Sermon: “Creating Beloved Community” (4/25/2021) Acts 2:42-47

When asked what one thing people can do to make a difference in the world, author Paul Born tells them, “That’s simple.  Bring chicken soup to your neighbor.”  “Really? [That’s it?]” is the typical response.  Born says yes, then adds:  “‘The answer is simple.  But the act of bringing soup?  That takes work.’

“How so?  It requires that you know your neighbor.  It requires that you know they are not vegetarian and like soup.  It requires that you know them well enough and communicate regularly enough to know they are sick.  Once you know they are sick, you must feel compelled to want to help and to make this a priority among the many calls on your time and energy.  Your neighbor must know you well enough to feel comfortable in receiving your help.  And you must have enough of a relationship to know what they prefer when they are sick, whether it is chicken soup, pho, chana masala, or even ice cream.

“So, you see, the work takes place long before you perform the act of bringing soup.” (Deepening Community, Paul Born)

Creating beloved community…sounds simple, doesn’t it?  All three words leave your insides feeling warm and fuzzy–creating…beloved…community.  Yes!  Creating beloved community is exactly the thing churches should be doing!  Let’s do it!  Let’s create beloved community!  Here in our First Congregational community and in the wider community.  Creating beloved community is what it’s all about!  Let’s get to it!

The answer to healing the world?  It’s simple:  create beloved community.  The act of creating beloved community?  Yeah.  That takes work.

My gut reaction to a short video capturing a woman’s reaction to the guilty verdicts in the Derek Chauvin murder trial reminded me of just how hard it is to create beloved community.  In 1995, I waited in a packed lecture hall at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta for the verdict in the O J Simpson murder trial.  I’d say the crowd was 50/50 Black/white.  I was stunned when OJ wasn’t convicted.  I was even more stunned–and, maybe, bewildered–by the reactions of the Black people in the room:  they erupted into cheers.

I didn’t get it for a long time.  I realize now that I had been approaching that event with the assumption that the justice system treated every person the same.  Now, after reading tons of books and talking with others here at church and especially with friends in the Black community, I see how the justice system has been skewed from the beginning against people with Black skin.

I have been working hard to wake up to my own participation in white supremacy.  As a mostly white congregation, many of us have been doing that work together.  

Which is why I was devastated by my gut reaction to the video I saw in the paper Wednesday morning.  At the end of the clip, a woman–her face full of emotion said, “We matter.”  Then she straightened and said it again.  “We matter.”  It was simple…and profound.  After centuries of living in a society that, at every turn, screams to them that they don’t matter, finally, the system came through for people with Black skin.  Finally, a verdict came that affirmed their humanity.  “We matter.”

When the video ended and froze on the woman’s face, I stared at it, the woman’s words ringing in my ears:  “We matter.”   As I contemplated the woman’s face, it hit me:  Now, she matters more to me.  Now, because of this verdict, I see my fellow human beings with Black skin differently.  I see them as more whole.  I see them more equitably.

The realization devastated me.  I thought I’d already worked all that through and was already seeing every Black person as a human being, as a beloved child of God.  Of course, of course, I believe that Black Lives Matter!  Of course, I do!  But that woman, all the emotion on her face, I realized that, suddenly, she now mattered more to me…which meant that before the verdict, she had mattered less.  In that moment, I recognized the deep-seated racism still roaming around inside me.  As a daughter of the South, I learned my lessons well.  Some vestige of my slave-holding ancestors still resides in my DNA.  

With that insight, I recognized again how difficult it is to really know another person, especially someone who’s life experiences are different from your own.  So often we think we’re doing community well–we establish a whole range of chicken soup ministries–but, in truth, we don’t even know if chicken soup is what is needed.  We don’t know because we haven’t taken the time to know each other…or the people outside our community we’re trying to act into wellbeing.

If today’s Scripture reading sounds familiar, it is.  We heard the same text last week, the passage that introduces the idea of koinonia, community.  There is within our Christian tradition a spiritual practice called lectio divina, sacred reading.  When engaging the practice, we spend time focused on one passage of scripture, sometimes even on just one verse.  So often, we consume the Bible.  We quickly read through passage after passage without ever giving ourselves the chance truly to encounter it or, more importantly, to encounter God in it.

We’re going to do a little lectio with this passage.  I’ll read it slowly, with pauses.  In the pauses, you’re invited to reflect on the words you hear in the context of our First Congregational community.  When you hear about breaking bread together–how has that happened in our community?  How might it happen in the future?  How might we deepen our work of creating beloved community here at First Congregational?  How might we expand our work of creating beloved community into the world beyond First Congregational?  Hear now a reading from Acts.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship… to the breaking of bread and the prayers… Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles… All who believed were together… and had all things in common… they would sell their possessions and goods… and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need… Day by day… as they spent much time together in the temple… they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts… praising God… and having the goodwill of all the people… And day by day… God added to their number… those who were being saved.

Take a minute and gather your thoughts.  What jumped out to you in these verses?  If ideas for how to deepen our First Congregational community emerged, write them down!  We don’t want to forget them!  

At the heart of Paul Born’s description of community–bringing chicken soup to your neighbor–is relationship.  Creating beloved community begins with relationship.  How can we act others into wellbeing if we don’t know them?  My reaction to the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial showed me that I have a lot of work to do in building relationships with people in the Black community.  The focus of the Scripture passage we’ve been looking at has been relationship–when we spend time together, worship together, study together, eat together we get to know each other.  When we get to know each other, we’re better equipped to act each other into wellbeing.

So…let’s do a little more lectio this morning.  Let’s listen to the five people who are formally joining our community today.  I didn’t ask them whether they like chicken soup, but their answers to the questions that were asked will, I think, teach us a lot.

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Sermon: “Always, We Begin Again” (4/18/2021) Acts 2:42-47

“Always, We Begin Again”

Acts 2:42-47

A monk was asked, “What do you monks do all day at the monastery?”  The monk’s response?  “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.”

What a great summary of the spiritual life!  It isn’t a gradual step-by-step journey to enlightenment.  For most of us, the trajectory of our spiritual journey more resembles a toddler’s crayon scrawling on the dining room wall, full of fits and starts, backtracking and spinning in place.  We fall down, we get up.  We fall down, we get up.   

The same is true for faith communities.  We also follow Jesus in fits and starts.  We backtrack; we spin in place.  We fall down, we get up.  We fall down, we get up.

This pandemic year has felt like one, long, slow-motion fall, hasn’t it?  One of those falls that seems like it’s never going to end, where the whole way down all you’re thinking about is how much damage you’ll sustain when you hit the ground.

Something happened Easter Sunday morning out in the back parking lot.  Thirty of us gathered in the cold to celebrate the resurrection story.  Even in our winter gear, even with our face masks, even socially distanced, it happened!  We experienced resurrection.  After a year of NOT worshiping together in each other’s presence, we did.  After a year of falling, we began getting up again.  The sisters I hang out with in Indiana have a phrase that describes the falling down and getting up process, “Always, we begin again.”

Now that our church is poised to begin again, where can we go for guidance on how to discern our church’s post-covid mission?  A great place to start is the book of Acts.

Today’s passage happens right after Pentecost, that day when God’s Spirit whooshed in, and everyone understood each other, and were on fire with God’s love.  What was the first thing Jesus’ followers did after this pivotal experience?  They couldn’t help themselves…they drew together in community.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 

I suspect we all can remember times when church felt exactly like what’s described here.  We remember Sunday school classes or book studies that opened our minds and hearts to new ways of understanding the world and God’s love in it.  We remember fellowship times and breaking bread together in each other’s homes.  During the pandemic, we’ve created a meaningful time of praying together each week.  I wish I’d been here when marriage equality became the law of the land.  Based on what I’ve heard from those of you who were here, awe did come upon everyone at the wonders and signs being done.

