others peeled off their Easter jackets, removed their ties, rolled up their sleeves, and grabbed rags and mops.  Albert, the altar boy, arrived with buns and coffee, then grabbed a cloth.  Michael hung his jacket and tie on the fence and joined in the scrubbing.”  The men and boys worked together in silence until the job was done.

“Rabbi Hirsch walked back and forth, examining the walls.”  “The men had finished cleaning their hands and pulling on their jackets and neckties.  Most were sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes and wolfing down the buns from the bakery.  They looked awkward now, saying little, staring at the wall or the sidewalk or the sky…  The synagogue was as strange a place to them as it had been to Michael on that first morning.  He saw Rabbi Hirsch flex his fingers as if to shake hands, but his hands were covered with paint.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” the rabbi said hoarsely. “I wish to the synagogue you all could come, to have a big seder together, but food we don’t have here, just tea, and matzoh, and..” “It’s all right, Rabbi,” Fr. Heaney said. “Some other time.” The rabbi bowed in a stiff, dignified way.

“‘I’ll see you, Rabbi,” Mr. Gallagher said, and grabbed the pail, emptying the solvents into the gutter, nodding to the others to retrieve the mops.  ‘Let’s move out,’ he said.”

“Charlie Senator glanced at his watch and then at Fr. Heaney.  “Well,” he said, “I better go do my Easter duty.”   Fr. Heaney replied:  “You just did.”

What might it mean to be an Easter People in a world where our Jewish sisters and brothers still are not safe?  As Easter people, we affirm the lives of our siblings in faith.  As Easter people, we actively support our Jewish neighbors.  As Easter people, we actively oppose anti-Semitism.  As Easter people, we live our belief in life after death…in light amidst darkness…in love beyond hatred.

As followers of Jesus, we loudly proclaim with our voices and our lives that “God shows no partiality, that any person of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”  As Easter people we grieve with our Jewish sisters and brothers and do what we can to act them into wellbeing.  If we don’t do that, if we don’t grieve with and pray for and support our Jewish friends, then I fear we have missed the point of Easter all together.

 

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2018 (2015)

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Sermon: “Making the Church Great Again” (Mark 10:35-45) [10/21/18]

Karl Barth once said that when writing sermons, the preacher should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  Doing that is a little dicey with today’s text.  When you read Jesus’ statement that “anyone who aspires to greatness must serve the rest,” to which items in the newspaper are you drawn?  Does any specific cultural phenomenon come to mind?

Anybody want my job right now?  🙂

The title of today’s sermon is—If any of you had preached today, I’m sure you would have come up with the same title…almost certain of it.  Here goes.  The title of today’s sermon is:  “Making the Church Great Again.”  Now you know why the title isn’t in the bulletin.  J

We do hear a lot about greatness these days.  Regardless of how we might feel about those references, I want to invite us to engage our imaginations for a minute, to peel away any current associations we have with the notion of greatness–and simply be here in this moment, in this place, with these people and our desire as a community to follow Jesus.

As followers of Jesus seeking to act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name, what can we learn from today’s Gospel story about greatness?  How do we make the church great?

After the things that happen in today’s Scripture, James and John, “Sons of Thunder,” might have some ideas.  They—along with the other ten disciples—had been following Jesus around for a while, taking in all the teaching, preaching, and healing he’d been doing.

Then one day, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain.  While they’re up there, in a flash of light, two figures join Jesus–Moses and Elijah.  It’s known as the Transfiguration. The experience is so BIG and breathtaking, Peter proposes putting up three shelters, one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.  At that point, a cloud covers them and in the midst of the cloud God repeats what God said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my child, whom I love.  Listen to him!”

Then—Poof!—It’s just the 4 of them again, no Moses, no Elijah, no bright light, no cloud.  As they head back down the mountain, Jesus tells the three disciples not to speak of the experience until after he’s risen from the dead.

So…this was a big deal, mysterious, fantastic.  Special.  For all they didn’t understand about it, it makes sense that James, John, and Peter would have felt special.  Jesus asked them–not the other 9–to accompany him for this intense, holy experience.  They must have been special, right?  Why else would Jesus have asked them to go up the mountain with him?