The financial generosity of this congregation is inspiring.  When the first stimulus checks came out last year, many of you said, “I don’t need this money.  I want it to go to someone who does need it.”  In response, we established the Care and Share Fund to assist our members who are struggling.  They would distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  

Reading through these verses reminds us of what makes a faith community strong.  It also might make us a little sad at what we’ve been missing this year.  But as the pandemic winds down, it also gives us a to-do list for how to begin again, post-pandemic.

As we figure out how to begin again, let’s look at the last two verses of the passage:  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved.

With the repetition of “day by day,” the author draws a direct link between what happens in the first sentence and what happens in the second.  Think, cause and effect.  Day by day, they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread together in each other’s homes, they acted with goodwill toward all the people.  That was the cause.  Here was the effect of doing those things:  Day by day, God added to their number those who were being saved.  Luke seems to be saying here that when we seek to create beloved community within these walls, we participate in creating beloved community outside them.  

Here are two examples of how our beloved community is working to create beloved community beyond these walls.  After that, I’ll share an opportunity to expand that work.

The racial reckoning in our country sparked by George Floyd’s death last May sent many of us into a period of deep mourning and questioning.  How could we as a predominantly white church help dismantle a system that values Black lives so little?  Since then, we’ve done two church-wide book studies.  We’re now in the middle of an anti-racism workshop, led by alexandria ravenel and david greenson of Collaborative Organizing.  

One of the awe-inspiring wonders in the last year is the partnership we’re forming with the YMI Cultural Center, in Asheville…just a ten minute walk from our church building.

YMI Cultural Center | Kindful

The conversations with YMI began when our “Say Their Names” exhibit was displayed at YMI last summer.  As often happens with well-intentioned white folks, we made a few missteps… but we learned–and keep learning–from them.

In the last couple of months, we’ve begun talking about what it might mean for our art galleries to become “sister galleries.”  Our inaugural sister-gallery event begins next week, with a new “Say Their Names” exhibit to commemorate the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.  The artwork of two young Black artists, Kai Lendzion and Heather Tolbert, will be exhibited in our gallery.  We’ll have an opening event for the gallery on May 7th on the front patio outside the gallery.  The gifted singer, Kia Rice, will offer music.  It also will be the official kick-off for our Sister Galleries initiative.  Here’s a really cool thing…at the end of our opening, we will encourage people to walk to YMI to see the art exhibited there!  That will help us–literally–to embody the connection we are forming with YMI.

The work of dismantling systemic racism can be overwhelming…but we have begun that work by building relationships with Black people and organizations in our community.  All this work toward the beloved community has grown out of our tending to our FCUCC community.

Another example of our own beloved community spilling out to create beloved community beyond our church has been partnering with the Western Carolina Rescue Mission to provide space for a Code Purple shelter this winter.  As of yesterday, Code Purple has officially ended.  We’ve gotten word from the city that 379 different individuals made use of the shelter.  That is a remarkable number.  2121 beds were filled during 68 Code Purple nights.  That’s 2121 times someone didn’t have to sleep in below-freezing weather on the streets.  

Code Purple Cots, November 2020

Here’s the opportunity to expand our efforts at creating beloved community beyond our church community.  Because it’s a BIG possibility, it will take time to think and talk it through.  Please put Sunday, May 16th on your calendars.  That’s when we’ll have a Congregational Conversation about this possibility.  This thing is so big that we aren’t in a position right now to say yes or no.  Some of you will say a quick yes.  Others will say a quick no.  As a community, though, we don’t yet have enough information to make a determination. 

The city, county, rescue mission, and so many clients have expressed deep gratitude to First Congregational for providing space for the Code Purple shelter this year.  “This is exactly what church is supposed to do,” one person said.  When I spoke with Marc, host for the shelter, he told me stories of people who made use of the shelter…including a woman who’d just had a baby who was able to take time, to spread out her things, and get her head clear.  He talked about the wide diversity of folks who came each night.  He expressed gratitude that the EMS folks were located just across the parking lot.  He couldn’t say thank you enough.

Here’s the opportunity.  The city has asked if we might continue providing space for a shelter for some of our most vulnerable unsheltered neighbors.  The city will use stimulus funds to create a permanent shelter for these folks, but it will take some time to create that shelter.  In the meantime–for at least 6 months, maybe more–they’re looking for a temporary site to shelter those folks.  The city wonders if we might provide space for that shelter.

I told you it was BIG!  I don’t have any idea whether we’ll be able to offer space for the shelter the city is imagining.  When the Board talked it over on Thursday night, they didn’t have any idea either…but they were very clear:  “We have to take this to the congregation.”  Which is why we’ve scheduled a congregational conversation about it on May 16th.  

As followers of Jesus, we are called into community.  But we aren’t called into community just for ourselves.  We are called to be community for the world.  We are called to create beloved community with each other, because that is how we help to create beloved community in the world.  Day by day, they worshiped, prayed, and broke bread together.  Day by day, God added to their number.

It’s true that we’ve fallen down a few times, both with our own beloved community and with the wider beloved community.  What will it look like to get up this time?  How will we continue practicing resurrection now?  How will we nurture the new life sprouting up all around us?  This time, now, in this moment, how will we begin again?

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: “Resurrection Joy?” (EASTER, 4/4/2021) Mark 16

There’s no doubt they were traumatized.  Just two days before, the one who’d taught them, who’d given them hope, who’d invited them to see the world as more just and loving…just two days before, betrayed by both the government and their religion, the one in whom their hope resided was executed.

A couple of hours after Jesus died, Sabbath began.  Sabbath…a time to cease from labor, a time when most actions were forbidden.  “Holy Saturday,” the church has come to call it.  For those experiencing the first one, it probably felt more like an UNholy Saturday.  Sitting with the trauma, prohibited from taking any action.  Images and sounds from the previous day replaying in their minds.  Waves of grief hitting them again and again.

No wonder those women–seeing the first ray of sunshine announcing Sabbath’s end–headed straight for the market to buy spices, then on to the tomb in which Jesus had been laid.  Not only was anointing his body a necessary task, it was a task.  Finally, after what must have felt like the longest Sabbath in history, finally, they had something to do.

On the way to the tomb, they chatted…mostly about how the three of them, Mary Magdalene, James’ mother, and Salome, were going to remove the large stone that had been placed over the tomb’s opening.

It’s easy to forget sometimes just how much emotional work the women had done in the hours since Jesus’ death.  Jesus’ trial and death had happened in a flash.  Since that time, the women, somehow–even amid the trauma–had accepted Jesus’ death.  Those of us who’ve lost a loved one through unexpected violence know…accepting the death is hard.  Simply believing that it happened takes tremendous emotional and mental work.

The women’s arrival at Jesus’ tomb that morning–bearing death spices–is a testament to the emotional work they’d done.  They had accepted the fact:  Jesus was dead.  

So when they arrived at the tomb–the stone rolled away–and a young man dressed in white saying Jesus wasn’t there– “Look where he was laid.  See?  He’s not here!”  Would you believe it?  You’d already spent the time since the crucifixion trying to accept the unbelievable fact of Jesus’ death.  Now you’re supposed to accept a second unbelievable fact:  that Jesus is alive?  A person’s imagination– not to mention her heart–can only hold so much.  Having your world turned completely upside down twice in three days?  That’s a lot.  A lot.  Is it no wonder the women fled?  Is it no wonder they were afraid?

Last week in Sunday School, as we discussed theologian James Cones’ view of the cross, one person said, “I think I’m still really focused on the crucifixion.  I haven’t yet made it to the resurrection.  I will at some point.  Right now, though, I’m focused on the crucifixion.” 

It’s easy to get stuck on crucifixion, on injustice, on pain and suffering and death… especially when the Sunday School teacher spends so much time talking about it all Lent long!  How do we shift from crucifixion-thinking to resurrection-thinking?  How do we shift from terror to joy?

Another of our conversation partners this Lent has been German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann.  As a teenager drafted into Hitler’s army, Moltmann experienced tremendous suffering.  He watched his hometown of Hamburg decimated by the British.  He saw friends die.  He spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Scotland.  It was only when he experienced God’s presence in the midst of his very real suffering that Moltmann was able to believe in God.  

Moltmann’s theology took us to deep, hard places…which is why I was surprised by what I saw in a recorded interview with him.  Jurgen Moltmann exudes joy!  When asked how one moves from the experience of terror to an experience of joy, Moltmann starts with Jesus’ cry on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Reading that statement as a teenage soldier, Moltmann knew he had “a divine brother who knew how he felt.”  “When I feel the presence of God (in my suffering), my heart is lifted up.  I see God coming into the future.  Thus, is joy awakened in me.”  

As today’s resurrection story ends, the women are afraid and, though entreated to tell Peter and the disciples about the empty tomb, they say nothing to anyone.

But, obviously, they did say something to someone sometime.  If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here today celebrating the resurrection!  At some point, the women’s terror shifted to joy.  

If you read past today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of Mark, you’ll see the work of a couple of nervous editors.  The women leaving the empty tomb in fear saying nothing to anyone…that wasn’t going to get a movement started.  “The women fled the tomb in terror and didn’t say anything to anyone.  Come join our movement!”  So, some editors got creative and filled in the blanks.  And immediately they reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions.  After this, through them, Jesus sent forth the holy and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.  Whew!  Problem solved.

To be clear, the two Marys and Salome must eventually have gotten to joy from terror.  But the original ending of the story–with the women still focused on crucifixion– suggests that getting from terror to joy doesn’t turn on a dime.  It takes time.  Sometimes, a lot of time.

But something that might help, as Jurgen Moltmann suggests, is facing squarely the terror and the circumstances that are causing it, then find God in the midst of the terror, in the midst of the suffering.  If we face the terror squarely, if we experience the suffering, if we experience God’s presence in the midst of the suffering, then we’ll be able to experience the joy.

In July 2018, 39 of us made a pilgrimage to Montgomery to visit the newly-opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Memorial.  The Memorial consists of large, metal pillars suspended from the structure’s ceiling.  The likeness to hanging bodies is clear.  Each pillar represents a county in which lynchings occurred.  The names of victims and dates of their deaths are recorded on each pillar.  

Descended from slaveholders, I joined the pilgrimage with trepidation.  When I learned of my family’s slaveholding past, the feelings of guilt nearly incapacitated me.  How could people with my DNA think they could own other human beings?  How could I ever atone for their cruelty?  How could I, a white Southerner descended from slaveowners, do anything in the cause for racial justice?

I entered the memorial feeling the weight of those questions.  Just ten steps in, the horror hit full force.  So many pillars.  So many names.  So much cruelty.  So much death.  Executions occurred for the tiniest of crimes—knocking on someone’s front door, looking another person in the eye, writing a note to a white person.  A plexiglass box at the center of the Memorial contains dirt collected from sites of lynchings across the South.  Whose DNA might be mingled with those grains of soil?  Whose lifeless body hung above these bits of dirt?  

At the Memorial’s lowest point, a sheet of water cascades down a wall dedicated to thousands of lynching victims whose deaths were not documented.  As I sat amidst the horror, weighed down by guilt, I wondered—did the water represent tears for those who were lost?  Or did it represent the prophet’s call to let “justice roll down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”?  Did it proclaim tears or justice?  Did it depict crucifixion or resurrection?

The answer to those questions came to me as I walked up the ramp leading out of the depths of the Memorial.  I had expected to feel even more devastation, even more shame.  But, oddly, I didn’t feel either.  As I emerged into the sunlight that day, what I felt was…hope.  Now that I had faced squarely (to the extent that I as a white person am able to do so) the terror of lynching and, potentially, my ancestors’ participation in it, now that I had seen (to the extent that I am able to see it) the crucifixion of so many people, suddenly, surprisingly, resurrection felt possible.

I know.  Easter’s supposed to be about joy, joy, joy!  And it is.  Easter is joy.  Easter is the deepest kind of joy there is.  In fact, Jurgen Moltmann says the thing that makes Christianity unique from other faiths is that at the center of our faith is joy.  Our core message is the Gospel, which means good news.  And what accompanies good news?  Joy, right!

Emerging from the Memorial that day, I felt the good news.  I felt deep hope.  Regarding achieving racial equity, I don’t yet feel joy, but I am beginning to believe in the possibility of resurrection.  That, in itself, feels like a miracle.

Are you joyful today?  Are you hopeful?  Is there some circumstance about which you have received some good news?  Are you beginning to believe in the possibility of resurrection?  If so, that is good news–very good news, indeed!

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: “Faces in the Crowd” (Palm Sunday, 3/28/2021) Mark 11:1-11

In preparing for Palm Sunday, my mind keeps drifting to Epiphany.  January 6th.  Our nation’s capital.  Insurrection.

On the face of it, the two events–a hoard of people violently over-running the halls of Congress and the cheering crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday–seem to have little in common, except for the large number of people involved.

Holy Week - Palm Sunday | ComeUntoChrist
How the Capitol insurrection affects those who live and work in Washington  - Marketplace

But…I wonder.  Who was in the crowd in Jerusalem that day?  Was everyone cheering for the same reason?

Things were so chaotic on January 6th in Washington, it’s taking a lot of time to sort out exactly what was going on.  Was it an insurrection?  Was it a protest of a so-called fraudulent election?  Was everyone there intent on taking over the government?   

Interviews with rioters after the fact reveal a diversity of reasons people stormed the Capitol that day.  Some wanted to “take back their country.”  Some were intent on harming legislators.  Some wanted only to follow their president.    

Why did people line the streets of Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday?  Why did they wave palm branches, then lay them on the road to prepare Jesus’ way?  Why did they cry, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!”  Did everyone in the crowd that day come for the same reason?  

As reports and photos from January 6th emerge, many of the protesters are being identified; some of them are well-known.  Papers often publish pictures with the image of the person in question highlighted.  Those pictures humanize the crowd.  A mob isn’t just a mob, it’s a conglomerate of individuals, each with his or her own reason for being present and participating.

If they’d had cellphones that first Palm Sunday, and if the faces of those in the crowd were highlighted, who would we see?

We’d see one of Jesus’ disciples, who’d just completed yet another weird task for Jesus, aka, stealing the colt he was riding into town.  We’d see a pilgrim, just arrived from a nearby village, ready to celebrate the high holy days of Passover.  We might see the formerly hemorrhaging woman standing a little taller in the crowd that day, or the man with the formerly withered hand, clapping for joy.    

Cellphone photos that first Palm Sunday, would, no doubt, have revealed many adoring followers in the crowd.  If what happens at the end of the week is any indicator, though, all of the crowd that day wasn’t adoring.  

Some were looking to Jesus to overthrow the Roman government.  Even one of the twelve disciples–Simon the Zealot–was in this group.  Others were looking to make Jesus a king.  Then there were those who’d heard the rumors about Jesus overthrowing the government and becoming king…and didn’t like it.  I’m talking here, of course, about the people in power– the emperor, the ruler of the region, Pontius Pilate, the leader of the Jewish community in the region, Herod, and the religious leaders, the Scribes, Pharisees, and Saducees.  

Were some of these powerful people in the crowd that day?  Did they incite the crowd?  Or did they simply observe and begin making their plans to erase this threat to their power?

Mobs or large crowds–for whatever reason–they don’t happen out of the blue, do they?  The women’s march on Washington in January 2017–that didn’t happen out of the blue, did it?  No, it grew out of a weariness of centuries of the diminishment and denigration of women.  The women–many from this congregation–traveled to Washington to demonstrate and celebrate women’s strength and solidarity.