Following Jesus’ admonition to keep quiet, the 3 did….but they must have kept thinking about it.  How could they not?  Something like that happens, it’s going to stay in the forefront of your thinking…no matter what the Son of God might be doing or teaching.

By the time we get to today’s passage, James and John can’t hold it in any longer.  They ask Jesus to sit at his right hand and his left hand in glory.  On the face of it, it seems an odd request…but if they’d been thinking about their mountaintop experience for two whole chapters…  To what other conclusion could they have come?  They were special.  Jesus wanted them with him for that significant event.  If anyone could have been considered great, it must have been them, right?  And where do the great sit?  They sit right next to the greatest.

But Jesus doesn’t get their logic.  He doesn’t say, “Yes, my special sons.  Come right on up.  You know you’re my favorites, right?”  Instead, Jesus asks them about…suffering: “Can you endure what I’m about to endure?”  They say, “Oh, yeah, sure, no prob!  We can do that!  Now, about those seats…”  That’s when Jesus says, “No can do.  That’s above my pay grade.”

That’s the point at which the rest of the disciples start complaining about James and John.  “Who do they think they are, anyway?”  You get the sense their angst is less indignation over a power grab and more regret that they didn’t think of it first.

Jesus answers all of them with his reflections on true greatness.  How does one aspire to greatness in Jesus’ eyes?  By serving others.  The one who wants to be the greatest of all will be the servant of all.

The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us what James and John thought about Jesus’ response.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say they probably weren’t overjoyed with it.

It’s easy to do, isn’t it?  To presume a position of power, to assume our own importance, to feel slighted if we aren’t honored in ways we think we should be.  It’s so easy to focus on ourselves and miss everything else that’s happening in the world.

So, what did James and John miss while they were focusing on their own status?   They missed the first thing Jesus did as they were coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration — Jesus healing an ill child.  They missed it a few verses later when he pulled a child into their midst and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”  We know they missed that because when, just a couple verses later, people bring children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples try to send the children away.  Jesus must have been like, “Did you not hear what I just said about welcoming children?”

James, John, and the other disciples also missed the conversation Jesus had with the rich man, a man who must have been considered great by the world’s standards.  They missed Jesus’ point when he told the man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

When I say the disciples missed all these things, I’m not saying they weren’t present for those events.  What I am suggesting is that focusing on their own status distracted them from seeing what was going on right in front of them.  They had a front row seat to everything Jesus was teaching about greatness in God’s kindom…and they were missing it.

And what was Jesus’ lesson about greatness?  What will it take to make the church great?  Pretty much the opposite of what the world deems as great.  Greatness in God’s realm has to do with suffering and service and sacrifice.  The truly great are those who serve.

By the early 1980s, Catholic priest Henri Nouwen had achieved a fair amount of status.  A professor at Harvard University, he’d written several books and was a highly sought-after speaker.  But Henri also was exhausted.  Something about the life he was living was not giving him life.  Something was off.

About that time, he was invited to serve as chaplain at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario.  L’Arche is a series of intentional communities established by Jean Vanier in the 1960s.  In these communities, people with significant physical and developmental disabilities live alongside those who care for them.

When he arrived at L’Arche, Henri was assigned to accompany a young man named Adam.  Adam was nonverbal, and had epilepsy and Cerebral Palsy.  Part of accompanying Adam for Henri, meant waking Adam up at 7:00 a.m. and spending two hours bathing him and dressing him and getting him ready for the day.

Image result for picture henri nouwen and adam arnett

When a friend from his former life came to see Henri, he was horrified.  How could someone as important as Henri Nouwen spend all his time working with one person, a person with so many profound needs?  Wouldn’t Henri’s time be better spent writing and lecturing?

Henri writes:  “I didn’t answer my friend’s questions.  I didn’t argue or discuss his ‘issues.’  I felt deeply that I had nothing to say that would change my friend’s mind.  My daily two hours with Adam were transforming me.  In being present to him, I was hearing an inner voice of love beyond all the activities of care.  Those two hours were pure gift, a time of contemplation, during which we, together, were touching something of God.  With Adam I knew a sacred presence and I ‘saw’ the face of God…My relationship with Adam was giving me new eyes to see and new ears to hear.  I was being changed much more than I ever anticipated.” (53-54)

Adam taught Henri that Henri’s greatness lay not in achieving, but in being.  Henri writes, “While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.”  While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that ‘doing things together is more important than doing things alone.’  Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy.  But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.”