The protests after George Floyd’s murder didn’t happen out of the blue, did they?  No, they grew out of the agony of centuries of oppression and dehumanization of our sisters and brothers with Black skin.  The gatherings the past two weeks in support of Asian Americans, whose experience of racial violence often is overlooked…they didn’t happen out of the blue, either.  No, people who’ve endured violence in silence for so long have had enough.  

The mob at the Capitol building on January 6th didn’t come out of the blue, either.  The crowd was groomed and prodded and prepared.  Decades of frustration with the political system in our country made people vulnerable to the manipulations of the people who incited them.  It’s clear from interviews after the fact that some of the rioters regret having participated.  They weren’t there to hurt anybody.  It’s likely they’re beginning to realize they were simply pawns in someone else’s game.

Were the people gathered in Jerusalem that day, the ones who were throwing down palm branches and cloaks to pave Jesus’ way….were they also being manipulated?  Later, when Jesus was crucified, did they realize they’d been used and were only pawns in someone else’s game?

One of the sadder parts of growing up is learning to recognize power games going on behind the scenes.  We look at a situation and celebrate it.  But when we look deeper, we see the power differential, we see injustice.  For instance, we celebrate the large number of homes purchased by veterans returning from World War II on the GI bill, but the vast majority of the 2.5 million homes purchased went to white families.  Unfair lending practices to black farmers has recently come to light, as well.  And we celebrate pioneers in the early days of our country, but tend to gloss over the fact that their land was obtained by cheating–and worse–the native people already on the land. 

Learning to recognize power games going on behind the scenes is one of the sadder parts of growing up, and it’s important.  It’s important that we learn to see the unlevel playing field created by our social, economic, justice systems.  It’s important to learn to see the world as it really is.

As grown-up followers of Jesus, we’re called, not only to see those systems, but to do what we can to transform them.  That’s where Jesus can be our guide. 

Besides the Palm Sunday story, there were several times in the gospel of Mark when the people wanted to make Jesus king.  Every time, he refused.  Why did he refuse?  Maybe because he understood that becoming king, or emperor, or chief priest wouldn’t change anything.  If Jesus were to become a king, emperor, or chief priest, the oppressive political, religious, and social systems wouldn’t change at all; they’d just be replacing one leader for another in a system that still would be unjust.  Maybe Jesus resisted calls for his coronation because he understood that, if the oppressive system was going to be transformed, something different, something more profound would have to happen. 

Today’s story ends with Jesus in the Temple, “looking around at everything that is there.”  The next day, he’ll clear the Temple out.  But on this day, the day when the crowds celebrated him, the day when he heard more calls for him to become king, he entered the Temple and “looked around,” then, because it was late, returned with the twelve to Bethany.

But those moments in the Temple, seeing evidence of the religious system that was in place, did Jesus also get a glimpse of what it would take to transform that system?  Like the prophets of old, did he get a vision of what to do and say to wake people up to what was happening?  Standing there in the Temple that evening–loud hosannas still ringing in his ears–did Jesus begin to grasp what would happen by week’s end?  Did he get a vision of what profound thing would need to happen in order for the world to be transformed?

Did he have a vision of a cross?

The invitation as we enter Holy Week is to open our minds and hearts again to this pivotal part of our faith story.  Each step of the way, let us ask, What is Jesus doing?  How is he seeking to transform and heal the world? 

And what might we learn from Jesus’ journey to the cross about transforming and healing our own world?

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: “Please, We Wish to See Jesus” (3/21/2021)

When Allen and I travel–we can’t help ourselves–we visit churches.  And when we visit those churches–I can’t help myself–I climb into the pulpit.

The pulpit in a Presbyterian Church in Charleston is a large elevated structure in the center of an otherwise unadorned room.  As we came through the church’s doors the first time–I think it was on our honeymoon in 1995–I made a beeline for the structure.

About halfway up the staircase to the pulpit was a brass plaque engraved with these words:  “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Except for the “Sir” part, I liked it.  I stood in the pulpit and imagined how I might preach so that people might see Jesus.  I still try to do that.

The people who approached Philip in today’s Gospel story wanted to see the actual Jesus, to be in his physical presence.  For us, who aren’t able to be in the flesh-and-blood Jesus’ presence, seeing Jesus isn’t as clear a thing.  Each of us sees Jesus from a different perspective.

Last week in Sunday School, we explored St. John of the Cross’ idea about the dark night of the soul.  John was a priest who lived in the 16th century and was good friends with Teresa of Avila.  

Once, when John was praying in the loft of the chapel at the monastery in Avila, he had a vision of Jesus on the cross.  He sketched what he saw.  Here’s what it looked like.

Kim:  From his high perch in the loft, John was looking down on the chapel’s crucifix.  He saw the crucified Jesus from a perspective he’d never seen before.

In our exploration of different theologies of the cross in Sunday School, we’re seeing Jesus, his death, and resurrection from many perspectives.  As a Lenten practice, I decided to explore some of those perspectives by rewriting the old Gospel hymn, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”  Rather than looking at the cross from only one perspective–from beneath it, as the original version of the hymn did–I chose to view it from several perspectives.  That’s when I started playing with pronouns–beneath, beside, behind the cross of Jesus.

As I visualized the crucifixion and looked beneath the cross, I saw the beloved disciple and Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Listen.  

Wes:  A reading from John.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Here is your son.”  Then he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.”  From that moment, the disciple took her into his household.  (John 19:26-27)

Ty (and Betty):

Beneath the cross of Jesus

His mother, closest friend

Standing close, their heads bowed low

Hearts clutched with grief for him

Their loved one spoke with rasping breath

He gazed upon each one 

“Friend, this is your mother now,

And Mother, here’s your son.”

Kim:  Then my mind’s eye was drawn to the figure on the cross beside Jesus’ cross.

Wes:  A reading from Luke.  One of the criminals who hung there beside him insulted Jesus, saying, “Are you really the Messiah?  Then save yourself–and us!”

But the other answered the first with a rebuke:  “Don’t you even fear God?  We are only paying the price for what we have done, but this one has done nothing wrong!”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your glory.”

Jesus replied, “The truth is, today you’ll be with me in paradise!”  (Lk. 23:39-43)

Ty (and Betty):

Beside the cross of Jesus

A man condemned to die

Judged a criminal by law

He, too, was crucified

As each one’s life drained fast away

The man sought Jesus’ eyes.

“Friend,” he said, “tonight you’ll be

With me in Paradise.”

      Kim: Then I looked behind the cross and saw the executioners gathering up their death tools.

Wes:  A reading from Luke.  The people stood there watching.  The rulers, however, jeered him and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself–if he really is the Messiah of God, the Chosen One!”  The soldiers also mocked him.  They served Jesus sour wine and said, ‘If you are really the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  (Lk. 23:35-38)

Ty (and Betty):

Behind the cross of Jesus

The ones who raised it high

Pawns within a power game

Created by a lie

As they drove the final nail

As they watched him die

Did they wonder what they’d done?

Did they wonder why?

Casey, Use this picture while WEs is reading and Ty is singing.

Kim:  “Please, we want to see Jesus.”  But when we look at Jesus, we all see something different, don’t we?  Historically, different visions of Jesus have led to fractures within the Christian church–the Great Schism in the 11th century and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th, to name two.  

But maybe the point isn’t to have just one understanding of who Jesus was and is.  Maybe the goal isn’t to get everyone to see the same thing when they look at Jesus.  Maybe the deeper understanding comes when each of us, having seen Jesus clearly for ourselves, shares what we have seen of Jesus with each other.  And maybe our own visions of Jesus come into even greater focus when we hear from others how they see Jesus.

The hymn’s last stanza brings three perspectives of Jesus on the cross together.

Unknown artist

Ty (and Betty)

Before the cross of Jesus

We stand and wonder how

Jesus’ cross so long ago

Has meaning for us now

When we question power’s aims

When we live God’s grace

When we love each other well

The cross has found its place

Kim:

“Please, we wish to see Jesus.”  So, how do you see Jesus?

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

Video montage:  Each of the pictures on screen for a few seconds.  I’ll send some music.

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Sermon: March 14, 2021 (Lent 4) “Light for the Dark Night of the Soul”

John 3:14-21

Can you believe it’s been a whole year since pandemic protocols began?  Can you believe it’s been ONLY a year since pandemic protocols began?  Happy Anniversary!

How do we mark a year like the one that’s just passed?  We can, of course, mark it by the losses we’ve experienced–2.6 million deaths in the world, 527,000 deaths in the US, and 11,500 deaths in North Carolina.  We also can look at employment losses, health losses, and all the other losses we’ve endured because of the pandemic.  Did you know that overall life expectancy in the US dropped an entire year last year, from 78.8 years to 77.8 years?  In the same period, life expectancy for Blacks dropped a whopping 2.7 years, to 72 years.

Were we to list everything we’ve lost in the last year, we’d be here all day and well into the night.  To be sure, it’s important to make note of things and, especially, of people we’ve lost.  Grieving our losses is an important part of recovering from this traumatic year.

Equally important to grieving our losses, though, is naming what we’ve gained.  As someone said recently:  It’s been a year…and we’re still here!  And we are!  We ARE still here!  How did that happen?  How, after one of the most stressful years on record, are we still here?  

Let’s look at some of the positive things that have happened this year.  The children mentioned a few, like, spending more time with family and the fact that people are being more careful and safe.  I’m not sure about that having-more-play-time-and-less-school thing…  

I asked the same question during Sunday School last week.  In addition to saving money on gas and spending more time with pets, the adults said they appreciated having more time for reflection.  Several mentioned experiencing with greater depth the beauty of last Spring.  “I noticed the flowers!” one person said.  Some expressed gratitude for a return to simplicity and the reminder that we are all interdependent.  One person mentioned that people in her neighborhood now see and speak to one another.  

Another expressed appreciation for focusing our efforts more intentionally on working for racial justice.  I would add to that our congregation’s commitment to housing our houseless neighbors for Code Purple nights this winter.

Several people mentioned being grateful for Zoom.  I wouldn’t categorize comments I heard about Zoom last March as expressions of gratitude.  🙂  Getting comfortable with Zoom was a long process.  Do you remember?  Folks who now are hosting Zoom meetings were very firm in their stance at the beginning:  Our group will wait to meet until we’re all back together.  Remember that?

So, what happened to help us overcome our resistance to Zooming?  We practiced.  Marika talked us through how to do it…several times.  Eventually, Zooming became second nature to us.  Well, almost.  🙂  

So, we learned how to Zoom.  And that’s a significant accomplishment.  But here’s my question:  Why?  Why, in the midst of the traumatic experience of going on lockdown, why, when our lives were turned upside down, why, when so many things were so very difficult, why did we work so hard to learn something that, at the beginning was so uncomfortable?

It’s no great mystery, is it?  We learned to Zoom–despite all the frustrations–because we needed each other.  As our world went topsy turvy, as our losses mounted, as the trauma deepened, we needed to see each other and hear each other and share our lives with each other.  We needed to visit with each other and pray with each other and laugh with each other.  We couldn’t worship together in the sanctuary, we couldn’t hug each other, we couldn’t go out to lunch together…all that was left was Zoom.  And so–Dagnabit it all!–we learned it.  We might have gone kicking and screaming, but we learned Zoom because we needed each other.  I mean, we needed each other.  We needed some light in a world that had grown very dim.

One HUGE gift of Zoom has been expanding our congregation into the southern hemisphere.  Pam and Penny regularly join us from Ecuador.  And our teacher for Sunday School last week was Elena, who lives and works in Nicaragua.  

Last Sunday, we looked at the cross from the perspective of Liberation Theology.  As I read today’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in John, something Elena said in last week’s class resonated.

Elena said that Liberation Theology invites us to embrace the cross.  That means we embrace the fact that we are in pain, we are fractured, we are grieving.  When we can live through our pain, she said, then we are able to experience resurrection.

Another key tenet of Liberation Theology is that none of us does this work alone.  We don’t embrace our brokenness by ourselves.  We come to the cross together.  We come for ourselves, we come for each other, we come for the world.  And as we accompany each other to the cross, as we–together–embrace all the pain, all the brokenness, all our wounds, somehow, in embracing the pain, somehow, in our togetherness, somehow, in looking to and identifying with the one who was lifted up, somehow, we begin to heal.  And when we begin to heal…that’s when we begin to experience resurrection.

I suspect that’s why we’ve worked so hard to learn Zoom this year.  It’s not complicated.  We’ve needed each other.  In our brokenness, in our woundedness, in our weariness, as our way grew more and more dim, we needed some light…a light we only can experience in the presence of others.  And so we learned to Zoom.

As class ended last week, Elena asked each of us to share what we were taking with us from the class and what we were giving back to the community.  I said I was taking with me the reminder of how vital mutual accompaniment is in every aspect of life.  I’m giving back a renewed commitment to reminding us all that mutual accompaniment is vital to our work as a community of Jesus’ followers.  Life isn’t something we do alone.  We must do it together, listening to each other, sharing our true selves with each other, accompanying each other.  As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.”  

Everything we do as a community–both within the First Congregational community and in the work we do outside it, we do it all together.  We accompany each other.  We accompany those we serve outside this community.  We embrace the pain, the brokenness.  We open ourselves to experience healing.  Then and only then, do we experience resurrection.  And when we do, we move from darkness to light…together.

I share with you now a poem that describes well the process of embracing our brokenness as the means by which we experience the light.  As you listen, I invite you to invite into consciousness all the others who are hearing these words along with you.  Remember that we make the journey to the cross together.  Remember that we’re all just walking each other home.

When the light around you lessens

And your thoughts darken until

Your body feels fear turn

Cold as a stone inside,

When you find yourself bereft

Of any belief in yourself

And all you unknowingly

Leaned on has fallen,

When one voice commands

Your whole heart,

And it is raven dark,

Steady yourself and see

That it is your own thinking

That darkens your world.

Search and you will find

A diamond-thought of light,

Know that you are not alone,

And that this darkness has purpose;

Gradually it will school your eyes,

To find the one gift your life requires

Hidden within this night-corner.

Invoke the learning

Of every suffering

You have suffered.

Close your eyes.

Gather all the kindling

About your heart

To create one spark

That is all you need

To nourish the flame

That will cleanse the dark

Of its weight of festered fear.

A new confidence will come alive

To urge you towards higher ground

Where your imagination

will learn to engage difficulty

As its most rewarding threshold!

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2021

  1.  For Courage, by John O’Donohue
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Sermon: “Amistad Christianity” (John 2:13-22) Lent 3, March 7, 2021

Today’s Scripture story is one many of us wait all year to hear:  Jesus clearing out the temple.  He’s come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and, as all Passover pilgrims do, he enters the temple.  Seeing marketers of animals and moneychangers, Jesus creates a whip and cracks it.  “Get out of here!  Don’t make my Abba’s house a marketplace!”

For those of us committed to living our faith actively in the world, we who’ve committed ourselves to the work of transforming unjust social systems that oppress the least of these, this Jesus–the one who gets angry and speaks truth to power (and you gotta love that whip!)–this Jesus is our hero.  This is the Jesus who most often comes to mind when we make plans to act the world into wellbeing.  When we march, when we rally, when we send pointed letters to our elected officials, the whip-cracking Jesus in the temple is the one we follow.  

Which is good.  It’s good to identify with Jesus in the temple.  And yet…sometimes I wonder if we’re identifying with the right character in this story.  Are we the prophet speaking truth to power?  Or, as part of the religious establishment in the year 2021, do we have more in common with the moneychangers and marketers?

Let’s look again at what was happening at the temple.  At the time, animal sacrifice was part of Jewish faith practices.  On high holy days, tradition dictated that the faithful offer a sacrifice.  And since, in their minds, God–literally–lived in the Temple, the faithful made pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer those sacrifices.