“It took me a long time,” Henri writes, “to see this complete reversal of values, but once I experienced it, it was as if I was walking into completely new spiritual territory…The great paradoxes of the Gospel—that the last will be first, that those who lose their lives will gain them, that the poor are blessed, and that the gentle will inherit the kindom—all became incarnate for me in Adam.”  (Adam:  God’s Beloved, 44-65)

How do we make the church great?  We do it by serving.  We do it by acting the least of these into wellbeing.  We do it by serving breakfast in Pritchard Park or doing Laundry Love next Sunday.  We do it by purchasing Christmas gifts for children through Children First.  We make the church great when we pay attention to what’s going on around us. We make the church great when we follow Jesus in service and suffering and sacrifice.  We make the church great when we follow the path of love.

What might happen if we follow this way always?  What say we try?  Sounds like a great idea, don’t you think?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2018

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Sermon: “Threading the Needle” (Mark 10:17-31) [10/14/18]

 

Anybody feeling hopeless today?  The Supreme Court.  The UN Climate report.  The Florida panhandle recovering from Hurricane Michael.  Residents of our own state still recovering from Hurricane Florence.  People in Indonesia continuing to recover from the typhoon.  Racism.  Sexism.  Heterosexism.  Classism.  Not to mention the complete dissolution of civility in the public square.

Gloom, despair, and agony on me.  Deep, dark depression, excessive misery.  If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.  Gloom, despair, and agony on me.  That’s probably the first—and last—time I’ll quote Grandpa Jones from Hee Haw in a sermon.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Image result for gloom despair and agony on me picture

The times we’re in do feel desperate, don’t they?  Those of us who want to act the world into wellbeing, we who want to be agents of good in the world, those of us who have worked tirelessly for justice all our lives—to see progress that’s been made threatened—or reversed—if we’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to feel hopeless, isn’t it?

In the face of all the daunting issues looming for the human community today, how can we nurture hope?  How do we act the world into wellbeing when all we want to do is to crawl into bed, pull the covers over our head, and sleep the years away until things get better?  As the hymn says, “how do we hope when hope seems hopeless?”

Do you ever wonder how we got to where we are?  Like, maybe every hour of every day?  How have we gotten to the point that UN scientists have given us a single decade to get our environmental house in order before circumstances become so dire life as we know it will change forever?  How have we gotten to the point where the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor keeps speeding up instead of reversing?  How have we gotten to the point where we can no longer converse civilly with someone with whom we disagree?

Whatever it is that has gotten us to this point, is, I suspect, similar to what got the rich man to the place where he couldn’t follow Jesus.

The man comes to Jesus and, having acquired everything money could buy, asks Jesus how he might obtain the one thing he hasn’t been able to purchase—eternal life.  Jesus tells him “You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” Basically, treat others with justice and kindness.  “The man says, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’

“Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him—that is, Jesus wanted to act the rich man into wellbeing—and so he told him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’  When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

What is it about material wealth that makes it hard to enter the kindom of God?  Why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…That’s likely a reference to a low gate into Jerusalem called the Needle Gate.  A camel loaded down would find it difficult to get through the gate.  A camel that had been relieved of all the packs on its back had a better chance of getting through.  So, why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of the Needle Gate than for a rich person to enter God’s realm?  A woman’s experience at Koinonia Farm in the 1950s might shed some light on the topic.

While he was in seminary, Clarence Jordan read Acts 2 and took it literally.  That’s the passage that describes the first community of Jesus’ followers–a community where everyone had everything in common.  Believing that living in community was the literal call of Christians, Clarence and his friend, Martin England, searched for farmland in the deep South.  In 1942, with the help of a benefactor, they purchased 440 acres near Americus in southwest Georgia.  Koinonia— an interracial intentional Christian farming community—was born.

One day, an old black car “shuddered into the driveway of Koinonia Farm, coughed to a halt, and delivered a quiet, 40-year-old spinster who asked if she could remain for a visit.”