Unblemished sacrifices were required, but the likelihood of arriving in Jerusalem after several days’ travel with an unblemished sacrifice was next to nil.  That’s why the animal sellers had set up shop in the Temple.  They made it possible for pilgrims to fulfill their vows to God.

The moneychangers also provided a helpful service.  You’ll recall that the second commandment forbade graven images.  Because Roman coinage had an image of Caesar on it, the faithful weren’t allowed to use those coins to buy their offerings.  The moneychangers converted Roman coinage into Tyrian coinage, which was permissible.

Sometimes, we see in this scene Jesus taking action against unjust economic practices, practices that exploited the poor, like, maybe they were price-gouging or didn’t give folks a fair exchange of money.  But the text doesn’t say anything about unjust economic practices.  In truth, the sellers of animals and moneychangers were providing needed services so the faithful could fulfill their religious vows.

So, if Jesus wasn’t railing against unjust economic practices or practices that exploited the poor, what was he doing?  Why did he take such dramatic action that day in the Temple?

Today’s scene immediately follows the story of the wedding at Cana.  That’s the one where the wine runs out and Jesus turns six stone jars of water into wine.  Good wine.  

The stone jars in question normally were used for religious purification rites.  When Jesus repurposed them, it was a sign that his ministry was about repurposing the faith.  The container that once held their faith, now was open to an abundance of something new.  

In today’s story, the Temple has become the container Jesus is repurposing.  When Jesus says to stop making his Abba’s house a marketplace, he isn’t railing against the sellers and moneychangers.  The sellers and moneychangers were only providing a service necessitated by the religious practice of the day.

Jesus wasn’t calling the sellers and moneychangers to task; he was calling into question the whole system that necessitated their presence.  He was calling into question a system that tied the faithful to a single location and that kept them dependent on religious authorities for faithful living.  In short, Jesus was calling for a revolution.  No longer would the Temple with all its rules and requirements be the place to encounter God.  The place to encounter God now was in him.  Now, Jesus was the Temple.

I know.  We like identifying with the Temple-clearing Jesus.  How many of you today have raised your arm and cracked the whip with Jesus?

But I have to wonder…as part of the religious establishment in 2021, are we imagining ourselves on the wrong end of the whip?

To be sure, we don’t have moneychangers or sellers of animals in the narthex, thanks be to God!  But, as part of the religious establishment, are there things we’ve become blind to?  Are there some practices we engage in that once felt necessary to our faith but aren’t needed any more?  Practices, perhaps, that keep us from experiencing God?  Practices shaped by economic exploitation…or by sexism…or by white supremacy…

I know we like to think of ourselves as whip-crackers, but what might happen if we dig deeper?  What might happen if we see ourselves on the other end of the whip?  What if Jesus is calling us to rethink and repurpose our faith…away from archaic traditions and toward him? 

What if we followed in the footsteps of our Congregational forebears in the 1840s? 

Many of those forebears already had committed themselves to the cause of the abolition of slavery.  In 1839, when 53 Africans were removed from their ship, the Amistad, and taken to prison, those good church folk had a choice.  How would they respond?  

Here’s what had happened.  The Africans had been captured and taken from their home in present-day Sierra Leone.  The ship was taken to Cuba, where the Africans were sold to someone who lived on a different island in the Caribbean.  When the ship set sail for that place, the Africans revolted.  Fearing for their own lives, they killed two of the ship’s crew.  Then they demanded that the remaining two crew members sail them back to Africa.

Instead of sailing East, the crew members sailed north.  Just off the coast of Long Island, the ship was intercepted by the U.S. Navy and the Africans were taken into custody.  They ended up in Connecticut.  After many months of delay and a trial, they were declared free only to have that decision appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court.  The Court upheld the Connecticut decision and declared the Africans free.  

It was Congregationalists–in partnership with other abolitionists–who accompanied the 53 Africans during their imprisonment and the trial.  They assisted with the court case.  They provided financial support.  They visited them in prison.  They taught them to read English.  Eventually, the Congregationalists and other abolitionists raised enough money to send the Africans back home.  Five church people accompanied them on the return voyage.  A mission was established.

A few years later, the same Congregationalists founded the American Missionary Association.  After the Civil War ended, the AMA established some 500 schools and colleges for blacks in the south, including the predominantly black colleges of Howard, Fisk and Dillard Universities.  

It’s a fascinating story, one we have good cause to be proud of.  In our celebration of our Congregationalist forebears in the 1840s, though, let’s not lose sight of just how radical their actions were. Much of Christianity at the time condoned slavery.  Because the Congregationalists who assisted with the Africans in the Amistad case were able to think outside the box of their tradition, because they were able to rethink and repurpose their Christian faith, many lives were transformed.  Their creativity and faithful action dealt a strong blow to the unjust system of slavery.  

What might it mean for us, we who follow Jesus in the 21st century…what might it mean for us to rethink and repurpose our Christian faith?  From our vantage point nearly two centuries later, working to dismantle the heinous system of chattel slavery seems obvious.

But the remnants of that heinous system remain, don’t they?  Many of our social systems continue to keep people of color in circumstances that deny their full humanity.  The cash bail system.  The criminal justice system.  Unfair housing practices.  Unequal access to healthcare.

Sometimes, I wonder if in celebrating Congregationalists’ role in the Amistad event, we distract ourselves from the work that lies before us here and now.  We, too, witness every day the systemic racism that oppresses–and yes, kills–our siblings with brown and Black skin.  What will we do about it?  How will we respond to what remains a heinous system?  What might we do that would lead our Congregational ancestors to celebrate us?

What will we do to get ourselves on the other side of the whip?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2021

Amistad Chapel, United Church of Christ Church House, Cleveland, OH
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Sermon: “Take Up Your Cross?” (Lent 2) Mark 8:31-39 [2/28/2021]

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  Few of Jesus’ words have caused more consternation than these.  “Take up our cross?”  What does that mean?  Does following Jesus mean we’re supposed to suffer?  To follow Jesus properly, must we have a death wish?  

It sounds extreme, I know, but for some, Jesus’ call to take up our cross is a call to suffer.  In conversation with a clergy colleague in Washington state where she pastored, Pastor Rebecca Ann Parker learned how devastating the consequences of misunderstanding Jesus’ call to “take up our cross” could be.

“He killed her,” Pat said.  “With a kitchen knife.  In front of three of their children.  The baby was sleeping” (15).

In their small town, there were no social services for victims of domestic violence.  The place people turned for solace was church.  But the theology most church-goers got was the idea that suffering violence was holy.  Jesus suffered violence, so it must be, right?  Women especially took in that message.

Pat said, “Almost every woman who’s come here for refuge has gone back to her violent husband or boyfriend.  She thinks it’s her religious duty.”  

After one especially violent episode, with support, Anola, the woman who was being abused, pressed charges against her husband and testified against him.  He was sentenced to 10 days in jail.  When he was released, Anola let him come back home.

When Rebecca asked Pat why Anola had let him come back, Pat said, “She thought it would be the right thing, in God’s eyes.  In the church she went to, the intact family was celebrated as God’s will:  father, mother, and children were meant to be together in a loving home.  Anola believed that because this configuration of family was the will of God, God would somehow make it alright.  For her to break up the family would make her a bad person.  Doing the will of God was more important than her personal safety.  The possibility that faithfulness to God’s will might mean pain and violence could even have been in its favor.  A good woman would be willing to accept personal pain, and think only of the good of the family.  You know, ‘Your life is only valuable if it’s given away’ and ‘This is your cross to bear.’  She heard that Jesus didn’t turn away from the cup of suffering when God asked him to drink it.  She was trying to be a good Christian, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.’”  “Anola believed God expected her to risk being battered, like Jesus.”  (18-19)

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  What did Jesus mean?  What might it mean for us to take up our crosses and follow Jesus?

Last week, we spent some time with Jesus in the wilderness.  During his 40 days without food or companionship–that is, without distraction–Jesus gained clarity about his calling, about what his response to God’s love for him would be.  As he reflected, we wondered:  Did he know what his calling might lead to?  Did he suspect that acting the world into wellbeing could lead to his death?  Did an image of a cross float into Jesus’ consciousness during his sojourn in the wilderness?

There’s no way to know for sure what Jesus was thinking in the wilderness.  By today’s passage, though, the cross is front and center.  He shares this insight with his disciples.  He began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later.  

Peter protests.  A few verses before, when Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, they answer, “Elijah.”  “Moses.”  When Jesus asks, “But who do you say I am?”  Peter nails it:  “You are the Messiah.”

But, apparently, Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah and Peter’s aren’t the same.  For Peter, the Messiah had come to save people!  A dead Messiah couldn’t save anybody.  Jesus, in dramatic fashion, offers another understanding of what kind of Messiah he would be.  “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re looking at things from a human perspective, not God’s!”

And then, Jesus doubles down.  Not only is he going to die, but he calls his disciples also to “take up their crosses,” “to lose their lives in order to save them.”   

Suddenly, what had been all stories, healings, and miracles, takes a darker turn.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that things take a deeper turn.  It’s like Jesus has been bringing folks along, but–at last–wants them to know he hasn’t been playing at this thing of living God’s love in the world.  Living God’s love in the world–if we do it right–asks everything from us.  Living God’s love in the world isn’t something to play at or to engage in half-heartedly.  Living God’s love in the world isn’t a death wish, but it does call us to commit our whole selves to the work, even unto death.  As we heard Dr. King say last week, “We don’t know why we’re alive until we know what we would die for.”

Do you know what you would die for?  Or, to put it another way.  What are you living for?  To what have you committed yourself wholly, entirely?

In Sunday School, we’re exploring different understandings of the cross.  Last Sunday, we quickly learned that we have a wide diversity of understandings of the cross in our congregation… which is going to make for some terrific conversation.  🙂

I was struck by one person’s response to the question:  What does the cross mean to you?  “Focus,” they said.  Focus.  Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he invited his followers to “take up our crosses.”  Maybe he was calling us to live our lives–our entire lives–with focus, with intention.  Perhaps the call to take up our crosses is a call to pare away anything that doesn’t contribute to living God’s love in the world.  Perhaps it is a call to commit ourselves wholly to that work and to not allow anything, anything to distract us from that calling.

Maybe that’s the difference between the understanding of the call to take up our crosses held by women about whom Pastor Rebecca Ann Parker writes and other understandings.  Maybe it’s about focus.  Maybe it’s about intention.  Maybe it’s about suffering, not because someone is perpetrating violence against us, but because we choose to suffer for a greater good. 

A few months after her visit with Pat, Lucia knocked on Rebecca’s door.  She, too, was being beaten by her husband.  He was beginning to turn his violence on their children.  

Lucia told Rebecca, “I went to my priest 20 years ago.  I’ve been trying to follow his advice.  The priest said I should rejoice in my sufferings because they bring me closer to Jesus.  He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’  He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’  I’ve tried,” Lucia said, “but I’m not sure anymore.  Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”

Rebecca told her it wasn’t true.  “God does not want you to accept being beaten by your husband.  God wants you to have your life, not to give it up.  God wants you to protect your life and your children’s lives.’

Hearing Rebecca’s response, “Lucia’s eyes danced.  “I knew I was right!” she said.  “But it helps to hear you say it.”  Lucia began taking courses at the community college to gain a marketable skill.  After that, she got a job and moved herself and her children to a new home.  

When I announced the Sunday School class on the cross, I wasn’t sure there would be any takers.  As Jesus’ words today suggest, understanding the cross is hard…so hard, in fact, that sometimes we just ignore it or push it to the side or simply believe what we’ve always believed about it without ever reflecting critically about those beliefs.

But what we believe about the cross matters.  What Anola believed about the cross led to her tragic death.  What Lucia believed and had confirmed by Rebecca led to her leaving her abusive marriage and beginning her life anew.  What we believe about the cross matters…not only for our lives, but also for the lives of others.   

So, what does the cross mean to you?  What difference does your understanding of the cross make in your life or the lives of others?  Are you ready to commit yourself wholly to the work of living God’s love in the world?  Do you know what you would die for?  Do you know what you’re living for?

Will you take up your cross and follow Jesus?

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

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2021

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

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Sermon: Wilderness Times (2/21/2021)

                                                         

Mark 1:9-15

Today is technically the first Sunday in Lent.  I say “technically” because, in many ways, we’ve been living Lent since last March, haven’t we?  We’ve given up so much.  Dining in restaurants, meeting for worship, singing together, hugging each other.  We could probably spend all day listing all the things we’ve given up during the pandemic.

In truth, Lent seems redundant this year.  We’ve already given up so much; and now we’re expected to give up even more?

There is one big difference between giving things up for the pandemic and giving things up for Lent.  That difference is choice.  During Lent, we choose what we will give up.  We do it as a way to clear things out of our lives so we can live our lives with greater authenticity.  By stripping away some of the clutter in our lives, we’re able to focus more clearly on what we are called to do, even who we are called to be.

Our Lenten journey begins this year where it always begins–with Jesus in the wilderness.  He’s just been baptized.  As he rises up out of the water, a dove descends and a voice proclaims, “You are my Beloved, my Own.  On you my favor rests.”

Wow.  What a profound experience!  You’d think they’d’ve thrown a party or something… or sent Jesus on his way to start preaching and teaching.  

But that’s not what happens, is it?  No.  “Immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remains there for forty days and is tempted by the Evil One.”  What is that about?  Why this extended sojourn in the wilderness?  Why not just send Jesus out to preach? 

We’ve got a lot of hikers and RV-ers in our congregation.  What happens when you go out into the wilderness, especially by yourself?  Or if not literally into the wilderness, what happens when you strip away the noise and busyness of your life and simply sink into quietness?  (One person recently told me they’ve been fasting from the news.)  When the familiar things of our lives are stripped away, we’re better able to reconnect with ourselves, aren’t we?  We gain a clearer understanding of who we are.  We get clearer about the work to which we’re called.

You know what I wish?  I wish Jesus had kept a journal during his 40 days in the wilderness.  Wouldn’t you love to know what he was thinking and feeling out there for all that time with no food, with all kinds of temptations happening, with “the wild beasts?”  I wonder how many times he replayed his baptism in his mind.  How many times did he recall those words:  “You are my Beloved, my Own.  On you my favor rests?”  What meaning did that experience, those words come to have as Jesus sat with them, contemplating, reflecting?

When did his thoughts begin to turn to the work he was being called to do?  Yes.  God had blessed Jesus, had called him beloved and said God’s favor rested on him.  But what would Jesus’ response to that blessing be?  How would he live God’s blessing in the world?

At what point did Jesus begin thinking of all the injustices he’d seen all around him?  Of all the people living in poverty who were being exploited?  Of all the people not part of the majority group who faced discrimination and oppression?  Of the ways women, children, and the disabled were ostracized and mistreated?  Of the ways in which the religious leaders were actively participating in these injustices?

At what point did Jesus’ memories of his baptism, of God’s declaration of love for him begin intertwining with his thoughts of the injustices he’d seen, the suffering of the least of these?  At what point did his calling click?  At what point did Jesus know with unwavering certainty that–as God’s beloved–he was called to teach and preach God’s love to all the people…and that doing that work authentically also meant speaking truth to power?

At what point did Jesus get a glimpse of what his preaching might lead to?  At some point in his wilderness contemplation, did an image of a cross float into his consciousness?  I ask that because, before too long, Jesus will begin extending the invitation to his disciples and others to “Take up your cross and follow me.”  In his wilderness sojourn, did Jesus realize that living his calling could lead to his death?