After a couple of days, she “approached Clarence and [expressed] interest in joining.  He explained what Koinonia was striving to be, how one must surrender totally to Christ, including all their earthly possessions.  At Koinonia, he said, they do this by asking everyone to enter the same way: ‘flat broke.’  Her eyebrows jerked upward in alarm.  She had questions.

“Clarence was perplexed” by the woman’s hesitation.  “‘Jesus said it would be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom, but we’d never had one apply.’”  “Clarence asked her what difficulty there would be with relinquishing her possessions.  She had a fair-size difficulty, somewhere between $80,000 and $90,000.”  That’d be $800,000 – 900,000 in today’s dollars.

“Clarence swallowed a couple of times, then reasserted that she would have to dispose of the money to become a part of Koinonia.  How, she asked?  Give it to the poor, he said, give it to your relatives, throw it over a bridge—but you must enter the fellowship without it.

“What about giving it to Koinonia Farm, she asked?  Clarence grinned: ‘No.  If you put that money in here, we’d quit growing peanuts and start discussing theology.  That wouldn’t be healthy for us.  And, unless I miss my guess, you’re a very lonely person, and you’re lonely because you think every friend you ever had is after your money.’  She confirmed that judgment.

“Well, if you put that money in here, you’d think we courted you for your money, that we loved you for your money.  You’d get the idea you were God’s guardian angel, that you endowed the rest of us, and that all of us ought to be grateful to you for your beneficence.’  “She was listening; Clarence pressed his point: ‘Now for your sake and for our sakes, you get rid of that money and come walk this way with us.’  Tearfully, the woman replied: ‘I can’t do it.’  She packed her old car and left.”  (The Cotton Patch Evidence, 86-87)

These stories—about the woman at Koinonia and the rich man who came to Jesus—illustrate the deepest spiritual struggle human beings have:  Will we give ourselves to the common good, or will we maintain our death grip on our own personal good?  Will we act the world into wellbeing or only ourselves?

At the heart of nearly every depressing thing you can name these days—climate change, immigration, healthcare, over-development, systemic racism, exploitation of the poor, sexism—at the heart of it all is this spiritual struggle between allegiance to the common good or allegiance only to one’s own personal good.  I’m not saying we should abdicate responsibility for improving our own lives.  What I am saying is that if we work on improving our own lives without considering how improving our lives affects the lives of others, then we risk making decisions that lead to, well, the world in which we’re currently living.

Which brings us back to wanting to crawl into bed, pull the covers over our head, and go to sleep until things are better.  I know how much we’re hurting right now…how angry we are, how puzzled and bewildered and scared we are…  But, as much as we’d like to, we can’t withdraw from what’s happening in the world.  We can’t simply rage or tweet or sink into cynicism.  We can’t crawl into bed, pull the covers over our head, and wait for things to get better….

We can’t hide from the world, because the world needs us.  The world needs us.  Do you hear what I’m saying?  The world needs us our gifts, our experiences, our passion, our faith, our vision, our imagination….The world needs us to act it into wellbeing…the world needs us to speak truth to power…the world needs us to advocate for the least of these…the world needs us to do everything in our power to transform systems that oppress women and the poor and people of color…the world needs us to vote…the world needs us to work for the common good…the world needs us to share what we’ve learned from Jesus….the world needs us to listen…the world needs us to share our hope…

Which brings us back to where we began.  How do we hope when hope seems hopeless?  How do we hope when hope seems hopeless?  We do what every one of us has done today—we gather with other people who also are struggling to hope.  The saddest part of the stories about the rich man and the woman at Koinonia is the loneliness.  Each of them chose their possessions over community.  Each of them chose their own personal good over the common good…

But here’s the thing.  When we choose the common good, we’re also contributing to our own good.  Ubuntu, right?  I am because we are.

I can preach all day about what we need to do about what’s happening in the world.  I can exegete and exposit and cajole and conjure….but the real source of our healing, the real source of our hope, the thing that’s going to make it possible for us to be God’s hope in the world is what we’ve got right here in this room:  our togetherness.

So, as we continue to do our part for the common good out there, as we vote and serve and advocate and do everything within our power to act the world out there into wellbeing, I encourage us in this community to be intentional about acting each other into wellbeing.  Let us listen to each other.  Let us encourage each other.  Let us nurture hope in each other.

Because the world needs us.  The world needs us.  The world needs us.

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2018

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