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s entrance into the Civil Rights movement was, at the beginning, a gradual thing.  He was pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  That was his calling, he thought.  That was the work he wanted to do.

But, beginning with the bus boycott in 1955-56, Martin started getting drawn into the movement.  He preached justice for Black people in Montgomery and the rest of the country.

As his notoriety spread, as his calls for justice began reaching out, the hateful phone calls began.  Once, around midnight, the phone rang.  Martin answered.  “When [he] lifted the receiver, a drawl released a torrent of obscenities and then the death threat: “Listen…we’ve taken all we want from you;  before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”  By this point, Martin was receiving 30 – 40 menacing phone calls a day.  Somehow, though, this one got to him.  Fear overcame him.  His confidence wavered.  He was ready to give up.

Unable to sleep, Martin went to the kitchen and fixed a cup of coffee, sat down at the table and reflected.  As he thought about his wife, Coretta, and their firstborn child asleep in her crib, it hit him for the first time just how serious the situation had become.  “His family could be taken away from him any minute, or more likely he from them.”  With sudden clarity, Martin realized that preaching truth to power as he was, could get him killed.

There at the kitchen table, Martin confessed his fear to God.  He acknowledged that he couldn’t go any further.  

Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Martin, stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth.  And lo, I will be with you.  Even until the end of the world.”  Then, as Martin told it, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.  He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.  No never alone.  No never alone.  He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

Author Charles Marsh writes, “As the voice washed over the stains of the wretched caller, King reached a spiritual shore byond fear and apprehension.  “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced it before,” Martin said.  “Almost at once my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.”  

A kitchen table isn’t exactly a wilderness, and Martin didn’t sit there for 40 days, but as Martin himself described the experience, it sounds like his sojourn at the kitchen table served a similar purpose to Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness.  Both got reassurance of God’s presence with them, they made a connection between God’s love for them and the work that lay before them, they were tempted to abandon the work to which they’d been called, and they got clear about what was at stake in the work to which they’d been called.  They both got clear that engaging in their callings could lead to their deaths.  They both got clear, as Martin would later say, that we “really don’t know why we are alive until we know what we’d die for.”

What are you living for?  To what new thing is God calling you?  How will you respond to God’s love for and blessing of you?  How will you, personally, live God’s love in the world?  If you can answer those questions quickly and clearly, good news!  You get a free pass on Lent this year.

If, however, you aren’t sure of the answers to the questions, if you’re still wondering about to what work God might be calling you, and especially if you’re tempted to abandon the life of faith, to leave the cross where it is and go on your merry way, if you’re needing clarity for your spiritual life, good news!  It’s Lent!  Join Jesus in the wilderness and find clarity and meaning and purpose.  Join Martin at the kitchen table and find courage and assurance of God’s presence.  Join with the rest of us in our Lenten journeys as we wake up together to the work to which God is calling us now.

Good news!  It’s Lent!  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  © 2021

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Ash Wednesday (2/17/2021)

“Behind the altar on the east wall of the chapel of a Trappist monastery high up in the Rocky Mountains,  there hangs a simple wooden cross.  It will stay there until it is taken down to mark the grave of whichever brother is the next to die.  Until then it hangs on that wall so that whenever the monks turn and face the altar, they also turn and face this very simple and immediate symbol of their own death.”  In this way, the brothers literally practice Benedict’s admonition to “keep death daily before your eyes,” (de Waal, Living with Contradiction, p.113).

Those words have taken on a whole new meaning this year, haven’t they?  We are nearing half a million people in our country who have died of Covid-19.  We’re meeting virtually for worship–again–tonight to prevent us from catching and spreading the coronavirus.  We keep death daily before our eyes because, if we don’t, death could claim us or someone we love much too soon.  We keep death daily before our eyes because we are not able to grieve in the ways we’re used to, surrounded by friends and family.  Grief has nowhere to go, and so, it stays with us, weighing heavily in our hearts.

“Keep death daily before your eyes.”  It sounds morbid when you first hear it, but if you think about it, what happens when you keep death before your eyes?  At first, you might think, “I don’t want to die!”  If someone were to ask, Why don’t you want to die?  You’d be likely to respond:  “Because I have so many things left I want to do!”

Exactly.  When you think about your mortality, you start making a bucket list.  Didn’t know that started in the 5th century with Benedict, did you?  Benedict was so smart!  He knew that thinking of our deaths keeps us focused on how we’re living our lives.

And how we live our lives is what tonight is all about.

So, how’s the living of your life going?  Do you feel good about everything you’re doing?  All your relationships?  Your relationships with family, friends, other people in the world, creation, God, yourself… your faith community?  Are you content?  Do you feel completely comfortable in your own skin?

Chances are that if you’re here tonight, you aren’t quite comfortable in your own skin.  Something feels a little “off.”  You feel disconnected from God, other people, creation, yourself.  Chances are you’re here tonight because you want to feel more connected.

The gift of Lent and, especially, of Ash Wednesday, is the opportunity it provides to get rid of everything that’s extraneous, to get down to what is most authentic, most elemental in who we are.  

Tonight, as we touch the ashes, we’ll be reminded that “from dust we have come and to dust we will return.”  As you receive the ashes (in whatever way you will be receiving them), you’re also invited to touch the waters of baptism.  A few weeks ago, we remembered our baptisms, where God says to each of us: You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.  As we are reminded of our mortality tonight, let us also remember just how loved we are.

Tonight, as we remember our baptisms, I invite us also to reflect on this question from the baptism liturgy of the Episcopal Church:  “Will you strive for justice and peace and will you respect the dignity of every person?”

We come from dust, we return to dust.  We are deeply loved.  We respond to that love by loving others.

It’ll be a little different tonight, but we’re going to impose the ashes.  If you have–safely!–created ashes, you may simply touch the ashes and make the sign of the cross on your own forehead.  If you’re with others, you may impose the ashes on each other.

If you don’t have any ashes, no worries.  Simply imagine the ashes being imposed, or remember a time in the past when you’ve received the imposition of ashes.

After the imposition of ashes, you’re also invited to touch the waters of baptism.  Remember how much you are loved.  Hear again the calling to share the love you have received with others.

Imposition of Ashes

(If you have ashes, you may impose them on your own forehead.  Also, if you have brought water to your worship area, you are invited to touch the water and remember your baptism.  You might reflect on how both symbols—baptismal water and penitential ashes—encompass the full gamut of what it means to be human.)

From dust we have come, 

To dust we will return.

And from one point to the next, 

Our God will carry us.  Thanks be to God!

Silence

Prayer.  Holy One, living authentic, joyful lives is sometimes hard…like, really hard.  We want to be kind and compassionate, we want to build others up in love, we want to do good in the world, we want to do well by our families, we want to do well by our church family…but we mess up.  We mess up in really bad and big and twisted ways.  We get to the point where we’re afraid to say or do anything because everything just seems to hurt–it hurts us, it hurts others.  Sometimes, Holy One, we start slipping into despair.

Thank you for the gift of this Ash Wednesday service.  Thank you for the opportunity to step away from the noise and tension of our lives and confess what needs to be confessed and, especially, to receive your grace and forgiveness.  Help us to receive–into our inmost beings–help us receive down to our deepest selves your forgiveness, your grace, your love.

Help us to remember that we are loved.  Help us to remember to respect the dignity of every person.  Help us to remember that “none of us are as bad as the worst thing we’ve ever done.”   In the assurance of your love we pray, Amen.

Hymn #223   What Wondrous Love Is This

Benediction 

The Lenten journey–if we engage it down to our deepest selves–isn’t easy.  Facing squarely all the ways in which we fail to live up to our baptismal vows is hard work.  As you embark up this journey, know this, God’s wondrous love will surround you and sustain you and give you strength every step of the way.  Go now in the knowledge of God’s peace.  May you rest in God’s love.  Amen.

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